Add Captions to Your Videos to Increase Your Audience Reach

I’ve given many presentations at international conferences as well as seminars at foreign research institutions and departments. One thing I learned from these experiences was that non-native English speakers appreciated it when I made an effort to aid their comprehension of my language. In addition to speaking slowly, I would add a single sentence on each slide that summarized what I was describing on that slide. This approach helps because people often can read English better than they understand the spoken language–especially if the speaker has a strong accent. I know that adding extra text to slides is often discouraged by presentation gurus, because the audience’s attention is split between reading the slide text and listening to what the speaker is saying. However, the advice not to add extra text to slides falls down when your audience is struggling to understand your spoken words. You have to balance the design of your slides with your audience’s needs.

That experience in giving presentations to international audiences made me acutely aware of how captions can increase an audience’s comprehension of my material. In this blog post, I’d like to talk a bit about why and how you should add captions to your videos.

When people first start making videos, they often focus on the audiovisual aspects of the project and don’t think much (if at all) about providing closed captioning text. It’s an extra step that many video makers avoid because it takes time and because they haven’t thought about the makeup of their potential audience. People typically think about closed captioning as mainly helping viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, there are probably many more people who simply can’t understand the language being spoken in the video but whose comprehension would be improved enormously by captions.

If you post your videos on a media-sharing site such as YouTube, your potential audience is the entire globe, where many people may not speak your language. For example, about half of the viewers of my videos on The Scientist Videographer YouTube channel reside in countries in which English is not the primary language. YouTube uses speech recognition technology to produce an automatic transcript for each uploaded video. It’s not perfect, but is pretty good; the few mistakes can be easily corrected. You can alternatively upload a text transcript, and YouTube will synchronize the text with the audio. Then, all a viewer needs do is click the “CC” button to turn on closed captioning.

Captions help viewers who struggle to understand your spoken language but can read it. Another reason to include captions is because YouTube provides the option to translate the captions into more than 60 languages; however, this works only if the video creator provides captions. This means that those viewers who don’t speak or read your language can also watch and understand your video. A final reason is that a text transcript contributes to Search Engine Optimization by providing information to Google and YouTube that allows more efficient indexing of your videos. By ensuring your videos are discoverable by search engines, you will reach a much larger audience.

Adding captions to your videos thus increases your global audience as well as the discoverability of your science videos.

So part of my workflow in making a video includes preparing a word-for-word transcript of everything audible in the video. Because I often develop a script prior to filming, I usually can use that text file and only have to revise it a bit to reflect minor changes in the final film. That transcript file is uploaded, along with the video, to my channel, and YouTube then automatically aligns the text with the audio. When the video plays and the viewer enables the closed captioning (cc button), the text then appears on screen and is timed to match the audio.

Creating and adding closed captions to a video is relatively easy and painless–if you know how. In the following video tutorial, I walk through the steps needed to add closed captions to a video: