Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 common video storytelling mistakes (and how to avoid them)

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on October 24, 2011

Five years after Youtube’s birth there’s probably not a newsroom in the land that isn’t trying to do video journalism in some way or another.

I say ‘trying’ because, as you’ll probably have seen, the vast amount of online video produced just doesn’t cut it. It’s long, boring, technically poor – and amateurish. This is a big shame because online video – done well – has the power to be an art form, to touch people, to make them understand something, to make them care.

As well as training journalists all over Europe in how to do video storytelling, and watching a helluva lot of video stories, I’ve also been teaching student journalists at Kingston University how to do video for more than two years. And in that time I’ve seen all the classic mistakes made. Here’s my run down – as always, if I’ve missed one off, stick it in the comments.

10 common video mistakes (and how to avoid them)

.01 you don’t prioritise sound

I’m actually gonna stick this one at the top because it’s probably the most common mistake. I’ve seen far too many video stories where the interview is practically inaudible, drowned out by traffic, air conditioning or something else. The cause? Not using an external microphone.

Audiences seem quite happy to tolerate poor quality pictures – they don’t mind mobile phone footage for example; but they will not tolerate crappy sound. End of. Invest in a good quality clip microphone for interviews and a Rodemic or similar for on board sound.

.02 you get too caught up in kit

We’ve all met one of these guys before: a ‘depth-of-field-Dave’ who’s more interested in whether you’re shooting on a prime lens than what the story is. They’re the sort of folk who make those music montages on Vimeo where everything looks very pretty and is out of focus, but expresses no meaning.

Kit matters – to an extent – but I believe a good story is a good story whether you shot it on the iPhone 4S or a Canon 5D MkII. At the same time, a poor story is not rescued by a shallow depth-of-field…in fact, it looks just that: shallow.

(NOTE: you’ll almost certainly be able to trawl back through the archives of this blog and find posts where I rave about depth-of-field: let’s just say I’ve grown as a film maker!)

Image: Francois Schnell on Flickr

.03 you don’t use a tripod

What’s the quickest way to ensure professional looking footage in any situation? Don’t move the camera!

It’s that simple. Flip cams, iPhones and DSLR cameras are the most susceptible to looking amateurish when hand-held, because they’re so light. Invest in a light set of Manfrotto sticks and use them for everything. Of course, handheld footage is powerful, and necessary, in certain situations – but more often I see it used as a technique through laziness rather than intention.

[Update: Video journalism advocate Michael Rosenblum argues that tripods are unnecessary: have a look and see what you think]

.04 you don’t shoot in sequences

This one is the bane of anyone who has to teach video to fresh faces: I personally invest hours of class time in explaining, demonstrating and showing examples of sequences in action – and when they don’t appear in finished pieces it’s exasperating.

Sequences – put simply – are a series of shots, showing a single action, creating the illusion of continuous movement. They are the hallmark of cinema, television news and now online video. What’s the difference between amateurs and professionals? Pros shoot sequences.

.05 you parachute into stories

One great advantage of online video journalism over television news is the absence of such tight deadlines. Online, journalists in the future are likely to work inside niches, and therefore will have time to build up contacts, develop relationships and explore stories before taking out the camera.

I can’t underestimate the importance of spending time with your subject/character before filming. Photojournalists have always done this very well, and the photogs who’ve moved to video have brought with them their investment in character. Those moving from television tend to do things the TV way: a quick pre-interview on the phone, then turn up, get the shots and get out.

Which one do you think works better?

.06 you try to copy television

On a similar theme, another big mistake new video journalists make is trying to copy what they see on CNN. Let me be clear: television news is highly formulaic, and it’s a formula designed to work within the tough day-to-day rigour of turning a story round in 3 hours. It works great for TV and that’s good for them.

But to see that formula infect this new genre of online video is heartbreaking in someways – partly because it is so young, and the potential so great. So switch off your TV – and if you have to seek inspiration from anywhere, try your local cinema.

Image credit: Dave Kellman on Flickr

.07 your stories are too long

It’s a well worn (although difficult to back up) belief that online attention spans are short and therefore video should be equally short too. Whether this is true or not, video should always be as short as it could possibly be. As Orwell said, ‘never use a long word when a short one will do.’

