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How to Make an Explainer Video and Teach Complex Stuff

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You have a big idea to share, process to explore, or elegant theory to trace. That's where an explanation style video is ideal for the job. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to produce an "explainer."

For Example

There are many formats for teaching with video, ranging from step-by-step walkthroughs to documentaries. Each format has its own style and set of skills. If there's one trend that I've observed in my seven years as an instructor, it's that more learners than ever before prefer video.

The media company Vox is a master of the explanation video format. They cover a wide variety of topics, from political topics to fun niches like the video below. Check out their explanation of why you never win at the arcade's claw game!

This is a fun format. In a few minutes, you can introduce your audience to something entirely new. Many explanation videos leave the audience with a fun fact to share with friends, or a simple understanding of a complex topic. If you want to see some more examples of Vox's take on the explanation format, make sure to check out Vox's YouTube channel.

Does this seem like something you'd want to produce? Don't worry, explanation videos aren't limited to skilled animators; they can just as easily be live videos or a combination of media. The key is the message you'll bring to your audience. Let's find out more.

"Explainer" Video

Think of an explanation video as a visual essay. It's your chance to cover a big idea or concept, or explain a trend, for example. An explanation video is not a simple set of steps for the viewer to recreate. Instead, it's your chance to get the viewer thinking about a topic.

Here are examples of topics that are ideal for explanation videos:

  • How Does a Digital Camera Sensor Work?
  • The Rising Popularity of Mirrorless Cameras
  • The Rise of DSLRs as Video Cameras
  • The Future of Mobile Phones as Storytelling Tools

In the video below, Tuts+ instructor Charles Yeager surveys the art of using software to give digital video a filmic look. Charles covers the landscape of video film emulation. Although he mentions some apps that emulate film, his focus is more philosophical and general than technical nuts-and-bolts.

The Easiest Way to Make an Explainer

If you don't have the resources to shoot video or animate an explainer video from scratch, you can skip some of the hard work thanks to projects from Envato Market. Each of these have pre-built animations, characters, and storyboards that you can add your own details for projects on a tight timeline:

Explainer Video Toolkit 3

You don't need an animator on your staff thanks to the Explainer Video Toolkit 3 pack. This includes over 1,000 elements such as characters, backgrounds, and more. Easily storyboard those built-in assets to create an explanatory video quickly.

Explainer Video

This pack is excellent for its combination of timeline elements, animations, and more. Just use one of the 18 pre-built scenes to craft your own explainer with as little work as possible involved.

Whiteboard Kit

For a different approach to the explainer video format, the Whiteboard Kit is a beautifully stylized option. Check out the preview to see how easy it is to animate your video in a whiteboard animation.

How to Plan Explainer Videos

Here are the key steps to produce an explanation video:

1. Choose a Topic in the Sweet Spot

The first step is always to select your topic. It's important to teach something that you know, but what also matters (perhaps even more) is picking the right-sized topic that will fit an explainer.

Make sure that your topic isn't simply a set of steps to reproduce a result. "How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich" isn't an explanation video (it's a "How To"), but "The History of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches" is.

Pick a topic that you can comfortably cover in a maximum of few minutes to keep the viewer's interest. If the video goes much longer than that, it starts to blur the limit of explanation videos and becomes more of a documentary, which requires much more careful planning and execution.

2. Outline the Idea

When planning instructional content, one thing doesn't change: start by setting a learning outcome. The learning outcome begins with the basic question, "At the end of the video, what should the viewer know?" Always start by thinking with the result in mind.

For me, an outline is a must when planning any video of any format. It helps me keep the process on track.

3. Research and Master the Topic

An explanation video is a deep dive into a topic, so getting the facts right really matters. I usually keep digital notes while researching my topic. I'll create a simple note in Google Sheets or Evernote and just compile everything I learn while researching.

Here's a great example of a video that was well-researched. The research into the finer points of the differences between sweet potatoes and yams is easily apparent.

4. Suggest "Next Steps"

Because the explanation video format is brief, the natural conclusion is to invite the user to take the next step. In the conclusion to the video or in the accompanying text, nudge the viewer to keep learning by providing a list of links or follow-up materials.

At the end of my Tuts+ tutorials, I always have a "Keep Learning" section with links for further information and insight. If readers enjoyed the content and made it to the end, they probably want to explore the topic further. Point them to the sources that you didn't have time to cover.

Maybe the viewer was fascinated by how camera sensors are manufactured, for example. You could link to videos of factory tours or interviews with engineers who work with camera manufacturers. Think about what else viewers might want to explore after seeing your video and provide relevant links or follow-up tutorials to advance users' learning.

5. Production

Now, all that's left is to produce the video! This process will vary widely depending on your approach. Talented animators will prefer sketching the explanation. If you're comfortable with being on camera, pen your script and prepare to read it for your audience. The best approach is to use a mix of media types to keep the viewer's attention.

Explanation Videos for Companies

There's an interesting niche of explanation videos that's becoming increasingly popular: explanation videos for businesses. These marketing videos are often called "explainers." 

I think the reason that these are so popular is that there are brand new types of businesses, building products and providing services that consumers are unaccustomed to. You can't explain exactly what your startup does in a tagline, but an explainer video can likely bridge the gap to your potential customers.

Check out this explainer video for Slack. Slack's company tagline is "Be less busy," but that can't explain exactly the value that the product brings to teams. It's a hybrid chat, email, and collaboration app, and this video helps explain why a team might use it.

If your company does something different or new, you might need an explainer video. Even if you have a tried and true business model, an explainer video can help the viewer see what's unique about your team.

Keep Learning

Over the last year, the Tuts+ team has been busy increasing the number of our tutorials on teaching with video. Our research has shown a clear trend indicating that readers want to learn from video tutorials and content. 

Even more importantly, readers want to learn how to teach with video. It's tough to get started, but here are some great tutorials to help you overcome the learning curve:

  • No matter what kind of video you're producing, Melody Nieves' piece "What's Keeping You From Hitting Record?" is a great place to start with video.
  • The "What Is...?" video format is similar to an explanation video, but the "What Is...?" is more of an introduction to a subject. If you want to learn more about that, check out this tutorial.

Have you ever produced an explanation video? I always love to see the work of Tuts+ readers in the comments.

Training for work teacher at a blackboardTraining for work teacher at a blackboardTraining for work teacher at a blackboard
Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Top Resources from Envato to Help You Create Video

Envato Video Marketing Guide

Boost your video marketing skills with our comprehensive guide. You'll learn video marketing from start to finish — whether you're a novice or a pro, you'll gain some useful insights to improve your next video. 

Free Video Assets From Mixkit

Check out Mixkit for free stock videosfree stock music, and free templates for Adobe Premiere Pro.

Make Motion Graphics Video Online With PlaceIt

You don't need professional software to create visually-appealing videos: PlaceIt is an easy online video maker with professionally-designed motion graphics templates.

Envato Elements: Unlimited Downloads

Envato Elements offers millions of stock items: photosmusicvideo clipsfonts, video project templates for After EffectsPremiere ProFinal Cut Pro and Motion, and creative courses from Envato Tuts+ — all with a single subscription.

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