Veritasium is a science education channel with over three million YouTube subscribers.
The interesting thing about Veritasium is that even though what they are teaching is agreed-upon science, they still have to use storytelling and persuasion techniques.
Veritasium creator Derek Muller found when he did his PhD thesis on teaching science through filmmaking that simply stating the facts was not enough. Instead he had to…
Always Start With The Misconceptions
In his experiments with students, Derek Muller found that just presenting the facts made students more confident in their misconceptions. As a consequence, Derek concluded:
“A clear expository summary is worse then no instruction at all.” – Derek Muller
When he presented the misconceptions first, and then let one character lead the other to the correct answer through social dialogue, students said they felt confused – yet their test scores improved.
In a way, this makes sense. Humans are social creatures. We learn though dialogue.
There are a couple lessons here:
- If you’re going to make a documentary, interview both sides. A balanced documentary is actually more persuasive then if you just share one point of view.
- It’s okay if people say they feel confused by a complex issue. When people feel something is complex, they apply greater mental focus, and are more likely to arrive at an educated answer.
This is good news for documentary filmmakers. It means we can include complexity, controversy, and multiple points of view — and become more persuasive by doing so.
People Learn Through Stories, Not Data
Another finding Veritasium shared is that anecdote is more convincing then data. People are better at generalizing from an individual story then a statistical result.
Again, this makes sense from a scientific perspective. Humans did not evolve doing large scale studies. They evolved to learn through personal experience.
For documentary filmmakers this means:
- When talking about a large group, pick one representative and tell their story.
- If you’re going to include studies, find a personal story in them.
Documentary filmmakers have known for a long time that telling people’s stories is much more effect then barraging your audience with statistics.
As a scientist, you may believe data is more reliable then anecdote, but if you’re trying to educate, the science says you should lead with anecdote. Ain’t that ironic?
What Veritasium is teaching isn’t controversial. No one has a deeply held belief system that conflicts with Newton’s third law. Yet, they still require storytelling and persuasion to educate their audience. On more controversial issues, the need for storytelling increases.
If you’re interested in storytelling that deals with a complex issue with numerous misconceptions, you’ll be interested in a documentary I’m making called American Circumcision. You can learn more about it and subscribe for updates here.
Read more: American Circumcision