How do you explain a scientific paper in three minutes or less? What if you were being judged by a bunch of middle-schoolers in classrooms around the world… and you only had a month to do it? The video above is what I came up with, with help from planetary scientist, science communicator, and science historian Meg Rosenburg.

That music! That voice! Those… diatoms?? You might ask what we were thinking, making an epic film about microbes. The truth is, it was an experiment—an experiment that, thankfully, turned out quite well. More than 30,000 students saw our video, and they voted it into second place in the 2014 Ocean180 Video Challenge (sponsored by COSEE Florida). I hope that pulling back the curtain here will help other aspiring scientist-communicators make videos about their own research, to reach a broader audience through Ocean180 or other outlets.

Let’s talk about the form first. See, three minutes is an interesting length. Most pop songs are about that long, and lots of viral videos are that length or less, too. Movie trailers, as well as their opening scenes, have also hovered around 2 – 4 minutes for a long time. What’s so magical about three minutes? It’s just enough time to build a connection with an audience and leave them wanting more.

After some discussion, we decided to invoke the feel of an epic movie trailer. Why? The movie trailer format is inviting to a lot of people, no matter what their age. We stood a better chance at engaging a young, diverse, and potentially international audience with esoteric science if we presented it in a familiar, yet refreshing way. Our goal then wasn't to give a comprehensive explanation of the science, but to make the subject irresistible so our audience would want to learn more. Just as a trailer is just a taste of a film, our video would give a taste of our research.


CREDIT: 

Neil Palmer/CIAT for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)

But we needed to tell a story. We had little existing footage of the research in action, so we had to find our story by finding or constructing scenes, characters, action, and points of reflection in service of the science. (I defer to my storytelling gurus Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, and Pixar for more nuanced perspectives on the elements of storytelling.) Our setting was fairly obvious because the research was about the impact of the Amazon River on the Atlantic Ocean. Meg came up with the idea of making the river the main character. We could follow it visually from its birth in the Andes to its “death” in the Atlantic. This natural timeline provides a sequence to the story. The action, then, would be what’s happening to the river: how it gains and loses nutrients, leading to different types of life. The point of reflection would be to recognize, at the end, the river’s outsized influence on life in the ocean. Our microscopic team then would be the lens through which we told the story of the river.

Now, let’s look a little more closely at how Meg and I divided up those three minutes. We split the time up roughly equally to make sure we had enough time to develop each element. In the first minute (0:05 – 0:57), we set the stage: Where are we? Who are the characters? In the second minute (0:58 – 1:46), we get the action going: Why are we here? What is at stake? Finally, in the third minute (1:47 – 2:57), we finish the action sequence and show its effects on our main character.

The music provided the backdrop. It is the first thing most people notice even if they’re not aware of it. Most filmmakers will tell you that music should respond to the story rather than drive it, but I had to make a compromise and use the music to set the mood quickly to advance the story. Then there is my friend Nic’s voice. He gives the video that healthy dose of gravitas that takes it over the top (…in a world…) so your mind thinks, “oooh! A movie trailer!” even before you hear a single scientific term. By the time the microbes come spinning into view, we’ve got you: Your eyes, your ears, and your mind are at attention as we start from on high and dive into the river, riding shotgun with our heroes.

Thus a video abstract was born. It was far from perfect—it came in second place, after all—and there are a lot of ways we could have improved it. Thanks to the feedback from participating classrooms, we learned that the content went by too quickly for some of them. Our title was also a bit of a mouthful. Most importantly, though, we didn’t feature the scientists (my colleagues and me) doing the work. So, on my next research cruise, I’m bringing a video camera!

What advice might I give to aspiring video challengers? Here are five tips:

  • Define your communication goals early. Your communication goals will dictate the form and content of your video as much as your audience will. Not every good idea you can think of will be in service of these goals, but your ideas can be honed to do so.
  • Learn about your potential audiences. A room full of highly educated adults will respond differently to a video than a room full of middle-school students will. You will always have more than one audience, and you’re looking for entry points at which to start conversations with them.
  • Keep it simple, but not dumbed down. A technique I have found helpful for scientific papers is to reduce the abstract into two sentences, the first of which is the “30,000-foot view” of the problem, and the second of which is your approach to that problem. It’s worth the trouble.
  • Partner with professional, if you can. When I make science-themed videos and podcasts, the lion’s share of the time is actually spent on the editing, not the writing. Whenever I have worked with video professionals, however, the end product has always been better and finished in less time because we can each play to our strengths.
  • Test, evaluate, and iterate. Like any skill we want to cultivate, we need to reach beyond our comfort zone to grow, and we need honest and constructive feedback to improve.