Awful business video – and how it must tell a story

Do you know the feeling when you watch a presentation and think, these people don’t know what the f*** they’re talking about?

Article on business video

There is a BIG difference between knowing how to work a video camera and knowing how to make a video that isn’t awful. 

That happened to me recently when I watched a presentation about video in the 21st century. And it wasn’t about selfie-Facebook live videos, which have an excuse for being awful. It was about commissioned video that’s supposed to promote your business.

Yes, in other words a “corporate video” as they used to be called in the late 20th century.

Video that tells a story – or should, but doesn’t

You can say what you like about video becoming just another means of communicating between thee and mee, and of course it is. Much as the terrible zip pans (a.k.a. whip pans) and mumbled voice plus shaky content make me squirm (speaking as a video writer-producer-director who grew up through the nineties and noughties), this is the stuff of the 21st century.

All the same many people like to listen and watch your selfie videos, although – according to the stats shared by a “video expert” at that presentation, around 80 percent of people watching video online see it without sound, and so producers are advised to add captions to their video.

Errr…so why shoot a (largely mute) video with captions that make the talking head miming the words look like a beached fish gasping for air? While meantime you read the words as you would anyway in ordinary text?

While you’re pondering that one – what’s the real problem with awful video?

The real problem is that the actual act of shooting and editing video has become so easy even chimpanzees can do it. (Well, failing that most bright 8-year-olds can do it.) Why? Because the hardware involved has become cheap, easy to use, and easily available. What has not become available, however, is the know-how required to produce even simple videos that do more than merely show a talking head or two.

Some of the guiltiest parties here are stills photographers who buy some video kit and then shoot still videos. Still photos may tell stories in their own way but the sequences, if there are any, are vertical and can be stilted. What happens if a stills photographer doesn’t learn how to tell a story laterally, as you need to, is you get a final edit full of short chunks of footage with little or no continuity.

Lighting for video is entirely different than for stills, too. Don’t get me started on that one. 

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Last summer I was chatting with an old pal of mine who is a video editor for the BBC in one of its main UK outposts. When I asked him about the trend for young journalists using the latest in video apparatus to go out and get news stories, he wasted no time in spitting out a lot of fur and feathers.

“These kids get plenty of tuition on how to work the cameras,” he growled, “but they get b*gg*r-all tuition on how to shoot video that tells a story. Result is they hand this virtually useless footage in and we editors are expected to turn it into a good news or feature story.”

TIP: there is a BIG difference between knowing how to work a video camera and knowing how to make a video that isn’t awful. 

Here’s a video about making a video that tells a story. I think it’s great…and it certainly is a far cry from the stiff and constipated style of corporate video in the 1980s. If this image doesn’t take you to the video directly, you’ll find it here.

Maybe it’s hard to make an awful video about paddle boarding!

That’s probably true … but you can learn a lesson from the way the video touches on four key elements of storytelling which can be applied to almost any business need. Let’s take them one at a time, using the example of a logistics company needing to show how efficient and cost-effective their service is.

TIP: NEVER, never get people to “act” in videos unless they are professional actors – especially if humour is involved. No matter how well it seems to work on the shoot, even with good editing it will make your skin crawl in the final cut. Sooo embarrassing for all.

The story could be a typical “day in the life” of the company, perhaps using a “case study” approach where we track one or two logistics projects from beginning to end.

1.Establishing shots. The company’s main office, fleet of vehicles, vehicles leaving depot at the crack of dawn, vehicles going along road/motorway/highway, arriving at client’s premises, helping offload, etc. This could be a lively montage of footage that sets the tone.

2.Characters. Business videos are usually very quick to get members of staff and the C-Suite to talk about how “we” do this and “we” excel at that. But what about the clients? Remember them? There’s no better way to show viewers how good your service is than to have existing clients say so. And don’t forget to involve staff from all levels, especially if the video is to be used for recruitment or onboarding. Overalls and dirty hands are OK.

3.Action shots. Even accountancy involves some action. If it’s just fingers on a keyboard or screenshots of spreadsheets, special effects can make these look quite spooky and intriguing. And avoid talking heads if you can even if the CEO has bought a new outfit for the occasion. By all means shoot them saying their whole piece, but when you come to edit the video cut away from the talking head after 30 seconds or so and use the audio as a voiceover under some more interesting action shots. This has the additional benefit of allowing you to edit the audio, too. At the end of the sequence cut back to the speaker saying their final sentence to round it off.

4.Conclusion. Just as we saw in this video when the paddle boarders finished their race and were high-fiving each other, our conclusion here could be something like the vehicles arriving back at the depot at night, drivers and managers wishing each other goodnight, chatting amongst themselves as a buzztrack, perhaps with the voiceover of a client praising them and saying how much they appreciate everyone’s hard work, etc.

The above would require quite a lot of interviewing using an off-camera technique. Have a look at this article if you want to know how to do that.

It’s not hard to make a video that isn’t awful!

Right now you have fantastic opportunities to make even the blandest topics interesting and engaging on video, with a huge armoury of tools that are both reasonably priced and exquisitely useful. All it takes is some basic storytelling know-how, a videographer who knows what they’re doing, and a lot of imagination.

And to finish, here is a link to a fantastic selection of how-to videos on how to make videos that are anything BUT awful, by Rob and Jonas who shot the video above. Some of their topics might be more advanced than you need for business video but it’s well worth taking a browse of their YouTube channel here.

Their website, too, is fascinating: in the way of a social enterprise they specialise in educating people not only about film making but also about science. People like them rock.

What experience have you had with video – awful or otherwise?

Please share!