As a college undergraduate, I used to draw a cartoon strip if I got bored in class. I had grown up reading cartoon strips in the daily paper, but it still took several months of practice before I could write a strip that another person could read easily.

Despite my familiarity with the medium, I had to learn to apply some rules I never actively noticed when reading a strip. Concepts that should have been common sense, like the fact that people in America and in most other Western cultures read from left to right and top to bottom, were ideas that I had to re-discover in the context of drawing my own strips.

My self-guided foray into authoring comic strips never taught me to draw particularly well, but it did teach me that communicating effectively in that medium required more nuance than I originally thought it would take. Certainly, it required a good bit more than simply owning paper and a pen.

Somebody do something!

My cartooning experience came back to me recently while watching the director’s commentary on a favorite television show. At some point during the show, the script requires the characters to sit and listen while an expert engages in a three-minute-and-fifteen-second translation of an ancient text. As the director noted, three minutes is a long stretch of screen time when no appreciable action takes place on screen. A requirement like that creates a challenge for a director trying to keep the scene and the story interesting.

The challenge probably sounds familiar to anyone who has recorded video for online learning or any other training use. Granted, three minutes is an unusually short amount of time to record an expert in the world of training and development. But it’s a fairly commonplace requirement for a training professional to record an entire classroom learning event. The longer the camera runs, the more complex the challenge becomes.

After hearing the director’s dilemma, I watched the scene again, this time with the sound turned off. He compensated for the lack of action within the story in two ways. First, because his subjects were relatively still, he introduced movement to the scene by moving the camera around the characters, panning to one after another as they listen or ask questions. Second, he used a lot of different camera angles, and switched them out frequently — about every two seconds, on average. I never would have noticed the device as a casual viewer, but observing it in one context reminded me to look for it in others. It turns out to be a fairly standard technique, one I’ve seen many times without realizing it.

Are you telling your story?

Video has become relatively inexpensive to produce, and because we all have a lifetime of experience with watching video, it’s easy to believe that we understand how to communicate reasonably well using video as a medium.

When e-Learning professionals think of the challenges we face in using video to deliver training, we often frame the discussion in terms of the constraints around streaming video, the file formats we’ll use, or the devices the viewers will use to watch it. Without question, understanding how to get content to learners is critically important. But if we want students to view and actually learn from the content, it’s equally important that we understand the language of the medium we’re using to deliver our messages.

Video is a storyteller’s medium, and, in the language of video, showing is much more important than telling. Using a single shot of a classroom, or an expert, or anything else for an extended period of time makes educators seem like bad storytellers. The content of the visual message (people speaking) doesn’t support the actual message, which is the subject under discussion in the video. Worse, it makes the subject matter itself seem boring because nothing visually interesting is happening on the screen.

Up to speed in 2011

The fact is, in e-Learning, we tell stories. They may be stories about how to perform a task, or cautionary tales about how to behave in the workplace, but they’re still stories. Using video to tell these stories, or to support them, can add richness and depth if we understand the language we’re using to communicate, or can detract from the message when we don’t. So, this year, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to learn how to speak effectively using video. Here’s hoping it’s as much fun as speaking through comic strips.