Adventures in Storytelling: Good Things Come in Small Packages

(Reprinted with permission by the Wave One Group.)

With planning and focus, 90 seconds is plenty of time to tell a concise and meaningful visual story.Back in the Ice Age of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I learned a couple of road rules as a newly minted TV news reporter: find the “people angle” in every story; and keep your stories focused and short.

The ‘people angle’ I got right away; brevity and focus were another matter. Countless times I would return from a 2-3 hour shoot, only be told by a show producer, “I need a minute-45 for the pack and the lead-in.’’ In English, this meant: write 15 seconds of copy for the anchor to introduce your story, then write a 90-second news story, which would include a couple of short interviews, voiceover narration and an on-camera transition. The tight deadlines of TV news meant I’d usually have an hour to write, narrate, and edit my story.

I often chafed at the 90-second story rule. Ninety-seconds isn’t nearly enough time to tell a strong story, I’d cry. I need more time! Sometimes my begging worked and I got an extra 30-45 seconds; usually I didn’t. But over time, I learned that with planning and focus, 90 seconds was plenty of time to tell a concise and meaningful visual TV news story.

It turns out 90 seconds also is enough time to tell a convincing and compelling visual story to broadcast over the Internet. While we continue to tell longer stories, many of our clients are benefitting from these shorter online versions.

Here are some of our favorite storytelling rules that have held up over time:

  • Keep a tight focus on your message. A 90-second to three-minute story needs only one theme, and 2-3 supporting elements.
  • If you are using a documentary style “in their own words” approach, as we do, include (ideally) two, but no more than three people as your subjects. You will need to briefly introduce your subjects and explain their connection to the story.
  • Keep your interviews focused and concise. Most of the time, 10-15 minutes are all you need to capture the kinds of comments that will help you tell your story.
  • If you plan to use written text or voiceover narration, remember that the words you use need to weave together the interviews and visual images. You don't need to write 90-seconds of narration for a 90-second story, because you will be using interviews, visuals and other story elements to fill the time.
  • Thoughtfully plan your visual approach so that the footage you capture and the still images you use compliment the content contained in your interviews.

I never thought the techniques I used to produce TV news stories so many years ago are the same techniques I'm relying on today to produce online films and visual stories. It tells me that the amount of time you have to present a story isn't nearly as important as the thoughtful, focused and strategic way you choose to tell it.

Holly Paige is the head of Wave One Group and a video storytelling consultant to CFM and its clients. Learn more about Holly