Talk to the Hand: Risk Bites, six months on

by Andrew Maynard on May 23, 2013

Six months ago, Risk Bites launched as a somewhat quirky YouTube experiment in science communication. Twenty-seven videos on, how are things going?

Welcome no frame 750x400

Risk Bites was originally conceived as a way of pulling some rather cool insights into the science behind human health risks out of dusty halls of academia and into the real world.  Watching the meteoric rise of YouTube science channels like MinutePhysics and SciShow, I couldn’t help wondering why universities weren’t having the same success with the medium, and whether there was a way of bridging the gap between the educational establishment, and the online education counterculture.

The challenge for most academics though – especially academics like me who are also administrators – is time.  And talent (let’s be honest here).  And an ability to talk to real people.  As a result, the brief for Risk Bites was a tough one.  In the end, it boiled down to:

  • Come up with a format that viewers of all ages and backgrounds would find engaging;
  • Develop a workflow that took up less than 2 – 4 hours per week from start to finish; and
  • Find some way to obscure a terminal lack of talent in the video-making department.

The resulting speeded-up doodlings on a whiteboard to illustrate a simple narrative ended up fitting this surprisingly well.  And so each week for the past six months, a growing number of YouTube viewers have been watching my right hand sketch out crude stick figures in time to a (hopefully) more polished script, and a hastily cobbled together backing track.  And along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two:

  • The simplicity of a narrative accompanied by simple drawings is a powerful communications format.  As well as being relatively fast compared to more sophisticated video techniques, the format is surprisingly nuanced – multiple sub-narratives can be intertwined between what you hear and what you see, allowing the videos to succeed for different audiences at different levels.
  • Speeding up bad drawing is a great way to fool people into thinking you have some talent.
  • Conveying complex topics in three-minute (or less) chunks is tough.  In many cases I had to break down what I initially thought was a simple idea into several component videos.  For instance, the video sequence on dose-response ended up having two videos on what a scientific model is and how to make sense of one, so that dose-response models could be introduced.
  • Reaching a younger audience (the initial target audience for Risk Bites) is a lot tougher than I thought.  For some reason, the channel is attracting more middle aged male professionals than anyone else – something to work on.
  • This style of video making has a very similar feel to writing a blog – the informality and responsiveness it allows are great for exploring new ideas or hot topics.
  • On the other hand, it takes four or five times longer to make a three-minute video than it does to write a blog post.  Keeping the script short and sharp takes more time than a rambling blog post; then there’s the recording, filming, editing and post-production.
  • And to top it all, there are still many people who would prefer to read a science article than watch a video about the same science.

Yet despite the challenges, this is an extremely rewarding medium to work in.

Complex ideas can be built up over multiple videos in an accessible and (hopefully) unpretentious way, and there is a richness and subtlety to the interplay between audio and visual narratives that you cannot achieve easily in a written piece alone.  And it’s gratifying to see the videos being used by communicators and professionals to convey information on the science of risk to others.  This underlines one of the most important aspects of science communication through social media – it’s not how many people you connect with, but who you connect with that counts.

Moving on, the videos are diversifying, with my colleague Brian Zikmund-Fisher coming in to talk about risk perception, and MPH graduate David Faulkner drafting out some of the scripts (as well as helping out with post production.  Also, every Risk Bites is closed captioned, thanks to David).  And we are now experimenting with color – although the jury is still out on whether this is a smart move or not.

So things are going well.  Of course, having a gazillion subscribers and being splashed across the trendier social media outlets would be nice.  But as an experiment in using video to communicate the complexities of risk science to a wide audience, the results so far are encouraging.

A new Risk Bites video is posted every Tuesday at http://youtube.com/riskbites

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