If you can tell your story in 90 seconds, why bulk it out to 3 minutes? You’re just wasting everyone’s time. This requires a certain ruthlessness – but if you can train yourself to ‘kill your babies’ as the saying goes, you’ll be a better journalist for it.

.08 you don’t understand storytelling

There are too many journalists who call themselves ‘multimedia storytellers’ or ‘digital storytellers’ or ‘visual storytellers’ but who have never read Robert McKee’s Story or The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (NB: affiliate links).

Storytelling is an ancient art, a craft, that survives human generations because it is without doubt the best way to help people comprehend the world around them. If you care about storytelling at all, you’ll try to master its secrets.

.09 you tell and don’t show

I remember the first video story I did while training at City University some years ago. We felt pretty proud of ourselves: we had a good story and what we made looked like a proper TV news package. But our lecturer wasn’t impressed: ‘you’ve just made radio with some pictures over the top’.

Image: mac_ivan on Flickr

And she was right: our film was laden with long rambling voice over scripts, dull soundbites and the pictures were wallpaper that didn’t add to the story. I’ve always remembered that lesson, and now remember the importance of using pictures to show the story happening and not to describe it.

.10 you don’t play to video’s strengths

Finally, video today is used because it can be, and not because it should be. There is too much video coverage of conferences, long interviews with boring people, and attempts to use video to cover council politics.

Video is good at some things: emotion, action, movement, detail, processes. It is terrible at other things: numbers, meetings, politics, court cases, and anything that doesn’t happen on camera.

The solution? Use video for its strengths – and keep the camera in your bag for the rest.

Some of these are one-step quick actions which will instantly improve your video storytelling; the rest are mindsets and attitudes that take longer to change. But until we get past those, online video storytelling will not improve.


58 Responses

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  1. Patrick Smith said, on October 24, 2011 at 9:23 am

    You’re exactly right here.

    On point 7 and point 10, I think it’s helpful to see video as an additive element to a story. Sometimes 90 seconds of footage is perfectly fine to illustrate something, but it also needs a few paragraphs of text to add the links and context that make it a wholly formed story. A product demo for a tech site, or a politician’s speech for a politics site, for examples.

    yes, don’t be like TV, but what online journalists can learn from TV is the authority and confidence that TV hacks have. Sometimes being on camera yourself is very effective, especially if you’re doing something on a weekly basis or whatever – not necessarily in a Kate Adie sense, but just to establish a link between you and your audience.

    Also, just as you don’t really have to put out something like Panorama with your Flip cam, you can also have more fun with it than they can. Where appropriate, a little humour or entertainment in the context of an otherwise serious and/or dull package can help a great deal.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on October 25, 2011 at 8:47 am

      Good points Patrick. Also smaller cameras let you attach them to more interesting places (on the front of bikes, on hangliders etc) to get angles the bigger cameras can’t. And interviewees feel less intimidated by smaller cameras too.

  2. Ben Hall (@thebenhall) said, on October 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Really good advice. Really makes you stop and take stock.
    I especially like .06. Online anything mostly requires its own new formulas (formulae?)

  3. Paul Franz (@pkfranz) said, on October 24, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I wholly agree with 10, but strongly disagree about the reality of 5. Online video, unconstrained by deadlines, is indeed better at visual storytelling than a typical TV broadcast is. But the reality is that many newsrooms doing OV are faced with tough deadlines that require quick turnover; to say nothing of the manpower loss newsrooms face when their staffers spend many, many hours editing a quality video feature. The fact of the matter is, many staff VJ positions are mostly involved in post-production tasks. There are very, very few positions out there that let VJ’s freely act as a print reporter with a video camera.

  4. Jessica Binsch (@j_nb) said, on October 25, 2011 at 1:12 am

    So true! 4, 6, 7 and 9 especially! I would add one more, which is along the same lines as the depth of field: Novices pan and zoom waaaay too much. My video storytelling teacher basically prohibited us from zooming. Think of the photographer’s matra: Zoom with your feet, not the lens. Get close to your subjects and use sequences instead of zooming.
    I also recently read a fascinating article about movie editing, and it made me appreciate the skill that goes into that as well. A skilled videographer thinks of the editing process while s/he is shooting, making the editing more seamless.
    However, I disagree with what you say under 5, just as Paul mentions above. It’s not that online newsrooms don’t have deadlines. It’s that the deadline is “right this minute.” So in some ways you are forced to have a quicker turnover than in broadcast.

