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Class Act: What Makes for Compelling Video?

[Editor's note: This column appears in the December/January issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

An ongoing project for my department is to produce video profiles of our school’s faculty. The foundation for these videos is an interview with the professor combined with B-roll of him or her teaching class, conducting research, and working with students. One goal of these profiles is to promote the school by letting potential students see and meet the faculty in a way that’s difficult to do with just a short bio or CV.

This project was already underway when I started my job, but it’s one that I really enjoy working on. In addition, when I’m looking at other college and university websites, I am drawn to short videos that show me more about the institutions’ faculty and students. There’s something you can learn about a person by watching him or her speak, work, or teach that is otherwise hard to perceive outside of an in-person meeting.

Working on these videos made me reflect on exactly what makes them compelling. An answer hit me when I stumbled upon some profile videos on the website of another notable school. On the surface, these videos had the same approach and purpose: Professors talk to the camera about their work, their approach to teaching, and their interest in working for that particular school. But the other school’s videos left me cold by comparison.

One difference was production value. The other school’s videos were competently shot using a tripod with a medium shot and existing room light. There were no edits or cuts, just one take lasting a couple of minutes. And the slightly echoey sound indicates that the camcorder’s built-in microphone was used instead of an external mic. They’re not at all painful to watch as short videos; by and large, the simple production values don’t interfere with the message. But with our videos, we put effort into the fundamentals of good lighting and sound, sometimes shooting with multiple cameras to create visual interest. Production values don’t necessarily make or break a video, though—content is the key.

And it was the content of the other school’s videos that caught my attention, but not in a good way. While the professors featured in the videos give fine little monologues, there was just no good reason to watch the videos. The professors who were engaging speakers kept me listening, if not watching, but I quickly lost interest in the ones who were drier. Even with the professors who kept my interest, I kept wondering to myself, "Why am I watching or even just listening to this?" I could probably read the transcript faster than it takes to watch the whole video.

That really is the question: Why are this school’s administrators asking me to watch their faculty profile videos? What are they trying to communicate? Why did they choose video instead of another medium? My guess is that the producers have only really considered the last question: Why video? Unfortunately, I bet their rationale is something along the lines of, "Video is cool," or, even worse, "Because everyone else is doing it."

No doubt, there is a place for the simple interview or lecture video. Programs such as Charlie Rose have demonstrated that a simply recorded interview can make for engaging viewing. But a defining feature of this approach is the fact that you’re presenting this content to an audience that already has a reason to view it.

A profile video, however, is essentially a promotional vehicle. As any experienced publicist will tell you, you need to give the audience a reason to pay attention and stay tuned in. As obvious as it seems, too many videos miss the point that it’s a visual medium. One of the most powerful reasons to choose video is that you have something to show, not just to tell.

That’s the point I think this other school missed with its faculty profile videos. Clocking in at a little more than 2 minutes each, they had very little to show me except the professors’ smiling faces—something I could see just as well in a still photograph. It’s all well and good to see the professor talk for a couple minutes, but as a potential student, what I’d really like to see is that same professor in the classroom, collaborating with students or working on something representative of his or her field. Those are the types of images that we go to great pains to capture and integrate into our profiles.

This principle applies broadly to just about any video you might want to produce, not just those with a promotional purpose. When videos are required viewing for a class, most decent students will watch, even if the videos are dreadfully boring. Nevertheless, students will pay closer attention and learn more if the video takes advantage of visuals to show and demonstrate things in ways that are harder to accomplish with print or audio.

If your school is willing to invest in producing video, it’s just a short step further to make sure you have something compelling to show, not just something to say.

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