How to Make an Explanation (aka Explainer) Video

ThemeKeeper Tuts+ is in the business of teaching readers new skills and creative ideas. If there’s one trend that I’ve observed in my five years as an instructor, it’s this: more readers than ever before prefer to learn from video. Many of our readers also need new video production skills to teach their own audiences.

How to Make an Explanation (aka Explainer) Video

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.

Sometimes, you don’t want to teach a simple set of “repeat after me” steps. You have a big idea to share, or want to teach a theory. That’s where an explanation style video is ideal for the job.

In this tutorial, I’ll teach you how to produce an explanation video. Read on to find out more about the format.

For Example

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 outVox’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.

What’s an Explanation 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.

Planning Your Explanation Video

Here are the key steps to produce an explanation video to share your idea:

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 PB&J Sandwich” isn’t an explanation video (it’s a “How To”), but “The History of PB&J 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 (and there’s no blueprint)

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 are often called “explainer videos.”

I think the reason that these are so popular is that there are brand newtypesof 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 yourteam.

Recap & 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.
  • If you need an explanation video produced to explain your business, ThemeKeeper Studio has a talented list of explainer video authors who specialize in the format. I especially like the work of chaostoon.

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

How to Make an Explanation (aka Explainer) Video