How To Make A How-To Video

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9 Simple tips For Success On Your Next How-To Video

In an Adobe webcast of a new-product event, an MC is introducing the presenters to an audience of product users. As he calls each name, the individual steps forward to polite clapping. But when he calls the name “Terry White”, the  audience erupts in cheers and wild applause. Some people jump to their feet. Later, during breaks in the presentation, people ask for his autograph.

So who is Terry White to inspire such devotion? Technology visionary? Hipster coder? European design guru?

Nope. Terry White explains things. In short, efficient videos, he explains how to do things in Adobe products. He has the calm, relaxed, and affable manner of the neighborhood dad you’re pleased to run into at the hardware store. And when you’re up against a deadline, and can’t remember the finer points of Photoshop layer blends or a quicker way to handle InDesign type styles, if you find a Terry White video, you breathe a sigh of relief.

When the Adobe users went nuts over Terry White, it might have looked like they were expressing adulation. In reality, it was gratitude.

So what lessons can we learn from Terry?

1. Remember why you’re making a how-to video.

Video is good for SEO. It’s a useful sales tool. And it’s an excellent way to provide additional product support. Many organizations decide to kill three birds with one stone, and combine all their goals into one video. Don’t. Stick to one purpose, and make sure that everything in the video supports it.

2. Resist the urge to start with a sales pitch.

Consider this short video from Brother about how to set up a wireless printer. It’s only a minute and a half long, but nearly the first third  is devoted to reminding you how great it is to have wireless printing capability in an excellent product like this Brother printer. Why? The viewer already has the printer.  He or she doesn’t want to hear from you that it’s awesome. He or she wants to experience that it’s awesome, by having it, you know, work.

The pitch makes you feel like you are Doing Marketing, but it’s a waste of the customer’s time.

3. Draw a map for the customer…and for your video.

All good how-to videos answer the same question: What’s the fastest, easiest, and most straightforward way for a customer to get from Point A to Point B, feel confident and competent while doing it, and do it successfully?  Answering this question seems like the easiest part of making the video: everyone involved knows how to do it, right?

But invariably, the planning meeting uncovers a surprise.  Even if everyone does the task you’re demonstrating, and they were all trained the same way, over time, subtle differences have evolved in each person’s process. Some people do tasks in a slightly different order, or use different device settings. Some use shortcuts.  One way might work better in the factory, another in a home, a third in an office. Customer service personnel might have deviated quite widely from the “official” procedure, if they are always helping customers find a workaround for a confusing part of the manual. One method might be easier to demonstrate in a video than another.

Discovering these differences provides an excellent opportunity to figure out your purpose for the video, talk about who your customers are, and figure out how you can help them. As a bonus, it often also provides insights into improvements you can make in many other areas, from rewriting the manual to training to product design. Once you’ve figured out which method you’re going to use, draw it out in a map or flow chart. The map or chart should have only one path. Eliminate anything that takes you and your customer on a detour.

Demonstration videos don’t have to be long. This one, for client HLF, is only six seconds long, but it gets the point across.

4. Stay on course.

Don’t demonstrate ten ways to perform each step — pick the most common one or two. Don’t get off track discussing the history of your product category or why your solution is innovative. You’re on familiar territory, but your customer is not. Stay on course, or you’ll lose and confuse your customer.

5. Choose the best person for the job.

The best person to explain how to do something is  the person who’s best at explaining it. The ideal candidate is comfortable on camera, speaks well and clearly, has excellent product knowledge, and intuitively knows what the customer needs to know at that stage of product use — and can communicate it.

Barring perfection, choose someone with the best overall combination of skills. That might be a salesperson, installer, or a customer support specialist. Marketing people often do it, I think on the assumption that communication is part of their job and they’re comfortable speaking in public, but if the person doesn’t personally do the demonstrated task on a regular basis, the results often look artificial and shallow. The job should never be assigned on the basis of reward or taking turns.

Special challenge: If your CEO is keen to do it, and they’re the right person, congratulations. If they’re not the right person, it might take some intestinal fortitude, but suck it up and have an honest conversation with him or her. After all, you’re both adults, and both after the same thing: customer satisfaction, reduced customer service costs, and repeat buyers.

