Text is King

by Krishna on September 11, 2011

Martin Fowler explains why video (of technical content) has little appeal for him:

When I’m watching someone talk, and this may be in a video or live at a conference, I’m usually frustrated because things are moving too slowly. I can read much faster than I can listen. With reading I can also skip ahead over bits that aren’t interesting. Should I inadvertantly miss something important, it’s easy to jot backwards and catch up. As a result I’d usually a skip a talk in favor of a paper.

The same isn’t quite true for audio — such as podcasts. While the same issue about slowness and lack of skippability applies, I can listen to audio at times I can’t read, such as when I’m walking or driving. But in those situations I can’t watch a video either. More than once I’ve been frustrated by people who publish videos of talks, but miss the opportunity to do an audio-only version.

When it comes to information, text > audio > video. Per minute spent, you get more information. Also text is more malleable. You can copy it, delete parts you don’t want, email it to someone without worrying about file sizes, convert it to a Word document or PDF and a million other things. With audio and video, you need specialized tools and there is a learning curve involved.

Of course, nothing is completely bad. Here is some ways you can do it right:

  • Text, for all its advantages, is boring. Judicious use of images, audio and video can make it more attractive, especially to first-time visitors to your content.
  • However at all times, provide the text version of the visual and audio content. For example, images should have the ALT text, you should have a transcript of the audio and video. For some kinds of video, you may want to have a version with both text and images.
  • Short is sweet. Break up the text into shorter sentences and paragraphs. Use formatting (bold or bullet points) so that the text looks pleasing. Similarly audio and video clips are best at around 2–3 minutes. A long 1-hour video interview will be watched by very few people.
  • You may think you don’t have a choice with long videos. But you do. Remove unnecessary talk. You could even experiment with removing almost everything said by the interviewer because sometimes that has no change to the information provided by the video.

There are always exceptions. I like listening to both Hanselminutes and Herding Code, even though the former is usually less than 30 minutes and the latter sometimes go beyond an hour. If you have good content, people will still follow you. However, at the margins, these considerations do make a difference. Once the podcast queue starts backing up, guess which gets deleted.

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