10 uses of video in learning

I was asked to write something about which type of video is good for which learning application.  Let’s begin by asking “what is video actually good for in learning?”  People don’t want long, detailed information in a video, because it means sitting through something not so pertinent, till you get to the bit you want.  No, text is better for the details.  Video, however is much stronger than text for delivering high-level messages with impact and emotion.  This is the core function of video in learning.

Context established, let’s have a look at the various video forms:

1. Talking heads

A talking head is the simplest sort of video to produce.  Plenty of L&D people shoot these themselves.  The main strength of a talking head is the power of the testimonial.  It’s not so much what’s being said as who is saying it.  In an onboarding film talking heads of your new colleagues relating what it’s like to work here seem believable, especially when compared to a voice-over cut to shots of the office saying the same thing.

Another advantage of the talking head is concision.  People don’t talk like books, they naturally speak in high-level concepts.  A talking head interview is a great way to get a lot from your subject matter expert.  It’s quite easy to know the right questions to ask, harder to know what the answers should be.  So, formulate your key questions and let the SME take the strain.  A clever, informed person will answer concisely and without going into unnecessary detail.

Let’s return to onboarding:

Q “What’s it like to work here?”

A “Really nice.  Nice people, nice environment, they make you feel at home.”

Mix this with a smiling face and it’s worth any amount of whizzy graphics and sexy voiceover.  Concise and believable.

In a set of onboarding videos it’s usual to combine talking heads from the shop floor with an animation and a piece to camera.

2. Animation

Animation sits somewhere between a video and text.  Animation is usually used as a snappy way of delivering compressed messages, but perhaps with a little more detail than your average video.  After all, you can put a lot of text into an animation and you can easily depict concepts with diagrams and visual analogies.  Of course, voice-over and music are key to providing an emotional hook.

In the case of onboarding, an animation is great for giving a breezy briefing about, say the values you expect the new starters to work with, or maybe the main points of health and safety. Content that’s quite dry but you want to ensure people get the high level points quickly.  Give them an overview and they can discover the detail.

3. Pieces to Camera

The final video element we often find in onboarding is a piece to camera from the head of the organisation.  Let’s face it, these are usually a bit headteacherish and dull, but you kind of need them.  Why?  It’s all about giving the message clout.  If the CEO has bothered to put some time aside to say this, it’s definitely important.  This is the one person the viewer can look at as synonymous with the organisation.  The buck stops here.

As an L&D professional, it’s not that often you’ll be able to get the CEO or another high level exec to present your message, but when you do, you know it’s as important to them as it is to you.

4. Presenters

Presenters are usually used as part of a mix.  Essentially they put a face on a message and join up elements in an efficient and engaging manner.  Good presenters are expensive, but having someone engaging on screen can, nevertheless, be a cost-effective bit of screen time, because hiring a presenter for a day can be very productive.  Presenters can be used to link bits of eLearning in a course, or perhaps a series of expert talking heads.  Given a good enough script and a bit of spice they can bring an emotional hook, usually when they explain the reason behind the learning.  Presenters can say just about anything you write for them and make it sound authoritative and convincing.  But don’t overuse them.  As with any video content, short is sweet.

Sometimes colleagues are used as presenters.  Colleague presenters bring a basic level of audience trust with them if they are talking about their area of expertise within the organisation.

There are two ways an amateur presenter can work for you –

  1. They have a natural talent for presenting
  2. They are very enthusiastic despite their lack of presenting polish

Or anywhere along this spectrum.  Never pressure someone into presenting who has no hint of either of the above.  If that’s the only talent you have, better to go another route.

5. Drama

You can do it with low or high production values, but drama is still the most expensive form of video.  For that money it’s got to be powerful, and it is!  But drama depends on the script.  Don’t waste money filming a bad one and don’t underestimate the skill involved and write it yourself.

Done well, drama can bring that holy grail of the L&D professional – you watch it with your emotions and your intellect follows.  If it’s drama it’s telling a story and making it emotional.  Your characters don’t have to burst into tears over the quality of photocopies, but workplace issues must matter to them.  Just like on TV, you identify with the characters and start to think about the issues through their eyes.

As long as your subject matter is interesting enough for there to be at least two opinions about it you can make drama about it.  Probably the best value is got from making drama about tricky management issues such as diversity, sickness absence, or recruitment.  Topics which have shades of grey.  Drama weaves its way through the subject matter bringing the hidden issues to life.  The drama doesn’t teach like a text book, and nor should it.  All drama needs to do is to get emotional attachment to the subject matter.  Now you have an engaged audience they are primed to receive the dryer elements of the learning – because they see meaning in it.

I’ve made drama about a wide variety of subjects – IT security, the right and wrong ways of making a sale, a patient pathway, customer management, modes of advertising and even offshore subcontracting.  The possibilities are endless.

6. Comedy

Comedy, of course, isn’t a practical category like a talking head, but people do ask about how to use it in learning.  Comedy is a form of criticism – which makes it great for learning!  Comedy makes you stand back from what you’re watching and take a critical position.  You are engaged, but not so much with the action as with the commentary on the action.

Of course, writing comedy is a specialist skill.  And, comedy doesn’t always work across territories.

You can have comedy in your drama, or people often like making spoofs of well-known TV shows.

7. Role-plays

In L&D the term “role-plays” usually refers to an everyday scene acted out by people who actually do this stuff in real life.  I used to think these things should aspire towards verisimilitude, but now I also enjoy thinking of them as like The Only Way is Essex.  We know these colleagues can’t act, but they are having a great stab at it and we think they are great sports for trying.  I think such films are more enjoyable than the completely poe-faced ones that often look like weak drama – because they have no subtext.

A variation on the roleplay is to have a colleague acting opposite an actor.  This ups the level of the performance a great deal and can get some pretty good results.  They can seem very realistic, although it should be remembered that they will be necessarily longer than a scripted version of the same scene.

8. Factual/Documentary

This heading covers a multitude of programme types – everything from a classic documentary to a news report, to a magazine show, so really too much ground to summarise here.   A couple of tips:

  • A documentary needs to have an argument – a thesis it sets out to test.
  • A magazine show is like a dinner party – have a great host and don’t go on for too long.

9. How to

A how to video is an instructional video about how to do something.  Usually it’s physical, like changing a tyre, but it could equally be about how to use some software.  Can such videos replace text and illustration-based instructions?  Where video is weaker is in random access to the information.  Of course, you can scrub to and fro in a video, but it’s a bit haphazard.  If you put your video clips into an interactive framework you can create a navigable video manual.  This is a good replacement for text as you have much better random access.

10. Ted Talks

Ted Talks are what come to mind when people think of a filmed lecture.  Don’t be fooled that, because Ted Talks are longer it’s proof that video needn’t be concise.  A Ted Talk or a good lecture, is still more precise and high level than the long book or years of experience from which it springs.  A good lecture is still highly compressed, there’s just more of it.  I enjoy Ted Talks for getting an overview of someone’s theoretical perspective without having to bother to read their book.  And of course, seeing the speaker’s passion is what makes you buy in to the subject.


In summary, whatever video form you use its best use is for high-level and precise messages, usually with an emotional element.

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