Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Condensing Learning into 4 Minutes or Less? Making a Simple Animated Video for a Complex Project

I am enjoying being the Learning Expert for a very innovative programme (Learning and Knowledge Development Facility) that aims to promote, capture and share learning from a series of international public private development projects (PPDPs). The objective is to create a platform and a process for sharing learning among all the project stakeholders and with other interested parties for continuous improvement in the existing projects and to create efficiencies in future project development and implementation.

For this project, among other things, I recently wrote a series of How-To Manuals (see the blog post: How to Write a “How To” Guide: Two Approaches to Creating Reusable Learning) based on individual learning gathered through interviews and collective learning from facilitated workshops and meetings. These detailed documents are all available for practitioners in the project to use as well as anyone else interested.

But, they range from 20 – 30 pages, with some shorter executive summaries that aim to distill further key points. With piles of reading already on their desks, the project managers challenged us to create some new, shorter learning products, not just for them but for their colleagues and others who were interested in the project, who wanted to learn more, but were just starting to dip their toes into it. 

The project is about developing Public Private Development Partnerships (I'm not going to describe them here, you have to watch the video!) It's quite a nuanced concept. And because of the complexity of writing about and describing the PPDP approach itself (one of my long How-To Guides was about PPDPs – How to Develop and Implement a Vocational Training Public Private Development Partnership – even the name was long!) that was where we decided to start.

So we made an animated video – a 3 minute 23 second explanation of what PPDPs were, how they worked (and of course the benefits!)

All in all, it took us four weeks from the telephone interview that produced the narrative, to receiving the link to the final video. We chose an aggressive time frame as we wanted to show the video at an upcoming meeting. For this project we worked with Simpleshow.

This was my first experience working with a creative team to create an "explainer" video. There were a number of lessons that I learned along the way that I want to capture, for my own future reference, and also for sharing with anyone who is tempted toward the process of condensing and sharing learning in 4 minutes or less.

Lesson 1: What's the message?

As I mentioned above, the idea started with a 33-page "How-to Manual" which structured a rich multitude of lessons learned by many different actors. How on earth could that be condensed into 4 minutes or less? Four minutes was the upper limit given to us by Simpleshow, with a suggestion that even this could be too long. (Note: There is plenty of interesting research done on video length and viewer attention span - like this article by Powtoon Explainer Video: How Long Should Your Explainer Be? We went plenty over, relatively speaking, what seems to be a generally suggested time limit of 1-2 minutes.)

It was obvious that this amount of content was far too ambitious for a 2-4 minute video. So we needed to think again. When we considered the questions that come in about the project, the first ones and perhaps the most fundamental are really the basics - What is a Public Private Development Partnership? Who is involved, how does it work and what are the benefits? In answering those questions, our message is really basic: This is a very cool approach which you should know about and might want to get involved in. So we started there.  You really need to be crystal clear about the central message you are trying to convey. Too many messages make for a messy animated video.

Lesson 2: What's the story?

For a video to be good, there needs to be some kind of clean and simple story or narrative with some characters, a challenge that people are trying to solve together, a barrier to surmount. Our story had all of those components. To get to the essence of the story for our video, Simpleshow sent a questionnaire with some very good questions along these lines. We answered it and sent it back and then set up a call with a project manager and a story writer that lasted about an hour. I discussed with them the answers to the questions - What is a PPDP? Who's involved? What makes it special? What problem is it trying to solve?  And they asked more questions, and I gave more answers. After a while it formed into a simple but compelling story.

Lesson 3: Whose voices? Which characters?

If you watch many explainer-type animated videos, you will notice that there is almost always one voice that is the narrator. This voice introduces the characters, and effectively tells the story for them while they move around and animate the story.  (More on this narrator voice later.) As such there are a lot of decisions around characters and voice in a video. First, you need to identify your characters. Our first list was very long as there are a lot of important actors in PPDPs. But you really can't have too many characters as it can be hard to keep track of them and in some cases hard to tell (animated) people apart. Remember that they are not distinguished by their voice, as they do not speak - one central voice tells the story, so they need to be differentiated in other ways.

In our case, the main actors involved were actually organizations, as we were describing an approach or a process. So we had to decide which organizations were the most central to our story, and what characters would represent them. We ended up with four main characters with actual names (Peter, etc.), and with some minor characters without names (e.g. teacher, government official, other student).

You do need to be thoughtful about names - selecting those that are not too similar.  For names we tried to use known names from where our characters originated; the most important name choice was our central character, a woman graduate in Zambia. For that I researched the most popular female names in Zambia and decided on Thandi, which is near the top of the charts of popular names for women in Zambia, For next time, I would suggest even more diverse names for the other organizational characters as the project is international. We changed a couple of them from those suggested by Simpleshow, which was perfectly fine with them, but could have changed them a little more to capture the true diversity of the project.

