What a British philosopher and linguist can teach us about video

We often talk about the danger that comes from thinking of video as means to broadcast a message, a way to get your viewers to do something you want them to do.

On the contrary: When it’s done well, video is a relationship builder. It’s not transactional.

The foundation of any good relationship is trust. But how is trust built? We find inspiration in an unlikely source: Paul Grice, a 20th-century British philosopher and linguist who was concerned with words not pixels.

Two people outside a cafe talking

In order for us to understand and be understood, we need to be “conversationally cooperative,” according to Grice. We collaborate to achieve mutual conversational goals.

What does this have to do with video?

Just like a conversational partner, your viewers have unspoken expectations. Meet them, and you’ll move the relationship forward. Violate them, and you risk damaging the relationship.

The Cooperative Principle

Grice proposed that all conversations are governed by a shared principle of cooperation between participants. To get to a point of mutual understanding, four guidelines should be followed:

  • Quantity: Be concise
  • Quality: Be truthful
  • Relation: Be relevant
  • Manner: Be clear

The four rules in particular can help you build and keep an audience through video marketing.

#1 Be concise

Don’t be concise merely because you’re scared of people’s diminishing attention spans. Do it because you love your viewers, and you should value the time of those you love.

Good video captivates and emotionally ensnares audiences, right? So how do you balance that goal with concision? We always start with the one job your video has. Anything added that does not support that job, whether it’s the talking head of a stakeholder or a few impressive data points, is extraneous.

It’s not just about brevity. The channel you’re using should dictate how much information to share. For example, here’s the 4:30 video we created for the Emily K Center’s fundraising campaign. It was shown at their annual gala, in a roomful of seated people.

But here’s one of the videos that people saw on Facebook, where the average watch time is reportedly less than 20 seconds.

#2 Be truthful

Marketers have a bad reputation for blurring the line between reality and wishful thinking. It’s easy to say your product or solution is the best out there, but saying doesn’t make it so. Data may seem to put some credibility in messaging, but as Mark Twain said, “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”

Video is good at showing instead of merely telling, and advertisers like Dove and Chevy have adopted the trend of “docu-ads” showing (supposedly) real people in (supposedly) real situations. But viewers have a nose for inauthenticity.

The danger for organizations who want to share authentic stories is to make them scripted or rehearsed. Being truthful means letting your subject’s story — not your marketing talking points — drive the video.

#3 Be relevant

We like Grice’s original name for this principle: the “maxim of relation.” He defined it like this:

I expect a partner’s contribution to be appropriate to immediate needs at each stage of the transaction.

What this means for video marketers is creating the right video at the right time for their audience. And this depends on where they are in their journey.

For a nonprofit, the donor journey looks something like this:

Awareness → Exploration → Expansion → Commitment


Who this is: Donors who are hearing about you for the first time, or who are somewhat aware of your organization but don’t know much about you yet. Research shows that you should make a good first impression and engage them on an emotional level.

What you should show them: about us (brand) video, success stories, short documentaries about your cause or your mission, or public service announcements



Who this is: Those who have attended an event or signed up for your mailing list or even made a small donation.

What you should show them: Live video on Facebook, 360-degree video, a behind-the-scenes look at your organization.



Who this is: Donors who have started to support you more, perhaps through donations or volunteering at a few events.

What you should show them: Videos that show your donors how important they are to your organization, such as thank you videos, interviews with donors, or profile videos telling a particular donor’s giving story.


Who this is: A loyal supporter of your organization.

What you should show them: Videos that meet higher-level needs of belonging and connection. Examples include short, frequent updates or videos that show the impact of your work.

For examples, check out our post on the dog rescue group Galgos del Sol.

#4 Be clear

Lastly, Grice recommends “framing a clear message.” In the work we do at Open Eye Creative, that almost always means two things:

  • Peeling away, paring down, digging deeper
  • Ruthlessly setting aside the fascinating and important — yet ultimately distracting— elements that don’t contribute to that clear message

Georgia O’Keeffe put it well when she talked about being intentional about what you bring to the surface and shine a light on.

"“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

These maxims, of course, are not absolutes. You may find that departing from some of these principles is the smart thing to do — for example, you may be seeking consistency with your tone and voice or you have a tried-and-true strategy that works.  If you know what your audience responds to, by all means, break the rules.

First photo by Juri Gianfrancesco on Unsplash

Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.