A mechanic in an auto shop is showing an audience how to work on an engine.

If there's one thing YouTube and the ease of video sharing have brought us, it's an easy way to scrutinize how other people make videos. Mostly bad videos, but you can learn from the bad just as well as from the good.

Like any specialized movie or video genre, training videos have special needs that other videos might not employ. Documentaries don't have to tell you how the ancients built a pyramid, they just have to speculate on how it might have happened. Action movies don't have to tell you how to diffuse a bomb, they just imply that it can be done by cutting the green wire – no, wait, was it the white wire? … and the audience believes it.

Training videos or how-to videos need certain points of action to give their audience not only the steps to making that model train, but the confidence that they're doing it right. The best training videos follow a good tight format, and these 10 elements can help you make the best training videos, and leave your audience wanting more:

1. Use a Script  – Don't Ramble

Too many people tend to want to skip to the fun part – the shooting, and not work with a script, storyboard, shot sheet or any type of plan to getting their training video done. This wastes a lot of time and doesn't inform the audience well, and key points can be missed or lost in translation.

  • Follow the same format for every video you make, especially if they're in a common series.
  • Actually make a script – even if it's just a bullet point list of steps to illustrate.
  • Read through the script out loud – understanding the spoken word is different than reading the written word. Some sounds don't go together well when spoken, like the "k" sound of a word that ends with a “reyk” followed by that same sound from a word that begins with a "K" or as in “kwik” for saying the phrase "rake quick."
  • Have a second list in your script of all the props or tools you'll need and line them up on a table outside of the shooting area in the order you'll need them.

2. Keep It Short – Be Concise, Succinct

People have very short attention spans nowadays, especially for Internet video. They have a lot of distractions taking them away from your video.

  • If the how-to video is a simple technique, try to make it two to five minutes.
  • If the training video requires more skills and a longer involvement, make it a maximum of 30 minutes.
  • With a 30-minute or longer format video, find good places to break it into segments of three to five minutes each. Give the viewer breathing time between steps.
  • If your video requires you to go longer than 30 minutes, break it into two or more separate videos, similar to how Videomaker created our "Making Commercials" training videos.

    People have very short attention spans nowadays, especially for Internet video. They have a lot of distractions taking them away from your video.

3. Audio is MOST important!

Videomaker harping on the need for good audio is like listening to a broken record. (You remember those, right? Black vinyl discs with grooves that spun on a player with a diamond needle that projected cool tunes in the old days?) Some people still don't get it – your audience will forgive bad video, but will tune out due to bad audio.

Close up of a microphone on a man’s shirt
Close up of a microphone on a man’s shirt

  • Use a mic. Use a mic. Use. A. Mic. Always use an external microphone, please do not rely on your on-camera mic to capture the audio of your video presentation. Good audio is crucial for any type of video sharing.
  • If you are setting your camera 10 feet away from your display table, the audio from the camera mic will sound muddy and hollow. Then if you move in close for a closeup cutaway, the audio will peak because your mouth is now closer to the mic.
  • Even an inexpensive $15 wired mic from the mall electronics store is going to sound better and more even than the on-camera mic.
  • If you MUST use the on-camera mic, learn some tricks to getting around Automatic Gain Control and covering your camera to mask the electronic mechanisms for simple voice-over work. AGC is a pain to work around, but it can be done.

4. Simple Background and Lighting

An elaborate set isn't necessary for most how-to videos, and in fact it often detracts from the subject at hand.

  • In most cases, you're going to demonstrate something on a table or in front of a backdrop – so make the background simple, never busy.
  • You can get pre-made clearance curtains or go to a fabric store and check out their discount aisle – most raw fabric runs about 45 to 58-inches wide and you can buy it by the yard or by the bolt. Bed sheets work, too, and are wider.
  • Stick with neutral shades, a darker color will show off most products well, but invest in some lighter fabric if you are demoing dark items like cameras.
  • Stay away from a white background, which tends to fight with exposure too much, unless you have a well-designed set.
  • Set two lights about 45-degrees from the center of the demo area, one on each side. Even simple standing lamps will work, but the idea is to make the light even.

5. Use two cameras or shoot it twice – then edit it!

Many people really want to do a training video in one long shot, with one take. More power to them. You can't run the camera and do the demo at the same time effectively, and zooming in, then out, to illustrate points wastes time.

  • If you choose to use two cameras, designate one as Camera A for your main camera, and hook up the mic to that, and set up Camera B for cutaways and closeups, but also record the audio from Camera B to make it easier to sync the video later.
  • If you use one camera, consider doing the entire demo once, uncut, with the camera on a tripod, then shoot it again for closeups and cutaways – edit accordingly.

6. Closeups and Cutaways of the Action

Closeups are necessary for most training videos. Whether it's to demonstrate a technique or show a collection of materials needed, most training videos will have closeup shots.

Close up of a microphone on a man’s shirt
A closeup and a wide shot of a man working on a car engine. In the wide shot he’s using his left hand, in the closeup he’s using his right, breaking continuity.

