SCREENCASTING PRIMER

by Beth Kanter

This primer is an introduction to screencasting. It covers the what, why, and how to get started. You will also find examples of screencasts and additional how-to resources.

What is a Screencast?

A screencast captures what is displayed on a computer screen accompanied by commmentary from someone explaining what is happening on the screen as it unfolds. Screencasts can be done in a range of styles, from the very formal narrated powerpoint presentation to a more informal software coaching. Better than write about it, here's a screencast explaining what a screencast is!

Screencasts can be used in the following ways:
  • as standalone tutorials, software demos, or orientation
  • to clarify complex technical concepts
  • to capture organizational knowledge about critical procedures or to convey expert tacit knowledge
  • for beta testing a web site or software interface

Although having some video editing skills and knowing how to clearly communicate your ideas will vastly improve the quality of your work, you don't have to be a Hollywood filmmaker to create a decent screencast. This particularly holds true if your intention is to use the screencasts for in-house training, software beta testing, or rapid knowledge capture.

There are several reasons why screencasts can be a powerful form of instructional media. The software makes it easy to capture what is taking place on the screen. You simply click a record button and show the exact mouse clicks needed to do a task. It also allows you to add audio narration to your powerpoint presentation or, integrate real-life video, photos, and music. Additionally, screencasts can be distributed via blog posts, RSS feeds, tags, and social media video hosts like OurMedia or blip.tv. That means screencasting can be a relatively low-cost and highly effective medium for sharing training and how-to materials.

Some of the best screencasts are folksy, intimate experiences almost as if you were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder next to a friend who was sharing their expertise. Since screencasts often contain impromptu discoveries by the narrator or even small mistakes they can accomplish desired results better than glitzy packaged instructional videos. Screencasts project a image of transparency, trust, and authenticity.

Why are Screencasts Useful?

If you provide end-user technical support, no doubt you've had the experience of being asked how to do a particular software task over and over again by different people in your organization. Further, you've probably discovered that not every individual responds well to text or verbal instructions, particularly visual learners. What if you could answer one of those requests with a pointer to a brief screencast showing and describing the procedure, accompanied by your text notes for later reference?

Furthermore, screencasts are useful because:

  • A screencast can make the content more engaging and interactive than written instructions and static photos or illustrations.
  • The relative ease of use and lower cost tools can help people share information about a software tool or web service in an intuitive and effective way.
  • Screencasts can easily be published and distributed via blogs, tags, video hosting services and social media services which gives them greater social relevance in a connected web and opens the door for collaboration.
  • The screencasting medium can communicate what otherwise cannot be explained easily, if at all.
  • Screencasts (good ones) are an effective way to teach someone else how to use a piece of software or a web service because the use of audio, text, and video appeals to different learning styles.

A Quick Tour: Different Genres of Screencasting

In this next section, I take you on a quick tour of different screencasts organized by genre.


Software Tips, Tricks, and Tutorials

A screencast that demonstrates how to use a software application or web service is the most common use of screencasting. Having the screencast available on the Web 24/7 can help save time and provide "just in time" access. It is best to think in terms of tips and tricks versus comprehensive training, although you can certainly create a series of brief screencasts under a single theme or the video version of a "Ten Best Tips" article. While valuable, comprehensive tutorials can be very resource intensive to deliver. If your audience consists of beginners, it may be necessary to include detailed step-by-step instructional materials or additoinal resources. As you create your screencast, think about what is the most important information that viewers need to see on the video versus what can be communicated via text and screencaptures (here and here) You can find a few good examples of software tips and training screencasts here

Web or Project Orientations and Software Demonstrations.

A screencast can be an engaging way to introduce visitors to your organization's web site or project. Notice in the first example how the audio is describing what is on the page and gives the feeling of a screencast. Many software vendors are using screencasts as a multi-media sales brochure to introduce software features and functions, making it an efficient way for potential buyers to evaluate whether or not they want to test the software further.

Deliver Your PowerPoint Presentations As Multi-Media

There are a number of ways that you can share your powerpoint presentations with colleagues via the Web. For example, in flickr as a flash side show or set. There are also free web-based slide sharing services where you can easily upload a powerpoint and share it as a flash file, take for example this service. However, there is one thing that these presentations lack: audio. Screencasting can be a simple way to add audio to your powerpoint presentations.

And it doesn't have to be after the fact or for documentation purposes, either. This screencast of a keynote powerpoint presentation was released prior to the conference so the presenter could get audience feedback. This screencast, on Identity 2.0, was captured with a video camera at a live conference.

