April 10, 2008

How to convey information in online video

Video is generally a god-awful medium for teaching people anything.

For conveying fact-matter, subtleties of context, anything requiring a decent amount of concentration or close attention to comprehend, or even just to remember—almost anything else could do a better job, and printed text is probably best.

But video is great at making people feel things. It’s an emotional medium. We may think in words, but we feel in images. Any piece of video that works”—from a brilliant film to a corporate video to a Youtube fragment—does so because it makes you feel something, ideally what the maker intended.

(Even a how-to video, which you’d think is as informational as they come, is fundamentally an emotional experience: you watch a sequence of actions and feel things—surprise or relief at how easy it looks, excitement to try it yourself, maybe amusement, satisfaction, intimidation, irritation… you get the idea. The point is, this doesn’t really happen when you’re just reading words in a manual.)

But superficially, plenty of video is supposed to teach or inform—to convey information. So before, you had to structure it in a way to make up for the limitations of the medium: eschewing detail for broad strokes, lots of repetition and redundancy, didacticism, literalism–all the hallmarks of crappy TV news and even not-crappy TV documentaries.

Now, online, video and text can intermingle like never before. But they still do their same old jobs best. Video carries emotion. Text carries information. Online, there’s little reason to force the former do the latter’s job in addition to its own.

This is a perfect example. It’s a Shakespeare lesson given by Ian McKellen. If it were just an hourlong filmed monologue, it’d be difficult to get much information out of it. If it were just a printed lesson, you probably wouldn’t care in the first place. Instead, it’s both, with the division of labor expertly designed.

The main job the video of McKellen is doing—as all video does best—is making and sustaining the emotional connection. He looks you in the eye, he’s casual, friendly and urbane. The framing, lighting and other visual elements constitute a similar body language.” All it’s doing is setting you up to feel open and receptive to whatever McKellen’s talking about, and, because he’s a star, make you feel good about yourself by associating” with him. He could be reading from the phone book.

Meanwhile, the text supports most of the informational weight. It’s interactive and nonlinear; it persists onscreen so you can concentrate and follow along, focus on the meaning of phrases and individual words, and, in general, mentally anchor to what McKellen is saying. McKellen is certainly saying meaningful things, but without the scaffolding of the text onscreen, most of it would go in one ear and out the other. It’s not rocket science—in fact, its simplicity is key—but it works. And what works probably wins Webbys.

In video, emotion is the 800-pound gorilla and information is the 98-pound weakling.

The best you can aim for is some kind of balance between them. If you have to pick a side, and if you know what you’re doing, you’ll bet on the gorilla and have the weakling ride on its back when necessary. But if you’re smart, and you’re online—and teaching is truly your goal—you’ll put the gorilla in big awesome plexiglas cage, and the weakling in a zoo uniform standing right next to it with a placard.

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