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ATD Blog

Explainer Videos: Beyond Stream of Consciousness

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Today, most organizations use video in their learning programs, with 83 percent of those videos created in-house by learning professionals. Many are explainer videos ranging from screen-shared recordings of how to use software to demonstrations of practical tasks filmed on a camera or cell phone.

But are they effective? Do they lead to learning? Unfortunately, many videos are simply start-to-finish stream-of-consciousness demonstrations. We know that doesn’t work in the classroom—learning should be structured carefully and delivered intentionally to be effective—so shouldn’t the same be true for videos?

Let’s explore three simple principles for the structure of explainer videos, so they are easier for the learner.

Create Context

Learning in any context is easier when we know what we’re trying to do and how it relates to us. So, start each video with a short summary showing the learner what they will learn and why it is important for them. Say things like, “This video shows you the three steps for brewing a cup of coffee using the Accelerator Espresso Machine.” An informal summary of the terminal learning objective is perfect. (That’s right, good instructional videos start with a concrete learning objective.)

Introduce new points or steps of a task in reference to the overview so learners know how things fit into the bigger picture. If the video features enabling objectives, explain how they relate to the terminal objective. This helps learners build a framework to understand the task.

Ensure Retention

There’s no point in making a video if the learner forgets it. We need to incorporate strategies that support retention. Memory is built through a process called retrieval. Practice is a key enabler of this and activities like repetition support it. Advertisers and marketers know this intuitively, which is why they repeat key points in ads and schedule the same ads to repeat many times during a period of time.


We can use repetition in explainer videos by repeating key points or steps learners should take throughout the video. But because learners quickly tune out something that they’ve heard several times, we can incorporate creative repetition, which involves repeating key points or steps in different ways each time. For example, a key point might be repeated throughout a video as a slow-motion replay, then a voice over, then with a text graphic.

Manage Cognitive Load

It’s easy to cram too much information into an explainer video, just as it is when planning classroom learning. But too much information increases cognitive load. ( Cognitive load is anything that takes up working memory capacity.) Too much cognitive load can confuse or frustrate learners and generally happens when topics are too complex, needing to be broken down, or when things are explained in convoluted ways or include more detail than necessary.

You can reduce cognitive load by removing everything that is irrelevant to the task. If you can’t explain how a graphic, piece of music, sound effect, shot, or other element helps learners perform the task, remove it. You can also reduce cognitive load by breaking a complex topic into a series of shorter videos. These things are easier said than done but much easier when the video has only one objective. The better written that objective, the easier it is. (I suggest using Mager’s framework for objectives.)


A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

There are many ways to incorporate these principles into the structure of explainer videos. Here’s one that works for many topics:

1. Open with a simple explanation of what learners will learn from this video and how it relates to their job.

2. Provide a short summary of the key points of performing the task.

3. Go through each of the key points in detail.

4. Provide a summary of the key points. (Use a different method, for example, if you used a voice over for step two, show text graphics with key points.)

If you’d like to learn more about how to make instructional videos with your cell phone, sign up for ATD’s online certificate program, Rapid Video for Learning, on August 8-9, 2022, facilitated by Jonathan Halls.

About the Author

Jonathan Halls is an author, trainer, and coach. He wrote Confessions of a Corporate Trainer (ATD Press, 2019), Rapid Video Development for Trainers (ATD Press, 2012) and was a contributing author to Speak More (River Grove Books, 2012) and the ATD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development 2nd Edition (ATD Press, 2014). He is author of the ATD Infoline, “Memory & Cognition in Learning” (ATD Press, 2014) and has written numerous articles for T&D magazine. Jonathan is an ATD BEST Awards reviewer and has sat on the advisory committees for the ASTD International Conference & Exposition and TechKnowledge.

The former BBC learning executive now runs workshops in media, communication, leadership, and creativity. He is on faculty at George Washington University and facilitates ATD’s Master Trainer Program ™, Training Certificate and Rapid Video for Learning Professionals Certificate program. Jonathan has been training, speaking, and coaching for 25 years in more than 20 countries. He describes his work as “at the intersection of media, communication, learning, leadership, and innovation.”

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