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

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dingsheng Li May 24, 2013 at 7:34 am

On the target audience. I think if the content of the videos can be more related to recent events, they might draw more audience besides of the middle aged professionals. For example the tofurkey has a lot of views. It could be very hard though since some basic concepts should be explained before going into different cases and that takes precious time!


Shaun Clancy May 25, 2013 at 9:42 pm

As one of the middle aged males who are watching despite not being the target audience, I find the Risk Bites to be entertaining and effective. I don’t know that color is needed though this is coming from someone who has a fair degree of color-blindness. I was told by one of my grad school professors that he spent 3 hours to prepare each one hour of lecture so your ratio seems about right to reduce a complex topic to a short video. I often find that I prefer reading an article to a video because I can take in info much faster through reading yet I very much enjoy your videos and I think I prefer them to reading about these topics. Perhaps it’s the UK accent?


Shaun Clancy May 25, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Now questions – Is talking on a cell phone with a bluetooth headset the same as talking with an in-car system like Ford’s SYNC or GM’s On Star? Is talking on a phone while hands-free more distracting than talking to someone who is riding in the car or than listening to the radio? If there are differences, why? If not, should the advice be that drivers should drive in silence? Life is complicated, eh? Perhaps driving is, too.


Andrew Maynard May 26, 2013 at 9:58 am

Thanks for the comments Shaun! Too true life is complicated – there is tentative evidence with the phones in cars (with the emphasis on tentative) that hands-free interactions could be more disturbing, possibly because of the way cautious behavior is suppressed or enhanced. Intuitively, you can imagine that the worst combination is behavior that increases the chances of distraction, without compensation to reduce that risk.


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