“Let’s do some video case studies”
“How about a little montage of the Minister doing the visit?”
“We could do something on YouTube – you know, liven it up a bit”

There’s something compelling about film, which is why so many events and launches open with an uplifting compilation to a jaunty soundtrack. They set the scene, tell real people’s stories, bring events to life, make the conceptual personal.

Expectations seem to be changing. In a YouTube world, I think it’s fair to say that the assumption is now that effective government communication online will incorporate video, whether it’s formal, informal or full-blown interactive.

But it’s easier said than done.

A number of recent projects have brought me face to face with the world of video and the practicalities of making it happen:

  • You need the gear to record video, or access to people who can do it for you (at a significant cost)
  • You need to find a way to look after and manage any in-house gear
  • You need people to project manage each shoot, getting the people lined up, the venues arranged etc
  • You need release forms and briefings (speeches, bullet points, background notes, whatever)
  • You need to manage the expectations of Important People who are used to being interviewed by the BBC with autocues
  • You need some way to edit what you shoot
  • You need a grasp of aspect ratios and codecs, video formats, frame rates and embeddable code
  • You need somewhere to put it and process for getting it OK-ed
  • You need rules about what you publish and how you moderate comments
  • You need an answer when someone says: “So why exactly are we doing this?” and when someone says: “So how come the YouTube ‘related videos’ show a girl in a G-string?”

All of which can be done. But the hardest bit – and why I have newfound respect for graduates of media studies courses – is that you need to know how you tell a story through video. Talking heads are fine, but often dull. Proper film-makers know about finding interesting locations, putting interviewees at their ease, which bits to keep and which bits to chop, how to do intros, transitions, titles, splicing clips together, fixing the sound and colour balance, storing and converting the footage and lots more. And too often recently for me, it’s just been a cheerful civil servant with a Handycam and an Important Person wondering why the outputs aren’t a bit more polished.

The answer might be to leave this to people who know about video – just brief it out and leave it to the professionals. But I think video is becoming like typing: one day soon, the practical skills to communicate through video are going to be as normal as being able to put together a Powerpoint presentation – you don’t bring in an agency for that. In the same way that bullet point slides look dated these days, fairly soon the smart kids will be making their points with vox pops, Qik streams and mini-documentaries, and we’ll see film-making skills creep into person specifications and CVs for people in communications roles.

I think it’s worth it: the prize will be a much more engaging and authentic way of communicating.

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I don’t want to underestimate the skills required; but a good interviewee can make even the most amateur video clip worth watching – whilst no amount of production expertise can rescue a bore.

Any time you see a ‘home-made’ video attempt to do it ‘properly’ – with cutaways, captions, background music, even (gulp) transition effects – it just shows up the fact that it isn’t a proper video.

(Not that doing a ‘proper’ video is something to aspire for, anyway. There’s nothing more tired than the slick, professional corporate video. More often than not, an opening burst of muzak is enough to make me click elsewhere.)

Whereas, the stuff I find myself watching to the end is the ‘rough cut’ stuff, as pioneered by Robert Scoble whilst at Microsoft’s Channel 9. Go and visit someone interesting, turn on your video camera, and ask – so, what’s going on?

Honest, direct, disintermediated – in precisely the way the best blogs, or perhaps more accurately, the best bloggers are honest, direct and disintermediated.

So yes, fair enough, there are certain production skills and knowledge needed to get the job done. But at the end of the day, you need to be pointing the camera at someone who’s capable of talking.


Good post. I can empathise with a lot of the difficulties you’ve outlined. I’m not sure that the description of a ‘proper film-maker’ is entirely accurate though – whilst there is a lot of cross over in the industry, you’ve pretty much described a production team, not an individual (although this is changing as well). Your key point about telling a good and convincing story is spot-on and an absolute necessity. As is Simon’s about ensuring the speaker is up to the job (possibly more difficult if it’s a senior official asking).

The one thing I think you’ll find is that a lot of these skills may already exist in communication teams/organisations, it’s just a matter of tracking down the right people. As these skills haven’t always been considered a main-stream requirement for communications and press work, staff traditionally draw attention to achievements in other areas. My career in comms has pretty much been about stakeholder relations, advertising, strategic advice and project management; I don’t often mention my degree in screenwriting, the multi-media company I ran or the corporate videos I helped develop – perhaps with the increasing use of online video, I should!

