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February 9, 2010

Creating Great Demos

by mikediliberto

As a Sales Engineer, I spend a great deal of my time either speaking to customers or planning to speak to customers.  Recently, I have started to create short recorded videos to demonstrate products or to teach quick lessons on how to use our software.

It is understood today that the best way to create long term customers and evangelists is to engage those customers, both in your firm as well as in your product.  One of the best ways to get users engaged with your product is to get them using it as soon as possible, and I have had great luck using short videos to engage with users, and get them excited about using our product.  I’ve also had terrible luck with actually making these videos, and my present methods are the result of 6 months worth of refinement to my process.  Today, I had the opportunity to discuss some of the lessons that I had learned over the past few months, and I thought others could probably benefit from this knowledge as well.

So today is going to be a short look into the tools that I use to create screen casts and demo videos.

Here are some of the techniques that I use now when creating content:

1.  Create a basic storyboard – I’ve found that videos need to be either very quick and functional (e.g – here is how you restart the server) or they need to follow a narrative that engages with your viewers (e.g. – Let’s look at how Bob can do his job better with new widgets2.0). In either case I usually set a hard stop of 10 minutes; anything beyond that is usually pushing the limits of your viewer’s attention span.  You would be surprised at how much content you can fit into 10 minutes with good editing.  Even this badly edited first draft of me demonstrating how to install and configure a MindTouch server stays under 10 minutes.  So staying with the 10 minute or under guideline, I create a storyboard of what high level topics I need to express in the video.  I use MindTouch, but Google docs or any word processor works nearly as well.  I start with section headings for each of the high points, then I start writing the actual script for each section;  just do a brain dump, refinement comes later.  Which brings us to our next point.

2. Have a practice read-through with the teleprompter – You will feel like Ron Burgundy at first…and that’s ok.  There is nothing that can help you become a better writer than reading your content aloud.  And you don’t need a real teleprompter, or even teleprompter software at this point;  just read your writing off the screen.  I add in keys for myself in appropriate places, adding in bold comments like

[SLOW DOWN, DRIVE HOME HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS]

I spent a lot of time listening to webinars and watching videos, and I found that the presenters that I found most engaging had a very even cadence when speaking;  whether this comes naturally to them or they just read well from a prompter, it doesn’t matter;  the end result is the same.  So when I start reading my script, I speak with this same even tempo, and feedback from viewers has been very positive.  Lastly, record yourself.  I initially had a hard time listening to myself speak and giving objective feedback.  I got past this issue quickly, and then I was able to hear how I needed to change my speech to improve my presentations. You will make a lot of changes to the script here, which is why I don’t really worry about writing the perfect script when I am storyboarding in step 1.

One point that I really want to drive home:  Don’t Rush. Videos take a lot of time to make. A lot. As in, way more than you think. So be prepared to take a break and come back to it later.  I estimate that I put in 2-3 hours per minute of finished video. Borrow some advice from moviemakers:  break movies into scenes, and be prepared to have multiple takes of each scene.

3. Don’t Waste Film – I know, I know….but really, before you waste time screen-capturing, do a dry run.  Does everything behave how you thought it would?  I always seem to forget about some option that is not enabled by default or some extension that users need in order to make everything work right.  Your viewers are not using your computer.  Think for a minute about what they will need in their own computer to do what you’re doing.  At startups we always seem to forget that most of the people that we’re talking to have never seen our software before, whereas I can work the control panel with my eyes closed.  I continuously remind myself to be on the lookout for anything that I might be taking for granted. Remember, “PC Load Letter” made perfect sense to anyone working at HP.

4. Use the right Tools – The right tools make all of the difference in the world in terms of quality of capture and ease of editing.  Here are the tools that I use.  Your mileage may vary.

  • Camtasia Mac – I’ve used a lot of screen capture tools, and Camtasia from Techsmith is the best that I have found.  In addition to being a fantastic screen capture tool,  it is also a very capable editing studio, allowing you to add transitions, graphics, text, and even other videos and images into your project.
  • M-Audio Microtrack II Digital Audio Recorder – I have recently started recording the audio and video portions of my videos in separate takes.  I get the video exactly right, and then simply play back the video while reading from my script.  It adds surprisingly little extra work, as you can drag the .WAV or .MP3 from the Microtrack right into Camtasia.  Lastly, if you are using video of yourself in your production, the audio quality from the Microtrack is going to be vastly superior to that from all but the most professional camcorders.  If you don’t want to spend money on a separate recording device, the Open Source Audacity software does a great job of capturing audio, although you will have much better luck with an external microphone.
  • Sony HandyCam MiniDV – Making video for the web means you don’t need anything flashy.  Certainly nothing HD.  Your average single CCD miniDV cam from 5 years ago will do a fine job adding your face to a web video.  If you want to get really crazy, get a 3-CCD cam or a used Canon XL-1S.  Since most of your takes are going to be short, the easiest method to capture the video is to stream it right into the computer using firewire or USB.
  • Apple MacBook – It’s simple to use, comes with great video editing software (iMovie), and runs all of the applications that I need to create great videos.
  • Ample hydration – when you’re talking a lot, drinking water is key to not sounding like Patty and Selma when you’re reading your lines.  And a beer or some scotch when work is done for the night is optional.

5. Get feedback – Doesn’t matter who it’s from, and in fact, the less technical the user, the better.  Listen to feedback, and don’t be afraid to change something around and make a second (or third) version of the same video to address the feedback that you receive.

That’s it.  And as always, practice makes perfect.  Start by making a video about something that you’re an expert in, whatever that may be.

Compare my most recent video, below, to that 10 minute install video that I linked above.  What a difference!

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