The simplest, yet hardest, challenge with video and animation


The following is adapted from a presentation I gave at the eLearning Guild's Focus On Learning conference in San Diego on June 20, 2017.


Story and Structure. It's simple, but not easy.

We all know that stories are great for learning new things, right? And we all know that stories need structure. So it seems quite straightforward, doesn’t it?

The problem is that it’s actually really hard to get story and structure right.

At Pure Learning, we create a lot of animations and videos. We make teaser trailers to get people interested in organisational changes. Explainer videos to describe concepts and processes. Instructional videos showing people how to do things. This means that we have to write, film and animate videos for a lot of different clients and audiences.

We also help our clients get better at telling their own stories. Coaching them and giving them feedback on their own internal videos and animations.

And it also means that we hire and train people to create these types of videos. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who want to write for us and gone through their example scripts.

So we see a lot of examples of videos designed for training. Many of these videos suffer from three main problems.

1. They don't flow naturally

Rather than a flowing narrative, it's a collection of ideas. It jumps from topic to topic.

2. There is a lack of visual storytelling

The instruction or explanation is entirely done with dialogue or narration and doesn’t utilise visuals to explain anything important.

3. They are not persuasive or emotional in any way

They do not motivate the audience to do something. They are not compelling and they do not connect with the audience.

All of these problems can be rolled up into this theme: Story and Structure.

So how can we avoid these problems?

Some of you may be familiar with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a thousand faces – it’s a work of comparative mythology, looking at story structure. It spells out the Hero’s Journey (or Monomyth):

This is explained in the diagram, but can be summed up in this way:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonders-> fabulous forces are then encountered and a decisive victory is won-> the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This structure can be applied to most stories. Think of a blockbuster movie and compare the story to this diagram. You’ll be surprised by how well it all matches up with the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is one of the most well-known models for storytelling. You can use this to create stories, but for short training videos/explainers I like to go a bit simpler.

Dan Harmon (the creator of the TV shows Rick and Morty and Community) has a simplified version.

This works perfectly for episodic media (TV, comics, radio plays, podcast etc.). Apparently, if he writes a script that doesn’t follow this formula, he will throw it out and start again.

Once again, I go even simpler.

This is my simpler model. Every story needs a START, MIDDLE, and END. Revolutionary, isn’t it?

This may sound simple… and it is. But surprise, surprise: it’s not easy.

This is the structure most training videos have: a middle.

Sure, they technically have a beginning (the video starts playing) and an end (fade to black, video stops) but in terms of story, it is just all middle.

Let’s think back to the three problems I mentioned earlier. No flow, no visual storytelling, and no persuasiveness. Of course, you won’t have these things if it’s all just MIDDLE.


So what is a good START? It needs to hook someone in. It needs to motivate someone to keep watching - it needs a good hook.

TV episodes are great at creating great hooks. They have to be. The creators don’t want someone to change the channel.

It is just as important to do the same thing in your videos. You have a short amount of time before someone switches off physically (closes the browser) or mentally (starts thinking about their shopping list/future pet’s name).

The MIDDLE is the key messages and the explanation wrapped up in story. As I said before, most training videos have just a middle, and possibly not a great one. The middle is functional; it’s there to do all the heavy lifting, but it should not be boring.

The END is an actual conclusion, not just the screen going black. It needs to leave an impression. Think of all the movies you have watched that were great right up until the flat ending… kinda ruined it, didn’t it? Now think of a movie with a great ending – bet you were talking about it for weeks.

The end is going to wrap everything up nicely. It’s going to tie together all the important ideas and leave the viewer with the feeling that they know something they didn’t before they started watching.

So how do we get to the point where you’ve got a strong start, engaging middle, and triumphant end? Two things.

Number 1: Identify the purpose.

What are you trying to get people to do after they watch the video?

Like all training, your video should be focused on performance, not information. What is your end goal? How will this video change someone’s behaviour?

