Recording Screencasts and Lecture Videos via Zoom

The Coronavirus quarantine has given all kinds of non-technical computer users a crash course in Zoom online meetings. This creates an opportunity for those users to develop skills in recording their own high-quality explainer videos, screencasts, and lecture sessions. Zoom’s record meeting feature can produce a high-quality MP4 video file from any Zoom meeting – even ones where you’re alone in your own online meeting, sharing your screen, camera, and mic. Those MP4 files can be downloaded to your desktop and edited in any video editing suite (Premiere, Camtasia, Final Cut, iMovie, Hitfilm, etc.) to produce professional-looking content.

This is a guide I developed at work to send to our less-technical subject matter experts and presenters who are called upon to produce learning video content without much background in the “hows” and “whys” of it. Hopefully it will help you overcome some rookie mistakes in video presentations and help you look good as you teach online.

How to Record your Zoom Meeting

Zoom produces its own best practices for recording Zoom meetings, so I’ll just link to their resources.

Practice Makes Perfect

Script and Storyboard

Your first instinct might be to just press record and start talking, but you will produce a much better finished product if you write out what you’re going to say first. Choosing words while you’re speaking leads to umms and aahs that hurt your credibility, waste your audience’s time, and make your video look amateurish. Furthermore, your overall presentation will benefit greatly if you have a strong outline for your talk, with a clear progression of ideas from beginning to end. Taking the time to write out, edit, and organize your thoughts will produce a superior result that makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about, and helps your audience follow along to grasp your main points.

If your content requires approval, finalization, or is dependent on other stakeholders, make sure your content is finalized (REALLY finalized) before moving to the recording stage. This will help you prevent rework.

Seriously, don’t skip this step!

Rehearse

Along the same lines as above, you will get a better finished product if you run through your talk a few times first. Each time you go through it, you’re committing it a little more to memory so you don’t have to look down at your notes while speaking. You may find that your scripted words sound awkward when you say them out loud – notice any tongue-twisters and consider rewording them.

Rehearse when each slide transition is supposed to happen and make sure the timing is fluid and not distracting. Taking turns with a co-presenter is another place where you might want to clarify who is speaking when.

As much as possible, treat your dry run with the same priority as you’d give a live presentation. The more authentic your rehearsal is, the more likely you’re able to catch preventable mistakes and produce a better product.

Get Good Audio

What’s wrong with my laptop mic?

The built-in mic on your laptop is really optimized for being small and not necessarily for delivering high-quality audio. Besides, it is positioned far from your mouth so it often will pick up room reverb, keyboard clicks, and other distracting ambient noise from your surroundings. Ideally you should have a good quality mic positioned close to your face to pick up your voice with higher fidelity than your laptop mic can.

Invest in a decent microphone

Podcasting-quality microphones like the Blue Snowball have brought pro-sounding narration to the home computer user. It plugs into your computer via USB and provides full, balanced sound.

I even get pretty good sound quality from this gamer headset I bought through work. It looks a little geeky but it’s very comfortable and does a nice job picking up my voice.

Either of these options can be had for under $50 and can do a lot to improve the overall sound of your presentations. Read reviews before you buy, though – don’t just buy the cheapest thing on Amazon. In audio, some brand names have developed reputations for quality that cheap imitators can’t match.

Take Care with Your Camera

Resolve to Understand Resolution

It’s good to have a general sense in the back of your mind of roughly how large most videos, websites, and images should be sized – in pixels.

At time of writing in late-2020, most TVs, computer screens, and mobile devices can comfortably display 1080p resolution video (also called “Full HD” or FHD for short), which means it’s 1920 pixels wide x 1080 pixels tall. The newest devices are already ready to shoot and display in 4K resolution (4096 x 2160 pixels, twice the resolution of 1080p), so your next laptop, TV or computer will probably be ready to use this standard.

If you just remember that most screens are roughly 2000 pixels across and 1000 pixels tall, you’ll be able to do some light mental math to make sure your media will fit on most modern screens.

There is some wiggle room with resolutions, so you want to work within a range that most devices can support. Much smaller than 1080p and your media will be small and pixelated. Much larger and it’ll be slow and choppy to download or stream over broadband internet.

This is (admittedly) nerdy information to know, but you’ll be surprised how often it comes up! Every time you download an image to use in a presentation, video, or website, do the mental math to see if it’s in the right ballpark.

These numbers do change gradually as people upgrade to newer devices, so when in doubt, you can do a search like video resolution 2020 (or whatever year it is for you) to get clear guidelines to the standard size to build in. If you’re targeting a specific social media platform like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Vimeo, etc., those platforms all publish recommended specs

Use the highest quality camera you have

With the above in mind, you might take a look at the cameras you have access to and decide which will give you the best results. You may find that your smartphone is newer (and has higher resolution) than the laptop you’d normally use for Zoom meetings. Use that if it’ll give you better results. Again, we’re shooting for 1080p quality if possible.

External webcams can sometimes be an improvement over your laptop’s built-in camera, especially if your laptop is nearing its end-of-life. Check out The Wirecutter’s in-depth recommendations for the best webcams on the market.

