The Power of Documentaries: Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. is a powerful documentary that teaches its viewers something they may not have known before — how our food is made. Not only does it teach its viewers this seemingly simple process, but it exposes the farming industry in a way that hasn’t been done before. It tells us a compelling story in which viewers can’t resist paying attention.

Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen explains, “documentary films, for example, are a medium that tells a non-fiction story incorporating narration, interviews, audio, powerful video and still images, and at times, on-screen text. These are elements that can be incorporated into a live oral presentation as well.” (p.22).

This explanation is precisely accurate — I would like to point out some of the features of Food, Inc. that make it a compelling story and persuasive presentation of ideas.

Food, Inc., like most documentaries, relies heavily on B-roll. These shots, whether they be long, medium or close-up help set the tone of the scene and enhance the dialogue that is being played in the background. For example, the opening scene of the film takes place in an ordinary grocery store. This scene helps set the tone for what the documentary will be discussing for the next hour and a half. It starts the discussion by addressing the problem — how do these products get on the shelf?

Another feature that the film utilizes is a blank screen with no sound and on-screen text. I noticed while watching this film that a black screen with text makes a powerful statement because there aren’t any distractions. The viewer is forced to soak in the words on the screen and soak in the meaning behind them. It is much more dramatic than showing a video and explaining a concept with dialogue.

This is a feature that can also be used in presenations — create intentional pauses during your presentation and show a screen with text that the audience should read. Allow them time to soak in the meaning of the words. It’s a great way to make a powerful statement that will resonate with them throughout the rest of the presentation.

Another similar feature is showing one line of text, then another that offers up an answer or explanation. A before and after is a great way to show the effect that an event has had on the current situation.

Other convincing features of the film were the graphics:

“In the 1970s, the top 5 beef packers controlled only about 25% of the market.”
“Today, the top 4 control about 80% of the market.”

Graphics such as these help viewers who are more visual. These can and should be used in presentations to help lay out ideas in a simple, yet effective fashion.

Of the many powerful and gruesome shots of animal cruelty in the film, one that resonated with me the most was one that actually didn’t show any cruelty, instead you had to listen to it. There was a shot of a chicken house, but no chickens. You could hear sounds of the chickens in the house, with a voiceover of a farmer saying, “these chickens are always in the dark.” The sounds were much more graphic than the visual would have been, especially with the addition of the farmer’s voiceover.

This is to say that sometimes audio can work better than visual to deliver a message. In presentations, it could be helpful to use this concept.

In summary, the key features of Food, Inc. that I plan to utilize in future presentations are:

  1. Set the scene
  2. Allow some blank screens with text only
  3. Display one line of text, followed by another (cause & effect)
  4. Graphics
  5. Include audio if it’s more powerful than visual