Telling Small Stories with Video, Part 1

I’m excited to share this video with you!

It introduces something I call a “Small Story Video”. It’s a way of telling a story effectively with video in a short amount of time.

Watch this video to see how it works:

As you’ll see, these techniques are also useful for telling big stories with video (for example, documentaries).

I hope this is helpful to you!


Hey there, I’m Izzy Hyman, and welcome to my video series on the Small Story video. Ever since I wrote the “Small Stories Manifesto”, I’ve been really excited about this idea of a Small Story video, and I’ve received lots of questions about it. And probably the biggest the most important question I’ve received is how do you make one? My goal for this video series is to answer that question to help you feel comfortable making a Small Story video of your own.

You ready to get started? Let’s dig in. First of all, what is a small story video exactly? And in order to understand what a Small Story video is, we first need to talk about other types of videos, so we can see how a Small Story video is different from them.

So let’s talk about several types of videos that are very common, but are not Small Story videos. These are the kind that many people create when they first get started with making their own videos. The first type of video is called a Photo Montage. This is simply a series of photos, they’re usually animated and usually set to music. Here’s a 15 second example of a photo montage video.

(video demo)

One of the great things about Photo Montages is is that they’re easy to make, and they’re definitely more interesting than just looking at static photos. There’s a good chance that the very first video you ever made was a photo montage video like this one. I know my first video I ever made was a photo montage. Photo montages have downsides though. Here are a couple of the big ones. Usually they don’t tell a story and viewers love stories. So it’s best if your video does, in fact, tell a story. Photo montages usually don’t do that. Also, a photo montage frequently doesn’t give you a lot of context. For example, who are the people in the photos? Why are we seeing these specific images? Where are they, when was this etc, that type of thing. And the photos that you saw in the photo montage demonstration I just gave you a few moments ago. Those are photos from a recent trip to Portland that my family and I took but you would have no way of knowing that just by watching the video by itself.

The next type of common video people make is a video montage. It’s very similar to a photo montage. But instead of using photos, it uses video clips, again, it’s usually a bunch of video images set to music. Here’s a short example of a video montage.

(video demo)

Video montages can also be fun to watch. But once again, they suffer from some of the same things as the photo montage. They usually don’t answer the questions who, what, when, where and why. For example, who is it riding the motorcycle in this video? In this case, it was my son Aiden and me. But you wouldn’t know that unless you knew who we were.

The next type of video that is pretty common is what I would call a video montage with context. It has a lot of characteristics of a video montage, but you have added context. And because of the context, you might know the answers to questions such as who, what, when, where and why. Here’s an example of what I would call a video montage with context.

(video demo)

You can see that it certainly contains plenty of montage type of material. But it’s easier to know what’s going on because of the additional context. You have a general idea of who this is, what’s going on. So those are the three main types of videos that people start with, a photo montage, video montage, and a video montage with context. I think each of those types of videos is an improvement upon the previous one.

Now that we’ve seen those types of videos, let’s talk about Small Story videos. What is a Small Story video? How is it different from these other types? Well, a Small Story video is a form of video that fits certain criteria. These are the criteria:

Number one, the complete video has a duration under two minutes. Number two, it’s a self contained story. Number three, it uses the tools and techniques of documentaries to tell the story for example, interviews, narration, voiceovers, B-roll, natural sound, music, photos, etc. Number four, there’s no pressure to be significant or life-changing. Number five, the topics tend to be small because it’s hard to fully cover a big topic in two minutes. Number six, it’s a nonfiction narrative, a miniature documentary. Number seven, there’s no pressure to have high production value, smartphone, video and audio can work just fine. Number eight, it answers the questions who, what, when, where and why.

Those are the eight concepts of a small story video, these types of constraints create boundaries for you to work in and help you be more creative with your video. With those eight concepts in mind, let’s take a look at an example small story video.

(video demo)

Can you see how the eight concepts of a Small Story video were present in this demo? Let’s check them off. Number one, it’s under two minutes. Check. Number two, it’s a self-contained story. All the elements of the story are within this one video. So check. Number three, it uses the tools and techniques of documentaries to tell the story. Check. Number four, there’s no pressure to be significant or life changing. Check. Number five, it covers a small topic. Aiden’s relationship with his Rubik’s Cube definitely small. So check. Six. It’s a nonfiction narrative, a miniature documentary, check. Number seven, there’s no pressure to have high production value. Nothing fancy in this video. Check. Number eight, it answers the questions who, what, when, where and why? Check.

