Can You Describe a Scientific Method in a One Minute Video?

I’ve been discussing the pros and cons of short science videos and how length influences viewer engagement (see previous post). In general, the shorter the video, the more likely the average viewer is to watch it through to the end. However, a colleague questioned whether it was possible to adequately describe a scientific method in only a minute. My response was that it was possible, although not necessarily easy. And, obviously, not all methods could be described in such a short time period.

Although it’s good to strive for brevity, your video, especially if for instructional purposes, should be of a length appropriate to the purpose and for the target audience.

So I thought I would critique a couple of videos describing a scientific technique and see how successful they were. The first one, done by the Texas Parks and Wildlife, shows how to use the Daubenmire frame, a widely-used method for surveying vegetation. I selected it because it happens to be about a minute in length, it has a clear purpose, and the method is one that most people, including non-scientists, can comprehend and replicate with inexpensive supplies. Take a look and then we’ll consider how successful it was.

I thought this video was well planned, nicely executed, and accomplished its purpose of explaining what a Daubenmire frame is and how to use one to gather data about the vegetational composition in an area. The video begins with a short, simple explanation of the purpose of the Daubenmire frame and then moves into explaining how to construct the frame (briefly) and how to select sampling sites. It briefly describes how to position the frame and what data might be collected (numbers of each species present or their percent cover).

Note how the video minimizes the “talking head” shots and uses cutaways to show what the narrator is talking about. Also, there is a variety of footage shot from different angles, which were clearly planned in advance. The video opens and ends with the narrator talking to the camera, which nicely “book-ends” the instruction.

The video does not get bogged down in explaining how to get a “random sample”, how to identify plants, or how to estimate percent cover. It assumes that the target audience already understands these concepts or will get that information somewhere else. One thing that could have been explained in one sentence is why it’s called a Daubenmire frame (named after a plant ecologist who developed the canopy-coverage method of vegetation analysis). This fact is not essential to the instruction but would have answered an obvious question and added a bit of history to the video.

The audio is clear and without distracting background noises. It looks like the narrator is wearing a lapel microphone, which would help ensure that her voice is recorded properly. You will also notice that a transcript is provided along with this video. This is important for viewers who may not understand your language well or are hearing impaired.

I think the style and tone of the video was just right for instructional purposes. The narrator (Kelley Bender) is professional, poised, and dressed appropriately for the setting. Her delivery is confident without being preachy. She has no distracting behavior such as waving her hands or scratching her head. The tenor of her voice is nice, and her speech is not interrupted by annoying uhs and ahs.

It’s important that the viewer who is interested in learning a new method feels that the instructor is credible and professional, and that’s the case with this video. Perhaps a video would get more views if it is humorous or entertaining but it will likely turn off many target audience members. The latter are interested in only one thing:  to learn how to use the method you are describing. They are not interested in being entertained, surprised, mystified, or emotionally moved.

In summary, the science video with the objective of demonstrating a method should be clear in purpose, straightforward in execution, and professional in tone. The length may be variable but should be no longer than necessary to cover the essential points. For simple methods, such as using the Daubenmire frame, it’s possible to keep the length to around 1 minute. If the method is complicated, then consider breaking up one long video into a series of short videos.

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