It’s gotta sound like a story. Audio is the key to your online video.

When we were kids, “Once upon a time …” cued us to settle down for a nice story. With online video, it isn’t that simple. People don’t settle down; they stay poised to click the Stop button if you don’t deliver the goods … and fast. Audio is the quickest way to grab them.

Though they’re called “videos,” a well-conceived audio track is nearly always more important than the images. Especially if you’re trying to make a point to your audience. We’re conceptual critters, and the words you hear convey those concepts. Images are more impressionistic.

So let’s settle down–take your hand off that mouse!–and talk about sound for a couple of minutes. Not technical stuff, like the inverse square law, but storytelling stuff.

Let’s start with an example. Here’s a video with no words. Watch a bit of it, then read on …

There’s something compelling about this little show, because the guy is obviously in great shape and pulls off some pretty amazing feats barefoot–ouch! In terms of persuasion, though, I don’t know what to do with it. I need to read the accompanying text to find out that I’m seeing the results of the Natural Movement Coaching System®, and maybe I should get trained and go to Corsica and jump from rock to rock–still ouch! Video alone seldom makes coherent arguments.

Sure, you should think of eyeball-searing images when you script and shoot your next online video. But first, think of the audio. If the verbal script (narration and sound bites) joggles the mind, the heart, the soul, you’ve got something. But to do this, the verbal track usually must be coherent.

Yes, coherent. To demo this, I just made a quickie experimental video. I excerpted 30 seconds from a TED talk. The audio was clearly recorded and made sense. Then I laid totally unrelated video over the sound. If you can follow what the speaker is saying, then that argues for the primacy of sound over video. I think your brain will choose to follow the audio. Try it:

Could you follow what the speaker was saying? Sure you could. By the way, the TED talker is Julian Treasure, an expert in sound. He studies this medium and advises businesses on how best to use it. At the end of this post, I’ll link to the full 6-minute talk. It’s totally relevant … and you’ll like it.

Since audio trumps video, when you “see your story” before telling it, make sure you have the elements to craft a powerful story even without pictures. Embrace your script, even if it’s not a written script.

Of course, sound, when it’s not done right, gets in the way of good storytelling. This is a clear and present danger in the era of flip cams, most of which only have built-in mikes. If the camera is far away, so is the microphone. (The famous exception is the Kodak Zi8, which has a mike input.) Noisy environments are deadly when you can’t put a mike close to your subject. Here’s an example from the innovative travel advice site with a sexist name Man on the Go:

Why didn’t Robin Mallery–who surely was free to move around the airport–bother to find a less noisy spot to deliver her truly worthwhile spiel? (For that matter, why didn’t she plunk herself down where there was more light on her face than on the background?) I’m not trying to make a technical point here. I’m saying that you won’t be able to tell a good story if your listeners can’t hear the words effortlessly.

That’s enough of my thoughts for today. I’ll say goodbye and leave you in the very competent hands of Julian Treasure. As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

Senators are marketers, too! A tale of two online videos.

I surfed a wave of July 4 patriotism over to my two senators’ websites. I wanted to see how savvy they are about presenting their stories with videos. Legislators are constantly pitching us–each bill is like a startup enterprise, which will succeed or fail in the marketplace. And startups need stories to move them forward. An Independence Day post by Audrey Watters asks: Does Your Startup Have a Good Story? Do my senators’ proposals have good stories? Let’s find out.

Small portrait of Senator John Kerry
Senator John Kerry
Portrait of Senator Scott Brown
Senator Scott Brown

Massachusetts is where I pahk my cah, so my senators (in order of seniority) are John Kerry and Scott Brown. In this Seeing Your Story video dissection, I’ll try to avoid politics and focus entirely on the storytelling aspects of their videos.

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Following protocol–after all, the guy has been in the Senate since 1985–let’s look at Senator Kerry’s homepage first. Today, there’s just one video in evidence. (I like it when webpages show the “Play” triangle smack in the middle of images, so you know they’re videos. Videos are usually more exciting than still pix, don’t you think?) Feel free to watch the video through, or just watch a bit before reading on.

Senator John Kerry speaking without expressionOops! … I may have to re-think my notion about videos being more exciting than still pictures. We’re seeing the senator right after a caucus on energy issues, and he even says how exciting the meeting was: “This was one of the most motivating, energized and even inspirational caucuses that I’ve been part of since I’ve been here in the Senate for 26 years.”  But he’s absolutely expressionless. So which is the real story, the verbal tale of inspiration or the visual one of dullness?

