Start With Story: Why Storytelling is the Foundation of An Effective Video

A lot of creative agencies throw around the phrase, “we are storytellers.” It’s proudly declared at the top of home pages and narrated in demo reels. It’s become a buzzword and as a result, the meaning has become a bit lost. Have you ever seen a commercial or video that just left you feeling kind of, meh? It might have had gorgeous cinematography, precise, clean editing, and impressive graphics… but at the end you just didn’t feel any kind of emotion. You’ll likely forget you ever saw the ad and you certainly won’t be purchasing whatever product was being advertised. What was missing from this piece you ask? Story.

When we begin a project, one of the most important details to lock down is what our client hopes to accomplish with their video. They often understand that video is important but what we work with them to figure out is why it is important for them. What are we trying to accomplish or convey? Once those questions are answered we can then begin develop the story.

Storytelling in advertising presents an interesting challenge: frequently, an entire story needs to be told very quickly (sometimes in just a few seconds!). You don’t have to pace your storytelling elements and let them breathe. They have to be clear, concise, and hard-hitting. A recent example for us is a pre-roll commercial for C&J Bus Lines.

For this spot, the client wanted to convey the convenience or their bus, and the many amenities that you don’t get when driving your car: things like wi-Fi, a coffee maker, and a bathroom. The simple approach is to board one of their buses, light it beautifully, and capture stunning shots of these amenities. But that approach has no story and wouldn’t leave a lasting impact with the viewer. So, we needed to come up with a story.

With their commuter demographic in mind, we developed the story of a man who’s rushing out the door for work. Because he wants to make his commute to work as comfortable and convenient as possible, he’s made some (rather silly) modifications to his car. The challenge was how to convey all these important story elements in our limited window time. The answer, in this case, was to use very strategic visuals. Every shot in the commercial has a specific purpose. Everything is done with intention. There are no shots that are simply filler, visuals that just cover an edit and do nothing to further the story, wallpaper as I like to call it.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of using storytelling to sell a product:

I was a huge fan of this ad when it came out. It’s so effective because in just over 90 seconds you feel as though you’ve lived a lifetime with this family. All of the elements of this piece from the visuals, to the sound design, to the music, are all expertly intertwined and they hit you right in the feels. The sequence of the grandfather sitting at the table Christmas after Christmas alone was particularly powerful. You can feel for him, and associate those feelings with your own grandfather. The sadness of the next sequence is also very emotional. They are hitting on something that we’ve all felt: the loss of a loved one. The sorrow is well-demonstrated by the actors. And then finally, the payoff. Oh Grandpa! You sick, sadistic jokester. All the sadness you felt is instantly transformed into laughter and warm fuzzies as you watch the family enjoy their Christmas together. Remember, you’ve only known them for about 90 seconds, yet you feel like you’ve lived a lifetime with them. That is powerful storytelling right there.

As we progress through life, we are all essentially building our own story. Every life lived on this planet will have a beginning, middle, and end. Our stories will be filled with joy, sorrow, anxiety, humor, and love. Understanding these emotions and how to convey or recreate them is the true magic of any kind of storytelling whether you’re an author, a painter, a musician, or a filmmaker. In our line of work, it’s our job to instill emotion, convey a message, and hopefully get into your mind and influence the way you think. Kind of creepy, right?

Lastly, here’s a little “behind the scenes” piece on the C&J commercial above. It’ll give you a more detailed look into our process, and how things work when we’re on set.