Refining my ideas about videos

I’ve established (at least to myself) that I need to create more videos for my documentation. I’m still working on the details: length, content, and how I can convince other people to do the narration.

Even for short videos (which is what these will be), I know from experience that there’s a lot of editing involved. And I get sick of hearing my own voice very quickly.

So it’s Time to create some guidelines. And next month (or so) I’ll review them to see how well they corresponded to reality.

How long is a piece of attention span?

I try to keep the videos at 3 minutes long, at most, because that’s what I’m willing to sit through. I’m sure there’s some proof for that somewhere, but I think “under 5 minutes” is a good rule to follow. Again, because unless the video is amazing, I get impatient. And if the process takes more than 5 minutes to explain, then that’s a really complex procedure! Does it need to be that complex? Can you break it up?

And here’s an argument that I’m being way too optimistic: “The idea length for instructional screencast videos

So if 3 minutes it too long…that might actually work well for me. I worried that 1-2 minute videos would be too short, too short to be worth creating, but that article says otherwise.

This is great! Now the challenge will be editing the videos down to around 2 minutes, instead of feeling like I have to pad them to get closer to 3 minutes.

Fit the video to the task?

But what if the task isn’t that short? That’s my initial concern, but I think this is where our tech writing skills come in: Break the tasks down into smaller pieces, just like breaking a long topic into smaller sub-topics.

Although I’m moving away from that as a writer, the reality is that readers can skim and skip around with text, they’re more likely to watch shorter videos, and it doesn’t really take that long to read even a “long” topic that I’ve created.

As a writer, I think about my topics in terms of how long it took to create them. And even for short topics (with only 200 or so words), that can be measured in hours (research, testing, screenshots, reviews, edits, updates, etc.).

If the process really is so complex that it can’t be covered in a 5-minute video, you can go back to your product team and make them sit through the video. Show them how exciting it is, and ask them whether they expect your users to do that every time they use your product.

Plus, if your videos are short, your audience will appreciate how quick and easy your product is. I can complete a task in 1 minute 15 seconds? Awesome!

20 minutes about the file export process would tell me that your product is hopelessly complex. I’d suspect that you don’t have anyone who knows anything about UX. And, possibly, that you hate your users and want them to suffer.

Filling the time

I’ve been busy writing documentation this week. I’ve been writing topics, taking a ton of screenshots, doing a lot of product testing, filing a couple of bugs/requests, and meeting with SMEs for information gathering and reviews. Nothing strange for a tech writer, but it’s been a writing-heavy week for me.

When I took some time to re-read a topic that I had just finished, it struck me that the thing was a video script. Not almost a script, or kinda like, but a ready-to-go framework for a video.

It’s a procedural topic, but I stayed away from the numbered list format and just wrote it to describe the workflow. I could slap numbers on the steps, but I don’t see any benefit to that. I want the docs to feel less formal, and less like an instruction manual. It’s more like, “Hey, let me show you this workflow,” and not “You must complete these steps, in order, OR ELSE.”

Even though, yes, they must complete those steps in order. But the UI is already enforcing at least part of that. I want the docs to be a helpful guide, and not a drill sergeant.

I didn’t time my reading, but I would guess that it’s a 1.5 to 2 minute video. And I’ll bet that my guess is too high. I plan to start making videos next month, and this one is a perfect one to start with.

Narrating the things

Another benefit of short videos: You’re more likely to get volunteers to narrate them. Or let’s be honest: “volunteers” who you can beg or bribe to help you.

Someone in your company has a good speaking voice; one that won’t make your users click mute instantly, and one that you can stand to listen to when you spend an hour editing the audio to match the video.

If it’s you: You win! But most people can’t stand to listen to their own voices, so you’ll probably need to make friends with someone else, and work on your arguments explaining why it’s going to help your customers. Or just bring cookies.

Although you should hand those out after they record, and not during.

Tip: Record the video and audio separately

Which reminds me: The best tip I’ve been given was from a friend in marketing, who showed me how much easier it is to create videos when you record audio and video separately. I once spent two hours trying to record a very short video explaining how to export wiki topics to PDF. It took me that long to create a video where I didn’t click the wrong menu item, say “Um” too many times, or just forget where I was in the script.

The final video was about one minute and ten seconds long. Once I learned to record the visual part first and then record the audio, the process was much faster. I could speed up slow parts of the video (waiting for something to load), and chop up the audio to match. And remove the part where dropped the script on the floor.

(I have to admit something: I have created a bunch of videos in the past, but I cheated and used captions and callouts instead of voice narration.)

Another benefit of separate video and audio: It makes it easier to work with someone else to record their narration.

My goal, and how I’ll get there

So: My goal is to create about 10 short videos. I need to start with a list of the topics that will translate well to video form, and then I think that I can create at least 5 in the first month. Then another 5 or so. Since these are going to be 1 to 2 minutes long, that’s not a huge amount of content. But I’m not making a TV pilot, and it’s an alternative to some of the workflow or UI overview topics that I’m writing.

I recommend having a quick meeting with someone on your marketing team to get advice. I work with someone who knows more about creating videos than I ever will. Unfortunately, I can’t hand off the work to him (he has more than enough of his own), but he’s my SME for videos.

Then I need to work on my own sales pitch: “Hey <person with pleasant voice>, I’ve recorded this 1-minute video about this workflow, but I need some help…”


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