Producing didactic video is a skill that will be as important as designing workbooks that aid learning. Here are expert tips on making a great learning video.

Shooting video is easy, right? Find a subject matter expert, turn the camera on, and press record. If only it was. Like any form of effective communication, good video that is both easy to understand and remember takes time and skill to craft.

If video is new to you, here are important principles to follow when creating a learning video, as well as practices that will ensure your video looks professional.

Why it works

Video is fashionable at the moment because it seems so easy to produce and cameras are cheaper than ever before. It’s easy to think of video as the perfect solution for many learning needs, but often it is not.

The first discipline required of learning professionals is to determine when video will aid learning and when it will not. This comes down to knowing its strengths and weaknesses as a communication method.

In general, video is less effective at conveying complex content with a great deal of detail than other methods such as simple text or graphical illustrations. So if you want to use video to replace a training seminar on HR compliance policy, you might want to reconsider.

Video is a visual method of communication that loses its power when there aren’t many interesting pictures or shot changes to keep the viewer glued to the screen. That’s why people easily get bored with videos of lectures and seminars. There’s usually only one shot of someone talking and no action to keep their attention.

But video is excellent for teaching a simple procedural task such as how to change a printer cartridge or operate a forklift safely. It’s perfect when the learning involves something the viewer can watch in action.

Video also is good when there is a strong narrative that is easy to see. That’s why we spend so much money at the box office each year. Video can be great for leadership training showing body language, interpersonal relationships, rapport-building skills and so forth.

The first skill that learning practitioners need to have is saying no to video when there’s no visual action or narrative. Recognize that complex content with much detail is better conveyed using other methods such as text or graphics.

Guidelines

When you’ve determined that video is ideal for your learning needs, it’s time to start planning the production. Don’t be surprised if you spend more time planning your video than shooting it. (That’s how it works in professional television production.) To get the best result, here are three tips to help you plan and engaging video that will work well in the learning context.

Aim for only one learning objective. The more focused your content is, the stronger it will be. It can be tempting to cram loads of content into your video; however, you’ll cause cognitive overload, so stick to only one learning objective per video.

Plan many visuals. Start your video planning as you would start planning a training session. Complete a task analysis for the learning objective and then plan what pictures will show that task being performed.

Think carefully about how each shot will convey your message. Your camera is your viewer’s eye, so ask yourself where your viewer would want to stand if she was learning that task live in the classroom. Would she like to stand in close to see details (close-up) or further away (wide shot) to get an overview of the process? Would she like to be looking down at it (birds eye angle)? Perhaps she’d like a combination of both.

After you create a storyboard, write your script. As you write, let your picture carry most of the message and only use the spoken word to reinforce what your viewer can see.

Keep your video as short as possible. Viewers get bored and distracted very easily. You don’t want to overload them with information that they can do without.

The reason television shows and video content shot by professionals look so good is because the camera operators and editors have been practicing and perfecting their craft for decades. If you’re worried you haven’t had enough flying time to produce top video content, don’t worry. There are three ways you can avoid common mistakes, which will instantly boost the quality of your video.

Shoot with a tripod. Amateurs often shoot without a tripod and end up producing wobbly-cam, which looks horrible and is distracting. This easily can be prevented by mounting your camera on a tripod. You’ll be amazed at how dramatically it improves your pictures.

Use manual camera functions. Less-expensive cameras offer a range of auto-functions such as auto focus, auto exposure, and automatic level control (audio). It’s easy to rely on these functions, but you’ll get better pictures by setting focus, exposure, and audio manually.

Use an external microphone. Every camera comes with a built-in microphone, but very few of them offer good sound quality. Instead, capture external audio with an external microphone. If your camera does not allow you to plug in an external microphone, make sure to position your camera as close to the sound as possible. It won’t be perfect, but the closer you are, the better your chance of getting acceptable audio.

Results

Adding video production skills to your professional toolkit is a wise investment in your development. Here are the three main results of good video.

  • Saves the time, cost, and hassle of travel. Video can distribute visual learning to anyone, anywhere, on any video device at a time that suits the learner.
  • Shows learning up close. Video can offer learners close-ups they wouldn’t be close enough to see in a classroom. Along with repeats and slow motion.
  • Ensures consistency. Rather than 15 different trainers teaching something with a slightly different spin, everyone learns the same content.

Checklist: What to Look for in a New Camera

It can be tough to select a camera when there are so many models on the market from which to choose. Here are three features you need in your next camera:

  • Manual controls—Manual focus is essential; don’t rely on your camera to guess who or what needs to be in focus. Manual exposure, white balance, and audio also give you greater control.
  • External microphone—A good external microphone ensures top-quality sound. Poor quality audio screams amateur hour, so don’t buy a camera without an external microphone socket.
  • Nontape operation—Tape is now old technology. Find a camera that records onto SD cards or a hard drive because it will make post-production faster and more convenient for you.

Resources

Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus, The Filmmaker’s Handbook. Plume, 2007.

Richard E. Mayer, Multimedia Learning, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Gustavo Mercado, The Filmmaker’s Eye. Focal Press, 2010