If you’re beginning to explore video storytelling, you’ll definitely need to review the basics of creating video like lighting, sound, and editing. It’s also helpful to create a storyboard and shot list to make sure your video clearly conveys your organization’s message.

Beyond the basics, there are a few things I’ve learned along the way by creating videos for nonprofits and by coaching others to help them improve their video storytelling skills. These are the kinds of things that can increase the production value without a lot of time or effort – as long as you know what to look for!

Here are 13 key elements of powerful nonprofit video storytelling:

1. Identify time slots for interviews before attending an event or training

Events or trainings can be a great time to get interviews because so many people will be together in one place. However, it can be difficult to pull people away from the main event for an interview.

Be strategic: take a look at the schedule before the event to identify specific time slots to do interviews. That way, if the person you’d like to interview is not ready at that moment, you can suggest another time during the day that might work better. Scheduling a few interviews in advance will definitely make your life easier as well.

2. Focus less on speakers during an event

It’s a good practice to capture fundraising events, conferences, and community events on video. It’s okay to incorporate highlights from speeches or use them as b-roll. But don’t rely on the speeches to carry your main messages – one-on-one interviews will be much more effective. (If the speech was truly inspiring, you can always upload and share it as a standalone video.)

For many nonprofits, the person who is in charge of filming is also in charge of six other things that day. If that’s the case, focus more on filming interviews and capturing b-roll throughout the event and less on what’s happening on stage.

3. Capture more b-roll

The interviews carry the messages of the story, and the b-roll shots help give those messages context and keeps your audience engaged. Don’t let b-roll clips be an afterthought: they are important components that need to be included in your planning process.

Here’s how b-roll can improve your video:

Breaking up a long interview: If someone is talking for more than 20 seconds, you’ll want to break up the clip visually. You can do this by cropping the clip or changing the angle of the frame. You can also use b-roll shots of the person’s hands or close-ups of the objects in the background to break up the visual elements of the video.

Providing context: Let’s say you’re doing a story about a child who has a learning disability and after using your services, her grades and confidence greatly improved. In your video, the interviews of the parents and child carry the main messages of your story. In addition, you’ll want b-roll clips of the parents helping their child with her homework, the child playing by herself at home, the child playing with her friends at recess, shots of toys in her room, and close-ups of her writing a report for school. Those kinds of clips give us a glimpse into her life and the improvements she’s made.

4. Pay attention to the clutter

Before you begin filming, take a look around. Clutter can distract from your messages, so you’ll want to do everything you can to remove distractions from your shots.

If you find that something needs to change, you have several options:

Remove distracting objects from the frame: If everyone at the table has water bottles, ask them to put them on the floor before you start filming. If you’re filming right after lunch, ask people to throw away their trash when they’re finished. If there’s a bookshelf in the background, remove any titles that may send the wrong message.

Choose a new angle or location: Sometimes you can’t remove the distracting objects from the frame. If there are trash cans in the background or you planned to do an interview in someone’s office but their desk has stacks of paper two feet high, you’ll want to find an angle that minimizes the distractions or move to another location.

Get a closer shot: If you are limited in the locations where you can shoot the video, you can always get tighter shots to keep unwanted objects out of the frame. If you have a high resolution camera, you may be able to crop your video in the editing process. But, it’s best to have clean shots from the get-go to cut down on editing time later.

5. Get closer to the subject

While wide shots and medium shots are important parts of your video, close-ups are critical. If you’re too far away from the person you’re interviewing or the event you’re capturing, it won’t be as effective in engaging your audience. When you move closer to your subject, it creates a more intimate video and also helps eliminate distractions.

6. Use backgrounds to help tell your story

What’s happening around the interviewee is an opportunity to put your story into context. For example, you may want to interview a teacher in her classroom instead of having cinderblock walls behind her. Or if you’re creating a story about someone who’s working on food justice, have her stand in front of a bodega or farmer’s market instead of in her office.

7. Wait to turn on the camera for an interview

Most people are uncomfortable being filmed. Before you take off the lens cap and point the camera in their direction, take a few minutes to warm them up. Crack a stupid joke to get them laughing or ask about their kids or favorite hobbies to connect with them on a personal level. Then give them details about the filming itself – tell them whether to look at you or at the camera, review the questions or topics you’ll cover, and reassure them that the interview will be edited and they can start over on a story if needed. Then you’re ready to turn on the camera.

Bonus tip: Ask the first question again at the end of the interview. You may notice by the end that they’re more relaxed and their answers flow better. This is a good chance to ask your first question one more time so you capture their answer when they’re more comfortable.

8. Interview people without fancy titles

Just because people have a fancy title doesn’t mean they’ll be great in front of the camera. It’s important to be open to talking to people who have had many different roles in the project – not just the director. You might be surprised as to who gives you the best interview!

9. Stay silent during interviews

It’s important to react to people’s stories and show them that you’re listening, especially if they’re sharing a heartfelt story with you. However, verbal affirmations become part of the audio track and will be impossible to eliminate. If you’re used to doing interviews for radio, written stories, or evaluation purposes, this may be an especially difficult habit to break. Instead, use non-verbal cues like facial expressions and nodding or shaking your head to show them you’re listening.

Also pay attention to other noises you may be making – shuffling papers or letting your bracelets clink against the arm of a chair will also be distracting.

10. Pause after asking follow-up questions

Asking follow-up questions can help you dig deeper into a story and clarify important points. Just make sure to pause before asking your question. Otherwise, it may be difficult to edit the clips later on.

11. Only put your best footage in the final video

Not every interview you do or shot you take will make it into your final video, and that’s okay. Sometimes a person who you thought would add to your story isn’t that great on camera. Or an event you thought would be a highlight of the project wasn’t well attended because of the weather. The final video is about showcasing your best work – it’s not about highlighting every interview you took or event you sponsored.

12. Break up long clips

People’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and you’ll need to take that into consideration in the editing process. As a general rule, I would recommend that your longest single shot is no more than 20 seconds long for short videos. You can easily break clips up by zooming in, switching to a different angle, adding b-roll or still photos, or using text to highlight the main messages. Do whatever you can to make sure your video has interesting video elements.

13. Incorporate background music

Background music can help set the tone of your video and tie your clips together. Purchase royalty-free background music online, or use music with a creative commons license for free – just be sure to give proper credit. Remember, you don’t have to use the same audio track throughout the entire video. As the mood of your video changes, so should your background music.

What other tips do you have for creating great nonprofit videos? Let us know in the comments!

Rebecca Reynandez

Rebecca Reynandez

Digital Marketing Consultant and Principal at Spring Media Strategies, LLC
Rebecca Reyes is a Digital Marketing Consultant and Principal of Spring Media Strategies, LLC with more than ten years of experience in the field. She provides digital media analysis, online strategy plans, marketing campaigns, and customized trainings for nonprofits. She's passionate about using technology and tools to connect people, build relationships, and make everyone’s life easier.
Rebecca Reynandez