What cognitive psychology teaches us about creating effective Vine videos

Lots of journalists have experimented with Vine since Twitter launched it nearly a month ago. They’ve created six-second Vine videos to feature input from readers, offer a behind-the-scenes look at their newsrooms, and generate interest in upcoming stories.

The tool, which is currently available only on the iPhone and iPod Touch, has been called the "Instagram of video" and a “perfect tool” that’s going to grow into “something huge.” But, as BuzzFeed recently pointed out, some Vines have been "boring as heck" and haven't told much of a story. The challenge for journalists is figuring out: What makes an effective Vine video? To answer that question, it helps to understand how the brain processes information in such a short period of time.

Cognitive psychologist David Poeppel explains how rate of speech, repetition, and different storytelling elements contribute to information processing -- and why it matters.

Rate of information processing

In a phone interview, Poeppel said a person’s normal speaking rate is five syllables per second, which amounts to two to three words per second. That means we can comfortably process up to 18 words in a six-second Vine video.

Sometimes, people can process twice that amount -- up to six words per second or 36 words per Vine -- which is pretty fast. “At that point, you’re at the capacity limit of people’s cognitive abilities,” said Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. “Your ability past that to understand stuff goes sharply down.”

For example the speaker in this video, Ron Charles, is talking too quickly; it's hard to make out everything he's saying. (That's the point, actually; the video is part of Charles' satirical book review series.)


By contrast, Heidi Moore, who is speaking in this video, is easier to understand. She speaks 23 words altogether:


The average person processes about five images per second. “Suppose you watch a Vine stream and you see 30 pictures in a row. At that rate, you can comfortably figure out what’s going on,” Poeppel said. “But, of course, it no longer has the appeal of taking a quick video clip; now it requires a little bit of editing.” People can process more -- up to 10 images per second -- but anything past that becomes harder to comprehend.

From a cognitive standpoint, Poeppel said there's nothing particularly special about six seconds. There is, however, special significance to three seconds. "That is the duration of a short/medium sentence, and therefore carries about one proposition (or thought, if you will)," he said. "So six seconds captures about two sentences."

In terms of the number of words we process in six seconds, Vines are more or less the video equivalent of a 140-character tweet. Read a 140-character tweet out loud and you’ll find that it takes, on average, six seconds.

It’s not surprising, then, that Twitter decided on six-seconds -- the “new atomic unit for video," as CNET’s Daniel Terdiman put it.

Twitter Spokesperson Carolyn Penner said via email that the Vine team “tested various video lengths, ranging from about 4 seconds to 10 seconds as they were building Vine. They found that six seconds was the ideal length, from both the production and consumption side.”

Repetition, music help us remember

Similar to animated GIFS, Vines loop endlessly -- a nice feature given how short the videos are. The repetition helps us remember, Poeppel said, especially if there are a lot of words or images packed into it.

“There is a range of information transmission,” Poeppel said. “If you do it really fast, you adapt relatively quickly to the rate and you can get better.”

The repetition of information can also help us remember it. This is especially true when the information is set to music.

Just think about Schoolhouse Rock, educational music videos that were intended to help students remember grammar and the preamble to the Constitution. Or musical explainers, which are intended to help people understand and remember information about complicated topics such as fracking and Super PACs.

“You remember those because of the repetition in music,” Poeppel said. "There’s a very particular pattern of lyrics and sounds."

The political music in this Vine underscores the content:


Music can also elicit a strong emotional response -- and in just a couple of seconds, Poeppel said.

Videos, regardless of length, are especially effective at making people feel emotionally connected to a story. The types of video shots you use can have different effects, says CBS photojournalist and Poynter visiting faculty member Les Rose.

To illustrate his point, Rose cited an example of a boy who’s in the hospital after surviving a school bus crash. A tight shot that shows the boy lying in a hospital bed with a broken arm or leg and staring up at the ceiling conveys frustration. A wide shot of the boy doing the same thing in an empty hospital room conveys frustration and loneliness.

“In that moment of the story, silence is not a waste of time; it’s the best use of it,” Rose said by phone. “It helps the viewer catch up emotionally and connect more."

This video shows the power of silence between two people ... 


Mixing storytelling elements

Some Vine videos include a mix of audio and visuals. Mixing different storytelling elements can help or hinder comprehension, Poeppel said, depending on how the elements are presented. If audio and visual elements are competing with one another, they’re not going to be effective. More often than not, though, audio and visuals can strengthen each other.

Poeppel's example: You’re in a bar and you’re talking to the person next to you and you’re blindfolded. When you take the blindfold off, suddenly everything sounds clearer. Why?

“It’s because the visual information helps you process the auditory information. It’s an extra cue,” Poeppel said. “You perform better when you have multi-sensory information.”

Images and words resonate differently for people. “There are certainly people who prefer visual types of information, and there are some people who prefer verbal,” Poeppel said. “The brain’s a really complicated place. There’s rarely a one-size fits all answer.”

The audio and visuals work well together in this video:


The power of simplicity

There’s something to be said for six-second simplicity. Rose said he hasn’t been impressed by the Vine videos he’s seen so far because they cram in too much information.

“It’s kind of the worst manifestation of what MTV has wrought, and that is the ADD of newsroom storytelling,” Rose said. “If you’re going to do a six-second video, you have to approach it like a billboard.”

This doesn’t mean that it has to be one static image, he said; it means that it should be simple and straightforward. A good use of Vine, he said, would be to show three images -- an egg, the egg cracking, and a dinosaur coming out of it. Those images tells a sequential story that’s easily digestible in a short amount of time.

Context also helps, particularly in short videos. The tweet preceding a Vine is a good place to add context.

This tweet makes the video easier to understand:

"Context is always beneficial, assuming it is congruent with the other information," Poeppel said. "The main effect of context is that it makes processing easier and adds predictive value."

We’re likely to see more creative uses of Vine as people get more comfortable with the constraints -- and possibilities -- of a six-second video.

As Vine Co-founder Dom Hofmann wrote in a blog post earlier this month, “constraint inspires creativity.” Or, “concision takes precision,” NPR’s David Folkenflik once told me.

That’s true whether you're writing a 140-character tweet or creating a six-second video.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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