How to Get and Keep Your Video Viewer’s Attention

Video is a fantastic medium for the communication of science. However, it’s not an easy medium to master, especially for science professionals who are not typically trained in filmmaking techniques. I’m not talking about the technological challenges of using audiovisual equipment and software, though. I’m talking about how to design a video that others want to watch.

When I first began making videos about my research, I approached the process like a scientist rather than a filmmaker. My natural inclination was to communicate the way I had been trained as a science professional. We are taught to communicate by presenting a logical series of facts and findings, supported by data—lots of data. We are also taught, in the interest of accuracy and precision, to include excruciating detail—all the uncertainties and limitations of our findings. And, we must look and sound serious when delivering a science message—otherwise, our colleagues won’t find us credible. This approach may work just fine with our peers but does not necessarily work for other audiences. In fact, it often fails miserably with the general public.

In the beginning, it never occurred to me that I needed to look at things from a filmmaker’s viewpoint rather than from a scientist’s viewpoint (this insight continues to be the one that most surprises and confounds the science professionals who attend my workshops and webinars). But over time, I gradually realized that using video as a communication tool required me to meet the video viewer’s expectations, which is different from someone reading an article or listening to a conference presentation. This is true even if the viewer happens to be a scientist with specialized knowledge of the topic. We all interact with videos in the same way. In addition to gaining information, we expect that information will be delivered in a certain way—one that doesn’t bore us to tears. Too often, though, that information is presented like a bad-tasting medicine (take this, it’s good for you). Not surprisingly, few people want to watch.

So, what does work?

For the answer, one need only look at popular science video channels on YouTube: Veritasium, Smarter Every Day, MinutePhysics, and ASAPscience. In fact, let’s look at an example video from Veritasium by Derek Muller who creates videos about science (often physics) and then I’ll talk a bit about why it’s so effective.

OK. This is one of the more popular videos on the Veritasium channel: 8,967,145 views since its posting February 24, 2014. That works out to an average of about 10,400 views per day. Many of his other videos have similarly received millions of views; one has almost 33 million views. The popularity of the overall style of Veritasium’s videos is further evidenced by the number of subscribers to the channel: more than 3.5 million people. So I think it’s safe to conclude that these videos are very popular and that the channel has succeeded in reaching a lot of people.

What specific features set Veritasium’s videos apart—features that you might employ to improve your science videos? Here is my analysis:

  1. Lead with Awesome. A lot of science videos, especially those created by scientists, start out with a long, boring exposition. In contrast, most of the videos on Veritasium start with a bang. Little time is spent at the beginning explaining or introducing the scientific concept to be featured in the video (that information is provided later). The videos on the Veritasium channel typically open with a “hook” such as a question, an intriguing observation, or an amazing demonstration. In other words, the video gets right to the point in the first few seconds. The video, “2, 4, 8” is a good example. In the first ten seconds, the video asks if you can figure out the rule behind the number series. Also, notice that no time is wasted on awkward introductions of the people in the video, including the host, Derek Muller.
  2. Challenge Misconceptions Carefully. Many of Veritasium’s videos try to correct common misconceptions about scientific concepts, but in an indirect, non-threatening way. A direct approach might have a scientist on camera list common misconceptions and explain why they are wrong. This tactic is often not effective, partly because the viewer may feel that they are being “talked down to” or lectured  by someone with superior knowledge—and they become more resistant to hearing the truth. Instead, Muller interviews average citizens on the street to get them to reveal common preconceived notions or misunderstandings about a particular subject. The expert then leads everyone, including the viewer, to the correct answer. In “2, 4, 8”, we see a series of people struggling to figure out what “rule” Muller has in mind. The viewer can’t help but play along. The outcome is that instead of being a passive receptacle for information, the viewer becomes an active participant in the exercise that eventually reveals the answer to the puzzle. The expert (Muller) then explains (briefly) the significance of the exercise.
  3. Don’t Over Polish. I think people are turned off by “shock and awe” science videos that contain over-the-top animations and are produced at great cost by film studios. One reason may be that such videos seem to be desperately trying to get the viewer’s attention with special effects rather than relying on the awesomeness of the science. The Veritasium videos are technically sound, but not “slick”, and one gets the idea that these are low-budget productions. In the “2, 4, 8” example, the video was shot on the street by Muller’s mother who operated the camera. Such unpolished videos appeal to many viewers and may even enhance their admiration of them.
  4. Be as Brief as Possible. Most of the videos on the Veritasium channel are brief—just a few minutes in length—enough time to get across the basic concept without trying the viewer’s patience. The “2, 4, 8” video was just under five minutes. But there is no perfect length. A video should be as long as necessary to get across the message. The scientist videographer is often tempted to cram in more details, but too many details can obscure the message. The “2, 4, 8” video could have included much more information about the scientific method, but this would have been overkill. We just don’t need a long lecture about confirmation bias or Karl Popper to “get the no”.
  5. Keep the Viewer’s Interest. Veritasium videos, including “2, 4, 8”, are designed so that the viewer gets invested in watching the entire thing. The longer you watch, the more interesting things you get to see and hear about. As a viewer, you are interested not only in the answer to the riddle but whether you can figure out the “rule” before any of the people Muller is interviewing. If you figure out the rule early in the video, you continue watching to see if you are correct and also how long it takes the other people. If you don’t figure out the rule, you continue watching to see what the answer is. Either way, you’re hooked. Check out the comments below the “2, 4, 8” video. Many commenters talked about whether and when they figured out the answer.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important aspect of these videos: they are fun to watch! Here’s one more from Veritasium to illustrate the point:

