Truths and misconceptions about effective video storytelling

May 26, 2020
SCMP Insights
Videos connect with people like no other medium, but ‘short and sweet’ does not always guarantee views, says SCMP expert Michala Sabnani

Across all platforms and channels, the dominance of video storytelling is hard to ignore. Videos engage us, captivate us and tell stories that are powerful, funny, and informative. 

A video is a powerful communication tool. As a narrative form, it captivates audiences, crosses language barriers, captures complex nuances and delivers emotional impact like no other medium. In my opinion, video in the age of digital communication has become one of the most effective ways to connect with a broad range of audiences by crossing geographic lines. 

Although ubiquitous online, not all video content gets it right. There is so much more to effective video storytelling than simply shooting a video and uploading it to Facebook or YouTube. After over a decade in the creative content business at global news organisations, I’ve come across plenty of myths and misconceptions about generating views, likes and impressions.  Here’s what I’ve learnt from the school of hard knocks.

The most common misconception is that viewers have short attention spans, so videos must be short.  While this may be true for some video viewing platforms, it is far from a universal truth. It is true, I believe, that a good video must grab the audience’s attention early, but it does not mean they will not stick around to watch more than the first 60 seconds. In fact, platforms such as Facebook, insert ads into longer videos, so their algorithm prioritizes longer length videos, making them easier to discover.  Length should not necessarily be for length’s sake, but there is no reason to cut valuable content simply to keep a video short. 

Many people have tried to understand what makes a video "viral", but a common misconception is that only funny videos are able to get to that level.  I hear this all the time: serious or hard-hitting content will not perform as well as cat videos or other stereotypically funny content. That is not necessarily true.  Humour does go a long way, but there are powerful and widely-consumed examples of content out there that are not funny at all.  People are not one dimensional. We like to laugh, but we also like to learn, to feel emotion, to empathise and to be inspired.  

It is often thought that the most common metric of video success is the number of views.  But this data point does not entirely capture the whole picture.  From a storytelling perspective, impactful videos that resonate with audiences tend to have higher engagement. Longer but more substantive videos that require greater commitment from viewers may have fewer views, but looking at it from another perspective, there is potential for lengthier videos to get more viewed minutes. For example, Video A is a short one-minute video that goes viral with more than a million views, but Video B is a human interest story that’s five minutes long and gets 200,000 views. However, the total minutes watched – a more accurate measure of impact and success –could potentially be the same for both Videos A and B. 

The final myth is that viewers will find good videos on their own. With millions of videos out there, that can’t be a trusted strategy. Plenty of content is discovered and shared on Facebook or YouTube, but search engine optimisation is one key way to make sure that content gets in front of the right audience. Content creators must be strategic in how they title and distribute their videos, and this varies depending on the platform they wish to use.

The opportunities for video storytelling are endless. Whether you are selling a product, telling a story, providing a tutorial, or simply sharing toddler footage with the family, above all, the most important element is authenticity. Content that comes across as genuine, true and reliable can be successfully packaged across a variety of platforms for your intended audiences.