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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
Our industry needs innovators, boat rockers, leaders, starters.
If you want to make your mark, get noticed, here are some ideas. These are things you can do as a journalism student, recent graduate, employee – whatever. They’re necessarily big (what’s the point in making small waves?) but manageable if you start small, take baby steps and gain momentum in your spare time.
- Create a product (that’s a website, magazine, app, film, podcast, experience or book) that challenges how journalism is done right now.
- Deploy new technology on journalism before anyone else does. Think of Not On the Wires‘ clever use of mobile reporting in 2009, and more recently Codoc’s ideas for layered video journalism.
- Create a product that strives to do journalism better than the mainstream media (it’s not difficult).
- Create an in-depth multimedia production that goes deeper into a story or issue than anyone has before. There are plenty of examples, from Powering a Nation, to The Ration.
- Write a blog that challenges the status quo. Duckrabbit do this really well and everyone loves them for it.
- Go in-depth into an under-reported community and create a site about them. MA students at City University in London have been doing this with good results.
- Design products that savour in-depth quality over 400 word posts. This space is wide open right now, but it’s time consuming and hard to do. I’m really looking forward to Kirby Ferguson’s next project This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, but he’s spending months putting it together.
- Find a gap in the market and go all out to fill it. Think of how Jamal Edwards has become well known in a whole music genre by pushing SB.TV or even how Poppy Dinsey saw a space in social fashion.
- Be an experimenter and a ‘media inventor’ who’s always creating new things. Robin Sloan is one of my favourite people on the whole internet. Have you read his tap essay? You should.
- Create something that looks fantastic and ignores the design conventions of the web.
- Pick a niche and knuckle-down to become an expert in the space. This doesn’t mean getting qualifications, it means being generous with what you know.
Whatever you do, aim big and take no shortcuts.
The industry already has more reporters, subs, producers, editors and designers than it needs, and you’re up against thousands of others to become one of them. What the industry sorely lacks are people who come up with big boat-rocking ideas and execute on them.
Be one of those people and your career could take you to remarkable places. But you’ve got to make waves first.
Speaking of boat-rocking ideas, Inside the Story has already raised more than $2500 for charity and helped hundreds of people get better at storytelling. Have you got your copy yet? It’s only available for another 12 days.
The most exciting power of great multimedia storytelling is the potential to give a voice to those who would otherwise go ignored.
I’m deep into teaching undergraduate students on Kingston University’s journalism program the basics of producing good video stories. They recently finished their first film, portraits of fellow students and how they feel about their job prospects in light of high youth unemployment. A dry-ish topic, and so their challenge was to tease good stories from their subjects, find specific angles and get to the nub of the issue.
The key to doing this is the interview: in most great online video stories & portraits it forms the spine of the narrative. Everything else in the story hangs off the interview.
Watching their first attempts at film making, it was clear conducting good interviews is an issue. So I put together a presentation with 10 tips for recording a better interview – I thought I’d share it here. Lots of this advice has been won through hard experience in my last 8 years of interviewing everyone from genocide survivors to David Cameron; but I’m also grateful to multimedia maestros like Ben Chesterton of Duckrabbit and Brian Storm of MediaStorm for a couple of the specific tips.
Again, there are bound to be things I’ve missed off: let me know in the comments!
10 tips for recording a better video (or audio) interview
NOTE: I’ve published the presentation under a Creative Commons Licence (attribution) – feel free to reuse and share, but please credit.
What are the qualities of a successful freelance journalist in the 21st century?
Of course, there are all the obvious ones (curiosity, good writing skills, tech knowledge etc) which have been laid out many times by far more experienced and talented hacks than me. But I want to introduce four new qualities, perhaps four you would never have thought of before.
And in this brave new world where the opportunities for the enterprising young journalist are limitless, it’s important to approach it in the right way. So I’ve come up with this ‘Pr’ list of qualities which every journalist should aim for – and they’re one’s every journalist can.
Four ‘Pr’ qualities for freelance journalists
First of all, to be good at any form of journalism (writing, blogging, filming, podcasting, info-graphics) you must be prolific. You must create content at a rate of knots, and share it with the world. There’s only one way you get good at something: and that’s practice. Practice = proliferation.
Mark McGuinness (a must read if you want to make money doing something creative) makes this point very eloquently. He points out how one of the great creative geniuses of history, Bach, was prolific beyond belief. We only associate a few extraordinary pieces of work to his name, and assume he was of such unrepeatable talent that the rare tunes he touched turned to gold. But it was not so.
Bach spent his career as an employee, composing music to order on a punishing schedule. One such appointment was as Cantor of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, a prestigious but demanding role, where he produced a cantata (a musical setting for sacred texts) every week of the year and extra ones for holidays — a total of 60 every year. He held that position for five years.
Most of Bach’s music was mediocre and disappeared into history. But the very fact his was prolific meant he got so extraordinarily good at his craft he became an unforgettable name in history.
When I read Mark’s article I looked elsewhere in history for a pattern. It didn’t take me long. Let’s take perhaps the most exalted band of the 20th Century, The Beatles. A quick check at their discography proves their success could be down to sheer proliferation: between 1963 and 1969 they produced two albums every year – a total of 307 songs before they split.
Coldplay, by comparison have produced four albums in 13 years, and just a third of the songs. Sure, who can name all 307 Beatles tracks? And sure, many of them are mediocre – but they needed to produce all the mediocre in order to get good.
So if you’re set on being a kick-ass video journalist, you won’t get good sitting around reading video journalism blogs and polishing the lens of your DSLR. Get off your arse, and make a film. Every week. Week in, week out.
. 02 Productive
Being productive is vital for your success as a freelance journalist. In some cases, when you’re being paid a day-rate, that is literally so. But even if not, your time is money, so you have to start using it properly.
This goes beyond just opening the laptop at 9 and closing it at 5pm sharp. It’s about elimating the stuff in your day that doesn’t contribute to your income. It’s also about understanding your own personal productivity: what time of the day are you most productive? What’s the point of starting work at 9, when you’re at your best between 6pm and midnight?
A lot of people use the 80/20 rule too, so it’s worth thinking about. It goes like this: 20% of your time spent, generates 80% of your revenue and visa versa. So you need to identify the 20% of work that actually brings in the cash (that includes sales/pitching) and make sure you do it without fail. And know what the 80% of non-revenue generating stuff is (tweaking your website, filing tax returns, coming up with ideas) and don’t let it overrun your schedule.
If you’re going to be prolific and profitable you need to be productive with your time. So ring fence certain times of your day, compartmentalise and use something like Google Calendar to control it all.
. 03 Profound
Thing is, there are plenty of other voices out there in the digital landscape – maybe too many. And there are plenty more journalists vying for attention. How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you make your blog more clickable than the next?
The answer lies in being profound: having something to say that matters to other people. A lot of blogs – hell, a lot of journalists – rely on rehashing other people’s content, aggregating it, just blindly reporting what is being said or done.
But in the fragmented, digital, niche world, that is not enough. If you want to stand out within your area of specialty then you need to be profound. We turn to the most popular bloggers in journalism, for example, because they say profound things. Jeff Jarvis tells us the business models are all wrong and suggests alternatives; Mark Luckie shows us how to use awesome technology in new ways; Tracy Boyer shows us how great multimedia can be; and almost everything Seth Godin says is profound…and they are all leaders.
In this scary new world, people don’t just want consumers, aggregators or reporters, they want leaders. Are you willing to step up to the plate? By being profound, you almost instantly place yourself at a higher level above the rest of the pack.
. 04 Provocative
And finally be provactive too. Stir things up. Cause an argument.
Someone who does that very well are British multimedia producers Duckrabbit, who, if you read their blog (and you should)* it appears they’re always getting into arguments with the photojournalism establishment (for example, this spat with the organiser of an international photography festival).
