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Top Writing Challenges for Short Nonfiction Video

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“Helping people understand what can and can’t be communicated through video” and “Keeping viewers engaged” are two top sticking points for the video writers who attended my workshop during GV Expo this morning. We covered strategies and tools for writers to get better results with video. Top tips include:

  1. Define the goals for your video. Use a Creative brief to outline these goals, along with your story approach, point of view, creative look, and any budgetary or scheduling requirements.  Include a few success measures–“if this video is successful, what does that look like?” This might mean a lot more than number of views. It might mean the number of minutes reduced in customer service calls, or the number of registrations for next year’s event. Think measurable goals!
  2. Define your characters. A 1-2 minute video doesn’t need more than one main character.  Supplemental characters include setting and music, which play an important role in how the audience views your subject.
  3. Define your story arc. Everyone thinks about narrative arc with fiction, but engaging nonfiction stories have them, too.  What’s your hook? It needs to grab your audience in the first 15-30 seconds, before the dreaded initial drop-off in viewing happens. What’s after your hook—how do you give the back story quickly and efficiently? What’s the central challenge of the character and how do they overcome it (the climax)? And as your story winds down, do you include a call to action?
  4. Use tools and workflow. Get transcriptions done if you are creating an interview-based story. The roughly $25 per person will be worth it! Then you can focus on finding those elements that move your story forward. Plan a writing workflow that gives you the flexibility to find the hidden stories, but develop creative that meets your goals. Especially if you are writing for animation, you will have to be very detailed in your approach to story so that you allow time for storyboarding, keyframes and animation tests.

Amy DeLouise is a scriptwriter and video director working in short form nonfiction. A slide deck from her writing workshop at GVExpo is on the Speaker tab of this website. Don’t forget it’s #GivingTuesday. Join me in buying a gift for a child in need through Central Union Mission Operation Christmas Miracle.

Hacking Video in 10 Essential Steps

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AmyDirectsTalentSo you want to make a video for your company or nonprofit. You may want to capture a particular event or person on camera. But what’s next? Actually, a lot comes first, before the shoot ever happens. Let’s break it down into all the steps that go into production. Then you can decide which parts you want to manage yourself. And you’ll understand the workflow if you decide you want to team up with a Producer or Production Company to help you.

Step 1. Define the Goal. Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who famously said “if you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there”? So knowing what you want to shoot is great, but if you don’t know WHY, and what kind of outcome you want for your production, you might miss your mark. Do people need to learn a key skill from this video? Do they need to get motivated to take action on a social or political cause? Do they need to feel good about their new company? Buy something? Attend your big event? Knowing your goal here is essential to how you design the video, but also how you measure success afterwards.

Step 2. Define the Audience. Success will rely partly on knowing your target audience. And please don’t say “everyone.” Have you noticed how many cable channels there are? And how about YouTube channels? We don’t live in a one size fits all world. Take advantage of that, and determine who you want to reach—age, demographics, viewing habits, and what information they bring to your subject matter. You might end up shooting 3 different versions of your show for those different audience segments.

Step 3. Consider the Viewing Environment. Are folks going to watch this video on their laptops? In a busy office environment? At a training session? At a purchase counter? On a noisy trade show floor? Gathered together with thousands of other activists for your cause? The viewing environment—the “envelope” as I like to call it—matters a lot. It helps determine length, emotional content, style, sound design, and many other factors. In addition to thinking about where people will view your video, this step is vital in determining your output specs. And output specs will influence your shooting specs. If I know something needs to be very high quality, on a big screen, I might shoot it in 4K or higher. If it could air on broadcast, we need to shoot interlace. If it will never be seen on anything other than the web, I might acquire footage in 1080p. All of these decisions need to be made up front by you, typically with the Director and Producer, in consultation with the Editor.

Step 4. Hire the Production Team. Pulling together the right team—for writing, directing, shooting, sound, editing, graphics design, sound design—is a key step. You might decide to do all of this coordination and management work yourself, or hire and direct a crew and editor you’ve worked with before. Or you may hire a Video Producer. She has a rolodex of folks she’s worked with, or perhaps a production company, who work as a team every day.

Step 5. Define Creative Concept and Budget. OK, Now that you know Why, Who and Where, you can start thinking about How and How Much. How will you best connect with this audience? Does this need to be fast-paced? Funny? Dramatic? Documentary style? Will the end product need to be less than 90 seconds long, for web viewing? Can it be longer–more like a brief news package (2-3 mins)—for group viewing? You’ll want to develop a creative treatment and maybe a few storyboards, so you have a sense of how things will look, and how much they will cost. You’ll also need these documents for internal approvals before moving forward with production. Here’s where a Scriptwriter and Creative Director can be helpful to your project. They have loads of experience developing concepts that are creative, but also achievable. Cost drivers will include schedule (is this a rush project?), how many shooting and editing days, and complexity of the concept.

