Design your content for effective video

This post is part of a series on demonstrating competence and expertise on video:

Your goal is results, not Minutes Watched

YouTube is full of videos that take 10+ minutes to deliver 30 seconds of information. Why? Because this content is on channels that make money by showing ads. They need each video to be at least 10 minutes, and more minutes watched means more ad revenue.

But that’s not the context I’m writing about. This post series is about demonstrating expertise and competence on video:

  • to earn a reputation of expertise and competence
  • to generate inquiries
  • to gain followers
  • to be worthy of respect of your peers

In this context, you aren’t looking to maximize minutes watched, but rather to deliver value and earn your viewers’ interest quickly.

To achieve this you should have something important to say, have a good set of supporting information, and deliver this content quickly and densely.

Oddly enough, you might find this generates a lot of minutes watched; but I think the heavy preponderance of ultra-low-density YouTube videos is proof this is not the best strategy for the game professional YouTubers are playing. I’m not one of those, and everything here is probably bad advice if you’re aiming to be one.

Cold open

The human attention span, especially of decision-makers busy with other things, is shockingly short. Think about a toddler. Their attention span is much, much longer than a decision-maker you might be trying to reach.

If you imagine viewers as having an attention span of 60 seconds or more, you are right! Unfortunately, you are right for only a small percentage of viewers. People with a more realistic assessment are going to out-compete you, because they know they do not have anywhere near that long to earn the viewer’s attention.

Therefore, your video should have a “cold open” in which you deliver something the viewers care about quickly. There is no time for a canned intro sequence, music, credits, etc. at the start. That simply loses too many viewers right away.

Aim for the first words about the topic at hand to occur within 10 seconds of the video starting, more ideally 5 seconds.

As with television though, it’s only important to deliver the first bit in the cold open; it’s okay to have an introductory sequence thereafter, just keep it very short also. 30 seconds is too long, 10-15 seconds is okay.

Importantly, some viewers are more effective at listening while others are more effective while watching. Therefore the key initial content (and really much of the content all the way through) should tell the story in both the words and the video.

Supporting your thesis

After you’ve started delivering value more or less instantly at the start of your video, you now hopefully have the viewers’ attention. But you need to continue to earn it by spending the rest of the time effectively, with additional points or information that supports the primary message of the video. Of course, both you and your viewers are human – so some side topic diversion is great. Just do your best to keep side topics as connected to your key point as possible.

Ruthlessly iterate and trim your outline until both the opening and the supporting content the rest of the way through, is good.

Brand promotion

You’re probably making this video in support of either your company brand or personal brand. Either way, you need something said and shown on screen to connect to your brand, both early on and then repeatedly throughout. Many videos do well with some sort of brand logo visible all the way through, but if this is too distracting, just showing it a few times is fine.

Don’t rely on only on the visual though. Remarkably, many people just listen to videos and hardly look at the screen, possibly because they are doing something else at the same time. So you need to promote your brand audibly also.

I don’t recommend using a canned recording to promote the brand; it’s typically both easier and more effective to concisely state your “elevator pitch” as you record. If you can’t if you can’t yet give a great elevator pitch for your brand in 10-15 seconds, some work on that will also pay off widely.

If you do have a canned promotion, keep it short, and ideally put it somewhere in the middle rather than at the end. Whatever you do, don’t ask viewers to sit through a canned promotion at the beginning. Some viewers will make it through, but many will not. Those that do make it through, we’ll have seen the promotion at the worst possible time, when they are least impressed by your content. Reach out with your promotion after you have earned your viewers’ trust, not before.

In all of this, keep the brand mention minimal. Your goal with a video like this should be to demonstrate expertise and competence, earn the viewers’ trust, and then very lightly nudge them toward your brand. Less is more.


Regardless of where your video will be shown, it will usually have some kind of thumbnail / poster image visible before being played. Many potential viewers will decide whether to watch your specific video based on the thumbnail shown for this video.

Therefore, never use a static promo image for a group of videos, never use just your brand image for a thumbnail. Instead, display bold images and words in that thumbnail, to grab the attention of a potential viewer to whom the contents are relevant or interesting.

You can readily see this on display by looking at any common video site (YouTube etc.) and scrolling through a few hundred thumbnails. Very few successful channels have boring or static thumbnails.

