Social Media, Storytelling, and Steve Sabol of NFL Films

by Ken Mueller on September 26, 2012 · 2 comments

Social Media, Storytelling, And Steve Sabol of NFL FilmsLast week we lost a legend with the passing of Steve Sabol at the age of 69. Steve was the President and co-founder (along with his father) of NFL Films, which for 50 years has created some of the most compelling and innovative films about the game of football and the individuals involved in the game.

As I watched a number of the tributes over the weekend, and listened to the words of Steve and his dad, Ed, I couldn’t help but think that they were on to something.  Their underlying mindset, philosophy, and business model are not only the reason for their success, but can lead us to success online if we take their message to heart.

An important part of your overall online presence, and the content you create, is the idea of telling a story; your story. If you look at the brands and organizations who are having the most success in the social space, you’ll find that the one thing they have in common is the ability to tell their story, and tell it well.

As Sabol himself said,

“We are storytellers and myth-makers.”

Here are a few of the elements that are a part of the legend that is NFL Films, that we can all use as we seek to tell our stories:

The Narrator

Most of us are used to watching NFL games on television with a group of announcers telling us about the game. This is not what NFL Films does. While there is an announcer, it is not a play by play announcer, but more of a narrator; a storyteller. For years, the main announcers for the films were a source of pride for those of us growing up in the Philadelphia area, not only because they were local, but because they are among the greatest voices in the history of broadcasting: John Facenda and Harry Kalas. A good narrator doesn’t just tell the story, but provides emotion and drama. It’s a combination of the words and the delivery. How you tell your story is just as important as the story itself.

The Characters

One of the innovations that came from NFL Films was that they got permission to mic the players and coaches on the field. While you won’t hear their voices on game day broadcasts, you will hear them in the work of NFL Films. The characters are given a chance to speak, adding new layers to the story that is unfolding on the field. We get to know them a bit more intimately through their own words.

Businesses and nonprofits need to allow the characters in their stories to be heard. Don’t just tell their story for them; just having a narrator will get old fast. Include your employees, customers, volunteers, and donors. They are a major part of your story, so why not let them tell it from their perspective.

The Story Within the Story

On game day you watch a football game from start to finish, complete with timeouts, commercial breaks, and the like. But you are merely observing it externally within the framework of a chronological narrative. NFL films breaks the game down for us and focuses on various aspects. What conversations are taking place on the sidelines or on the field of play? What was the thought process that led a particular team to go for it on 4th and 1, rather than kick the almost-certain field goal?

Don’t just tell your “big picture” story, but look for the story within the story. Don’t just talk about a new product or initiative, but let your audience in on the thought process behind your decisions. Every story has its smaller stories; the parts that make up the whole. If all you do is tell the big story, it gets old fast.

Different Angles

Over the years NFL games have been shot from a few basic angles, with the occasional addition of something new, but the idea is to see the big picture; everything that is going on on the field. But NFL Films has been an innovator in experimenting with, and using, new and different angles, as well as cinematic techniques. Less concerned about seeing all the action from one perspective, they have taken us down on the field, inside the game. We’ve all seen the football spiraling toward us in slow motion, an innovation of NFL Films known as “going tight on the spiral.”

And Sabol always said their approach was intentionally different,

“For us to just be at a game, and film it the same way television covers it, would be to duplicate what you’ve already seen.”

Don’t tell the story they already know. Tell your story from different angles; go “tight” on different elements of the story, from right within the trenches. This is closely related to the story within the story and giving characters their own voice, but they all work together to create great drama and a compelling narrative.

As Ed Sabol once told his son,

“Tell me a story and it’ll live forever.”

Learn how to tell your story, and tell it well, and people will remember that story. And if they remember your story, they will remember you.

How are you telling your story? Who is the narrator? Are you giving voice to the characters? And are you telling that story from different angles?



@kmueller62 it's all storytelling, all of it that a #brand can ever do


@DrexelDragnLisa #edlt554 love the storytelling perspective - such a rich way to use social media

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