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Video: The Change Principle

Tuesday, April 19, 2016
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We’ve all sat through boring training videos. The 20-minute “talking head” on ethics. The thought leader droning on about a new leadership theory. The screen cast on how to file expense reports with a new computer system. Do these sound like your videos? If so, your learners might be bored.

An easy solution to making instructional video more interesting is to regularly change the shot. This is a time-tested technique used by television producers to make boring content look more interesting, and prevent people from turning away from the screen.

Regularly changing your shots is an important technique covered in ATD’s Rapid Video for Learning Certificate Program. I personally learned the importance of this tool many years ago, when I attended the BBC’s Single Camera TV Directing Course. My tutor drummed into me, “Change the shots, Jonathan. Change the shots!” Thanks to that course, I understand how to insert shot changes to make videos more engaging. But I never really learned the real reason why this technique is so powerful. However, I think the reason lies in how the human psyche reacts to change, or what I call “The Change Principal.” To make sense of all this, allow me to share a little story.

One Saturday Afternoon…

I was sitting on the back deck of my house reading the newspaper. I was relaxed, sipping a glass of beer, and letting the stress of another busy week of travel fade away. The afternoon was quiet; I could hear the birds chirping in the background and a warm but gentle breeze ruffled the trees. Things were going well, and I felt good.

Out the blue, my neighbor pulls the rip cord on his lawnmower, shattering the peace. What was my initial reaction? My heartbeat increased and my head snapped up to see what was going on. I thought, “Oh, Patrick is cutting his lawn. No big deal. He does this most weekends during the summer and it’s never been a threat to me before.” So, I relaxed and settled back into the newspaper with a gentle sip of my drink.

As I delved into the travel section, dreaming of a Caribbean vacation, the noise of the lawnmower faded into the background. Cut to15 minutes later, when my reverie was pierced again by a loud, stone-shattering grating noise, accompanied by a shriek of words I can’t repeat in an ATD blog post. My heartbeat started to race again and my head sprang up to see what was going on. As I looked toward the noise, I saw that Patrick’s lawnmower had simply hit a rock and he wasn’t all that happy about it. No doubt, you’ve likely experienced a similar experience.

Chemistry of Change

Human brains are wired for survival, and the limbic system is primed to switch at a moment’s notice into fight-or-flight mode. Our heart starts pumping, adrenalin is distributed to the muscles, and we’re ready to ensure our survival. This is a primal reaction that is still very much with us today.

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The fact that change makes humans more alert is the essence of the Change Principle in media. Any change on screen represents a threat or missed opportunity. This might not lead to an increased heart rate, but it does secure the attention of your viewers. Every time you change your shot, your viewer’s brain subconsciously becomes alert to ensure it is not missing something important.

If you don’t change the shot—and most talking head videos rarely do—the person on screen is akin to lawnmower noise that fades into the background. Other things are likely to distract learners, such as that instant message or someone walking by your desk.

Competing for Eyeballs

In television production, eyeballs are the grand prize. Directors, editors, and camera operators shoot their footage knowing that to keep viewers, they have to do things like change the shot size, camera position, or angle every five to 15 seconds. If they don’t, they risk losing the viewer’s attention—just like all those boring instructional videos.

Case in point: TV news journalists follow this technique when covering press conferences. The camera starts with a wide shot of the official talking behind the podium. Cut to a journalist writing her notes while the official is still speaking. Cut back to the podium before moving to a close-up shot of a camera operator adjusting the focus ring on his camera. Cut back to the podium. As the official continues to talk, the shot keeps changing to prevent us from looking away.

I wrote last year that thousands of dollars are wasted on video every day by trainers and learning departments that create boring talking-head instructional videos. Considering that it costs companies approximately $165 to create every hour of video, L&D professionals want to take extra measures to avoid making boring video that people won’t watch, fail to learn from, or quickly forget. You might as well burn hundred dollar bills.

Making it Practical

Applying the Change Principal to your shots will keep eyeballs. But does this principal apply to other elements of learning videos? In my next post, I will explore how you can apply the Change Principle to music, voices, and camera movements to powerfully boost your video’s level of engagement—making every $165 your company spends on video worth even more.

Interested in learning more? Join me for an upcoming Rapid Video Development for Learning certificate program, based on my popular book, Rapid Video Development for Trainers

About the Author

Jonathan Halls is an author, trainer, and coach. He wrote Confessions of a Corporate Trainer (ATD Press, 2019), Rapid Video Development for Trainers (ATD Press, 2012) and was a contributing author to Speak More (River Grove Books, 2012) and the ATD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development 2nd Edition (ATD Press, 2014). He is author of the ATD Infoline, “Memory & Cognition in Learning” (ATD Press, 2014) and has written numerous articles for T&D magazine. Jonathan is an ATD BEST Awards reviewer and has sat on the advisory committees for the ASTD International Conference & Exposition and TechKnowledge.

The former BBC learning executive now runs workshops in media, communication, leadership, and creativity. He is on faculty at George Washington University and facilitates ATD’s Master Trainer Program ™, Training Certificate and Rapid Video for Learning Professionals Certificate program. Jonathan has been training, speaking, and coaching for 25 years in more than 20 countries. He describes his work as “at the intersection of media, communication, learning, leadership, and innovation.”

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