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.

To make a remarkable online video, break the rules!

I love rules! Following them can keep you productive, appreciated and safe. But sometimes you want to go beyond being “productive,” and create something that flat-out expresses who you are, even if other people don’t appreciate your efforts and you cross the yellow line of safety. Sometimes you need to break the rules. That’s unusual in the jittery corporate world, so it’s worth casting our eye on a rare example of this wild breed.

To do so we’ll cross the ocean and travel to the hills near Lyon, France. Only a click away, of course.  Today, we’re putting a video from Artprice under the Seeing Your Story microscope to find out how it works. It shouldn’t work, because it stomps several sacred rules of online video-making all to hell. But it does work–at least it did for my wife and me. We watched it through to the end, all 23 minutes and 46 seconds of it.

I like putting images in these posts, to tempt your eye. So here’s Artprice’s video player. But I’m not going to make it work–yet–because I want you to finish reading before you watch the video. (Psssst, the real video player is near the bottom of this post.)

Image of Artprice's video player

Artprice bills itself as “the world leader in art price information,” with millions of works of art, and much more, listed in their monster database. Assuming you’re interested in art and are a potential customer, how should they beguile you into signing up, at least for a free trial?  With a short, punchy video, right? In this case, wrong.

Before you look at their video, here’s a list of some rules and how they broke them:

  • RULE 1: Keep it short. This video introduction is not 2 minutes long, as it “should” be. As I mentioned, it’s almost 24 minutes long!
  • RULE 2: Hit the viewers right off the starting block.  Vive la France! This video begins with lyrical shots and minor-key music.  The first human voice doesn’t pop in for fully 51 seconds. And even then it’s as nebulous as only a French voiceover can be: “The story of Artprice is above all a human adventure, an extraordinary artistic adventure.” Wow!
  • RULE 3: Keep it simple. Are you kidding? This is from the land of Descartes, Sartre and Foucault.
  • RULE 4: Avoid long interview shots. And if you must have long interview bites, cover them with lively shots of what they’re talking about. Not here, though. Yes, some shots are covered, but other talking heads keep on yakking.
  • RULE 5: If you’re marketing something, have a call to action. Especially at the end of your video.  Artprice, in its contrarian way, concludes its show with a bite from the boss: “I believe we are at the beginning of an extraordinary story that will stretch right across the 21st century.” This is followed by self-conscious video snapshots of staffers. “So who needs a call to action?” they seem to be saying.

And yet, Artprice is un grand success, with over a half million daily page views.  It’s impossible to say how much of the traffic is due to the video, but I believe this rule-busting production has some positive clout. Please watch as much of the video as you’d like, then read on and see if you agree with my conclusions. When you click on the player, it will open their webpage in a new window.

Image of Artprice video player, to be clicked on

Here’s why I think the video works, in spite of breaking so many rules. Do you agree with me? Do you feel differently?

  • The Artprice video recognizes its community and plays to them. Since visitors to their website are interested in art, they’re surely used to strolling through museums and galleries. They’re more interested in experiencing works of art/movies/videos than getting through them as quickly as possible.
  • All the cues in the video reach out to this audience. The setting nails this from the opening shots. The building that is the HQ of Artprice is itself a work of art–a controversial work of art, for that matter. It’s a staggeringly original building, and it establishes the artistic authority of Artprice.
  • Every sound bite reinforces Artprice’s seriousness and credibility–and there are lots of lengthy bites.
  • All the staffers interviewed look like characters in a French movie. Depending on your POV on French cinema, this is either charming or pretentious, but what they have to say is pretty impressive: Artprice has compiled over 100 terabytes of information, including dope on more than 115 million works of art, etc., etc.
  • The music and the elegant dolly shots make the whole production feel more like a feature film than a corporate video. I’d say this is a plus for an art-loving crowd.

Camera lens, with photographer in backgroundAt this point you probably think I’m going to recommend you break the rules when you make your next online video. But I won’t–just the opposite. I think you should follow the 5 rules near the top of this post, and you’ll have a better chance of crafting a successful video. However, if you have a lot of self-confidence and some skill to back it up, and you have a vision that refuses to be bound by the rulebook, by all means go for it. Contrary to the cliché, rules aren’t meant to be broken, but in your case, maybe they are. Good luck!

P.S. When you make your next rule-obeying or rule-breaking online video, let me know about it. Thanks!

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.

4 1/2 tips for videos on your homepage

A gaggle of researchers are telling us that online video is a powerful magnet–it makes people stick around websites longer. And it’s like rocket fuel for what marketers call conversion rates–having people who visit your site do what you want them to do. As for SEO, Forrester Research found that video can multiply your chances of appearing on the first-page of Google results by 50 times!  I won’t bore you with the impressive stats I’ve collected; instead, I’ll just ask you to meditate–and then act–on the 4 1/2 tips I’m about to lay before you.