  • Don't shoot the cutaways during the demonstration, shoot them afterwards, so you can match it with what was actually said.
  • Stay wide on the main shot, don't zoom in, pan or move the camera. This will make it easier to insert cutaways and closeups of techniques or small parts in editing.
  • Pay attention to continuity by matching the movement of the shot. If your talent picks up a wrench in his right hand in the main demo, make sure he does it the same way in the cutaway.
  • Make the cut from the main wide shot to the closeup during the movement, rather than just before or after the movement. This will make the shot appear more fluid and should mask continuity discrepancies.
  • Hold cutaway shots long enough for the viewer to understand what it is you're showing.

7. Add Simple Graphics

From an Opening graphic that tells the audience what you are demonstrating to a Closing graphic that tells them where to go for more, graphics are essential for all training videos. Even the easiest entry-level consumer video editing programs can make simple titles nowadays.

  • Every how-to video should have an Open – even if it's the simplest white type over a black background.
  • A closing graphic with your name and/or website ties the whole piece together, especially when sharing video online.
  • Like the backdrop for your video, your graphics should be easy to read, and not too busy. You can learn proper titling techniques from many Videomaker features.
  • Leave the graphic up long enough to read through three times at a normal pace – not too long, definitely not too short.
  • Make bullet point lists within the body of your video when you are prepping a tool list, like we do in this training video on "How to Make Your Own Car Mount".
  • You can place graphics over video instead of a solid background, if you keep the video simple, soft or defocused.
  • Never use a busy background with wild graphics.
  • Make graphic bullet points to drill home ideas, techniques or to emphasize steps.
  • Bullet points are also good for recaps.

8. Check Out Examples Online

As mentioned earlier, there are lots of examples of training videos or how-to videos online that you can learn from, both good and bad. Critique them for how you think you'd teach the technique yourself.

  • Are they too sloppy? Can you understand what the message is implying? Do you feel confidant that you can do the process they are teaching? Is it rushed or does it drag too much? Does it have a busy backdrop or distracting background?

Close up of a microphone on a man’s shirt
Screengrab of the Thai Foodcast training video.
"Thai Foodcast", a multi-part cooking series, was put together by a couple of former Videomaker staffers right in their home during a few weekends. They cleared an area in their living room of furniture and decoration, put up an Asian bamboo backdrop to enhance the show's theme, and used an average mic and two lights. The look of the main introduction is always the same in every segment for consistency with this simple backdrop, then they shoot closeups of the food cooking in their tiny kitchen, and the presentation is on a folding table covered with a nice solid-colored tablecloth. It's one of many very simple examples to check out.

Close up of a microphone on a man’s shirt
Image of Don Curo’s 2007 Best Educational Video
"Chromatography Tips & Tricks", from Don Curo of La Habra, CA, is another example you'll find on our website from our old contest series. Curo's training video exemplifies how important it is to gather all the right tools and demonstrate the techniques just right to train someone for a possibly dangerous mission. His video trains technicians how to assemble parts necessary to work on a gas chromatograph and he needed to be precise in his instructions and warnings. After watching this, I felt I could confidently "install a column into a split-splitless inlet" on a gas chromatograph, too.

9. Bonus Material

If you're making the training video to sell on a disc, adding bonus material to the DVD is a good way to elicit sales other than just views from a non-paying online audience.

  • Videomaker often includes .pdfs of stories that correspond with the subjects on the videos, as an extra bonus. We sometimes throw in subscriptions, free material like sound effects or appropriate production forms from the Videomaker Book of Forms.
  • If your how-to video is part of a series, package four to nine techniques or subjects together and make sure they all have the same graphics and look for uniformity.
  • If the training videos are online only, be sure to add links to other training videos in that series or post a list of other series you sell.

10. Teaser – more to come!

As they say in show business – always leave them wanting more.

  • If your training video is one in a series that runs online, you can have a short 10 to 20 second teaser at the end advertising the next video in the series using a simple voice-over that discusses what the next video will be, along with an expected time it might appear. Don't forget to add your product name, company or business name and website.

Making the Video Earn for You

How-to videos are fairly simple to make – and well-produced series can bring in a good income. If you acquire the necessary skills, you don't have to know how to install the engine, saddle the horse or build the train to make the video, you just need to know how to work with the on-camera talent and make the video he or she presents. Do it well, follow a similar format every time, and you can get a reputation as the training video producer in no time, and earn income doing what you love to do – make video.

Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor.

Close up of a microphone on a man’s shirt[/caption]

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for a fine article. I followed the link to the Thai Foodcast videos and spent 3 hours watching cooking videos! Theirs were about the best, using the tips you highlighted. Someone else's video I watched started off well but about halfway through a noisy machine started up – it sounded like I was listening to a vacuum cleaner running right next to the on-camera mic! What a difference between the two videos. The trouble is, now I can't watch a how-to video without seeing the flaws!

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