Scaling Your Video Storytelling Without Selling Your Soul

For most of us, video exploded across our personal lives 5 or more years ago. But now it’s our company’s turn with videos being created for our customers, partners, resellers, analysts, investors, our sales teams, other employees and of course every one of our executives. So with this growth in volume how do we maintain quality? How do we continue to produce stories worth watching? It’s just too easy to fall into the trap of converting presentations into animated videos or to simply have someone read a document in front of a camera. These quick and dirty tricks will produce video but not content worth watching and then you’re simply distancing your audience instead of scaling quality video storytelling.

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Our team experienced this video explosion a few years ago with videos being requested by many groups outside Marketing. Sales started producing a lot of videos followed by HR, IT and now every department produces videos for internal and external audiences. Through this evolution, we’ve learned a lot. Here are the three things we’ve learned to focus on as we continue to scale video creation at an alarming pace.

Script

The first thing we worry about isn’t lights, mics, cameras or any other type of equipment or crew. Our very first concern with videos of any type and for any audience is the script. What’s the story? Who wrote it and are they intimately familiar with the audience they’re targeting? Who are the main characters? Is this video about us or about our audience? And will anyone watching care or remember? If we can’t see the point of the video from the script we shouldn’t go any further as it will take us longer to trace our steps back to a better story (script).

Most of our marketing colleagues have no real experience in screenwriting, though they have worked on copy and many have written content for white papers, e-books or blogs. But screenwriting is different. You’re writing for action as it plays out amongst characters your audience cares about. Characters, settings, actions and dialogue need to be balanced in a compelling plot that keeps your audience interested. But what do you do if you don’t know how to write for the screen?

The simple answer is to hire a screenwriter for which you should reach out to your video producer. If, on the other hand, you’re committed to learning this form of expression I recommend a quick review of Aristotle’s Poetics and a thorough reading of Robert McKee’s Story. Neither are light reads but you will most certainly emerge a better screenwriter (and director and editor) by simply consulting these two masterpieces. Personally, I prefer to dig in to data voraciously to understand why the audience will do what I want them to do. From there I back up to what that tells me about the audience and who they really are – with as much detail as possible. Then I build from that primary character or “hero” outwards to “find” the story through relentless iteration. Along the way I’ll pick up characters and the best turns and twists in the plot will seem natural (though unexpected) if my characters are built correctly for my audience.

Storytelling MarketingStorytelling

State of Play or “Flow”

The second thing I worry about with our videos (assuming we have a workable script) is helping the audience achieve a “State of Play”. This is the act of suspending reality long enough to truly immerse yourself in an activity you enjoy. You can see this intense state of focus in children as they lose themselves when playing and it’s the same state of mind athletes enter when delivering record-breaking performances. Most of us have achieved this state when watching our favorite movie in the movie theater and at home watching movies and television. In fact, I see people every day in this state watching a video from their social network on their smartphones.

But the ability to take your audience to a State of Play requires an intimate understanding of who they are and what matters to them, which should be reflected in your script. Beyond that it requires flawless execution, especially in editing. The “flow” of your video, and especially your sound, will account for most of what you need to take your audience where you want them to go. When your flow works the audience can easily lose track of time and connect your content with their own thoughts, ideas and feelings. But when you break this flow they’re instantly reminded of that email they need to reply to. Almost every book I’ve picked up about film or TV editing will lay out the foundations you’ll need for flow: constructing sequences, setting and managing pace and tone, and more deliberate choices like contrast, juxtaposition, etc. Take these editing fundamentals and work them back in to your script to bring your characters and plot to life.

Team

But the most important thing I worry about with every video project we manage is the larger team working with us. Why do they want to make this video? Have they done this before? Who will lose their job if this is an utter failure? Over the years I’ve found there are certain personas that can kill the potential of our videos quickly and easily. What’s worse is most of these people aren’t aware of the damage they’re doing to the content and ultimately to our audience.

The Cheerleader – This person believes every idea is great and simply can’t say “No” to anyone. In fact, this persona cringes at conflict which directly inhibits decisiveness. Conflict is critical to the creative process and should be encouraged in a respectful, constructive manner to create great video. Fear the Cheerleader, for you will lose a lot of time and most of your “edge” when you have one working on your video.

The Yes Man – This persona is often unidentified until someone challenges the most senior person on your video project. Then the Yes Men come forth, often in groups to protect whoever the most senior person on the project is. Ironically, this person rarely needs protecting, which is why they got to where they are in their career. I’ve seen many strong executives lose their ability to connect with an audience because of the entourage around them that’s constantly trying to keep them and their image safe.

The Script Clinger – This is the subject-matter expert or executive who simply can’t say anything on-camera unless it’s written down in a script. The problem you’ll have with this person is twofold: (1) Visually, it looks like they’re reading or recalling a script from memory and (2) They lack passion in their voice when they read through their script. While you can cut away and use B-roll to your hearts delight for the first problem there isn’t a real solution for the second. Remember, flow is broken most easily by poor script and poor sound (and this is both) so you’re essentially giving your audience ample opportunity to tune out by enabling Script Clingers. Find the passion in the story for your Script Clinger and help them detach so they can make it their own.

We are constantly looking out for these personas in our video projects as we collaborate with a very large group of colleagues and external experts spread across the world. To counter these threats we’ve built a team of video “journalists” who obsess over better storytelling to build a constant connection with our audience. We do this for every topic and for any type or length of video.

Since most of what we produce is non-fiction and highly technical in nature we are constantly seeking ways to balance information with inspiration and entertainment. If you have any ideas, I welcome you to share them with us via this post or with me directly at sokothar@cisco.com.


Watch more keynotes from Space Camp: The Video Marketing Summit here!

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