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Complex Topic? Create a Smashing Explainer Video

Whether your organization’s goal is to prepare the homeland for natural disasters or convince the private sector to adopt better cybersecurity practices, creating an explainer video that both entertains and educates is a good investment. In a world overwhelmed by information, video as a medium is one of the most appealing ways you can break down complex information and communicate to a mass audience today.

According to Andrew Angus at Switch Merge, explainer videos are effective because they combine audio and visual stimuli to explain a concept in a simple and understandable way. Instead of just providing text or audio, they use both, which is proven to increase message retention. If you don’t believe him, check out the numbers:

  • When auditory senses alone are stimulated, people retain about 10% of what they’re told; when both visual and auditory senses are stimulated, retention goes up to 68%.

  • Retail site visitors who view video stay 2 minutes longer on average.

  • 59% of senior executives prefer to watch video instead of reading text, if both are available on the same page.

  • In a Forbes survey, 60% of respondents said they would watch video previous to reading text on the same web page.

Producing a quality video isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it in terms of audience attention and how far you can spread it: place it smack dab on the homepage of your website, play the video on loop in the lobby of your office building or in the background at a high-profile conference, send the video to students at a college where you regularly recruit, or use the video as an intro to lectures when presenting in front of external stakeholders.

Are you ready to start your explainer? Here are a few things that help me with the process:

Do not improvise this. You need a script.

Don’t even dream of improvising this on the day of the shoot. Use a simple template (see mine below) and do it right. This means clearly structuring your video with an intro, body, and conclusion, as well as using active verbs and short sentences. Keep in mind that your script is meant to be read out loud; do this several times to estimate the length of the video and to make sure the script reads well in a natural voice.

When structuring your script, save the best for first. Think about the most interesting thing you can tell your audience to hook them and keep them watching. (Read more about creating good hooks here.) It could be a specific story about how your technology saved lives during a hurricane or how your innovative use of a digital twin improved the military’s decision-making process. Alternatively, you might share a surprising statistic or pose a compelling question that ignites curiosity.

For this energy lab explainer video at the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE), I styled the intro with high-energy hyperlapse footage before diving into the three questions about the lab posed to the engineers. (You can check out the video here.)

If you work in hi-tech, don’t fall into the trap of talking about features before benefits. The features of a product you created might be fascinating to you and your engineers, but your audience immediately wants to know what your product does for them.

Remember: saving the best for first means no throat clearing. Don’t start with lengthy context or boring background. Just dive right into the good stuff.

Know thy audience.

Is your primary target audience technical or non-technical? What if it’s both? When I work on cybersecurity videos, my audience tends to include anyone from engineers to STEM students to non-technical local leadership. This can create a real challenge in ensuring the video speaks to a sophisticated technical level without leaving a non-technical audience behind.

One workaround I regularly use is what I like to call the pop-up definition bubble. If your speaker uses a techy term you’re not sure a non-tech audience would understand, don’t slow down the speaker by making him spell it out; instead, insert a brief 1-2 sentence definition explaining the term on the screen when the word is mentioned (and don’t forget to use the company’s branded font and colors here).

Get creative with b-roll.

If you’re going the live video route, you’re going to need compelling background visuals to bring your narration to life. If your organization manages defense laboratories, take the audience on a fun hyperlapse tour (see video above) or show close-ups of hands on a blinking server. Shoot a lot of collaborative team shots. For hi-tech, make sure to show a clear shot of an end user benefitting from your product or technology.

If you’re going to use stock video, go easy. Mixing in a birds eye view of a manufacturing facility or a fleet of nondescript battleships that would normally cost an arm and a leg to shoot yourself is totally fine; the key is to mix them in, not depend on them wholly. A good video editor in post-production will know how to skillfully weave in stock with originally shot footage.

Photos work, too. Using the good ol’ Ken Burns effect, you can pan and zoom on still images to create the illusion of motion. (How fun is that?)

If you’re doing animation, I beg you not to use those tired corporate-looking templates. Pay the pro animator, get the good stuff.

End your video with a clear call to action.

Do you want your audience to visit a specific web page, purchase a product, or download a white paper? Whatever it is, be specific and be direct at the end of your video. Splash it across the closing shot with on-screen text. Be mindful of the different platforms or locations where your video may be viewed, so that your CTA makes sense in each context.

Additional note for government: if you’re working on a gov video, you may need to include closed captioning in your final cut and have non-federal participants on set sign waivers to ensure you’re in compliance.

Are you feeling confident now about diving into your explainer video project? I hope so! Don’t forget to keep it short, keep it simple, and have a little fun with the process.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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