Among actors, directors, and filmmakers of all stripes, there is a commonly heard phrase: “It all starts with the script”.
This is true of any production, be it a feature film or short video. No matter the complexity of a video, the script is the starting-point—the source material. If the script isn’t right, you can safely bet that your video production will encounter problems down the line.
Organizations of all kinds are using video in their marketing and communications, and that means writing for video is becoming an essential skill for communicators. But most have either never written a video script and don’t know where to start, or they’ve tried it and discovered how much there is to learn about the craft.
A video script is different from most other communications documents – it’s a blueprint for a video, and that means it has unique challenges. Some of those challenges are what we will address below in order to help you write more effective scripts, while teaching you to collaborate more effectively with professional script writers.
In this interactive guide, we’ll cover the following:
Why Storytelling Matters
Of the many buzzwords that have entered the language of marketing, few have been as pervasive as the word ‘storytelling’. But what does this word really mean, and why has it become so popular?
The first thing to keep in mind about storytelling is that it is not a new phenomenon – in fact it’s very old. Even before the invention of written language, people told stories as a way of understanding their world and sharing ideas.
From cave paintings to religious parables, from Mt. Olympus to Hollywood, many of the most enduring ideas in human culture have been presented in the form of a story.
Of course, some things have changed over the past few thousand years. Today we have all kinds of new technology for communicating ideas. Yet, for all these changes, our instincts are still very much the same – we still connect with those that engage our curiosity, and rouse our emotion.
In other words, storytelling is not just a marketing fad – it’s a big part of what we are, and it’s very powerful.
So what exactly is a story?
Stories come in many shapes and sizes. Feature films have stories (well, the good ones do), but thirty-second promos also have stories. Despite variations in length, they all work the same way – they hook the viewer’s attention, develop a premise, and work towards a resolution.
In other words, “story” really just means a series of events or ideas arranged into a particular order. Sometimes called “narrative”, this format is intuitively appealing to us. A cause-effect structure is much better at holding our attention.
Why are stories better?
In order to understand why we all share this deep affinity for stories, it’s important to understand how storytelling affects us on a fundamental level.
Research in brain science has recently shed some light on this. As it turns out, when we take in information – say, in a power-point presentation or a lecture – our brains decode the language into meaning, but most of our brain is actually inactive. Simply put, information is just plain old boring.
However, if we’re given that same information in the form of a story, our minds are much more engaged. Our brains don’t like to simplyprocess information; we respond much better to ideas if we can connect with them intellectually and emotionally.
That’s why storytelling is so much more powerful than just telling. It’s certainly possible to persuade an audience with facts and figures, but if you want to inspire your audience, you must speak to them on a deeper level.
Video: The Ultimate Storytelling Tool
Considering what we now know about storytelling, it should come as no surprise that video is the medium of choice for sharing ideas today. Video engages us both visually and aurally, so it can literally give a story a human face, and a human voice.
The fundamental need for a good story is inherently human, and that will almost certainly never change. When you’re creating your next video, remember that the true value of video emerges out of its unparalleled storytelling potential.
The Lion and the Woodcutter
Even a video with minimal production can be very engaging, so long as the story adheres to a basic dramatic structure, as exemplified in the video below featuring our writer Andrew.
Using Video to Teach
Video has proven itself as a powerful itself as a powerful communications tool, and part of that success lies in its ability to teach. There are many reasons for this, and it perhaps comes as no surprise. In order to really make use of the teaching power of video, there are a few questions you should always ask.
Will a Video Actually Improve Instruction?
Though it may surprise you, the answer to this question is sometimes NO. For example, if the material you want to teach is so dense that it requires the viewer to pause or rewind the video, then your audience may prefer to read it. Video may have a reputation for being “easier than reading”, but there are cases where the reverse is true. Sometimes, it’s better to give your audience the power to revisit or re-read at their discretion without making them scrub through a video.
How Can Visuals Be Used to Your Advantage?
Every classroom has a chalkboard, and a good teacher knows how and when to use it. Simply put, visual elements should supplement or support the narration. If done properly, this can have enormous instructional benefit. In this case of video, this is achieved with skillful scriptwriting. To demonstrate this, we created our own instructional video.
