Five Steps to Creating Effective Screencasts

I’ve noticed a trend lately…

People and companies are beginning to use screencasts to sell products and provide training online.

It makes sense, too. Not only do screencasts sell well (we’ve used them on DIYthemes for years), they’re also a great way to create training for people who learn better through video demonstrations.

If you want to learn to create your own screencasts, today is the day. I invited Scott Skibell, the screencasting mastermind behind, to share his five-step method to creating wonderful screencasts.

Note: Video removed because it is no longer available.

If you prefer to read through his 5-step process, Scott also prepared this step-by-step tutorial for DIYthemes below:

Enter Scott Skibell…

Screencasting is a new form of communication. Screencasting is essentially the recording of one’s computer screen and turning it into a movie so you can share it. More importantly, it allows average people to create engaging videos that communicate, train, and sell. But how do you get started? And if you’ve already started screencasting, how do you take your screencasts to the next level?

In my 20-years in the training industry, I’ve created hundreds of screencasts. Let me share with you my 5-step process for producing screencasts. Along the way, you’ll pick up plenty of tips too. We’ve got a lot to cover so lets get started.

Step 1: Develop a Screencasting Plan

All good projects start with a plan. Ask yourself, “What does my viewer need?” Also, think about what you want the viewer to do after your screencast. For example, do they need to perform a task or do you want them to visit a website? Once you know their needs, and your desired actions, you begin visualizing your ‘cast.

Start with the end in mind. What do you want your ‘cast to look like? What size will it be? Will it be shown on a LCD TV, YouTube, a narrow blog, or on a mobile device? Do you have a desired aspect ratio? In other words, is it a wide screen 16:9 production or is it more optimized for traditional 4:3 presentations? And, how long should it be? Remember, the shorter the better.

Next, organize your thoughts. Craft an outline or mindmap for your ‘cast. Chunk your ideas, discussion points, and content. Organize them in a logical manner and ask yourself if they match your objectives. And finally, if exact words are critical, you may want to write and record from a script.

Now that you have your objective, a blank canvas, and chunked discussion points, you’re ready to put the pieces together.

Step 2: Source Your Multimedia Content

I like to combine images, video, and screen recordings together for my screencasts. Leverage Keynote or PowerPoint with images from Big Stock Photo or Dreamstime, to create additional visual elements for title slides, transitionary slides, and credits.

Make sure your PowerPoint or Keynote size matches your aspect ratio. For example, on 16:9 widescreen presentation, I use a 1280×720 Keynote template. For traditional 4:3 productions, I use a 1024×768 template. This ensures my graphics match the size of my final output and there’s no distortion or ugly letter boxing. Export these slides as PNG or TIFF images so you can use them in your screencast.

Capture any video you’ll need to use. I like to combine real video to better connect with my viewers. So for example, once I know I’m producing a 16:9 screencast, I can easily capture video with my Kodak Zi8 or iPhone and seamlessly use it in my screencasts. These videos make good intro’s and outro’s to your screencasts.

Finally, source any audio tracks you may need. This includes appropriate background music but also the narration if you wrote a script. I know it sounds counter-intuitive to record the audio first but it’s easier to match the visuals to the audio. And if you don’t have background music, you can find music collections at Digital Juice or Audio Jungle.

Okay, you’ve got your plan and raw materials, lets get to recording.

Step 3: Record Your Screencast

There are lots of different applications you can use to screencast. Some are free like TechSmith Screen Capture. Higher end applications include Camtasia Studio and ScreenFlow. When you’re ready to record, clear your desktop. Remove any extraneous windows, desktop icons, or distracting wallpapers. Minimize interruptions by closing Growl notifications, Skype, and Instant Messaging applications.

Pre-size application windows so they match your desired output. For example, if you’re recording an application, adjust the window size to 1280×720 so it perfectly matches your output. And if you’re recording a browser window, see if you can increase the text size to make it easier to read.

When you’re ready to record, go to a quiet room and use a good USB microphone like the Samson or Snow Ball units. This ensures you’ll have a good sounding recording. Again, it’s kind of counter-intuitive, but quality audio is more important than the video.

Now the best thing you can do before recording is to rehearse. You’ll find the pause command is your best friend. Pause recording to prepare, to rehearse, and to make sure everything works right before you record. Deliver your segments a chunk at a time, pausing between them, if necessary.

Remember, you’re going to make mistakes. When you do, pause for about 4-seconds or so. This makes it easy to identify the silence in your timeline and edit out your mistakes during the next step.

Step 4: Edit Your Screencast

These days, higher-end screencasting software like ScreenFlow and Camtasia are really video editors. They enable some pretty cool editing without the overhead and complexity of Sony Vegas or Apple’s Final Cut. Besides, they’re faster and more fun to use.

First, import all your resources into your project. Place your screencast recording on a video track. Trim the ends to remove any dead space. Cut and split the video to remove mistakes and any slow parts. If necessary, speed up your video tracks to match your audio. Don’t go crazy with transitions between these cuts. Instead, use simple jump cuts or cross-fades.

Overlay images and text callouts to compliment your spoken words. This helps reinforce your message. Insert pans & zooms to help focus the viewer. Add watermarks above the video track for branding and place transitionary slides between chunks in your topics to help keep your viewers organized.

Finally, add a music soundtrack and splice it so it ends at the end of your video. Play back your edited video looking for mistakes, slow parts, and botched transitions. When you’re comfortable with your work, you’re ready to export it.

Step 5: Export Your Screencast

I typically choose the automatic export and try to produce the highest quality recording as possible for my master copy. Typically, this is a 1280×720 H.264 mp4 file with 96 bit audio. I don’t upload directly to any of the online services because I like to save a backup copy. You never know when your account can disappear from an online service.

If necessary, resize your export for different devices like iPads and iPhones. Yes you can use YouTube to do this for you, but for best results, use a tool like Miro Converter and create multiple versions. And if a mobile device is one of the desired formats, you may need to go back to the editor and add more pans and zooms so text is legible.

I typically find the automatic settings good enough. There are times though when I’m trying to get the size down as much as possible Sometimes this is for mobile devices and sometimes it’s just because it’s too big. Here are a couple of things you can try adjusting:

  1. Change the size. If you don’t need a full 1280×720 output, drop the size down to 640×360 if that’s all you need. This will cut your file size in half.
  2. Change the frame rate. If you don’t need a full 30 frames per second, you may find 15 frames per second will do. Sometimes this can make your mouse movements a little jerky and not as smooth but it’s a trade-off in size.
  3. Try adjusting your automatic bit rate down and see if you notice too much pixelation. This can drastically reduce your file size but can also result in a poor quality video.

Upload the highest quality you can to online services. Then, remember to place that backup copy somewhere safe.

Enter Derek…

Great stuff, right?

Scott is a 20-year training industry veteran. He helps individuals and businesses “productize their knowledge” by creating digital products around their expertise. These solutions include videos, e-learning courses, and of course, screencasts.

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