Yesterday afternoon I noticed a tweet from the New York Times that stated the following:

NYT tweet

My first thought was “oh no” (re: the debt crisis) but that was quickly followed up with an “oh great” (re: the mention of an explainer). To see an outlet as distinguished as The New York Times embrace Explainers appeared to be a very promising sign. But then I clicked on the link and found something a bit different.

Instead of an explanation video, there was an explanation piece. A story called Greece’s Debt Crisis Explained by James Kanter, Jack Ewing and Liz Alderman. At first I was bummed by this bait-and-switch discovery, but then two things happened.

  1. I enjoyed the piece
  2. I realized that even though the format of this story was different, there were still several lessons here that applied to Explainer Videos.

Here are a few things that stood out:

1. The Power of Explicitly Asking Questions: One of the biggest challenges with an explanation piece of any form is creating accessible entry points into the story. I stress here the plural (entry points), because it’s important to craft something that can draw back in readers/viewers whose interested may have wanted. To prevent that fate—and also to make the story more digestible—this piece is cleverly structured into a series of questions followed up with brief responses. By using sub-headings like “What’s the Latest?” and “What happens Next?” the story feels more like a conversation with an expert than a dense piece of text. It also serves as a pleasant reminder that sometimes, when working on the script for an Explainer, the best way to dive into an important topic might also be the easiest: simply ask.

2. Chart it Up: I don’t think there’s anything particularly novel about using charts and graphs to present numerical facts, but what I liked about this piece was how delicately numbers were used. Given that this is a business story—one whose context is steeped in years of complex financial circumstance—it would have been very easy to douse the piece in numbers and pie charts. But in the end, the writers chose to only defer to charts like these twice (once to described “Greece’s G.D.P. and Unemployment Rates in Europe” and another to contrast “Debt in the European Union”)

3. Characters Welcome? I wouldn’t call this a criticism—because the scope of this piece is meant to be extremely expansive—but by the time I reached the end of the article I was struck by how few real-life people were discussed. I mean, I understand that the story is about “Greece” but since Greece isn’t actually a living, breathing entity, I wanted to know more about the men and women on the front lines of the action. Not just because I’m a behind-the-scenes-junkie, but for the sake of an effective explainer it often helps to funnel ideas and action through the narrative of a character. Once again, I realize that this is a bit of a different beast, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a different-beast-like solution. For example, photos can help bring to life the human faces behind this story, or perhaps even an opening (or earlier question) that dives a bit more into one of these central figures. I suggest this because, ultimately, I suspect that this piece is trying to answer a question it never directly posits: Why should I care? And oftentimes the best conduit to that question is through interesting, memorable or relatable characters.