So how about cost? People used to define video budgets in terms of “cost per finished minute.” I think it’s more useful to consider cost-per-impression. If your video costs $10,000 and reaches 20,000 people live and online, that’s 50 cents per impression. If those people go out and raise $4 million for your cause because the video helped inspire them, that’s a pretty cost-effective outcome. If your video costs $40,000 and reaches 2,500 people worldwide in online training sessions, that’s a cost of $16 per person. If you would normally spend $150 per person to send trainers to multiple locations, then you have saved yourself a bundle. So you need to know from Step 1 what the goal is, and whether this cost is justified. There is also a direct relationship between cost and quality, there’s no getting around that. Some situations do not merit a full-scale production. You may be able to get away with recording someone with an iPhone. That’s another cost-benefit analysis you need to make when weighing your options.

Step 6. Plan the Shoot. The shoot takes 10% of the time spent a given production, but it’s the part everyone thinks about most. Typically, the Director will work with the Producer and the Writer to develop a shot list. These could be very scripted scenes, or more documentary style “we hope to get this” kind of scenes. If it’s the latter type of shoot, be aware that you won’t get everything you dreamed of. But you might get some cool stuff you didn’t even imagine. If you think you might need footage for multiple platforms or purposes, it’s a good idea to bake this into your shoot plan and schedule. It will take more time and money, but save substantially on the back end.

Step 7. Tag and Digitize Footage. This step is usually done by the Producer with the Editor. It’s a time-consuming but vital process for reviewing, prioritizing and organizing all your content–footage, photographs, logos, audio, music–in a digital Nonlinear Editing System so that you can use it now and in the future. Make sure the tags are something that would make sense to someone not intimately involved in the project. So don’t label a shot “MS w JJ.” Label it “Marilyn Smith CEO _ Jarvis Jackson CFO”.

Step 8. Editing. Footage editing typically goes through several rounds. The first round—the rough-cut—might be done with only temporary or “scratch” VO and music. Later rounds will include professionally recorded voiceover, if that’s the style of piece you’ve planned, plus music that the Producer needs to license for your specific usage. Even stock music has a license, and YouTube will pull your video down if you can’t demonstrate that you have it. I tend to go through about 4 rounds of edit drafts: a rough cut for only internal folks to comment on, a finer rough cut for their bosses or decision makers to comment on, and then two rounds of final refinements for graphics, audio, narration and music. A sub-step of editing is graphics—whether simple text or more complex animation. If you have a million shots from various sources, you’re also going to need a color-correction step so it looks like a unified piece. The same goes for audio—an audio mixing session will help even out interviews or other audio from multiple sources.

Step 9. Compressions. In the world we live in, there are many platforms and many output specs. Hopefully you already figured out what you needed in Step 3.  My clients usually need several different compressions for projects—one version for Vimeo, another for YouTube, and another for a live event projection system.

Step 10. Future Proofing. Be sure you archive all your edit media—you’d be surprised how often you’ll need to go back for shots and use them in another production. Back up your project files. And be sure you also output one master file, at the highest possible resolution such as ProRes 4444, as well as a version with separated audio tracks, so that you can always go back in and reversion as needed in the future.

Putting Your CEO On Camera: 5 Tips to Get the Best Video

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More and more companies are turning to video as a way to communicate with customers, vendors and the general public. Often the CEO finds him or herself front and center. What can you do to make your leader come across better on camera? Here are five tips from my work coaching on-camera performances from a wide range of national and international leaders.

Hire a makeup artist.  Often makeup is an after thought or considered to be “only powder,” but a makeup professional—one who is trained for on-camera uses, not salon or theatrical makeup—can make all the difference in how your CEO looks and feels.  He or she also has tools to keep bald pates from looking shiny, can keep shirts from wrinkling, and ties from drifting. A good makeup artist is also a conversationalist, making your leader feel more comfortable before the camera. The $600 day rate is well worth it!

Have the CEO review the script ahead of time. Often whoever has written the script will keep it from the CEO until the last moment, trying to avoid a lot of revisions or politics. The result is your on-air talent is now not fully comfortable with the copy.  This tends to lead to more mistakes and copy changes while the cameras (and dollars) are rolling. Making sure your CEO has seen the copy and is comfortable with the style of language. Making the the verbage both accurate but also conversational and easy to say out loud will be critical to your success.

Choose clothing that works for Television. If your CEO is more comfortable in shirt sleeves, don’t make him put on a jacket. If she loves wearing bold colors, bring them on. But avoid tight herringbone patterns in jackets and ties, as these can cause a “moray” or shifting of the lights and darks back and forth when they conflict with scan lines on a monitor. Shooting in High Def can minimize this, but it’s best to be safe.

Use a Teleprompter…Sometimes. If your CEO is comfortable with a teleprompter and there is a lot of copy, it’s best to use one.  Teleprompters are designed to fit over the lense of a camera so that the eye line of the individual speaking goes directly to the viewing audience. I’ve often done training sessions with teleprompters ahead of time, so leaders with less experience feel better stepping on stage and before the cameras.  If your CEO is happy with bullet points, those can also go up on a prompter.

Keep Everyone Out of the Eyeline.  Often a CEO has various press secretaries, assistants, consultants, etc. who must be present any on-camera appearance. Do your best to keep them out of his or her eye line during taping. They can often become an unintentional distraction. They can also raise the anxiety level of someone without extensive on camera experience.  A calm and focused CEO is one who comes across with confidence.

If you have a story about putting your CEO or other leadership on camera but you’d rather stay anonymous here, feel free to share them with me at amy [at] amydelouise [dot] com.