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Keywords | how to align with clients on the vision for your film

When someone comes to us and says they need a video, they often have some idea of a feeling it needs to encapsulate, a format or genre, or some key features it needs to include. But how do we take these often abstract ideas and define them so they inform the decisions we make during the film production process? One way we like to work with our clients to identify these themes is guiding them through a Keyword session.

A Keyword session is basically a brainstorm where we discover the fundamental building blocks for our video project. When we lead a Keyword session we like to involve as many project stakeholders as we can at the beginning of the process. Our goal is to discover a few words that define our film which will guide us when we are developing and planning our film. For each of our Keywords, we also write a description on how we will contextualize that word into our project. Each keyword is a filter for all of our decisions going forward, from color, to voice over narration, to shot choice. Often it is useful to put yourself in the shoes of an audience member and ask how we want the film to make them feel, what they will think, or what they should come away with. This process helps us develop a common vision for what we want our film to be.

This might seem abstract or a little woo woo, but we’ve found immense value in resisting the impulse to begin thinking about how you will light a scene or who you will interview, and first asking more fundamental questions like, “what makes the story we’re telling unique?” and “what is most interesting or inspiring about this?” By giving ourselves the space to consider these questions, we uncover what is really important and learn to look in places we might not have otherwise considered.


Here is an example of a Keyword session we did with a business called Polyfab. They were holding an event for their 50 year anniversary, and wanted a video to capture their history and celebrate their legacy and future in the community. This one was special to me because, even though our video production agency is based in Oakland, CA, we got to travel back to my home state of Wisconsin for this project. Have a look at the Keywords we came up with, then watch the video. See if you can pinpoint how these helped us set our direction.

Nuts & Bolts

Let’s get down to it. What does a Keyword session look like? We’ve run them in-person and virtually. Either way, you need to be able to write down lots of words in a way that allows you to shuffle them around. Post It notes, Index Cards or even a whiteboard work well if you’re physically together, or Google jamboard works great for remote sessions. Plan about an hour for the entire session. Here’s our step-by-step:

  1. Prepare (before the meeting) - Before going into your session, make sure you’ve done some research and that you understand your objectives, audience, and, if you’re working with a business or organization, make sure you have an idea of their needs and values.

  2. Tee it up (5 min) - Make sure everyone knows why you’re meeting and your objectives. We like to send out a little email blurb as well as go over the plan at the beginning of the meeting.

  3. Brainstorm! (20 min) - Now you actually get started. Using some guiding questions, ask participants to shout out words that come to their minds. Write each of them down on a Post-It (digital or physical). It’s zero judgment time, so write down any word, even if it isn’t clear how it applies. Keep going until you have about 40 or 50 words. Some examples of guiding questions are: What should our audience think or feel when they see our film? What is unique about us or the story we’re telling? What about this gets you excited? Why is this important or inspiring?

  4. Sort Words into Groups (15 min) - Zoom out and consider the words you came up with. Do you see any themes or similarities emerging? Start sorting words by physically moving them into groups. This allows you and your client to start seeing themes and how these words can be grouped together to form a core value.

  5. Pick your Keywords (20 min) - Pick a group, and discuss the words in it. Try to find which word best represents all of the ideas. One you’ve distilled a group down to the best word, move on to the next group.

At the end of your session you’ll have three to five keywords that have emerged from your

brainstorm. These are the themes and values that will help determine the direction of your project.

I recommend that you do a little write up of the session right after while the ideas are still fresh in your mind. We’ve found it’s helpful to think about the words that weren’t chosen and incorporate them into the description. The goal here is to capture how our group is thinking about each Keyword and to explore how they will manifest in our film.

Keep Learning

Every time we do a keyword session with our clients, they love the experience. We all end up with a better sense of what our project is going to look like and it’s a great introduction to working together creatively. For more on this process, and creative design thinking broadly, I highly recommend checking into Acumen Academy’s Intro to Human Centered Design course and Muse’s Storytelling Academy. We aren't sponsored, just fans. Next time you're beginning a creative or professional project, try this Keyword exercise!

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