4 Tips for Writing Video Training

While many of the same good writing principles apply to both instructional video and interactive eLearning (or any effective training materials, for that matter), writing for video has some unique aspects that require additional guidelines. Remembering a few basic tips can help you write effective training videos that take full advantage of the unique nature of the video medium.

First, let’s define the types of instructional video we’re not discussing in this article, since multiple types can sometimes be applicable to learning, depending on the topic. For instance, using dramatic scenarios with scripted dialogue can be an effective way to demonstrate or illustrate a principle, a skill or a technique. This approach can be particularly useful for teaching soft skills, such as interpersonal communication. A scenario-based instructional video has its own unique set of guidelines, most of them derived from traditional professional film-making.

Likewise, straightforward documentary videos can provide valuable insight into a topic by showing (and possibly commenting on) real-world events. However, such videos are usually intended to be documentaries first and learning tools second and, while they may enhance understanding of a subject, they are not often an effective tool for training.

This brings us to the type of instructional video we are discussing: narrated instruction and demonstration. Again, the basics of all good instructional writing still apply, but writing this type of training video also has its unique challenges. Here are a few basic tips:

1. Beware Of Talking Heads

The rise and phenomenal popularity of a certain type of YouTube “star” have led some to conclude that all that’s required to produce an effective training video is to place an articulate expert in front of the camera and let him or her talk (scripted, semi-scripted, or unscripted). Unfortunately, this is not often the case. While that may seem to be true of many of these online celebrities, it’s important to note that certain caveats apply.

First, most of these presenters are not conducting training. Some are offering information, but you may or may not want or be able to do anything with that information. Many others are simply projecting their own charismatic personalities and providing some entertaining moments. Those who are actually trying to train you in something (such as cooking or craft making) always include demonstrations along with their talk.

Second, YouTubers usually have very appealing personalities, and they are highly skilled or born communicators. They are fun to watch. Unless the expert you plan to put on camera is equally entertaining, you cannot expect the same kind of positive results.

2. Create Moving Pictures

Video records movement. If nothing is moving, why is video an appropriate medium? eLearning using images, graphics, screen text, and narration may be more appropriate and more effective, particularly if interactivity is included. There should be a clear and obvious reason for the use of video instead, and that reason generally should involve the value or necessity of seeing something or someone in motion.

Step-by-step demonstrations, of course, are an obvious example. Animations that illustrate principles or processes can also justify the use of video. But if the only on-camera movement is the mouth of the presenter, there are likely more appropriate training approaches available to you.

3. Show And Tell

You’re probably already familiar with the value of presenting content in multiple ways to reach your learning audience. When video instruction is used alone, hands-on learning is not an option, which makes it especially important to make effective use of both what is said (aural) and what is shown (visual).

This doesn’t mean that the narration must describe in intricate detail everything that’s being shown on the screen. Often narration is more effective if it provides a general description and draws the audience’s attention to what is being shown. The time-worn cliché about a picture and a thousand words applies here. Showing and telling should be used in tandem, but the emphasis should be on showing. This again reinforces the inadvisability of relying on a “talking head” for your primary visual element.

4. Remember, Timing Is Everything

Most eLearning is self-paced. The learner proceeds at a pace that is most comfortable for him or her. Video happens in real time. While the learner always has the option of backing up the video and watching something again, the basic pace at which the learning is being offered has already been determined during the production process, beginning with the storyboard or script. If you are the writer but you’re not the person who plans to direct, shoot and/or edit the final video, your only input into the pacing is in what you write and how you write it.

Try putting yourself in the position of someone hearing and seeing your material for the first time. How quickly can they understand and absorb what you’re telling and showing them? One handy technique is to keep a running word count. Although there are multiple metrics used in measuring time using word counts, a typical metric is 160 to 165 words per minute for instructional narration (TV advertising word counts are higher because the pacing is faster). Estimate your running time, not just for the entire training unit, but for individual topics. Is there enough time to show what needs to be seen? Is there enough time for the learner to grasp the point(s) you’re making?

In the end, tips and techniques like the ones described here can only provide limited help.

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