Now that we’ve talked about what a Small Story video is, and we’ve seen an example of one, let’s talk about what a Small Story video is not. Number one, it’s not a photo or video montage. Number two, it’s not a trailer for a larger project. Number three, it’s not a segment from a larger project. Remember, it needs to be its own self contained story. Number four, it isn’t a fictional short film or a commercial spot.

I love small story videos, they’re are a lot of fun to make and there are plenty of benefits to making them. First of all, they’re relatively easy to make. They’re not a huge undertaking, you can make one on a Sunday afternoon once you’ve had a little practice with them. And because it’s a small project, you’re more likely to finish it. And when you build the habit of completing projects, that helps build your video making muscles. Also because the resulting video is only two minutes long, they’re more likely to be watched by a viewer. People are more likely to watch a short video online versus a long one. Another benefit of a Small Story video is that it uses the same tools and techniques of a big story video such as a full documentary, so you’re getting to practice the video storytelling fundamentals along the way as you make these. Another great thing about small story videos is that you don’t need a lot of equipment. For example, with Aiden’s cube, I just used the basic three items: a video camera, a shotgun microphone mounted on the camera and headphones. For this video. I didn’t even use a tripod or lights. Could I have used more equipment? Sure I could have set up lights for formal interview shots, etc. But with small story videos, the emphasis is not on perfection. It’s on telling a tiny story in two minutes or less, and it does not need to be perfect.

So that’s what a small story video is. In the next video in this series, we’ll start looking at the different steps you have to take to make one of your own.

Post Updated April 2, 2019

Small Story: Artist, Bill Zaner

This Small Story submission comes from Pat Whitty. It features a painter named Bill Zaner. Take a look…

Here are some of the strengths I noticed from Pat’s video:

  • It contains a variety of shots: inside the RV, outside the RV, landscapes, sunrise, interview shots.
  • Related to the above note — It uses several cut-away shots to give us a sense of time and place.
  • Pat uses interview footage directly, and he also uses the audio from the interview as effective voice-overs during B-roll cutaways.

Overall, this is another nice example of a Small Story video.

Side note — Not sure what a Small Story is? Check out my Small Stories Manifesto.

Small Story: Liberation of Dachau

This Small Story submission is from Richard Beaugh.

It has a different tone from some of the other Small Stories I’ve shared. It’s a more serious tone, but you’ll see the Small Story concept still works.

  • It’s under two minutes.
  • It’s the simple story of a World War II soldier taking photos the day he helped liberate Dachau.
  • It uses documentary-style storytelling techniques such as interviews and B-roll (cutaway photos in this case).

I think Richard did a nice job with this which is why I’m sharing it with you here.

Small Story: For the Love of Dragons

This Small Story submission comes from Mark DiNatale.

He shot it in about 30 minutes and spent about an hour editing.

I think it fits the spirit of the Small Story concept well.

  • It tells a story in under two minutes.
  • It uses documentary-style storytelling techniques.
  • The piece isn’t trying to be a polished, professional piece. It’s simply a way to practice telling stories.

As you watch it, do you get a sense that you could do it too? I hope so… One of the main reasons I’m sharing all these Small Story examples is so you’ll get inspired and give it a try.

Small Story: Pole Vaulting with Allison Stokke

Here’s a Small Story video that will blow your mind:

GoPro shares a lot of great videos on their YouTube channel.

That said, many of them are really just video montages set to music. This one is different.

I recommend you watch the video above, read through these notes, and then watch the video again. It’s a great lesson in effective Small Storytelling.

(By the way, I want to emphasize that I’m not affiliated with this video. I watched it yesterday when GoPro emailed it as their “Video of the Week”. I’m sharing it here because it’s awesome.)

Let’s go through some of the elements of a good Small Story…

Continue reading Small Story: Pole Vaulting with Allison Stokke

Small Story Problems

Small Story Problems

The Small Stories thing is getting some momentum.

I’m excited about that!

I’ve been receiving lots of links from people, including two submissions that were very close to being ready to share with you. I’ve started working with the two video creators (via email) to help them make a few adjustments to their Small Story videos.

(I wish I could do that for everyone, but of course, that would be impossible.)

In the meantime, here are the most common areas needing improvement I’ve seen in Small Story video submissions:

Continue reading Small Story Problems