Well known video bloggers, such as Casey Neistat and the likes, have raised the vlogging standards in recent years. How they manage to post captivating content so regularly is astounding. Many try to emulate their successes, and as a result, YouTube is crammed full of filmmakers trying to be the next viral vlogging sensation. These vlogs vary in content, style, and quality, and while there is a niche space for almost anything these days, some people are “nailing it,” and others aren’t.
Earlier this year I started my own vlog. I make commercial and corporate video content for a living, but this vlog for me was an escape from high production value and was purely a raw point-and-shoot documentation of my day-to-day activities. I started it as I relocated to a new country, and planned to make one video a week. I made it five episodes in before work got too busy and I stopped exploring my new surrounds, and therefore took a break from posting. What the experience did give me, however, is a newfound resect for vloggers who stick to a frequent schedule (although it did take me a while to appreciate).
The first Casey Neistat vlog episode that I watched included him attaching a baby seat to the back of his bicycle. Surely I was missing something? How does content like this amass such a high view count? A few days later, I watched another, and then another — just to see if I was missing something. Slowly but surely, I, like almost everyone else, became hooked. Now I can happily sit through eight minutes of watching the man get his morning coffee fix and jog around New York. It’s bizarre when you think about it. Casey Neistat seems to be at a point where he will receive support (and views) regardless of what he posts. Sure, he has an endearing personality, and he inspires his viewers to get out and do more, but how does he convert that into engaging content?
While I don’t claim being an expert vlogger, I did find after watching the work of numerous successful vloggers on YouTube that they often (and maybe unintentionally) stick to traditional storytelling principles. These principles are revealed in the way that they cover their content and compile their edits, and if you’re a newcomer to the vlogging scene, you can vastly improve your content by applying these principles.
Establish a Story Template
One of the best sources of inspiration for a creative individual can be the work of another creative in a different field. Similarly, one of the best approaches to telling a story in a vlog format is to be influenced by storytelling techniques in movies. This doesn’t mean that your vlog content must become scripted or dramatic, but rather consider implementing an already successful structure to your storytelling. Film school students are taught storytelling structures that screenwriters almost always adhere to. These structures usually have three parts which are differentiated by vital plot points. This blueprint can be a go-to tool to assist writers and directors when they are unsure of what needs to happen next in the story. Your vlog story structure will most probably look very different to a movie script structure, but the principle of using something which is tried and tested remains the same. Study the work of your favorite vloggers and borrow the elements you like. It may result in your episodes starting with a time-lapse, or starting with a sneak peak of something that happens later in the episode. You may want to implement this in every episode you make, or just once off, but by pre-determining this blueprint, you’ll easily be able to tell where your content is best suited in the edit and you will also have an idea of what kind of content you will need to film in order to compliment the subject of your episode.
Don’t Get Attached to Your Footage
This is important for anyone who edits footage that they have shot themselves. Next time you watch a great fast-paced visual montage, take note of how the cuts are paced in the edit. Often there will be a number of great looking shots that are only on screen for a second. Nothing kills your upbeat edit more than lingering on shots because you are too attached to see them not used. Once you learn to let go of these shots and leave them on the cutting room floor, your editing will become more subjective which allows for shorter, more impactful and more visually appealing videos.
Don’t Spoon-Feed Your Audience
This is another point taken straight from the movies, and it’s a fundamental principle in storytelling. A common example of this is when a film includes a scene which starts with a character waking up in bed and ends with said character arriving at work. The chances are that if you’re a beginner, you will show the useless details of the character getting ready which in the long run does not serve any purpose in the story. By cutting out content which can be assumed by the audience, you are creating a much more intriguing story. This is used to such an extreme extent by vloggers like Casey Neistat where he will often make cuts mid-sentence. Not only does this decrease the duration of your work (which is usually a good thing), it also speeds up the pace of your edit and even allows your audience to give themselves a "subconscious pat on the back” when they feel that they have worked to understand what is being expressed on screen. For more on this, watch this TED talk below by writer and director JJ Abrams, in which he discusses his concept of a “mystery box” and how important mystery is in storytelling.
So in summary, if you’re a vlogger and want to up your game then rather than shooting aimlessly or giving up, learn from those who have done it before you. Next time you watch your favorite vlogger, or even TV show or movie, pay special attention to how they are telling the story. You’ll be surprised what you can pick up on and implement in your own work. Someone whose work I study and am always inspired by is Dan Mace. Although he is not producing regular vlog posts currently, his older posts are very inspiring. While his videos seem a lot more cinematically planned than walking around with a handheld point-and-shoot camera, he admits to filming and editing many of his posts in a single day.
If you’re a vlogger and have any tips of your own, we’d love to hear them in the comments below.