I heard it remarked the other day that website videos ‘need’ to be about one–two minutes’ duration – otherwise people just won’t watch them.

This kind of statement sounds reasonable. After all, shorter is always better – because people are busy, right? But where does that rule of thumb end? 45 seconds? 30 seconds? Less?

The reality is a tad more complex.

There are certainly benefits to keeping a video succinct. It costs less (well, more minutes inevitably means more money) and it can be viewer-friendly. Tightening up a video often makes it better. It’s not the brevity itself which does this, but rather the additional thinking which goes into telling the story in the most concise way – conveying more, often with less.

Where the wheels come off the bus is when the story is shoehorned into the space. There’s no need for an arbitrary finishing line that results in an ineffective video. This can force uncomfortable production changes – such as a rapid voiceover, needed to fit in all of the words. Pithy is good – blunt and terse, not so much.

A better rule is that the story should be as long as it needs to be, but as short as it can be. In other words, we should say everything that needs to be said, but find the clearest way to say it.

‘Everything which needs to be said’ is the foundation stone of video planning. For a company explainer, or new product launch, there could be hundreds of things worth saying. The reality is, not all of them need to be said. We need to say enough to get people excited, not turn them into experts. It’s seldom the job of the video to provide every last detail – the video should encourage the next action, which may be to find out more or even to buy right then.

This is contextual – it’s different for different businesses, different products and so on. For example, if you’re launching a new smartphone, people already have a clear understanding of what to expect from a smartphone. We don’t have to tell them that it has a camera, just what’s new or different about this one. And we can do this really concisely – the on-screen title ‘12-megapixel camera’, supported by a close-up, is enough. Conversely, if we’re explaining about a healthcare service for older people we may very well need to explain it in more detail, with more images, just to say what needs to be said. We don’t want too many questions hanging in the air.

Which leads us onto another key factor in determining the duration of a video: pace. Our technology company can comfortably have a video with a very snappy pace – quick cuts, short statements, punchy music and so on. This simply wouldn’t work for our healthcare company – a more relaxed and even pace is needed to reassure. If we had an arbitrary limit to the video’s duration, then we’d either have to cut out information or up the pace. Neither is ideal.

Nor is it required – because another factor is that people will happily invest different amounts of time to videos of different topics. If they want the facts about a new smartphone, then sure, they’ll want it short. If they’re looking at hospice care for a parent, then they’ll watch something that’s longer. Just as a long, languid video could kill sales for the smartphone company, then a frenetic video could do the same for a healthcare company.

These two examples are opposite and extreme, but this isn’t a binary choice. Every company is different. Every message is different. The duration of a video shouldn’t be set in advance of understanding either of these.

Working hard to keep a video brief is a great goal, but it should be one that drives smart edits of the script, rethinks of the videos and a sharpening of the storytelling. The story should be as long as it needs to be, but as short as it can be.