Three Ways to Maximize Explainer Video ROI

Explainer videos can be a great addition to your marketing mix, but in order to harness the full potential of what they can do for your business, it is important that you think strategically about how you are utilizing them. Simply creating an awesome video and posting it online isn’t enough. Your audience needs to be able to find it, they need to be able to play it easily, and they need to know what to do after watching it. The purpose of this post is to point out three ways you can maximize the ROI from your explainer videos by ensuring that you help your viewers do all three of these things.

1) Make key videos impossible to avoid.

People love to watch videos. In fact, most people would rather click play than read boring text, but they absolutely aren’t going to go out of their way to find videos that are hiding. So if you want prospects to watch your important explainer videos, put them in strategic places that can’t be missed, use compelling thumbnails, and make sure it is possible to play them with a single click on all devices (Sorry flash player, you’re ancient history). 

Sure, we are a video company so we are biased… But data doesn’t lie. We track video analytics on many of the explainer videos we have produced for our clients, and the stats clearly show that the deeper a video is buried on a website, the fewer people will actually watch it. So it pays to be very strategic in where you locate your video. For best results, place a video with a very compelling thumbnail on key landing pages and your home page. (Check out our example) 

2)  Treat videos as part of your larger marketing ecosystem. 

Explainer videos are probably the best way to quickly communicate your key offerings and differentiators in a way that is fun to watch, but they are not stand alone marketing tools. No matter how compelling your videos are, if people don’t watch them your investment will be wasted. For this reason, explainer videos are most effective when they are part of a larger marketing funnel. 

Create a strategy that outlines how you will drive traffic to your videos, and what you want viewers to do after watching. For inbound marketing your funnel might include SEO efforts to bring in viewers to a landing page where your explainer video pitches your idea and encourages viewers to fill out a form to receive helpful (content marketing) material.

Of course there are millions of potential ways to utilize an explainer video, the point is, having a plan will be far more effective than just putting your video up on the web and hoping that it will magically transform your business by itself… Because it won’t. 

3) Utilize Video Analytics

When it comes to marketing, what you don’t know will hurt you. That is why it is super important that you have a way to measure the effectiveness of your efforts. For explainer videos, this means using video analytics to measure views and engagement.

For example, the number of plays compared to your total site traffic can tell you if your video is easy to find, and if the thumbnail is effective. Engagement graphs can tell you if the video is too long, and if viewers are dropping out at any particular point. Demographics data can tell you if your video is effective outside of your local community. And this is just the beginning. (Read our blog post about video analytics)

At the very least, we recommend that you use a hosting platform like Wistia for your videos so that you can measure some of these stats. If you have a need for more advanced analytics, like A/B split-testing, check out our video analytics service.

In Conclusion

This post has only scratched the surface on ways you can optimize your use of explainer videos for maximum ROI, but hopefully it will give you some ideas on how to develop your own video marketing strategy.  If you would ever like to discuss what you are doing, and ways that you might be able to improve your use of video marketing, feel free to shoot us a message... This is our hobby horse.



How Much Should an Explainer Video Cost?

If you shop around, you will find a tremendous range in pricing that falls anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000. But why is there such a vast spectrum in cost, and how much should you realistically budget?

The answer is, it really depends on what your priorities are. No matter which budget route you take you will end up with a video, the question is: will it actually be what you need? To make a good decision on what is right for your company, you need to understand what goes into producing a quality marketing tool.

Much like an iceberg, the video file you see at the end of the project is like the tiny chunk of ice that sticks up above the waves. What you can’t see is all of the time and thought that went into research, messaging, design, or even testing and revisions. We have found that what is not included in your video is often even more important than what is! 

For an average 90 second production we typically request a budget between $10k and $15k, because that is what we have found is necessary for our studio to produce a high quality marketing tool that really makes our clients stand out. But what are all the factors and components that go into this, and why are other studios different?

1) The production process 

The first thing to consider is how much effort is going into the project, or just how big the iceberg is beneath the surface. The average project that we work on takes six weeks to complete. During this time we progress through several phases that include researching your brand, understanding and crafting your message, planning the visuals and flow, experimenting with and illustrating artwork, animating the video, designing audio, testing the results, etc. 

