Designing Training Videos

Faced with creating a training video that explained the correct procedure of filling out a new business form, I decided to open the video with a voiceover by an actor playing John Huston playing God:

In the beginning was Management and Management created the Organization and the Organization was void and without forms; and Management said, "Let there be forms," and there were forms and the forms were fruitful and multiplied… and multiplied… and multiplied.

The show won a wall full of awards, all bestowed upon the suit who commissioned the video rather than to me, who merely conceived, wrote, directed and edited the program; but thats a different story.

Why the fancy opening for a humble training tool? Simple: lure the audience in with front-end humor and they may stick around for the pulse-pounding content that follows, stuff like "…Press the TAB key to advance to the next field." The moral is that a good training program demands every bit as much thought and creativity as a story program or a commercial.

In the article, Basic Training, (online at and in the May 2000 issue of the magazine) we covered the selection and structuring of subjects for training videos; so lets look instead at how to spec your program in detail and how to anticipate production constraints and problems.

Project Specifications

The better you define your training project from the beginning, the tighter and more effective your final video.

First, what is your objective? A training video implies that your audience will learn how to do something by the time your video has finished. Express objectives as actions. "Trainees will understand forklift techniques," is a worthless objective because no one can measure it. "Trainees will maneuver loaded pallets in confined warehouse spaces" is a good objective. Keep your objectives down to four or five at most. Dont try to do everything in one show.

Next, who is your audience? What skills, information and interest levels will they bring to this program? New hires may need to be told what a fork lift is, while veteran employees might be insulted by this ultra-basic information.

How interested are your viewers? Trainees who are upgrading their warehouse job skills may be highly motivated, while the minimum wage clerks watching my epic on a new office form couldnt care less (thats why the humorous surrounding material). Know the demographics. Whats their age and education level? Obviously, second graders are different from grad students, and you probably will want to avoid sesquipedalian polysyllabics with fork lift operators ("big words" means the same thing anyway).

Next, whats your delivery system: a TV/VCR combo in a study area? A projection system in an auditorium? Will the show have to stand alone, or will it be supported and augmented by a trainer or instructor?

Whats your target running time? Dont say, "as long as the subject requires" because human brains and bottoms alike can stand only ten to 15 minutes before they turn to stone. The trick is to pick a good target length and then subdivide your subject into segments that fit.

Finally, when youve decided all of your projects specs, youre ready to determine the scope and density of your content. Whats density? The level of instructional detail and the time allotted to each piece. "Start forklift and drive to pallet area," covers far too much and says far too little. "Find ignition key and locate pointy end. Identify ignition and ignition key slot. Insert key, pointy end first, in ignition key slot." is obviously way too dense to be necessary. Deciding how much detail to present is a great part of the art of instructional design.

Production Constraints

Unlike a personal video, a training video is hemmed in by three sides by constraints: schedule, budget and sponsor. Anticipating and dealing with these limitations is crucial to success when producing training materials.

Scheduling problems include deadlines ("we need it last week"), seasonal problems (How to Run a Snowplow) and shooting limits (the warehouse is closed only on Sundays). To undertake a project without a detailed understanding of potential scheduling problems is an invitation for disaster.

Financial constraints are self-evident only if you can spot potential costs in advance and budget accordingly. Shot 87A demands a fisheye lens? Have you factored in the cost of a new lens or to rent one? Your humorous conclusion has a Lone Ranger look-alike riding out of town, while people ask, "Who was that masked man?" How much is that white stallion going to cost for the day?

To protect yourself from any unpleasant surprises, budget your show right down to the tiniest line item and then add a generous percentage as a humble offering to Murphys Law.

Finally, theres the client. There are volumes written about client management, but to save space and time, here are the bare bones:

  •  Insist on having one designated decision maker from your client. Clients like to avoid responsibility by "collegial" decision making that is absolute death on deadlines because there is no single signer-offer on scripts, production plans or finished products.

  •  Schedule in terms of turnaround intervals, not specific dates. Dont agree to go into production on March 1st because the client may not return an approved script until April 10. Instead, have the contract begin production X days after you receive script approval from client.

  •  Obtain interim signoffs frequently and in writing. Get the clients signed approval of at least the project description, the script and the edited program. And while youre at it, limit the number of iterations of each. That is, specify that youll deliver a first draft script, a revised second draft and a final shooting script.

    Beware the client who says, "I dont know what I want but Ill recognize it when I see it," or "Lets just run it by ol Janice and get her input," your project is as good as dead.

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