Tip #1: Just do it … go ahead and put some video on your homepage. While preparing this post by scoping out dozens of websites, I was shocked to realize how few use video, especially right up front on their homepages. Since video is demonstrably so potent, so influential, why don’t more companies and organizations deploy it? Especially folks that have a visual story to tell. A couple of days ago, I was nosing around TripAdvisor. Though I’ve used the site many times, I didn’t remember seeing any videos. And what’s more visual than travel?! It turns out that TripAdvisor does have videos–lots of them–but the ones I unearthed were nowhere near the homepage, and they showed up in a teeny player.

What worked much better for me was the homepage of Stonyfield–you know, the yogurt people. The first thing you see is a player with the familiar “Play” triangle and the single word “Welcome.” When you click on the picture, their homepage will open in a separate window. Watch a bit of their video, then come back and read on.

The video itself may be nothing to text home about: it consists of pretty still pix with message titles and a predictably organic-sounding acoustic guitar track. But it does convey their brand. What shows that Stonyfield really understands the persuasiveness of video is that you can connect to more than a dozen “YoTube” (groan) videos right from the homepage. Let’s give Stonyfield an “A” for this savvy … and move on to the next tip.

Tip #2: Know your audience and what they want. By now, it’s almost a marketing cliché that your customers (or other people you’re trying to reach) don’t care about you and what you have to offer. They care about how you’re going to solve their problems or satisfy their needs. Do you know who your audience is and why they’ve sought out your website? Here’s an example of a homepage video that demonstrates understanding the audience and what they’re looking for. You’ll need to watch about 45 seconds of it to get their premise.

[vimeo clip_id=”4167960″ width=”400″ height=”300″]

This video is clickable from the homepage of Design Continuum. They’re a sophisticated “innovation and design consultancy,” so their potential clients are apt to be connoisseurs of good design. The storyline and graphic approach of this video are subtle and complex. They don’t hit you in the face. Another website with this sort of video might drive would-be clients away, but I’ll wager that Continuum’s enlightened clients are impressed. The company gets high marks for knowing their audience and playing to them.

Tip #3: Use a sharp hook to catch your site visitor. OK, you know your audience. Now what are you gonna do to catch and hold them? I suggest you use a sharp hook–find some images, words, music that will go straight to their amygdala, a part of the brain that deals with strong emotions. Here’s Apple, that master of marketing magic, trotting out the iPhone 4 on their homepage. Watch the first 20 seconds or so:

What a well-honed hook! The first words you hear are, “iPhone 4 is so much more than just another new product. I mean, this will have a lasting impact on the way we actually connect with each other.” What could stimulate the salivary glands of an Apple early adopter more than this pitch, coupled with the techno-porn shots? The guy’s tee shirt and stubble cut down the appearance of slickness (which makes this even slicker). And he’s a Senior Vice President of Design at Apple, so you know he’s cooler than you are. Admit it, you want an iPhone 4, at least if you’re part of the company’s demographic.

Before you give up and slink away, mumbling that you can’t duplicate Apple’s core (groan) appeal, let me say that none of this requires Apple’s marketing muscle. You can achieve Panavision results on a Flip budget. Just use your imagination … and take the time to find a great hook for your demographic.

Tip #4: Production values are important. That said, you don’t need the best production values, just ones appropriate to your company or organization. Look at a bit of this video, which visitors can click to from Greenpeace’s homepage:

Nobody would give the videography a prize: the shooting style is just off-the-cuff casual. But there’s enough light on people’s faces, and you can hear every word they say. Greenpeace’s only goal here is to get viewers to buy their “Energy [R]evolution” message, and that comes across loud and clear.

It’s all about production values that are appropriate to what you’re trying to communicate. You could even upload raw video from your cellphone to YouTube, embed it on your homepage, and call it a day. That may be perfect for you if you’re a teenager hawking your lawn-mowing service and we can see you doing wheelies on your John Deere. Maybe not perfect if you’re a medical center promoting its liver transplantation unit.  As usual, to do it right doesn’t always cost more money, but it likely will take more time.

Tip 4 1/2: Jot down your ideas right now. I’m only calling it half a tip because it’s not so much a tip as a piece of advice: You’re thinking about video on your homepage at this very moment, so why not take a few minutes to jot down your basic ideas for a video that will greet your visitors? To make it easy, I’ve uploaded a very basic 1-page form you can print and fill out for yourself. Its simplicity will encourage you to think of a simple video structure, which is usually best. It should help you to see your story. Once you’ve filled out this form, you can work out the details of making a homepage video that’s just right for you. Good luck! Now click here for the form … and please let me know if it works for you.