  5. Eric R. Olson (@EricROlson) said, on October 25, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Fantastic. This post pretty much covers everything I would tell someone interested in making video for the web–and then some. And you are absolutely spot on about the prioritization of sound. With the profusion of smart phones and Flip-style cameras it is now easy for anyone to capture beautiful pictures. But these cameras lack professional audio features, which means poor sound quality and instantly communicates to the audience that your video is amateur.

  6. aravis said, on October 25, 2011 at 2:59 am

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  8. Adam Westbrook said, on October 25, 2011 at 8:51 am

    @Paul_Franz @JessicaBinsch – I take your points about newsrooms today: it is too early for any of them to have shifted away from a print/broadcast approach with the deadlines they have. I guess what I was saying is I think in the future, we’ll see more web publications move away from both tight deadlines and the use of video for quick turnarounds.

    Take The Scout magazine for example: they have a regularly updated website, but only do video every few months – and each time, it’s really superb:

    • Paul Franz (@pkfranz) said, on October 25, 2011 at 1:52 pm

      What’s The Scout’s ROI on these short-films? Sure, these videos are extremely well-produced and beautiful. But show me the money. I once believed, as you did, that “eventually” things would turn around and we’d be reporting on stories with video like a reporter does with the written word now. I’m not so sure about that anymore.

      Videos that are poorly produced, but are funny, viral, strange or extremely violent (crash scenes, police responses) are the ones that do very well with audiences.

      Practical experience with this shows that the hours and hours we put into these “short-film style” videos simply don’t translate to enough views for meaningful ad revenue. Engagement with the audience also sharply drops whenever a video is longer than 2~3 minutes.

      I enjoy doing video a lot and love what it can accomplish; but after spending a while in the industry, I have serious doubts about the viability of long-form video or short-films as a serious vehicle for increasing traffic and ad revenue for a Web site.

      • David Jinks said, on October 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm

        If looking at online videos in the wider realm, it depends upon their individual aim. Viral videos may have a lot of hits, but may not necessarily drive sales or further interest. A badly made film for a commercial organisation is like a badly written letter, email or telephone response. Possibly worse.

        Currently. 2-3 minute is ideal. Certainly for <30's. However, that isn't strictly true if you look at older age groups. I'd argue that a good narrative will improve the attention span of the viewer.

        Most of our clients re-purpose their videos to other communication channels (DVD, Blu-ray etc). Therefore their ROI is spread over a wider comms strategy.

        David Jinks
        Film and Video Producer and former Commnunications Consultant for distributed media at Lloyds TSB plc.
        Fridge Productions Limited.

      • Adam Westbrook said, on October 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm

        Their return on investment? The Mast Brothers film has got 185,000 views – *that’s* their return on investment. Assuming for repeat viewings it’s at least 120,000 more people who’ve heard of, and visited, the Scout Mag website, before you include the views on the other four films they’ve made.

        If indirect revenue isn’t good enough for them, they’ll easily find a sponsor to present the series.

        I completely disagree with you on the future sustainability of web video. Firstly, if companies view video a ‘vehicle’ for increased traffic and ad revenue, they’re missing the point: video is about telling great stories, people watch great stories, and share them. View from any other start point and it won’t work.

        I personally never expect things to “eventually” turn around by magic, and certainly not the way the economy is right now. But the more time goes on, the more I am convinced of one thing: the only path worth taking is to make exceptional video – you won’t stand out from the noise any other way.

      • Paul Franz (@pkfranz) said, on October 25, 2011 at 4:14 pm

        You throw 185K out there like it translates instantly to money. It’s not so easy, especially when business and editorial functions inside a company are compartmentalized. Finding sponsors is a lot harder than you believe it is. Ad revenue for videos at goes for about $60 USD per 1,000 video impressions. 1,000,000 impressions = $1,000.

        I could see, perhaps, that an indy startup with the maximum amount of creative freedom could have a shot at this model you suggest. How does The Scout do it? Where’s their funding coming from now?

        And it’s not that I’m trying to find any way possible to discredit video, as I’ve made my entire early career on making online videos. But challenging articles like these will force us to find good solutions and ways to make it work financially. I just don’t see it right now.

        Your ideas are great. I love them. But I fail to see any realistic pragmatism in the view that “if we only make top-quality work, the money will flow from it” by fiat. It just hasn’t happened for many American newspaper Web sites.

