Formats Unpacked: Wired's 5 Levels

Why a video series about complex subjects has millions of fans

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OK. On with the unpacking. This week I’m unpacking a content format that tackles complex issues in the most brilliant way.

What’s it called?

5 Levels (video series)

What’s the format?

Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself.” Explaining something to a child is where this Wired video series begins. In each episode, an expert explains a high-level subject or concept at five different levels of increasing complexity— first to a child, then a teenager, then an undergrad majoring in the same subject, a grad student and, finally, a colleague or peer.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Have you ever clicked on an article about a subject you want to understand more, only to find that you get halfway through and realise you’re more confused than when you started? Or have you ever sat through a long ‘how-to’ video on YouTube without ever finding out the exact solution to your problem? 5 Levels solves these problems brilliantly.

You can drop in at a level of complexity perfectly suited to your current understanding of the problem. You may want to watch the level aimed at kids just to get the basics. Or you can watch the video in its entirety to get a greater understanding. Whatever your level of understanding, or your desire for learning about a specific complex subject, 5 Levels is designed in a way that guarantees will hit the spot for a large range of curious viewers. A little later I’m going to talk a bit about the art of a good explainer but first I want to talk about the length of these videos. 

In the world of content, where “make it shorter” is a mantra, these videos are long. The average is 25 minutes. They have titles like A Mathematician Explains Infinity in 5 Levels of Difficulty, A Computer Scientist Explains Machine Learning in 5 Levels of Difficulty, and A Physicist Teaches Origami in 5 Levels of Difficulty. This is Wired after all so niche and complex is what they often do. How many views do these videos get? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Well, the video titled A Musician Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty currently has 14 million views and the others aren’t far behind. So why are these long videos capturing so much attention in an age of short attention spans and “make it shorter” mantras?

At Storythings, we believe that “audiences don’t have short attention spans. But they do have short consideration spans.” So you don’t always have to make things short. If you make it easier for audiences to make decisions at the point of consideration they will engage with long content. We stole that quote from Category Pirates, a newsletter that publishes 4000-8000 word mini-books on Substack twice a month. They have over 20,000 subscribers, many paying £16/month for access to these books on category design. It’s a niche audience, paying a monthly fee for long content. So they’re doing something smart to solve the short consideration span problem. As is Wired with 5 Levels. The very title itself does a lot to help. The combination of a niche subject and the level of difficulty signals clearly to the audience whether the click is for them or not. 

Ros Atkins’ explainer videos are getting viewers in the tens of millions too, thanks in part to how he talks about them on social media. 7 minutes on the latest Downing Street party revelations, and what they could mean for Boris Johnson, and 9 mins on the untruths that Russia is spreading about 'Nazis' in Ukraine are the perfect combination of ‘this is what you are going to learn” and “this is how much of your attention it will require.”

His videos aren’t exactly short compared to those of other news outlets. CNN journalist Tara Mullholland commented on Twitter “Fascinating to watch Ros Atkins achieve journalistic mega-virality through no-frills analysis, with quite lengthy videos (for social media).” To which Atkins replied “Thanks Tara. I've been told many many times videos have to be short. I'm not convinced. I think they need to be high protein. But that's a different thing!”

The protein Atkins speaks of is clearly outlined in his new book The Art of Explanation. It comes from asking these 10 questions. If you have complex stories to communicate to audiences with short consideration spans, you should read it. Better still, give us a call and we’ll help you tell your complex stories with clarity and confidence.

Favourite Episode

In A Musician Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty, the wonderful Jacob Collier explains the concept of harmony to 5 different people; including jazz legend Herbie Hancock.

Similar formats?

As mentioned, Ros Atkins does explainers really well. BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat is worth a mention too. I spent 15 years at Radio 1 and always admired the brilliant job they did explaining the news for young audiences. I’m a fan of the excellent Vox Explainer videos too.

That’s it for this week. If you’d like to unpack a favourite format just reply to this email.

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Finally. If you’re in New York and want to learn more about content formats, we’re running a new half-day workshop in partnership with our good friend The Content Technologist. The workshop will be on the afternoon of Tuesday 26th September. Tell your boss you really want to attend!

Thanks for reading. Tell all your really smart friends to subscribe too.

See you all next time,Hugh

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