VIDEO STORYTELLING 101
What makes an interesting video? We see dozens of 'em a day. Maybe even hundreds depending on your device habits. We scroll through our long miles of social media feeds seeing amateur videos of our friends’ kids and dogs.
I love those dog videos though, so keep em coming.
We also have huge corporations and small businesses alike compete for 30 seconds of our day to convince us that we need the thing they have. Youtube vloggers want us to see why their lives are so interesting, and product reviewers want us to be informed about the newest iPhones.
The point is that we encounter SO MANY videos in a day.
News videos, science journalism, wedding videos, fail videos, sports highlights, people talking politics to us on their phones while driving. Pro tip: don’t do that. And our tastes on social media reflect the category of videos we see. Like me, if you found my phone on the ground, figured out my password and decided my Instagram feed was the most interesting thing in there, you’d find that I watch a ton of bike videos. Fails, coaching, event highlights, event ads, product ads, gopro footage, sponsored athletes and creative rides. And all of those are just in the “bike” section. If you like makeup, your feed’s probably full of a totally diverse array of makeup videos. You like video games? What about animals? Guns, health, religion, civil rights and, for some of you stranger folks, pimple popping. Name a category, think of something you’re interested in, then think about how many times you watch a quick clip of it while dinking around on your phone. Odds are you’re dedicating a fat chunk of time watching videos.
So here’s the thing, since we all watch so many quick clip videos a day, that makes us experts on the ones we like. Right? I mean, we know within the first few seconds of a video if we’re going to watch the whole thing or not. And if you’re anything like me, you watch parts of some of the videos on your feed, but rarely watch one to completion. My time is valuable, why would I waste it on bad videos? Even some videos that seem high-end production-wise with crazy drone shots and a beautifully composed slow motion action scenes can still feel a little… meh. Like they’re missing something.
So what is it? What makes a video interesting? What makes you watch it to the very end?
In short, it’s the story.
Humans love stories. Our society, our culture, our families, everything is built on stories. From the foragers who passed down stories through generations to the big blockbuster movies that make billions of dollars, stories are a culture’s life blood. Videos are no different. If a video doesn’t tell a story, what’s the point? Subconsciously, we can tell when the story is missing from a video. No matter how cool the shots are, how interesting the subject matter, how attractive the people, if the story isn’t being told, our interest is slippery.
What I’m hoping to do with this article is to help all of us consumers of video understand what goes into a video’s story, and why we want to skip through some videos while really digging in to others. In this case I’m focused not necessarily on full scale productions, but on the short videos we see on a daily basis. The ones that our friends post, share and send. The ads we get from brands we like. The news clips, the talking head opinions, the funny memes and the life advisers. Why do we like those? Why do we only watch the first half and lose interest?
I’ve broken video storytelling into 5 categories, and they’re a little on the technical side, but they’re things that you can think of next time you watch a video. I guarantee it’ll change the way you see them, and hopefully, it will educate you to know which ones are worth watching.
Storytelling: The hidden secret of social videos
1. Writing to Video
Our brains are bad at multitasking. Maybe we think we’re good but... we really aren’t. Try watching a documentary while listening to music. Or playing video games and listening to your significant other tell you about their day, then stop and think about the last few moments of both activities. You can’t do it. Husbands, you probably played the game and didn’t give your wife attention and now you’re in trouble. Students, you might have gotten distracted while shopping for headphones on your laptop instead of taking notes and now you don’t know when or why the professor started talking about the Peloponnesian Wars.
Video is the same. If the video is showing us one thing while the audio is telling us something different, we’ll either process the audio or the visual, but not both. The phrase “writing to video” comes from news scriptwriting. While writing the script, the narrator or interview should state exactly what the video will show the viewer. If you have an interview of a volunteer firefighter talking about trying to get a hose attached to a hydrant, that had better be what you see, not footage of him fighting a fire. If a teacher talks about helping a child read, you shouldn’t see footage of kids playing outside the school, you should see her reading with the kid. If a business owner is talking about how bad business has been lately, you should see an empty store, not the product they’re selling.
Audio and visual should go hand in hand to tell the story together. Anything else will just confuse us.
2. Natural Sounds VS Music
One of my pet peeves when I watch videos comes when it’s music thrown over shots and you can’t actually hear what’s going on. Music can help with video storytelling, but when it’s the only thing you hear it really takes you away from what is actually happening. Natural sounds take you from the chair you’re sitting in and throw you into the forest or the concert or the carpenter’s shop. They stimulate more than just your visual senses. Ever put on ocean waves or the sound of rain to help you sleep? That stuff knocks me out in like 4 minutes. It immerses me. When sight and sound mesh together, the power of immersion is incredibly powerful.
