Does live video even work? That’s the question I frequently hear from individual creators to major media companies. In 2016 live video made a huge splash when Facebook Live pushed aggressively to get everyone on the platform, but confusion and dismay were left in its wake. Many said live video is just television on your phone or that it’s only for video games via Twitch or that it’s only useful for celebrities like Vin Diesel.
Despite all of the doubts, I dived head first into Facebook Live and launched Urbanist. A page dedicated to exploring the world cities and their history, food, and culture mostly through live video. As Urbanist has gained over 13K followers and 1.5M video views in the past 5 months, I’ve learned that live video does work indeed.
Live video is a new medium and as with every new medium there comes along a steep learning curve to find out what works. Think back to the days when people said that Snapchat was only for sexting, or that social media was just a fad, or that television was only for variety shows and sitcoms, or that film was only for 5 minute silent romps, or that books were only for the religious scripture. At the birth of every new medium is countless people scrambling to figure out how to tell stories through it, and many give up in dismay while some may just outright proclaim that it doesn’t work.
Live video can tell stories as powerful as any film, it’s just the language is different.
Yes, you heard me right. Live video isn’t exclusively for celebrities killing time or for breaking news. Just take a look at any of my live videos and you’ll see that this medium is capable of telling powerful stories.
Now I don’t claim to be a Steven Spielberg of live video. I have a lot to learn and will possibly never stop learning. But I have made over 80+ live videos thus far. I’ve received messages from my viewers — both long and short — telling me how much they’ve laughed, cried, learned, felt nostalgic, got inspired, or even felt relaxed. I’m starting to get a grasp of the language of live video and I’m here to share it with you so we can push this medium forward together.
Any passerby may attribute the emotions expressed by my viewers as a result of variables outside of my control. Just like your childhood memories may light up by the distant smell of a grilled cheese sandwich. But let’s consider film for a second. After 100 years of filmmaking and countless professionals studying its language, we know that we can utilize editing, sound design, acting, dialogue, and many other tools to elicit emotion and convey complex ideas. Live video isn’t any different.
Let’s breakdown how you can tell compelling stories with live video that will keep your viewers engaged, enthralled, and yearning for more.
Emotion through Motion
The beauty of modern technology is that it’s portable. For the majority of the 20th century cameras were cumbersome. Then camcorders came out and video was shaky because stabilizers were even more cumbersome and expensive. But now we have smartphones with cameras that can compete with high-end productions and gimbals that can make the most extreme shooting situations seem as fluid as a dolly track system that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. This means we’re able to move cameras any way we’d like.
In film, editing is the main tool in order to elicit emotion. But in live video editing is not an option. You have to rely on camera motion in order to elicit emotion. Filmmakers have been utilizing movement since the very beginning of the medium. The same techniques apply to live video. For example, I’ve noticed when I tilt the camera upwards at beautiful architecture, viewers tend to press the wow face on Facebook Live.
Three types of camera movements you can do in live video
- Pan — horizontal movement (left to right)
- Tilt — vertical movement (up and down)
- Tracking — moving away or towards a subject
However the beauty of using a phone with a gimbal is that you can often combine different movements and move the camera at the same time. Every movement can be used to elicit a specific emotion.
Are you telling a secret or giving an inside scoop? Move the camera closer to the your face in order to create a sense of intimacy. Do you want to show the sheer variety of goods in a store? Do a lateral-pan across the aisles a la Wes Anderson style. Want to give your audience a greater sense of the space you’re in? Do a slow 360-degree pan. Are you streaming with a guest and you’re about to enter a building? Follow them a steady distance through the door, it makes for a great immersive transition. Are you speaking with multiple people? Go all Yasujirô Ozu style and shift between each person speaking shot in medium close-ups. There are so many possibilities and with practice you’ll notice how each movement corresponds with a feeling.
Other ways manipulate the camera
- Zoom — provide greater detail to an object that is farther away.
- Switch Camera Perspective (from regular to selfie mode)—you can shift to selfie mode with intention, for example when you’re getting to the juicy bits of a story.
- First-person hand gestures — One of my favorite vloggers Casey Neistat does this a lot. He often waves goodbye, gives a high five, or points at something in the first-person perspective. These type of gestures go a long way in immersing the viewer.
The one thing that makes live video unlike any other medium is the ability to immediately to interact with the audience. In television you’re talking to many people at once, unaware of what the audience is thinking. However in live video the audience can talk to you and you can talk right back to them. Game-changer! This changes the dynamic of the video into a conversation.
Why should I engage with my audience?
- Engagement begets engagement. Once you talk with your audience and address them by name then they’re attention is hooked. We all love hearing our names because it instinctively makes us feel closer to the person who calls it out.
