Using Documentary Film Techniques to Craft Engaging Employee Training Videos

Consider using all your creative choices to create engagement, including casting, lighting, setting, sound, length, editing, multiple participants, content, emotion, and story.

One of my recent projects has been to develop a Soft Skills 101 video-based training course for HR professionals to use to help employees improve their communication skills. In this process, I have tried to develop good content—content that is “engaging.” 

Best Practices for E-Learning

You’ll find several general recommendations in most analyses of e-learning courses. Good e-learning content typically is characterized by many of the following qualities: 

  • Engages learners
  • Uses short lessons
  • Fosters collaboration among students
  • Requires self-motivation
  • Makes appropriate use of humor
  • Offers great content
  • Facilitates interactivity 
  • Promotes clear learning objectives
  • Has an excellent user interface
  • Leverages visual illustrations
  • Uses good narrators
  • Provides supplemental written texts and resources

I don’t want to reiterate what others have said. What I’d like to offer is my story of how I used my documentary filmmaking techniques to think about engagement in a slightly different way. 

As a Ph.D. in communication, I have been trained to be accurate, to research, and to look at variables objectively, or if subjectively, then to do so systematically. But as a documentary filmmaker, I was trained by a different set of criteria. My mentor produced work for PBS for years and won multiple Emmy awards for television production. He tore my work to shreds. But it paid off in the end. What he taught me to focus on and what I’ve learned producing documentary films is what I’m going to focus on here. In short, I believe using a filmmaking approach to training videos will elevate their quality to the next level and can complement the best practices for e-learning. I hope that by telling this story, readers can steal one or two ideas for their own training videos. 

Casting Participants

We hear about casting agencies testing out actors for a role for a new movie. We may think that doesn’t apply to training videos, but it does. I’ve been fortunate enough to get my documentary work on the Georgia PBS station here in the Atlanta area, and when I talk to people about the project, I often describe the process of selecting the participants. There are many considerations to think about, but the first one is recognizing that casting who will be in your video is a choice. An important choice. And some people don’t make the cut. An engaging participant translates to a more engaging video. Casting also affects the editing process. In one of my recent documentaries, one of my participants was an expert. But I was hampered by his dry delivery style. It was not just boring; it had soporific effect. So I used as little of his interview as I could possibly get away with. I leaned on the more dynamic and energetic participants. 

So how do you cast someone? My first assessment is whether they’re comfortable on camera and talking about being on camera. If they’re nervous, look at my camera a lot, hesitate, and don’t smile, then I know I’m going to have a hard time getting smiles and expressions from them. I look for people who are not concerned about the camera, have experience being in front of a lens, and are passionate people who have something they love talking about. I look for people with energy. But I also ask myself, “Can they say their point in a clear and concise way?” Sometimes a person is too talkative and wordy. When I find that dynamic person, I will think to myself while the camera is rolling: “This is going straight into the final cut.” This is because the performance was so succinct and well said. There are other things to consider, but when in doubt, go with your gut instinct. If you find the person interesting, chances are someone else will, as well. 

Lighting, Setting, and Sound

Technical aspects such as lighting, the setting, and the sound all must be good, if not great. But these qualities are just a basic threshold you must meet to make your video usable. This may be daunting for people without this training, and that is a legitimate but not insurmountable task. YouTube has great content for learning these techniques. Lighting techniques abound, and I admit I’ve made my share of mistakes. Typically, some external lights are necessary to fill in shaded areas on people’s faces. Sometimes a great window-lit area, plus some fancy three-quarter positioning and a great camera lens, can do the trick without additional lights. But the trickier the situation, the more expertise you need. 

Audio quality is perhaps the most critical component. You can always cover up a bad visual moment with a text slide, but you cannot get good sound out of a bad microphone, and getting rid of external noise and hiss is near impossible. Attempting to remove echo is a nightmare—believe me, I’ve tried. Exceptional sound is worth a lot, and you must consider the room size, material, and external noise when filming. Don’t skimp out and use cheap microphones. 

