Condensing a complicated message into a minute or so of compelling web video is a tricky business. Here's some tips that will have you writing like a pro.
1. Write for your audience
Who are you talking to? Plumbers, students, migrants, accountants…whatever. The "voice" you use will depend on your audience. Always try to put yourself in the shoes of the audience - what are they really interested in? How can you help them to get what they want / solve their problem / save them time or money? Don't write stuff your audience can't relate to or are not interested in.
2. The first ten seconds must be killer
That's about how long it takes for online audiences to decide whether to abandon your video or not. It's the hardest part of the script, so write and re-write the first ten seconds until you're sure you are making a connection with your audience. Say something shocking, interesting, emotive, funny, clever or empathetic. If you still have them beyond ten seconds, chances of them hanging around for a while is good.
3. Don't write literature
It's a visual medium - so write for the screen. As you write, always think "what will the audience be seeing when I say this?" Also ask yourself "do I even need to say this - maybe I can show it." Don't say it if you can show it - exploit the medium for what it's best at - showing stuff. Remember - you don't want to tell the whole story anyway - you just want to tell the essence, enough for your audience to "get it". Long flowery descriptions are for your brochure, not your video.
4. Brevity is King
Studies show that online video abandonment is directly related to duration. More people will sit through a 60 seconder, than a 120 seconder. So the briefer the message, the larger your audience. Research by Wistia shows that audiences will even abandon a video just because of the length of the timeline - regardless of the content! Detach yourself emotionally from the script - keep only the really important stuff - be ruthless.
5. Structure it
Since the beginning of storytelling, stories happen in three acts. Web videos are no different. The first act will set the scene, introduce characters, give context to what follows. The second scene is where the story unfolds and the audience gets all the information they need to understand the message. If there is a character, this is the part where she overcomes obstacles on her journey to get what she wants. The third act is where the story wraps up, the character has evolved (thanks to the product), and the message is driven home.
6. The ideal explainer video duration is 60 seconds
OK I said it. Now I know you're thinking "there's no way I can say all this in 60 seconds." Yes online videos come in all shapes and sizes, and often 60 seconds is really not long enough. I'm just saying if you want maximum viewer retention; you want to get across one strong message with say three key benefits; you want the viewer to stay all the way to the end where your big finish and call to action is, then 60 seconds is the way to go. Most explainer videos run for 90 seconds - okay that's doable but not ideal. Beyond 2 minutes and most of your audience have moved on or are comatose. BTW - the writer's rule of thumb - about 150 words gets you a screen minute.
7. Say it with animation
Animation is awesome. It crosses cultural, age, gender and whatever barriers with ease, and is the medium of choice for explainer video makers. Animation can show whatever the mind can conceive - I think Walt Disney said that. Animation can make even the most dull or complex subject matter look cheerful and easy-peasy.
8. Use Video Script format
Pro's write in the Video Script format, so write like a pro and impress your video production company. Video Script format is a portrait-oriented page divided into two vertical columns (Google "video script" to see hundreds of examples). The left column is headed Audio, the right column is headed Video. Write the Voice Over (VO) in the left column, write the corresponding video description in the right. Separate each scene with a horizontal line. Only write one idea per scene.
9. Read it out loud
I love this tip. If you read it out load you will discover things that sound clunky or long-winded. You will discover the mood of the script. You will discover places where you need to add a word for emphasis, or delete a whole line. You will discover that it's dry and doesn't sound like "talk". You will also discover (because you have your stopwatch running) that it's too long and needs to be shorter and more punchy.
10. Forget everything you just read
Just start writing - don't worry about the grammar, the tone, the structure, the word count or format. Just get it all out - let it flow - however it comes. Then leave it for a couple of days. Come back with fresh eyes and discover how long, dry, repetitive, and horrible your first draft is. But hey, you have a first draft - congratulations! Now the writing can really begin because script writing is about re-writing….and re-writing…and re-writing. Now you can use this 10-point checklist to transform that first draft into a beautiful thing.
Author: Steve Bristow lectures in Screenwriting at JMC Academy Melbourne, has screen credits as a script editor, has written scripts for corporate videos, TV commercials and web explainer videos.