For all kinds of subjects, the Internet abounds with deep, detailed material. When a person is interested in something new, however, all this information can make knowing where to start pretty hard.
In this tutorial, you'll learn how to produce a simple explainer video. An explainer is a "what-is" introduction that gives viewers a bridge into a topic. The explainer helps your audience get oriented and encourages them to learn more. You can make explainers on just about everything!
Marie Gardiner's explainer, Adobe Camera Raw in 60 Seconds, is a perfect example of the explainer format. There's plenty of instructional content about Camera Raw, but beginners may not know why you should use it. At the end of the video, the viewer is inspired to learn more about Camera Raw.
In this tutorial, I'll first cover the basics of the "What Is" video format. At the end of this tutorial, you'll have the skills you need to produce your own. Let's start by learning more about this format.
What is a "What Is?"
A "What Is...?" video introduces the viewer to something unfamiliar. Your explanation might be their first exposure to a subject, anything from a new piece of software, photography technique, or recent news story. What all these videos have in common is that they give someone who's new to the topic enough information to get the gist of something, and a bit of a push to keep going.
Here at Tuts+, we've produced a series of "... in 60 seconds" videos. These short videos help users get excited about a topic and launch into learning. Sometimes, they are quick introductions to large applications like Adobe Lightroom. Other times, we'll use this format to teach a specific feature, like Photoshop's Content Aware Fill tool.
To check out examples of this format across several categories, visit the links below and watch a few videos.
- Photo & Video 60 Second Tutorials
- Design & Illustration 60 Second Tutorials
- Code 60 Second Tutorials
The "What Is?" video format doesn't have to be 60 seconds, however. If you've chosen a specific feature or tool to teach, it might not warrant an entire series of video or a long course. A three to five minute video is often the sweet spot when you have a narrow focus.
I propose that there are basically two formats for "What Is?" videos:
- Short, 60 to 90 second videos that are introductions or summaries of a broad topic, like a programming language, photo editing app, for example.
- Three to five minute videos that have a really tight, narrow focus, such as a specific method in a programming language or photo editing technique
This Vox explainer video dives into a specific topic and explains it in around five minutes. While you could hardly explain all of American politics in a short video, the explanation here of how red and blue came to represent the two major American political parties is topical and succinct. Along along the way, they also manage to tell an interesting story about American democracy. Choosing a narrow focus allowed Vox to do all that in just a few minutes.
How to Produce a "What Is?" Video in 4 Steps
Now that we've defined the format, let's look at how to plan and execute our first video. If you're not a video veteran, every step of this process features resistance; having a structured plan helps it move along nicely.
Throughout this tutorial, I'll be sharing tips from Tuts+ instructors Marie Gardiner, Melody Nieves, and Charles Yeager. These are three talented instructors who work with video as a fundamental part of their work. As for me, video is simply one of the tools I use to teach; if you aren't totally comfortable producing video, we have a lot in common.
Step One: Identify and Choose a Focus
I imagine that you're reading this tutorial for a reason: there's something that you want to teach, and you've decided to use video to teach it. It's time to share your expertise.
Choosing your focus for a video lesson comes down to biting off the right amount of content. There are really basically two directions to go: a brief overview of a broad topic, or a slightly more detailed review of a feature. What is the one thing you want people to take away from your video? Figuring that out will help you decide what the best approach is.
"One of the favourite sayings in our office is, ‘you can’t edit a blank page’, so getting something down initially, is important, then you can refine or adjust later."—Marie Gardiner, Tuts+ Instructor
I'll refer back to the formats that I proposed above: 60 second videos for introductions to broad topics, or focused 3 to 5 minute explanations. The 60 second intro video format is perfect for overviews of a wide topic like Sony Vegas, for example, while the three-to-five minute video is ideal for a single feature inside the application.
Drone video is one of the most buzzed-about topics currently. Many viewers will have questions about the format, and that's why Charles Yeager's introduction video is so helpful. The viewer can then jump into Charles' full course on Cinematic Drone Video Production as a logical next step.
Once you've selected the right format for your topic, let's dive into planning the video.
