Four do’s, four don’t’s, and one simple tip for hooking your viewers!

Without even realizing it, you could be SABOTAGING YOUR VIDEO.

(How’s that for hyperbole?  Yeah, I’m not quite as familiar with hooking readers as I am with hooking viewers.  BUT BEAR WITH ME.)

It’s the little things that can make the biggest difference.  You might have the best and most useful content in the universe, but your audience might never actually see it if you don’t hook them right off the bat!

In keeping with our philosophy of showing-not-telling, here’s our Video Guide to the subject!

(Here’s a mobile link, in case the embedded video looks funny.)

Let’s look at each of our suggestions individually.

Don’t start with a deadpan introduction!  Instead, do something unexpected.

The most natural thing in the universe is to talk about yourself.  That’s why most YouTube videos start with, “Hey, YouTubers!  Here’s some thing I did.”

Introducing yourself while looking bored and then talking about something cool you’re doing?  That’s a good way to cement your video’s status firmly in the let-me-see-if-I-can-remove-the-radiator-with-one-hand-while-holding-the-camera-in-my-other-hand caste.

The good news is that, because this is what everyone does, you’re at an advantage if you start your video any other way.

On the subject of stickiness

Chip and Dan Heath wrote an incredible book called “Made to Stick“.  It is the best and I heartily recommend that you read it right now!

As defined by the Brothers Heath, these are the six ingredients of an idea that will stick in people’s minds.

  • Simple – the presentation of an idea must be boiled down to its single, most indispensable element.
  • Unexpected – break your audience’s “guessing machines” by revealing something they don’t know, and then fill the gap in their knowledge.
  • Concrete – Focus on sensory information and human actions instead of abstract concepts.  (In other words, kill the jargon.)
  • Credible – your idea must carry credentials.  Does it come from an expert?  Can you test it yourself?
  • Emotional – Make your audience feel something!
  • Story – Put your audience in situations they could otherwise never experience.

It was straight out of this book that we pulled the “Unexpected” principle.  And, when you look closely, every one of our “DO!” suggestions have their roots in unexpectedness:  the ice cubes falling out of a cereal box, the interrupted interview, and the recipient of the surprise party.

Just make sure there’s a reason for your unexpectedness; as the Brothers Heath warn us, a pointless surprise is an obnoxious one.

Surprise makes us want to find an answer—to resolve the question of why we were surprised—and big surprises call for big answers.


How can you make your video a little more unexpected without being annoying?

  • Make a product video:  “This is our Opthalmizer 2000.  Here are all the ways it sucks.  … And that’s why, based on your feedback, we came up with the Opthalmizer 3000!”
  • Start drawing your whiteboard explainer – and then scratch it out and start again.  And again, and again.  (This would be best suited for explaining an iterative product design process, or embracing failure, or learning from mistakes.)
  • Doing the talking-head-with-text-over-your-shoulder thing?  Consider the Stephen Colbert shtick where the text starts disagreeing with the talking head.  Use this as an opportunity, perhaps, to lampoon the “overly polished” feel of most corporate video.


Don’t start with someone’s boring life story! Do get right to the action.

This is really just a variant of the first thing, but now we’re stepping up to fancy videos with decent lighting and makeup and an air of professionalism.  Unfortunately, the same temptation applies:  it’s just one person talking about him- or herself, and it is the start of EVERY WELL-LIT VIDEO EVER (right after the long establishing shots, which I discuss below).  Unless they’re gonna start rattling off stories about beating up criminals, I, for one, would probably pass!  Skip all that and get right to the good stuff.

Of course, in order to get right to the action, there has to actually be some action.


How can you add action to a typically “boring” subject?

  • If you’re making a video about manufacturing efficiency, you would do well to mention that one time you beat your old units-shipped-in-one-hour record, but to really have an impact, you could set up a new contest whereupon you break it again, live and on camera!  Let your viewers be a part of it.  Let them cheer for you.  Make them love you.
  • Say you’re a non-profit that teaches kids how to fix computers so that they can get jobs, and you’re trying to show potential corporate donors how good you are at what you do.  Sure, you could talk about how your program has helped kids, or you could have one of your smartest, cutest kids crack open a computer and teach the camera how to fix it, in one or two uninterrupted shots.  Show, don’t tell.

Oh, and for goodness’ sake, start with the action.


Don’t go overboard with long, drawn-out establishing shots. But do show your human side.

We get it:  you want to be filmic, and you want your organization to look awesome.  But while it’s fun to believe that your audience is sitting in a somewhat-comfortable seat, munching on somewhat-fresh popcorn, in a somewhat-fire-code-compliant movie theater, ready to soak in whatever’s put in front of them…


… this is, unfortunately, not the case.  Here’s what someone in your audience really looks like:


Hey, uh… can we steal that white backdrop if you’re not using it?

Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe, in their excellent book The Viral Video Manifesto (which you should read even if you’re not trying to go viral), tell their story about a video they once produced…

Most tellingly— and the single biggest reason we think the piece didn’t get even more views— is that it takes an agonizing 58 seconds before we get to the good stuff. It takes 40 seconds before we even introduce what we’re about to do. Before that are shots that establish that we’re in an office, shots that establish various characters who are there with us, and so on. The problem was, we had all kinds of fun, crazy creations that we had built using a quarter of a million sticky notes, but we made our audience wait for almost a minute before we showed them any of that.


In Internet video time, that’s an eternity, and we know we lost viewers by the hundreds of thousands in that precious first minute. We could see it in the YouTube analytics.

Long, sweeping, dramatic intro shots are a fine way to set the mood for a short film at a film festival.  But when your audience’s “back” button is so close at hand, you need to set the mood immediately.  And the most efficient way to do that is to provide an instant human connection.

Showing a real thing happening, such as a surprise party, is not only genuine, but it’s emotional, and it tells a story in miniature – two more tenets of stickiness – while significantly reducing the risk of putting your audience to sleep.

Even though our surprise party shot was staged, it’s tough to suppress a smile when you’re getting covered in Silly String.  And, unless you hate us and everything we stand for, we’re pretty sure that Rob’s genuine smile put a smile on your face, too.  At least a tiny one.  And – even better! – we expect that you’re at least slightly fond of the company that threw the surprise party, even though it doesn’t exist.

By the way, I don’t advocate faking something like this.  We’re allowed to do it because we’re just proving a point.  But we think Seth Godin would have our backs when we say that creating the illusion of joy and happiness just to make a sale is a dangerous, dangerous game.  Your job is to find the times where this sort of thing really happens in your organization!



I’d gladly highlight my organization’s culture if we weren’t so freakin’ BORING.  Am I out of luck?

  • Think harder!  You know those two or three people who get a little tipsy at the annual holiday party and start belting out Christmas carols really loudly?  Grab a camera, pull them aside, and ask if they’d be willing to make a “video Christmas card” for your customers!
  • Find the one or two people who are actually interesting, ask them to be on camera, and then share that video with everyone else in your organization.  It might just inspire other people to be interesting too.  (Social proof is a funny thing.)
  • Find a way to get people to smile or laugh or tell a joke.  It’s just that easy!


Do cold-open with a good metaphor – but don’t start it ten seconds too late.

Once again, this is a symptom of wanting to look awesome.  You want to throw in some more establishing shots, or some titles, or an introduction, or, y’know, something.  Unfortunately, that’s an opportunity for your audience to bail – before they ever see your carefully-crafted metaphor.

Our intended effect was this:  a guy opens a cereal box, and instead of cereal, ice comes out.  “Huh?  Why is it ice?”, I hope you were saying.  (More unexpectedness!)

And then he opens the milk, and it’s more ice.

And then there’s a box, and it also contains ice.

And, if nothing else, you probably wanted to keep watching, if only to see just how bad the pun would be.  (We hope we didn’t disappoint you.)

This one also finds explanation in the Made to Stick book:  we were creating a curiosity gap.  We broke your guessing machine (which incorrectly guessed that cereal was going to come out), and then you had to know just where we were going with this.


Okay, fine, I’ll start with a metaphor. But where do I get one of those in the first place?

The Brothers Heath have some suggestions for us here.  (Seriously, go read the book.)

  • Create a high-concept pitch.  (The movie Alien was originally billed as “Jaws in space”, for example.)  Are your fans wondering why it can take so long to track down and fix the bugs they’ve submitted?  I can say, from personal experience, that bug-hunting is a lot like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole.  Sometimes, it’s more like the aforementioned Jaws:  the beast lurks unseen, even though you know it’s there, and then rears its head when you least expect it.  There’s your concept!  (Just make sure the mallet, or the shark, or whatever, appears sooner rather than later.)
  • Create a generative analogy.  (For instance, Disney employees are known as “cast members”.)  Say your company is about to launch their public beta, and behind the scenes, the, ahem… Bug Sheriff* has been brought on board to turn this lawless code into a civilized product – but he can only do his job if you let him know of any funny business going on.

* You might want to come up with something a little less groan-worthy.


If you do nothing else, try cutting the first fifteen seconds of your video.

There’s one more common theme amongst these tips:  they all have to do with getting to the point.

There’s a good chance that the point of your video doesn’t happen until X seconds in, and everything leading up to it is only there because you feel like it should be there:  explaining in great detail why you feel like this is an important question and why you’re qualified to answer it, mentioning that maybe this isn’t the best answer but it should still be useful, or whatever.

You’re also usually nervous because the camera just started rolling and you’re stammering through your introduction.

Here’s an alternative idea:  get right to the good stuff and let viewers decide for themselves whether you know what you’re talking about.

If you feel like you’re losing something important, test it on a tiny audience first.  See if they like the chopped version.  Do they feel like anything’s missing?


In summary…

  • Do something weird, unexpected, and/or symbolic to get your audience’s attention – but make sure there’s a reason for it.
  • Find, and show, the parts of your organization that are really and truly awesome.
  • Get right to the action.  Don’t waste our time!


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