A small-scale, mostly-one-take video production process

This post is part of a series on demonstrating competence and expertise on video:

Create an outline

Outline your video in some detail, and make that outline visible (either on your screen, or printed on paper) during your video recording. Not too much detail, though; the outline shouldn’t take long, perhaps just a few minutes.

Then iterate on the outline, and get feedback from others if the video is important or if you are new to this kind of content. Rearranging text in an outline is tremendously easier than re-recording or video editing, so make the most of this stage.

The most common kind of edit to an outline to improve your results: take key points from deep in the outline, and make those points at the beginning instead. If you learn only one thing about short-attention-span video work, or for that matter most copywriting work, “get to the point right away, and stay there“.

There is a context where the traditional approach of building up toward a revelatory conclusion make sense; that context is when the audience is trapped or already won over. When the audience can easily leave, follow a more journalistic approach. Open with your strongest points and then spend the rest of your time supporting those points.

If there are any key phrases, key terms, etc. make these visible in the outline. Practice key phrases or sentences until they flow naturally and easily.

Detailed script?

Especially high-stakes videos might warrant a detailed word-by-word script; but I never use a detailed script, and therefore have no particular insights to offer.

Position the outline or script

You will need to glance at your outline or script repeatedly while recording; yet to make the best connection with the viewer, your eyes need to mostly look at or near the camera, not away from the camera. Here are some approaches to make this work:

  • Put the outline in a small window on your computer screen, position it close to your camera – works very well except when you need that same area of your screen for the recording.
  • Print the outline, tape it to the wall behind your monitor / camera.
  • Put the outline on your phone, put your phone on a stand (tripod) behind your monitor / camera.
  • Use a commercial or DIY “teleprompter” set up – overkill for nearly all cases.
  • Memorize your outline so well that you don’t need to look at it.

First take, to throw away

It’s rare for the first take or “one take” of a video to reach the quality you are hoping for. Rather, plan on throwing the first one away. Set things up as best you can, and then carry on through even if you make mistakes. Since you are planning to throw it away, don’t aim for perfection. Don’t stop for mistakes, practice flowing through your content.

(For an internal-use-only video, the first take is often good enough to be the final take.  Many of my videos for internal use at first takes.)

Watch your first take with a critical eye. Think of yourself as a member of your audience with other distractions just a click away. Edit or make notes in your outline about things to do better to reach your audience quickly and keep them.

Depending on the importance of your video, you may need several draft recordings, or better yet send a draft to a colleague for review and feedback. This is not a time for ego, this is a time for intentional improvement.

The real recording

After one or more drafts, it’s time for the real recording. Double check your video and audio setup, ensure you will be undisturbed for the length of the recording, relax, and record.

If your video includes a demo of a computer operation that takes a while to run (developers: npm install), you’ll want to speed up (or even cut out) that portion during editing. Remain totally quiet during this portion – this will make it easy for the editor (you or otherwise) to see the portion, because the graphical representation of the audio will be a flat line.

Video editing

Do only as much video editing as necessary – if your video is short and your outline is good, this might be no editing. Most of the time I get by with minor edits: remove a short critical mistake, blur out a bit of private information, trim excess video at the start and end, add titles, etc.

A short video is often more effective than a long video. For a longer or more detailed topic, multiple short videos are often better than one long video. Conveniently, with short videos it is easier to re-record than edit, and I recommend that as your primary technique. If you have a 20 minute topic, consider recording in four sections of about five minutes, then your editing will just involve appending them together with a brief title between. Getting a clean good video take of 20 minutes straight is nearly impossible.

I recommend against delegating to a human video editor except for higher-stakes cases. Adding a human back-and-forth cycle to the editing process tremendously slows your iteration and learning, and adds to the cost and other overhead for producing short impactful videos. There is plenty of more complex video work out there, to keep human video editors very busy forever. Don’t bother them with something you could fix by doing another more careful take.

Create, reuse, and improve your checklist

You are smart, and you’re good at remembering things, right? Surely you don’t need to use a checklist. Those are for other people, less smart people.

Lots of people doing far more important things in recording a video, use a checklist. Surgeons. Pilots. Astronauts.

Therefore: each time you’re working on a piece of content, use a checklist. The first time you start, it will be empty; at each step to it. Then each time you go through your process, also improve the checklist. Include every task or setting that must be done or verified. Everything for audio, everything for video, everything for room set up. Everything for the content. Even checking that your attire is appropriate for the task at hand. Put everything on the list, and work the list.

99% of people reading this will still refuse to use a checklist; but those that do will probably be the most effective at producing the best content with the fewest tries.

Humility

Watching yourself on video and audio and then iterating to make it better is a fast and effective way to see and rate your own foibles. It can be shocking the first few times. This is normal.

Stick with it. Your first 500 hours on video aren’t going to be very good; people you watch on television have countless thousands of hours of experience before you ever see them, in which they develop a smooth and polished way of presenting themselves with few retakes.

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