Businesswoman getting bored while attending presentation

Keeping Video Learners Engaged

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

In my last post, I discussed why it’s important to change shots in video—what I call the “Change Principle.” In this post, let’s switch from a philosophical lens and get practical. In other words, how can we use the Change Principle to make instructional video more engaging for the learner?

If you didn’t catch this post, here’s a quick summary. Our brains are always alert to change because change represents a threat to the status quo. If nothing changes, we’re comfortable and feel a sense of control. However, when something does change, our attention increases because we’re worried we might miss something.

This is why TV professionals change shots regularly, especially when they need to convey visually boring content like a press conference. While the person behind the podium speaks, the camera will cut after about five seconds to a journalist writing in her notebook for five seconds and then cut back to the speaker. Then they’ll cut to a wide shot of the whole room then go back to a close-up of the speaker. All these changes happen in a subtle way, but they keep us watching.

We emphasize the importance of regularly changing the shot in ATD’s Rapid Video for Learning Certificate program because it keeps eyeballs and ensures learners are visually engaged. But the Change Principle doesn’t just apply to changing shots. Now, let’s explore three elements of your instructional video—music, voices, and movement—that the Change Principle can help make more engaging.


Adding music is one of the most simple ways to make your videos seem more professional. Many people know this intuitively. In fact, I review a lot of two-minute videos with a piece of music playing in the background. But music is not just for window dressing. It has powerful narrative benefits that can help establish mood, affect energy, and create atmosphere.

Choosing the right piece of music and using it in the most appropriate part of your video can incredibly improve your message and increase attention. However, consider what happens when you play a single piece of music in the background for your entire video—from start to finish? The music you add to create a positive mood or increase energy will lose its mojo after 15 to 20 seconds.

So how should you use music? Only play music in the background for as much time as it takes to achieve your narrative goal. If you want to establish a somber mood, only use that piece of music for as long as it takes to feel somber. Don’t run it the entire length of your video. If you need to boost energy, because the content is a little dull and you need to spice it up a notch, only play your new energetic music track for fifteen seconds until the energy level increases.


Consider using different pieces of music throughout your video, and get comfortable moments when there is no music, which also represents a change. All of this change will keep your learner’s brain thinking: “Wait something has changed … what am I missing?”


Voices in instructional video come in several formats:

  • monologue: one person talking to the camera 
  • dialogue: several people talking like a role play or interview 
  • commentary: a voice over read by a narrator in the third person.

Monologues and commentary can become boring—especially if the person’s voice is not dynamic. This is common in many learning videos because not everyone has a budget for a professional voice-over artist. But you can add interest to the average voice by introducing change in delivery. Try following the four “Ps” of vocal dynamism: pace, pitch, power (volume), and pauses. Other options include using dialogue instead of monologue or commentary, or two voices for commentary. Two voices for commentary won’t suit every video, but if used subtly for some, it could add the energy you seek.


Movement represents change. I’ve written a lot about the importance of movement and action in video in Rapid Video Development for Trainers and on the ATD Blog. 

 If you don’t have action (and action is change) in your shots, viewers will quickly filter your video. One way to create the feeling of movement, when there’s no action in your shot, is to move the camera. A slow zoom or pan can create the effect: “Hey, pay attention. We’re about to learn something.” Trucking in or out (physically moving the camera toward or away from a subject or object) can convey the idea we are heading somewhere. Camera movement can liberate you from boring video, but I have to express two caveats. The first issue is philosophical. If there’s no movement in the shots, why use video? The content might be better suited to an article or podcast. When you have no choice but to use video, though, camera moves can offer good options for engagement. Second, and this is a matter of practicality, most camera movements appear jerky when played over the Internet. Due to compression and bandwidth, it’s difficult to display nice smooth pans or zooms. It’s especially tricky if someone is watching via a smart phone or tablet with a patchy signal.

Keep Changing…But Be Subtle

The Change Principle can help many elements of your video content beyond just music, voice, and movement. But be careful not to overdo it; these techniques work well when applied subtly. For instance, changing music too often or using too many voices, can just as easily distract a smooth flow and start to feel disorientating. Getting the Change Principal right is about striking a balance, and that’s the art of video communication.

About the Author
Jonathan Halls is an author, trainer, and coach. He wrote 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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