2) Videos vs. Marketing Tools

Why do we spend so much time on each project? Because our goal is to create marketing tools that help our clients communicate complex messages in a clear and engaging way. So for us, it isn’t just about “video” - that is merely the medium we are using. For us it is about changing your viewers minds through effective communication, and that takes a lot of work. Other companies that are just making videos without much marketing strategy will obviously charge a lot less. 

3) The Team

Another big factor to consider is who is working on your project? The Commotion Engine is made up of specialized industry professionals who have experience in their field. We do not outsource work to developing countries, or cheap freelancers. A lot of discount video providers do. 

4) The Specific Project

Finally, the price also depends on the style, complexity, and length of what you need. Some types of videos are easier to produce and require far less time and planning than other videos. And obviously a short video will require far less work than a really long video. This is the primary reason we quote on a project by project basis. Every project is different!

To wrap it all up: it is important to realize that the smaller your budget is, the less work and expertise will go into crafting your project. Or to put it bluntly, if you are quoted $3k for an animated video, I guarantee it is being outsourced to an inexperienced team and you are essentially getting a cooky cutter product with little strategy or thought going into it. 

At the same time it is also important to realize that more expensive does not always mean better quality. Some studios charge very high end rates and turn out lackluster work simply because they have the market share to do so. 

So how do you make a final decision before you dump a bunch of money into a project? Determine your marketing goals, review a studio’s portfolio and make sure the end product is amazing, and then ask a TON of questions about their process to determine how they get to that end result. With all this information, it shouldn't be too hard to make a good decision! 

School Messenger - 3D Explainer Video

School Messenger creates apps for school districts across the country that make it easier for administrators, parents, and students to stay connected and share important information. While many features are available in all of the apps, the UI and icons are custom designed for each school.


When School Messenger came to us, they already had a video on their site, and while they were happy with the script, the visuals were (quite frankly) horrible. With an important trade show just around the corner they needed a video redesign that would do their service justice. 

They had several requirements that made it a bit challenging for us. First the existing script that they wanted to reuse was almost 2.5 minutes long, which is a lot of time to keep this type of video engaging. They also wanted us to feature as many of their real app designs as possible. Finally, the project needed to be fairly simple to fit with their budget, but still needed to look clean and professional. 


Our first step was to brainstorm on visual styles that would feature their app designs in a way that was cool without becoming really boring. We decided to blend a standard vector style for abstract sections with a realistic 3D phone interface for sections that talked specifically about their apps. Mixing styles is always a little risky as it can look unplanned if not executed carefully, but it was worth a shot.

Once the style idea was approved we jumped into storyboarding and spent quite a bit of time generating visual ideas that would keep things interesting, and also making sure the two different styles would complement each other. The client signed off on our ideas with very few changes - always a big score! So we got to work.

After a few weeks of grinding away, we had a complete draft that included crisp 3D animation with elements created from their real app designs, as well as simple vector designs that helped bring life to their story. The client was blown away with the results. Mission accomplished.

Most Popular Explainer Video Styles

So you’re on the market for a sleek marketing video that will entice viewers to beat down your door in a rush to give you their money.

But when it comes to picking a style for your explainer video, there are a lot of options to choose from… which one is the best fit for your company?

The answer really depends on the personality of your brand, and what you are trying to accomplish with the video. Sit back as we explore the most popular animation styles out there, and uncover some dirty secrets that will help you pick a winning visual strategy.

Vector Style

Vector animations use a combination of clean shapes, fonts, and textures to create an engaging visual experience that flows from beginning to end. This style is perfect for companies that need a more serious and professional tone and visuals that are custom fit to match an existing brand. Humor is certainly still possible, but overall the style feels less cartoonish and more polished than some of the others. Here is an example we recently completed:

3D / Motion Graphics Style

Videos that use a lot of 3D are great for technical subjects that can benefit from a more concrete approach, but may be too visually detailed and thus distracting for most applications. To solve this, a lot of 3D videos integrate vector style graphics to create a blend known as motion graphics that is more balanced. Great for a technical feel, these animations can be very sanitized and medical, or very grungy and dark.  Here is a really cool video produced by Patrick Clair.