How Invested is Your Audience?
If your target audience is already invested in learning about your content, then you’re in good shape – if you deliver the instructional goods, you should have no problem retaining your audience and giving them value. However, if you’re thinking about using an educational or instructional video to create awareness, then you might want to re-think your video strategy and ask yourself a few important questions first.
The main takeaway is that, like all good videos, educational or instructional videos must be rooted in some sense of purpose. Think carefully about the specific value you are hoping to offer your audience, and then give due respect to the creative process needed to get you there.
How Long Should a Video Be?
“Is there an ideal length that a video should be?” This is something we get asked quite often but, unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as one would hope.
It’s tempting to simply say that “shorter is always better”, especially for videos of a promotional nature, but can a video be too short to be effective? How long is too long, anyway? Forget about a one-size-fits-all approach. Here are 5 things to consider instead.
1. What is the purpose of the video?
A commercial is obviously quite different than a training video and should generally be kept much shorter. But increasingly, educational videos are being used in online content marketing with the goal of generating leads and ultimately increasing sales. Educational videos tend to perform well on YouTube and many marketers use video to educate customers about their company’s products and services. It may take a little longer to explain something in sufficient detail for the video to be useful which is okay, provided the viewer was prepared for a lengthy tutorial. Some studies have shown that average viewer retention rates tend to be roughly the same for online videos around 3-4 minutes in length as 5-10 minutes, but that viewers decide within the first 30 seconds whether they will continue to watch the rest of the video – a clear indication that expectations matter.
2. What action do you hope the viewer will take?
If having your video be shared is your goal, then shorter still isn’t always better. In fact, according to ReelSeo.com “many of the new statistics point to videos that are longer than 2-3 minutes are shared more often, possibly because there is more time for your audience to have a more emotional connection resulting in them forwarding the link to other people.” The Kony 2012 documentary is a good example of this. Having said that, if your call-to-action requires that the viewer actually makes it to the end of the video, then you may want to keep it shorter and with a fairly abrupt ending. If you drag it out, they’ll get the indication it’s over and may stop watching prematurely.
3. How captive is your audience?
A good staff training video can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours in length. Provided that the video is sufficiently engaging and that your staff is getting paid to watch, then they of course will. Now compare this with a scenario where someone stumbled upon your video on YouTube. With the distractions of email, Facebook, and other suggested videos on YouTube itself, your video would have to be fairly concise and very engaging. Consider how your viewers will come to watch your video and shape its structure and length accordingly. If you have a captive audience who is expecting to see an in-depth presentation, you can afford to go into much more detail and perhaps at a slower pace. Otherwise, keep it brief.
4. Is all of the content necessary?
As powerful as it can be, there are many times when video might not be the best solution. If you find yourself trying to ‘convert’ existing content (such as a Power Point presentation) into a video, as opposed to developing it naturally, it’s a strong indication that you might be headed in the wrong direction. Video tends to work best when an idea would be better communicated using a visual and audio element or perhaps animation to be interesting or understood, instead of trying to summarize an entire document or webpage in a single video. Take a hard look at your script and think about what information might be better conveyed in a separate document or webpage for those who may be interested in learning more. If it doesn’t directly support the key message and call-to-action, then cut it!
5. Would this be better as a series?
Scripts can often start out brief and engaging until other well-intended stakeholders provide their own input. A brief company overview video can quickly become a detailed description of every product or service the company offers, as well as a recruitment campaign for new staff and an on-boarding video for employees – a 2-3 minute video becomes a 15 minute epic. Then what? With some of the above considerations in mind, producing a series of shorter, more targeted videos might be a solution. Producing a series of videos needn’t be much more expensive than a single presentation. Economies of scale may be introduced by re-purposing footage and motion graphics, and with video being very ‘modular’ by nature, these alternate versions may be created at any time.
Tips For Writing More Effective Video Scripts
Ironically, there is no script for how to write a script. Each video is different, and your writing will have to adapt to meet the unique demands of each video project. But the principles outlined here are excellent standards by which to proceed. Just remember this wise scriptwriter’s aphorism: “Scripts are not meant to be read; they are meant to be watched.”
