Dos and Don’ts for onscreen text in video

“Quick, he’s talking! Put his name up! Can we understand him? Put a transcription up too. Is the network bug in? What about stock market ticker? Can we get a banner on top of the other banner but under the transcription that says “Breaking News”? And we need a locater too. Don’t forget the call letters for the affiliate feeding us the video. Put it in the corner next to the bug but not on top of the bug, and not touching the transcription. Got all that?

What? Oh. The news conference is finished. He only said ‘no comment’?

Well, put that info in a banner at the bottom of the screen near the breaking news banner but not on top of the breaking news banner, with a transcription in 18 different languages, a locater, and the latest Dow reading. And the current temperature in Bangalore. You have five seconds before we hit the commercial break. GO!”

That, in a nutshell, is a typical day in the control room at the average news network. We speak from experience. All of this can be yours for the asking! Isn’t it exciting?

We didn’t think so. You probably don’t need us to shoot breathless, frenetic live coverage of emergency crews trying to rescue a bird from a tree (yes, that has actually happened). But the text that’s covering every square inch of your screen, be it cell phone or plasma TV? Yeah, we can do that. We just really hope to avoid it.

This is no joke. In our collective years in national television programming, we have seen more useless text on the screen than we can begin to say. We have seen “translations” put over people who were speaking perfectly understandable English. We have seen networks put “The Pope” up as an identifier when John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis I were speaking. The tall hat and white robes apparently weren’t enough of a clue. We’ve seen the same thing happen with The Queen when she was sitting in full royal regalia speaking before Parliament. The clarification was useless. It’s not like the average woman could just wander in dressed like that and take the podium. Not to mention that whoever was in charge felt the need to add “London” as another text on the screen. Because Parliament frequently meets in Las Vegas, and there mustn’t be any confusion?

Of course you must indicate she is the Queen! Someone might mistake her for the charwoman at Marks and Spencer!

Of course you must indicate she is the Queen! Someone might mistake her for the housekeeper at BBC!!

Heavy sigh.

The key to using onscreen text in your video is to use a light hand. Words, as they say, come cheaply, so there’s a great temptation to use them anywhere you can, be it spoken or visual. You must know when text on the screen will enhance the overall production, and when it will merely be repetitive.

Let’s say you decide to use a two-line treatment to identify everyone who speaks in your video. In the broadcast industry this is sometimes referred to as a font, sometimes as a banner, sometimes as a lower third (because it is situated in, but hopefully does not entirely consume, the lower third of the screen) and, more rarely these days, as a Chyron (after the device sometimes used to generate the on-screen text) or “super”(because it’s superimposed). We’ll use the term “banner” for simplicity.

In your video, the first line of the banner is the person’s name. The line underneath is their title (i.e. “astrophysicist” or “celebrity chef””).

How often should that be shown, and for how long? Generally you need at least four seconds  for a name font to register with the viewer, but any longer than seven seconds is too much. You won’t get a sense of how long seven seconds can be until you work with video a lot. Trust us, five or six seconds is ample time for the average video viewer to read a name, even if the name is A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. (Second line: “Founder of the Hare Krishna movement”.)

What if you want to add supporting information, such as the person’s educational background, to make the person speaking more interesting and appealing to the viewer? You could always throw up that name font again, adding the supporting information on the second line in place of the speaker’s title (i.e. “Harvard graduate” or “NY Times Business Leader of 2014”). But that approach is going to get old fairly quickly if you have a short video. There are several alternatives. You can put up a full-screen graphic which includes a quick bio of the person speaking, having their image in the corner.Be aware that this is somewhat old-school and will give your video a newscast tone, which may not be the best approach for your particular project. If you’re keeping things at a fast pace and are gearing the video to a younger audience, an alternative route is to have small graphics that look different from the name font appear on the side of the person as they’re speaking. They’re somewhat like the callouts used for dialog in cartoons, except they don’t have pointy appendages aimed at the speaker’s mouth. These pop-up graphics can add an extra layer of activity to the video, helping the viewer stay engaged during a long sound bite. But beware of gimmicks like adding sound effects when the graphic is coming on. No whooshes, no trumpets. These sound effects can take your video to a new level, but it will be a lower level.

Should you add text that says where the action is taking place? Again, a light hand is preferable here. If the location is somehow identified in the track of the video (for example, someone says: “Here in Baltimore, we…”) and there is no change of locale during the video, then you can probably avoid the on-screen locater. You also can avoid it if your audience already understands where the video takes place (for example, your video is highlighting your business for local trade groups who already know where you’re located). You may want to consider whether a locater is needed at all in your video if you’re searching for clients outside your immediate area. They can find out your physical location from your website if they think it’s important. If you emphasize your address in your video, potential customers may think you want to confine your clientele to your area. Always look with a broad gaze when providing information about your business so that you can cast your net as wide as possible.

For relaying anything more complex than names or locations, consider using a regular graphic.You’ll find the treatment is much more aesthetically pleasing than trying to put too much text on the screen, and you can customize it as you need to include logos, pictures or keyable windows in which your editor can put video, and to incorporate a variety of font styles. On this note, when you’re using onscreen text, be aware that simple and sleek always look better than heavy and ornate. Step away from the Lucinda Calligraphy slowly, with your hands up. We don’t care if you’re Jane Seymour. It may look nice in print, but it looks horrible in video. Chop the curlicues, forget the flourishes, and eviscerate the elaborations.

Your video company should give you honest feedback about how and when, or even if, to use text in your video. But get more than their opinion. Show the rough cut to people you trust to be honest with you, whether they are co-workers, colleagues in your industry, or even a few friends who have nothing to do with your business. They may have untrained eyes, but in this case untrained can also mean unbiased. If they have misgivings, take a second look. Frequently all it takes to change the style of a text is just a few clicks of the computer mouse. With a little forethought, your text with scream “Superb!” rather than “SOS!”