Aristotle & your online video

Yesterday, I watched a video online that reminded me of Aristotle. No, not the guy with the big yacht who put the “O” in “Jackie O.” The other guy, who spouted tons of wisdom and even taught Alexander the Great a trick or two. This Athenian social media maven came up with the phrase that’s usually rendered in English as “Well begun is half done.”

His message: Don’t begin your online video with stuff that’s gonna drive away the very people you’re trying to reach in the first few seconds!

Got it? Now, here’s the “tease” of the video I watched yesterday, the opening 15 seconds of a two-minute piece by the very worthy organization Save the Children. Be forewarned–some images are hard to take …

The heavy artillery of the first shot doesn’t get to me, but the flies on the baby’s face are heartbreaking. Human psychology (mine at least) being what it is, a feeling of disgust at the flies trumps empathy for the child. If you came across this video on your own, would you continue watching?

Lottery of Life "wheel of fortunes"It’s a shame, because the later parts of the video are far from a turnoff. They introduce a very cool–very imaginative and very worthwhile–Save the Children project called The Lottery of Life.

You can “play” the Lottery of Life on its own website. You spin a wheel of fortune to get a chance to start your life over in a location chosen by chance. For me, the wheel stopped in India, and I learned I would have a 39% chance of growing up illiterate … that there’s a lot of child labor … and a huge number of child marriages. (Glad I was born in Manhattan!)

The Lottery of Life is social networked up to its eyeballs, because Save the Children wants to spread the world about improving the lot of kids around the world.

My point today is not about the planet’s children, who are, of course, way more important than your videos and mine. It’s simply that we should all pay attention to Aristotle and jump start our videos with scenes that’ll attract folks, not repel them. ‘Nuff said about that. Now you can watch the whole two-minute video below, or simply pop over to The Lottery of Life and spin the wheel!

Your comments, as always, are welcome!

Oh no! … more online video rule-breaking!

I love playing by the rules–they’re so comforting. Over the years I’ve spent mucking about in the swamps of TV and video, I’ve learned a few. And I know they work. But sometimes I find a video that flouts my hard-won rules yet still does what it ought to do. Back in June I wrote about one: To make a remarkable online video, break the rules!

But that was French cinéma, so it doesn’t really count.

About 10 days ago I tripped over another rule-breaker, this one a strictly domestic product. From HubSpot, the emperors of inbound marketing. Playing by the rules, the video should have been short–ideally under two minutes–and it should have conveyed a clearly stated message or two.

No such thing.

This music video comes in at a shade over 4 minutes–nearly certain death in a world where viewers start abandoning videos within mere seconds. (You must read “Understanding Viewer Abandonment Trends in Short-Form Online Video Content.”)

And there’s no analyzable point to the video. It just shows a few dozen HubSpot staffers having some fun. Hey, why don’t you watch a bit of it … and then read on …

Why do I think this is an excellent corporate online video? Because, instead of trumpeting a predictable HubSpot message, like “3,000+ businesses use our inbound marketing software to grow traffic, leads and sales,” it skips over the intellectual, informational level altogether. The lyrics aren’t relevant; in fact, you can get what this video is about by–surprise!–muting the sound altogether. Then you can see the energy and enthusiasm of these HubSpotters all the more clearly. Without the distraction of sound, you can look at their very alive faces. These aren’t corporate drones, no doubt about it.

And that gets to you emotionally.

The result is that you have a good feeling about HubSpot. You start to believe that if you handed them a few wrinkled green ones and asked them to lower your cost per lead or increase your organic traffic, they’d do right by you. You assume they would care about you they way they care about their chair dance.

Can I advise you how to make a video like this? Of course not. Because I’d be giving you rules … and rules are the polar opposite of what we’re talking about.

Get naked in your online videos!

Before you wonder: what is this, an episode of Bloggers Gone Wild? let me say that by “naked” I don’t mean ripping off your Calvins. I mean revealing yourself online, not covering up who you really are. If I’m going to spend my semi-precious time on your website, show me your stuff, in sharp focus and without wasteful adornment.

Dan Schawbel with MC Hammer
Dan Schawbel with MC Hammer

I thought about this principle while visiting the website of marketing meteor Dan Schawbel. Even his URL is as naked and plain as can be: That’s appropriate, because he’s the “personal branding guru” who wants to brand and market you as an individual. (Of course, he’ll be thrilled to market your company, too.) Mainly, he’s marketing himself, using his own name as the brand.

On Dan’s homepage, in keeping with today’s proposition that naked is good, there’s not a frill in sight. If you called it homely, you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s effective, and that’s what counts.

The homepage overflows with success signifiers, from a blurb by über bizwhiz Tom Peters to the brag stat of having over one million results for his name in Google. (I just checked and got “about 65,800 results” for “Dan Schawbel,” but we’re talking effectiveness, not persnickety stuff like accuracy.)

What really works for me, though, are his two homepage videos. They’re not slick, custom made movies. In fact, the first is borrowed from a local Boston TV show interview. Here’s a half-minute clip of Dan explaining what his company, Millennial Branding, does:

I call his description “naked” because it’s utterly simple. It’s clear. It leaves no mystery in its wake. You can stop watching after this brief explanation, or you can take in the rest of the interview if you want rebranding and think he may be the guy to do it for you.

