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The Uncommon Craft of Web Video

Lee LeFever’s unique brand of video craftsmanship is far less common than his CommonCraft brand name might suggest. For the past five years, the Mount Baker producer, writer, director and voice-over talent, or Chief Explanatory Officer, (a different spell-out of CEO), has been breaking through the jargon and complexity of technospeak with a compelling tutorial format that is as easy to take in as a breath of fresh air. Using desktop videography and simple line drawings, the CommonCraft stop-motion video production studio has been explaining the fundamentals of RSS, blogging, software and much more “In Plain English” while demystifying products from Google, Microsoft and others with uncommon clarity.

CommonCraft’s hand-crafted, hand-illustrated, diagrammatic presentations are succinct enough to inspire the digerati, twitterati and blognoscenti, but easy enough for Lee’s mother to comprehend. That makes Mrs. LeFever, not Lee’s wife and partner, Sachi, who is a project manager and video editor, but Lee’s Mom, clearly one of the most tech-savvy seniors in cyberspace.

But just who is the narrator, the hand gesturer, the energy and the explainer-in-brief behind the world’s easiest to understand video tutorials on New Media and the Internet age? As CommonCraft prepares to turn a corner from Internet topics to general education subject matter with a new Web site, we asked LeFever to come out from behind the camera and the microphone and explain himself in plain English.

Seattle24x7: Were you explaining things “In Plain English” before the Web came long?
LeFever: Well, I wasn’t a teacher, per say. I started out as an online community manager for a software company in Bellevue. It was my job to create a program to help consumers talk to each other on the Web. My role was really that of evangelist — to help people understand new technologies and how they could work.

Seattle24x7: Not an easy challenge for the uninitiated.
LeFever: What I found was that many business leaders lacked a basic understand of the big things that were happening online, especially on the social side of the Web, like Wiki’s, RSS, Blogs and more. So at the time, I would write blog posts, just normal text that were titled “RSS in Plain English” or ‘Wikis in Plain English.” They got a very positive response.

Seattle24x7: What got you into video?
LeFever: In 2006, my wife and I decided to travel around the world where we shot a number of travel videos. That was the same year that YouTube really exploded, so we uploaded these 3-minute travel videos to YouTube from the road. That’s where the idea was born to convert those introductory blog posts into video. The travel videos are still online on youtube/leelefever. Our first tech video was “RSS in Plain English.”

Seattle24x7: Why RSS?
LeFever: We felt that RSS had what we now call an explanation problem. What that means is that RSS could positively impact practically everyone using the Web as a free and transformational technology. But it’s not. The reason we felt it wasn’t being adopted is that no one was explaining it in terms that anybody could understand. Calling it y’know, “an XML-based protocol…” and not something that saves you time. View “RSS In Plain English”

Seattle24x7: What have been the most complicated concepts to explain In Plain English?
LeFever: What we’ve learned is that specificity makes it easier to present whereas broader topics are hard. The two videos that were probably the hardest were “Social Media in Plain English” and “Software in Plain English.” We had to write multiple scripts and do multiple storyboards.

Seattle24x7: Speaking of technology, you’re also doing videos for companies Like Google and MIcrosoft?
LeFever: Right, we’ve done videos for Google and Microsoft and a bunch of other companies. For example, on the Google YouTube channel, you can learn about Google Docs and Google Reader. We’ve also done a video about the new Live.com. Other clients include H&R Block, LinkedIn, Redfin, and Wetpaint here in Seattle.

Seattle24x7: How do you decide “what’s next” in your production schedule?
LeFever: It’s changed over time. Early on we focused on social media because it was where came from. Today we are looking at building libraries of titles. We want to make videos that can be used in schools to teach middle schoolers about things like compound interest, for instance. We are launching a new Website in a week or two.

Seattle24x7: Educating Americans about finance seems particularly relevant right now. What’s the new Web site about?
LeFever: We’ve coalesced our upcoming production around four major topics. “Technology” which includes things like Net Safety and Social Media and Web Search, and things like that. Also, what we call “Society.” We did a video about the electoral college for the last election and we’ll be release a video soon about “Preparing an “Emergency Kit.” Another area is “Money.” We started out pretty basic with things like compound interest and borrowing money but we’re going to be moving into Stock Markets and Mutual Funds and 401K’s and things like that. The fourth area is “Green.” We’re passionate about the green economy helping solve problems and be good for the US economy. Eventually, we’ll have Financial Basics pack, a Computer Basics pack and other libraries for sale or license.

Seattle24x7: The 3-minute time span seems just about right to fit the attention span of today’s busy person?
LeFever: Right, and on the Web especially. After 3-4 minutes people are less likely to stick with it.

Seattle24x7: You’ve also made your titles available on the Amazon Kindle platform?
LeFever: We have done a number of titles as Kindle books. We take screen shots from the video and do a kind of slide show to assimilate the video experience.

Seattle24x7: Finally, you’ve also created a community for other videographers.
LeFever: It’s called “The Explainer Network” and members pay a monthly fee to be listed. We’re lucky to see a lot of demand for custom videos and the Network helps prospects find producers. It’s been great to see the group feel passionately about explanation as a skill. As social media folks, we are very into social networking. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and LinkedIn.
Visit CommonCraft’s new Website at http://www.commoncraft.com/

Lee LeFever founded Common Craft in 2003 to focus on online community consulting. Common Craft is now a producer of explanatory videos “in Plain English.” The videos use a unique paper-and-whiteboard format called “paperworks” that helps tell a 3 minute story with the goal of making something complex easy to understand. CommonCraft licenses its videos to schools and organizations of all types. We make “presentation quality” versions that are meant to be used as educational materials. We also license videos for public facing web sites.