      • Paul Franz (@pkfranz) said, on October 25, 2011 at 4:22 pm

        Err … my math was bad on the calculation: $60 per 1 thousand for one million views = $60K. A better sum, for certain. But we’re talking about a single, top-tier Web site (dedicated to video, no less). I don’t think it applies for the thousands of smaller venues in the U.S. that offer a mixed product.

      • Adam Westbrook said, on October 25, 2011 at 11:01 pm

        Paul I think you hit on the key point here – large established publishers with their legacy costs will really struggle to make profit on any video – or any content for that matter. It pulls them towards an unfortunate black hole of producing SEO friendly nudie pictures (a la Daily Mail).

        This isn’t anything to do with online video or its quality – it’s to do with the system itself. The solution is changing the system not the video.

        There is a reason I don’t work for the mainstream media!

        (As an aside, by your math, if The Scout did charge advertising at CNN’s rates, that’s roughly $11,200 on current views – I don’t know how much it cost, but having interviewed the director, I would think it’s less than that.)

  9. […] ways to make crap video journalism duckrabbit posted this on October 25th, 2011 Nice list here by Adam Westbrook. Here’s number one and two (which are duckrabbit favorites), but do go to […]

  10. David Jinks said, on October 25, 2011 at 11:10 am

    A good article. It’s interesting what various readers have taken from it.

    Like PowerPoint, I don’t think video is a place for text as Patrick S suggests regarding Points 7. People like to listen to people. Often online videos are played in the background, or alongside other distractions. I would suggest the use of good journalism techniques to get your contributors to quickly set-up their own story by leading them through the interview to create a narrative (Point 4). I would suggest a VJ listen to radio documentary features as a guide to how to use audio to tell the story. Then augment this with supporting (or contradictory) visuals as desired.

    Although I accept the reasons and benefits for using a tripod suggested by the author, I can think of many situations when this is either impractical or impedes the flow of a story. The camera op with a tripod and headphones is almost a cliche and often deployed by less experienced crew. The importance of Point 3 should be to recognise where and when a camera should be steady, and use whatever means necessary to achieve the desired framing. Ideally, without the putting off their contributor. Generally, the steady the better though. Unless you imitating the Bourne Ultimatum!

    I would agree with Paul Franz’s comments about Point 10, but would turn his comments around, suggesting it’s that perhaps it’s time for a backlash. Reporting teams have already reduced from 5 to 3 and now the Director-Shooter_editor. Not a great state to be honest. Reducing the time with contributors as another cost shaving exercise is now eroding this form even further. Sad times in that respect.

    Jessica Binsch’s comment regarding editing is very important. Having been asked on numerous occasions about what we use to edit, my response is ‘video’ (or film telecined). The point being, there’s more to editing than an Apple FCP Level 101 certificate, Mac or PC. I ask students who are their favorite Editors. Most don’t know any. Not even Walter Murch or Thelma Schoonmaker. Quite sad. Again this supports the bloggers comments in Point 2 regarding ‘getting caught up in kit’ rather than taking a more wider view.

    Point 6 is probably the crux of this blog. Anyone working in the creative arena needs to think outside of box and deliver something fresh and new.

    I would make this a Top 11 tips!
    The putting at ease of your contributor, at least in relation to the actual filming process, as opposed to the line of questioning. Removing the obtrusive nature of camera, lights and audio. All of which become an obstruction to good interviewing. Use a long lens (on a tripod) to keep a camera out of the face of a interviewee, and increasing the filmic qualities in turn. Reduce the ‘fiddling with buttons and levels if self-shooting. Thereby maintaining a dialogue with your contributor without them feeling that they are performing, or that the interviewer is distracted by the technology that they are using. This takes a lot of practise and experience. Basically, know your equipment, and prepare. Better still use a professional crew, it’s a win-win.

    A nice and concise article, and great responses – mine excluded of course 😉

    David Jinks
    Film and Video Producer and former Commnunications Consultant for distributed media at Lloyds TSB plc.
    Fridge Productions Limited.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on October 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      Thanks for the great comment David, I like your thoughts on editing – and some good practical tips on interviews.

      I’d also agree radio storytelling is a good place to start to understand the structure of a good story.