I’m looking forward to your comments.

Scripts are power tools for making online videos!

Today’s post is not about how to make a great video. It’s about how to make a quickie video better–in this case, one I put together in just two hours. But I think the tips I’ll offer will apply to many of your creations.

With Dupuytren's contracture, the pinkie is bent and can't straighten.Last March, I glanced at a headline in The New York Times–Bringing Movement Back to Clenched Hands–and realized it was about people like me. Dupuytren’s contracture had caused my pinkie to bend–I couldn’t straighten it out. The article touted a drug treatment, but I felt it gave short shrift to a very effective treatment I’d had.

Since you can see the effects of Dupuytren’s, I thought making a video would be a perfect way to comment on what was missing from the article. But it was a Tuesday morning and I didn’t want to cut into my work week by spending a lot of time  making a masterpiece. The situation called for a quickie video.

What’s the first thing you would have done under the circumstances? What tool would you have reached for? Your camera? A microphone to record your evanescent thoughts?

I did what this video cowboy usually does: I pulled my trusty script template out of its holster … duplicated it … and began writing. (And pardner, if you stick around and read on, I’ll upload a template just for you.)

Five or ten minutes later, I had a finished script. Was it as good as Casablanca? Here’s the opening narration from that classic:

Opening narration from the film "Casablanca"

And here’s the opening narration from my blockbuster:

Opening narration for the Dupuytren's contracture video

OK, so Casablanca wins. The point is not how great my prose was. It was serviceable, which was the mandate. So why do I call the script a “power tool”? Because as I was writing, it gave me the power to see my story in advance of shooting. The script told me what steps I would need to take before uploading the finished piece. After writing the narration and checking that it said what I wanted to say, I quickly filled in the video column. I didn’t need to fill in the scene number column for such a simple project.

The rest of the process was simply following the instructions the script dictated. If you want to see the completed script in all its glory, click here.

This blog is not about the technical side of video-making, so all I’ll say on that account is that I recorded a few standard-def shots with my Canon HV30 and edited in Final Cut Express. I imported some still pictures and a couple of screen shots of the newspaper article into FCE, then added slow moves (mistakenly called the “Ken Burns effect”).

Here’s the finished product–all one minute and twenty-one seconds of it:

It took about two hours to make, start to finish. It hasn’t been viewed as many times as Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” but as of this writing it’s had more than 800 views. And maybe it’s helped some people get better treatment for their Dupuytren’s contracture. That’s all I wanted to accomplish with this video, and starting with a script helped me do it easily.

If you’d like to download my tried-and-true script template to use on your own videos, right-click here. One of the options that pop up should allow you to download the file.

As usual, your comments are a power tool for this blog!

“Inbound Marketing” blues? Cure them with a “remarkable” video.

My brain is spattered with marketing goo! In the hope of raising the visibility of this newly-launched blog, I’ve been reading Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs. The authors, Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, are the marketing mavens behind HubSpot. In their book they offer a thousand tips, which have hit my central nervous system like a fusillade of paintballs. In today’s episode of Seeing Your Story, I’ll take the essence of what they say and apply it to a few examples of online video.

Halligan and Shah are big on “remarkable”–so big they italicize the “remark” part. They apply the adjective (borrowed from Seth Godin) to any kind of content on your website, but in terms of video, “The key to success … is to provide remarkable content that people will want to watch and share.” In other words, make sure there’s something striking, memorable, noteworthy, extraordinary, amazing in your videos. The authors cite two reasons for this: 1) there are so many websites competing for attention on the Internet and 2) today, truly remarkable content can spread faster than a wildfire.

It’s a good principle. When you’re working on “seeing your story” before you start shooting a video, try to find something remarkable that will make your project stand out from the crowd. Now, this rule doesn’t apply to every video you create; sometimes you’re just crafting a video explaining a feature of the software your company makes. You’re not trying to grab the world by its eyeballs. But most of the time, go for something that stands out.

Let’s put a few online videos to the “remarkable” test. First, do Halligan and Shah practice what they preach? Let’s sidle over to their website.  Though the HubSpot homepage doesn’t sport a video player, they do post videos on their blog. Why don’t you watch just a bit of yesterday’s premiere, then press “pause” and we’ll talk about it.

I’d call that remarkable, wouldn’t you? There’s nothing new about uploading a parody music video (yawn). But what strikes me about this one is its just-right tone. Their Ke$ha wannabe clearly doesn’t take herself too seriously–she’s having a lot of fun, and that’s infectious. The production values are just OK (the exec sitting at his desk is way too dark, for example), which is appropriate for a blog post video. And the spot-on lyrics drive home a message about HubSpot. Who could ask for more? (If you want to see the video in context, including lyrics, click here to go to their blog.)