Why Researchers Should Interact With The Public

Scientists usually have a strong opinion about directly sharing their work with the public. Some think it is not only a good idea but essential for scientists to explain their research in everyday language to a broad audience. Others think such efforts are a waste of time—time they could be spending on their research. I’m in the former camp, but once thought that I did not have time for outreach and that it had little or no benefit for me. I knew there were science communicators whose job it was to translate my science for public consumption; so why should I waste my valuable time?

I changed my mind when a “communication specialist” attempted to write about one of my research projects. As the expert, I was asked to review and revise the piece before it was published. Well, I was horrified to see that the article was terrible and would have conveyed an inaccurate picture of my research and, by extension, of me. I spent a lot of time trying to “fix” the article. I kept going back and forth with the author trying to explain why what she said was confusing and not totally accurate. Finally, I threw up my hands and said (to myself), “It would have been easier if I had written this myself.”  That piece was never published, but I went on to write a non-technical fact sheet on the topic, which was published. That was the beginning. I went on to write several more fact sheets and non-technical articles and, eventually, to make videos about my research. I discovered that I enjoyed creating these information products and that they were very popular, especially with students.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great science communicators out there who do a wonderful job describing scientific discoveries and the underlying research. If you are lucky enough to work with one of them, you should. My point in describing my experience is to show what it took to change my mind about interacting with the public and to also suggest that as scientific researchers, we have a unique perspective on the topic that the public wants to hear.

I was reminded of my experience when I came across a brief video on the National Science Foundation’s website by Lawrence Krauss, well-known physicist and recipient of the 2012 Public Service Award. In it, he makes the case for scientists to share their work with the general public. Take a look, and then I’ll have a few more words to say about the topic and my experiences along these lines. In case you can’t see the player window, here is the direct link: [bc][/bc]

Why Is Interacting with the Public Important?

I’ve discussed the various reasons why scientists should explain their work to the public in previous blog posts. Dr. Krauss mentions a few. One reason is that our research is paid for by public funds (in one way or another), which means the average person on the street has a right to know what we are doing. Not all researchers would agree with this. However, long gone are the days when a scientist could stay sequestered in their ivory tower. We may be called upon to explain our work on camera or to comment on a disaster. I and my colleagues are often contacted by journalists, by scientific journals (for a comment on a recent publication), and by local TV stations; a few colleagues have even been asked to testify before Congress. Having good communication skills are increasingly essential for researchers. Being a good communicator, however, like anything else, takes practice. And talking to the public or to the media is not the same as interacting with your colleagues. By being proactive and interacting with the public (e.g., giving a public lecture or inviting a school group to your lab), we gain valuable experience that may come in handy in the future.

There is a more important reason than the public’s right to know, however. It is in our own best interests to keep the public informed and interested in scientific research. Science funding is influenced by public opinion, and we should be concerned about what the public thinks of science and scientists. There are a number of anti-science and pseudoscience groups that are well-funded and technologically savvy. Their rhetoric may misinform the public and sway opinions unless scientists step up and provide credible and accurate information to counter outlandish claims. This, for me, is a strong motivation….much more so than simply wanting to explain my work because it’s important or interesting.