Image of four different potential candidates for your how-to presenter(Ask us sometime about the client who wanted a video of himself talking about his product while he participated in his favorite sport, even though that sport  had nothing to do with his product or market. We had that awkward conversation every six months for a couple of years. Eventually, he was very glad we talked him out of it.)

Don’t even think about spokesmodels. They look exactly like what they are, which is an attractive person who first heard about your product somewhere between getting hired and walking in from the parking lot. Actors, on the other hand, might be a good choice, if  they’re standing in for the customer, not pretending to be the expert.

6. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice might sound ridiculous if it’s something the presenter does every day, but doing a task, even training someone in person or over the phone, is different from explaining it on camera.

The vocal delivery of how-to videos runs the gamut: One extreme consists of small words, short sentences, and painfully slow speech, as though the presenter is addressing dimwitted puppies. The other is a detailed, mumbled, rapid-fire explanation of every-case scenarios, bristling with jargon, that only the most dedicated expert will understand. You should aim for something smack in the middle: a relaxed, conversational pace, using language and assuming a skill level appropriate for your customers. Never talk down to customers. After all, they were smart enough to buy your product. 

Run through it a couple of times with the whole team, including the person who will be handling the camera and sound recorder. That’s when you’ll catch a distracting background noise from the environment, or an awkward movement that hides what the demonstrator is doing while planting an elbow in front of the lens.

7. Dust and vacuum.

I mean this literally, not figuratively. Most how-to videos are done at the place of business: a cleared-out conference room, someone’s desk, a corner of the factory floor. You’d be amazed at how many of the finished videos are marred by an environment that needs a good scrub, or at least a cursory spot-cleaning to get rid of the distracting coffee stain on the carpet and an unsightly smudge on the wall paint.

8. Light, shoot, and record sound properly.

  • One school of thought says that in an age where teenagers do product reviews in their bedrooms, it doesn’t matter what your business videos look like.  Here’s an important fact: nobody ever graduates from this school of thought. They’re held back for year after year while their competitors pass them by.  In fact, the teenagers are capable of producing better videos than you’d ever imagine. You don’t have to be Walter Pfister (cinematographer for The Dark Knight and Inception) or Thelma Schoonmaker (edited everything Martin Scorsese ever directed). But paying attention before you turn on your camera will make a difference.
  • Lighting doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be even, flattering to the presenter, and free from harsh shadows and hot spots. The fluorescent lighting still common to many workplaces is usually a disaster.
  • Unless you have a good communications reason to do otherwise, use a tripod. Clarity is the aim here, not jumpy zooms or creative angles.
  • Get at least two angles: a master/wide shot of the whole step or process, and a closeup of whatever you’re doing.
  • Look in the corners. This is the first lesson that photography students learn, for good reason. When we’re focused on a subject, our brains shut out meaningless distractions, like overflowing trash cans, hanging wires, clutter, or an onlooker’s foot at the edge of a frame. On the captured image, though, these distractions are obvious and embarrassing.
  • If there’s too much ambient noise, or your sound recording test quality is poor, consider recording without sound and adding it later as a voiceover. If you do this, however, don’t have the presenter talk on camera. Matching it up later would be a nightmare.

9. Edit.

Start at the beginning, finish at the end, and cut out extra bits in the middle, particularly vocal flubs, do-overs, and fumbling with products, controls, or tools. Some angles might be better than others, and some shots work better in a different order. If you have the skill to do so, move these around as needed.

Often, you don’t need much editing. A client of ours was recently given a video recording of a talk she gave at a conference. It was an excellent demonstration of her knowledge, but it started too early, with a generic introduction and questions from the moderator about whether she’d need a laser pointer. It ended too late, with a lingering shot of our client leaving the podium and the moderator stepping in to introduce the next item on the agenda. It was a simple matter to trim the video so that it captured attention from beginning to end.

Thanks to our ace in-house Media Writer/Director/Producer, Heather Hillstrom, for her review and suggestions on this post.

If you have more tips to add, please share them in the comments section.

If you need help with any part of your how-to video process, contact me.

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