Concept Screencast

Screencasts can be the perfect medium to explain difficult, if not impossible, technical concepts to non-technical people. While the end product may look simple, to create and produce a screencast like this may take a fair amount of time thinking and storyboarding your topic so you can explain it a clear, but interesting way. The Machine Is Us/ing Us describes Web2.0 concepts in less than 5 minutes. I took this approach in my screencast about Tagging.

Knowledge Capture

Whether you are doing a screencast of frequently asked for procedures or documenting the work flow of an entire project, screencasts can be an excellent addition to your organization's knowledge capture toolbox. Some people have dubbed it "Rich Media Documentation." The important thing to think about is what content is most appropriate to present on video While this genre of screencasts may only have an internal audience and somewhat lower production values (or not depending on your skill levels), rich media documentation helps preserve organizational memory. Another interesting form of knowledge capture is a screencast that captures tacit or expert knowledge about a process related to using a software tool. Take for example, Jon Udell's How To Edit an Audio Podcast and the Tagging Feature in the Visita Photo Gallery .

Beta Testing A Web Site or Software Interface

Some open source software advocates are championing the idea of remote usability testing. Screencasting tools can provide a method for remote beta testers to participate by simply hitting the record button and narrating as they test the software. I recently tested this approach as a beta tester for Social Source Commons.

Getting Started: Two Metaphors

If you are new to using multi-media tools like video and audio software, expect a learning curve. But don't worry, it isn't an insurmountable task to master the software. What is somewhat more difficult is learning what makes for good production values and while they are important, it is also depends on who your audience is and the context. Are you creating screencasts to be used internally or to support or sell a product or to accompany a professional level training seminar? Whatever your situation, you need to think like a Hollywood filmmaker and give yourself to permission to approach the task as if you were taking some home videos to document an important activity. A combination of the two approaches works best to produce good quality screencasts that aren't resource intensive to create and produce.

The process

Content, Script, and Storyboard

Planning your content begins with an understanding of your audience. What do they already know about the topic? What are you trying to teach them? This will help you figure out what you do and do not have to say and how specific you need to be. It also important to keep in mind some basic principles of educational multimedia as articulated by Richard E. Mayer's seminal research work. Three very important principles to understand as you develop your script and storyboard:

  • People learn better when information is presented in bit-sized chunks
  • People learn better when information is presented using clear outlines and headings
  • People learn better when information is presented in a conversational style rather than a formal one

Even though you are making a movie of your computer screen, remember you're still telling a story. Screencasts that focus solely on the step-by-step procedures or consist of powerpoint bullet points with audio can be deadly boring. I highly recommend reading Andy Goodman's "When Bad Presentations Happen To Good People" and while he is talking about powerpoint presentations in particular, most of his storytelling advice can be applied to screencasting.

Some people find that writing a script or at least bullet points can help them focus the presentation and makes it easier to organize for the production. If you are narrating your screencast and you are comfortable improvising from bullet points in a clear and concise way than you may not need to write out word-for-word exactly what you plan to say. Others find that having a script helps them keep on track and makes sychronizing the video with the narration much easier.

Storyboards are a rough sketch of how you will present the topic. Storyboarding helps you organize the source material and ensures that you cover what you need to cover. There are different techniques for storyboarding. Some people use templates (see here and here), while others use moleskin notebooks Finally, having a script and storyboard can be useful if you are preparing a screencast for a third party or others have to sign off on the content.

Pre-Production

Your screencast may include different source material such as video screen captures, real life video, photos, music, titles, and the recorded narrative. If you are planning to show certain steps or procedures involved with using a particular software program, you need to plan out each scene carefully. If your screencast is say five minutes, this can add up to a lot of individual pieces. Your production process will be far more efficient is you are organized. One simple method is to think like a filmmaker and plot out your screencast in acts and scene. For each scene, note what narrative, images, video, or titles will be needed. It also makes a lot of sense to organize your digital material on your computer in folders and file names that correspond with each act/scene. Finally, if you are using creative commons licensed materials, make sure you note the correct attribution so you can add this information to the credits. Based on my storyboard, I usually created a production punch list organized by scene.

Shooting Your Screencast

At this point, you read to start filming. I generally use a two-step process. First, with my script in hand, I capture the video sections only while practicing my narration. Next, I record the voice narration carefully synching it with the video. It takes a little practice, however, I made fewer mistakes when I wasn't trying to capture and narrate at the same time. For more informal screencasts, such as beta testing for example, I've just hit the record button and did both the video and audio simultaneously, narrating off bullet points. If you're screen recording Internet applications that are taking a lot of time load, be sure not narrate over those sections so you can easily cut out the wait time in the editing process. But beware, it is more difficult to edit if you do both video and audio at once.

