Death by a 1000 Cuts. Video Editing Mistakes that Ruin Your On-camera Authority

video editing

This article is a series of topic excerpts from my forthcoming book (working title) How to Present on Video.

In this chapter, “Clara” (a composite of various client issues) is learning about the importance of basic video principles. And, video editing mistakes to avoid in her business videos.

Meet Clara the Author

Clara’s book became a breakout bestseller and she wants to leverage her profile and create speaking opportunities. She purchased some video equipment for her home office, and a “how to build your own video training course” online.

Predictably, the cookie-cutter course material turned out to be high on hype and low on substance. “Relax. Be authentic. Just be yourself. It’s not about you – put your attention on your viewer”, are the common platitudes Clara has heard from these self-appointed video marketing gurus. They make it sound so simple. In theory, these platitudes seem plausible, but in practice, it’s poor generic advice. 

On video, Clara feels self-conscious about her looks and her body weight. Her mouth goes dry. She blinks excessively. Clara speaks so fast that it’s hard to tell where one point ends and the next point begins.

After creating her first video following the cookie-cutter blueprint, all Clara sees is a B-grade version of her A-grade self.  Her message scripting, camera set-up, and video editing have combined to produce a finished product that is, well, underwhelming.

The “jump cuts” these so-called experts recommend in video editing require the editing mastery of a Quentin Tarantino to artfully pull off. They make her video efforts seem sloppy and poorly put together. 

Not only that – this low-quality editing practice (a “youth” orientated editing style), did not appeal to her demographic nor did it support their media viewing sophistication. Rather, it upstaged her messaging and undermined the look, feel, and professional visual tone of her self-produced video series.

Worse still these poorly timed edits made Clara look and sound like she can’t even string a full sentence together, let alone a thought. These ill-advised, “jump cuts” gave the impression that she makes a lot of speaking mistakes, and doesn’t know her content well enough to speak with full expert flow and authority.

To top it off, visual media research has shown that the implication of this rule-violating style actually impedes the comprehension level and clarity of the message being received by the viewer. 

It certainly isn’t the powerful first impression Clara wants to make as a thought leader. The feedback she received on her videos reinforced these ill-advised, poorly timed edits i.e. message confusion, too distracting to watch, you look like you are having a fit, why are you jumping around like that in mid-sentence? To mention a few. 

It gets worse, the generic filming recommendations and poor set-up make her look 10 pounds heavier, and 10 years older than she really is. “This isn’t me!”, she exclaims. Money wasted, tired of being duped by these high-on-hype “chauffeur knowledge” online courses. Clara feels let down, embarrassed, and frustrated.

R-e-a-l-l-y…Should it Be a Video?

Back to  Clara…

After an entire day of self-filming, loaded with hours of raw footage (mistake #1) and multiple takes of various shots to incorporate into her videos.

Clara checks out competitors in her category of expertise (mistake #2). She notes that most of them seem to be just one long continuous shot of themselves speaking direct-to-camera aka a Talking Head format (where the presenter’s head and shoulders are visible and confined within the frame or screen).

Clara’s intuition tells her that this kind of format is too one-dimensional. As a viewer Clara struggles to pay attention, her eyes dart around her office, searching for more visual stimulation than these talking-head videos are providing.

For Clara, this format reminds her of the many emotionless lectures and PowerPoint presentations she had to attend. She muses that she’d rather chew tinfoil than continue watching.

Her instincts tell her that this format would be better suited as an audio podcast. She’s not alone. Sure enough, Clara clicks away to explore another video for ideas (mistake #3)…

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Like a Shark – Video Footage Must Move or it Dies

Clara’s gut reaction is spot on. Video is for showing, not talking at your viewer. If there is no visual change-up to help keep the eye and the primitive brain engaged you’ll likely strike poor viewer retention or engagement issues.


 What information consumes is the attention of its recipients – a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
Herbert Simon, Nobel Winning Economist circa 1977

Visual Competition for Attention

Even if you are “the most interesting person in the world” you are competing for attention. More so when your viewers are viewing your video on small-screen mobile devices. They are surrounded by visual competition in their environment, a plethora of distractions, short attention spans, and the need for instant gratification from what they view. Studies(1) show that we are becoming psychologically (neurochemically) hooked to the barrage of incoming notifications on our devices.

More importantly, you are competing with millions of years of evolution; the primitive survival brain, and all of its unconscious conditioning.

Without enticing visual strategies, newcomers to your video or brand may not have the time or mental energy to focus on an unedited talking-head video. Let alone remain distraction-free to fully comprehend your message or stick around long enough to hear you out.


It’s Unnatural. Your Primitive Brain Directs the Shots

In the visual medium watching one continuous shot of a “talking head video”  is not a natural human-viewing behavior. The Primitive brain gets distracted. Without direct conscious effort, the brain (to persevere energy) will switch between two modes: Focused (problem-solving, learning, etc) and Diffused (daydreaming, imaginative connections between ideas).

Millions of years of evolution equipped our ancestors with inbuilt survival mechanisms. As a result, most of the time the unconscious primitive brain calls the shots on what to pay attention to. It eagerly works in the background, scanning the environment for certain kinds of stimulus namely food, sex, or danger. It’s continuing asking;

    • Can I eat it?
    • Have sex with it?
    • Can I kill it?
    • Or will it kill me?

To survive the wide-open (wide-screen) spaces of the African plains our primitive brain developed reflexive, quick-acting impulses to zero in on any signs of movement, and the danger of lurking big cats, slithering snakes, and creeping spiders. This basic survival system helped our ancestors to thrive and survive life on Savanna.

