At WITNESS, we rotate facilitators at our weekly staff meetings. If assigned as facilitator, the person is responsible for doing some research and sharing a current advocacy video of interest. My turn up, I screened the doGooder Nonprofit Video Award winner, “Protect Our Defenders.” The video addresses rape in the military.

Everyone seemed moved. It was obvious by their reaction why this video was a winner. So, I asked the room, “What moments in the video do you remember or stood out?” Answers: the statistics, the video included a male subject, the rape kit, the Congresswoman’s closing statement.

The Storytelling Arch of an Advocacy Video

Armed with this information, I revisited the 1:45-minute video. The WITNESS training materials collectively state that stories should have a beginning, middle and end (also see Aristotle’s Poetics).

Freytag's Pyramid
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Using this information, I broke down the elements further, relating them to advocacy videos:

  1. Beginning (exposition) = Introduce the issue
  2. Transition point 1 = moves story to next section
  3. Middle (rising action) = Building blocks of story are added about core problem of issue
  4. Transition point 2 (climax) = moves story towards ending
  5. End (falling action) = Propose a possible solution/action

Applying the above to “Protect Our Defenders,” I found a correlation between the breakdown and the moments staff remembered.

1. Introduce the issue 0:00 to 0:42 (42 secs)
Transition point 1: Statistical information was used to emphasize and legitimize the first interviewee’s statement. The numbers directly tied to the interviewee’s accusations.

2. Rising action, building up the story about core problem of issue 0:41 to 1:13 (32 secs)
Introduction to middle: This section starts with a male interviewee. Men are rarely included in rape issues and using this interviewee helps to pull in the viewer further.
Rising action: Rape kit – The next interviewee describes her rape case. Her story helps raise the stakes of the problem: it isn’t only about rape, but the unwillingness to address the issue even with case evidence. The filmmaker even leaves in a few frames of the interviewee trying not to cry.
Transition point 2: Last interviewee summarizes core problem of issue with this quote, “The chain of command has a vested interest in keeping this under the rug.”

3. Propose a possible solution/action 1:13 to 1:38 (25 secs)
Ending: Representative Jackie Speier (an expert) on the House floor addresses colleagues. She emphasizes the summary made in transition point 2 and adds, “…[it is] a problem we can fix.” Then the video cuts to a graphic.

More Good Examples

I also applied this breakdown to each of the other winners of the doGooder Nonprofit Awards. Each had similar correlations. Transitions were used to emphasize points and raise the action from section to section. The transitions tended to be key moments that viewers remembered. The pacing moved faster as the story progressed towards its ending. Lastly, because these videos are meant to be viewed online, each included a prompt for the viewer to take part in an online action or visit a website.

The ending of advocacy videos is what most differentiates them from other types of videos. Online or offline advocacy videos call for an action, whether it is to fill out postcards at a live screening or sign an online petition or other action.

Apply this breakdown to advocacy videos you find interesting.  Does it give you any insights? Share your results in the comments below.

10 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Good Advocacy Video

  1. As a small documentary team with minimal funding, these tools and discussion are extremely important to us. The Indigenous rights issue we are collecting evidence and interviews for is grossly overlooked – and we are looking at all means of media to communicate this story for maximum impact and to amplify the voices of those resisting genocide.

    As a media professional, the question I find myself asking is: how to create an effective hook in video and other media for non-Native audiences that doesn’t perpetuate the very racism and stereotyping we are trying to eliminate.

    I very much appreciate all the excellent ideas and expertise presented. Thank you.

    1. Naomi, thank you for your comments. My apologies that it has taken some time to respond. As an artist, I do tend to push boundaries… as well as find myself asking the same question you mention above. It’s fine line to tow…

      I would be interested in reading more on what you have learned from trying to create an effective hook. Are there things you have tried that didn’t work? Or things that have work for you?


  2. The beauty of the traditional story arch is: 1. its flexibility and 2. it’s everywhere. The traditional structure can be found in everything from 30sec superbowl commercials to music lyrics to even online viral videos like “Charlie bit my finger.”

    Let’s look at the ‘exposition,’ while the word is dull, it does not mean that the content for the exposition needs to be dull or long. This means it can include all the elements Mr. Esplin mentioned, such as the 10-15 sec hook. If your ‘hook’ works… then you need to raise the stakes on it, to keep the viewer engaged, thus the transition points, etc.

