Secrets of Video Training: We Betray the Instructional Designer’s Guild

Instead of dividing time eras into BC and AD, instructional designers could use BP and AP instead, meaning Before PowerPoint or After PowerPoint. Once, we were a tiny guild of specialists who jealously guarded the secrets of blueprinting effective teaching media and practiced our arcane arts for pathetically puny fees. Then came presentation software (now dominated by Microsoft PowerPoint) and every college professor, every middle-management suit, every city council meeting petitioner was suddenly P.T. Barnum. But did you notice? AP era media shows may be zippier and more colorful, but they’re often as muddled, verbose and boring as ever.

What’s this got to do with video? Instructional videos frequently use PowerPoint presentation methods, but a more important idea is that even sophisticated software cannot produce effective training media by itself. The dark secrets of the Instructional Designers Guild are still essential to creating useful educational programs. I am about to betray my guild and divulge those secrets.

Videomaker frequently covers various aspects of educational videos in depth. Here we’ll focus on the typical decision process an instructional designer uses in planning a training program. We’ll discuss job specifications, program content, presentation method, presentation media, strategic and tactical organization.

Job Specifications

Step One is to describe the job at hand by answering five specific questions.

What is the topic? That’s an easy one. Let’s say: “Using a Sewing Machine.”

What are your objectives? That is, what do you want your program to achieve? Using a sewing machine? That’s not a useful objective. How do you judge whether the program does that for the learner? An objective is a goal that can be measured, like “Learners will be able to make a shirt.” If they make a competent shirt, they pass. That’s a measurable learner objective.

Who are your target learners? Workers in a shirt factory need one set of skills, while home sewers need a somewhat different set. A good training program addresses a specifically targeted audience.

What’s your delivery system? Or, in jargon-free English, how will you show this program? Will it be shown on a big screen to a class or on a home screen to one learner at a time? Will the program be computer-based for easy stop-and-start interaction with the learner? How you display the program will affect the way you design it.

What’s your budget? You could start with an introductory tour of a Husqvarna sewing machine plant in Sweden or just borrow a machine from a cooperative local store; it all depends on how much $$ you have for your project. An imaginative designer can make a cheap show as instructionally effective as a big production.

With the basic description of your program set, you’re ready to identify specific content.

Program Content

To focus more tightly on the content, you’ll want to answer another four questions.

What is the scope of the content? Mastering a modern sewing machine could be a six-week course. How much of the process can you deal with in a single program and which part should you choose? Let’s say you limit your scope to the computer-controlled functions of a modern sewing machine. Since stitching fancy patterns is a computer-driven function, let’s plan the scope of the content to include making an embroidered shirt.

How much detail will you include? You could show the content in just three steps: (1) Thread the machine with embroidery color, (2) select a computer-controlled embroidery pattern and (3) guide the material through the machine. At the other extreme, you could show each step with a dozen sub-steps. For example, selecting the thread type and weight, loading the bobbins, selecting and installing the correct needle, threading the machine and adjusting the thread tension are all important before you even start stitching. You have to decide the level of detail in advance and sometimes it will vary from one section of the program to the next. Loading a bobbin is basic stuff, so you might give it a quick once-over. Customizing a pre-programmed stitch pattern might need much greater detail.

How dense will your presentation be? That is, how fast will you present each point (at whatever level of detail)? For example, you could show threading the machine in a series of close shots that present only the important parts of the process. Alternatively, you could repeat each step for clarity or maybe show the process in slow motion.

How long will your program be? This is the last content question because it’s pre-determined by other considerations: the scope, detail and density you’ve selected, combined with the practical limits of learner brains and rear-ends. In practical terms, a training program should not exceed ten minutes and rarely go over 15. If you can’t fit the material into that length, break it into multiple programs.

Presentation Method

Presentation method means your overall approach to getting the selected contents across. Most training programs use one or more of three approaches.

Straight exposition. This approach shows the material in logical order, supplemented by an anonymous narrator and appropriate graphics and titles.

Demonstration. Here, the narrator moves on-camera as an expert presenter: a famous chef in his studio kitchen or a do-it-yourself maven on a job site. Typically, the expert talking head moves off-camera again for direct how-to footage, again supplemented by graphics and titles.

Interview. If the expert is not an experienced demonstrator, you can elicit the key information through adroit questioning and then drop in the questions from the interview. You can, of course, lay the answers over footage.

Presentation Media

Most training videos are combinations of visuals, narrative, and graphics or titles. That’s because each piece of information is best delivered by a particular medium.

Video. If you can see it, show it. The core medium of video is the image. The best way to present threading a sewing machine is through visuals that clearly show the process.

Audio. If you can’t see it, talk about it. You can show setting thread tension at position five, but you can’t show why. It’s much more effective to augment the video with voice-over narrative, “Generally, position five is a good tension level to start with. Then you can adjust it as necessary.”

Graphics. Sometimes graphics are more effective than live-action visuals because they eliminate all extraneous details so that the relevant ones stand out more clearly. Titles are indispensable for focus and for eminding learners of where they are in multi-step processes.

Strategic Organization

Strategic (or perhaps “macro”) organization refers to overall principles used to organize and present your content.

Task-oriented organization. This approach uses the sequential steps inherent in the task to organize the presentation. To wind a bobbin: (1) select the desired thread, (2) place the thread spool on the correct spindle, (3) insert an empty bobbin in the appropriate place and (4) guide the thread along the correct path from spool to bobbin. In a task-oriented presentation, the job outlines itself.

Concept-oriented organization. Some tasks, like selecting an embroidery pattern, are not strictly sequential, so you organize their presentation around a concept: “the best embroidery pattern complements the design of the shirt and is suitable for the shirt’s intended use.” Notice that you could present those two sub-topics in either order. They’re grouped together because they’re aspects of a single concept.

Hybrid organization. Few programs are so nuts-and-bolts that they can be totally task-oriented or so abstract that they can be driven entirely by concepts. As with video, audio and print media, you’ll usually switch back and forth from concept-oriented to task-oriented organization.

Tactical Organization

At the tactical (or perhaps “micro”) level of organization, instructional designers use ancient, but effective, tricks to keep learners oriented and on-track.

The three Ts. (1) Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, (2) tell ’em and (3) tell ’em what you just told ’em. In other words, start by presenting a list of topics that learners should expect to cover in the program. Then cover each topic in order. Wrap up by re-listing the topics, to remind viewers of what they’ve seen or heard. This method is hoary with age, but there is no better method of guidance and reinforcement.

Signposts. As you move from topic to topic in the “Tell ’em” section, use verbal or title signposts that point back to where they’ve come from and forward to where they’re going next. “Now that we have the bobbin loaded and the machine threaded, we’re ready to select our embroidery pattern.”

Buildups. Buildups are titles in a list format that organize content and show viewers where they are in the program.

In the bobbin-winding example, you might choose to use a headline with four bullets below it:


  • Select Thread
  • Place Spool on Spindle
  • Insert Empty Bobbin
  • Guide the Thread

When you introduce the topic, all the bullets are white. Then, as you start each sub-step, each bullet might turn yellow. As the yellow color moves from one bullet to the next, the learner is reminded again and again of the number and sequence of sub-steps.

So, I’ve spilled the main secrets of the Instructional Designers Guild. They may rip the buttons off my uniform and drum me out of the corps, but at least you’ll know the fundamentals of designing training videos.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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