Cartoon Style

Cartoon style videos are fun to watch and lend themselves to a simple and light-hearted aesthetic. They often feature exaggerated characters, upbeat narrations, and bright colors. For more consumer facing companies that want to be trendy and relatable, this could be a good choice. Many of these videos have a pseudo hand-drawn feel, though that is not a requirement to fit the category. Here is a fun example we recently produced for the Apartment Sign Portal.  

Live Action Style    

Live action videos primarily use real footage of people demonstrating a product combined with simple screen captures, or animations. Footage of real people achieves an emotional connection with viewers that animation simply can’t, but because everyone is so used to tuning out commercials - these may not be the best approach to keep people watching. That said they are hard to beat when it comes to demonstrating products. Example produced by Brett Marty.

Sketchy Whiteboard Style

No discussion of explainer videos would be complete without mentioning whiteboard videos. As the name suggests, these videos appear to be drawn out on a whiteboard, blackboard, or paper in sync to the narration. Sometimes they are done with a time-lapse effect where you can see the artist working, other times they are completely created on a computer and play out in real time. This style is best for explaining longer or more complex messages because people associate whiteboards with learning, and they are often more affordable to produce. The downside is that they are not very professional. Example produced by the now famous RSA Animate group.

So what is right for you?

Start by identifying what is most important for your brand: credibility, simplicity, humor, or something else. That should help you eliminate a few options, then consider which visual style will fit with your existing brand the best. Finally, decide if the visual styles left will impact how effectively you are able to communicate your message. From there it should be a pretty easy choice. 

Understanding the Power of Video Analytics

Video Transcript.

Measuring the results of any marketing campaign is important… so you can see what is working and what can be improved. But when it comes to online video, measuring meaningful stats can be difficult. We can see the number of views, but that doesn’t tell us what happened after someone clicked play. 

Video Analytics allows us to get insight into exactly how viewers are interacting with the video. If they skip anything, if they stay on your page longer, or if they follow your call to action. 

Lets look at an example...

First we start by deciding what is important to measure. It could be pretty much anything, but lets say we want to know if a shorter video or a longer video will work better on your site.

We create two different versions of the video and upload them to a cool site called WISTIA that allows us to track viewer engagement. We then split test the two different versions on your site. 

And finally, we compare the metrics and draw conclusions. So, in this example the shorter video is holding viewers attention better. 

Ultimately, video analytics is not magic, but it allows you to see under the hood and know what’s working.

Animated in Atlanta - Engaging the World

The Commotion Engine is located in Atlanta Georgia. Ironically, about 90% of our clients are not. In fact many of them are on the other side of the country in tech cities like San Francisco or Seattle, and some are even on the other side of the world. We recently had a potential client inquire if this negatively affected our work. It made me think for a second. But then I realized, the remote workflow that we have developed is an inseparable part of what makes our video campaigns successful. 

The reality is, it would be great if all of the businesses who needed an animated marketing video were in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t change our production process much at all. This is largely due to the power of the internet to make a remote workflow just as good as being in person. Sometimes even better when you consider all of the time that is saved by not commuting or having endless face to face meetings. 

Our process for creating custom explainer videos follows a path that we have found to produce the most effective marketing tool for our clients. At every step of this path we use a simple cloud-based tool that allows the clients to be actively involved in the process as if we were together. Google Docs makes real-time collaboration on scripts a reality, screen capture videos allow us to walk clients through storyboards as if we were giving a powerpoint, dropbox allows instant file transfers as we collect brand assets from the client and send completed files back, and vimeo is great for private video reviews.

When it comes down to it, whether a client who needs a marketing video is in Atlanta or on the moon makes no difference to us. And that is a powerful testament to how the internet is changing the way we all do business. Its time to embrace the cloud. 

Electronic Auction Services

Large organizations (like governments) have a special ability to complicate things, especially when it comes to buying goods and services from other companies. That is why Electronic Auction Services (EASi) developed a really cool system that makes it easy for purchasing managers to find vendors for pretty much any need through a reverse auction process. Basically, organizations post a need and other companies bid on supplying it at the lowest cost.

