What’s an Explainer?

An explainer provides a succinct, lively overview of a concept, issue, situation, event, principle, process, rule, procedure, or the like. It’s typically aimed at a broad audience. It can take the form of a written explanation, such as this one on “What are the Environmental Humanities?”, but explainers that take advantage of audio and visual media are often the most powerful and effective.

The production values in some explainers are impressive: for example, this animated video explaining wealth inequality in the U.S., or this talking head video of Judith Butler explaining why “your behavior creates your gender.”

But a good explainer video doesn’t have to be slick. On his YouTube channel, CGP Grey gets the job done with relatively simple graphics and comparatively basic editing techniques, such as in this explanation of the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England.

And, of course, John and Henry Green, a.k.a. the vlog brothers, have made their reputation in part by flaunting their disregard for good lighting, smoooth editing, varied camera angles, and coiffed hair.

When it comes to single-graphic explainers, again, some, like the infographics at Visual.ly, are feasts for the eye, but that doesn’t necessarily make them more engaging or helpful than the series of grammar explainers at The Oatmeal.

The infographics on the Humanities at 4Humanities are attractive and incisive in a way that anyone with a computer can replicate using fairly simple tools, such as PowerPoint.

In the end, a really good explainer should be

  • brief: if video, no more than 3 or 4 minutes; if a graphic, small enough to fit on a computer screen
  • informative
  • intelligent
  • accurate
  • clear
  • lively, perhaps fun, but not sophomoric (sorry, sophomores!)

An explainer doesn’t have to avoid taking a position — case in point, the inequality explainer mentioned above — but it shouldn’t rant. If the only information it shares is your opinion, or if it’s mainly a vehicle for snark, it’s not really an explainer.

At least, that’s our opinion here.

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