Video that Works: Doing 'Talking Heads' Differently


No, we’re not talking about “Once In A Lifetime” or “Psycho Killer” here. Leave that to the great Jonathan Demme. 

We’re talking about when the basic, straightforward “talking heads” style of video is what you plan to produce. 

Those occasions when budget, your deadline or your subject’s availability dictate that shots of “people talking” is the best, most effective way of making your video and getting your message across. 

Unfortunately, however, there’s no getting away from the fact that the vast majority of “talking heads” videos are formulaic. 

And boring. 

If you have seen one, you’ve seen them all.

It does not have to be this way.  

How can you ramp up the interest whilst remaining on-message, within budget and on-schedule?

The Same, Better

To be very clear, “talking heads” videos are valuable and perfectly valid. As an agency we advocate and produce them. All the time.

Executed with style and produced with skill and care, they do a great job. So that’s tip number one. Work on the basics and you’ll get so much more bang for your buck.


Let’s first quickly cover off the default set up.

Here your subject or subjects is/are

  • standing or seated
  • shot in both close-up and medium close-up
  • facing and talking to an off-camera Interviewee whose questions will be edited out

What you’ll need: 

  •  A camera unit
  • Director / Interviewer
  • What you’ll get:
  • The standard approach, similar to the vast majority of the talking heads videos out there.
  • The potential for something bland and passé.

The Same, Differently

Next I will share six ideas for doing things differently. Ways in which you can do a “talking heads” confident that your final video will be distinctive as well as effective.

IDEA 1 'Mini-Message Moments'

Ask each subject to perform their version of simple “routine” or brief piece of action. For example, subjects might hold up a sign, drawing or prop to a separate camera set-up. These appear as mini-clips throughout the film, as introductory snippets or moments of light-relief.

What you’ll need: 

  • Preparation
  • Wiling participants
  • Extra time or an extra camera-unit on the shoot

What you’ll get:

  • A means to complement or reinforce what’s being said elsewhere
  • A mechanism for signposting the video 
  • A secondary, alternative and possibly less formal snapshot of the subjects outside of the interview 

IDEA 2 'The Walk and Talk'

Rather than sit or stand, ask the subject to move towards, away from or with a moving camera.

What you’ll need: 

  • A route devoid of photo-bombing idiots, wailing sirens and careering juggernauts
  • A subject willing to move their lips and their legs at the same time

What you’ll get:

  • Dynamism
  • A shifting background

IDEA 3 'Inside-Out'

Rather than striving to keep all elements of filmmaking out of the frame, here we include shots of the process itself – the crew, the lighting and the equipment.  We both see and hear the interviewer.

What you’ll need:

  • An additional camera 

What you’ll get:

  • An informal tone
  • A sense of immediacy and presence of the interview itself 
  • A broader range of shots and subject matter

IDEA 4 'The Conversation'

Talking heads can be a great way of getting to hear from lots of different people. But people don’t have to talk directly to an interviewer for their message to be heard and understood. 

It’s possible to construct a conversation out of different interviewees, if you think about the right set-up. 

In this example several students were shot in a lecture hall as if they were talking amongst each other.

What you’ll need:

  • A plan for the set-up and the construction of the conversation in the final video

What you’ll get:

  • Subjects that talk with passion and clarity
  • Repetition-free visual interest
  • Relevance to the context and the environment

IDEA 5 'Wholly B-roll'

ETSY: Handmade Portraits: Liberty Vintage Motorcycles - Andrew David Watson

ETSY: Handmade Portraits: Liberty Vintage Motorcycles - Andrew David Watson

“B-roll” is non-interview footage of the subject and of the immediate environment of the shoot. Typically it is edited in to provide context, break up and punctuate the interview.

Sometimes, the b-roll is more interesting than the interview.

We don’t need to see a person talking to know that it’s them talking. In fact, we’ll hear what they say if we’re not distracted by following their lips.

So why not ditch (most, if not all of) the interview and play the audio over the b-roll? 

This is a tried and tested method, particularly for profile pieces.

What you’ll need:

  • A plan for lots of B-roll footage and room to explore - the subject at work, in situ

What you’ll get:

  • A focus on the words themselves
  • Context, reinforcing what’s being said
  • Colour and detail 

IDEA 6 'Animated Voices'

Finally, you have the option to abandon filmed footage entirely and produce a purely graphical or animated representation of your subject or their words.

What you’ll need:

  • An animator
  • More time
  • More budget

What you’ll get:

  • A distinctive and memorable execution
  • An intensity of focus on the words 



Strictly speaking, these approaches are not a ‘talking head’. They serve the same function and may be worth considering if budget and timescale allow.

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Hopefully there is something here, either in the tips or the ideas, which has been useful for you and your own plans for video.

Please get in touch, call 0203 818 3268  or email if this is relevant to your challenge or if you’d like to know more about how we help teams like yours with video that works.