5 secrets for telling stories in video

Throw away those treatises on creating an organizational narrative. Instead, think like a silent movie director. Build a ‘three-legged stool.’ And learn from the makers of ‘The Fugitive.’

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses.

Once Rob Biesenbach was producing an internal video for a candy factory, and he stopped to chat with an employee named Estella who worked on a chewing gum production line.

“Boy, your kids must think you’ve got a really cool job, working in a candy factory,” the communications expert recalls telling her.

Estella lit up. “Oh, yeah. They love me.”

She showed Biesenbach a code on the package that records where the gum was made, right down to the production line. Her kids could read the code. Whenever they went to the store, they would check the packages and tell everybody around, “My mommy made this gum!”

Bingo. A story about pride in work. The gum is good enough for your family, because Estella makes sure it’s good enough for hers.

In the Ragan Training webinar “The three-legged stool: Tell your story like a silent movie,” Biesenbach offers tips that will elevate your videos from corporate snoozes into dynamic visual narratives. Biesenbach is an actor and a former vice president at Ogilvy PR Worldwide.

Here are a few pointers:

Tell it in pictures.

Those old silent movie directors knew their stuff. They had to tell a story in images, with no dialogue except for that represented by brief title cards.

Learn from them. Images are powerful. People remember them. Use them.

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “The three-legged stool: Tell your story like a silent movie.”

Biesenbach quotes playwright and screenwriter David Mamet: “If you pretend the characters can’t speak and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.”

Build a three-legged stool.

Throw away all those white papers philosophizing about the power of narrative in organizational communications. Here’s what you need to know: A story is a three-legged stool.

The legs:

  • Character
  • Goal
  • Obstacle

In other words: “It’s a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle,” Biesenbach says, “and how that character resolves that challenge, gets over that obstacle, provides the dramatic tension and the human interest that keeps us tuned in.”

That would make Estella the character. Quality is her goal. The challenge is how to do that in a mundane activity of watching packages of gum go by day after day. She resolves that challenge by treating her customers like family.

Create causality.

You know the guy who always corners you by the water cooler to tell convoluted dreams littered with the phrase, “and then … and then …” Augh! Boring.

If you find yourself saying “and then” over and over again, it may not be a story, but a sequence of not necessarily related events, Biesenbach cautions.

“Stories are about cause and effect,” he says. “This happened, so that happened.”

How to create causality? Biesenbach again turns to Mamet, citing a memo the playwright once wrote to the writers of the CBS drama “The Unit.” It’s a terrific memo, if predictably potty-mouthed. Mamet writes (in all caps!):





You don’t want a dreamlike sequence of “this happened, and that happened, and I go, and then she said,” Biesenbach warns. Create a plot.

Put your subjects at ease.

Choose a warm, sympathetic character to be the hero at the center of your video. When you shoot the interview, limit the number of people in the room. Camera person. Sound technician. And maybe, if your subject is nervous, a friend for moral support.

Once, Biesenbach was interviewing a senior partner at a law firm, a woman who was great in real life but stiff on video. He knew her, had seen her biking around the neighborhood where they both lived.

So he put her on camera and started chatting about cycling and neighborhoods. The client who had hired Biesenbach leaned in and asked, “When are the real questions going to start?”

Biesenbach replied, “These are the real questions.”


What’s as important as what you include in a good story is what you leave out, Biesenbach says. Good stories can be weighted down with unnecessary detail.

Consider the 1993 movie “The Fugitive,” in which Tommy Lee Jones plays Samuel Gerard, a federal marshal tracking Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford), who has been wrongly convicted of killing his wife.

At one point Gerard confronts Kimble in a tunnel, Biesenbach says. The doctor protests, “I didn’t kill my wife.”

Gerard replies: “I don’t care.”

That’s the entire movie in two lines, Biesenbach says. You don’t need a lengthy explanation: As a federal marshal, my duties extend only to apprehending fugitives, not determining matters of guilt or innocence. You see, the way the criminal justice system is set up…

All that is implied, but never spoken.

Go ye and do likewise.



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