I liked the point made in the video that the ideas and discoveries in science are part of our culture like art or music or literature and should be more broadly shared. Although it is satisfying to contribute to scientific knowledge, it is doubly rewarding to know that you’ve also made a contribution to the cultural landscape by broadly sharing your insights about the Earth or the universe. By communicating our research directly, we can share our scholarly pursuits with people who otherwise may never have the experience. What motivated us to study viruses or how we managed to collect our samples from an active volcano is information that reveals us to be human and is what people can relate to.

I think many researchers are hesitant to share their work with the public because of the perception that the public doesn’t care about science. However, the public is most definitely interested in science, in new ideas, and in exciting discoveries. One only need look at the millions of viewers attracted by TED videos to be convinced of this. As Dr. Lawrence suggests, give it a try…you might be pleasantly surprised at the reaction. Yes, there are concerns about attracting negative attention by going public, especially if you work in a “controversial” field such as climate science. However, for most researchers, this is not a major concern.

Unexpected Bonus of Public Interaction

Dr. Krauss made an excellent point right at the beginning: a good way to understand things is to explain them. For early-career researchers, experience explaining your work to broader audiences will build confidence and may also have a feedback effect on your research. A deeper understanding (and appreciation) of my subject has been for me an unexpected and useful outcome of developing information products for a general audience. For one thing, the process has helped me see things through my audience’s eyes—which has improved my technical presentations and writing.

Explaining complex science topics so that the general public can understand also makes you really think about the broader aspects of your research. Why is my work important to society? What would the average person find interesting about it? How will it advance knowledge in my field? What are the broader implications of my work? What new questions does my research raise? A number of funding agencies (e.g., the U.S. National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health) expect researchers to be able to articulate the “broader impacts” of their proposed project in grant proposals. An ability to explain your work to a broader audience will put you at an advantage over those colleagues who lack those skills or who choose to remain in their ivory tower.

Encourage, Don’t Discourage Researchers to Interact with the Public

Not every scientist should interact with the public. As Dr. Krauss points out, there are some researchers who should be kept in the ivory tower—you can probably think of a few colleagues who belong in this category. It would be a mistake for an administrator, for example, to force all researchers in their organization to interact with the public. Instead, we should encourage those scientists who have good teaching (or other interpersonal) skills to explain their work more widely. In any scientific discipline there are thousands of members; if only a small percentage give public lectures, start science blogs, or make science videos, there will be a significant impact.

We also should be encouraging and training the next generation of scientists to be better communicators—something that a few schools are implementing in their science curricula. I find that many more students these days express an interest in science communication, and this may have a snowball effect as they become teachers and mentors to future generations of scientists.

In summary, there are many ways for scientists to interact with the public and a number of benefits for the individual scientist as well as for the science community as a whole. Also, there are various ways for a scientist to interact with the public. Since this is a blog about science videography, I have to say that video is a very effective and efficient way to share your research with the public. When I think back to the time when I thought public engagement was a waste of time, I cringe. But I do understand the mindset of those researchers who avoid interacting with the public. As Dr. Krauss suggests, if you feel really uncomfortable, then perhaps you shouldn’t. However, it’s worth trying at least once. Who knows? Like me, you may discover a whole new way of communicating.

How Not To Make A Science Video

As we know, explaining complicated science concepts and implications of research findings in a way that is understandable, interesting, and entertaining to diverse audiences is not easy. One of the important science issues of the day, which decision-makers and the general public need to understand, is climate change. Several organizations, such as RealClimate, have attempted to communicate climate science via their websites, blogs, and other media.

This past spring (2012), the World Resources Institute (WRI), supported by, ran a survey to find out which type of video format (“webcam”, “conversation”, and “whiteboard”) worked best for scientists to get across some complex information about climate change. Three scientists, Paul Higgins (American Meteorological Society), Brian Helmuth (University of South Carolina), and Andy Dessler (Texas A&M), were recruited for the project. For the “webcam” version, all three scientists filmed their own videos. The “conversation” version was composed of a slideshow with the scientists’ voiceover. The “whiteboard” videos were filmed at the WRI’s offices, where each scientist conducted their talk using a whiteboard to illustrate their points.

You can see all the videos here, but I’ve inserted three below (by Paul Higgins) so you can see how well (or not) they worked. Then, about 1500 people voted on which ones that most effectively communicated the science topic.

As you can see, none is very effective at communicating the science of climate change. And that’s not just my opinion. If you read the review comments, you see that a number of viewers thought the videos failed to engage. One commenter suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that the bad videos were a ploy to get donations to make more professional videos about climate change (give us money or we’ll use these videos to communicate climate science to the public!). I actually had similar thoughts upon viewing these awkward and very dull presentations.

