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How to Make a Simple How-To Video

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Read Time: 7 mins

When I need to learn a new skill, my first move is usually to hit Google and start searching "How to (insert skill I need to know)". Judging by Google's search predictions, I'm not the only one. These searches lead to how-to videos on YouTube or instructional sites like Tuts+.

The How-To video format is one of the most popular ways to teach viewers. It's a clear set of steps to accomplish the task at hand. At the end of the video, the viewer should be able to take the same steps and accomplish what they set out to learn.

The goal of a "how to" video is to give the viewer a set of steps to accomplish a task or learn a new skill.

It can be daunting to teach with video. You might be wondering, "How do I keep my viewers interested?" or thinking, "I'm not YouTube famous, why should someone listen to me?" Both of these are valid questions that we'll tackle in this tutorial.

Let's start with a small example. I really like this simple "How-To" video on peeling avocados: the chefs offer some tips, and then dive into the steps for accomplishing the task at hand.

This tutorial is not so much a discussion on the best camera to use, or how to edit your videos (though, if that's what you're looking for, we have plenty). Instead, we'll focus on how to get your message across to the viewer, and leave them with a new skill. 

Everyone has something to teach! Whether you want to start a YouTube channel with your expertise or simply help a family member with a recorded video, the how-to format is a great choice.

A Classic Example

Painter Bob Ross was a master of the how-to. His videos embodied the idea of giving the viewer a new skill with each and every video.

Bob Ross built an audience and shared his knowledge long before the Internet provided a free publishing platform. While he relied upon PBS carrying him into the homes of viewers, those limitations no longer exist. With a smartphone and sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch, or a dozen others, you can teach too.

Build Your Audience's Trust

In the first second of the video, if not the first split-second, the viewer will decide if they trust you as their instructor. It's important to capture their attention quickly and ensure that you're the right person to teach them.

You don't have to be famous to have authority, however. Let's look at three techniques to build the audience's trust. It's not necessary to incorporate all of these, but aim to include at least one of these in the first minute of the video.

Expert Testimony

Even if you aren't an expert, having one appear in your video and providing expert testimony gives instant credibility to your teaching.

In David Bode's tutorial above, from the course Makeup Basics for Video, a professional makeup artist shares her expertise. David is a video professional, and knows enough about makeup to share his knowledge. But it's the professional make artist that really builds the viewer's trust immediately and holds their attention.

Concrete Examples

Above all, concrete examples of what the viewer will accomplish will build trust rapidly. I'm much more inclined to watch a video to completion if I know what the outcome will be. Showing the end result first will build trust with the viewer.

The first minute of this video gives a concrete example of what the steps will accomplish. It takes a boring task and makes it worthwhile with an end goal to look forward to.

Speak The Language

Using words correctly establishes your authority as a capable instructor.

Let's say that the viewer is learning something specific about an application, like an advanced feature of an app like Photoshop. To build trust, it will help to use photography and Photoshop-specific terms.

Educators call this "subject-bound terminology," and by that they mean all the jargon, slang, and tech-y words that make sense for people who are immersed in a subject, but might mean nothing (or something completely different) to someone who isn't.

It's important to also explain, when necessary, what those terms mean in plain language so that people who are new to what you're teaching can follow along too.

Alright, now you've got the subject's attention. Now, what do you do with it? Let's plan the rest of our video.

Plan The Video With Subgoals

Teaching with video accommodates viewers with many learning styles. Some viewers will watch the entire video and then try the skill on their own, while others will follow along step-by-step.

Subgoals are the milestones in your how-to video that the viewer can use to check their learning progress. These are particularly useful when you're teaching a longer subject. If the viewer gets lost or stuck while trying to follow along, she can simply rewind to the previous subgoal.

When I write a video, I start by jotting down a rough outline. The outline keeps me on track when writing the video and keeps the student at the forefront of my mind. I think of video planning in three steps:

  • Desired Learning Outcome: What is the overall goal of the video, or what should the user know when they finish watching?
  • Subgoals: the subgoals of the video are checkpoints for the user to make sure that they're still on track in the How-To. 
  • Steps: the individual actions ("click on this menu", "change this setting")that a user takes to progress toward the learning outcome. If the user follows all of the steps, they should end up with basically the same result.

Charles Yeager's tutorial "How to Stabilize Video in After Effects with ReelSteady" is a great example of how to implement subgoals. Even if you're not interested in the skill he's teaching, check out the video below briefly to see his approach.

Here are several of the subgoals that Charles uses in the video:

  1. Download and install the ReelSteady software to get started
  2. Make sure you capture footage with a wide angle lens and high shutter speed for best results
  3. Apply the ReelSteady software plugin in AfterEffects
  4. Open and apply one of the plugins from the built-in list
  5. Adjust the settings and features to fit your video

Charles' video is lengthy and is really a full guide to the skill, but it has all of the hallmarks of being a success. It's an important skill for beginner videographers, and the subgoals help the user track success. 

Once you've set your subgoals, it's time to press record. There's nothing special about recording a how-to video, but I do have a favorite technique to share: share your video with a beginner when you're finished for honest, candid feedback. Sometimes, I'm so accustomed to what I'm teaching that I forget the needs of a beginner, and this step helps fix that.

Recap & Keep Learning

The great thing about the how-to video is that the format is very well understood by viewers. However, there's plenty of room for creativity in the execution.

Stick to these three keys when producing your how-to video:

  1. Establish authority early in the video. Give the viewer a reason to trust you; they've trusted you to get the skills they need.
  2. Have a central goal for your how-to video, with a key learning outcome identified. At the end of the video, the user should know exactly what they can achieve.
  3. Set subgoals, or clearly defined milestones, for learning the skill.

Do you teach with the how-to format? If so, how do you make sure that the viewer understands the material? The comments are always a great way to share your knowledge with other Tuts+ readers.

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