For too long, given a total length of just 1:35, the senator speaks in generalities we’ve heard a thousand times: “moving forward,” “creating millions of jobs for America,” “reducing our dependency on foreign oil.” Only after more than a half minute (plenty of time to hit the Stop button) does he offer something specific: The proposed legislation is “based on the principle that the polluter pays for the pollution that they create.” And Kerry ends with words that, from the larynx of a gifted orator, could inspire: This legislation would “help Americans to be able to grab ahold of the future, and not leave it to China and India, Brazil, other countries that are moving much faster than we are.”  But again, there’s no expression … reminding us of Storytelling Principle #76: Your story is more than your words. It’s also the expression on your face and the tone of your voice.

If this video were just one among a dozen on Senator Kerry’s homepage, its faults might be acceptable. After all, he’s delivering information on an important topic. But it’s not. It’s a solo act.

Clicking over to Senator Brown’s site, the first thing to hit me visually is that the senator’s portrait is set over a colorful shot of Fenway Park during a night game. Go Sox! Right below is a video headlined “Brown Offers Bill To Break Logjam On Funding For State Programs Without Raising Taxes Or Increasing National Debt.” Really? He’ll fund programs without raising taxes or raising the debt? Let’s see how …

Senator Brown’s proposal “uses unspent stimulus funds and cuts wasteful and unnecessary spending in other areas.” He speaks of $37 billion in stimulus money “just sitting in a Washington, D.C., slush fund.” Of course you can argue that that $37 billion would, if spent, increase the national debt. Or not. Those are debatable political contentions. Here we’re more interested in storytelling contentions.

Senator Brown smiling, with flags visibleThe main difference between the two senators’ video offerings is that Brown and his handlers know how to tell a story that goes beyond the words. He changes his expression, alters his pacing, moves his hands–all of which give an impression of spontaneity and directness. You could say that the flags behind him and on his lapel, along with the red tie and the tony furniture, are Washington standup clichés. But they work. The words, expression and images make him seem … well … senatorial. Which is all they need to do, considering that Scott Brown was just a state senator until less than half a year ago.

The numbers say something, too. Maybe they speak louder than anything else. When I looked this morning, Senator Brown’s video had been viewed 2,586 times since June 28. Senator Kerry’s, which has been up longer, had been viewed a mere 46 times!

Diary of a simple online video

[Sunday, June 20] Tonight, instead of commenting on videos that already exist online, I’m asking you to ride with me as I make a new video. It’ll be a simple story–I’m guessing under two minutes long. As usual, I’m not going to talk much about technical aspects. The focus here is on seeing the story: envisioning a tale to tell that will accomplish my goal, then taking the steps necessary to turn that vision into a reality. OK, fasten your seat belt … let’s go!

A runner on the trail in Cold Spring Park, NewtonWell, that’s a bit over the top. For this saga you won’t need a seat belt, because it’s a jog around the park–literally. A bit o’ background: When my wife and I moved here, to Newton, MA, years ago, one of the things I loved about the neighborhood was a park with a beautiful mile-and-a-half trail around it. It was used and appreciated by neighbors and track teams alike. But years passed and budgets shrank, and by now the trail has become a minefield of protruding stones and roots. When I told our new mayor about the decay of this wonderful resource, he had a city worker contact me. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to walk around the park with arborist Marc Welch, and I’ll take my trusty Canon HV30 along. I’m hoping that a video will help persuade city officials to open the municipal purse for this worthy project.

Ha! The above description already contains Step 1 and Step 2 of seeing my story: I know the audience (city officials) and the purpose (persuade them to revive a deteriorating resource). Knowing those two things should make planning the production much easier. (Rule 86: Even simple “throwaway” videos can use planning.)

This time I won’t script anything in advance (though it’s usually a good idea). I’ll just jot down a few bullet points of what I want to capture tomorrow morning:

  • Beauty shots of park and trail (a great resource for residents)
  • Horror shots of trail deterioration
  • Standups (by Marc or me) establishing the trail, its beauty and its destruction. Include standup where I tripped and required 7 stitches in my chin (!)
  • Brief POS (person-on-the-street) interviews about trail with people we run into

There, I’ve put those bullet points on an index card I’ll take with me. I think that’s all the planning I need. The camera battery is charged. Good-night!

