what brands can learn from videographers about storytelling
Storytelling Content Creation

Part 3—How to Be a Good Storyteller: What Brands Can Learn from Videographers

In 1994, when I was four years old (well before I learned how to be a good storyteller), my dad took me to see The Lion King. It was my first movie in theaters, and I remember being dazzled by the incredible animation, heart-wrenching soundtrack, and powerful plot. Or, as my four-year-old self probably thought, it was fuuuunnnnn.

But when Scar murdered Mufasa by tossing him into the stampeding herd of wildebeest and snarled “Long live the king,” I balled my eyes out and had to be removed from the cinema.

Can you blame me?


Arguably the most visceral storytelling medium that exists, video has a remarkable ability to make us feel something that will stay with us for years. Films have been entertaining audiences with amazing stories for over a century, and right now, we’re in the middle of a TV renaissance, bolstered by the massive popularity of streaming services like Netflix, HBO NOW, Hulu Prime, and others that make video consumption an anytime event. Today, companies and their content creators are turning to video to tell their brand stories, and will continue to do so in increasingly large numbers in 2016.

In part one of this series, I learned content creation tips from Grammy-winning songwriters. In part two, I spoke with professional photographers about what authenticity in photography means. As the third installment of the “How to Be a Good Storyteller” series, I connected with Tom Green, the director of digital media for Antenna International, a company that produces multimedia tours, as well as Kyle Bodanis, Creative Director at The Mind Refinery, a creative agency that specializes in digital video content.

Cats hate dry food (be original)

We’ve all been bombarded by cliche TV commercials throughout our lives:

  • The minivan commercial that shows a mom picking up her kids from soccer practice. We get it. Vans are spacious.
  • The cheap restaurant commercial that zooms onto a plate of glossy appetizers, the steam billowing off the wings. Yum…?
  • The cat that scurries to the bowl of dry food the instant its owner clanks it on the floor. You kidding me? More like:

Cat hates the food

As brands move their advertising dollars from traditional broadcast commercial spots to sustained video storytelling, they must be careful to not bring their bad habits with them. Instead, they should reimagine common environments, plots, and characters in original ways to stand out from overcooked narratives.

“Lose Yourself in Toronto” is a video Bodanis and crew made for a tourism marketing conference about a year and a half ago. In it, he and his team display the city from fresh angles by following two strangers turned (very) fast friends. He explains.

The challenge to our creative team was simple: make a video for Toronto that would appeal to a Millennial audience. We wanted to be unconventional in our approach. No gratuitous shots of the CN Tower, Honest Ed’s, the Skydome, and all the other cliche things that people associate with our city. We wanted to create a youthful impression of the city and the experiences people can have here. This video is a good example of how a place can be perceived in different ways depending on where you put the camera and where you stage the action.

Had we used a more standard approach to the location selection it would have sent a very different message about the possibilities for people visiting the city, and would have failed to speak to the target audience. Young people want to be social. They want to grab a beer. Grab a coffee. Hang out. Go to Kensington Market. Have a random adventure. Meet someone new. Throw away the game plan. Looking at a tower says, “Hey, see the sights.” We wanted our video to be about possibilities, not sights.


Whether brands are selling a city, a service, or a product, finding ways to make tired topics interesting will allow brands’ video marketing to stand out, get shared, and be remembered.

Prepare for the alien invasion (learn video trends)

In the last few years, media brands and agencies have taken immense strides with video storytelling, letting consumers engage with stories in new ways—namely, by creating interactive, highly-engaging video websites. What’s more powerful, a static video that users navigate away from the website to watch, or an immersive video story that encourages people to poke around? By placing your video within the fabric of your website, you are inherently signaling to the visitor, this story is front and center—pay attention to this.

In 2014, the National Film Board of Canada, in partnership with The Guardian, released Seven Digital Deadly Sins, an interactive video website that showcased artists and celebrities talking about how their online behavior has affected their ability to communicate, relating the traditional seven deadly sins from Christianity—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—to people’s digital habits in the twenty-first century. On the website, you can click through the sins and indulge in stunning graphics, real-time polls (do you order stuff online just to get free shipping—absolve or condemn?)—and read a story about peoples’ gluttonous tendencies to Instagram food. And video is at the center of it all. Watch as English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg admits how viral videos eat away from time that he used to spend writing songs.

There’s no reason why enterprise brands can’t emulate the innovative visual storytelling medium that media sites and agencies are currently exploring. They have the deep pockets to do so and are beginning to corral content marketers who have the skills to make it happen, hiring experts at a creative agency or having in-house talent work with one of the many interactive video tools available. “The boundaries between Web design and video are more blurred every day, with video woven into the fabric of sites in ways that allow the user to manipulate and explore the content effortlessly,” says Green. “This has opened up a whole new world of creative possibility for brands to help users shape their stories.”

Compare that cliche cat commercial I recalled earlier in the piece to a story like Seven Digital Deadly Sins. There’s absolutely no comparison, right?

As content creators, we must continue to push the boundaries of video storytelling, learning the design, production, and distribution best practices, and always, always remember to take risks in storytelling, video or not. Right now, 360-degree interactive videos are in their nascency. Virtual reality, in the public’s mind, is still mostly a concept of science fiction. Very few people are creating these new videos (granted, they are much more expensive to produce than standard video format). But that does not mean video storytellers should shrug them off. In a few years, as high-quality technology falls in price and more creatives learn how it make 360-video, they may be the new norm.

Storytellers, it is our responsibility to stay on top of these trends, so when they suddenly seem to dust the Earth like pollen, we are ready to act.

Seven Deadly Sins, The Guardian, Interactive Video

Just keep going

No one knows for sure where video technology will take content marketers in the years to come, but we do have a few thousand years of experience as to what makes a good story, 4D or not. With the rush of technological advancements being applied to storytelling, let’s not forget to revisit the basics every once in a while: our characters and conflicts—the sources of empathy for the audience. Do we know who or what they are? If we can’t identify the principal players, the story isn’t ready to be shared with every person in every corner of the Web. At the same time, content creators need to let the story surprise them and their audience. The last thing they should offer is a processed package of predictable story—like that cat commercial I mentioned earlier. As writer George Saunders explains to The Atlantic in a recent video, “A bad story is one where you know what the story is and you’re sure of it.”

While this is somewhat metaphorically put, there’s truth to the power of iteration Saunders is getting at. Whether you’re a writer, videographer, photographer, designer, or another creative professional navigating the ever-changing content marketing and brand storytelling landscapes, compare your early drafts to the final products. If you’re like me, you sometimes worry your work isn’t good enough. Rest assured, it is a thousand times better than the first time you sat down to craft the story. And with that, we can find great consolation in times of doubt.

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