Start With a Story
I learned this from Scott Hanselman:
- Have a beginning, middle, and end
- Don't waste people's time
- Start with the punchline
In other words: tell a good story. It's amazing how often people overlook this simple truth: we're built to listen and learn from stories. This is at the root of making a good screencast (or blog post or presentation or… anything you're trying to convey to someone else).
All the rest are the details – where the devil lives :).
Truth, From a Certain Perspective
Let's assume you know what you're trying to convey to someone: perhaps how awesome your startup is, how to use a tool or programming language, or maybe how to create a screencast :). Now comes the structure that sits under the story.
This basic structure needs to get out of your brain, onto paper quickly. I usually open a text editor (like Sublime Text 2) and start throwing ideas down on what I want to convey. That's what I did for this post here.
I thought about concept, tools, process – all of it and I wrote it down. Then I decided which was most important (the underlying concepts) and started with that – knowing I might change my mind as this all came together.
Our ideas are coming out of us – now let's get it down somewhere. After I scribble ideas in a text editor (or on a piece of paper) – I wrap some structure around it. I used to Google Docs for this but have moved to Pages/iCloud. It doesn't matter the tool – just be sure you have access to it when inspiration hits.
I really can't emphasize that point enough. Inspiration will strike you and you'll think "what a neat idea for a demo!" – write it down or lose it!
My outlines grow and grow – sometimes stretching 4 or 5 pages! This is what you want – everything out of you, into an outline.
Tangent: Give Yourself Time
One anxiety that I have to keep in a cage is my need to push content fast. I've learned over and over that rushing a creative process triples the suck. The opposite of this is also true – and is something you need to keep in mind: patience triples the awesome.
When you read my tips here, please keep this in mind. I'm fairly certain many reading this will say "that's fine for you – I don't have that kind of time". I'll rewrite that sentence for you thus:
That's fine for you, I don't respect my audience as much as you do.
If that sounds harsh to you – consider that you are, literally, trading the quality of the user experience over the lifetime of your screencast for a few hours of your time.
Be patient. It pays off.
Paring The Outline
We have 4 or 5 pages of ideas – demos, concepts, whatnot. It's time to consider just how much we need to say. One thing I find helpful when deciding what to keep is to ponder how I learn – and what things make the biggest differences to me.
I've found that I learn the most when:
- I screw up and fix something
- I watch someone else screw up and fix something
- The demo echoes something I've tried to do – from problem to an inspired solution.
The rest is noise. Literally. More on this below.
This is where you need to stare at your "story arc" – your beginning, middle, and end. Remember: you're trying to walk someone through a story, not impress them or sell them something. It's always a temptation to "show someone how cool a tool is" – and no one cares.
They want to know how to use it – assume they think it's awesome. Given that, how do you filter out the "noise"? Here are my tricks:
- Does this demo convey something "real" from the user's perspective? Instead of "look what you can do with KnockoutJS", focus on "this is what Knockout does – I've used it to do this". It's a very subtle difference, but you know it when it happens.
- Is this preachy? The biggest trap of all. You don't know everything.
- Does this fit? – you wouldn't believe how simple it is to pare things out that don't fit your beginning, middle and end.
You should, literally, lose half your outline. Now's the time for review – and some hard questions.
Tangent: Clear Glass
You are the story teller. The lead actor in a story written by you, about a thing. Consider that the best actors "melt" into their characters – you just can't see them. There's Daniel Day Lewis as Abe Lincoln and, of course, Heath Ledger as the Joker.
We're not great actors – but we can use the same tricks:
- Check your ego. This isn't about you. Your vocals, wording, demos: focus on the story you've written.
- Listen to yourself. Repeatedly. If you find yourself following along, you're doing a good job. If you cringe at your own voice… well nothing is a better indicator!
- Be Human. You're not speaking in front a room, you're right in someone's ear. It's intimate – so be human, warm, and friendly.
The way I've put this to people is that you're a human made of clear glass. The great narrators all have very warm, engaging tone in their pace and delivery – yet nothing that might convey who they are as a person. David Attenboro, for instance, is my hero.
The Final Review
A beginning, middle, and end. A commitment to be patient and focus on posterity – knowing this video will live on for years and the time you invest now will pay off in a big way. We've checked our egos and have a clear focus on the topic… let's do a final review.
You won't want to do this. That's OK, it will show in your final work. You'll fight me on it, but all I can tell is you that it's worked well for me: write it all out.
Yep. Everything you want to say – make it hit paper. Let your muse fly and see if you can put words to your outline, keeping in mind all the things we've talked about. If you can't, then you have a problem which usually means your story is boring.
And you want to find that out now. Not later when no one watches what you've done. You'll be the first person to be uninspired by what you thought was good!
There's a lot to writing good dialog – word choice, pacing, not repeating yourself. I'll go into that in the next post…