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

Great online video: Gold’s Strong Stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 10, 2011

Newspapers and magazines are still, I think, hesitant to use online video in new and creative ways. It doesn’t help that many are trying to cut costs, but the other problem is a creative one: most video journalism still mimics television.

It’s not the first time on this blog I’ve highlighted great online video coming not from journalists, but from businesses. They’re the ones picking up the mantle of of video storytelling, embracing it and providing work for reporters, film makers and editors.

A week or so back I added a prime example of this to video .fu, our library of great online video storytelling.Production company Phos Pictures were approached by – of all people – a gym. They used documentary-style, portrait storytelling: not to create a naff advert for the gym, but to engage us with the stories of the people who use it.

The videos themselves are not embeddable, but here’s a promo produced by director Eliot Rausch.

You can’t gleam a huge amount from the trailer, so head over to the main site and watch one of the short films on there.

What’s the point?

You might recognise the people who produced these films – they’re the guys behind Last Minutes With Oden (Vimeo’s Documentary of the Year 2010) and Pennies HEART, both of which feature in the video .fu library.

The Gold’s Gym films utilise many of the same strengths: a single, engaging character, on an internal and external journey. We hear their voice, but don’t always see them speak. The characters are carefully chosen, and interviewed extraordinarily well: their words are almost poetic, and you’d think they were scripted if they weren’t delivered so naturally.

This comes from a skill which really sets the Phos Pictures team apart: they know their subjects intimately.

Here’s what Lukas Korver said about making Last Minutes With Oden on my other storytelling blog, blog.fu:

I think the best advice we can give is to always keep your eyes open for fresh characters and stories, they are all around us.  Take a few moments out of your day and talk to interesting people you pass in your daily life. If you’re intentions are good most people are quite receptive to being on film, once they get to know you and your intentions.

One of the best parts about being a filmmaker is getting away from the bubble  you create at your desk around your computer and go out into the real world and do some real face to face interaction.  Most days I’m not shooting I live a pretty solitary life so its great to break out of that routine of controlled isolation and experience life, or in our case as a filmmakers, experience others experiencing life.

These videos prove that engaging, documentary storytelling has uses beyond the boundaries of news and current affairs. Why does that matter for us? Well, it provides a possible new revenue stream, which can potentially fund independent journalism. Not only that, it provides a great opportunity to practice this very challenging craft.

It’s a lesson for journalists, but really it’s a lesson for businesses big and small: online video done well can bring your business to life.