How to Evoke Viewer Emotion In Your Next Video

People who work in video production want two main things from every video they produce:

  1. High production value

  2. Emotional response from viewers

The first can be achieved with the proper equipment and the proper technical training. The second, however, can be more elusive.

How do you create a story that stimulates a meaningful, emotional response from viewers that inspires them to act?

Obviously, if there was one tried-and-true answer to that question that I could bottle and sell, I could retire now. But the following episode from the podcast Revisionist History provides some fantastic insight on human emotion. I think if you work in video production it’s worth a listen. There are some important lessons to be learned and practices to implement that will help your next story illicit the kind of emotion that you want.

Here’s the episode. In it, Gladwell explores the country music industry and why its songs feel so much sadder than any rock ‘n roll ballad. If you can’t listen to the full 45-minute episode, here are a few sections you can skip to:

  • 00:00-06:45

  • 08:10-10:00

  • 15:04-18:40

  • 18:56-19:35

  • 20:35-21:09

  • 28:04-32:00

Rather than provide you with my own take-aways, I’d like to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the Comments section. What stood out to you? What can we all do as video production professionals to ensure that our stories resonate with viewers?

And if you haven’t subscribed to Revisionist History, I encourage you to do so. It’s a fantastic podcast.

Why On-Camera Interviews Are Harder Than You Think

Conducting an on-camera interview isn’t as easy as it sounds. It requires an experienced producer; one who understands the nature of editing and the elements of a good story.

I just finished logging some interview footage recently and it was obvious that the person asking the questions had little experience conducting an interview for video.

So, if you need to capture on-camera interviews for your next video, don’t just type up a list of questions and pick someone at random to sit across from your subject and go down the list one-by-one.


  • Because an interview is a conversation between the subject and the interviewer, with its own ebb and flow. The questions are meant to start conversation, and often that conversation can lead down a path of discovery that will take your story into a new, unexpected direction. But if someone inexperienced is just reading off a list of questions, he/she might not know to ask a follow-up question to a potentially revelatory statement. Follow-up questions can help your story to take shape by providing much needed context and background information. An experienced interviewer will know how to tease out those details.

  • Because the person conducting the interview might not understand that answers need to be in complete sentences. A video editor will often remove the interviewer’s questions from the cut, leaving only the subject’s response. If the interviewer doesn’t remind the subject to answer in a complete thought, all an editor is left to work with are answers like, “That’s right,” “Uh-huh,” “I think so,” etc. etc.

These are two main reasons why it’s important to hire video production professionals to conduct your on-camera interviews. Not only will the composition and lighting look their best, but the subject’s answers will be well-rounded, well thought-out, and well-structured.

Have any other video production tips, comments, or questions? Leave them in the Comments field below.

Why 'Dunkirk' Is a Perfect Example of Great Visual Storytelling


Movies often use expository dialogue to set up the world of a film so the audience is oriented and understands the "rules." Think back to the cafe scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page in Inception when Leo's character explains the world of dreams to Page's character. 

Exposition is also heavily used in sci-fi films to help explain complex ideas. Think about the worm hole explanatory scene in Interstellar.

Or the rabbit hole scene in The Matrix. 

Expository dialogue is sometimes necessary to inform the audience and to move the plot forward. When it is done well, viewers will hardly notice. When it is done poorly, the results can be groan-inducing.

But can information be conveyed to the audience by relying more on visuals than explanatory dialogue? Absolutely. In fact, as you work on your own films, I would encourage you to strip away as much of the dialogue as you can and focus more on visual storytelling. After all, film is a visual medium.

This is why I love Christopher Nolan's latest film Dunkirk. It's the perfect example of how to do visual storytelling right. There is very little dialogue throughout the film, and yet so much is conveyed about character, motivations, and emotions. The film feels very economic. There's no wasted screen time.

Consider the opening scene (*Minor spoilers ahead for the very first sequence in the film)

The opening live-action shot is an empty street in a small town. Everything is still. No one is out, except for a few soldiers who are walking down the middle of the road with full gear. Papers flutter gently down all around them. One soldier takes one and looks at it. He sees this:


Instantly we the audience understand the situation perfectly. Rather than use up valuable screen time with a group of soldiers sitting around talking about what's going on in the war, lamenting about the fact that they're surrounded and stranded on a beach, Nolan gives us everything we need to know in one insert. Here's the scene in its entirety:

So, take a second look at the script you're working on. Do you have drawn out scenes of people talking? Is the purpose of their conversation to give the audience explanatory information about the plot, the situation, or the world of the film? If so, consider leaner, more economical, visual ways to communicate the same information.

And if you haven't seen it yet, go see Dunkirk.

Storytelling Lessons From the S-Town Podcast

Just this past week I finished listening to the new 7-part podcast from Serial and This American Life called S-Town. Once again, the incredible staff does not disappoint. I continue to admire how they can masterfully craft stories that immerse and captivate.

I'm a filmmaker who produces a lot of short-form documentary content for my day job, so I'm always interested in finding ways to improve my storytelling techniques. That's why I love listening to podcasts like S-Town on my commute. I want to analyze each episode and deconstruct the process:

  • How is each story structured?
  • What's being done to make it so engaging? 
  • What isn't working for me, and why?

The more I watch documentary film and the more I listen to documentary podcasts, the more I can learn about how to craft and tell stories. Here are some things I learned from S-Town about great storytelling (*Disclaimer: I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, but if you are at all sensitive to anything that strays slightly into spoiler territory, you might want to bookmark this article and come back to it later.)