But Duckrabbit aren’t being argumentative for the sake of it. They have established a strong, authentic, moral, position – on the side of exploited people in developing countries, and photographers exploited by the industry they work for. This forms Duckrabbit’s story, and we, as the audience (and their potential customers) understand where they’re coming from.
And because they stand up for exploited photographers wherever they can, the audience respect them for it. It makes their presence go beyond that of another multimedia company.
It’s a risky strategy perhaps, but there are a lot of multimedia production companies out there now – what will make yours stand out? Stand up for something, believe it it, and mean something. If you’re authentic then it’s all good.
*disclaimer: I occasionally write for Duckrabbit
So – prolific, productive, profound and provocative: four easy to remember words, which if you use them as a guide, they’ll help elevate you beyond all the others in this ever crowded field. Have I missed any off? I could add ‘profitable’ but that’s for another time…
I’ve been preparing for a day-long course this coming weekend for photojournalists wishing to make the leap into multimedia.
Run by multimedia evangelists Duckrabbit and hosted by Rhubarb Rhubarb, Photography Still Moving is what the industry needs more of – training with an optimistic edge. I’ll be there running a session on how to get kitted up to do video, audio and slideshows at affordable prices; the day ends with advice on how to turn skills into money.
Interested? Here are some details for you.
The running order for the day goes like this:
- WTF is multimedia?
- Getting to grips with the kit (on a budget)
- Sound for idiots (interviewing techniques)
- I got pictures, I got sound, now what?
- Show me the money
What’s more, at £45 it’s some of the cheapest training you’ll find – and there are spaces still available! So what will you be doing on Saturday? Face-palming at another England howler from the night before? Probably. But then get out of bed, get your camera and come and learn some new skills.
If you’re interested, click here to get yourself a ticket.
More and more photographers are appreciating the creative satisfaction, revenue potential and damn necessity of getting tooled up for multimedia.
From experienced photojournalists like John D. McHugh and Paul Treacy teaching themselves how to produce film and audio slideshows, to the dozens of excellent pieces showcased at Foto8’s monthly Slideslam Carousel, the trend is clear.
There are many, many photojournalists who haven’t taken the leap yet – if you’re one of them and you’re not sure where to start, then help is at hand.
When: 19th June 2010
Where: Direct Studios, London
Photography Still Moving will explore just how still photographers from all disciplines can make the leap to digital storytelling. We’ll show you the tools you need, as well as sharing how you can make money from multimedia. One lucky participant who submits a set of pictures in advance will also have their work transformed into a multimedia feature on the day.
Price: £45…yes you read that right, £45!
I’ll be there, running a session on the kit you need to go multimedia, and how to do it without giving your bank manager, or husband, or wife an aneurysm; as well as benefiting from the knowledge of multimedia masters Ben Chesterton, David White and Anna Stevens one person who submits their images early gets it made into multimedia during the day.
I think it might be cheapest day long course of this quality there is, so places are bound to be booked up hyper-fast. Don’t delay!
I think collaborative projects & crowd sourced creativity, is one of the greatest and most powerful things about the internet.
Getting people, not just to share their opinion, but a bit of their creative flair is wonderful and it’s great seeing photographers & journalists using that power well. Here are four great examples I’ve found over the past few years. If you know any good ones, feel free to share!
(Images: Someone Once Told Me, 4am Project, How’s Your Weekend, Volcano Love Stories)
Someone Once Told Me
A great concept from BBC Journalist Mario Cacciottolo: people take pictures of themselves holding up a card with a phrase someone once told them. The rules are it has to be something said to them directly, in monochrome and on a piece of paper. I broke the rule writing on a whiteboard I know.
I used SOTM to teach my students basic photography and I was chuffed to see some of them appear on the site having submitted their own ones.
And they’re on Twitter too: @SOTM
How’s Your Weekend?
