Does “Silent Video” Have a Role in Professional Training?

The use of online “silent video” has created a stir in marketing circles (notably Facebook). But does it have implications for other users of online video—like professional trainers?

“Content crafter” Ash Read recently unearthed a remarkable fact: 85% of Facebook videos are viewed with the sound off. His excellent blog pointed out how such videos could, and indeed should be optimized for maximum impact without audio. (If you’re involved in marketing with online video, on Facebook or otherwise, go read the blog.)

However, there are many other uses for online video besides marketing. So naturally Ash’s piece prompted some thinking on what “silent video” might mean for Viddler users—especially professional trainers.

What Does Silent Mean?

First off, we’re not talking about dead silence—no audio track whatsoever. The Facebook situation is somewhat unique, based on a system setting. The complete lack of sound in a training video usually looks like a mistake, leading to confusion and/or anger on the part of the trainee. (Is there something wrong with my computer? What am I missing?)

Even in the pre-1929 silent movie era, viewers usually heard background music, originally played live in the theater and added to the video itself years later.

What we’re talking about is video without a synchronized voice track. For trainers, Read’s advice about on-screen captions and titles applies, but there’s much more to it. Leaving out the voice track can have a very positive effect on learning engagement, but only if it’s done right.

Best Practices

Using striking visuals and good text descriptions are the basic starting points—just as they would be for a non-training video. Closed caption subtitles are the most common, and can be created quite easily. These have several advantages—including multi-language support—but are generally restricted to one area of the screen. Moving or fade-in/fade-out text can be added easily to any location on a video—either in Photoshop or any number of higher-end video apps.

The key to adding text is clarity. Be sure to use the right words (not too many) and make sure they’re legible and on screen long enough to engage the viewer. Adding non-text elements like arrows and circles (also in Photoshop or with screen recording systems like Camtasia) is also a plus, but be sure they’re the the right size and duration to do the job.

Remember that the whole point is to show the viewer something, so if you’re going to omit the voice audio, make sure the visuals convey the training topic well.

Why Limit Audio?

The notion of “silent video” for training begs the question. Online trainers are not bound by the Facebook video/audio limitation, so why not tell a story as well as show it?

The answer may lie with the nature of narration in general. As anyone who has endured a boring lecture will tell you, listening to someone talk requires mental effort. With video, there are fewer nonverbal cues that tend to make live training more engaging. So a bland audio narration in a video increases the risk of passivity on the trainee’s part, making it harder to focus and engage.

Video without audio narration, however, puts the focus on the visual presentation, prompting greater curiosity on the part of the trainee. (According to a recent study, curiosity is motivation with great potential to enhance learning, which should encourage online trainers to do everything possible to foster it.)

Alternative Sounds

Voiceovers are not the only audio available. Just as silent movies relied on background music, training video can also benefit from the appropriate music or even white noise.

CAUTION: While a good jazz or folk instrumental background may be conducive to learning, pirating licensed audio content will be prohibitively expensive. Check out the many sources of royalty-free music clips, such as Bensound or Pond5.

With some forms of training, like software or system onboarding, subtle sound effects are also effective. Even pure silence—strategically used—has its benefits for learning. Studies are only beginning to explore the neurological effects of, for example, the moments of silence between two music tracks in an album.

The point is that audio can be many things in a training video—including a detriment, if used poorly. When trying to engage the learner, be sure to use sound, or even the lack of it, as a means of exciting curiosity and true interaction.


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