13 December 2010

Most Common Mistakes in Screencasting - Part 1

When people think about how to start screencasting, they often forget that screencasting is not only a very interesting way of showing something quickly, comprehensibly and easily; it’s also a way of advertising their products. It’s a shame to see how many websites out there lack a beautiful looking screencast, as this can make products look a lot more attractive to potential customers.

What most hobby screencasters don’t know, is that screencasting is not simply the act of sitting down and recording the screen; simple screen recording was something we did four to five years ago. Screencasts have a long history, starting from “I just record my screen” to the fancy product demos you see today. Nowadays, a screencast is almost necessary for start-ups and new products, especially in the tech business.

My career as a screencaster started a couple of years ago. By that time, I was already blogging; sitting in front of Ableton Live (which I found to be a very original new workflow), I asked myself: what would be the best way to show others what I’m doing? The answer was clear: to record my screen.

That same night, I started using Snapz Pro X. My English was terrible and it felt awkward to record this thing — then to re-record it about ten times. Since then I have recorded hundreds of screencasts, including for Mac OS X Screencasts. Having gained a lot of experience, it’s now time to share this experience with others.

How Not To Do a Screencast

In the early days of screencasting, there were a lot of YouTube videos which now look like screencasting “dinosaurs.” This was to be expected then, but there are still people making the same terrible mistakes we all made in the early days.

Handheld Cameras

We probably all know that scenario; we’ve found a new function that apparently nobody uses in a program, and are so excited that we instantly want to share that idea on YouTube. It’s easy to grab a video camera or mobile phone and just point it at the computer screen, right? No. Never ever do that, as the videos will look terrible!

On the other hand, if the video shows something really, really extraordinary, people will watch it anyway. Content is king! If that video ends up on another website that showcases a product or service, it’s obvious that someone should invest precious money in screencasting software.

Facial Cameras

We have seen this a lot of times around the Web: screencasts with a smaller rectangular screen showing the person recording the screencast. Most of the time this screen is put somewhere in the video, and is always on. Even famous people like Merlin Mann are doing it. Merlin is great, by the way, although he’s no professional screencaster; all he intended to do was show his cool new workflow in TextExpander, which is great. Recording with built-in cameras is great too, but as I will describe later, use these functions wisely.

Consider the following:

  • Is it necessary for a face to be there all the time?
  • Does the audience really need to see a face to follow the screencast?
  • Will the face distract people from watching the screencast?

I agree that for introduction purposes, it’s a good idea to show someone on a built-in or external webcam; but as soon as we move to the main content, it’s a good idea to fade that video out. In my latest screencasts, I do exactly that: at the intro my facial camera is on while I tell my audience what they are about to see — and then when I get to the first section, I fade this video out.

Here’s a recommendation: do a big close-up as your introduction, centered on the screen. Then say something like, “Hi, my name is Andreas and today I’m showing you Whatever™ product by Some, Inc. Whatever™ is great, and I love it; you will love it too, and here’s why.” Right after “…and here’s why,” either fade the video out or decrease the size of the video while moving it to the lower right/left corner. Then, leave that video a couple more seconds on screen before fading it out completely.

Distractions During Screencasting

When I started recording screencasts, this was one of the hardest things to learn: leave the mouse pointer wherever it is on the screen and don’t use it as an extension of your hand. If you own good recording or production software, callouts or zooms and pans are better tools to emphasize a particular thing on screen. It’s not necessary to move the mouse while describing something. Also, when you are editing the screencast later on, it’s much easier to make your edits when the mouse stays still so there is no distracting mouse movement between shots, or mouse jump at a jump cut.

On the other hand, the mouse pointer has to be used at times as it’s the only thing people can focus on to follow detailed instructions. Just using keyboard shortcuts is a bad idea. I would recommend on first showing, that you display the menu entry and point out that there’s a keyboard shortcut. On the second showing, use the shortcut (please do tell the listeners prior to execution, otherwise they won’t be able to recognize what you just did).

Don’t Annoy People

A crucial part of a good screencast is entertainment, a fact that many people — especially beginners — don’t realize. Someone watches a screencast to get information, but why not make it a pleasurable experience? Try to create interest by using animations and other techniques.

Another thing to keep in mind, is that there are some things a screencaster can assume: for example, that people can read and have used computers before, so they know how to click on parts of the screen and they know how to write.

