Videos and screencasts in technical communication at ASTC (NSW) 2014

I’m attending the annual conference of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (NSW), ASTC (NSW) 2014. These are my session notes from the conference. All credit goes to the presenter, and any mistakes are mine. I’m sharing these notes on my blog, as they may be useful to other technical communicators. Also, I’d like to let others know of the skills and knowledge so generously shared by the presenter.

Charles Cave presented a session titled, “Don’t tell me – show me!” It’s about videos and how they can be used in technical communication. We all know that in real life, if you can get an expert to show you, that’s the best way to find out how to do something. Note that a video can be very short, even 20 seconds. It doesn’t have to be long, to be effective.

Charles told us a story of how he needed to solve a plumbing problem at home. He looked around for instructions, but didn’t find any. Then he looked on YouTube, and found 2 videos. One was very short and simple, illustrating how to replace a filter in a toilet cistern. The other was longer, and presented a large amount of technical information effectively. This works well for something as simple and tactile as plumbing.

In technical communication, we can use a screencast with some sort of narration to show someone interacting with a computer. Charles told a story of how he tried to explain to a friend how to use a website:the Stanton Library website. He started explaining, but decided this wasn’t an effective method.

Our options for showing someone how to do something:

  • A textual description of the steps
  • Screenshots with annotations and callouts
  • Video with voice-over
  • Video with voice-over and callouts

Here Charles played a video he had created, showing the steps you need to take to search the library for new items on the Stanton Library website. This was a straight recording using Camtasia. He usually does a voice-over, using Audacity (open source and free of charge) to edit the audio track. You can remove background noise and do other editing to achieve a reasonably high quality. Before doing the recording, Charles creates a script and makes sure he has all the software ready to go.

With Camtasia, you can add callouts. Charles demonstrated callouts using arrows overlaid on top of the video, shape drawing, and spotlights which make part of the screen dark so that our eyes are directed to the important part of the screen. There’s a lot  you can do in Camtasia, with zooming and panning and more.

Captions or subtitles are useful on videos, particularly for those situations where people can’t listen to the sound. For example, if they’re in a noisy place or with other people. Charles used the captions to point out the important steps in the procedure.

Let’s assume you do need screenshots as well as the video. With Camtasia, you can export the current frame as a PNG file. When using screenshots, it’s sometimes difficult to see what’s changed on each screen. And it takes time to write the words that accompany the screenshots. Charles says that producing the video can be quicker, and also more friendly to the user. Adding a friendly narrator adds to the friendliness.

To consider when considering creating a video as opposed to textual instructions:

  • How effective are the instructions?
  • How much time and effort will it take to produce the video?
  • Is the video usable without sound?
  • Where will the video be watched – PC, Android, iPhone, etc?

What about video format? Charles recommends MP4 as the most universally useful format.

Charles touched on live-action video, such as filming with a smart phone. Nowadays our smart phones have high definition cameras and are useful tools for creating videos. You can get some useful accessories for the phone, such as a tripod. Also consider light defusers, and setting up a little home studio.

With Fuse from Techsmith, you can transfer videos directly from the phone into Camtasia over a WiFi connection.

You can make videos from still images. Charles uses PowerPoint, and saves each title slide as a PNG file, then includes those into his video. Charles showed us a couple of attractive title slides he’d made. You can also take a number of very clear photos of hardware, for example, and use those in a video flow instead of a filmed video.

You can make screencasts from a mobile phone using Reflector from Squirrels. It runs over the WiFi network. When you’ve connected your iPhone, everything on the phone appears on the screen e.g. your Windows computer. Then you can record it using Camtasia.

What you need to product a video:

  • The producer/director: you
  • The script: a plan or list of steps
  • The camera: Camtasia or a smart phone
  • The sound recording: a microphone and Audacity
  • The voice: Charles says doing this yourself is a very good option. Getting someone else to be the talent is also an option, but they’ll need training.
  • Actors, if you need more than one person: You, and perhaps some colleagues
  • The audience!


Thanks Charles for a great introduction to using videos in technical communication. Charles has put more information in his blog post: Don’t tell me – show me!


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 18 October 2014, in ASTC and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: