6 Ways to Raise the Bar on Higher Ed Videos

Short attention spans mean you need to up your game. Here’s how.

March 29, 2016

Today’s higher education marketing is increasingly strategic. We have data-driven decision making, sophisticated branding campaigns and advanced social media analytics. Then why are higher education videos still so achingly dull? Can we blame people for not watching them?

The days of throwing together random clips of an event (reunion, commencement, orientation, et al.) and adding background music are long over. Viewers are just not interested. Research by Microsoft has shown that the average attention span shrank to 8 seconds in 2013, down from 12 seconds in 2000. (And that’s one second less than a goldfish.) In this distracted world, how do you grab viewers’ attention?

Here are some tips on how to make your videos stand out and be noticed.

Tell a story. Make viewers feel something. Involve viewers emotionally in your story – and leave them wanting more. In order to accomplish this, you need to care about the story first. If you care, we will too. One sure way to connect with viewers is to focus on a main character. Who is the best person to tell your story? Chances are, that person is not the university president or the lead donor for your new science center. “The most powerful story is usually from the least powerful person,” according to PBS NewsHour correspondent John Larson.

And from these small stories, a larger point can often be made. But how do you find these stories? Be curious and dig deeper. Let go of your preconceptions. There are fascinating people and stories waiting to be told on every campus.

Lead with the good stuff. Remember that short attention span? (Congratulations if you’ve read this far!) If you begin your video with five seconds of your college’s spinning logo and dazzling branding, you’re eating up precious time. Instead, jump right into the action. Pull viewers into the story as quickly as you can. If you must use the logo, save it for the end.

Show something we haven’t seen before. Video is a visual medium. Extended shots of talking heads and static buildings kill your story’s momentum and send your viewers elsewhere. Keep your video flowing. Show action and then reaction. Build movement with effective cuts. You’ll want to learn about shot sequencing and editing. Be sure to include a variety of shots: wide, medium and tight. For tight shots, get really close to your subject. Show viewers telling details and bring them close to your story.

Use natural sound. Be sure to include the sound that matches the video we are watching. Natural sound (footsteps in the hallway, a flag flapping in the breeze) makes the image more real for the viewer. Good sound moves the story forward and adds texture and a deeper layer. While it’s useful to record interviews in a controlled environment where you can set the lighting and limit the background noise, it can be powerful to interview your subjects while they are actively doing something. The action and the associated sound will give the video a boost of realism and impact.

Focus the story. What is the story about? And why should we care? What is the best way to tell the story visually? You need to start thinking about editing before you shoot a single frame. It’s amazingly helpful to create a rough storyboard, sketching out the main shots you will need. To quote Ansel Adams: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Provide a strong ending. Know where your story is going and shoot and edit the video with purpose. Make sure your story has a beginning, middle and end, and make the ending a powerful one. To keep viewers interested, include elements of suspense and surprise. And, it goes without saying, keep your videos short. Two minutes is a good guideline.

It’s time for higher education videos to reach the next level. What are compelling visual stories you can tell about your institution?

Jill Weaver is a consultant and visual storyteller. She served as director of online communications for Connecticut College, where one of her videos was featured on YouTube’s home page.


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