Will video make text and writing obsolete?

Neil Drum via Flickr

Everyone consumes content online now, and video is ubiquitous. Is it time to admit that writing is obsolete? Not quite. But you must recognize the power of video and understand how it works with text to improve how-to and narrative communication.

I recently had a mindset-altering conversation with a third-year medical student. She’s helping me and my partners in a nonprofit to improve some educational content we have on nutrition and health, and she has great ideas about how to use short video to improve what we’re creating. “I learned most of what what I needed for medical school from videos, not textbooks,” she told me.

I did a double-take when I heard that, because the idea of medical students poring over dense textbooks is a prejudice people my age have held for a long time. This woman is obviously intelligent, but how could she possibly have learned this material from something as airy and unserious as video? Would her future patients be able to trust her knowledge?

So she showed me what kinds of videos she was watching, and suddenly it made perfect sense.

When you’re visualizing a structure in 3D — like the blood vessels feeding the heart or the structure of the muscles of the thigh — you’re going to understand it a lot better from video than from a book.

If you’re learning a procedure — say, how do an angioplasty — you’ll internalize it better if you see it happening, and can go back and rewatch parts that need extra study.

A lot of medical learning is memorization — types of symptoms, lists of nerves, varieties of infectious diseases, and more ad infinitum. Medical students use mnemonics and other tricks as memory aids. Simple animations can help make that stuff all stick.

So are medical textbooks obsolete? In print, they probably are. But online, you’ll still want to be able to search and reference all of medical knowledge. They may not be best way to learn — especially if you’re a visual learner — but they’re still valuable. A student seeking knowledge in a hurry will find searchable text far more productive than watching a video, and it’s a lot easier to check multiple sources.

Video and text have different strengths

Video is superior to text in these ways:

  • It’s visual. No description can match a picture.
  • It’s vivid. You can make a point in a compelling way by showing rather than explaining.
  • It’s more effective for visual learners. Not everyone retains information well from reading.
  • It’s easier to concentrate on, when you’re consuming on a screen. As Naomi S. Baron, author of Words Onscreen explained to me, on-screen text isn’t ideal for deep comprehension.

But text has advantages, too:

  • It’s precise. You can go into any level of detail to eliminate ambiguity.
  • It’s searchable. While video search is improving, text search is already excellent. If you know what words you’re looking for, you can find exactly the right piece of text quickly.
  • It’s skimmable. If a piece of text is written with elements like bullets and subheads, it’s a lot easier to work your way through it and find the relevant passage — or determine that there isn’t one. That’s tough to do with video.
  • It’s efficient. You can consume a well-written piece of text quickly, if you know what you’re looking for.
  • It’s easier to create and edit. The tools for writing and editing text are still far more flexible than those for creating and editing video.
  • It’s quiet. In an office setting or a coffee shop, you may not want to be consuming content that makes noise. Reading doesn’t distract others. (True, you can wear headphones to eliminate the distraction, but at the cost of putting off others that may want to interact with you.)
  • It integrates well with other communication tools. Email is still mostly text replies to other texts. Even YouTube comments are mostly text. Sometimes this goes to far — sometimes an online video meeting is more efficient than an email — but if you’re going to tell someone three things they need to do at work this morning, you’ll probably do better with an email or a text message than recording a video.
  • It handles links well. Text pages can reference other text pages as well as videos. This is far easier to do in text than in video.

What this means for business communication

I still believe that every businessperson needs to become adept at business writing. But if you don’t understand the value of video, you’re not seeing the whole picture. Here’s what video means for business writers:

  • Video is better for many how-tos and narratives. If you want to show someone how to change a bicycle tire or wire up a data center, use video. If you want to excite people with a customer success story, put that customer on video. If you haven’t asked the question “Could a video do this better?” you’re not serving the information consumer well.
  • Text is better for short messages and reference. Even video producers need to learn to write pithy and effective emails. I don’t think lawyers will write contracts in video any time soon. And if you’re creating something people will pore over or refer back to — like a reference manual or a statistics-heavy report — you’d better make it a well-written piece of text.
  • Text may not be obsolete, but paragraphs are. Paragraphs suck for on-screen readers — they pile up like cinder blocks and create an imposing wall of text. Break up what you write with subheads, bullets, quotes, graphics, and links. As a writer, this is your way of competing to retain the viewer’s attention in a video-soaked world.
  • Combine both types of media for maximum impact. If you’re part of a content production team — for example, a marketing group, an analytical think-tank, or a news organization — you’ve got to integrate both types of content. Your text will help with searches and satisfy readers that haven’t the time or the patience for video. But the video will draw people in and illustrate vividly what the text can’t. Together, both types of media are more effective than either can possibly be alone.

Video will get better. But text isn’t dead.

Video is going to become easier to create and edit. More students are learning to communicate in this medium. Machine learning and transcription will make it easier to search. And I look forward to breakthroughs that will make more skimmable, and easier to consume.

But there will still be plenty of text in business ten or even 20 years from now. If you can’t write well, you’re going to be at a disadvantage for a long time.

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  1. Video is becoming more and more attractive to B2B marketers; but text trumps it more times than not, because it’s “efficient” (as you note, you can consume a well-written piece of text quickly). Customers and prospects are too busy to watch videos, for the most part. And the more important they are to the buying decision, the less likely they are to watch videos without a compelling business reason.

  2. If a business doesn’t provide a transcript of video content that’s critical to evaluating or using their products or services, I’m not going to become a customer. I don’t have broadband at home (nor do the billions who can’t afford it, or live somewhere that it’s not readily available) and video content uses too much data on my mobile plan and takes too long to download. I’m also partially deaf and I don’t have the technical wherewithal to implement accessibility workarounds for videos without closed or open captioning (nor does a different, albeit significantly coinciding, subset of billions).

    1. There are statistics out there that tell us video with text is better understood and absorbed by the viewer and you get a higher click through rate (if that’s what you’re looking for)…

  3. Excellent piece, Josh, and as someone who’s worked in both text and video, your compare/contrast of the value of each medium rings very true. One more virtue to video I might add is: Sound, especially, the sound of someone’s voice, which can be authoritative, persuasive, or emotionally connective in ways text never can be. In TV we often quoted a “they say” rule that 70 percent of the information we get from video comes through our ears, not our eyes.
    I’m with Bob and J.D., by the way, that few people really have time for video, unless it is compelling, and posting video without a transcript or summary is annoying. For most company websites, video should be used sparingly as a garnish–like, 25 seconds from the CEO or a 45-second montage of why various people love working there and what their company’s greatest value propositions are.

    1. Great point about sound. But about people having time for video? That may be a generational thing (hey I’m old, I admit it).
      The newer generations not only have time for it, they eat it up, especially on mobile. And not on a companies website but via social (Youtube, Facebook, Instagram). So much so (46% of video in 2015 was consumed by Millennials in 2015) that some companies now produce vertical vs horizontal videos for mobile, so users don’t have to turn their phones sideways (94% of mobile users hold their phones vertically, MOVR Mobile Overview Report).

  4. Don’t forget, someone has to write copy in order to produce a video. I read your book to help me improve the scripts I wrote for client videos and our own instructional youtube videos. When one of our videos goes live, we also post a version of the script, though edited heavily for a readers eye vs their ears. It’s interesting to discover the ways in how they’re two different animals, though, in the end, it’s still writing.