Goals and Challenges

EASi came to us because they wanted a dynamic tool that could explain their service to purchasing managers very clearly and simply. There are a lot of misconceptions in the industry about “reverse auctions” so they wanted to be aggressive and make sure customers are given a correct impression of how their product is different and better.

The primary challenge we faced was developing a feel that was lively and fun to watch while still being serious enough to fit the target market of corporate purchasing managers. Many of our clients in this situation decide to eliminate all humor, but the EASi team wanted to find a more engaging balance. It actually took a few iterations of the boards and a revision to the animation to get it right - but the video is stronger because of it.


On some projects we really have to work hard to come up with a script that communicates everything we need to in a simple and effective way, but with EASi the scripting process flowed very naturally. We started by illustrating the problem that purchasing managers face, and then introduced EASi and explained how it provides a solution.

Visually we wanted something that matched the very clean and modern aesthetic of the EASi website, so we developed a fun vector style that utilized their nice blue brand colors. The lead animator on the project did an incredible job bringing it to life and actually added some nice flourishes that were not in the original storyboards.

Our last step was to create a shorter version of the video for split testing. We did this by removing details that were helpful, but not completely necessary to understand the service. The EASi team was a lot of fun to work with, and the final product really reflects the overall atmosphere of the project.

Video Analytics Results

(Data collection in progress, check back later!)


The Dental Exchange

RUN! The dentists are coming! Well, not really... Far from being sinister, the Dental Exchange is an awesome networking tool for anyone in the dental industry. Among other things, it helps professionals post and find jobs, maintain a resume, and keep up with continuing education requirements in their state.

When our phone rang and I spoke to the D.E. team for the first time, they were still in the beginning stages of developing their website, and were looking for someone to help them explain their concept through a professional animation.

Goals and Objectives

Ultimately they were looking for a video to do three things:

  • 1) Quickly draw in dental professionals on the landing page of their site by explaining the benefits of creating an account.
  • 2) Help spark interest in potential investors.
  • 3) Provide an overview of the most important features to showcase what the site has to offer.


The first challenge we identified was the tremendous range in demographics within the dental industry. Picture your average dentist, hygienist, and office clerk and you will realize what I mean. They are all very different people at different stages of life with very different professional goals. We needed something that would appeal to all of them.

The second challenge was that we needed to filter through the vast number of features and benefits that the Dental Exchange has to offer so we could pick the most important ones for the video. It is ALWAYS easier to make a script longer than it should be, but it takes a lot of work to simplify ideas without losing anything important.


Because each type of dental professional could be interested in a different aspect of the Dental Exchange, we wanted to find a common painpoint that they could all identify with. We came to realize that there are so many resources on the internet for the dental industry that the sheer volume makes it difficult for anyone to find what they need. The Dental Exchange solves this by bringing all relevant resources into a single hub that is customized to fit the needs of each user. Once we identified this, the rest of the message developed naturally and we soon had a solid script.

Overall we decided to go for a straightforward and professional tone that spoke to the viewer directly. Because the video is primarily intended for a landing page, getting to the point is important to keep viewers engaged. To complement this visually we developed a clean vector style that had a professional look and colors that matched the existing branding of the Dental Exchange.

We started with a very abstract approach to the visuals (using shapes and icons instead of realistic scenes), but after the first draft of the boards the client requested that we introduce some characters to make it more personable. When it came time to animate, our team worked to make the video flow seamlessly from beginning to end, with lots of little flourishes along the way that give it a high quality feel.

When we presented the final video, the client was very pleased with the results. The Dental Exchange hasn’t officially launched yet, but from initial reactions, it sounds like the video is already a success. It was a fun project for all of us, and we look forward to watching it on their new site soon.


Dell SecureWorks

SecureWorks is a division of Dell that specializes in enterprise cyber security. Basically they keep mischievous hackers from accessing sensitive information on company networks and send out an alert when suspicious activity is detected. This is the third video that we have created for SecureWorks (in partnership with BKV), and probably our favorite so far.

