VIDEO: The Molten Me-dium
ContentWise Issue #1 2011
"I believe that video is a crutch for you to use in place of writing, and I believe your writing paints a much better picture than your video."
So wrote a well-meaning friend who's been reading my articles since long before I became a student and sometime producer of video communications and, ultimately, program chairman of ContentWise's Strategic Video Awards.
My friend isn't a professional communicator, so he doesn't understand that some kinds of stories are more powerfully shown and heard via video, while other kinds are more economically told in words.
He also neither knows nor cares that the average Internet user watches 186 videos each month, that YouTube exceeds 2 billion views each day or that Cisco Systems anticipates that this already furious traffic will increase by seven times over the next two years, representing 90 percent of all consumer traffic by 2013.
And come to think of it, that gives my friend a lot in common with the audiences for our communications, who watch a lot of video in their lives–but who aren't used to getting it from us.
As video continues to explode over the next few years, content creators will be under increasing pressure to do video for the sole reason that everybody else is doing it.
But it will be the communication pros who can find and maintain an equilibrium between white-hot video and old, reliable written communication who get their communication goals met.
And that, we mustn't forget, is what we're after.
"I think communicators need to do a better job of assessing what they are trying to accomplish with a story, and then choosing the right method to tell it," says a friend who is a communication expert– Steve Crescenzo, part of a traveling seminar called Killer Content, designed to help communicators sort out all these issues. "Problem is, too many communicators are just churning stuff and reacting to stuff; they never go through that thought process."
That sounds painfully accurate.
So along with Crescenzo–and through examples of truly strategic videos from the Strategic Video Awards’ YouTube channel–we thought we'd help communicators take a breath and do some thinking about video: When it works, when it doesn't, and how to make the new medium work better with the written word, which isn't (ever) going away.
Essentially, Crescenzo believes, and videos submitted to the Strategic Video Awards corroborate, that some communications call for video, some communications don't–and most communicators would ideally benefit from both, working in strategic concert together.
Let’s take them one by one.
When Video Works
1. You're trying to show the passion and emotion that people bring to a topic.
Sometimes you have to look in their eyes and hear their voice. That's where video comes in. Strategic Video Awards entrant Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine could have done a prose-and-pictures story about a patient whom the hospital saved from a massive heart attack. After describing his chest pains, the print piece would have quoted him as saying, I knew when I went in, I was gonna have some problems. And, just, whatever [my doctor] wanted to do, was okay with me.
But the audience wouldn't have heard the impossible-to-describe, halting dread in the man's voice, and so wouldn't have fully understood the importance of the trust the man had in his doctor.
2. You're taking people to places they couldn't otherwise go.
College recruiters have always known that the best boasting in the world doesn't replace a campus visit. But now they also realize that a well-made video can be almost as good–and in some ways, better.
On a campus visit to Olin College, for instance, a student would be hard-pressed to see and hear the earnest, warm, friendly testimonials from Olin students that fill this Strategic Video Award-winning video.
And video doesn't only take audiences to happy places.
When a tornado destroys a town, do you want to read about it in the newspaper or see it on TV? So if you're a communicator at Nationwide and your adjustors just flocked to help a flattened village, there's no use writing about it on the intranet. Take the audience along, as Nationwide communicators did, and show your people on the job. "They have made going through this so much easier for us," says a Nationwide customer on her front porch, which is supported by two-by-fours.
3. You want to show the expertise and credibility that people bring to a topic.
Sometimes, the more you say it in print, the less people believe it. Southwest Airlines is constantly asked by half-believing customers and investors if it will always stick to its policy of not charging extra for luggage, as most other airlines do.
So when Southwest wanted to shut down the question once and for all–or for the time being at least–the communicators turned to a creative video. It's hard to imagine using print to convey the friendly, lighthearted assurance seen in CEO Gary Kelly as he grinningly introduces his baggage handlers to answer the question firsthand.
