How best to approach a video story

Many beginning newspaper video producers tell me they feel overwhelmed by everything they have to learn. Audio, video sequencing, composition, keeping the camera steady, can drive a brain into overdrive during a shoot. But what about the storytelling? What happens to your creativity if you’re spending most of your brainpower on the technical aspects of videography?  Here are some tips I learned along the way (mostly through making mistakes) about how best to approach a video story:

  • Master the technology first. Your video camera needs to become your third eye. You should instinctively know how to operate it without a lot of fumbling. You can’t begin to tell an effective story if you don’t understand how your camera works. Read the manual. Then read it again. Don’t know what every button or menu setting on your camera does? Then you will be at a disadvantage when shooting in the field.
  • Next, master the fundamentals of shooting video. If you are lucky enough to attend a video workshop like the Multimedia Immersion, or Platypus Workshop, then listen closely and take lots notes. Review them often. When I am shooting, I am always reminding myself to look for sequences, hold the camera steady, monitor my audio, and look for action and reaction shots.
  • Watch a lot of news and feature video to learn what works and what doesn’t. There are tons of great resources and aggregators of newspaper produced video on the Web. Start with the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest winners. Check out Kobre Guide, Interactive Narratives and MediaStorm. Also, look at what the best of TV news does by viewing the five star stories on On videos you like, deconstruct the stories. Look at how the video starts. Does the story have surprises woven throughout to keep the viewer interested? Is there good use of natural sound? Did it have an effective ending? The more you watch, the more ideas you will generate later when you are shooting your own video.
  • Understand that video storytelling is different than telling a story in print or in a tightly edited picture story. Video is about sequencing images. You become the eyes for the viewer of your story. Take them on a journey. Long talking head narratives, with lots of fact and figures and little supporting b-roll video, will put the viewer to sleep. Video is visual. Learn to tell a story with sound and imagery that works together.
  • Respect the viewer’s time. Like a reporter that always writes long or a photographer that puts too many photos in a picture story, many videographers suffer the same fate with their video stories. Tell what is most important and get out. We’re talking 1-3 minutes for most stories, 4-5 minutes only if its really compelling stuff. Leave the long form documentaries for special projects or the film festival circuit.
  • Before you shoot, have an idea of what your story is. Sometimes I’m not sure what direction my video story should take until I get about a third of the way into shooting it. It is important to pause for a moment and define in your mind what your story is. Make a mental list of shots and interviews you’ll need to tell your story effectively. Look for shots that could be great openers or enders in your video. The bookends are the really important in video storytelling. Don’t pack up until you made the mental checklist of all the video you’ll need. Nothing is worse than being knee-deep in an edit and realizing you forgot to get a simple, but crucial shot.
  • I can’t stress enough the importance of defining your story early for the viewer. Viewers can be a fickle crowd. If they don’t know what your story is in the first 20 or 30 seconds, chances are they will bolt.
  • Pacing matters in video storytelling. Visuals for most stories should move along at a pretty good clip. This is where sequencing shots is important. Just keep reminding yourself to shoot: wide, medium and tight. I like to keep most of my video clips in my edited stories to about 1-5 seconds if I can. Don’t let the viewer have a chance to be bored.
  • Short form stories (one to five minutes) need to be tightly focused. Avoid tangents that lead the viewer into dead ends. Focus on a central idea and stick with that.
  • Strong central characters meshed with killer natural sound make the best video stories.
  • Visuals that connect to your narrative are important. When the fire chief says: “We gave mouth-to-mouth to six kittens”– I don’t want to see his face, I want to see the kittens. This is an import fundamental in video storytelling: Show the viewer what your video subjects are talking about.
  • Visual variety and shot selection keep eyeballs glued to your video. When I’m shooting, I remind myself to be more creative with my shots. Get your camera low or high. Shoot on a tripod and zoom in tight on something interesting. Do a slow pan, or a tilt, break some rules. Learn to manually control (master) the camera.
  • Understand light. Photojournalists already master this. If you are a word person, then you will need to learn to read the light in a scene. Ask yourself is it warm light or cool? Contrasty or flat? Learn to use quality light to your advantage.
  • Finally,  in whatever form, a good story is a good story. Conflict, twists, surprises, interesting characters, resolution all revealed in a dramatic structure  will captivate the viewers of your video story to the end.

10 thoughts on “How best to approach a video story

  1. I love how you sum up all the important points for telling a video story. I’m going to include a link to your post in my next newsletter.

    Thanks for the great resource!

    All the best,


    P.S. Live workshops are a good way to learn video, but I’ve been having a lot of success showing people the fundamentals of video with my online video tutorials.

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  5. Nice list. One thing I might add is that it’s important to get a lot of close up shots if you are shooting for the web. Wide shots that work for a television screen don’t always translate well to a 400 x 300 pixel screen.

  6. I’m just starting a website/blog to share how to make better videos and found you during a google search. Awesome stuff! The bad news: I’m feeling rather insignificant at this point.

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