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Tips

Top Tips to More Effective Screencasts31 Mar

If you're reading this article you likely already know what a screencast is and just how popular they are becoming. It seems that now nearly every website has at least one screencast explaining how to accomplish some task.

And it’s little wonder they are becoming popular as marketers are jumping at the opportunity to create video content in the frenzy of the online video boom, as screencast software is readily available, usable and affordable on both Mac and Windows, and as the general population has the bandwidth to receive video content.

But just as a website needs to be usable to effectively retain visitors, screencasts need to be “usable” too, to effectively convey the right information. Let me put it this way… if I watch a hastily-put-together screencast video, their brandname is tarnished in my mind. Poor screencasts don’t inspire trust.

What’s amazing is that even websites with a certainly professional “front door”, have released screencasts that are definitely substandard. Many such screencasts are usually delivered poorly and have a continuous audio hum. And believe it or not, I’ve even seen one screencast on a professional business website that had the word “demo” scroll by in a marquee. Of course, this was also the same screencast that happened to record the screencast software's control panel during the entire demo!

Ok, perhaps you haven’t made a blunder like that, but you do want to stay effective, yes? Here are my top tips to create a professional screencast and stay ahead of the competition, regardless of the screenscasting software that you choose.

1. Prepare a Script Thoroughly

Just as every movie and 30-second commercial spot begins with a concept phase and moves into a script writing phase, your screencast production must do the same. So many screencasts reveal symptoms of poor planning, when the words “um”, “uh” are used repeatedly as the narrator is rapidly thinking about what he/she will say.

In my opinion, the best scripts are written word-for-word and are written for the edit to ensure the audio track is never silent. That doesn’t mean that there must be narration for the entire screencast--musical transitions might be appropriate--but silence for over 3 seconds is bad. Too much silence is a poor use of the screencast medium, as something valuable could be said in that 3 seconds.

Good Sales Techniques

A solid script will follow good marketing and sales techniques. So ensure that your script doesn’t just explain how to perform a task, but ensure it properly highlights the features and benefits of the product/service being demoed. By continually pointing out the features of the product/service and then going further to explain why they’re beneficial to the audience you make a more compelling screencast.

2. Practice Delivery While Moving the Mouse

This is the time to take all your knowledge from speech and public speaking courses to good use. Even if you are recording a screencast about a product that you know very well, you’ll likely give a poor delivery without taking the time to properly rehearse the script. During your rehearsal, ensure that you are speaking clearly and slowly--don’t slur your words together.

Since the primary visual during your screencast is your mouse moving on a screen, I strongly encourage your to practice reciting the script while moving your mouse too. It’s an important step to get a feel for timing. This is helpful for two reasons. By practicing your delivery while moving your mouse you’ll get a good feel for the length of your finished screencast video. This is important as you don’t want to ever lose the interest of your audience by moving too slowly –or– lose their ability too follow by moving too fast.

Secondly, this practice helps you to understand if you have the proper narration to support the time it takes to navigate around the screen with your mouse and vice versa. Remember this principle, the audio should always support the visual, and the visual should always support the audio. If your rehearsal reveals a lack of this “audio / visual support”, go back and adjust the script appropriately.

3. Prepare your Screencast Software

Be sure that you are familiar with your screencasting software of choice. Practice recording, practice editing and practice producing the video to the desired format. Depending on the software, you may find that the recording choices you make early on, may come to bite you later in terms of resolution and clarity of the final output. This is true of Camtasia Studio, but less true with ScreenFlow. (Side Note: Camtasia and ScreenFlow have different recording methodologies.) So, take the time to prepare how you will ensure that your audience can see all the little details and text of what you’re showing them. Remember, your audience may not necessarily watch the video at full screen, nor may they watch it at even the final output resolution either.

Unnecessary Movement

During your practice, ensure you don’t move your mouse unnecessarily. Movement on the screen will draw your audience’s attention. You don’t want to draw their attention to accidental mouse movement. Consider using a trackball mouse to help unnecessary/accidental movement.

4. Prepare your Audio Recording Environment & Equipment

"Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience…” That’s a quote from filmmaker George Lucas. And while certainly creating a screencast isn’t nearly in depth as creating a movie, I can agree that what we hear colors our visual perception.

You can have fantastic visuals, but if the audio is poor in your screencast, your screencast is poor. I’ll say it again, because it’s so important. If your screencast audio stinks, your screencast will stink, regardless of your visual quality.

I’ve worked as a sound mixer by hobby for over six years, so I consider audio quality a lot and how to improve audio quality. Here are my two biggest audio tips.

