Writing for Corporate Videos: the ‘Despised’ Craft
I have an awful confession to make: I’m a corporate video scriptwriter.
I’m not sure how many scripts and proposals I’ve written for the corporate and public sector market. More than 100? Easily. 150? Perhaps.I don’t do it full-time anymore, thank the stars, butI keep my hand in as a freelance, working on an average of a project a month. To be absolutely frank, it subsidises my other life as an author and screenwriter, thus obviating any need to tend bar or sell body parts.
I’ll be the first to admit that corporate projects are not art – but writing them is craft, and that craft can have unexpected side-benefits for writers of all stripes. Such as:
- Time Management. Corporate projects tend to be fast-turnaround, sometimes with ridiculous deadlines to meet that all-important sales conference or product launch date. You learn to work with speed and efficiency. No procrastination. No writer’s block. No pussyfooting. If you don’t meet the deadline, you don’t get paid: that’s motivation in a box, right there. To this day I’m still fast (35 books in nine years, all meticulously researched; and talking of which…)
- Research Skills. What do I know about electricity transmission protocols, seafood processing or institutional nutritional guidelines for babies? Nothing, that’s what. Or at least nothing until someone said write this script by this date and we will pay you. Don’t know something? – find out. And not just by clicking the first three results on a Google search.
- Understanding the Audience. Need to explain the process of testing large-scale offshore windfarm components to the general public? Or to a roomful of engineers? There’s a world of difference in the language register. The skill of writing for a particular audience will serve you for a lifetime.
- Being a Reliable Supplier. Did the job well, delivered on time, and met the client’s needs? They’ll ask you back. It’s a universal truth. Many of my books have been commissioned because the publishers know I’m a reliable supplier.
- Knowledge of the World. All life experience is good for writers. Most of us get to experience matters of the heart, matters of the head and matters of the loins. Some areas of human endeavour can, however, remain closed off or even unknown to most of us. Writing corporate videos has brought me into touch with the military, the police, the health service and government. I’ve learned about aeroplane manufacture and how to restore damaged peatlands. I’ve worked through the processes of registering a death and creating Scotch whisky. Someday some of that information will filter through into one of my screenplays.
- Value in Work. Many corporate projects are ephemeral, even banal. A considerable number are dull or obfuscatory. Some I refuse to work on for personal moral reasons. Occasionally, though, something really worthwhile comes your way. A guidance video for mental health carers. A training DVD for charity volunteers. As you read this, visitors to several museums and historical sites in the UK are watching explanatory videos I scripted. Some of them may even be laughing at my jokes. And if just one aircrew member takes notice of the safety instructions in that Apache helicopter DVD and avoids unnecessary risky behaviour, then I’ve done my job.
- A Stepladder to Other Things. Corporate work is a crucible: long hours, merciless deadlines, logistical challenges and the occasional client from hell (yes, people in business can be b***holes: who knew?). It burnishes you for other realms. One of my former corporate video colleagues is writing dramas for the BBC. A second is directing his first low-budget feature. A third is working with me to develop a horror film. Me, I got to write the scripts for a few TV documentaries. And when I pitched my first book to a publisher, they recognised I was a relatively low-risk new author because I had a track record of delivering in another field. And indeed, I’ve never missed a deadline for any of my books – and one publisher even brought me in to complete someone else’s volume that was never going to be delivered in a month of Sundays.
- Production Knowledge. Sometimes corporate scriptwriters get to see other aspects of production, from filming through to editing and meeting clients. It teaches you, for example, how to behave appropriately on set or on location, what motion graphics can do, and how to be good in a room. Being given an insight into the production process has also enabled me to be able to write more effectively for corporate works that use animation, drama or presenters. And I also now know a great deal about budget restrictions and how to, if necessary, limit costly elements in the script: set it in the client’s building rather a location that will charge a fee; restrict the number of speaking parts; and try to avoid too many spaceships, zombie hordes and nuclear explosions.
- It Pays. Writers need to practice their chops. Corporate video scriptwriting can enable you to do that, while keeping you in groceries at the same time. In my years I’ve had over 30 different jobs, some of them real stinkers, and I can tell you sitting at a keyboard sandblasting words is a much better deal. Writing fluff for banks or a crushingly dull piece-to-camera for a CEO may not seem like your dream job, but think of it as an extension of your skillset (plus you get to find out what CEOs are like). I should also say that many actors keep a roof over their head by appearing in corporates.
Most large cities have a production base making corporate or industrial videos, or, if you want the Sunday phrase, ‘corporate communications’. The work can range from public information and employee training to videos for events or marketing and sales, and everything in between. In one case I worked on a video where the audience was just three in number – but those were the decision makers the client wanted to reach.
In my experience the best way in is either through starting as a runner, or by demonstrating from the get-go that you understand their world and you can write for it. You’re not writing your dream feature or an arty short – you’re writing for a limited audience, and to a client brief. Whatever that brief is – honour it. Write the best script you can. And if you need further motivation, I encourage you to look into the pre-Dead background of a certain George A. Romero.
So, working on intense-turnaround, non-broadcast and frequently boring corporate videos made me the writer I am today. Now all I need is for the phone to ring and a Hollywood hotshot to say, “Hey Geoff, got a great movie script job for you. Low budget, high concept, loads of spaceships, zombie hordes and nuclear explosions… can you write it in a week?”