There is more to using film effectively than ‘creating great video content’
I bet you’re often told that you need ‘create great video content’.
It’s become a kind of stock phrase that seems to resonate with those who need good promotional material. That’s fair enough, I suppose, but I can’t help but cringe when I read about ‘creating great video content’ because I’ve spent so long working with organisations who are typically grant funded and whose needs are more sophisticated than simply selling products. So, while it works for many, I find many of my clients suspicious of the overtly commercial language. And they’re right; looking for ‘great video content’ is absolutely the wrong place to start.
The word ‘content’ is by far the most offensive word in the phrase because, with its app-store undertones, it presupposes the centrality of a producer-consumer relationship. I suppose you could, if you really wanted to, insist that this is unavoidable because you’re always selling ideas or trying to convince people of your success, and you are in this way producing things to be consumed. But it isn’t the defining feature in the same way as it is for a small business. We don’t think of writing journal articles in these terms, though the journals could be said to be the main ‘market place’ for an academic’s ideas. We don’t consider our co-creating a platform with sickle-cell anaemia patients part of a producer-consumer relationship, even though we attract funding to do that work. It’s an attitude the phrase epitomises that bothers me. The people I work with aspire to engage with people, to help them, to communicate and collaborate with them, rather than sell or preach to them.
I dislike the phrase because of its indelicacy. But because of the way the grant system works, it also makes economic sense to think in terms of using film to develop relationships rather than to sell product.
So, don’t start with the notion that you need to create ‘great video content’. Instead, start with your own strategy and your own project goals and think carefully about the things you need to achieve. You’ll create film with much more integrity if you design outwards, you’re more likely to pay attention to how you use the film, and your funders much more readily recognise the worth of your work.
Back in 2012, we collaborated with the NHS to produce TalkLab Better Conversations (opens in a new tab) a website optimised for mobile phone. We took our lead from the young people, and co-created this site with them. Although it is co-created by/for young people, it includes a CPD section and other resources for professionals.
In 2014 and earlier in 2016, we worked with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to help the young people of the Karabots Junior Fellows Program (opens in new tab) to express what the program meant to them. The program has been a resounding success, and our approach to using film allowed us to demonstrate rather than merely state this.
Think about what you really need…
Who should create this content? Can you involve stakeholders? Is co-creation a useful thing to look into? Is the process more important than the result?
What does ‘great’ mean for you? Do you need to spend tens of thousands of pounds or dollars to make sure that the film can be screened in IMAX (you might well do), or should our focus be on showing the effect our research has had on child health? Do you want to focus on the researchers or the research? What ‘great’ looks like for you will depend on what you want to get out of it. ‘Great’ might mean looking slick and modern to attract students or investors, or it might mean eschewing the fancy shots for the detail that convinces a funder you can safely manage a large grant.
Why are you even using video? One of the secrets behind having effective film is to know what film can do and when you need something from the film’s context. Some people seem to think that film can do everything and doesn’t need context. I couldn’t disagree more. Speaking as part of a panel at King’s College, London, I was once asked when I thought film would replace writing. What an odd question, I thought (but then I read Nicola Mendelsohn ‘predict the decline of text’ and despaired!) Anyway, you should be constantly knitting your films in with an effective context. Having good video means little if it’s floating about on YouTube. What job is it doing? Use the medium lots, and judiciously. Be informed by a clear strategy and set of project aims. Video should be deployed as a resource, never considered a special expense.
As for ‘content’, well, you will arrive at the content — the film’s actual substance — through paying attention to the people you are trying to build relationships with, whether they are patients, museum audiences, other academics, funding bodies, or whoever. These relationships must be respected before all else, otherwise you could end up with an expensive, glib approximation of what you really need.