The other video on his homepage shows him speaking to a group at Time Warner. Just watch a bit, then hit “Pause” and read on …

In nine minutes, Dan will give you clue after clue about personal branding. He’s not slick in his presentation. He’s relaxed and plain-spoken, and this adds to his credibility. As a video professional I don’t admire any of the production values, but if I were looking to rebrand myself, I would definitely consider giving Dan a shout.

Maybe I should.

But what you should do is take to heart the message that nakedness is effective. Dan Schawbel is still in his 20s and he has over 90,000 followers on Twitter. He’s on Inc magazine’s “30 under 30” list and has heavyweight corporations as his clients. Naked videos are surely not his only effective marketing tool, but they’re a powerful one … and they can be one of yours, too.

Too slammed to post!

Camera lens, with photographer in backgroundWork is good, especially paying work. But I’m so slammed with assignments now that I can barely see straight, much less write thoughtful, incisive posts about storytelling in online video.

I’ll get back to blogging as soon as I can fill my lungs again. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read–or at least glanced at–a few of the posts on Seeing Your Story, please check them out.

Thanks! I look forward to being back in touch with you soon.

Learn online video storytelling from the master – Ira Glass!

Still too crazy-busy to spend much time blogging, so I decided to turn this post over to a guest auteur, one of the master storytellers of our age, Ira Glass. He needs no introduction, so I won’t introduce him. I’ll simply siphon his 4-part, 17-minute presentation off YouTube and hand it over to you in 4 player windows. The rest is up to you. He’s brilliant, so savor the experience. And while you’re at it, take notes and ponder how his insights apply to your productions.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

That’s all, folks! Your comments and questions are always welcome.

Story seers, you’re on your own this week!

Camera lens, with photographer in background This week, I’m starting on three brand-new projects that will put bread on the table. (For you foodies, I’ll disclose that the bread will be the Harvest loaf from Nashoba Brook Bakery.) I’m flying to Virginia this evening and am so flat-out that I don’t have time to compose a big post for Seeing Your Story. As a consequence, you’re on your own as you ardently seek to improve your online video storytelling skills.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, will be to watch other people’s online videos and think hard about how well the makers have done at presenting their stories. Look at some corporate websites, and also the websites of not-for-profit orgs.

Each time you watch a video, ask yourself: What’s the story they’re trying to tell? Do they get their main points across? Are the picture quality and sound clarity good enough not to interfere with the storytelling? Do they make good use of on-camera interviewees? Is the video engaging–do you like it and would you recommend others watch it? Is it short enough not to waste your time?

Make up some additional questions to ask yourself.

You can learn a lot by watching other people’s videos, as long as you do it consciously.

Enjoy! And let me know about any noteworthy videos you come across.

3 tips from the Old Spice Man for your next online video!

Isaiah Mustafa is the man of the hour. Or he was last week, when nearly a quadrillion people watched his commercials and dozens of quickie videos he and Old Spice’s genius team cranked out.

In case you’ve been off the grid hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail lately, here’s what one of the most brilliant spots in the history of commercials looks like:

What’s to say? Writers, directors and actors are all tearing up their union cards and becoming game wardens; why go on when you’ll never reach this level of creative cool?!

Despair not. If you make online videos, Isaiah has 3 tips for you that will turbo-charge your next production.

The first is simple: Dare to be different, but keep the core.

A men’s fragrance ad “should” feature an average dude who has no luck with the women until he splashes on the product. Presto, he’s surrounded by beautiful females. You’ve seen variations on this theme a thousand times.

The Old Spice Man catches a cake.What you haven’t seen from the cologne crowd is a guy who would be insufferable were he not self-mocking … said guy log-rolling, walking on water, catching a birthday cake (not difficult for a former NFL wide receiver), jumping gracefully into a hot tub, etc. The deal is that the creative team pared the theme down to its very core–this incredible man uses Old Spice body wash–then took it to crazy heights.

Second tip: Polish your script ’til the shine hurts your eyes.

Catch this prose:

“Hello ladies. How are you? Fantastic! Does your man look like me? No. Can he smell like me? Yes.”

We’re barely 6 seconds into a 30-second spot and already a full commercial’s worth of message has rattled your eardrums: Your man can be an incredible hunk if you get him the long and wide product I’m holding in my hand.

Now, your video may be about fighting terrorists, baking cupcakes or maintaining oral hygiene. You may have constraints where Mr. Mustafa has freedom. Granted. But no matter what, if you’re working from a script, spend all the time you need to get the words right. Read it out loud to yourself, and revise until you like what you’re hearing.

Tip #3: Remember, your on-camera talent is a minor deity.

Maybe not so minor in Old Spice Man’s case, but that’s not the point. Whenever you put someone on camera to be a spokesperson for your company or group, make sure to do right by the talent. It may be the CFO of your corporation, it may be the pastor of your church, it may be a hired actor. Whoever it is, that’s the point person your audience is relating to.

If you’re working with someone whose charisma has gone missing, do the best you can to eke out an acceptable performance. Don’t stint on this. When all else fails, you can cover most of their standups with B-roll (shots of what the talent is talking about).

And if you’re filming someone the camera loves, exploit the hell out of their performance. That’s what Old Spice did with Isaiah Mustafa.

I’ll leave you with one of the quickie videos from last week. You can find more on YouTube’s Old Spice Channel. This one’s a response to a tweet from TV journalist George Stephanopoulos:

Hey Old Spice Man — Political question: President’s lost some female support. How does WH get those women voters back?

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.

*     *     *

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!

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!