Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The most important part of your online video stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 30, 2012

What’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

Is it having a high end DSLR camera with a prime lens? Afterall, if your pictures look pretty and slightly out of focus more people will watch it, right? Nope.

Is it having a really compelling character on a journey we can all relate to? That’s super important – but it’s not the most important thing.

Is it having a rhino suspended upside down from a helicopter? Nope, it’s not even that!

So what’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

It’s the first ten seconds.

That’s how long you have to win your viewers over. As I mentioned in this article for journalism.co.uk last week, statistics suggest around 20% of people click on from a video after just 10 seconds.

According to Visible Measures, that means if your video gets 1 million views, 200,000 of them didn’t watch past the first ten seconds.

It’s a harsh fact but people are fickle; weeks and months of work, and thousands of dollars invested in a video all stand on the first 10 seconds.

It amazes me then, just how care-free some big publishers are with their first 10 seconds of video.

For example, in a non scientific test, I had a look at some leading online news organisations. The Financial Times, Telegraph Newspaper and CNN all blow their first 10 seconds showing me a pre-roll advert. No thanks guys.

The Guardian loses 4 seconds on its branding ident, even though Guardian videos are not shareable (and so you’ll likely only ever watch it on┬áthe Guardian website).┬áThat gives them just 6 seconds to make me interested.

So who gets it? Good.is get it – they don’t mess around with branding at the start of their videos and crack straight in. Not always, but usually with a good hookline.

Phos photos, the producers of Last Minutes with Oden get it. In the first 10 seconds they tell us the title, introduce the main character and he says something interesting.

Eliot Rausch/PhosPictures

The exceptions to the rule are the longer, cinematic pieces – for example those produced by MediaStorm: the first 10 seconds still matter, but they’re able to take a slower approach, easing you in & setting the scene. In this case we’re watching for the story, and the opening of Act I is a good place for storytelling nuance.

Getting the first ten seconds right is not easy. Looking back over pieces I’ve produced in the past, I’ve blown the first 10 seconds on all sorts of nonsense. I’m trying to make more active decisions though, and in this short film I recently directed for Kingston University, I used the first 10 seconds to tell a bizarre anecdote that doesn’t fit with what the audience expects, as a way of piquing interest.

Kingston University/Adam Westbrook

So what should you use the first ten seconds for?

  • To show your most arresting images
  • To use your strongest soundbite
  • To surprise your audience
  • To raise a question in the mind of your viewer, setting up “the big reveal
  • To get straight into the story

It is not the place for idents, adverts, cliches, weak pictures, hackneyed introductions, or anything waffly.

This advice has nothing to do with creating good documentaries or crafting engaging narratives – but none of those things matter if you blow your first 10 seconds.

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Three examples of great online video stories

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 14, 2010

Regular readers will know how much I like to bang on about storytelling. It’s the oldest craft the journalist uses, yet still one of the least well understood (including by me).

Stunningly well told stories are so rare to come by, I think it’s worth highlighting them when they do.

Here then are three examples of how to weave a gripping narrative in video. These haven’t been chosen for how good they look, or how well they’re edited, or necessarily any journalistic rigour. But they all take a story and don’t just tell it in a linear way. There’s a lot to learn from them.

Soul mate Stories by Guardian Video

Expertly directed by Sonali Fernando to tell the stories of people who’ve met via the paper’s online dating service Soulmates.

What to take away: what makes this special is the visual narrative devices weaved in to tell the story. Most of the story we hear from the two characters, but rather than just having talking heads, Sonali has one paint the other. That’s a narrative device with the visuals firmly in mind. It leaves you with this wonderful reveal when she’s describing meeting the love of her life online, and we see his face appear in the painting.

Just about subtle enough to still pack a punch, it’s a great device and used very well. When making your own video stories, what ways can you get your subjects to show, rather than tell?

16:moments by RadioLab

This is a concept rather than a story – but there’s no doubting there’s a story in here. Directed by New York filmmaker Will Hoffman the film plays around the idea of a single moment.

What to take away: The opening fast cut montage of pictures, matched with some enticing audio builds suspense. The voices we hear pull us into the story, and reveal the talent of a film maker with passions for radio too.

Putting moments together, and visually connecting certain visual cues packs a powerful punch. Notice how he matches the first steps of a toddler with the strides of a grave digger – it instantly tells a great story about birth and death. The music is important: as it builds it pushes the story towards a climax.

50 people 1 question by Deltree

Directed by Benjamin Reece, the 50 people 1 question videos have been shared around the web a lot in the last year. Post Secret takes the same concept but the question is ‘what’s your biggest secret?’

What to take away: It’s a simple concept, but leaves the director with the problem of having a random collection of vox-pops to turn into a narrative. He does it skillfully, however, inter cutting half answered voxes to build tension, and making excellent use of the reactions, pauses, recollections and silent regrets. He makes use of all his shots, even when he’s framing up or pulling focus.

The climax comes half way through when we see a couple tell each other their biggest secrets. Putting them together, facing each other on screen, is a wonderful idea. Similarly, watch out for the skeptical girl who appears near the beginning (01’00) and says “why would I tell a secret to a bunch of strangers?”: she appears right at the end, revealing the most intimate secret of them all. It’s known as book-ending – an old trick, but a good’un.

As with 16:moments above, the piece makes use of music, this time to change narrative direction.

So there you go, three pieces of multimedia which show us how in the right hands cameras are powerful tools. Hopefully it’s inspired you to aim for something as powerful in your own films. And I’m always on the look out for amazingly well told stories – if you’ve seen any, please recommend them in the comments section!