I love this idea to bits:
Sunny lazy day on the beach. Snuggling under blanket over hot chocolate and DVDs. Morning jogging. A road trip. A hot date. Good times wine and dine. Dress up party. Awesome gigs. A craft day. Baking cupcakes or cooking homemade pasta. Afternoon tea. Coffee and cakes. Art exhibition…we want to share how people around the world spend their weekends. Everyone has a story, share your weekend with us and see what others do too.
The rules are you must submit 3 images which tell the story of your weekend (building a narrative) and they must be at least 800px wide.
Volcano Love Stories
The idea here is to collect stories of love and loss which inevitably happened when the volcanic ash cloud descended on Europe and closed air space.
Were adulterers caught out when they couldn’t get home from their illicit break? Did a romantic weekend with a new couple turn into a nightmare week of travelling which broke them up? And on the flip side, were any people brought together in the melee who wouldn’t otherwise have met?
A well known British born project to capture the world at 0400 on a specific date. This year it was the 4th April, and despite my best intentions I never made it out of bed on time (well, it was a Sunday).
Lots of people did though – check out the results here.
A Moment in Time
On a similar theme comes A Moment In Time, on the 2nd May 2010 (I just got this blog out in time!); a project by the folks at the New York Times’ Lens Blog.
The idea: photographers, professional and amateur all capture an image at the same moment. This weekend it is 1500 UTC (GMT), so wherever you are in the world, work out your local time and go out and take an image.
Rather than capturing a random shot, they want images you’ve put some time into:
What matters more than technique is the thought behind the picture, because you’ll only be sending us one. So please do think beforehand about where you will want to be and what you will want to focus on.
Have I gone way off topic?
What’s this got to do with multimedia journalism? Whatever your trade, your art, it’s important to keep yourself fed with inspiration from all quarters.
Even as a journalist I try and consume as much non journalism as possible, and let it seep into my brain. As a visual journalist, on a quest for new styles and approaches, the work of artists in other fields is vital fuel for the fire.
It’s been a busy start to the New Year here at Westbrook towers.
First off my article about prisoner votes campaigner John Hirst is featured in this week’s Big Issue In The North. It follows this audio slideshow I produced in 2009. If you’re in the north of the UK, I’m sure a (very) cold Big Issue vendor would appreciate your custom. Meanwhile some of the images from this slideshow are appearing in a documentary, The Fear Factor, due for release in March.
My new e-book, Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Websites is due for release next week. It’s a practical manual packed with advice on how to turn your hyperlocal blog into a solid newsgathering operation, holding powers to account where the mainstream media have failed. It’s got a discounted opening price, so make sure you subscribe to the blog for details!
Elsewhere the lecturing work carries on, with dozens of short films my students have made due for marking by the end of this month. I hope to be returning to Kingston University’s journalism department for other events in 2010.
And I’m being kept busy with various conferences. I’m looking forward to speaking at Journalism.co.uk‘s News: Rewired event in London on the 14th January; tickets for that have now sold out. I’m also due to speak at a couple of planned events in London, and I’ve been invited to take part in some exciting international festivals in the spring as well (more details soon).
All the while January’s Future of News Meetup in association with POLIS is now full, with a waiting list building. We’ll be hearing from journalists at the Financial Times and one of the team behind the Berlin Project about innovation in multimedia. If you would like to sign up to future meetups or try to make January’s event, click here to get involved.
Right here there’s lots of plans for the blog, with lots more practical advice and analysis of developments in journalism due in 2010. You’ll find me contributing to a host of excellent blogs and websites in 2010, including Duckrabbit, A Developing Story and Journalism 2.0.
And ahead, I some exciting multimedia plans stewing, and I’ll be looking for collaborators in the near future – keep your ears to the ground! In the meantime, I’m always available for various freelancing work, so just click on Contact Adam to get in touch!
It’s that time of year again…
After a turbulent year in the industry, I’ve had a good think and put together my top 10 trends for journalism for 2010, wrapped in a big shiny positive outlook. But rather than roll out another list, I thought I’d be a bit different and crack out some video. Enjoy!
And is there anything I’ve missed? Add it in the comments box!