Why do all explainers look the same?

Knock, knock. Who's there?


Cash who?

No, thanks. I'd rather have a peanut! [Bah-dum-tssssssss!] Yeah, I was just leaving.

All joking aside, there's actually something to learn from the classic knock-knock joke (besides how bad the teller's sense of humor is). The joke itself—structurally—tells the hearer how to interpret it.

Think about it. From the second that someone says "knock knock," you know what will happen. You know how to respond, you know what’s setting up the punchline, and you know that the punchline will be wordplay that makes you want to punch the teller. The form of the joke shows you what the joke is.

Most communication has a form, a structure that helps us understand it. Movies do, as do TV shows, books, speeches, commercials, billboards, comic books, bus bench ads, restaurant menus, and a bazillion other things we encounter every single day. For each one, there’s a certain shape that lets us know what to expect and guides us to what’s important.

Knowing this, it shouldn't surprise us that explainer videos tend to look and feel alike. From a structural standpoint… that's exactly the point. Common mechanisms help direct a viewer to what they need to know.

So, the question to ask an explainer video isn't: "Why does this video sound like all the other explainer videos?" The actual question to ask is: "How well does it use its form to convey meaning?"

Which leads us to another question: "What is that form?" Although explainer videos can take on an array of styles and voices, their common structure is two simple pieces.

First, a beginning. A current reality, if you will. No matter what is being explained, the audience has to understand the current assumptions, the current solutions, the current way of doing business. It is wildly difficult to help someone understand something new if they don't first understand where they are. In fact, this serves as one of the best metrics for the success and truthfulness of an explainer video: how accurately does it describe life now? Does it paint a true picture or leave inconvenient details to the side? The more honest a video is with the current reality, the better it can talk about something truly innovative or meaningful.

Second, an end. A new reality. The current reality is transformed by the thing being explained. Any good explainer video spends a significant amount of time unpacking that transformation. Here again, honesty and clarity provide the best measure of success. Is it accurate? Are the changes clear? Does it enable a viewer to see how what was explained affects their reality?

Structurally, these effects are shown by a comparison between the viewer’s two worlds: their current reality and their new reality. This is why form is so crucial; this contrasting structure can help the viewer truly understand. When the form is used well, the contrast is clear, making the explanation stick with the viewer.

Explainer videos must be built in a way that forces a viewer to make a judgment call about some aspect of their world. The video’s form must make the viewer reassess their reality in light of a potential new reality. The mechanism is simple, but it can lead to a powerful end. What matters isn't that these videos all use the same mechanism. What matters is how well they use it.

Kinda like this joke I heard recently… Knock, knock…

Hey, where are you going?

Written by Eric Ankenman and Chris Molnar