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A Video is Worth How Many Words?

December 10, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I ran across a statistic the other day in the course of working on a presentation about video. Reported in dozens of presentations, video clips and infographics is the remarkable idea that:

a minute of video is worth 1.8 million words

Try that google search and see if you get the same 38,000 hits I did. With almost no digging at all you’ll see it referencing both Forrester Research and one Dr. James McQuivey. (Who appears to be a very bright guy focusing on digital disruption and touching occasionally on the video space. Here on twitter if you want to know more: @jmcquivey)

It’s a wonderful statistic, and in a single line captures everything most of us want to say about video. It’s so much more powerful than words! You get more out of a minute of video than a book’s worth of text! How can you not do video when you get this kind of impact! Unfortunately there’s simultaneously a bit more and a lot less to this idea than meets the eye.

I wasn’t about to quote such a statistic without understanding the source and the meaning behind it, so I started to dig a little deeper. I am fortunate to have access to Forrester reports, and a few minutes digging turned up a report by Dr. McQuivey from June of 2008 on “How Video Will Take Over the World.” It’s a fine report, and made some smart predictions about the future and some that turned out to be overstated – risks you take when you attempt predictions. And there, in a small paragraph about the next step in human communications being video (a point I agree with, incidentally), is the line leading to the stat. In full, the report states

Now it’s video’s turn because if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a minute of video is 1.8 million words

And then the kicker – following immediately is a hyperlink saying see endnote 2.

Reading endnote 2 tells you that Dr. M did some basic math. A second of video contains 30 frames; a minute of video therefore contains 1800 pictures; ergo, at a picture = 1,000 words, one minute of video = (1800 pics X 1000 words) 1.8 million words.

All due respect to the fine folks at Forrester and Dr. McQuivey, this is how rumors get started and information gets misunderstood and misused. I suspect that this was not intended to be a formal statistic; the old “picture is worth a thousand words” is an aphorism, a popular saying but by no means a statistical truth. I don’t even think the report was trying to be too clever, I think it was just attempting to explain the power of video as an easy to grasp concept.

This is the “less” part I uncovered – you can’t really say that video is equivalent to X number of words since that number is entirely arbitrary. If you shoot at 24 frames per second, or 60, the number changes. Is video simultaneously worth more than 1.44 million, 1.8 million, 3.6 million words?  More significantly, one minute of bad video is considerably worse than dozens of pages of critical textual information, regardless of the general impact of video as a medium. Video may be powerful, but it’s very dependent on doing a good job of creating it.

On the “more” side the essential truth of the statement is that video is an extremely powerful delivery medium, and often provides opportunities to share ideas more efficiently than text can. Leveraging the power of video to deliver messages, sell products and services and build communities is a key responsibility for all organizations. Consumption is extremely high and likely to continue growing, and it’s imperative that a successful enterprise make the most of the opportunities video can drive.

So be careful of statistics and how you use them. To paraphrase a great sage, “Why you keep using that statistic? I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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  1. January 6, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    heheh very clever… words are less important than emotions anyway, and those are notoriously difficult to quantify 😉

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