Title and description

The viewers who didn’t decide whether to view based on the thumbnail will probably do so based on the title; therefore the title should be carefully crafted, with the first few words successfully grabbing the interest of the right viewers. Avoid the tendency to have the title build up from left to right toward what matters; and unless you are famous, don’t start with your name. Don’t start the title with the name of a series a videos, start with a few words about this specific video. Don’t start the title with the brand name, though it might make sense to include the speaker name or brand name at the end.

The title isn’t the whole story though; depending on where the video is published, there is a big payoff to a well-written description, keywords, and other materials visible to search engines. In most cases the automated machinery nudging viewers toward or away from your content will not have any understanding of the actual video content, but rather needs to understand the intended audience and topics from your well written and title and description.

Creativity is important, but you must constrain it in the following way: use words that your hopeful viewers would use in talking about your topic. Search engines are not that great at synonyms and are positively awful at allusions.


Background music, especially if it is intermittent (for example, just briefly at the beginning and end) can help bring a much more professional feel to a video, and maybe worth a few minutes of editing time even for something relatively casual. Keep the level low; don’t assume that your listener / viewer is young with perfect hearing wearing headphones in a quiet room. Assume they have imperfect ears and are paying partial attention in a noisy environment. Make sure your voice is loud and clear above any background music.

Ideally the music would help tell the story, but that is usually beyond feasible scope in the kind of modest-production-value videos discussed here.

Depending on the platform, you may need to be very careful about the choice of music. On the big public platforms your video might be removed if you use music without permission.

Caution: “tell them what you’re going to tell them…”

You’ve heard to many times: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them”.

That is probably good advice for some contexts, but be very careful with it when trying to demonstrate your competence and expertise in online video. Keep the time spent repeating yourself or previewing yourself to the minimum; if you must repeat, add additional relevant information each time.

Often the “tell them what you told them” idea can be integrated nicely with a brand connection. While briefly summarizing what you covered is a great time to reconnect with your brand, explaining that at “company name here” we help with problems like “summary of what we just talked about”.

People watch on their phone!

This may seem odd as you read it, but it’s true: people watch videos even about fairly complex topics, on their phones. Which is to say, on tiny screens. If you’re lucky, someone is watching on a 10 inch iPad or larger screen. Do not assume everyone is watching on a 40 inch widescreen 4k+ monitor.

Therefore: whatever graphics and text you display needs to be larger than you think. There can be places where occasionally you display smaller text to explain something that needs that size to make sense; but make that optional. Make sure viewers can understand all key points even if they cannot read any small text anywhere throughout the video.

Screens – show people where to look

If your video explains how software works, it can be tempting to bring up a screenshot and start talking about it with no motion or pointing. Unfortunately that is usually not good enough. Use something, either your mouse pointer or better yet a feature of your video recording software, to direct the viewer’s eye to the right place on the screenshots as you talk.

Also, be wary of a static screen, whether in a presentation or with software running in a screen share. Don’t let the screens sit stationary for a long time while you speak; make something happen on screen frequently.

End card 

Many videos benefit from an “end card” listing key points, showing your contact information and brand, etc.  It is usually best to switch to showing this during the last 10 or 15 seconds of your video, don’t wait until all the way after you have stopped talking.

You can typically put this together in a word processor or other similar software you already have; without requiring a video edit. Just bring this up towards the end of your content and so your screen recording captures it.

(As with many other things, in higher stakes situations you’ll probably have expert help preparing a more perfect end card, and expert video editor transitioning to it, etc. But you don’t need that most of the time.)

Call to action

Often you hope viewers take some action if they are persuaded or enticed by your content. For example, they could come to your website and inquire about services.

Mention this call to action at some point in the middle of your content, and then again at the end. Don’t mention at the beginning; at the beginning it is just a distraction because you have not yet earned their interest.

If your video is on YouTube, unfortunately it is worthwhile to follow the trend and plead with users to “like and subscribe”. Nudging just a slightly higher percentage of users to do so will increase your audience.

The junction of content and advertising

A short, well-made video initially intended to demonstrate expertise, sometimes turns out to be quite effective as a paid advertisement also. Keep this in mind when crafting content: it might not only be found by searches or other automated recommendations, but if it is effective enough it could be promoted via an ad network placement.

Curiously, this means that advice crafted for video advertising has some overlap with advice for non advertising content! For example:

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