By far the session I was looking forward to most was Lee and Sachi LeFever’s, “Solving Explanation Problems with Simple Online Videos .” Sometime back before VizThink when I was checking out the sessions, I checked their CommonCraft website and watched some of their videos. Absolutely Brilliant! If you haven’t checked out any of their simple online video explanations, go to their website and check them out.

I had a feeling this session would be popular so I headed up early after lunch. Good thing I did since their session got packed. They’ve got a review of VizThink plus a couple of photos from their session on their blog.

Lee did the majority of the speaking and explaining in the session and started out with a bit of a background into how they got started. Basically, he had an “aha” moment while sitting though a presentation where some guy mentioned RSS. Someone asked what RSS was to which the guy replied in arcane tech-speak. Lee realized that while what the presenter answered was correct, it didn’t help the questioner understand. There was a disparity between what was heard and what matters.

Lee mentioned the concept of the “Curse of Knowledge” from Chip and Dean Heath’s book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” In essence this means, that with so much knowledge, a lot of experts give overwhelming amounts of information in explanations and if someone doesn’t “get it” they just pile on more information.

All of this was a prelude to the discussion of the elements of explanations as Lee and Sachi incorporate in their online videos. These elements of explanation, I think, are probably the key to Lee and Sachi’s success and I think are also applicable to other mediums of visual communication such as drawing. By focusing on the explanation and the story rather than the video or the drawing, you’re able to distill the message down to it’s essentials and in the end, communicate better.


In discussing the elements of explanation we discovered a process and several constraints that make their work successful. The first step of the process (as I understand it) is to identify the “Big Idea.” This is the theme or the big problem that is going to be explained.

Next step is to identify the “Why should I care?” from the viewers perspective. Show the pain that is caused by the problem. In their RSS video example, they show the pain of having to go out to a bunch of your favorite websites and look to see if there is anything new. This the pain. This is where the “booooo” comes in. Other elements, show real world examples, show relief, show results. Match up what is heard and what matters.

After they’ve identified these elements of explanation, they next set about to write the script. They “create a linear experience” with their scripts and try to limit them to about 20 sentences.
After scripting, they move into the storyboarding phase, sketching out the scenes in little boxes on paper, limiting it to 12 scenes/slides maximum.

Only after all this is done do they move into video production mode where they use drawings and paper cut outs to “act out” the script and storyboard. They’ve imposed constraints on themselves here too; using simple characters, no faces are used (maybe a smile or frown, but no eyes and nose), focus on simplicity, take away all noise focusing on the big idea, no music is used and the time limit on the final edited video is 3 – 4 minutes.

They’ve got a simple set up, with a video camera and tripod aimed at their “stage” on the floor, using construction lights from Home Depot for lighting. Editing is done on their Mac using Final Cut Express.

After explaining this process, they introduced the hands-on activity which was for each table to identify a problem, develop the explanation elements, write a script and then a storyboard. I think the table I was at didn’t get a solid enough focus on the big idea and concept and we subsequently stumbled in the script and storyboard. To, me that proved the point that you really need to have a solid, concise concept and idea before proceeding.

At the end of the session, several tables got up and acted out their storyboard, holding up their individual storyboards as they read through their script. Some did a great job and the audience joined in with “boooos” and “yeaaahhhs” where appropriate.

So, a really fun, interesting and informative session. I came away from it convinced that I need to incorporate some simple online video explanations in my work and feel that I have the basic knowledge to do it. The challenge I face is forcing myself to take the time to do it. I’m a freelance web developer and I find that I’m constantly having to explain certain things over and over again to clients, like how search engines “see” web pages and optimizing web sites for search engines. So, that will be the basic concept, the “big idea” around which I’ll do my first video. Might be good fodder for this blog as I go through Lee and Sachi’s process to share each stage. We’ll see. Regardless of how it comes out, kudos to Lee and Sachi for a great session. Thanks guys!