Goals and Objectives

Our goal for the project was to explain the benefits of Dell SecureWorks’ “Threat Intelligence Management System” to high level IT decision makers and CIOs. As the name suggests, this is a very complex and technical service, so we needed to break it down into something digestible for the target audience.

The Secureworks team requested that we depart from the style of the previous videos and do something with more dimension and even some 3d objects. Overall they wanted it to be less dark and a little more upbeat.  

The Solution

When the project started the SecureWorks team had a draft of the script, so we were able to use that as a starting place for the final version. Our main change was to make the script as short as possible by figuring out which details were necessary, and which ones where just adding complexity.  

Because the video is intended for a very technical audience, the subject matter is somewhat dry. To compensate for this we worked hard to make sure the visuals were captivating, while staying true to the SecureWorks brand. Everything about the video communicates integrity, confidence, and professionalism. The controlled color palette, clean illustration, and matter-of-fact narration helped to keep the overall tone in the right spectrum.

By far, the biggest challenge for our team was integrating the 3d graphics. Using some new software and techniques we were able to develop a look that was fast enough to be practical and stay within budget. The end product is a combination of 2d vector graphics, and true 3d animation that we think looks pretty cool.


Perfecting Your Elevator Pitch

There you are, standing in a group of important new acquaintances and everyone is taking turns explaining what they do.  Your mind races furiously as you try to think of what to say that will make the best impression. Suddenly it’s your turn.  But when your big mouth opens, out comes a lackluster jumble that leaves your audience with more questions than answers – and of course you spend the rest of the day kicking yourself.  We’ve all been there. Some of us more than once. But don’t worry, unless you really blew it everyone has forgotten you by now.

An explainer video is very similar to this type of pitch. Important people come to your site, and you have just a few seconds to give a convincing case for how you can help them. But whether you are seeking to communicate in person or through a video, the impression that you give someone in the first 90 seconds can make or break your shot at a new opportunity. Our job is to help clients communicate as clearly and effectively as possible in these situations, and after hundreds of projects we have learned a few key rules that will help you craft an effective pitch. Here they are:

Rule 1: Know Your Core Message

This may sound obvious, but it isn’t easy and can require a lot of thought and adjustment. Your core message is ultimately the most important value you provide for your clients, not necessarily the actual service you offer. What is the difference? Technically we create “animated marketing videos”, but no one cares about that and most people have no idea what it means (it certainly doesn’t sound like a real job). But if I say that “we help clients communicate complex ideas as simply and clearly as possible through short videos”, immediately the person I am talking to not only understands what we do, he understands how it can help him and why it is valuable. A wedding photographer technically “takes pictures at weddings”, but since anyone can do that it should not be his core message. What if a photographer told you that he “captures emotions on film”? Now that is valuable.

Rule 2: Understand that Details Obscure Understanding

I am stealing this phrase from our Creative Director because it is simple and brilliant. Once you know what your core message is, adding unnecessary details will always detract from the power of the big picture and make your message harder to understand. For example, if I were to talk about the software we use to create explainer videos, or the wedding photographer were to talk about all his lenses, it would only add confusion and would not contribute to the perceived value of our offerings. The only details that are necessary are the things that set you apart (in the mind of your audience) from competitors with similar core messages. Do you provide better customer service? More experience? Special skills? These are the things that build your message. It almost hurts to think of the number of times we have seen explainer videos damaged by a client who is obsessed with details that his audience will not care about.

Rule 3: Only Use Visuals that Accentuate Your Message

For explainer videos this is the visual component that makes the pitch engaging, easy to understand, and memorable. We have learned that simple visuals of the highest quality are far more effective than complex graphics that overwhelm the message with distracting details. But how does it apply to an in-person pitch? It is the way you present your message. If you are bored with what you do, no one is going to care what you have to say. If you are too salesy, you will just turn off your audience. But if you really believe that you offer something of value, your body language will automatically accent your message for you.