- Make your live video interactive! Ask your viewers to vote via the like buttons, or to chime in with their stories related to what you’re covering, or ask them if they’d like you to point anything out. Involve your audience in the story, just like if you were telling a story by a campfire.
- Your audience is their for support! If you’re unclear on a fact, ask if someone can clarify it. If you need directions or insights or recommendations, ask your audience. Your audience is there for you on a platform like Facebook Live they tend to be very nice.
- Remind your viewers that they can like your page (or follow your account) for more videos and that they can share the video with their friends and family. Yes, it’s totally okay to ask for your audience to share the live video, just make sure that your live video provides some sort of value. For example on Urbanist I ask my viewers to share with friends and family who are history buff, since I provide plenty of historical insight on my live videos.
- Questions in the comments will give you more to talk about. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure to talk the entire way through, especially if you are live for two hours like I usually am. Encourage your audience to ask questions. Be sure to never shut down any question no matter how rudimentary it might be. There’s no such thing as a “stupid question” on live video. Remember on platforms like Facebook Live viewers come from all around the world and speak different languages and have different customs, accept every question with open arms and feel free to take it to different places.
Live video is not television. You have the ability to talk to people directly, take advantage of it!
Now comes the big question: what do I talk about?!
What to keep in mind about live video
- The majority of viewers come in and out as they please. This is just the nature of viewing any type of video on a mobile device. Don’t take it personally. In order to orient viewers who are dropping in throughout the broadcast, be sure to consistently reintroduce who you are and what you’re covering, just like if it were a 90s radio show.
- You don’t need to talk the entire time. Seriously you don’t. Live video isn’t a podcast where it needs to be jam-packed with speaking. As long something visual is happening, feel free to be silent for a few minutes and let your viewers absorb the scenery or event.
You can think of live video as watching a David Attenborough nature program on PBS. You come in for a little bit, see a cheetah mating or chimpanzee digging for tubers, and then you continue on with your day. Sir Attenborough might be saying something fascinating about lemur behavior or there might not be any voiceover as you see sloth climb a tree.
When it comes to live video, the longer the better. Which means that narration or dialogue on a live video isn’t a speech, or a scripted YouTube video, or a podcast. Think of live video as more of a casual chat with friends.
Pro-tips on having enough to talk about
- Make a rough outline on what you plan on discussing. If I’m planning a structured Facebook Live — such as my historical tours in cities — I create an outline of what I’d like to cover. Planning ahead helps the conversation have a direction that will lead to a tidy conclusion.
- Provide value. The value can be anything from pro-tips, history, humor, philosophy, actionable insights, aesthetics, stories, etc. Just make sure you’re giving your viewers something to latch onto.
- Embrace tangents. Yes, let your mind run wild! As long as you rope it back into the main topic. On my neighborhood tours I’ve talked about history of a particular food, socioeconomics, the philosophy of urban exploration, and even our disconnection from the cosmos. The scope of topics can be as large as you want them to be. Attempting to hyper focus on a singular topic during a livestream is a recipe for disaster. Expand your horizons, and the conversation will go to wonderful places.
Tools to tell the story
The majority of my live videos have been shot on a iPhone 6S. In reality that’s all you need to tell a compelling story. The biggest game-changer in providing fluid video is a gimbal, which levels up the immersion significantly. For more live video gear recommendations you can check out my Best Gear for Facebook Live article.
Where live video creators can learn from
- Radio talk shows — for nearly a century radio hosts have been delivering content to people tuning in and out, so they’ve developed techniques to consistently orient the listener.
- Films with long takes — if you really want to learn about camera movement and how powerful storytelling device it can be I recommend watching any Steven Spielberg film, Birdman, Children of Men, Seven Samurai, and Victoria (one day I’ll make a live video as epic as this film).
- Vloggers — when it comes to communicating ideas via speaking to a camera, vloggers are revolutionizing how we view video. I recommend Casey Neistat, Erik Conover, and Fun For Louis.
- Other live video creators — check out Periscope, YouNow, Facebook Live, and Twitch. There are hundreds of streamers doing interesting things. Also feel free to watch Urbanist (shameless plug).
What’s next for live video?
The possibilities are endless. I’m starting to see people across the world also broadcast their explorations in cities and nature. Journalists, entertainers, comedians, filmmakers, and educators all can harness live video in order to tell compelling stories.
Live video is a storytelling medium as powerful as film, all you have to do is utilize its unique attributes. I’m writing this article for two reasons. One, to lend my learnings these past few months. And two, to push the conversation about the capabilities of live video further. If you have any learnings, insights, or recommendations feel free to chime in the comments below. Let’s make live video into something that change people’s lives!
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