Fantasy Football: NFL Films and the Value of Storytelling

Mike Sockol examines how an overcoat salesman changed the way we look at football.

As NFL fever grips us again with the start of another season, it may be difficult to believe that 50 years ago,  professional football was so insignificant that Ed Sabol, an overcoat salesman who filmed his son’s high school games as a hobby, was able to win the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship game for only $5,000.

It took a three-martini lunch with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to seal the deal, and less than three years later this humble little video shop became NFL Films.

Before NFL Films came along, production companies used to simply set up a camera above the action and filmed play after play the same way.  Ed Sabol chose instead to take an approach that would be as jarring as a midfield collision between a linebacker and fullback.

The NFL Films formula of slow motion collisions, multiple camera angles, soaring musical backdrops, and crisp, alliterative narrations turned a mere sporting event into a choreographed piece of riveting theatre.  As Ed’s son, Steve, noted in a 2008 interview online, “I think what we have done is we brought a mythology to the game. When we started, football had a tradition but we gave it a visual mythology.”

In essence, NFL Films discovered a new and powerful way to tell a story, which allowed the NFL to introduce itself to broader audiences, differentiate itself from other major sports and serve as a key catalyst for its surging popularity.

Anyone can use basic elements of the NFL Films formula to improve their own communications efforts , starting with effective story telling.  Sometimes, it can be difficult seeing the story behind the information we want to communicate, and we adopt a “Joe Friday” approach instead; we just deliver the facts and put the onus on our audience to put everything into context.

Here are three things you can do to make it easier to tell a story—about your products or your ideas.

First, put your audience in the action.  NFL Films regularly elevates the inherent excitement of the sport by injecting a human element into the proceedings.  Let’s say you want to introduce a new service in your customer newsletter.  Instead of just highlighting its virtues, pick a customer or two and show how this service directly meets their individual needs.   This approach makes it easier for your readers to relate to what you say, because they can identify with the people you singled out.

Second, create a dramatic context.  NFL Films does its most impressive work when it finds ways to make boring, non-competitive games exciting.  It doesn’t settle for the inherent value of football itself, but instead tweaks our viewpoint by framing everything as a conflict leading to a satisfying resolution.   Too often we assume what we say or write will be taken at face-value with no explanations required.  But if you really want to engage your audience or motivate it to take action, they need to know the rationale behind your communications.  Take advantage of this latent curiosity.  Show them where you are going.

Third, choose your words wisely.  Steve Sabol is a masterful writer, who built his scripts around carefully selected words that conveyed clear images and memorable juxtapositions, such as when he described football as a game that “starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.”   You don’t need to say a lot to get across your point.  Just make sure you set aside time to carefully edit what you write, so you can pare away anything clumsy or extraneous that distracts from your main message.

Story telling often requires you to elevate your game.  Or as John Facenda might have said behind a rising chorus of trumpets and drums, “They call it professional communications.”

Mike Sockol has been a writer and communications strategist for over 30 years, developing and implementing editorial, PR and marketing communications initiatives for companies and organizations of all sizes.  If you need help to solve your own communications challenges, visit www.msockol.com for more information or contact Mike directly at 732.682.8361.

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