A few weeks ago we launched Screenr, a free screencasting application that is easy to use and great for quick tutorials and elearning courses. I like it because it’s easy for me to quickly answer the many questions I get in the user community and through the blog. Not only can I answer the questions quickly, but I now can share those same tips with other blog readers and members of the community.
And it’s not just me doing the sharing. There are many others also sharing their tips and tricks. In fact, on the Word of Mouth blog, we compiled over 100 rapid elearning tutorials that have been created with Screenr since its launch. Check them out.
Screenr’s pretty easy to use. However, like any new application, the more you use it the more you learn a few time saving tips and tricks. Today, I’d like to share some tips and tricks that are going to help you create the best screencasts possible. While I’m focusing on Screenr, many of these tips are relevant regardless of your screencast application.
Prepare Your Environment
Your success begins before you start recording. You want good quality audio and the right work flow. This only comes with preparation.
- Record the best audio you can by using a good microphone. You can get a decent microphone for less than $100. And if you do a lot of recording, it makes sense to invest in a good one. Here’s an example of two different microphones on the same laptop in the same room: $30 headset and $72 desktop (with no pop filter or any other type of adjustment). You’ll notice that the headset microphone doesn’t sound as good. You also hear the pops of air and movement of the mouthpiece. That’s why I use a desktop microphone. It just sounds better, which most likely means less editing and retakes. Plus bad audio is worse than a bad screen.
- Control the ambient noise. Turn off the A/C and fans. Turn off the office machines. Sometimes you’ll pick up some noise or humming when the microphone is too close to the computer, speakers, or other electronic devices. If you have a lot of ambient noise, try screening it out by playing some music in the background while you record. No Metallica. Just something soft with no vocals.
- Get rid of distractions. Is there a flickering light overhead or one coming from a nearby electronic device? Does your chair squeak? Is your phone ringer off? Get rid of those things that might make noise, flash lights, or do something else to get your attention while recording. Put them out of sight while you record.
It’s all about having a plan and executing it. Focus on what you’re going to say and make it brief.
- Have some water handy. I find that I do a lot of retakes on that opening line, so I tend to start and stop my screencasts. This causes my throat to get dry really fast. It’s easy for me to go from sounding like a smooth rapid elearning coach to Lauren Bacall in just a few takes.
- Get comfortable. Position your microphone and screen so that you’re comfortable while doing the recording. Two problems I always run into: I tend to lean into the screen which impacts my breathing. And my mouse runs out of room or gets tangled with other cords on my desk. These things distract me. And when I lose focus I mess up the recording; which means I have to stop and start over.
- Try to use less than 5 minutes. Screenr gives you 5 minutes. That doesn’t mean that you have to take all 5 minutes for the screencast. An ideal screencast is 2-3 minutes. If you find that the screencast is long, just break it into chunks.
General Recording Tips & Tricks
Good screencasters make it seem like they just press record and start talking. But that’s usually not the case. It just looks and sounds that way. Here are some general tips that will help you record better screencasts.
- Set up your screens. Do a quick walk through and make sure that everything you need is available. Many of my demos require that I jump from one application to another. I have them all open and sized to the record window so that when I go back and forth it looks seamless and flows well. I also make sure that all of my assets and files are easily available.
- Supersize! Sometimes the screencasts are of a larger resolution and get scrunched down to a smaller window, which means you might lose some detail. To help make things more visible, you can increase the font size, make your icons bigger, and even increase the size of your mouse arrow. Sometimes I’ll change the resolution of my computer and do a full screen capture at a lower resolution. When I bring it back up, it looks great and I was able to leverage a full screen for the capturing. Play around with some techniques that work for you.
- Get right to the point and stick with it. A good habit is to have an opening line that states what the tutorial or screencast is about, and then jump right into it. You only have a few minutes and you want to make it flow well and not bog it down with a bunch of chatter or dead space where you’re talking and the screen shows nothing new. If you do have to explain something, create an image you can jump to with some text on it. I like the way, David Anderson does that in this screencast on audio settings.
- Tell the viewer what they should be looking at. You only have a few minutes and most likely the user is a little slower following you because they don’t always have the same context and can’t anticipate where you’re going. It’s easy enough to follow the mouse, but make sure to point out what they should be looking at when you change screens or focus on a new area. This is especially true if you’re doing things they can’t see like using a keyboard shortcut.
- Get rid of the visual noise. The learner can only see what you show. There’s no need to show some stuff that could conflict with your message. Frame your recording window only around what’s important for you to share the information. If you have to do full screen videos where you show your desktop, try a product like Stardock’s Fences. It’s free and can quickly hide your icons while you do your recording. Here’s a tutorial to show how to use Fences to hide your desktop icons.
- Hide personal or proprietary information. If you find that you’re doing a lot of screencasts, then create another user account on your PC. Just use the default settings and folders. When you do screencasts from this account you don’t need to worry about hiding personal information like folders or toolbars in your browser. I’d also make your desktop image a solid color rather than a distracting background image. You can also try a virtual desktop. Set one up just for screencast videos. Here’s a demo of how to use a virtual desktop.
- Control your mouse movement. I have the habit of moving my mouse back and forth while I talk. This is both annoying and distracting to the viewer. If you do the same, take your hand off the mouse while you’re talking so you don’t drag the pointer all over the place. When you do move the pointer, make sure to guide the viewer’s attention so she understands where you’re going.
Extra Screenr Tips
Here are some recording tips that are unique to Screenr.
- Create interesting thumbnails. In Screenr, the first frame of the screencast becomes your thumbnail and visual cue. Use that to your advantage. Consider how you start your video. One trick is to start with the final output. Tell the viewer that this is what you’ll create and then jump to the tutorial and a different screen.
- Select the right aspect ratio. You can capture any size screen. However. Screenr does come with some default settings that work well in your rapid elearning courses. For example, 720×540 is the aspect ratio for a PowerPoint slide. 980×560 is perfect for videos in the no sidebar view mode in Articulate Presenter.
- Use pause (Alt+D) to create screencasts that flow well. If you find that you have to click on buttons and open other screens during your demos, then you want to use Alt+D to pause your recording between mouse clicks. This will let you set up your screens and create a faster screencast that will look more polished. Here’s a demo where you can see the difference and how much nicer it looks using the pause feature.
- What message does your avatar communicate? Nothing tells people you’re an amateur than by using the default avatar that comes with Twitter. At the same time, you want your avatar to communicate the right message. In most cases, you’re probably better to err on the side of conservative than going with a wild avatar that confuses or offends your audience.
See These Tips in Action
We created before and after versions of a simple screencast. Watch both and see if you can tell the differences. Not only is the after version a big improvement, it also takes a lot less time.
Do you have any tips to help make screencasting easier and better for the learners? If so, feel free to share them in the comments section.
I’m in Atlanta this week attending, PowerPoint Live 2009. Tweet me if you’ll be there.
Here are some of the other places I’ll be in the coming weeks. If you happen to be at these conferences, swing by the Articulate booth and say “Hi.”
- Educause Conference 2009: November 3-5 in Denver, CO.
- DevLearn 2009: November 11-13 in San Jose, CA.