Screencasting: My Setup and Some Tips

A few readers have emailed me commenting on the clarity of our screencasts and asking about the software that I use, so I thought I’d outline my setup and provide some hints and tips for producing easy-to-understand screencasts.

Equipment

  • 13-inch MacBook Pro
  • External monitor

A microphone or headset is a must if your environment is noisy. I’d love to get a nice mic, like the sE2200T, but I can’t justify the expense for occasional screencasting. I find that the MacBook’s built-in mic is generally good enough for screencasts, as long as there’s no background noise.

Software

  • Camtasia for Mac (Camtasia’s built-in editing capabilities mean that I don’t need a separate editing program)
  • Ooyala Backlot (for uploading to, and managing videos on, Ooyala, our video host. Please see disclosure at bottom.)

In the past I’ve used Jing Pro and iMovie, which also gives pretty good results, although the combo doesn’t have the functionality that Camtasia provides. For Windows screencasts, I use Jing Pro on my XP laptop and then edit the movies in iMovie on my Mac.

Hints ‘n’ Tips

I prepare for each screencast by making sure I know exactly what it is I want to cover beforehand. I don’t write out a full script — I find the screencast ends up being too stilted, plus it’s hard to keep your place while interacting with the app — but rather a list of features to cover and important points to make. I just write them out in big block letters on a notepad next to my computer so that it’s easy to glance over and see what I need to do next.

I generally record a bunch of takes until I get one I’m happy with; sometimes it might take 10 or so false starts before I get one that’s satisfactory. While Camtasia has decent editing functionality, I find that it’s best to try and record the screencast in one take as it makes them seem more natural and flow better. I try to keep my screencasts  — especially those that are just quick tours of a web app — to around five minutes or less to avoid boring the viewer, so recording in one take usually isn’t that hard. If I were to record a longer screencast I’d probably have to break it up into sections, record them separately and edit them together.

Good sound quality is critical in order for viewers to be able to understand what you’re saying. Fortunately, my office has reasonable acoustics and is at the back of my house so it’s generally pretty quiet. However, I often find that just as I’m about to get to the end of a good take, a police car with sirens blazing will drive past, a helicopter will fly overhead or the phone will ring. In those situations, there’s not much I can do apart from redoing the take. I’ve tried re-recording just the section affected by the noise, but often the transition between the two takes is too great and it ends up being distracting. I also try to keep my voice enthusiastic and upbeat — it’s easy to sound tired after the first few takes, and you can bet that if you sound bored, your viewer is going to be bored, too! If I find on playback that my voice sounds monotonous, I’ll redo the take.

It’s virtually impossible for me to get a take that’s flawless; I always make little mistakes. But the viewer isn’t expecting perfection, and will probably be more forgiving of your mistakes than you are — they might not even notice them. (Note: This is not the case if you’re making a demo video to be used on a product site. In that instance, I’d keep redoing it until I’d eliminated every “um” and “ahh”).

In editing, it’s tempting to use the fancy transitions that Camtasia and other programs provide, but I often find them more distracting than useful. I also steer clear of highlighting effects (like the effect that Camtasia provides to zoom in on an area of interest on the screen) for the same reason, unless it’s absolutely necessary. I mainly just make sure that the sound is OK, add bumpers and titles as necessary and edit out any distracting pauses.

The final piece of the puzzle is hosting. It’s important to use a video host with a transcoder that won’t compress the video too much so that when viewers play it back they can still clearly see what’s going on. We currently use Ooyala, which has great quality, although previously we also used Vimeo, which I was also very happy with. I’ve tried YouTube in the past but I found that its quality wasn’t great for screencasts; that may not be the case now as it allows for HD video.

Disclosure: Ooyala has a commercial video hosting relationship with the GigaOM Network.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Enabling the Web Work Revolution

Photo courtesy stock.xchng user kpeterson

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