The freshness of this parody makes me think about a video that’s remarkable for the wrong reasons. A blog–even one created by a big corporation–should be more spontaneous, less tightly controlled by lawyers and PR folks, than other corporate communications. Let’s take a look at General Motors’ notion of a blog-worthy video. Again, press “pause” when you’ve seen enough.

Talk about spontaneous! GM’s Chairman and CEO strides through a perfectly lit location in a buttoned-up suit, mouthing copy about how GM repaid its government loan ahead of schedule. The establishing shot has 6 or 7 identically-clad extras performing choreographed moves. So, what’s remarkable is how loudly this video screams, “I’m inauthentic.” If you want to see just how inauthentic, check out this New York Times story on “Repaying Taxpayers With Their Own Cash.” And if you want to see the GM video on its blog page, click here.)

Before you buy a car, you should do some comparison shopping, so lets motor over to Ford. Sure enough, they have a YouTube video right on their home page. Let’s take it for a remarkable test drive.

The first thing that’s remarkable is how different Ford’s contribution to cinematic history is from GM’s. The star of the two-minute epic “FordFiesta vs. Lamborghini” is Brittani Taylor. Yes, she’s an actress, but this production doesn’t appear to be directed with a clenched fist. In fact, it’s almost as casual looking as a home video. Of course Ford, being a major league car company, surely has several puppeteers pulling strings. Yet it works: we believe Brittani means it when she says, “Yeah, you are so fun to drive!” Contrast the parking lot setting with GM’s pristine set. Contrast the editing styles. And they even poke fun at themselves by showing the Fiesta getting clobbered by the Lamborghini in the straightaway. Finally, does the difference in screen presence between Brittani Taylor and Ed Whitacre make you feel differently about the cars they’re hawking?

Thanks, Brian and Dharmesh, for your insights. We can “see the story” in a new way when we look for what’s remarkable (good or bad) in an online video.

As usual, your comments and suggestions are most welcome.

Telling a story about … and then with … VisibleGains

A taste of my own bittersweet medicine! In writing this post, I had to leave my comfort zone and learn something new about seeing my own story. Here’s the plot …

Two or three months ago, I wanted to talk with Cliff Pollan about the pros and cons of starting a blog. He’s the CEO & Co-Founder of VisibleGains, and I’ve worked with him and respect his business savvy. Well, Cliff’s been crazy-busy, and he had to keep postponing our meeting.

By the time we got together last week, I had just launched Seeing Your Story, so I wasn’t gonna talk with him about why not to start blogging! I had to re-think the purpose of our meeting, and that turned out to be a big blessing: VisibleGains is in the business of helping marketers use interactive video, which means that Cliff would have a lot to say about video storytelling in a results-oriented business context.

In keeping with Story Seer principle #471 (“Plan as much as you need to.”), I emailed Cliff some questions, so he could think about them in advance, and I made sure I had a tape (yes, tape is still an excellent medium) for my video camera. I decided not to take lights, because Cliff didn’t have enough time for me to set them up; you’ll notice that his eyes are a bit in shadow … but hey, this is a blog, not a Hollywood epic.

In just 13 minutes of recording, Cliff made a bunch of points I think you’ll find useful. As for me, I learned something valuable about seeing my own story, because Cliff invited me to use the highly evolved VisibleGains player to show whatever interview bites I chose.  Here’s what the player looks like on standby. Don’t press the Play button just yet … continue reading below the player …

Before Cliff’s invitation, I had been planning to select a few bites from his interview and weave them throughout this post. Each bite would have its own YouTube window, and I would write a few lines to guide you from clip to clip. But the nature of the VisibleGains player encouraged me to change my style of storytelling radically. As you’ll see when you do press “Play,” I found it best to structure Cliff’s interview as one introductory bite. At the end of this lone bite I inserted a question, so you the viewer get to decide what you want to see next. This makes you more of an active participant, because you have to think about what you personally want to gain from Cliff’s expertise.

Not only that, there are all sorts of behind-the-scenes metrics attached to the player, so I’ll get to see which of Cliff’s micro-essays were watched by more of you, etc., etc.  You can imagine how marketers love this kind of stuff!

Now go ahead and press “Play” … and observe your own reactions to this form of storytelling.

Did you watch everything? Did you watch some of Cliff’s answers more than once, so you absorbed everything he said? I had to let go of controlling how you watched, so it’s been a new way for me to see my story … because it isn’t quite my story anymore.

And what do you think about Cliff’s suggestions for telling stories with video? I believe they’re pearls of wisdom–that’s why I selected this handful to pass on to you. They’re not just for corporate video types; if you’re planning to create videos for a not-for-profit group or just for your family and friends, the principles are the same.

I look forward to your comments.