How to make Facebook Live videos and Periscopes that aren’t terrible

Please stop doing weird things for the sake of doing weird things.

The dreaded.

Did you hear? Facebook Live is poised to take over the world. So what does that mean for you?

Many of you are probably getting notifications around the clock about the latest weirdly compelling video from from your favorite media startups. Or, worse, you’re getting pulled aside by some of the more experienced members of your team to capture the magic.

Don’t worry. You can do it.

I’m the engagement manager at Science Friday, the 25-year-old public radio show currently distributed by PRI. We’ve been doing live video since Periscope came out back in early 2015, and we’ve been working through this idea of what makes something actually interesting. So we did some experiments (we are, after all, a science show) and found what works for us — and what can work for other folks, too. Please enjoy this semi-complete guide to making not-terrible live videos.

Know the medium.

A few weeks ago, an organization I’m a big fan of (and won’t call out here) started a Periscope. Super exciting! When I got the notification on my phone, I immediately jumped on it.

But when I entered the stream, it was a man at a microphone that we could barely hear. A boring press conference. And, worse yet, comments were disabled, so you couldn’t even ask questions. I left after a few minutes.

You have to remember that both Facebook Live and Periscope are video mediums, and there needs to actually be compelling video. Why would I want to watch a static press conference on my phone? Why would I want to watch a talking head against a blank background? Even if you can’t head out on an amazing field trip or have the most glamorous setting, you should be actually doing something.

Participation is also key. A lot of rookies in this space will automatically treat it like older livestreaming platforms (Google Hangouts, Ustream, etc.) and totally ignore what makes Facebook Live and Periscope so compelling: That you can interact with people in real time. Commenting on these platforms are a feature, not a bug, and some of the best streamers are ones that answer your questions in real time (see: Monterey Aquarium).

Participation is a huge part of our strategy. Every week, the Science Friday education team (the always-amazing Ariel Zych and Xochtil Garcia) will do an experiment live in our office. Both Ariel and Xochtil are former teachers, and GREAT at answering questions as they come up. We’ve also played trivia with Ira Flatow, taken a tour of a microbiology lab, repotted orchids… the important thing is that we’re actually doing something, and people can join in the fun.

Know yourself.

Buzzfeed has blown the lid off the space with their quirky, weirdly compelling videos — watching a watermelon explode, popping dry ice bubbles — that have racked up literally millions of views. And, as is tradition, many other media organizations have started copping their style in search of viral fame.

And it’s the absolute wrong lesson to learn from them.

Please stop doing this.

Here’s the dirty little secret, though: What works for Buzzfeed, which very often works in things that are quirky and kind of weirdly compelling, is not going to work for everyone. It comes across as very forced.

You need to know your voice, know who you are — and then find the thing that’s unique to you. Science experiments and trivia work for us because we’re a geeky science show. We’re that fun person at a dinner party trying to tell you about this cool thing we just learned. Who is your organization? What is your version of that? And can it make interesting video?


Okay, so you’ve figured out something that can work for you. Great! That’s awesome. You do it for the first time, and it’s a big hit. Hooray!

You do it again the next day — not as many people watching or engaged this time, but still a good number.

You do it again. And again. And again. Eventually, your numbers are way down.

This happened to us. Want to know something that seems like it would work really well for us, but didn’t? Doing a short preview before the show. People loved seeing the behind-the-scenes work, they loved talking to Ira before the show… but when we started doing the same thing over and over again, our engagement dropped off. There’s only so many times that people can ask about a favorite interview. What’s the point?

So, instead of doing a preview, we made a point of switching it up. Now we do quizzes with Ira, or have him react to a video that we’ll discussing later on, or spend some time actually figuring out a cool thing to do with him. Our education experiments? They almost never repeat (we’ve repeated maybe one, and it was on an entirely different platform). Switch it up, do new things, and don’t fall into a rut. People get bored.

So, there you have it! A semi-complete guide to making a halfway decent live video — at least until Facebook becomes sentient and destroys us all. Good luck ✌️