In an online review of Snowtape, a Web radio recording application for Mac, the screencaster reads (starting at 0:38) every menu item in the Preferences. You don’t need to do that. Aside from being boring, the screencaster loses precious time for the screencast. On YouTube, a video is usually limited to ten minutes in length. (Pro tip: I have successfully uploaded videos which were 10:50 without getting rejected.) Just going through every single menu entry cost the presenter two minutes of precious time! That means only eight more minutes to show the rest of the application.

Some of my clients refuse to upload their videos to YouTube: Why should one want to upload a video to YouTube, rather than hosting on their own website? Creating a chic, customized Flash video player and all that stuff is fun, isn’t it? There’s one main reason why that’s not a good idea: YouTube is one of the biggest video websites we currently have on the Web. It attracts millions of users daily and has an embedding feature. Think of all the thousands of blogs out there. Creating a player just for one website is attractive, because the owner remains in control over the design and the video itself, but on the other hand, disallows and discourages their product from getting mentioned in — for instance — Smashing Magazine.

I would recommend staying within YouTube’s length boundaries not only for the sake of uploading a screencast, but also for the sake of audience attention span. Audience attention span seems to be gradually decreasing, which is another reason to keep a long story short. Common lengths for screencasts:

  • Instructional (tutorial) screencasts: 8 – 10 minutes.
  • Advertising videos: 1 – 4 min.

Preparing Yourself

My recommendation is to write your script before an actual recording. I have found mind maps handy for this job (I’m a big mindmap fan anyway and use it for all kinds of things, like planning; sorting; thinking).

A screencast should have structure, but don’t “overplan” recordings either as it will suck the spontaneity out of your screencast. Sometimes, meticulous planning and sticking to your script is necessary to make a very straight-to-the-point screencast. However, in most cases keeping everything natural for the audience is the topmost goal. My recommendation:

  • Don’t try to sound unnatural by using overly complicated vocabulary. Keep it simple. Use spoken language. (No curse words!)
  • Try to follow the path laid out in the script, but feel free enough to make spontaneous remarks here and there. The audience will appreciate it! As I said before, they want to be entertained. Don’t try to sound like an over-enthusiastic moderator. You’re not! You won’t sound like yourself and your audience will switch off!
  • Organize in sections rather than trying for a single, long take. In most cases you may have to re-record several times, often because some little details didn’t work. This can cost you a lot of time, so dividing your screencast into sections makes recording much easier.

Sometimes, meticulous planning and sticking to your script is necessary to make a very straight-to-the-point screencast.

Sections should be three to five minutes each. After recording each section and saving it, import each section and put a transition between them. This is not only easy to do, it looks great, and helps the audience follow the screencast as they know that a new section begins when they see a transition.

One thing to keep in mind: use simple transitions over the fancy ones! Don’t think “awesome” transitions will also make a screencast look awesome. A bad screencast will not get a cool, fresh look from cool-looking transitions; what’s recorded, is recorded. Try to stick to the simple things; cross dissolve or dip through black, and if it has to look “flashy,” dip through white.


When planning a screencast, I most often create three chapters:

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced


In the Beginner part, I talk about the basic functions of a program.[1] I tell my audience who I am; what they are about to see; what this application is supposed to do; who made it; and so on. After this short introduction I show a simple, short workflow demonstrating what the application was made for. This, again, draws people’s attention to the screencast: “Hey, that looks really useful. I’m doing that a lot. Maybe I should continue watching.” Then, the Intermediate part begins.


After an introduction and showing some basic functions, it’s time to go into detail:

  • What else does this software have to offer?
  • What are the functions a user discovers at second launch?

For example, for a text editor I focus on functions that make this editor stand apart. I might talk about software interface, shortcuts and useful functions — basically, the things users discover after the second or third time they launch the application.


When it becomes clear what the application does, I then concentrate on showing the really advanced stuff. You have reached your goal when people think: “Wow! This is crazy! I didn’t even think that would be possible with this. I really need to check this out!” Maybe, it’s an export function nobody thinks of; or, a hidden preference setting somewhere. Who knows? This is why it’s so important to be well prepared and to be familiar with the product; for example, I recorded a screencast on how a very simple stop-motion app named Smoovie can be used with AppleScript and Automator to record time lapse videos.

For the concluding part of this article, see the following article 'Most Common Mistakes in Screencasting - Part 2' to be published on 15/12/2010

The above was originally published at: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/12/09/most-common-mistakes-in-screencasting/

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