    Is this analysis going to work with every audience and every video maybe, maybe not. But what the structure does is it takes the abstract and gives it grounding. A starting point from which to build out.

    I’d like to note that this post only addresses the structure and anatomy of a video by itself. A little background on this video, it’s actually a full feature documentary. This version was specifically cut to be a part of the landing page for the website, “Protect Our Defenders.”

    The post does not take into account the surrounding content, online distribution and marketing that can be added using lower-thirds, how the video is embedded and where, programming of the player to create overlays, titles, etc.

    The outreach strategy for an online video is as important as the video itself. Even in the case of the Kony video, they had a strong outreach plan to start with. Their offline efforts combined with their online efforts for outreach contributed to the video views as much as the video did itself.

    The same could be said for movies, books and any other media. The marketing and branding is as important as the story, but the story has to be strong enough to carry across all mediums. The one thing I think that isn’t noted enough are outreach plans and how important they are to the success of videos and how videos are one part of a bigger plan… nonprofits don’t have million dollar outreach budgets, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to duplicate social media outreach successes like the Hunger Games or Kony that include video, but don’t solely rely on video.

    Looking forward to reading more comments… keep them coming…

  3. I have to agree with you Mark about modern attention spans. Anyone that maintains a website with videos can testify to that. Most website statistics from google analytics and other statistics tools show that the average user leaves a video within the first minute and rarely finishes the whole thing.

    Since the Kony 2012 video seems to be the exception to this I think it might be interesting to apply the traditional story arc to it and see how it follows or disregards the standard narrative and also how it might be applying some of the same techniques to combat short attention spans that you mentioned. If something is successful once, then the same techniques that made it successful in the first place can be applied to other videos. It would be worth the time to study a little to tease out the techniques it used that can and should be applied to other advocacy videos.

    I would be more than happy to hear what everyone else thinks.

  4. * These are exciting and experimental times for online multimedia. My comment above is based on ongoing debates within the industry. What do you think? Do you agree/ disagree? I think it’s certainly an important discussion we should be having as a community, and I would love to discuss further if anyone is interested…

  5. An interesting analysis, although I think it is important to highlight online behaviour and it’s impact on narrative structure.

    Your hypothesis understandably relies on the traditional ‘story arch’ formula. This approach is indeed successful when a captive audience is already reached. IE if you are showing the video at a conference, or in this case an award ceremony, where the viewer doesn’t have the choice to click away.

    Online video is slightly different however, as there is an almost infinite amount of distractions that can take a viewer away from the story. There is strong evidence that the first 10-15 seconds is key to hooking the audience, after which the majority of viewers will likely move on.

    This means of course that there must be something that entices the audience to want to keep watching. You must give them a reason straight away why they should care. Thus your most powerful visuals must be the first thing we see, and you should include a strong point of interest, perhaps a powerful soundbite.

    Unfortunately you must also appreciate that rarely do people finish a video online. We expect people to, after all, we have dedicated so much time and effort in producing a story we care about and expect people to stick it out. In reality, this just isn’t going to happen. Writers will already be aware of the inverted triangle rule commonly used in print media. Essentially, it refers to placing all the most relevant / engaging content at the start with the least important information at the end.

    Another key point, away from narrative structure, but equally important is the length of the video.

    Ok, the most successful viral video in history – ‘Kony’, is an exception to the rule, but try to think about how long you expect to keep an audience engaged. Less is more. I have worked with NGOs who want feature length documentaries to promote their work online. Again, very few people in reality will watch the whole piece if it’s 20-30 mins. People often underestimate the time and footage (not to mention the budget) it takes to make a good quality feature length production. 5 mins of interesting, quality footage is going to significantly increase the audience engagement, and likelihood they will share on social media, compared to a 30 min documentary with long, and lets be honest, usually boring, interviews.

    Think about why you are making the film in the first place. The internet is the perfect platform for storytelling if done well. You can add the context outside of the video in the same place if needed. Think about the medium you are using, what are it’s strengths / weaknesses and why is appropriate for what you want to say? Are lots of statistics better suited to info-graphics and text rather than bombarding this non visual element of the story in the video for instance?

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