As the world turns to video more and more, it’s important to ensure that everyone can use and enjoy that content. So I’m going to talk about how to caption your videos.
In our dream worlds, each of our libraries and/or educational institutions would have tech staffers to assist with this accessibility compliance. In reality, more than a few of us are on our own and need to make it up as we go.
As you consider captioning the content on your website and YouTube channels, keep the POUR (perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust) principles in mind. Captioning is more than turning audible words into visible words; it should also convey speaker identification, sound effects, and music description. For more information about creating quality captions, the Described and Captioned Media Program administered by the National Association of the Deaf has created Captioning Key. This document details best practices for captioning educational video. It’s very easy to read and understand.
Definitions and Considerations
Captioning means adding words on the screen that reflect the ones used in the video. In the U.S., subtitling generally refers to adding the English words to non-English speech or inaudible audio content in a video. These terms can get confused because tools for subtitling can also be used for captioning. I will mostly be referring to captioning in this article.
It’s also worth noting that there is a debate in accessibility circles about whether verbatim captioning is the goal to strive for or whether fewer words that get the general point across would be easier for most viewers to follow. There is in-depth discussion of this topic in Captioning Key, and it’s worth considering your audience as you make this and other decisions about captioning your content.
You also need to decide whether to do live captioning during an event or whether to add the notations afterward.
Live Captions: Expect to pay money for good live captioning. That said, some of the low-price options aren’t terrible. A company named Rev offers a $20 per month (per host) service that uses its speech recognition AI to add live captions to a Zoom meeting. A market competitor, Otter.ai, provides a very similar service, and it has a free level if you have a Zoom Pro account. Getting a caption service to work with Zoom takes a little fiddling, but for organizations that do not require a lot of captioning—or that must have live captions—it’s a good option. Zoom also allows you to have a person assigned to type captions directly as an event is happening, which may be OK for events without much spoken content or with predictable content (such as a storytime). This can be set up with no additional fees or add-ons.
But what if you aren’t using Zoom? There are a few accessibility options built into some other tools. As one example, Google Slides has a live-captioning feature that enables someone with a Chrome browser and a laptop or desktop computer to present their slides with captions, which appear on the slides as the speaker talks. These are machine-generated captions, so they’re not perfect, but they are 100% free. I’ve heard of speakers using this feature to create the captions for their presentations, which they then record and make viewable after the fact via other mediums. These captions are not editable if they’re inaccurate, however; they just appear with the slides as the speaker is presenting.
Captioning After the Fact: In a general sense, adding captions afterward is a simpler and cheaper option. This involves using a service or your own typing to create an SRT file—a subtitle file—which contains timestamps and the subtitles you want added to your video. These can be typed in or dictated using dictation software (all operating systems have some level of native speech-to-text capabilities). You can see the format that those files need to be in on the Wikipedia page for SubRip, a Windows software program that you can use to create such files.
There are many options for producing caption files this way. Facebook and YouTube have built-in caption/subtitle creators. And while caption files can be created with any text editor, there are also many free applications (such as Amara and Subtitle Horse) that are web-based, popular, and well-supported. The National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH has developed CADET (Caption and Description Editing Tool), which is a powerful offline application that can make captions or even audible descriptions of visual content. Once the files are created, they can be uploaded to streaming media platforms, which will attach the words in the text file to the visual content at the indicated times.
Promotional and Social Content
As marketers, you spend your time creating videos to capture the attention of your target audience. As a consumer who spends a fair amount of time skipping past ads on social media, especially Instagram, I can assure you that videos with captions definitely grab me more quickly than a silent talking head does.
In 2019, Verizon Media partnered with Publicis Media and surveyed 5,616 U.S. adults, ages 18–54, about their video-viewing habits. The resulting report recommends that advertisers caption their ads because 80% of consumers are more likely to watch an entire video when captions are available. This means if your carefully curated script is audible only, most viewers aren’t getting your message.
Rev has a helpful video-captioning webpage that talks about how to add captions for a variety of platforms, including TikTok and Camtasia. If you’re just making small promotional video pieces to go on social media, consider adding captions right on top of the video. The good news about this approach is that captions created in this way—using Canva or other graphics editing software—can look more fun and can include emojis and other stylistic flourishes.
Putting It All Together
Before employing any of these tools live, it is a good idea to test them as a user to get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Automatic captioning is erratic, and this is particularly true for language that is sung and not spoken, as well as for non-English words within a mostly English audio track. You may find that it works better to include interstitial slides with words on them that complement the audio track instead of trying to create an entire set of captions.
Finally, make sure your viewers know how to turn the captions on. This seems like a simple thing, but it isn’t always. Rev has a webpage with a video that shows people how to find the caption-enabling switch on most of the major streaming platforms. This is slightly more difficult for YouTube and Facebook, but a little simpler for movie-watching platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
It’s worth knowing that some platforms have elaborate caption formatting; that way, if the captions are tough to read for a specific movie, they can potentially be adjusted to be simpler to read. Standalone applications, such as the open source VLC Player, also have the ability for people to load in SRT files along with the video content—so it’s worth keeping that as another option in your toolkit.
Since librarians are creating more virtual programming than ever before, it’s worth making the effort to assure that this programming continues to be available to as many of our patrons as possible. Captioning is one tool that you can use to increase accessibility and to improve the user experience.