  11. Ray Pawulich (@raypaw) said, on October 25, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Great post all around! Regarding the iPhone 4S — it actually has great depth of field. It’s amazing to me that the best camera I’ve ever owned is my phone. You can even lock the exposure and focus in a way that’s way more intuitive than any dedicated camcorder I’ve ever used. DSLRs are incredible but for most folks shooting web video, the iPhone 4S is more than enough. But as you suggest, use an external mic if you don’t want your video to feel amateurish.

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  14. deborah angrave said, on October 28, 2011 at 4:28 am

    Addition to #7…
    Pick a point to enter the story from and where you will leave.
    Your story is a slice out of a bigger story. Be clear on why you are taking your viewers into this angle and what journey they are going on with you. (In some situations, you will write copy for the anchor, news reader or host to set-up and leave the story. Make sure you provide them with unique background information not contained in the narration or voice over you may have recorded into the story or you’ve given away the punch line before you told the joke.

  15. tracybacenas said, on October 29, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Great blog Adam! Just found this and am linking to it in my blog. Looking forward to going back and reading your earlier posts. Cheers.

  16. Bob said, on November 1, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Ha! I feel sorry for the suckers paying to learn video, it’s dead and never will be a vital part of a newspapers It’s the managers hitting the panic button on a failing system and sell outs buying into it because they are scared.

  17. Patrick Smith (@psmith) said, on November 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    And another thing… your point 1 on sound is probably the key thing here. But here’s the problem: some budget camera’s don’t have external mic connection and those that do, well, where do you put your mic? What I’m after is an affordable HD quality vid cam that has somewhere I can attach my mic to!

  18. deborah angrave said, on November 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm
    You can try this. Comes in about $750.00 used….with XLR (Balanced Audio inputs)

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  26. Matt Sheils said, on February 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    As I watch the demand for video growing exponentially this year in my local market, I recognize that all aspects of quality, compelling video production will ultimately be based on solid story telling ability. The post gets right to the fundamentals, pulls no punches, and breaks the most important points into digestible chunks. Ecellent scope and a great find today! Much appreciation.

    • deborah angrave said, on February 12, 2012 at 2:17 am

      Visual and spoken word are strongest when interwoven complimenting and supporting each other.

      Don’t narrate what the audience can clearly see. What is the information you are supporting? Are you reinforcing an emotion? Who is the subject? What challenge are they facing? Who, or what, is preventing them from reaching a certain goal?

      Why did you go through the effort to find and shoot this image in this particular way? Conversely, visuals compliment the spoken word. What should be in the frame? When and if to add movement? What type of lighting to use? What types of atmospheric sound should be captured to reinforce the mood?

      Scenario: Family sitting in a hospital waiting room….
      Is it a dire situation or are they waiting for a baby to be born? What would you capture to mark time passing and foreshadow the mood without narration? What sounds would you capture?
      Ah! The possibilities….

      You can write from the beginning to set up for the conclusion or reverse engineer the storyline.
      Carefully select each piece of information to set up the audience for the next conflict point in the story.
      Who is speaking? The Subject, Reporter, Man In The Street, Expert, Narrator?
      Who should be selected to speak about particular information? Who should comment on it? How should we set up the next element of the story? A good interviewer is a powerful addition for gathering ‘compelling sound bites’. Specifically crafted music and/or soundscape ties the package together into a satisfying slice of life.

      With this comprehensive approach the viewer acquires new information and understanding. It’s been time well spent that they, hopefully, want to ‘share’ with others so you build audience and/or followers.

      Building compelling stories in your unique storytelling style encourages viewers to watch your next story.
      A simple story well told leaves a lasting impression.
      The same story hand held with constant zooming, off mic interviewing, no idea what a key light is much less a fill, little or no thought to writing and stand ups recorded with camera mic…..?

  27. Bob Kaplitz said, on February 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Having interviewed literally thousands of people, I’ve found one of the best ways to get the best soundbites is through a conversation with questions getting you acquainted with the person and issues. Then, while talking, begin shooting. No fanfare. No big deal. No reason to feel uncomfortable on camera.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on February 27, 2012 at 4:48 pm

      Great advice Bob. By the same token, I’ve seen far too many interviewers sit down with a piece of paper and read out questions like a robot. The conversation is lost and the interview suffers. Thanks for the comment!

  28. Deshawn said, on March 19, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Good Stuff, do you currently have a youtube account?

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