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How I Create Video Tutorials

by Tom Johnson on Sep 11, 2008
categories: video

September 2012 update: I wrote a new post detailing my process for creating video tutorials here: How to Create Video Tutorials -- A Five Step Process.

Creating video tutorials is no trivial task. When you sit down to create 20+ video tutorials for a project, you're faced with dozens of questions. What screen size should the videos be, what recording tool should you use, what microphone is best, how long should the videos be, what file size is acceptable? Should you use voice or captions? Where will you create the recording?

You can create video tutorials using dozens of different methods. There are no official steps to create videos, because situations and audiences vary so widely. If you're creating e-learning with quizzes for a global audience, your approach will be different from one who is creating demo videos for a small company.

Having said all that, here's my general process for creating video tutorials:

  1. I copy a topic from my help, put it into a Word document, and modify it into a script that I'll read. I've tried being more spontaneous and off-the-cuff rather than reading scripts, but I end up having to restart so many times that it frustrates me. Scripts are fine, as long as I can communicate the info without sounding too much like I'm reading. Ideally, I start the script off with a conceptual paragraph that I illustrate in the video with a diagram. The more I write, the more I find that everyone wants to see a visual workflow or process.
  2. I find an empty, quiet conference room. Luckily, at my work there's a conference room that can't be scheduled (so it's often free), and it's not adjacent to any office or other conference room. In general, I turn off anything in the room, such as a humming computer, air conditioning machine, ticking clock, or mini-fridge. One day I'll make my own sound booth to dampen the acoustic echoing.
  3. I connect my microphone to my laptop. I use an H4 Zoom recorder that connects to my laptop with a USB cord. My laptop then recognizes the Zoom as a microphone device. The Zoom H4 records pretty clearly, but since it's a little pricey ($300), I also recommend a high-end Plantronics headset ($90). Whatever you use, avoid using your laptop's built-in mic (because it sounds like a CB radio).
  4. I open up my recording tool and the software application I'm explaining. I then fit the recording screen to the application. I personally like Camtasia Studio because it allows me to edit full-motion recording in ways that Captivate doesn't. 640 x 480 is a good screen size, especially since some users may have their resolutions set at 1024 x 768. I start at 640 X 480 and drag the recording edge to 1000 x 750 (this keeps the same proportions while allowing me to capture the entire application; when I later edit and produce at 640 X 480, the video still looks clear because it's proportional).
  5. I prop the script up next to my laptop's screen, and then simultaneously read my script as I move and click my mouse in the application to demonstrate a task. This is the hard part. I use the pause and resume hotkey (F9 in Camtasia Studio) to recompose myself or clear my throat if necessary. It's hard to look at a script while also looking at the monitor, but if I keep the steps simple and short, I can often manage it without too many restarts.
  6. As I read, I try to avoid swallowing, licking my lips, breathing loudly through my nose, stuttering or stumbling, over-enunciating, mumbling, sounding as if I'm reading, coughing, yawning, mis-pronouncing words I never have trouble with, or veering off my script.
  7. When I'm finished making several recordings, I trot back to my desk and start editing the recordings. If the script has a conceptual intro, I insert a diagram (which I draw in Visio and Photoshop) depicting a workflow, process, or other concept. I think the visual diagram works well at the beginning of a tutorial, as it gives variety to the demo and grounds the user in a better understanding of the overall process.
  8. As I edit the recording, I often need to manipulate the audio or video independently. In Camtasia Studio, I do this by selecting a portion of the audio, and then choosing File > Produce Selection As. I then produce just an MP3 file at max quality. I silence the audio on Track 1, and then import the produced MP3 file back into my project and add it to Audio Track 2. I can then move the audio independently of the video.
  9. I publish the video tutorial. Although I compress the audio, I crank up the audio quality all the way. I keep the JPEG quality at about 93%, set the frame rate at about 10, and use the One Show format because it includes the preloader (whereas Express Show doesn't). I always keep the file size around 15 MB or less because I have some users in South America and I'm not sure what their bandwidth speeds are. By keeping the videos about three minutes or less, the file size rarely exceeds 15 MB. (Almost no one has an attention span that lasts more than 5 minutes anyway.)
  10. I integrate the videos into my online help file in the appropriate topics using a little javascript that pops open a new window sized just about the same as the video dimensions. Here's the javascript:

    <a onclick="' New Widgets.html','RPvideo','width=660,height=560,resizable=no');return false"/ >
    <img style="text-decoration:none; border:none;" src="../../Resources/Images/videocamera.gif" alt="" /> Watch Video </a>

    I also publish a web menu ("Camtasia Theater") of the video tutorials, and create a help topic with a list of them all.

That's my process, in a nutshell, for creating video tutorials. Overall, I'm pretty happy with it, but especially with the independent audio/video manipulation and the integration of the visual diagrams to reinforce understanding. The Zoom H4 acting as an audio interface also records with near-perfect clarity.

But I am looking to improve several things. First, I want to sound less like I'm reading, while still reading. I also need to get faster at creating visual diagrams. Finally, I'm a little perplexed that my scripts vary so much from my help topic text. When I arrange the text in a script, I listen to myself talking it out, and I start making dozens of changes. Ideally, I'd like to have my video scripts single source from my help topic text.

I dislike captions in place of voice. I once asked a user which he preferred, and he said voice ten to one. I agree. Of course voice is much more problematic for translation, but I don't have to worry about that (yet).

I'm also not fond of the "let-my-try" videos. We have a test environment where users can experiment, and it's just as easy to send them there to play rather than requiring them to click little hidden pixels here and there.

What's your process for creating video tutorials? Do you have any tips or advice for me?

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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