And for a higher degree of difficulty, behold the power of this video to get credibility across. Made by communicators at the insurance company the Willis Group, the video directly addresses the ethics crisis in the insur-ance industry.
In ways that print couldn't do, the video dramatizes the breadth and depth of the ethics crisis, shows executives' sincerity as they explain Willis has distanced itself from its competitors in regard to these issues, and paints a vision for how the whole industry can clean itself up.
“You don’t do what a regulator tells you. You do what’s right.”
It's one thing to read such a quote in print, and it's quite another to watch the executive say it with a look on his face that shows he doesn't feel like a saint for saying this, but instead conveys his attitude: Isn't this obvious?
When Video Doesn't Work
1. "If you're just delivering information, you don't want to waste time with video," Crescenzo says.
And video can be a big time-waster. Think of all the time wasted–by communicators and the executive spokesman–in creating these puzzle pieces and choreographing this video introducing the company's new vision and values. Dry subjects don't make juicy videos!
2. You're delivering complex data.
As the comic Lewis Black says about the scrolling text beneath the screen on cable news shows: If we wanted to read, we wouldn't be watching TV.
Even if your financials or other statistics could be delivered as effectively via video as by prose and charts in print or online–and usually they can't–video audiences expect some pleasure in the form of humor or drama, emotional stimulation.
And to give them that and data at the same time requires technical wherewithal most communicators don't have.
3. You're trying to take the reader on a complex journey.
A feature-length story takes less time and a whole lot less money to write than a feature-length docu-mentary takes to make, and Crescenzo offers a personal example of video's place–and print's place–in storytelling.
I always go back to that video Zach made of my brother Nicky,∫ Crescenzo says, referring, respectively, to his 11-year-old son and his 46-year-old older brother, who has severe cerebral palsy.
The greatest writer in the world could not have captured his passion and emotion like that video did,∫ Crescenzo points out. ™But if I was going to tell the story about what it was like growing up with Nicky and taking care of him, I could write that more powerfully than anything anyone could do on video.
Which he actually began to do in a blog post that introduced the video. See how the text and the video work together.
Read first, watch second.
Video and prose work best when they work together
And that's the last point for communicators considering how to intelligently, strategically integrate video into their communications–that is, to actually integrate it. It's the rare video story that can't benefit from getting more context through a prose introduction. And it's an even rarer prose piece that doesn't have one element that can't be illuminated by a video.
As an example, Crescenzo offers a safety story done by the intranet editor of an energy company. It's primarily a terrific anecdotal written story about what happened to this man who got hurt on the job.
She quoted his dad, she quoted the kid who got hurt, she got into the nitty-gritty details of what happened. Perfect use of the written word.
Then, she took a 10-second video of the guy, holding up his mangled arm and talking about what happened. Very powerful.
And power, of course, is what we're going for.
Not to be outdone, I offer an example of a story/video combination from a story I wrote, for the Huffington Post, about my George Plimptonian stint working out as the quarterback of a women's professional football team. (Georgia Plimpton, perhaps.)
The piece itself explores how the stunt–originally for a magazine story–became something much more important to me, as I got in touch with my inner seventh-grader who was too afraid to try out for football and who had always regretted it.
None of the couple thousand other Independent Women's Football League players have to explain to this writer how it feels to realize a childhood football fantasy deferred,∫ I wrote, and none has to explain how unchanged is that kid within–how full of anxiety, how still needy of affirmation, how excitable and still given to dreams of glory.
That's a prose sentence if ever there was one, and has no place in a video. But the video that producer Justin Allen made in conjunction with the piece testifies so clearly to the painful verity of my prose that it makes me uncomfortable to watch even almost two years later.
Have a read and a look.
Ride the video trend—don’t be ridden by it
The beauty of the momentum toward video is that the affordability, ease of distribution and popularity of the medium make video an easy sell–to our management and to our audiences.
It's a great new tool.
Let's just be sure we use it as a communication tool–and not a crutch.