But it’s not helpful for video.

 The Human Desire of the Scanning Eye 
 Bored and Distracted Brains 

It’s unnatural for humans to focus their eyes and attention on the same thing for long periods of time. From an evolutionary standpoint, early humans learned the hard way. If they focused their eyes on one thing for too long (central vision) i.e sharpening a rock or cloud gazing they might not notice a lion creeping up in the grass around them in their peripheral vision. Those early humans who had poor or underutilized peripheral vision didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes.

In research, Dimitri Bayle (2009) timed how long it took for the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) to register frightening objects or pictures in the peripheral vision over that of the central vision. For peripheral vision, it took 80 milliseconds for the amygdala to react. In the central vision, experiment, however, it took 140 to 190 milliseconds.  Every millisecond counted on the Savanna or most of us wouldn’t be alive today.


The Brain Struggles to Stay Engaged – It’s Not Personal

Although we no longer sharpen rocks on the Savanna. The primitive brain struggles (when it’s forced) into a central vision mode for long periods of time. The very same vision we use for looking at our small-screen mobile devices. Unless you are looking at sex, danger, horror, violence, or food the primitive brain will become distracted. The eyes don’t want to be trapped with you inside the confines of your video frame. Your brain desperately wants to scan the environment.

Big data, the eyeball economy, “the race to the bottom of the brain stem,” media companies, and advertisers will do almost anything to keep your eyes locked where they want them. Tristan Harris is a design thinker, philosopher, and entrepreneur.

Filmmakers, visual media creators, TV advertisers the music industry, etc caught on to the human desire to scan the environment. Over the decades the moving image industry has developed skillful editing techniques to keep our eyeballs hooked on the screen. And, our attention off our own physical environment.

10 Seconds or Less

The next time you watch a big-name brand TV commercial, engage with social media platforms or gaming apps, etc. Notice how often the visual images change from one “shot” to another to another every few seconds in a rapid sequence.

With TV advertising, note the variety of different camera angles, and changes in frame size, from close-ups to wide angles and everything in between.


(Credit: Film Construction. Director – Perry Bradly)

It’s standard to see “motivated edits”, swishes, pans, and images moving from one sequence to another, changing at a rate of 10 seconds or less. The goal is to keep the eyeballs and brain hooked before it either becomes bored or distracted.

The brain can be in only one mode at a time. It will often task-switch between focused mode (paying attention, watching, listening) to diffuse mode (creative, reflective, zoned out, or connecting ideas), etc. It’s here that savvy edits, combined with various graphics, transitions, and sound effects all culminate to tell a compelling story in 30 seconds or less.


Death by a 1000 Cuts. Find the Right Balance of Edits For your Demographic

Research findings confirm that keeping the viewer’s attention comes at a serious cost to comprehension. A review of multiple studies(Scott Armstrong 2010, 276–77) demonstrated that random scene and camera angle changes to attract attention – resulting in less persuasion.

Other studies found that viewers felt confused, and couldn’t comprehend or recall what they had just seen or heard. Or, they missed the entire point of the Ad. In some cases, viewers got the brand confused with its direct competitor.

Video edits are designed to continually catch and re-engage the eye (brain) as it scans for new information. However, if there is no new visual information or the scene still looks the same (i.e. it’s still your talking head) or you’ve become visually predictable. You will lose them.

You need to find the right balance that supports the context of the message, your key points, and your demographic. For example, if you have an older viewing demographic the wrong editing choices could be highly confusing, visually painful, and mentally draining to them.


Make the Right Stylistic Choices

To hold visual interest it is essential to know how to make the right stylistic choices. Ones that appeal and speak to your demographic, rather than blindly follow over-hyped editing styles that happen to be popular or fashionable at the time.

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Well, that concludes some of the subtopics that I cover in this chapter. I’ve included a list below of the key topics that you’ll get to explore and dip into. Plus you’ll learn more about video edits and transitions, what they mean, their purpose, and how they can make your video presentations more visually engaging and dynamic. You’ll discover what to avoid doing using easy-to-apply fundamental production techniques.

Key Topics You’ll Learn

What doesn’t move becomes invisible to the eye

Visual Competition

  • Sex, Danger, and Food. The Brain Searches for Meaning

You Must Reduce Viewing Pain

  • Avoid the brain drain – the Brain wants to conserve energy, find pleasure, and avoid pain
  • The brain needs to close the mental loop – use this to your advantage

Survivorship Bias: Don’t Fall Victim to “Amateur” Editing Techniques

  • Gurus Promise Salvation

What is Editing/Cutting?

  • Why Cuts are crucial to your persuasive Success
  • Know your Moment Markers and when to cut

Pitfalls of Poor Editing Choices: 

  • Its ALL About what’s Best for your Viewer
  • Visually Sculpt Information so that it’s easily understood
  • Transition use for a compelling, authoritative message – what to avoid
  • Avoid imitating editing techniques that don’t visually appeal
  • How some editing styles can impede the viewer’s comprehension of the message, increase frustration, annoyance, and confusion
  • Visual cuts that do not make sense or violate the human representational system
  • Visual jarring that makes the brain stop and say, “Wait, what was that?” For the wrong reasons.
  • Video is NOT a Slideshow
  • Why you need to be on-screen 80% of the time
  • Text-Heavy? Think again


Remember to sign-up for my “Early Notify” Booklist. Packed with insider tips and techniques to help you deliver compelling, masterful videos for your business or personal brand.


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