Record in a Quiet Environment

I cannot emphasize this enough. It’s so easy for ambient sounds to leak into your recording. Frequent noise sources are the computer by your desk, the clicks and clacks of using the keyboard and mouse, a nearby refrigerator and just the room itself. Since the majority of us don’t have access to a recording studio, this can all be improved by recording in a very quiet room with very little reverb. Or even better yet, record the audio apart from the visual recording, so you don’t have to use the mouse or keyboard while recording audio. This technique also allows you to focus on your delivery too.

In my experience, only through audio playback over headphones have I heard unwanted sounds like traffic outside my window and room tone, rather than through my desktop speakers. Ensure that your audio is truly clean by listening over headphones. Likely half your audience will use headphones too—its worth the trouble to check.

Microphone Choice & Positioning

Many screencasters will have mics built right into their computers. But, I don’t recommend using these built-in mics as they will undoubtedly pick up the room tone and other ambient noises too strongly.

I recommend using a headset microphone. Or if your budget allows for it, purchase a professional microphone. Regardless of the microphone chosen, ensure that you use proper positioning to avoid pops.

If you’re using a headset mic ensure that it’s positioned to the side of your mouth and not directly in front. If the microphone is positioned incorrectly, you will get a lot of pops and breath noise into the mic, which makes for a bad recording. To test, I suggest you use the word “bat” and “pop”, or any other words that begin with the letter ‘b’ or ‘p’ during your rehearsal, as these letters force air directly out of your mouth onto the microphone. Practice and get to know your microphone, so that you no longer hear the pops and breath-noise in your recordings.

5. Edit with Title Slides & OnScreen Visuals

Have you ever watched the news or an infomercial and noticed how many words that are spoken are also on the screen? It’s a common technique to help viewers get and remain plugged into what they’re watching. By adding effective title slides you too can help guide your users for what you’re currently talking about.

Some screencast applications allow the user to highlight the mouse or zoom into an appropriate area of the screen. Carefully choose to use these to always focus the user where you want them to look, but never distract them from the content that you are delivering.

Yes, certainly it does take more time to edit well, but it will be time well spent.

6. Play with Production Settings & Distribution Sites

As I’ve said with a few of my other tips, practice is required. And this is true for production and distribution.

Ultimately the end goal is for your audience to see the screencast. You may choose to produce your screencast for viewing on your site and only your site. In this method, you can produce your video in the quality that you like and for the display that you like too. You’ll retain the most control for ensuring the video looks exactly as you expected during the editing process.

But, if you wish to use your screencast as a marketing tool by widely distributing the screencast to video sites, then you may run into a few issues when the uploaded video is transcoded. You may find that the video doesn’t have the original clarity that you’d like or the sound has become degraded.

In my experience of uploading the same exact video to over eight video sites, each video site chose to compress the video differently sometimes causing the video quality and/or the audio quality to suffer significantly. It was certainly interesting… sometimes I got better results uploading a Quicktime .MOV for example, and other times uploading a Flash .FLV gave me better results. This was true, even when I was very satisfied with playing both the .MOV and the .FLV versions locally on my machine.

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By following these tips you can improve you chances of getting noticed and having your visitors return with a polished and memorable screencast. If you find that you don’t have the time to spend writing a script, practicing and going through the trial and error to get the best results, perhaps you’d feel comfortable using my professional screencasting services at Whistle Media to help you out. We certainly offer more than what I’m writing about today.

Good luck!
Michael

7 Responses to “Top Tips to More Effective Screencasts”

  1. Cook008

    Thanks. Great tips for making good screencast.

  2. Matthias

    Thanks a lot for these useful tips! I am still at the beginning of discovering screencasts, so I would have found it useful to get a little more information about the available software solutions too, but I guess I’ll have to try which one is most suitable for me. Btw, is Camtasia the only one which supports these nice mouse & click effects?

  3. admin

    Hey Matthias,

    I”m glad you liked the useful tips. In the future I’ll likely write an article on the different software choices available. In the meantime, I suggest to you to download a few trials and dive right in.

    I’m not sure which “nice mouse & click effects” you are referring too as I don’t feature a screencast in this article. But I’ve found that ScreenFlow 1.5.x is an excellent screencasting solution that has a rich set of visual effects.

    hope this helps,
    Michael

  4. Matthias

    Thanks a lot for your immediate reply! I guess an article about the different software choices in the same excellent quality as this one would get you a lot of readers as I couldn’t find one comparison that answered all my questions and really helped with the decision.

    With “mouse effects” I meant this optical wave effect that indicates when a mouse button was pressed. Many of the OpenSource solutions don’t support this feature but for certain purposes I find it useful to point it out to the user when and where he should click.

    I wanted to try ScreenFlow but I guess I’ll have to buy a Mac first. ;-)

  5. Yer Feutz

    Well, I think that clears up a few concerns for myself. How about anybody else?

  6. Floating Shelves %0B

    “;, I am really thankful to this topic because it really gives up to date information `;:

  7. Heather Todd

    Thanks for the Great help

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