1. Separate the Audio from the Visual
It’s helpful to remember that a video communicates information in two streams: audio and visual. Of course, the viewer experiences both streams simultaneously, so it’s important for these streams to work together. If you’ve ever created a PowerPoint presentation, then you are familiar with this principle. But video takes it to a whole new level.
Scriptwriters use a format called the “Audio/Visual Script”. The idea is simple: you separate the audio and visual narratives into two columns. On the left side, you describe what the viewer is seeing, and on the right side you write the dialogue.
It also makes sense to separate the columns into discrete rows. This helps to pace out the script, and ensure that the images align with the dialogue.
This format isn’t necessary, but it is certainly advisable. Even if you’re the only person who ever sees the script, it’s useful to outline the content for pace and flow – elements that are more important in scriptwriting than in most other forms of writing.
2. Script For The Edit
You might be wondering how scripting relates to editing. For example, will the editor look to the script when determining when and where to cut the footage? There is no general rule for how this is done, but it’s helpful to think of editing as a tool in your scriptwriter’s tool belt.
Here’s a short video that demonstrates how different kinds of editing can actually be consciously scripted in a simple video.
3. Beware Abstract Language
Language ranges in abstraction. Some words describe ideas that are highly abstract like “efficiency”, “gratitude”, or “growth”. Other words describe ideas that are much more concrete – things like “truck”, “dog” or “windmill”. You can always tell which ideas are more concrete because you can easily picture them. If you were playing Pictionary, you’d have an easier time drawing a “dog” than you would drawing “gratitude”.
This is important, because language in the “visual” column of a script cannot be abstract; it must describe images in literal detail. If your “audio” column reads “This year we improved efficiency by 15%”, your visual column should not read something like “image of efficiency”. It must read “bar graph of last year’s increase in efficiency” – or maybe “green arrow grows and trends upward along a horizontal axis”. In both of these examples, you can close your eyes and see the image clearly. Writing with concrete language will reduce ambiguity among the various people involved in the project. Don’t leave your script up to interpretation.
4. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud
As an experiment, try reading this sentence out loud:
This year was one of our best (it was very profitable) because we improved our processes.
Using parentheses in this way is tolerable in writing, but can be problematic if written as dialogue. The problem is that nobody hears parentheses. If you read this sentence aloud, that small parenthetical remark confuses the grammar of the sentence, and thus confuses the listener.
That is why you must be very precise with punctuation when writing dialogue. Try to avoid complex clause structures, and use periods more than you use commas. Often, you won’t see the problem in the punctuation until you’ve actually uttered the words.
And while you’re at it, look for natural emphases in your dialogue. If a word is important, SHOW IT to your reader in capital letters. This not only helps your speaker’s voice to be more dynamic; it can also affect the meaning of the words in subtle ways. Consider the difference between: “We’re eating dinner at HOME at seven o’clock,” and “We’re eating dinner at home at SEVEN o’clock”. In each case, the speaker’s dialogue has two distinct meanings whose effect derives from the intonation of one word. If you read your dialogue out loud, you will likely discover that you naturally emphasize certain words and phrases. If you do, re-write them in caps-lock; otherwise, your speaker might intone incorrectly, and change the meaning of your script.
5. Use Storytelling, Even If “There’s No Story”
One important point about videos is that they all strive for engagement. Simply put, if you have a boring video, nobody will watch it, and then it won’t matter how ‘on message’ it is. That message simply won’t be heard. So how can you win the battle against boredom?
As you can imagine, there are many different creative ways to make a video interesting, but the tried-tested-and-true principle that underlies all good scriptwriting is storytelling. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need characters, a plot, and a moral; it only means you need to write with narrative logic.
The primary distinction here is that the writing flows – each new piece of information builds on the last, and all of the information is bound together, link by link, in a sequential chain of cause and effect. This way of presenting information is easier for our brains to process. It helps people to understand and remember. And best of all, it keeps people asking “what’s next?”
6. Consider Your Objective
Before you even sit down to write a script, you should imagine what the video will look like. But you should also imagine how, where, and why your viewer is watching. Are they scrolling through Facebook? Are they sitting in a conference? Are they considering buying the product? Have they even heard of the product?