So, think of those wedding highlight videos that just have a bunch of clips thrown together non-chronologically with no audio other than some acoustic guitar. Or a travel video with a bunch of random shots of places or people doing things with upbeat pop beats. An advertisement with a bunch of shots of the product and people using it. No matter how great the shots are, if all you hear is music with no natural sounds it will be hard to feel attached to the subject matter.
Countless times I’ve pointed my camera microphone at something just to get the audio. Ocean waves, birds chirping in the forest, footsteps, cows mooing, I don’t always care what that particular shot looks like, but if I get some great audio of it, I can edit it in wherever I need to and immerse the viewer into the story of the moment.
On the other hand, music can amplify the story incredibly when used the right way. Music should help add to the feelings of the video, but the video should not rely on it entirely. A perfect blend of natural sounds, music, narration and interviews all work collectively for an immersive emotional story.
When a video is telling a story about an individual, their product or their idea, who better to tell the story than the actual human person who’s behind it? That human element connects us to stories. A human voice helps us to feel empathy, or it can get us riled up and wired. Even if we don’t see the person speaking, we can feel their feelings in their inflection, their sadness, their passion. A video with a human voice is a connection to another person. A spectator at a demo derby can tell us how excited they were to see cars crashing. A cowboy on the ranch expresses how hard it is when the rain don’t fall. And a small business owner can help us understand the struggle of following her passion while raising a child on her own. As we see videos of individuals telling their stories, we relate to the subject. We don’t just watch it, we feel it.
Think back on some videos of a person talking to the camera, like a vlog or a how-to or a product review. Notice how sometimes the person’s position will suddenly change mid-sentence. The shot will be the same, it’s them sitting in a chair, centered in the frame and staring at the camera, but all of a sudden there’s a cut of them in a subtly different body position and they’ve barely missed a beat in what they’re saying. It usually means they’ve spliced something out or have re-recorded half of their thought and edited it in. Essentially, you can see the video’s editing.
That’s called a jump-cut and it can be jarring and somewhat distracting. Imagine if you’re chilling with someone in real life and they’re telling you a story. In one second their hands are up and their leaning forward and then suddenly they teleport into a relaxed leaned back position without stopping their sentence. Would it be hard to focus on the conversation if that happened every 20 seconds?
In another context, think of a camera on a tripod looking at one thing, be it a concert or a basketball game or someone sculpting pottery, for a whole hour. Then imagine someone editing that hour of footage into a two minute clip. It will show the same exact angle but it will have a jarring jump from one shot to the next. As though the band onstage magically becomes a solo singer. Or as though all the players on the defensive basketball team have teleported to the other side of the court and have made a 3-pointer. Or the person making pottery has gone from doughy clay to a fully molded chalice in .01 seconds. These are all jump cuts and, while there are exceptions to this rule, generally they make it just a little harder to enjoy a video.
The alternative to jump cuts are called sequences, which are a variety of different shots of the same thing edited together to show different sides of it. Take the example of the sculptor, an activity that isn’t that visually exciting. If you get a wide establishing shot to show that they’re in a large art studio, get a medium shot to show them pulling clay out of their bucket and zoom in to show the soft clay slamming onto the spinning wheel, that pretty trivial act gets a lot more interesting.
Next time you watch a video, try to notice jump cuts. Once you see one, you’ll probably see more of them. Notice whether it makes the video easier to watch when you have a lot of different angles of the same thing or when it’s the same shot and angle throughout.
5. Story within the story
Stories are made of smaller stories that all work conjunctively to build up the broader story.
Some clips can tell an entire three act story in ten seconds. Remember vines? Those videos could not run longer than six seconds but it was incredible how much storytelling people could fit that amount of time. And they could be so obnoxious but so hilarious.
Sometimes you can tell an entire story in one single shot. Fail videos are great at this. You have the introduction like, say someone riding a motorcycle up a wooden ramp, then the drama of the ramp breaking, the climax of the rider wrecking and the epilogue of him getting up and brushing himself off. Even in a wedding video, you can have a single dramatic clip of the groom standing at the altar, then the bride walks into the frame and down the aisle to greet him. They hug and stand in position as the officiator begins the ceremony. That could have been one shot but an entire short story was just told within the larger story of the entire wedding day.
When we can get an entire story within a few seconds, the longer video becomes a collection of smaller tales that all contribute to the final storyline.
How much time do we have in our busy lives to waste on videos that aren’t good? I don’t have a lot, and odds are you don’t either. So as you watch videos for the next while, think of all these little elements. I hope it’ll heighten your appreciation for video stories well told.