Although you can capture your entire screen, you definitely don't want to. Even with the best compression, your files pretty big in no time. Extra screen real estate is wasted space and costly overhead. I generally capture a window at 800x600 with the same playback size or 640x480 depending on my file size and time limitations (larger files take longer to render). Screencasts are xerox copies of your screen activity. So make sure you are capturing the action "on camera." You may also need to use the zoom or pan to maintain focus or so menu details do not get lost. Be sure to factor in the player's scrollbars and buttons. Finally, be aware of what your mouse is doing on the screen and isn't moving around needlessly.

As you set up your software screens for shooting, only capture the section of the screen that is necessary. You may want not need the title bar, toolbars, status bar or scroll bars in your browser, for example. In general, what doesn't clearly tell the story should be cut.

The Tools

In order to make a screencast, you will need video capture and editing software and a microphone. While there are a number of free and open source video capture and editing programs available for both PC and MAC, using them requires a fair amount of technical skill and comfort with video editing interfaces. Also, the lesser expensive options mean that you may be using two different programs, one for capture and the other editing. Therefore, you will need to learn something about file formats, size, and aspect ratio to properly export and import from one program into the other with acceptable results. If you're new to multi-media creation, you may want to consider one of the commerical screencasting packages that combines capture and editing into one piece of software simply for the ease of use, documentation, and technical support options. (It will, however, cost you more money.)

It is beyond the scope of the primer to do a detailed comparison of software tools. However, I have provided several good listings of screencasting software, some include reviews. Since good sound is an extremely important production value, it may be worth investing in a good USB microphone (about $50-70), although you can certainly begin with using an inexpensive mic and upgrade later.

I started off using the free video editing software that came with my PC and Camstudio and a $10 microphone. Later, as my skills improved I invested in Camtasia (approximately $300) which is considered the gold standard for screencasting and a decent USB microphone. Other PC users have told me they use SnagIt ($40) which captures screen and audio and an entry level video editing programs like Adobe Preimere Elements or Sony Vegas which retail for approximately $100. Many people who work on the MAC platform use Snapz for screen capture and pull it into Final Cut Pro for editing. A new MAC tool called "IshowU" is gaining popularity.

Editing

Your editing process will differ depending on your choice of tools no doubt. Since I use Camtasia, I tend to do a rough edit as I shoot the movie. So, when I'm finished "shooting," I have a first draft complete. Next, I watch my screencast taking notes on places that require a close up, captions, titles, transitions, or where the audio isn't quite synchronized with the video. I also listen carefully for places in the audio where I may have lapsed into too many hmms and cut them out. This part of the editing process can be tedious, but polishing your work can improve the production values. If you're a perfectionist, be careful this part of the process can be really time consuming if you get too obssessed with creating the perfect screencast. I'm learning to let certain things go.

Final Production

It is beyond the scope of this primer to provide a detail dissertation about video file compression. In the book "The Secrets of Video Blogging," there is a chapter on file formats and compression settings for both PC and MAC. I used these recipes with good results. You can also view a screencast of this information at FreeVlog. If you decide to invest in Camtasia, I suggest Daniel Park's Definitive Guide If you are using Camtasia, it has several production wizards that walk you through the trade-offs of video and audio quality versus file size and format. It asks you a series of questions about your source material, file size requirements, and video/audio quality to help you pick the right file format and screen size. In other words, you don't need to be an expert in compression formulas.

When you are ready to "produce" the screencast, also called "rendering," be aware that the longer your screencast and the higher quality file, the longer it can take to render. Some of my screencasts have taken an hour to render and that can tie up your computer in terms of getting other work done.

Hosting

There are many options for hosting your screencasts, including free services like blip.tv and fee-based video hosting services such as screencast.com. These services differ as to file size (for example many of the free services are limited 100MB file size), video file format (for example some services do not accept flash movie files), and rights ownership. So, finding the right host or combination of hosts depends on the specs of your screencasts. Some things to consider:

Upload:
  • Is it fast and easy?
  • Can upload in several formats?
  • Can you easily manage the descriptions and metadata?

Quality:
  • Size of the embedded screen
  • Image and audio quality

Distribution
  • Download and sharing options
  • Monetization


Distribution

Your final task is distribution of your screencast. Will you be sharing your screencasts on a blog or web site or via video host channel? Will they be distributed internally and or offline on DVD? If you plan to incorporate screencasts into your blog you need to make sure that your RSS feed has multimedia enclosures. You can view a screencast on how to set that up at freevlog.org