Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to make boring things interesting in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 2, 2012

There’s no doubting that video is an incredible medium. It has the power to transport us to other worlds, feel other peoples’ feelings and can affect our emotions quite dramatically, when done well. Ultimately, video can move people to action.

Part of the secret to doing good video is choosing the right stories to tell with video in the first place. Read that sentence again and you get an important truth about video: it can do some stories, issues and subject matter really well. Everything else, it does badly.

What is video good at?

When I give talks, lectures or workshops about online video I usually start by laying out what video can and cannot do. This is my list of its favourite subjects:

  • explosions, fire, sparks and noise (ever wondered why these always lead the news bulletins?)
  • action and movement: every video must involve someone doing something
  • awe-inspiringly big things like landscapes
  • amazingly small things that our eyes can’t see – but also anything closeup in general
  • human stories and emotion – no matter how complex

What is video bad at?

Human emotions are probably the most complex things out there but video can convey them better than any other medium. When it comes to other complex issues however, video is out of its depth:

  • Politics and meetings: much of it happens behind closed doors, is polemic and involves little physical movement
  • Business, economics and theory: similarly non-visual at first glance
  • Statistics, numbers and data: video and data journalism don’t sit side by side
  • Interviews (yes, really): video is not designed for people sitting down and talking

However, almost everyone involved in video finds themselves working on the latter a lot of the time. The nightly news has to cover politics and the economy. A management accountancy firm has to make videos about management accountancy. We all have to run interviews (do we?)

So the question then is: how do we make this shit interesting?

“There’s no such thing as boring knowledge. Only boring presentation.”

Dan Roam

I start with this quote in mind. Although I’m putting down business, politics and data as video subjects, there is no denying they are hugely interesting subjects in and of themselves. But to make them work on video we have to put in some extra work.There are some tested techniques filmmakers use to inject interest into potentially dry stories – many of these you will recognise from television, where programme makers face this challenge regularly.

In other cases, we are still struggling to make it interesting – so there’s potential for disruption from brave new film makers (that’s you).

.01 humanise

Tell a real human story as access into the issue. Ever wondered why news packages about gas price rises always start with an old lady filling up her kettle and worrying about her winter fuel allowance? That’s how journalists try to get people to care about a story that is actually about oil prices and Russian diplomacy.

This, incidentally is the secret behind great films that promote either non-profits or business. Duckrabbit’s TV campaign for Oxfam uses the real story of a donor to make us care; this series by Phos Pictures uses the same device to advertise -wait for it: a gym. It almost made me sign up, and I live 4,000 miles away.

.02 visualise

If every story should be human, it must also be visual. Video, like photography, graphic design and web design is about using images to convey the message – not words. A common crime of directors is to rely on dialogue, voice over and interviews to tell the story when ideally people should get it with the sound turned off.

At its most simple: if you’re filming an interview with an IT specialist for your website, don’t just film a straight interview. Make it visual: film them at work, going for a walk, cycling to work, eating lunch, playing squash whatever – it’s the eye-candy video is made for. Done well, visually led films can turn an interview with a blogger (snore…) into something quite wonderful.

.03 surprise

Amy O’Leary makes the point in this talk that surprise is a key element to a successful story. We love surprises because they release happy chemicals into our brains. You can hook your viewers on the surprise drug in two ways: you can be clever with your narrative to create a set-up and punchline throughout a piece (difficult) or you can smack them in the face with a wet fish.

For example, if your bread and butter is a weekly video interview with a leader in your field, why not do the interview while they’re getting their haircut? I’m serious. Find an amicable barber and you’ve got something easily set up, that fills its purpose and is visual at the same time…all while sticking annoyingly in your audiences mind. (If you manage to pull it off in your organisation, let me know!)

UPDATE: jump down to the comments section to see how Reuters do this effectively with a strand of their videos

.04 be useful

If you can’t be interesting then at least make sure your video is useful. Some people will sit through a 20 minute panel discussion if they know the information is important to them.

If you can’t even be useful, then for the love of God…

.05 be short

Some people say videos on the web shouldn’t be longer than two minutes. You can definitely tell a good story in less than this. While I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule, I do believe anything longer than five minutes is a result of laziness or ego (please note: I am regularly guilty of both of these).

Does your video have an upside down flying rhino in it? If not, it probably doesn’t warrant being longer than two minutes.

That said, if you’ve got a great human story, that you’re telling visually and is packed full of surprise: then please, I will give you hours of my attention. 

So in summary: if you can’t be interesting, useful or concise, you’ve picked the wrong medium.

The video decision workflow

To help you out I’ve designed this video decision workflow which puts all the above points into place. Start at the top and hopefully it will help you decide whether or not to tell your next story in video. As well as journalists and documentarians, it is also designed very much with commercial factual video in mind too. I know there are a lot of B2B magazines, agencies or industry websites out there wanting to use video but doing it ineffectively.

Please note: although the image has a © symbol on it, I am releasing it under a Creative Commons Licence for attribution. Please takeaway and use, but give credit if you publish it elsewhere. 

Adam Westbrook's Online Video Workflow

Click to enlarge


17 Responses

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  1. Nigel Hilditch said, on July 2, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Nice piece…very useful to us…re the amicable barber, we’ve tried doing it in a black cab…one loop of Canary Wharf for our interviewee (usually an entrepreneur) to get their message across. Let me know what you think:

    • Adam Westbrook said, on July 2, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Hi Nigel that’s a great example, I love all the different camera set ups. Do you find it gets a good response?
      I did something similar for a client last year – we had scenes in the back of cabs, at cafes and at the Houses of turned a series of talking heads into something more visual.

      • Nigel Hilditch said, on July 2, 2012 at 9:10 am

        Cheers. It’s got people talking about our video section in what’s still a print dominated environment. Guests love it and it’s generated some buzz as well as rating relatively well

  2. Claudio von Planta said, on July 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Hi Adam,

    as always, you offer great analysis and illustrate your points with good examples. After nearly 27 years of video production I’m still underestimating the amount of work and effort we have to invest to create quality films.

    I never think too much about the length. It depends on the audience you are trying to reach. What is more valuable: a novel or a poem? a 30 second news clip or a 3 hour long feature film? There is no right or wrong answer. It simply depends on the audience and the distribution platform.

    With regards to interview settings I was intrigued by Robert Llewellyn’s carpool concept. It’s very simple and easy but I wonder who has the time to watch such 30 minute long clips on the internet. Apparently it works. Robert once invited me for a carpool interview: – what’s your feeling? Does it hold your attention or do you switch off?

    Best regards,


    • Adam Westbrook said, on July 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      I love the Carpool concept and I’ve watched a few in the past. There’s an intimacy and an authenticity to them (I love how you give him directions as he’s driving!). It helps that he’s a good talker but still I think it works well. Actually it reminds me of another web show I saw last week – this photographer Chase Jarvis has started doing web video interviews with interesting internet thinkers – but produced it like Oprah! It’s very slick but also has an authenticity to it, as he asks for more coffee midway through the show.

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  7. Jeff HIno said, on July 11, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Hmmm…not sure I agree with you that video is not “interview-friendly”. Watch the classic “My Dinner With Andre.”

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