The Common Craft Blog

This blog is where we announce new videos & talk about the power of explanation & the change it can create. 

In recent months, the world of journalism has seen an increased focus on “explainer” news sites. Examples include new sites like Vox, Newsbound, FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot by The New York Times. The demand for explanations in the news is growing.

Taking a step back, I think it’s interesting to think about why it’s happening and what it could mean for the future.

Let’s start with the goal: If you set out to explain something, your goal is to increase understanding. So, explainer news sites seek to help their audience understand the news. In fact, “understand the news” is the subtitle of


But don't we already understand? It's easy to assume that "explainer" journalism means journalism that's dumbed-down and/or focuses on the least common denominator news reader. I don't think this is the case. Understanding doesn’t always come from simplifying or making an idea more basic. The best understanding comes from building context and the discussing the big picture as a foundation for understanding. Here’s how I think about it:

  • Normal news: This is what happened today
  • Explainer news: This is why what happened matters

To make sense of today’s news, a broader perspective is often required. Those who know the backstory of an issue are more likely to understand the granular news stories that flow to us in daily headlines. Understanding begets interest - and this is where I think the true opportunity lies...

Explanations Create Customers of News

Jay Rosen, NYU Journalism Professor and media critic has been talking about explainers and journalism for years. His PressThink blog post from 2008 about the job of explainers in the news was a big influence on me and still rings true. That post focused on an episode of radio show/podcast This American Life called The Giant Pool of Money. It’s explains, with amazing clarity, the mortgage crisis.

Rosen describes what happened after listening the the show:

I noticed something in the weeks after I first listened to “The Giant Pool of Money.” I became a customer for ongoing news about the mortgage mess and the credit crisis that developed from it…‘Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information. 

Through a great explanation, he became a customer for ongoing news. It put him in the market for more information. Isn't this what every news organization wants - to increase customers of news?

I think this is why explainer news sites are popping up and may be successful. They will serve a valuable role in helping consumers build a foundation of understanding regarding stories that interest them. They will help create customers of news stories.

Want to see what I mean?

The two minute video below by Vox is meant to explain the big picture of Bitcoin - and how it is like the Internet in the 80s. It's not difficult to imagine how this video could put people in the market for more granular news about Bitcoin because it answers a question that many great explanations ask: why should I care?


Study Data on Videos in Education

Posted by: leelefever on April 22, 2014- 2:42pm


Categories: Classroom Video, data, flipped classroom, kaltura, report, study, video

The use of videos in education is growing along with the "flipped classroom". A new report by Kaltura helps to put some data behind what many in education are seeing today. Via ReelSEO, here are a few of the highlights of the report:

  • 90% of respondents believe that video improves the learning experience, with even basic video tools having a significant impact.
  • 57% of respondents agree that flipped classrooms will become a standard teaching method in higher education, with 48% saying that their institutions already practice such.
  • 52% of respondents state that video use has been driven from the ‘bottom up’ by faculty.
  • 57% of respondents estimate that more than a quarter of their classes already incorporate video content created by faculty.
  • 49% of respondents estimate that a typical student watches six to twenty education videos per month.
It also includes interesting data about the impact of videos across specific goals:
Video and Student Goals
As ReelSEO points out:
...only 47% of respondents are measuring the ROI in video which may indicate a lack of consensus or understanding on how to measure appropriate metrics.
The report was based on 550 respondents in the first quarter of 2014 and includes all sectors of the education industry. You can download the full report here.  

It's Not Sexy - And That's OK

Posted by: leelefever on April 8, 2014- 10:15am


Categories: advice, Art of Explanation, Explanation, explanation specialist, party, substance

Explanation PartyMany professionals work toward the moment their project, presentation, or work blows someone’s socks off.  It’s easy to imagine a dream-like vignette where, once your peers and managers see your work, they form a conga line to celebrate the amazing things you’ve done. It’s sexy, they say. It’s slick. It’s mind-blowing.


It’s a seductive way to think about work. We want to make big impressions and get noticed. We love the attention that may lead to promotions and accolades.  It’s not that different from what we see every day in the media. Glamour sells. Sex sells. Do I even have to mention Paris Hilton?

But here’s the thing. Sex may sell, but substance delivers. The slick presentations and marketing speak are often only a veneer that’s designed to make an impression. It’s a short-term step in a much longer game that involves much more than simply making impressions.  

Explanation JumpOnce the lights dim and dance floor clears, there must be more to the story. For anyone to care the next day, substance must be part of the mix and that substance often comes from a specific skill: explanation.  By making sure people actually understand what we’re doing and why it matters, we can offer them a cure for the hangover they may feel once the excitement fades. 

Of course, this may not be sexy. It may not be glamorous. An amazing explanation does not typically instigate a conga line. I doubt your CEO will stand on her desk and exclaim “We need MORE UNDERSTANDING.” And that’s OK. Explanation is not about sexy - it’s about effective.

So, don’t be seduced.  Instead, become an advocate for substance. Work to make sure the bright lights and loud music don’t obscure the one thing that may actually help people engage with you: a basic understanding of WHY your message matters. 

Learn How BBC Makes 3 Minute Explainer Videos

Posted by: leelefever on April 2, 2014- 10:34am


Categories: bbc, Explainer Tip, explainer video, Explanation

I'm so impressed. The BBC is now producing Explainer videos and one of the producers they've used, After the Floodtook the time to explain their process in video form:

The video above is from a blog post with much more information about scripting, storyboarding and production

The BBC and After The Flood obviously have high standards, but don't let their technical focus discourage you. You can make an explainer videos for your team, product, students or classroom without having to worry about an audience of millions. 

Many of the points in the video are true in any context. A couple of strong points:

With a running time of just three minutes, an Explainer video needs to get its point across very efficiently. It’s impossible to cover all the ground in a particular area, so you need to focus on a story ‘hook’ that is fundamental, understandable and repeatable. Examples from previous Explainer videos include: ‘The stars are us and we are the stars’ and ‘The Titanic was unlucky, not doomed’. This message should be carried throughout the script and throughout the choice of visual elements.

On three big elements of explainers:
Your story idea will have to accommodate three distinct layers of information, and it’s worth identifying these at an early stage:
  • Primary info: the core material in question (e.g. the human circulatory system)
  • Secondary info: required for explanation (e.g. the role of oxygen in the blood)
  • Tertiary info: signposts that lead to related topics (e.g. exercise and cardiovascular health)

 Read the whole article.