March 12th, 2019 E-Learning

Tutorial videos can be as simple as a whiteboarding session, or as complicated as a multi-day shoot. Here’s how to be prepared.

As we’ve covered before, videos are a crucial part of almost any successful online course. For many subjects, a video lesson doesn’t need to be all that complicated. All many of us need is a dry erase board, a good camera, and a lesson plan. However, if you’re planning to demonstrate a task or skill, you will need to plan your video shoot more carefully.

Let’s take a reasonably complex example and run with it: growing and caring for bonsai trees. (Yes, there are online courses with video tutorials for this—I checked.)

Now, you might want to begin your series with a video on the history of bonsai, an explanation of the various tools needed to get started, and some recommendations about which tree specimens are good for beginners. But now you’re ready to get your hands dirty and show learners how to do something more serious, like how to repot a tree. It’s going to take a few steps, and a few of them might be complicated. How do you plan your video so that your learners can see everything clearly and not miss anything important?

Good question. Let us walk you through.

1. Create an outline that establishes the lesson objectives.

It’s easier than you might think to get sidetracked mid-video by a completely unrelated point. You start by describing one thing, notice something important that your learners might find interesting, and accidentally run out of time without having covered some of the all-important steps in your process.

In our example, you might begin your lesson by talking about the need to repot bonsai trees every couple years so that they don’t become root bound. As you lift your bonsai tree from its pot to talk about this, it occurs to you that the choice of pot is itself very important, so you talk about that for a bit. Next you decide to spare a few words on your mixture of potting soil. Now your video is over twenty minutes long, and you still haven’t addressed the main issue of how to prune the root bulb.

This is why you need an outline. Use it to identify what material you are going to include so that you don’t spend a lot of time filing stuff you’re going to cut later. Keep it tight so that you can cover your lesson and get to the point before your learners lose attention. And, if you do notice something worth revisiting, make a lot of it for another lesson.

2. Write a script.

You don’t need to write down and memorize everything you’re going to say word for word, but you should flesh out your outline enough so that you feel comfortable covering the key talking points in your video. Remember that when film time comes, you will have to remember your script while also demonstrating a task and talking to the camera. It may be a lot to keep in your mind at once, so write up some cue cards if you think it will help.

You may decide to narrate your video later, or to use on-screen text instead of audio. Both of these are fine options, but they will still require a script.

That said, don’t feel like you have to write anything elaborate. For many videos, particularly ones where your camera may be focused more on your hands or the project itself, you may want to drop narration so you can show rather than tell. In these cases, a few cue cards may suffice to get your point across and help you stay and track.

3. Plan your establishing, midrange, and close-up shots.

For many videos, you will want to plan a few different camera angles so that you can switch between them as you demonstrate. Most videos should begin with an establishing shot that orients viewers so that they can see your work space.

Going back to our bonsai example, you would probably begin with a shot wide enough to show your work bench, your bonsai tree, and any tools you plan to use. And, of course you want to choose your angle so that it fits your head and torso into the frame. (There’s nothing more annoying than watching a video where someone’s accidentally cut off the top of their head.

Having introduced the subject, you could then use a midrange shot to show just the tree and your work bench while you check the soil of your tree to see if its ready to be repotted. When it comes time to actually trip the roots, you could then consider taking an even closer shot so viewers can see what roots need to be trimmed and which should be left intact.

4. Organize your set: lighting, tools, props.

Staging your shoot is just as important as writing down an outline. In fact, it’s a smart idea to include thumbnails in your outline to remind you how to plan your shots. Make sure your set is clean, and that there’s nothing in the frame of your shots that you wouldn’t want to be there. If you’re shooting near a window, you may want to draw the curtains so that the viewers aren’t distracted by anything that may be happening outside.

Set up enough lighting so that your work space is evenly illuminated, and if you’re using a tripod and timer, to a few test shots so that you know everything you’re doing will stay in frame.

Also, don’t forget to double-check all your tools and props, and have everything you need prepared ahead of time. You don’t want to be midway through a step in your video and suddenly realize you left your pruning shears in the garden shed. Sure, you can pause everything while you run and get them, but it will throw you off your rhythm and may leave an awkward gap in the editing that you need to fix.

5. Rehearse your video. Walk yourself through the steps. Test the shots. Get comfortable. Film.

You might think you’re ready to film now, but before you do, take one last walk-through of your shoot. Check your cue cards. Practice delivering your script now that you have all your tools at hand. Think about timing, and remember when you need to start and stop as the camera changes angles. When you feel comfortable with the layout, it’s time to start filming.

It’s far easier to film a tutorial video when you have someone else holding the camera. However, many educators are working solo, which makes their job a bit more difficult. If you’re filming with a tripod, you may want to do your shoot in multiple takes, each at a different angle. However, this obviously won’t work if what you’re demonstrating can’t be repeated.

Again, planning will be your friend. If you have to stop filming to run around the work station and readjust your camera, it’s important to know when those moments are so that you can time them correctly.

6. Edit your film, including subtitles and on-screen graphics.

Much of the mistakes you may make during filming can be fixed during editing. If you flub a line, it’s easy to start over and use a different shot to cover up the cut. Editing is also where you can delete those unnecessary asides that slowed down your video and made it hard to follow.

This is also the place to add graphic elements, like step titles or on-screen instructions. I would also recommend subtitles for all spoken content to make it more friendly for the hearing impaired or anyone watching without headphones.

7. Have an outside viewer review the film for any missed steps.

It’s easy to think you’ve explained everything clearly when in fact you’ve left out an important step. Fortunately, there’s an easy check for this: Call in a friend and ask them to look over your video. If it still makes sense to them, then you’ve accomplished your mission. On the other hand, if you’ve accidentally forgotten to include a detail, you still have time to correct your error.

This often happens with minor details, where you might prepare something earlier in the video but then forget to show what you did with it, or (conversely) show a finishing step without showing how you prepared for it.

For example, when you’re repotting a bonsai tree, you may have to wire the tree into the pot so that it doesn’t fall over. This means remembering to insert the wire earlier in the repotting stage, before you’ve put in the soil. But it would be easy to show that stage, but then forget to show the part where you wire the tree down. (Or, you might have shown wiring the tree in place, but neglected to tell your learners to include the wire before they added the potting soil.

Since you’ve done all these steps yourself, it would be easy to forget one, even while re-watching or editing the video. That’s why a second pair of eyes can help keep things straight.

Consider cutting your film into multiple segments if need be.

When it comes to making a good tutorial video, length matters. Usually 7–8 minutes is the right amount of time for a learner watching your video to still remember all the steps by the time they get to the end. It’s also an easy length to consume, meaning your learners will be able to view the video multiple times if need be without feeling like they’re losing too much time.

If your video takes longer than this, consider breaking it into a video series. Pick a natural stopping point where your learner could pause their project and put it away till they’re ready to pick it up again, then start your next video where you left off. Providing a natural stopping point will help your learners pick their own pace while also helping them follow along.

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I always love your blog posts, full of interesting thoughts and solutions! I agree about the script! For me, it was bullet points that kept me on track.

Initially, I was using cue cards, but it was hard to get them close to the camera lens. I think this is important, because if you are looking directly into the lens, and therefore at your student?

The solution? Using my phone as a teleprompter (there are free and cheaps for this). This was then allied with a foot clicker so that I could seamlessly move through my various points.

Keep up the good work!

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