5 levels of difficulty

The internet is full of explainers exploring topics ranging from US foreign policy agenda on Taiwan, the New York subway system, to why Helms Deep is the best cinematographic battle ever filmed.

So, what are some of the nuts and bolts on making such an explainer?

We focussed on video-formats. However, many of these guidelines may be applicable to other journalistic formats as well.

Content Strategy

Focus on either of:

  • SEO, push on search words, amounts of uploads, optimize keywords only but keep content broad
  • Clickability, niché content, innovation, technically smaller crowd but potentially larger impact
  • Steal as much as possible
    • Use what helps you, discard what is shitty.
    • Be structured about it: Keep a diary with inspiration; Make gifs as previews of what works so you can easily check on what you need once you need something
  • People like people not corporations: Social media is personal

Kinds of Explainers

  • Straight/News: On one concept thats on the news right now, give it a spin and context
  • Entertainment: Answer irresistable questions, mythbusting (inspiration from explain like I’m five), referr to different levels of difficulty.
  • Boundary between video essays and explainers is blurry; the former may have more of an argument the latter may be more exploratory

How to Structure

Keep it as simple as possible. Kill all darlings and just do one thing well:

“Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five - just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Vox has done a lot in this field. Especially,Johnny Harris’ formula can act as a great inspiration.

  • Keep saying “this is a map/box/border/glass of water/pessimist…”
    • It contradicts show don’t tell but adds humourous elements
    • I personally think this is a trend and will change in time
  • A generally working outline is:
    1. Pre-titles (hooky start, summary, setting stakes)
    2. Titles
    3. Background
    4. Answer to posed Question
    5. Reflection
    6. Endings
    7. Come back to beginning
    8. What does it mean?
    9. Constructive: What can we do about it?
  • Make sure visuals match narration because visuals always win
  • See-saw between visuals and narration on which is doing heavy lifting: Write with two hands (one visual, one narration)
    1. If one hand is calm, the other can be complicated
    2. Create a rythm between visuals and narration (also see Johnny Harris’ formula)
    3. Write visuals and narration always side by side, think visual-first; If you do it in a table: go back to start if the visual column is empty
  • Hand-off between narration and quotaion or even repeat (humourous)
  • Add humor
  • Give experience first, explanation second
    1. Anchor the eye on an image
    2. Tell something about the image that the viewer can’t see
    3. Give context to the picture
  • Long videos: Think about adding a B-Roll, side-story
  • Offer a visual break: Throw in calmness throughout the video to give viewers a f#&ing break

How to explain

  • Do you have authority yourself (experts, self-taught, does your position matter?)
  • Bring in experts to do heavy lifting or text reference, show your research, don’t shy away from saying “I’m just learning here” (personally, again I think this is a trend that will wane)
  • Write down three approaches, see which one carries best
  • Bulldoze your approach, then kill darlings, then remix, then build anew
  • Write active voice only
  • Do the suspense-test
    1. Do you want to know what happens next if you pause the video at any moment?
    2. Think about this happens but this happens therefore this happens

How to write

  • Research visual evidence
  • Write visually
  • Do your research well
  • Use Atmo, let the viewer hear what the place sounds like
  • Homework on screen: Place a chart on your screen and say something very simple about it. The viewer will do the rest
  • Show the abstract: Suitcases for migration, cutting hair on the border for poverty, stuff made of money for inflation

How to title

  • Be more click-baity than you’d think, your editor can correct
  • Use mystery-formulas, bite-words that signal “hidden truth, real reason, etc.”
  • Create friction/tension in the title that makes it intriguing
  • Write down a list of 25 titles, really write this list
  • Make sure your pretitles are sound: The first seconds of a video are what counts, raise the stakes, foreshadow, be on point between narration and visuals, be visual, but most importantly: don’t oversell.
This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.