Also like the above commenter, I am not trying to disparage the scientists who participated in this project. They were given poor options of bad, bad, and worse, so no wonder they did not do well. Few of us could do better, given these three choices. The videos done by Dr. Helmuth were marginally better because he seems to be a bit less “stuck in his head” than Dr. Higgins; also, his topic (climate change effects on sea stars) is a bit more accessible to the average person than the carbon cycle. If you are a scientist and your topic deals with more abstract concepts, then you will have to work harder than someone who studies charismatic organisms or ecosystems, e.g., the Giant Panda or coral reefs.

Much better videos about climate change have been produced by Peter Sinclair (Climate Crock of the Week), which are usually well-done, include data from peer-reviewed publications as well as interviews with real scientists explaining their work and clips from the media and movies that add some humor and entertainment to the topic. Even the ones he’s done that are mostly composed of interviews with scientists are more engaging than the WRI videos. The most recent such video shot at the 2012 American Geophysical Union conference, even features one of the WRI scientists, Dr. Andrew Dressler, who comes across much better in this off-the-cuff interview than in the WRI videos.

Note how Sinclair inter-cuts footage, images, and graphics to supplement and support what the interviewees are saying. Not as well done as some of his other videos but the video has a spontaneous, unrehearsed feel to it, and most of the scientists sound sincere and natural in their comments.

I was additionally annoyed by the fact that the scientists selected for the WRI exercise were all older white males. I mean, really, couldn’t they find one female or minority to record a set of videos? If you are trying to reach a diverse audience, you need to show scientists to whom viewers can relate. A perfect example is the video of Katharine Hayhoe (a real climate scientist) answering 10 questions about her work and her religious beliefs:

Now, Dr. Hayhoe’s video was not designed to explain climate science or research findings and is not directly comparable to the WRI videos in that aspect. My point in showing it, however, is to emphasize how important it is for the scientist to be engaging and believable (as opposed to being preachy or appearing to have an agenda)….if you are going to do a “talking heads” type of video. Also, having a scientist with whom your target audience can relate (young or religious people, for example) is key to effectively communicating your message.

The intended audience of Dr. Hayhoe’s video was clearly people with strong religious beliefs and who’ve been targeted by the climate science misinformation campaign. The WRI videos are less clear about their target audience and appear to suffer from the common problem of the scientist failing to understand their audience (or expecting the audience to educate themselves so that they can understand the video topic). Most scientists think that facts, facts, and more facts are what is convincing to non-scientists, when the reverse is more often the case. Note how the video with Dr. Hayhoe focused on her beliefs, emotions, and humor….all effective in reaching the viewer at more than just an intellectual level. The scientists in the WRI videos appear to be robotic by comparison. Only after the viewer has come to “know” and “like” Dr. Hayhoe does the video ask and have her answer the key question: Is climate change real and are humans causing it?

If you must have a senior scientist explaining the main points, then have segments showing younger scientists or students working in the lab or field or, better yet, explaining their interest in the topic and why they’ve chosen to work on it. This approach will at least have some person with whom the younger or non-scientist viewer can relate. Unless you’re a TED-worthy speaker, capable of entrancing an audience by talking about incredible ideas or innovations, then you can’t do a video with just you talking.

The WRI videos followed few of the guidelines we’ve been discussing on this site, whereas the one with Katharine Hayhoe did, especially in terms of reaching an audience at an emotional level. In future posts, I’ll do a more in-depth assessment of these videos and why they did or did not work well.

Finally, it seemed that the idea for the WRI videos was to survey formats that scientists, with their apparent lack of videography skills, might use. Well, if these are the only options, scientists just shouldn’t bother and leave the filmmaking to professionals. However, as I’ve tried to demonstrate with this blog, most scientists can learn enough basics about filming and editing to create very effective videos.

Mr. President, Are You Listening?

MinutePhysics recently posted a video entitled, Open Letter to the President: Physics Education.  This video is a good example of how to use an electronic white board to create a video about science, or in this case, science education. Previously, I talked about how useful this approach can be for teaching and also provided a tutorial about how to create a video using this approach.

Check it out:

Where Should I Publish My Science Video?

You’ve finished producing your science video and are ready to publish it.  Where is the best place?  YouTube? Your own website? In the following tutorial, I discuss some points to consider in making your decision because, in the end, it will depend on your particular situation and your objectives.

Be sure to select the HD version and full-screen options (on the lower right of the player window) for best viewing:

Download the script for the video here:

Download (PDF, 31KB)