If this video is part of a larger training strategy, then you should've already done some proper discovery and analysis before you started to create a video. At this point, you should know what the learning objectives are and what the desired outcome is. Call your viewers to action. Make them want to change.

Number 2: Know your audience.

If they can’t relate to the video, they will turn it off. The messages won’t resonate. They won’t see the need to change.

Remember, it has to be emotional and persuasive. If you don’t know who your audience is, what they do and what they care about, then how are you going to tap into their feelings or motivate them to do something?

Get in front of your audience and find out what they care about. Understand the WIIFMs for them.

Have you tried empathy mapping? It’s a great tool for understanding your audience and how they will benefit (gains) or be punished (pains) during this change.

Now it’s a case of combining it all together.

Purpose + who the audience is and what they care about = key messages and what kind of concept they will relate to.

Then take the concept and the messages and divide them into the START, MIDDLE, and END.

  • What aspects of these messages is going to lend itself to create a nice hook at the START?

  • What’s the natural structure in this concept?

  • How do we drum the main message into them right at the end?

A quick and sobering interruption: YOU’RE NOT AN ARTIST.

Yes, you should be creative and artistic with this, but all the creativity needs to be for a purpose. You are creating something functional – something designed to get a result and solve a problem.

Too many people fall into the trap of adding in things because they’re cool or fun, but they don’t relate to the purpose of the video.

If it doesn’t take you closer to your goal, DELETE IT.

Even artists do this… and remember, you’re not even an artist, so you need to be even more ruthless. Stephen King wrote this quote in his excellent book about writing, called On Writing. Quoting William Faulkner, he advises aspiring writers to “Kill your darlings”. Your favourite visual gag, your wackiest idea… kill them if they do not support the story. Kill them if they do not progress the story. They are a distraction.

I use this example, along with the previous line “You are not an artist” with new writers who are scripting training videos. You’re not writing for yourself and you’re not writing to show people how smart you are.

So what about visual storytelling? Well, let’s look at two guys who do it really well in video:

Casey Neistat is a filmmaker and YouTuber who creates a lot of personal and commercial videos. Neistat’s a masterful storyteller; his Vlog is especially good. He prioritises story over everything – including “the best shot” or his expensive equipment.

He also knows that most of the storytelling comes with the editing. His fantastic visual storytelling and communicating is done through particular edits and shots, rather than dialogue.

Edgar Wright is someone else who understands the importance of editing in storytelling. He's the British writer and director best known for Hot Fuzz, Shawn of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World.

Wright's great at showing a lot of story in a short space of time, through clever shots and fast-paced editing. Take a look at this wonderful breakdown of how he uses editing for humour:


In terms of storytelling in animation, you can’t go past Pixar. They prioritise story over everything. Pixar sends their animators and writers off on expensive research trips to really understand the source material. They also have massive meetings with their head people about storylines in movies. A great place to get more context on this is the book Creativity Inc., written by one of Pixar's founders.

From early on, they understood that it didn’t matter how great the quality of the animation was – if the story wasn’t great, it would be a disaster.

As an example, take a look at this great piece of visual storytelling. A lifetime in 4 minutes, it’s one of the first scenes in the movie UP:


So yes, story and structure is simple but it’s far from easy. Becoming great at storytelling is a never-ending journey, but your first step is understanding exactly how important it is and how to do it.

But if there is one thing I can impress upon you all today, it’s this:

You’re a human. Your audience is human. The videos we make are just another form of human to human communication.

Too much corporate training is dry and full of jargon. It’s impersonal and cold. Story and structure are so important in helping you connect with people, but it all falls apart if you’re not speaking to them the right way as well.

The greatest tool you have at your disposal isn't a wacky idea, complicated animation software or an expensive camera - it's empathy.

Find out who your audience is, what they care about and then talk to them the way they want to be spoken to.

Speak to them like a human and wrap it all up inside a START, a MIDDLE and an END.


Matt Smith