Using Video as a Universal Language

During my “off hours,” one of my favorite hobbies is knitting. Years ago, when my teenagers were babies, I used to knit a lot. Then, I kinda got out of practice. One day, I was walking by a yarn shop and I thought, “Yeah, I want to try knitting again!”  So I went in and proceeded to spend quite a bit of money. I bought yarn and markers, new needles and more yarn, and even a pattern book.

Armed with my new goodies, I went home and sat down to knit. And then I realized that I no longer knew how. I mean, the basic stuff I remembered – like riding a bike. But I couldn’t remember some of the more intricate stitches. I also couldn’t remember how to join yarn on circular needles, which is critical if you want to make a hat.

So, I decided to go out to the internet where knowledge of everything on the planet is readily shared. I Googled a few stitches and techniques. Among the results were an abundance of YouTube videos. I know what you are thinking – “Well, DUH!” But let’s remember, when my 20-year old was a baby, we barely had the internet, never mind YouTube.

Undaunted, I decided to go directly to YouTube to do all of my searching there. And I found tons and tons of knitting videos. Who knew?! And I started watching many of them. And then, I got really annoyed.

Why? Well, most of the videos featured a woman (usually) holding needles and yarn, and talking. That’s fine. However, there was always too much talking. Talking in the beginning about what she was going to tell us (all the while petting the yarn which was also annoying), talking during each and every stitch, regardless of whether or not it was necessary, and then talking at the end.

Who has that kind of time? This is my hobby! I gotta hurry up before my free time is over!

Then it came to me. Rather than actually keeping the sound on, I decided to mute. And then, I decided to skip all the yarn petting and go straight to the 15 seconds of valuable content. I didn’t need to hear about the stitch. All I needed was to see the stitch being created. A few times in a row worked best. As the consumer of the video, I only needed to see the teeniest part of the footage. Just show me what I need. Now.

Later, as I was knitting, I started thinking about that experience and comparing it to the kinds of videos I see so many of my customers producing today. So often, particularly in training videos, we provide so much background, so much context, that we literally bore our watcher to death. If all I need to see is how to lift the chassis, put it into the rack, and turn the screws, well, gosh – I don’t need to hear all about the kind of chassis it is, why it is the best chassis in the world, and all of the features of the product. That information is important in certain a context – just like explaining what kind of yarn to use for a situation is important in a certain context – but if I really just want to see how to lift, insert, and turn the screws, well, just show me THAT. How much happier would I be if I could get to the exact information I want, without the fluff? Answer: Much happier.

Here is an example that I found on YouTube that shows a little bit about what I mean:

Personally, I think that the action is way too fast. If they slowed it down, they might not need the subtitles at all. Also, I hate the music for this video. Three minutes of total annoyance. I’d definitely have to mute if I needed to watch until the end.

Then I started thinking about the value of words. Words are my life. I spend almost every waking hour involved with words in one way or another. Some days, I go from room to room, picking up, using, and putting down different pairs of glasses along the way. I always seem to be reading something.

But for completely manual tasks, like knitting, or racking, all I really need is the visual. The words might be nice if they actually add something. If the visual is super clear, super simple, super easy to see, I might not need to read or listen at all.

A few years ago, we worked on an interesting project for a hardware company. They wanted a quick start guide with only pictures. No words. They didn’t think it was necessary to have words and they didn’t want to translate the content either. It was an interesting challenge and we succeeded.

Of course, video is a much better medium for wordless instruction. Why, then, do so many customers insist on using words along with the video? I suppose it is an expectation. I have never been asked to create a completely wordless video. But it is a compelling idea. If I can show you what to do and you can repeat it without words, imagine how accessible that information is to everyone around the world? Think about how much money you could save on translation and localization?

Obviously, there is a small subset of content that can be created using the “wordless video” paradigm. But where it will work, I think it will really work well. The actions are a universal language.


Blog · Content Strategy · Global Readiness · February 15, 2013


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  • Fer O’Neil

    Great post and I agree–using YouTube’s “Audience retention” analytic you can continually pare down a video to just the information (and context) that is needed for the user. Also, I too watch videos on mute and I believe that many others do as well; for instance, those at work who can’t use speakers. So when I watch a video and it doesn’t seem to be doing “anything,” it’s usually because someone is talking while muted!

    • Val Swisher

      To me, I don’t feel like I miss anything without the voiceover if the video is done well. And I agree about being at work and not being able to use speakers, too.

  • Sarah O’Keefe

    A couple of additional notes on the knitting scenario:

    * You can use TubeChop to, well, chop down a YouTube video to the parts you want. You could then post the chopped version on, say, Pinterest in your very helpful knitting board.

    * I knit continental style, which is often a problem with the video because they demonstrate…um…that other style whose name escapes me. A little metadata to flag the two styles would be very welcome and is rarely there.

    * I’m also left-handed, so I have reinterpret everything as a mirror image, or find a left-handed video. There are lots of lefty knitting videos for the basic stuff, but when you get to some of the more obscure stitches, it’s a bit of a problem. (I also have to read patterns backward, but I digress.)

    I got VERY stuck trying to learn two-color brioche stitch. The videos weren’t helping for some reason that I couldn’t identify — I was doing something wrong, but couldn’t figure out what! Instead of a tidy color A on one side and color B on the other side, I had a hot mess. Eventually, after reading numerous detailed discussions, I found a reference to “you must do this tiny detail exactly like so, or it won’t work.” This teensy thing wasn’t emphasized in any of the videos, and so they failed for me. It wasn’t until I consulted the extra-detailed instructions that I was able to pinpoint the problem.

    And now my comment is longer than your post. Oops.

    • Val Swisher

      Um…well I’m not so sure I can help you with two-color brioche. Sorry! :(

  • David Calloway

    You were doing content curation. It’s becoming even more important than providing the content. Often the content provider doesn’t know what the audience needs, as most SMEs tend to suffer from expertism. And thanks, Sarah, for mentioning TubeChop. I’ll try that.

    Val, I know this story is over a year old. I just discovered your blog. I hope to meet you at the STC Summit!

    • Val Swisher

      I was just having a detailed discussion of content curation and “duration” with a senior-level marketing executive today. He said that the largest problem his team faces is finding *the right* content to share with their audience. The danger of curation is being able to discern what your audience needs from what it doesn’t need. I look forward to meeting you, too!

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