When it comes down to it, nothing beats practice and preparation. You shouldn’t try to memorize exactly what to say, but if you have laid the groundwork and know what your core message and most important differentiators are,  your pitch will be far more successful, whether in front of a crowd or through an explainer video on your homepage.

5 Questions Every Brand Must Answer!

One of the most important ingredients of effective communication is knowing what you are trying to say. No duh, right? But when it comes to strategic marketing, this isn’t as easy or as obvious as it sounds. It is not hard to make noise and get attention, but if you really want to turn your audience into fans you must know exactly what your brand stands for, what your businesses does, and who you are trying to reach.

This is why one of the first steps in our process is to conduct an in-depth brainstorming and research session with our clients. This is probably the part of my job that I enjoy the most (besides cashing checks), because it is really exciting to see what makes successful brands work, and also how asking some simple questions can help our clients walk away with a better understanding of what they do. At least a few of our clients have completely changed the way they present themselves after walking through this process.

So what are some of these allegedly magic questions? Here are five of the most important we have found:

1) What is the elevator pitch description of what your business does?

At first glance, this question sounds totally obvious… of course everyone knows what their business does! Maybe so, but very few people are able to communicate it clearly and concisely in just a few sentences, and some aren’t even sure what their core offering is. An elevator pitch shouldn’t just include details on the product that you’re selling. It should also emphasize what a valuable resource you are to your customers and what separates you from the rest of your competition.

For example, an elevator pitch for Starbucks might sound like this, “Starbucks provides a relaxing environment and free wifi where guests can meet and enjoy premium yuppy drinks in comfortable chairs.” If Starbucks was all about coffee, it wouldn’t sound any different than the local gas station store. But it isn’t. Good coffee is only part of the picture. Starbucks is marketing an image and an atmosphere people will pay through the nose for. A customer doesn’t  just shell out the bucks for the comfort of enjoying a hot beverage. They purchase the whole package-a genuine Starbucks experience complete with soft leather chairs, custom labeled cups and urban cafe appeal. Sold.

2) Who are your target customers?

The more specific your answer is to this question, the better off you will be. You may actually have several different types of customers you target depending on what your product or service is, but even then you need to know exactly who they are. There is always a common thread that binds your customers together. You simply have to look hard enough to find it. Over time it is a good idea to build a profile of what your ideal target looks like.

Here is an example of what our ideal customer looks like:
Need: To explain and promote a complex product or service.
Industry: Technology, Marketing, Financial
Criterion: Must have existing web presence
Company size: 25 – 150 people
Occupation: Marketing Director
Age: 35 – 55

3) Who are your competitors?

It doesn’t matter how unique or new your offering is. You have competitors. They may not do exactly what you do, but if they offer anything at all that your customer base could use as a substitute, then they are a competitor. It is super important to know who you are up against and what they are good at so that you are able to answer the next question.

4) What are your USPs (unique selling points)?

This could be phrased “What makes you ROCK?!”. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in, all successful businesses do something better than everyone else, and that is their unique selling point. If your USP isn’t obvious to your customers, the only thing they will look at is price to make their purchase decision, and that is almost always a death spiral.If you aren’t sure what your USP is, then don’t do anything else until you sit down with a pen and notepad and come up with something! You should start by looking at your ideal customer profile, then figure out what they value that your competitors are not offering. Even if the difference is subtle, you just need something to start with immediately. A great book on this subject is Purple Cow, by Seth Godin. Be sure and check it out when you have a chance!

5) What is your Brand Promise?

If your brand could be reduced to a guarantee what would it be? Walmart’s is low pricing. Apple’s? Insane design and intuitive usability. What is yours? When it comes down to it, your brand promise should be your most important USP. As long as it is something your customers really value, you need to shout it loud and clear from the rooftops until everyone knows what it is. Just make sure you don’t go back on your word. When you make a promise be prepared to keep it.

In Conclusion:

There are a lot more questions that could be asked, but if you start with these and work on coming up with serious and meaningful answers, you will be in a position to communicate your message very effectively to the world. So get started today!