Step Two: Plan the Video & Write the Script
Once you've chosen your topic, it's time to write the script and prepare to record. The key to the "What Is?" format is dropping all assumptions about the viewer's knowledge.
Check out the video below by Mark Thorburn, who does a fantastic job introducing DSLR's as video tools.
The lesson should introduce the viewer to the topic and get them excited to learn more. I start off by thinking about what the viewer should know by the end and then work backwards to figure out what I need to include.
"I always start off with a clear, concise outline. Then I just kind of walk around and talk the script out."—Melody Nieves, Tuts+ Instructor
The part that's unique to the "What Is?" format is making sure you stick to the runtime plan. For me, it was difficult to record my "in 60 seconds video" because I had never been mindful of time. Writing it and reading it aloud repeatedly helped me make sure I was within the right timeline.
"Once I have the subject established, the best way for me to get started with the script, and what I always like to do at the intro: define the subject. Once I clearly define the subject of the tutorial, I find it is a lot easier to transition into more detail."—Charles Yeager, Tuts+ Instructor
I write all of my scripts in Evernote, a digital note keeper. I've found that adding your own personal story about how you make use of the knowledge can help the viewer connect. That's why a note-keep is helpful: those moments of inspiration don't always come when you're sitting at your desk to write the script. Whatever your method, it helps to have a system to organize your thoughts.
For more complex videos, it's worth investing some time in storyboarding, sequencing and shot planning, too. This is the process of developing the visual framework for your production. Especially on more involved explainers, doing this preparation can save you a lot of time and headache.
Step Three: Press Record
I don't want to dwell on the technical aspects of video in this tutorial, such as which camera you should use or the best microphone to capture audio. There are plenty of great pieces here on Tuts+ about those aspects. Instead, let's talk about how to succeed while recording for this format.
The only specific thing about recording video for the "What Is?" format that differs from other is how important it is to be mindful of time.
First, duration: our testing shows that the formats I described above are the most effective for introducing people to a topic. However, it's worth keeping an eye on how your audience responds. What works for them? Maybe you're an academic, and your audience is happy to sit through a longer lecture with more detail. Tailor your finished product to fit the time expectations of your audience.
The second way that time matters is in topical relevancy. What Is explainer videos are a great way to engage people around something that is happening or has just happened: the election, drone video, even camera RAW. All of these topics are current.
Staying topical means you might need to move quickly to record your video. In general, the best way to do that is to practice, have a solid workflow, and be ready to jump into making video when it's needed.
Also, you don't necessarily have to be on camera to produce a successful video. An intro can be a screencast, or simply a set of well-done slides with a good voiceover. The Vox video featured above is a great example of using visual aids and stock footage to illustrate an explanation.
Step Four: Edit & Share
Once you've captured your video, it's time to move onto editing. In the editing stage, you can introduce additional aids to drive the message, such as captions and graphics that hold the viewer's attention.
At the beginning of this process, you had a spark of inspiration. You had a piece of knowledge that you wanted to share, a topic you were passionate about. The video you produced will share that knowledge and excitement with the viewer. Publishing it online is a leap of faith, but I've found that sharing my knowledge is extremely fulfilling.
More often than not, less is more with explanation videos. Don't fuss too long on your edit. Instead, focus on the basics, and getting your work out there. If it's not perfect, that's OK. Use the experience to inform your next video. The best way to learn from your videos is to see how they are received.
Recap & Keep Learning
This tutorial introduced you to the "What Is?" video format. You've probably seen these videos in the past, but maybe you didn't think of them as a category. The great thing is that almost anyone can produce a video that introduces viewers to a new topic.
I wasn't comfortable with video at first. In time, I've realized that it is often a highly effective way to teach and share information. If you're still warming up to the idea of video, here are some tutorials to help you keep learning.
- Melody Nieves' asks readers "What's Keeping You From Hitting Record?" and is the perfect first read if you're anxious about starting video production. Melody shares great tips on getting started with the format.
- Introductions are sometimes the most difficult part of a video, so check out David Bode's piece on How to Record a Natural Introduction to practice the skill.
- Video editing is a skill of its own, so check out this collection of courses to learn more.
Are you using video to teach? If so, I think it would be great to share a bit of wisdom in the comments about how you got started.
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