Formats Unpacked: RSA Shorts

How an online video format built an audience of 18 million viewers

Hi All,

Thanks to everyone who got in touch last week to say how much you liked the unpacking of Below Deck and how you’re secret fans too. Interestingly, of all the formats we’ve unpacked this was the least shared yet most read, so a true guilty pleasure.

Today’s format sits in a different part of the spectrum. If Below Deck is about switching your brain off today’s is about switching it on. Matt Locke is back to unpack a format about ideas that is produced by a globally respected organisation that has been around for nearly 300 years.

Over to Matt


What’s it called?

RSA Shorts (online video)

What’s the format?

Five minute animated videos that illustrate an interesting idea as it is explained to you by a famous writer or thinker.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Like any format that really works, RSA Shorts don’t seem that special anymore. After all, pretty much every thinktank, charity or public policy institute now communicates their ideas using cute animated videos. But it wasn’t always like this.

The Royal Society of Arts was founded in 1754 to promote the ‘...advancement of education in and the encouragement and conduct of research into the sustainable context within which the Arts Manufactures and Commerce may prosper.” It came out of the boom in coffeehouses as places for the fervent exchange of ideas, and its notable members include Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Adam Smith.

The RSA has been a hub of ideas and conversation for nearly 300 years, centred around The Great Room, a lecture theatre built in 1774, surrounded by six epic paintings depicting ‘The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture” by James Berry. This is an organisation that is steeped in the history of ideas, debate, and progress.

So, like many similar organisations, the RSA was quite early in using the web to share their ideas. The much younger TED conference had started sharing videos of their talks online in 2006, getting millions of views. The earliest RSA video on their Youtube channel is from October 2009, and like TED, they started by trying to replicate what happens in the Great Room. The first 113 videos they uploaded are more or less straight video recordings of talks or interviews, uploaded with a thumbnail and basic title. Some of them did quite well, with hundreds of thousands of views, but many didn’t. One video - just titled ‘Chaos’ - has only 350 views.

Then on March 10th 2010 the RSA uploaded three videos as part of a new ‘RSA Animates’ series. The videos showed a speeded up artist drawing ‘sketchnotes’, a form of visual note-taking that was popular at live events at the time, synchronized with a live recording of the talk. The visual aesthetic of the videos is much more web-native than the Great Room recordings. Instead of locked-off shots of speakers in a room, the camera moves around jerkily as the drawing grows, framing relevant sections as they emerge. The speed and informality captures your attention and reinforces the arguments made in the talks. Research by Cognitive Media, who made the videos for the RSA, found that audiences were 15% more likely to retain information from the animated videos than they were from traditional live recordings.

Scrolling through the RSA’s Youtube videos, you can see their animated videos far outperform everything else. Their fourth Animate video broke through the 1million view barrier, and the fifth, Dan Pink talking about what motivates people, is the highest performing video on the channel, with over 18 million views.

Over the last decade, the RSA has experimented with more animation styles, and the RSA Shorts series is the most ambitious, with a gorgeous range of animation styles. But crucially, they manage to get the right balance between visual aesthetics and ideas - the animations continue to enhance our understanding of the concepts in the talk, rather than getting in the way. One of the best examples - Brene Brown’s talk about empathy, illustrated through a bear and a fox - has over 15 million views.

A few weeks ago in Format Unpacked we looked at how Instagram videos by Buzzfeed’s Tasty revolutionized the aesthetics of cookery shows. The RSA has done the same for ideas videos. TED might have the biggest brand, but their videos are still quite traditional recordings of the event itself. I can’t help feeling like I’m on the outside, looking in, not rich enough or important enough to attend the event itself. The TED videos don’t feel like they were created for me, watching on my iPhone at home. They feel like crumbs off the table.

The RSA videos feel like they have been made with a huge amount of care, detail, and craft, for people who will never get to sit inside the Great Room. They’re not a second-hand experience of a live talk, but something more beautiful and considered. The RSA took their remote audience seriously, and as a result found a new way to spread ideas, refreshing their mission and history for an era of smartphones. There is a straight line between the RSA founders hiring James Berry to paint an epic mural of ideas, culture, and progress to frame the talks in the Great Room, and the illustrators hired to create RSA shorts for contemporary thinkers. This is a great way to develop winning formats - pick something from your history, and reinvent it for contemporary audiences. As the subtitle of RSA Short now explains - they’ve gone from coffeehouse ideas to a new kind of ‘espresso for the mind’.

Favourite Episode?

There’s a couple of Brene Brown videos in the Shorts series, which are all worth watching - the illustration style seems to work much better for her stories about our emotions than the TED talk format. The more recent Shorts videos have moved away from the earlier ‘sketchnotes’ style, and feel far more engaging as a result. Cathy O’Neill’s talk on the Truth About Algorithms is a great example.

Similar Formats?

You know when you’ve discovered a great format when everyone else copies you. This is the case with RSA Animates/Shorts - pretty much every organisation that deals with ideas has a version of the format. The BBC Ideas site is pretty much a straight steal, and the Vox Explainer series took the idea all the way to a Netflix Series.


Thanks Matt,

I love these shorts and find them more shareable than other forms of media. As the research in the article points out they do a great job of making big ideas memorable. They’re also great at helping me decide whether I should make the commitment to the speaker, whether that’s watching a full talk, buying their book, or listening to an interview with them on podcast.

Talking of committing, we have another newsletter that you might like to try out. The Storythings newsletter goes out every Friday and features collected stories about the media, storytelling, arts, and culture. Check out the full archive and if you like it sign up.

Thanks for reading and if you have a format you’d like to unpack do get in touch.

Hugh