Steph, I’m sorry you had to experience the pain to get the understanding. It looks so easy just pointing the camera!

Simon is right that the subject is the most important but without the skills it is very easy to screw up even the best interviewee. And although I’m with him on the vapidity of many corporate videos, most of the well watched YouTubers have understood the need to throw light on a subject and make sure that a decent mic picks up their voice without a vast array of background noises.

Justin may well have the requisite skills but organisations need to be careful about in-house production. Isolation when editing is important. Lock the director away for the day required and pass food and drink through a hatch until they are finished. Is that isolation easy achieved onsite? It is easy to get too close to the material so that your judgement on selecting shots is compromised. Are you using shots because you took them or because they make the story better, more engaging?

Not every film needs to be outsourced but I’d counsel against taking it all inside just because you’ve got the kit. They are specialised skills and they need using regularly to keep them sharp.

Shane – I agree with you, skills and knowledge need to be kept current. Isolation is important as well. Whenever we made a corporate video, editing was always done off-site…. although no one ever passed food and drink through a hatch. Maybe I should have been nicer to the crew. 😉

Steph – I thought this was a really good post – there’s a lot in it that I agree with. I see the main focus of my job as helping people to find better ways of talking to each other. Some of that involves creating videos through my production company.

I liked your list of reasons for using video. For me, the good reasons for using video are:

– to tell stories (video can be brilliant for this)
– to engage emotions and the non-rational side to people
– to explain difficult concepts visually
– to demonstrate tacit knowledge (things that are difficult or impossible to write down, but which can be shown visually)
– to appeal to people with visual and auditory learning styles
– to show unique people, places or events

There is a lot that people with basic skills can already do with a video camera and a computer, and it will only get better as the hardware and software become easier to use and more affordable. You Tube or Scoble-type impromptu interviews with people who are inherently interesting can be successfully shot by people with little or no training.

But…I think you analogy with typing and PowerPoint doesn’t quite work for me the way you intended. Sure, millions of people create PowerPoint presentations every day, but millions of those presentations are absolutely awful. They don’t have a structure, they don’t tell a story, their messages aren’t clear, images don’t complement the text, and they try to cram everything in without being selective. Very few people have the skills to create a PowerPoint presentation that is really memorable. In the same way, some types of video can perfectly well be shot and edited by non-specialists, but other types need a range of skills that only specialists who keep their skills up-to-date with constant practice can achieve (the point that Shane makes in his comment).

You’ve given a great list of the practical skills that video-makers need in order to do their job well (many of which are project management skills too – 80% of the job of a producer like me is project and client management). From my point of view as a video maker the more communications professionals who have these skills the better. When they need to bring me in as a professional, they will be much better able to brief me, be able to add more value and more of their own (workable) ideas, and be better at managing the expectations of the internal Important People. Sometimes they will choose to create their videos by themselves, but I think there will always be times when it makes sense to bring in a specialist too.

Thanks folks – some really interesting perspectives there.

@Jeremy: I know – what do you have to put on YouTube to get related videos of girls in g-strings? 🙂 Answer: ministerial messages, apparently

@Simon: absolutely – the extra challenge I have is even when we have something moderately interesting to film, that can get lost a bit in poor recording/editing.

@Justin: absolutely – maybe you should try a a video résumé (the logical conclusion to video skills in CVs, I guess).

@Shane & @Stuart: Agreed – I think my conclusion from this is that we’re not yet at a stage in terms of skills, people and software where this kind of work can be done well in-house. Sure, we can work on those things, but you’re right that there’s some stuff you just need to involve the experts with. Maybe what I should have asked is where the line lies these days between the kind of interesting, informal films Simon talks about and the more complex projects where a proper editor would come into their own?

Incidentally, since posting, I’ve discovered a really nice example of video as a community’s response to a consultation on Post Office closure (hat tip: Podnosh)

I feel your pain too Steph: there’s a common assumption that the kids can do it therefore it’s easy.

But that’s also *absolutely true* and hard to refute. So the answer must lie in lowering expectations of quality, and it needs a shift in attitudes for big organisations like ours from controlling information tightly (well edited and scripted video) to just participating honestly and openly (glitchy handheld video).

If the speaker can keep to short, highly focused bursts that closely resemble authentic conversation, then hopefully they will quickly become accustomed to speaking to webcam. If they fluff it, then sites like Magnify, Seesmic etc enable them to keep trying till they get it right!

I think Jo Swinson MP gives a charming example here