Monday, August 04, 2008

How to make Screencasting Made Easy AND Purposeful

Everyone loves a good screencast, right?

You want to highlight your product or showcase a feature, so you start up your favorite screen recorder and record away. Then comes the fun part...the editing. Before you know it, a 15 minute screencast has turned into 2 hours of editing hell.

My personal torture tool of choice is Camtasia - which does a lot of cool features such as automatic zooming and panning and noise removal. But recently, I've talked about Jing - yes, it's by the same company (Techsmith) - but primarily as a screen image capture utility.

But this post isn't so much about talking about a product as it is about how to make these things easier. Whenever a great session is given at a conference, it's often because the presenter has done one of three things:
a) practiced
b) practising regularly  (if they were English)
c) rubbed their lucky rabbit's foot on a horseshoe after seeing a rainbow

In Screencasting, the same is true (well, except the part about the rabbit's foot - with screen casting, you just have to rub the top of the ...well, you get the idea). This is why people who regularly do screen casts smirk when someone says "just give me a 15 minute video" 30 minutes before a meeting.

But have you watched a 15 minute screencast? It can be painful. You're not watching Gone with the Wind or Braveheart or even a Discovery Channel documentary. If you've watched any of Scoble's video interviews, you know you have to be ready to bob and weave with the camera at any moment. Those are video interviews with some demos interspersed but usually, his team (of two) goes through the process of creating a shorter version to make it easier to interact with.

When you watch a great presenter doing an online seminar, after every 5-10 minutes of talking, they almost invariably do a poll or interact with the audience in some way. Even if it's just a way of making sure the poll-tracking features are working, it also serves to restart or re-enthuse the audience's attention span.

How can you do that in a 15 minute screen cast? I'm not sure you can. If you've got a topic that all of the watchers are absolutely enthralled by, then I don't think you need to worry but if you're trying to demonstrate part of your product or a cool tool, then I think it's best to come back to the old concept of "short is sweet".

So how does this relate back to Jing? Easy - Jing can only record 5 minutes of audio/video. Is that a limitation? Yes. Is it a GOOD limitation? I think so.

5 minutes means the following:
a) no fluffy white stuff (you will be forced to say what you want to say in exactly the amount of time you have)
b) you have to practice (so you can identify the fluff and rip it out)
c) No time for titles and special effects (hey - I like special effects but they can be annoying when I just want to see a feature)
d) Focus on the feature.
e) people who suffer from ADD may actually pay attention. (those of you with clients/bosses with ADD know what I'm talking about)
f) refactor your demo (see this post)

I'm a big fan of the Rapid E-Learning web site and a lot of it goes back to principles of adult learning, which forces you to think about things in terms of chunks and removing non-important details. One of the courses I took by FKA several years ago, spoke about breaking up your day into "review -> Learn -> Action -> Learn -> review" (or something fairly similar) and then how each TOPIC in your training could be done exactly the same way and if you were really good, you could bring this entire approach into every 15-30 minute part of the course. It's almost as if everything ever taught uses the conceot of the popular "I'm going to TELL you what I'm going to do, I'm going to do it and then I'm going to tell you what I've done".

If I've only got 5 minutes, it means that the real value of the screen cast has to be handled in 2-3 minutes, allowing for quick review or any brief explanation.

Since Jing ouputs directly to Flash, you also don't have the luxury of doing massive edits, which gets you (ok, and me as well - I'm as guilty as anyone on this) into a real good habit of preparing first, practicing second and then doing.

Here's a sample of one I did showcasing JiffleNow, a calendar scheduling tool I've been using of late (and yes, you can schedule time with me using this tool).

I still prefer Camtasia Studio for building proper screen casts but the idea of forcing actual feature demos into 5 minute chunks appeals to the purist in me. I started with the Jiffle demo but I think we can do more about these in making VFP easier to understand and use.

What do you think? How long is the ideal screencast for you?

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