April 13, 2012

10 secrets to video storytelling success

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“Protect Our Defenders,” winner of the DoGooder Nonprofit Video Award among small organizations.

At NTC, expert advice on best practices in telling your nonprofit’s story

Target audience: Nonprofits, foundations, NGOs, social enterprises, cause organizations, brands, businesses, Web publishers, educators, video producers, storytellers.

JD LasicaIf there was one buzzword at last week’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, it was storytelling. On Wednesday Debra Askanse wrote about our Future of Storytelling panel. And there were at least two or three other sessions about nonprofit storytelling.

One of the most informative was the session “Sight, Sound, and Motion: Video Storytelling and Using Video for Advanced Messaging” put on by Michael Hoffman and Danny Alpert of See3 Communications, which works with nonprofit clients to create compelling video stories.

Michael and Danny offered these tips on how to make your visual story work — and I’ll second all of these recommendations, since I know a little about video production.

Choose one message

1Here’s one of the biggest shortcomings of far too many videos. Settle on a single message — not three, not two. One. You don’t need to cram your organization’s entire message into a single video. Be selective. The more messages you include, the more muddled it becomes. Marketing folks have lived by this rule for decades.

Decide who you’re trying to reach

2You’re creating your video for a reason, right? It’s not to communicate to your staff. Or even to the public. “There’s no such thing as the general public,” Michael said. Target your audience and speak to them. Frame the story in a way that touches and appeals to those people.

Decide what you want them to do

3After you grab people’s attention, what is your call to action? You want to gently but forcefully direct viewers to take a specific action on your behalf. “How realistic is the ask?” Michael said. He pointed to YouTube annotations (see our article How to effectively use calls to action in nonprofit videos) as a great, underutilized mechanism to make your call to action crystal clear — in text form that pops up during the video. “Every one of you should be using annotations in your video in some way.”

One video with a great call to action — Protect Our Defenders (shown at top, with screen grab immediately above) — won this year’s Nonprofit Video Award in the small organization category for best use of video for the social good. At the end of the 1:45 video you’ll see a way to take immediate action, transporting viewers to the petition page or letting them share it on Facebook or Twitter. (This gets a little technical: You add 15 to 20 seconds at the end of the video with these “buttons” hot-linked to your pages; only certain kinds of software can pull this off.)

Michael and Danny went on to offer rules of thumb to help your audience understand and act on your message. To simplify things, I’ll combine these with the tips above:

Keep your video simple

4The most effective messaging is clean, clear-cut and to the point. “Every video you make doesn’t have to tell the whole story,” Danny said. “It’s a hard lesson for nonprofits to learn.” Resist the temptation by internal stakeholders to grab a share of the spotlight. The beautiful 36-second UNICEF Tap Project video above, showing kids drinking water, is fast-paced but calm and simple. Its only downside: UNICEF doesn’t give you an easy way to donate.

Create aspiration

5Make a connection between your nonprofit’s work and the lives of the kids or constituents you serve, and find a way to communicate that in a compelling way. The video from FosterParentsRock.org does this effectively. “The best fundraisers understand that messaging has to be as much about the donor as the cause,” Michael said. “Your donor wants to feel a certain way, see themselves as a certain type of person. In this video, you want to be the parents who step in to make a child’s life better. You want to live in a house like they do, and act for the good a child like they do.” (Side note: One attendee pointed out that the children in the video are actors, which may be off-putting to some viewers who pick up on that. This raises all sorts of touchy issues about when to use real kids in a video who benefit from a nonprofit’s work.)

Keep it personal

6What works on YouTube? Think personal videos, not PSAs — and avoid “policy videos” at all costs. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation pulled this off nicely and used real kids rather than actors. This Visible Men video is earnest and personable. And don’t shy away from funny if you can pull it off. I loved Kitty Midnight Madness (above), a funny, offbeat video from the Winnipeg Humane Society, though it runs on too long.

Make it authentic

7Is your cause genuine or manufactured? “People’s BS meters will go off if it’s not authentic,” Danny warned. The Define American video above is amazing, and it gets particularly powerful 70 seconds in when Jose begins talking about his trip to the DMV.

Connect to the Zeitgeist

8What’s in the headlines? What are people talking about? What are the cultural touchstones people are buzzing about? It might be about stand your ground gun laws, or equal rights laws, or a celebrity advocating a cause. Tap into that.

Take your viewers on a journey

9“Take the audience someplace they can’t go on their own, and bring them back changed,” Michael said in a wise and sublime final piece of advice. Hollywood filmmakers do this with every major release. You can, too, in the span of a few minutes. Take a look at almost any charity: water report from the field. “You get the sense that you now know that village a little, and you come away inspired. It’s as if we’re coming out of a movie theater with the feeling that we’ve had a changing experience in some way.”

Be bold and be brave

10Said Michael: “There a lots of reasons you can’t make a video. No time. Not enough resources. But you need to do it. And you need to be clear and straight and authentic – you need to boldly tell your story, the story that was at the core of why your organization exists. Be brave in the telling. Don’t please everyone. Make your strong connections stronger.”

Fantastic advice.

A word about copyright

I wrote a book, “Darknet,” a few years back that addressed the disconnect between the digital generation and current copyright law, so I’m always intrigued by the ways the culture continues to test the boundaries. I pointed out that one of the videos shown contained a large portion of a Coldplay song. The See3 execs began with the disclaimed that they’re not lawyers and noted that the clip couldn’t play on TV without a release waiver from Coldplay, but that YouTube was a gray area, given that the site often allows viewers to buy the music contained in a clip. Danny also observed that when filming in a village or a public place but is still identifiable, “as long as the person doesn’t speak on camera, you don’t need a release” as a general rule.

One audience member pointed to a site I hadn’t heard of: mobygratis.com, from the musician Moby, who lets nonprofits use his music for free.

6th annual DoGooder Awards

During lunch Thursday, we were treated to clips from the winners of the 6th annual DoGooder Nonprofit Video Awards, with 1,100 entries from more than 700 organizations and 12,000 votes cast — up from 40 videos entered in the first year.

See3 also offers the Daily DoGooder, a free cause video sent to your in-box each weekday that’s worth subscribing to.

Nonprofit video storytelling has come a long way. Check out some of the other entries to get inspired — then tell your own story!

Related on Socialbrite

• Storytelling 2.0: Why nonprofits need to tell stories

• How to find amazing, powerful stories for your nonprofit video

• 8 great examples of nonprofit storytelling

How to effectively use calls to action in nonprofit videos

Tutorials on social media: Video & multimedia

Nonprofit storytelling tips from the prosJD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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