Find the hook.

What will grab your audience's attention and encourage them to keep watching/listening? How can you introduce the story in a captivating way? One of my pet peeves about documentary filmmaking is how so many of them simply open with a prolonged series of talking heads, followed by a title card. Have you ever noticed this? The film starts and we're bombarded with a lot of people whom we don't even know yet, talking summarily about the subject of the film - a story we don't even care about yet. It's as if the filmmaker is saying "Here's what's coming up. Stay tuned." To me, this just isn't interesting. 

Contrast this with the way producer Brian Reed starts Chapter 1 of S-Town:

When an antique clock breaks, a clock that’s been telling time for 200 or 300 years, fixing it can be a real puzzle. An old clock like that was hand-made by someone. It might tick away the time with a pendulum, with a spring, with a pulley system. It might have bells that are supposed to strike the hour, or a bird that’s supposed to jump out and cuckoo at you. There can be hundreds of tiny, individual pieces, each of which needs to interact with the others precisely.

Reed goes on to talk about how challenging it is for people to restore these clocks, because of all the hands that have touched them over the years. Restorers look for what are called "witness marks," indications of what other people have done to the clock over the years that can provide clues about how to restore the clock to its original state. He then concludes the introduction by saying that he learned all of this information about clocks from an antique clock restorer who contacted him and asked for his help in solving a murder.

And we're off and running.

What's so brilliant about this introduction is how layered it is. In a little less than 2 minutes, Reed has managed to...

  • Introduce the name of the main character
  • Tell us about what the main character does (restore antique clocks), so we immediately know he's a craftsman, a handyman, an artist, etc.
  • Tease us with what's to come (details about a murder case).
  • Hint at the complexity of the story and the characters within it by using the intricacies and complexities of an antique clock as a metaphor.
  • Foreshadow the twists and turns that inevitably result from a complex story like this, by drawing parallels from the role of a clock restorer, as he/she follows the "witness marks" on a clock to determine how everything should fit together.


The story should be as long, or as short, as it needs to be.

I have to admit, I bristle a little when I receive feedback from a short-form documentary and the critique is simply, "Make it four minutes," as if some group sitting somewhere in some board room decided that every video produced henceforth should be exactly four minutes long.

Yes, I realize that data exists showing just how long an audience will sit and watch an online video, but I don't adhere to the idea that every story can, or should, fit into a specific run time. Stories should be as long (within reason) or as short as they need to be to tell a nice, tight, concise story. S-Town decided that seven, one-hour episodes was the right amount of time they needed to tell their story. Serial season one needed 12 episodes; season two, 11 episodes.

Some of my short-form pieces have been around 6 minutes, while others have been as short as 2 minutes. You as the storyteller should realize how much material you have and should structure and edit accordingly. Always be asking yourself, "Is this section REALLY necessary?" Continue to trim and tighten the story. Your audience will thank you for it.

Allow the story to take you where it takes you.

I'm sure Reed had ideas about where the story would/should go as he embarked on his investigation. But life doesn't unfold into a nice, three-act structure. So, when Brian's story suddenly shifted, he went off into a new direction. This happens to documentarians all the time. Watch the film The Queen of Versailles if you want another example.

Embed yourself with the story's subjects.

Access, access, access. This is what you need if you want a story that feels thorough and complete, with characters with whom your audience can identify and sympathize. I'm sure Reed could have conducted a majority of his interviews via email or over the phone (after all, it's a story that takes place in a small Alabama town and he's a New York reporter), but the story would have suffered. It would have felt shallow. The people in the story would have felt more like caricatures, not real human beings. He needed to be there, in the town, meeting with the people, learning about them on a personal level. That's how you build rapport and trust, and if you have that relationship established, the people in your story will feel more comfortable opening up to you.

S-Town host Brian Reed (right) on location with an interview subject (Photo: Andrea Morales)

S-Town host Brian Reed (right) on location with an interview subject (Photo: Andrea Morales)

Always maintain a sense of time and place.

Even though it's radio, S-Town does an incredible job of providing the audience with a sense of place. You can't see John B.'s house, or his workshop, or the tattoo parlor, but you can envision it, based on Reed's descriptions. You don't know what John B. or any of the other townspeople look like, but you have an idea, again based on Reed's descriptions and the interview tape from each individual.

It's easy to see how this translates to documentary film. As you gather footage for your story, always make sure you capture b-roll that tells your audience something about where you are. Keep your audience oriented. Don't rely solely on close detail shots, or shots on long lenses that blur out backgrounds. Think about the relationship between subject and environment and how you can compose your shots to accentuate this relationship. Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting demonstrates this point in his video essay on how the Cohen Brothers use shot/reverse shot. Take this example from No Country For Old Men: Consider how much you already know about this woman based on her appearance and the environment around her.

You wouldn't get that same sense of place from a tight shot with a soft background.

Allow yourself to be self-reflective.

Along the way, and at the end of the series, Reed allows himself these moments of reflection: What have we learned? What does it all mean? Where do we go from here? Your story too should bring up these questions. They don't all have to be answered, but they can be presented to your audience, forcing them to think for themselves, to draw their own conclusions, to find something of themselves in the story you're telling.

We can learn a lot by observing and analyzing the work of others - people who have experience and a knack for crafting great stories. That's why I continue listen to podcasts like This American Life, Serial, and S-Town. I admire the work they do and I can draw lessons from their experiences and apply them to my own short-form documentary work.

Have you finished S-Town? What thoughts do you have on the series and on documentary storytelling? Be sure to add them in the Comments section below.