Using ‘Scribe’ Videos to Tell Compelling Training Stories

If you are one of the 11 million YouTube viewers who watched Daniel Pink’s animated TED Talk about motivation, you already know about the learning power of scribe videos. The trend that started with the UPS whiteboard campaign has exploded in popularity; even the White House is using a scribe video to explain Obamacare.

The current format was popularized by the Royal Society of Arts, whose RSA Animate videos had 46 million views in 2011, making it the number one not-for-profit channel on YouTube.

What It Is

The scribes, or whiteboard animation videos, feature sequential artist sketches drawn on a whiteboard with audio narration. Most scribe videos feature the hands of an artist drawing cartoons, headlines, diagrams, and arrows; while at the same time, we hear a narrator talk. The video typically is quickened, which creates a time-lapse or stop-motion effect.

A plethora of different artistic formats are emerging: napkin drawings, mind maps, chalk on a blackboard, water color paintings, and graffiti spray paintings. Some are decidedly modest or even crude. Khan Academy has attained 300 million YouTube views with hand-scribbled equations and diagrams in neon colors on a computer blackboard.

Why It Works

Whether they feature artistic drawings or doodles, most scribes have an invisible presenter who talks in a conversational and casual style. The effect is an intimate feeling of someone sitting next to you explaining a concept. It’s a refreshing break from most e-learning programs with their bullet point lists, clip art, and voiceovers that have been vetted and watered down by a 10-person committee.


A scribe is best used to explain complicated concepts, persuade people to change their behavior, or teach a conceptual skill. Scribes also can be used as communication vehicles for important announcements, such as learning about business objectives for the year.

The development of a scribe starts with a script that tells a compelling story. Many of the most successful scribes introduce a hero confronted with a challenge. They show the hero’s journey to overcome obstacles and achieve her goals.

The two-column format is usually the most effective way to write the script, with the voiceover in one column and illustration ideas in the other. When the script is completed, it’s turned over to a professional illustrator who creates the drawings.

The illustrations can be detailed and in color, or simple in black and white. The pacing of the illustrations is important; they need to be fast enough to keep viewers engaged, yet slow and clear enough that they will understand the content.

For an international audience of non-native English speakers, it’s advisable to slow down the pace. Subtitling a scribe can work, but it looks rather clunky and might be redundant if the scribe already shows many keywords on the screen.

Most scribes feature a professional voice-over talent recorded in a studio. The TED model of turning a speech in front of a live audience into a scribe is another successful formula. To enhance credibility, sometimes it’s important to cast a CEO or other senior person as the narrator. It’s usually a good idea to have narrators introduce themselves in the beginning since they’re not seen.

The Khan Academy videos feature Salman Khan explaining the topic off the cuff without a script. That can work if you have an instructor or subject matter expert of Khan’s caliber.

Once the audio is recorded and the storyboard is approved, the video editing process can start. Although scribes offer the illusion that you’re watching over the shoulder of an illustrator, most are produced digitally in video editing programs. Digitally editing a series of still images of the illustrator’s hand provides more control, and allows you to go back and fine-tune the timing of each drawing.

Once the video editing is finished, music and sound effects are frequently added, including the sound of the pen against the whiteboard.


The finished scribe can be launched on any platform, from the smartphone to the big screen at a company event. A QR code on a poster in the lunch room can trigger an employee to view a scribe on a smartphone or tablet. They can be posted on YouTube or be embedded on a company’s internal site. Scribes can go viral and create a buzz.

They also can be used to “flip” the classroom. Students can learn about a subject from a scribe before class, freeing instructors from giving lectures and instead focusing their time on conversations and applications. It’s essentially having lectures for homework and doing homework in class.

Video is taking the Internet by storm, and scribes are rapidly becoming one of the most popular instructional video formats.

Carol Hedly, a leadership development consultant at Microsoft, is one learning professional who is using scribes. Her challenge was to improve the way Microsoft managers coach and develop the company’s high-potential employees. Hedly partnered with the Gronstedt Group to develop a 10-minute scribe video.

“The video tells the story of a high-potential employee who is about to leave the company because he doesn’t get support from his manager,” Hedly explains. “Things turn around when the high performer gets a new manager who recognizes him and discusses his progress and development.” The short, animated, storytelling video fits the busy lifestyles of Microsoft managers. “The feedback we’re getting is very positive,” concludes Hedly.

About the Author:

Anders Gronstedt, Ph.D. is the president of Gronstedt Group, which helps global companies like GE, United Healthcare, Deloitte, Microsoft, Kimberly-Clark, Jamba Juice, and government clients like the city of New York improve performance with innovative learning approaches. These include next-generation digital simulations, gaming, and immersive 3D virtual worlds. His articles have appeared in the Harvard Business Review and he hosts a weekly speaking series.

Reprinted from T&D Magazine

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