Learning from the Best - Socrates (470-399 BC)

What can a man who spent his life talking to people in the Athens market 2,500 years ago teach us about modern day video production?

Let’s look at some short excerpts about Socrates from Philosoverses -  long-form poems exploring the work of famous philosophers - Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche among others. (I strongly recommend reading the full verses by Colin Swash at ‘Philosoverses’).

1. 'Socrates famously said: “I know I know nothing”'.

No he didn’t. Any quote attributed to Socrates is, at best, guesswork. Socrates wrote

absolutely nothing down. Plato, a friend and admirer, wrote about him the most. “I know I

know nothing” is a pithy paraphrasing of far longer statements that Plato and others

attributed to Socrates, more recently reworked for books of quotations, T-shirts etc.

This directs us in the crucial research stage of any video project. Always check your sources.

It’s much better to discover inaccuracies sooner rather than later; it helps to avoid misunderstandings, the loss of reputation and costs. 

“I know I know nothing’ helps us at all points in the production process.

This approach helps us to spot opportunities and to think openly and creatively. It also assists when conducting interviews, (see point 2 below).

2. '...Plato’s Socratic Dialogues

All share a similar plot:
There’s an unsuspecting character
Who thinks he knows quite a lot.
Then Socrates asks him questions, which begin to cast some doubt
As to whether or not this confident man knows what he’s talking about…'

For Socrates, philosophy was all about asking questions. Conversing and, more to the point, arguing.

What is justice? What is bravery? How do we live a good life? What do we mean by good?

His favourite way of engaging people was to ask seemingly simple questions, accompanied by apologies for not quite understanding, for being so ignorant that he needed further explanation. 

This deployment of ‘Socratic irony’ invariably lulled his victim into making further statements, met by further questions, and the gradual drawing out of contradictions or inconsistencies in their thinking. 

This innocent-seeming approach is a very useful interview technique to this day.

On behalf of the audience, the producer/interviewer must assume a position of ignorance in order to ensure that the answers are always clear and understandable (‘I know I know nothing’). When interviewing, listen closely to the answer and follow up with suitable supplementary questions.

It’s important to record a clear, coherent answer. 

3. ' "...You say you believe in justice,

But how do you know what is right?”
“You say you know what courage is,
Is it always courageous to fight?”
The more that Socrates probes, the more the know-all stumbles
Until he reaches a point where his self-assurance crumbles…'

For Socrates, everyone was capable of errors of thinking. He was happy to ask awkward

questions of anyone, including the most finely-armoured generals. Ask, probe, interrogate.

Don’t be distracted or put off by ‘higher’ status. 

When interviewing for a video or directing a presenter, don’t be swayed by good looks, smart clothes or charisma.

Surprise the on-screen talent and viewers with what you find beneath the surface. How far can you test your subject?

Why not ask a question that makes them think? Interviews are always more watchable if the answer is new-minted rather than a repetition of one they prepared earlier.

You may get an interesting answer. And a pointer to the next question.

4. '...Does each Dialogue end with an answer?

No, but that’s not what counts.
As a topic slowly unravels,
An appreciation mounts
Of difficulties and nuances
That hadn’t been noticed before,
The point is to follow the process
And learn just a little bit more…'

Every viewer of your work is going to respond in a different way. Does your film have to

provide a definitive answer to a definitive question? Sometimes yes! But sometimes it may

be more important to lay out a number of arguments, nuances and layers that encourage

the viewer to draw their own conclusions. 

You’re offering the audience a journey, an excursion, an experience that may affect them more subtly than a simple statement of facts would do.

You are offering an opportunity for the viewer to feel or think something through.

You want it to make an impression and create a memory - not necessarily list bullet points.

Film works best when it provides a visceral experience for the viewer.

5. '...Like many young people in Athens,

In Plato the fire had been lit
By Socrates, in the market square
Driving his fellow Athenians spare,
With his sharp examination of the lives they lived there
And his even sharper wit…'

Socrates had many young followers, including Plato. One of the charges against Socrates

when he was put on trial was for ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. How did he corrupt

them? By encouraging them to think for themselves. And to ask questions of their elders.

He did it in an entertaining manner too. 

Athens market square, the agora, was where Socrates went to work, out in the public arena.

His day-to-day approach to philosophy was not about drinking wine with friends and

pontificating about the meaning of life (he saved that for the evenings). 

In the agora, he talked and argued with anyone and everyone, happy to mix it with traders, craftsmen, military leaders, you name it.

Socrates was out there. Every day. Active. Involved. Getting his hands dirty.

There’s a limit to how much a producer can sit in an office, planning – find the interesting content and get out there, into the world and capture it on camera!

There are usually many, many options in the edit.

How do you want to shape the elements of the story?

How do you want to shape the narrative? How can you best serve your audience?

How can you make them think and feel in a fresh and stimulating way?

Examine the rushes closely and construct the edit from there. 

6. '...Socrates was a showman

But beyond that, Plato saw,
Through the twists and turns of his arguments
He was aiming for so much more…'

For me, this is so relevant to video producers.

A video can be entertaining, like a showman, at the same time as being informative and useful; even revelatory.

Socrates loved fun. He was sociable and his energy was contagious.

At the same time, he invited people to think on questions central to their lives.

Furthermore, he did what he did for the love of it. He never became rich, but he believed in what he did. 

7. 'The unexamined life is not worth living'

Another classic quote that Plato attributes to Socrates near the end of his trial.

Of course examine yourself, how you’re doing your job, WHY you’re making the film you’re

making (if it’s only for the money – well, find another reason, it’ll make the film better!).

But also, from the film-maker’s POV, examine the subject and the lives of others too.

Help them examine themselves and their subject. Get under their skin.

What makes them tick? Their responses will bring a vivacity and energy to your films. 

The self-reflection that is central to Socrates’ approach to life is so valuable during the production process and as a means of professional development.

Ask yourself how you can make the best possible video with all the assets at your disposal?

At the end of each project, also ask what will you do next time to make it even better? 

See how we do it: send us an email to hello@shortstories.media if you would like to discuss your next film project.

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