Even basic questions like How long is the video? and What is the call to action? are important strategic questions. As a scriptwriter, you are not necessarily responsible for developing that strategy, but you certainly need to know it in order to write an effective script. Your job, after all, is not only to engage, but also to produce results. If you’re not perfectly clear on what that result is, get clarification from your collaborators before you write a single line of dialogue.
How to Review a Script
When reviewing a script that someone else has written, or when asking for feedback from your team, it’s important to keep the goals of the project in mind. Watch the video below for a few considerations.
Benefits of Hiring a Professional Scriptwriter
You’ve now got a good sense of the importance of a well-crafted script. So why not just write the script yourself?
Here are 8 benefits to hiring a professional.
1) They’re Part of the Team
Making a video requires collaboration. Camera operators, animators, editors, actors—all of these people are involved in the production of a video, and all of them refer to the script. A dedicated scriptwriter works closely with the team, and understands their specific needs. This kind of fluid working relationship is key; the free and immediate exchange of creative energy goes a long way, and often makes the difference between a good video and a great one.
2) They Write for Performance
Scripts are different from most writing in one very important way; whereas most writing is only meant to be read, scripts must beperformed. This calls for a particular kind of writing skill—even something as simple as the emphasis on a word can drastically change how a message comes across, especially if the script is being acted or read from a teleprompter.
A good scriptwriter is always thinking about the nuances of speech, and knows how to produce a script that is not only easy to read, but easy to read out loud.
3) They Can Cut a Long Story Short
It’s generally true that shorter videos are better, so a script should never be longer than it needs to. This calls for a special kind of editorial eye—someone who specializes in transforming blocks of dreary text into sleek metaphors, and who can spot even the tiniest redundancies with sniper-like precision. For this job, anything less than a professional scriptwriter is literally a waste of time.
4) They Write with Visuals in Mind
The language of video is both verbal and visual—the visual context of a video can dramatically enhance the meaning of its script. This is important to keep in mind; it means that the text doesn’t need to explain everything.
Scriptwriters know this, and know how to exploit it. They use the storytelling power of images to its fullest potential, and keep the text as concise as possible. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words.
5) They Know Grammar (So You Don’t Have To)
Does the language in a script need to be grammatically perfect? Nah. Well-groomed language does communicate intelligence and proficiency, but it can also be pretty dull. In fact, most scripts use fairly informal language—they sound natural and familiar.
But don’t kid yourself into thinking that anyone can script believable dialogue; a healthy respect for the rules of language is still necessary for constructing real-sounding sentences. Like any other artist, a writer must become a master of the rules before successfully breaking them.
6) They Write Strategically
Though you might never know it, a great deal of strategic thought goes into a script, especially if the video is speaking to a particular brand, or targeting a specific audience. Most scriptwriters are experienced in the fields of marketing and advertising, and know how to design a script that can meet the needs of a diverse range of communications objectives.
7) They Have Outside Insight
It might be the case that you know your industry, organization, and message better than anyone else does, but that does not necessarily put you in the best position to write about it. Yes, expert knowledge is valuable, but it should never come at the expense of clarity. Too much industry-specific language can frustrate audiences, who generally prefer things to be “given to them in English”.
A scriptwriter is always thinking on behalf of the audience, and will do the work of making your message interesting and accessible to as many people as possible.
8) They See the Story in Everything
Videos need to be more than just informative. They need to be evocative, compelling, attention-grabbing—even if their subject is not. In other words, they need a story. This doesn’t mean that all videos need a protagonist and a plot, but they do need some kind of narrative, or they won’t keep people’s attention for very long.
The simple fact is that people love a good story—they respond instinctually to narrative, no matter the subject. Scriptwriters can make anything into a story, and that’s probably the most valuable skill they have to offer.
These reasons all have one thing in common: they show that the job of scriptwriting is much more specialized than one might guess. Yes, it is writing—but it is a very particular kind of writing, one that demands a very unique skill set. If you want to produce a video that truly engages people, then accept no substitute. Get your story straight—go with a pro.