Lesson 4: Getting the story crystal clear

The next step was to write up the narrative - the story as told by the narrator. This was the script and was written from the perspective of a storyteller which was not one of the characters. The script was drafted based on our telephone conversation. Simpleshow wrote out the script. word for word, exactly as the narrator would read it, and sent it for review along with some ideas of visuals (in words) and potential images that could accompany them (characters, icons, etc.) I checked the accuracy of statements, changed terminology, answered some questions, and looked for points of emphasis.

It was important here to remember that some words can be very politically charged, how some characters are described can be consistent with their own terminology or quite incorrect. You need to remember that you are the expert at the topic, the video maker works on a myriad of different themes and although they do their best,  it is your responsibility to catch things at this stage. I shared my comments with colleagues to make sure that I was not missing anything, and indeed I had! At this important script stage we needed to sign off on the narrative as written, because it is not efficient or practical to change the text after the images are drawn.

Lesson 4: Sketch stage - Choosing the right images and icons

I considered what was being suggested in terms of images and iconography and made some tweaks. Sometimes the initially proposed icons might not be quite right to represent the actor - for example, a technical assistance donor will not resonate with an image of a bag of money, but with a growing plant instead.  Other images benefit from changing to increase accuracy or authenticity. For example, I changed an image that was represented on a chalkboard to make it more consistent with the reality of the project (from a flow chart to an engine diagram as the project works with heavy machinery), or changing what one of the characters was wearing to be more like that we see in the vocational training centre workshops in the project.

For this, I used photos from our project, and also googled factories in Zambia, and sent links to the animators, and generally tried to help make the story and images as accurate as possible with the reality of the project. It was at this point also that I received a first sketched of the characters. For Thandi, our Zambian main character, I commented on her dress and hair, and googled lots of Zambian universities and factories for photos to see what students were wearing. Although I have been to Zambia on more than one occasion, I wasn't in a heavy vehicle vocational training workshop! So I passed this by colleagues who had been working in Zambia, and had been to the vocational school until we all agreed. All the images need to be checked carefully for accuracy and authenticity as again, it is practically impossible to change them (or very costly to do so) once the voice actor is engaged and the animation completed. You definitely don't want someone watching the video a month after production saying, "That's not how you pronounce 'Thandi' in Zambia"!

Lesson 5: Voice actors - What voice best matches the content?

Speaking of pronunciation...the video narrative will be read by a professional voice actor (I enjoyed googling that fascinating field of work). The company has a pool of voice actors and sent me some audio clips to listen to, and from which to select the one that seemed to fit the content best. I found out from the company we worked with that most animated videos they made were narrated by men, and often with American accents (at the request of clients).

We decided early on that we wanted a women's voice, so the Simpleshow sent through some female voice clips for me to listen to, with some different accents. It was interesting to hear all the varieties of voices, and their different qualities, intonation, brightness, etc. We decided that we wanted a British female voice. I listened to a few more audio clips and chose one. The voice in the original clip I found a little too bright and chirpy, which didn't fit as well for our content, so I made some suggestions along those lines. When the actor recorded it she matched our request and instructions.

Lesson 6: Signing off final stages - no going back

At this point I had signed off on the text to be narrated, and I needed to sign off on the images and icons, and what would happen to them which was described in words (wondering, searching, happy, 'wiped away'). I was asked about how to pronounce 'Thandi' ( with "h" or without - I double checked with a Zambian friend to be sure!)  Also how to pronounce 'UNIDO' ( spell it out or read it.) It was great that they asked, I am sure the voice actor needed to know. Again this is something you might anticipate and give some instructions before the voice actor does her work.

At this point, the text and images go out of your hands and the company puts together the animation and the voice actor records her text. You can listen to the final results in the video above!

We would ideally have liked another review step or a quote for how much that might cost (it might be significant if the voice actor needs to re-record something to emphasize a word more or less, or a sequence in the middle of the video needs to be re-shot). I understand that is why there are so many opportunities for iteration and sign off steps. It is however still challenging to try to imagine how the voice will work with the images, and how the images will move. There can be unconscious messages communicated when some images stay longer on the screen or have a more central place in the viewing pane. In the future I will try to pay more careful attention and try to anticipate this, and thus give some additional instructions to the artist and voice actor on this aspect if needed.

What might happen next?

The video launch received a very enthusiastic response and good feedback. People are thinking actively about how to use it. The team recently translated it into French  as one of the new PPDPs is in a Francophone country. That took only 2.5 weeks, from request to final French-version of the video, and provided another broad set of possible accents and specialised terminology to select from (with no changes made to the animation except the last 'thanks' page).

The video has been put on the webpage and shared widely with partners. It will feature in an upcoming training course on PPDPs in the introduction, and is being sent to potential partners through email and in workshops and meetings. It is such a short and easy introduction to PPDPs, and is much more engaging than any PPT slide set or oral introduction, both of which would take longer than 3 minutes 23 seconds.

Overall, it was a very exciting and fast paced process, and it's fascinating to see ideas move from a conversation, through written words, to images and then jump off the page into an animated video. And it is not as mysterious as you might imagine. I enjoyed writing down my learning and things I want to remember, not least because I might want to reuse my learning in the next set of animated videos that are already in planning!