Book Review: The Art of Explanation

We’ve all witnessed explanations that have gone horribly wrong. Maybe it was in class, when your teacher geeked out about his favorite pet subject, and it came across as meaningless jargon. Or perhaps you had an important presentation to your team at work, where you struggled to help them grasp the significance of a new product (while you watched their eyes glaze over). And with the rising complexity of the world we live in, we can all agree that we need a better way to learn and share ideas.

That’s where The Art of Explanation comes in. This book is essentially a survival guide on how to explain an idea to someone in a way that leaves them enlightened, and inspired. The author Lee LeFever is the founder of a company called Common Craft. You may have seen his work around, including the video they produced for Dropbox which received 25 million views.

In this review, I will give you a very brief summary of what the book talks about, and hopefully whet your appetite to dig deeper. 


What is an Explanation?

According to the book: “An explanation describes facts in a way that makes them understandable.” An explanation is not a description, definition, or instruction. It is a way to package ideas and make people care about what is being communicated. To use the Dropbox video as an example, instead of focusing on how Dropbox works, the video focused on why Dropbox will improve your life.

A core concept discussed in the book is called the “explanation scale.” The image above illustrates this concept. When you are trying to communicate to an audience, they will fall in a spectrum from less understanding, to more understanding, or A to Z. People with less understanding will want to know why they should learn something, while those with more understanding are more interested in how that something works. For example, to someone who has never used a computer before, you should probably start with why their life will positively change if they decide to use one. Once you have sold them on that, you can move on to how a computer works. Reversing this order and starting with the details first will leave them bored, and confused.

Though an explanation is not a formula, LeFever provides a list of ingredients that make a good explanation: Context, Story, Connections, Simplification, and Constraints.

1. Context

Most of us are familiar with the importance of context. When we explain something, it’s tempting to dive right in and talk about the trees. But without the forest, the trees are meaningless. A few years back, Common Craft was working on a video that introduced Google Docs to potential users. Instead of launching into all the features it had to offer, they focused on showing why the old model (Microsoft Word) was limited and caused problems. This created context with the users, and allowed them to understand why they should care.

2. Story

A story can give meaning to otherwise bland and uninteresting facts. It allows us to see things through the lens of a person’s experience. Consider these two examples from the book:

“A blog is a personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete entries typically displayed in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appear first. “


“Meet Allison. She recently created a website where she posts her experiences in raising a puppy. Her website is an online journal, or blog, and every few days she posts a new entry that appear at the top of her page. This stream of entries lets her connect with dog lovers from around the world.”

Both examples communicate the same information, but the second one is far more engaging by the addition of a character. 

3. Connections

New concepts can be introduced more easily when we relate them to something else everyone is familiar with. One example the book uses is the company Netflix. Although it is now a household word, this company was revolutionary when it hit the streets. The best way to explain this new service was to think of it as an online DVD rental store. By relating it to an existing concept, the new idea becomes easier to comprehend.

4. Simplification

I often work with clients that have so much they want to communicate in a video, that it becomes overly complex and confusing. Often they know so much about a topic, that they are unable to break it down for others. The book explains “Although valuable, the knowledge we bring to the table inhibits our ability to predict what will appear simple for others, which then makes our explanations overly complex.”

LeFever offers some guidelines to follow:

Do not make assumptions about what people already know
Use the most basic language possible
Zoom out and try to see the subject from the broadest perspective possible
Forget the details and focus on the big ideas
Trade accuracy for understanding

5. Constraints

As a creative individual, I loved this chapter of the book. When I sit down to work on a project, I am sometimes overwhelmed with the options and possibilities in front of me. The best way to handle this is to put limitations or constraints on what the project is trying to accomplish. These constraints could be a deadline, project length, number of topics, or the format used (video, powerpoint, blog, etc). If you don’t limit, your audience will be as overwhelmed as you are. By constraining what we cover in our explanation, we allow ourselves to focus on what is important to our project, and leave out distractions.

This is just a very quick look at some of the topics covered in The Art of Explanation. It’s packed with practical examples, illustrations, and real world insight from an industry expert. Whether you’re blogging, creating videos, or presenting your next big idea to the board of directors, this book will have something for you. Check it out, and start sharing your ideas! (in a way people will understand)