Finally, the visual setting is important. Sometimes I like a simple monochrome background to prevent distractions, while in other situations, I want to place subjects in their “element” to convey meta-information about their life and role. In sum, technical aspects need to be good to great, but they don’t have to be perfect. 

Video Length, Editing, and Multiple Participants

Editing is another important factor I’ve experimented with to make a video more engaging. I try to keep my videos under the maximum length proven to generate the highest engagement (approximately six minutes), and I also try to model my training videos after documentary filmmakers when they make use of frequent cuts between multiple participants. In other words, each clip typically is as short as possible, perhaps between five and 25 seconds, maybe 45 seconds on the long end. That’s if the performance is really good. Check out a sample of this intercutting on my video about communication

I’ve always found it pretty boring to watch one person the whole time in a training video. Maybe two people standing side-by-side is better? You get to see how creative the editor can be by showing the same one to two people from multiple angles. It quickly wears thin. But if you have multiple speakers, you get at least to have some variation. And during the editing process, you’re also deciding how compelling the speaker is. The more entertaining the person is, the longer the cut can be. The more boring and unemotional they are, the shorter their clip needs to be. Watch the sample video above and notice how I linger on some people longer than others. 

Quality Content and Relevance

Another way I’ve tried to make my videos engaging is by providing varied content surrounding a topic. When editing, I sometimes want interview participants to reiterate a point more than once so viewers know that is an important point most everyone said. But other times, I choose to foreground an unusual point because the variation is interesting and reflects the gamut of answers in the business community. This also relates to choices made in the editing room and what ends up in the final cut. After multiple rounds of editing, you as the artist get attached to certain segments of video interviews and think, “There’s no way I can cut that; it’s too important.” But you end up saying that about everything, and your video is still eight minutes long and it needs to be five minutes. Again, you go back to the cutting board and ask yourself, what is essential and unique, and what is slow and dull? Those are the pieces that end up getting cut.

Emotion and Story

The final—and probably the best—way to create engaging content is to add emotion and stories to the video. There’s no question an engaging story told well in a fictionalized scenario or story scenario will resonate with audiences. But the question here remains, is the return on investment (ROI) of the increased production costs worth it? Is there correspondingly more learning for a fictional five-minute story vs. a five-minute documentary-style talking-head video? I have a friend who makes films full-time, shooting high-end advertisements and corporate training videos. He wins awards, lots of awards. He uses real actors who are on the legitimate actor lists, and his work is fantastic. But this level of nearly Hollywood quality production comes at a cost. A single, high-end short film of five to 15 minutes produced at this level can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 to produce. For my documentary interview project, I can produce 10 interview-based videos for the same price of one really high-quality fictional version. Additionally, a good fictionalized story should only do one thing—communicate one simple idea. 

So while the opportunity to create a memorable story is great, the ROI of the cost per idea gained for employees is low compared to high-quality, smartly edited talking-head video that has a density of ideas. To compromise, what I’ve tried to do is to incorporate storytelling as a part of my participants’ interviews. It doesn’t always work, but the best participants can make this work. And for this reason, I go back to casting as important. One the best storytellers I cast was a preacher—a well-known and highly gifted speaker in my area. When I show my videos, students most often remember his points because his stories are so good, so well told. At the end of the video, I’ll ask, “What points stood out to you?” And they will reply, “Oh, the story of the music minister getting fired because he didn’t have soft skills.” Case in point—storytelling can work if you can find and capture good storytellers with ideas worth hearing.

Final Considerations

At the end of the day, in addition to crafting an e-learning course that meets all of the prerequisite industry best practices, consider some of the ways filmmaking as a craft can elevate your videos to a higher engagement level. Consider using all your creative choices to create engagement, including casting, lighting, setting, sound, length, editing, multiple participants, content, emotion, and story. It may be more difficult, but in the end, it can help your content rise to the top. 

Benjamin Garner, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia. Dr. Garner has taught communication at the university level for nine years and instructed 1,000-plus students on how to deliver effective presentations. His documentary films have competitively screened at film festivals and aired on public TV.

 

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