This week we look to the fleeting human attention span and the storytelling techniques that can help brands capture and keep it in the busy landscape of short-form video advertising.

Short form is an art form

An extended dissection of short form video content and creating cut through.

Christopher Moriarty


Brand Expression

5 minute read

The difficulty of delivering a message in a short and engaging video is often underestimated. You have to deal with the atomised attention spans of a fragmented entertainment landscape. And you have to be willing to relinquish control of how your message will be received, remixed and replayed online.
In short
  • Because of its abundance and frequency, short-form advertising is easy to overlook and hard to remember.
  • A fragmented media landscape and the phenomena of ‘second screening’ is making competition for viewership even fiercer.
  • Six ways to win at short-form video without including a cat playing piano.
All art has a message, and all messaging is an art
Advertising, marketing, art and media have always shared a common goal: to grab and hold the attention of an audience in order to deliver a message.

Sometimes the message is simply “look at my subject, look how good I am at expressing them via my chosen medium”. Other times it’s more complex. But the essential goal is the same: “look at this image and think about it”, “let the idea it evokes sit with you throughout your day”.
The demands of ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ art

The ‘high’ arts usually require an audience come to them and engage on their terms. The response being sought is an emotional connection to the art, an appreciation that sits on a spectrum between momentary, superficial enjoyment and deep life-changing resonance.

‘Low’ arts 'like advertising' instead exist for the purpose of delivering a single-minded message intent on changing a behaviour. They find viewers wherever they are and engage with them in more universally relatable terms.

Yet when it comes down to viewer attention, the real distinction lies in the rarity of the ‘art’ presented. High art is one-of-a kind and exposure is often singular – like travelling to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. Whereas low art is abundantly frequent – making it significantly easier to overlook and commit to memory.


“Attention might just be one of the rarest commodities in existence, after clean drinking water.”2

A fierce competition for face time

The ever-increasing number of streaming platforms has led to a fragmentation of the once fairly centralised entertainment landscape. And the proliferation of short-form content across a range of social media and video apps means that viewers are often ‘second-screening’1 on a phone or tablet, consuming mass streams of information in tiny, bite-sized chunks, even while sitting in front of your big expensive ad. If you’re lucky, they might look up. But don’t count on it. Attention might just be one of the rarest commodities in existence, after clean drinking water.2

To break through, short-form storytelling needs to be timely in its delivery, punchy in its execution, and seamlessly integrate into the experience of the channel it’s being consumed within.

Winning at short form

The most watched online videos usually revolve around people showing off their lip-syncing, dance moves, and stunt fails.3 Or they’re of cats playing piano. If these kinds of things aren’t really on brand for you, how do you successfully compete? You apply these iconic rules for economical storytelling:


  1. Show, don’t tell
    It’s a rule as old as cinema, and one upheld by the great Hitchcock himself:

    “When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise.”4

    Film is a visual medium, and the best short videos demand the discipline of the silent filmmaker. Establish the central figure and scenario in as near to a single image as you can, as soon as possible. And if spoken word is essential, caption it or translate it to supers.

  2. Get weird
    With such a short window to grab attention and make your mark, the best way to be remembered is to be eye-catchingly strange, surreal, or funny – even if it means pushing your brand slightly further than normal. In the words of Hitchcock again:

    “Movies have lost a lot by this new trend towards documentary realism at the sacrifice of fantasy. After all, drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”5

  3. Arrive late, leave early
    “You always come into the scene at the last possible moment.”6

    Veteran screenwriter William Goldman knows quickly jumping into the most vital piece of action is essential. You don’t have time for epic narratives with extended prologues and epilogues. This is a TikTok video, not The Lord of the Rings. Get in, make your point, and get out.

  4. Give the audience what they want but didn’t know they wanted
    Know your audience and what they’re already enjoying so you can offer them something they might otherwise have searched for if they knew it existed. This will help your content go from being an unwanted intrusion to a welcome part of the mix.

  5. Lean into your medium
    Sometimes it’s not about what you say, but how you say it. While getting meta has become increasingly mainstream, it can be especially effective in social. An average message delivered in a playful way that highlights the context of consumption can add a memorable dimension to your message. Like this ad from The Iconic.

  6. Leave them wanting more
    Entice your viewer without expending your bag of tricks or their patience. You want them to be interested to learn more about what you’re offering and stay hungry for similar content from you in the future.
Barbara Streisand and the art of letting go

The most important thing for a brand to let go of is the idea that you are in control of how your message will be received, remixed and reinterpreted online. Because the Streisand effect is real.7

When short-form content is done right (and sometimes when it’s done wrong) your idea will travel far beyond the original work, to live on as a meme, a gif, or a pop culture quote completely divorced from its original context and intended meaning. Cue the breathless anxiety of Legal departments everywhere.

But if you really want your brand to make a splash in the deep pool of short-form video content, you’ll need to check the water, jump with all your might, tuck your knees in tight, and hope for the best.


on goldfish memory
Most people will take roughly 12 seconds to read 52 words. That’s 4 seconds longer than what the average human attention span is currently believed to be. Not only has this number dropped by 4 seconds since 2000, it’s 1 second less than the attention span of a goldfish. Still with us?

The (new) narrative arc
The way we consume content has been majorly disrupted by the endless feed-style of most of our favourite mobile platforms.

With the knowledge that we can tap, swipe, or scroll our way to something more interesting, if a brand’s story fails to capture us, we move on pretty quick.

While narrative arcs that are linear can still perform well for brand-building videos ads, if it’s engagement you’re after, you’ll want to try one of these non-linear narrative formats:

    1. Chris Taylor, We’re all second-screening. Here’s how you’re doing it wrong. (18 February 2019) Mashable.
    2. Michael McDonald, Meet Six People fighting Water Scarcity Across the Globe (27 October 2021) Bloomberg News.
    3. Author unknown, Teenager earns millions by posting lip-synching videos on TikTok, signs deals with top brands (18 May 2021) Times Now Digital.
    4. Valeria Maltoni, Hitchcock and Truffaut in Conversation on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (March 2017) Conversation Agent.
    5. Barry Popik, “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it” (15 October 2021) The Big Apple.
    6. Scott Myers, Writing Mantra: “Enter late, exit early” (5 October 2010) Into The Story.
    7. Stacy Conradt, How Barbara Streisand Inspired the “Streisand Effect” (18 August 2015) Mental Floss.

Written by Christopher Moriarty, Edited by Tash Velkova, 52 Words by Tash Velkova, Freeform by Chelsea Abbott & Charlie Rosanove, Key Visual by Jaimii Jakab.

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