The only shooting script was this index card.[Tuesday, June 22] Yesterday, I shot the video–with Marc’s help–and now the editing is done. Since this blog is about “seeing stories,”  not about the techniques of making videos, I won’t go into the process of shooting and editing. The point I want to make is that a few notes jotted on an index card were all the shooting script I needed for this particular video. I underlined those last words because an overarching point is that most of the time, the more you can write down in advance of your shoot, the better. I described that process a couple of posts ago, in Scripts are power tools for making online videos!

Now it’s time to judge for yourself if my approach to seeing my story was a good one for this simple video. Press the “Play” triangle and you’ll see the finished video. All one minute and ten glorious seconds of it. You’ll notice that not everything on the index card made it into the finished video.

Your comments on what works–and what doesn’t–in this video will be much appreciated by the management. Also, if you want to ask a technical question, about what mike I used on the HV30 or my approach to finishing in Final Cut Express or whatever … sure, go ahead and ask.

Launching my “Seeing Your Story” blog. Champagne, please!

If you make videos to be seen online, “Seeing Your Story” is meant for you. My aim is to help you make better videos by seeing the story you want to tell before you pick up your camera. The pros know that the most important part of filmmaking often takes place before you ever push the red “Record” button.

“Seeing Your Story” is for people who want to increase their company’s profits … or promote their worthy charitable cause … or make a video of their kid’s first birthday that’ll bust the YouTube charts.

Today, anybody with a camera can upload videos to YouTube in a couple of minutes. In fact, YouTube offers a “Record from webcam” option. Check out this 14-second video I made without getting up from my chair:

The only problem is, it’s a pretty crummy video. Aside from low-rent production values, there’s no story. It didn’t even make a point, because I’d already written that YouTube has a “Record from webcam” option.

Not all online videos are created equal. Some are brilliant, some dull but informative, some truly yawn-worthy. What makes the difference? Sometimes it’s dumb luck: Your camera was running when your nephew tripped and dove face-first into the birthday cake. But more often it’s a mixture of talent and good practices. I probably can’t give you talent, but I can show you some good practices.

Making entertaining videos can be an awful lot of fun, but it can take work, thought, planning! Here’s a fragment of the script for a Discovery Channel program I produced:

Fragment of a script about building a giant mining excavator

This was for the “tease” of a show about giant mining excavators. Even for our experienced team, it took a lot of time to craft about 45 seconds of copy–because we were doing everything we could to grab an audience and keep it glued to Discovery Channel. It meant we had to see this mini-story (of a bunch of guys trying to beat the odds and save the mine) in our minds and then bring it to life. Here’s the result:

UPDATE 5/20: Cliff Pollan, CEO of VisibleGains, told me that the above description of how we created the tease was “a turnoff.” He explained that if an “experienced team” has to work hard just to craft 45 seconds of copy, what chance do non-professionals have to create good stories? Well, making most online videos isn’t nearly as demanding as fine-tuning a tease for a cable network show. I believe non-professionals can make terrific online videos. I want to be clear that this blog is meant to encourage you to go for it!

In writing this blog, I’m thinking of myself as a “story seer.” You can become a story seer, too. I intend to keep posting insights and tips gathered over many years in TV and corporate video. Soon, it’ll become second nature for you to incorporate what you’ve learned–from this blog, from other reading, from watching lots of videos and thinking about what makes them soar or crash–into your own videos.

What this blog is not: “Seeing Your Story” is not about the technology of making online videos, except as it contributes to good storytelling. I won’t be scribbling how-to’s about using your new camera or editing program. Others are doing a great job explaining the world of technology. For starters, there’s Steve Garfield’s excellent book called Get Seen, which you can order through his website. You can even learn a lot by following him on Twitter.

“Seeing Your Story” is about good visual storytelling–making videos that your intended audience will be dying to watch.

A couple of acknowledgements as we launch:

  • to David Meerman Scott, marketing guru for the Internet age. He told me there’s a need for “Seeing Your Story” (though he adds that people don’t yet know there’s a need!). Check out his blog, where he also lists books he’s written.
  • to Steve Garfield (see above), whose advice and encouragement helped shape this blog.
  • to Cliff Pollan, Founder, President and CEO of VisibleGains, a company that makes it easy to create interactive video for marketing. Working with Cliff and his great staff made me rethink my assumptions about the ingredients for a watchable video.
  • to Judy Levin, my delightful wife. Psychologist,  potter and interlocutor extraordinaire. You can close this browser window and be done with me; she can’t.

Your questions and your ideas for future “Seeing Your Story” posts are most welcome. Contact me at seeingyourstory [at] gmail [dot] com.