Do You Need a Transcript?

I have had many lively discussions with audio and video producers about how much text to write as an accompaniment to their productions.

On the two ends of the spectrum are: a) people who believe it’s totally superfluous at best, and at worst, their audience won’t watch or listen if they can get the same info by reading. And b) those people who believe a word for word transcript is necessary.

My own philosophy is somewhere in the middle. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue:

The case for transcripts – I agree with the “B” camp people because I believe that one of the strengths of the internet is that we can get the story in different formats, so why not reversion the content so that people can experience your content in the format that is best suited to their situation? There are also very good reasons to do this to make the content as accessible as possible to the greatest number of people. If, for example, you’re doing a podcast, it wouldn’t be available to people with a hearing disability, so the transcript is necessary for them to experience your content.

The other reason is that a transcript online will make your content more discoverable. Video and audio is not searchable, at least not yet. A written transcript increases the chance that a person who is randomly searching on a particular topic will find your content.

And on a very pragmatic level, not everybody wants to use up valuable bandwidth watching a video or listening to audio. In Canada, the place where I live, data plans on phones are expensive compared to the rest of the world. And in a rural area, also where I live, internet can be slow and expensive even if you’re watching or listening on your computer. There are many times when I go to a news site, see a story and don’t want to invest the time or use bandwidth to watch. So a text summary is really important in that circumstance.

The case against transcripts – I have some empathy with the people in the “A”camp. I have a friend who occasionally receives messages from people telling him they love his stories. When he writes them back, he often asks them if they’ve heard the podcast, and they haven’t. This particular friend is a highly accomplished audio storyteller who would much rather have people listen than read. I’m the same way — when I do a sound production, it’s not just about the words. It’s about intonation. It’s about intentionally crafted sound design. Video producers are the same — the images and sounds are an integral part of the process. So by only reading the content, a lot of the impact is lost. We are proud of our work and want people to enjoy the totally of the experience.

And, writing a transcript is a lot of work. There are some good transcription programs out there to do a lot of the work automagically, but even so, they require a lot of editing.

My compromise – I do see the value in transcribing a production for the reasons I’ve outlined above. I’ll probably start doing that more often now that the transcription tools are out there so I don’t have to do it by hand every time. Generally, though, my compromise position is a short summary which accompanies each production. It’s more than a headline but less than a full verbatim recap of the content. What I aim for is a summary between 250 and 500 words which tells the story in an abbreviated fashion.

That way, the casual browser who only wants to get the essence of the story will have all the necessary info. And hopefully, it will entice them to listen or watch the entire program. Because, like my friend I wrote about above, I want them to enjoy the whole experience that goes beyond the literal text.


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