Light matters – a LOT!

Digital cameras give MUCH better results if you are in bright light – so don’t be afraid to light yourself well! Having strong, even light shining on your face (preferably from two different directions) replicates studio lighting at a fraction of the cost.

I invested in two small LED desk lamps that provide more than enough bright light to make me look my best in explainer videos and online meetings. They even have dimmers and subtle color filters for more natural effects and moods.

You want your main light source shining ON your face – not behind you. If you are sitting with your back to a bright window you will appear backlit and silhouetted. Similarly, light coming from above or below your face can cast distracting shadows on your features, making you look like you’re telling a ghost story at a campfire.

Position your camera for maximum flattery

You look your best when your camera is at (or slightly above) eye level. Normally, your laptop’s camera (when sitting on your desk) forces you to look down and scrunch your chin and jowls into an unattractive bunch.

This is a good reason to explore alternate ways of raising your camera – you can use a stack of books or a sturdy box if you don’t have a fancy standing desk. If you have an external camera, try mounting it right at eye level or above for best results.

If you’re reading your screen, STAND BACK

It’s very common to have notes on the screen and read them while you talk. When your face is too close to the camera, your eye movements appear extremely exaggerated. Reading from the screen (even though it’s inches below your webcam) makes you look downcast and awkward.

BACK UP.

Sitting more than 3 feet away from the screen, your audience will not be able to see exactly where your eyes are looking and you’ll look much more natural even if you’re reading your screen.

Take care with your background

To the best extent you can, make sure there’s not anything distracting or embarrassing happening in the background behind you. Of course, this goes for family and friends too…

Behind every successful woman is an unsuccessful man not wearing any pants:pic.twitter.com/GZsKPsXhub— J🎃sh R R J🎃kin (@joshcarlosjosh) March 24, 2020

Make sure to remove any distracting or embarrassing objects or writing from your background – anything that looks unintentional or out-of-place will take your audience’s attention off of you.

Compare Yourself to Other Explainers and UP YOUR GAME!

In many ways, academic video explainer videos lag behind the best explainers done in other sectors of the economy, so you can do well to familiarize yourself with the tools and techniques used by other learning content producers. There is a thriving and diverse ecosystem of people making instructional videos on a variety of topics – mostly talking to their own insular community of viewers. You should watch and listen broadly to the widest variety of educational content that you can and take the best ideas from each.

YouTube Tutorials

YouTube tutorial creators have to compete mightily to attract and hold attention, and the best have innovated on their approaches to media creation in order to one-up their competitors. Whether it’s video game streamers, makeup tutorials, home improvement how-tos, or learning to play a medieval lute, there’s an explainer on any topic (and at every level of production quality).

Streamers uniformly have eye-catching title slides and clearly understandable headlines that preview the subject matter you’ll be learning about.

Podcasting and Public Radio

I’m constantly inspired by the world of podcasting and public radio for the way they seamlessly slip high-quality learning into the spare moments of our lives. The average podcast or public radio show has notably higher audio quality and show pacing than the average teacher’s screencast.

Make use of format

If you listen carefully, it’s clear that they have a pre-planned show format that allows them to cover the topic systematically, deepening your understanding over the episode duration. One show may consist of multiple “acts” or mini-segments that help reveal the theme in different ways without letting the talk “drag”. Think of how you might chunk up your time into 5-7 minute blocks to support your audience’s attention span.

Multiple voices increases interest

Public radio makes effective use of multiple hosts talking in dialogue about the subject matter, something I seldom see in training videos. This adds interest and engagement, especially with complex concepts, by taking a conversational approach that resonates with listeners. You often can maintain greater motivation and interest through the chemistry between hosts than a single narrator could alone.

Publish “Show Notes”

Most podcasts and video streamers will publish a list of handy links and notes referred to in the presentation so viewers can follow up and read more after they’re done watching. This empowers learners to continue learning after your talky session is over, and increases the likelihood that they’ll follow up on your suggestions.

LinkedIn Learning

LinkedIn Learning courses are notable for how consistent their videos are in quality and format from one to the next, no matter the subject matter. All LIL courses feature similar visual style, come with exercise files, and follow a standardized format. Even the delivery platform itself is consistent from course to course, minimizing cognitive overhead for learners so they can focus on the course material itself. Often there are custom-designed graphics for the course and many internal lesson materials, so you may want to budget time and money to making your talk look professional.

TED Talks and TED-ED Explainers

TED Talks are rigorously scripted and follow a recommended flow optimized for punchy, compelling talks. Speakers may spend months preparing for a ten-minute presentation on the TED stage, and that level of preparation shows in the finished product. Follow this guide to see the standard steps a TED speaker goes through in preparing their talk. THEN look at your own content – what would you talk about if you had 10 minutes to talk to the world?

In conclusion

There’s a lot to know about getting a good recording, and it often feels like extraneous work above and beyond just giving your presentation as usual.

You’re right. It is.

So be patient with yourself, prepare to spend more time and effort than you think you need to, and do your best to match professional trainers in the online learning space.

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