How to answer big questions quickly

Have you ever seen people’s eyes suddenly glaze over in a long class?

People have very short attention spans. Trying to get them to listen long enough to give them all the information they need can be a real challenge.

So how can we deliver complex information in a manageable way that engages the audience? In my last post I explained infographics and outlined some key elements to creating them effectively. Now I want to tell you about explainer videos.

Explainer videos are used in a wide variety of fields. From economics to ecology, the core purpose of this tool is to give short,simple and interesting explanations on topics that require a certain amount of detail in order to be understood. And the added bonus? Theyre easily sharable on social media so can reach huge audiences at the touch of a button!

Why is the Solar System Flat. Minutephysics. This video uses simple animation with a minimal colour palette to keep things clean and easy to understand. A narrator speaks over the video to reduce the amount of reading a viewer has to do, maintaining attention.

Explainer videos vary in length but are seldom longer than 5 minutes. They are brief summaries which get straight to the point. No frills, no tangents. Just a simple question and answer.

You may already be familiar with explainer videos. Many people use them and there’s an abundance of them on YouTube with shows like TED-Ed and SciShow employing them on a regular basis to answer really big questions. Questions like Do Animals Mourn Their Dead?

Do Animals Mourn Their Dead? Scishow. Scishow use a format similar to a lecture with a speaker directly engaging the audience, but use a mix of still images and text to provide context. Any text that appears in a frame is short, to the point and often uses colour to indicate the important bits.

Which would you rather do, read a 60 page essay on the different ways mammals give birth or watch a video less than five minutes long that explains the same thing?

A really good explainer video is one that leaves people with a sound understanding of the topic, without giving them a headache. Depending on the format it may employ live action or animation, often depending on the content and complexity. It’s simple enough to use images of a few animals as in Do Animals Mourn Their Dead? alongside footage of a person speaking to the audience, but in Why is the Solar System Flat? it is far easier to use animation to illustrate the way planetary bodies interact than to go out and find suitable images that will do the same job.


The three different ways mammals give birth. TED-Ed. This video has great animation that sticks with the viewer, again with narration overlaid. The narration and animation are beautifully in-sync and follow a clear story-line. Text is used sparingly, only appearing when a key fact or numerical information needs to be conveyed.

When it comes down to it, the main thing an explainer has to be is memorable. If it isn’t interesting no one is going to remember, and if no one remembers you haven’t taught any one anything.

I mean, will you forget that a kangaroo has three vaginas?


Published by OwenL

Natural sciences communicator.

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