As a software developer, the demo – or “test drive” of your product – is a key marketing tactic. Without spending money, your prospective customers can try before they buy.
However, the scarcity of one critical commodity gets in the way of user demonstrations: time. Many prospects now want to “preview” your application easily and quickly, without even registering an email address or downloading an application, before considering a demo or trial version.
To cater to this time famine, the screencast is a primary tool for providing this instant gratification. A screencast is a digital video recording of a computer workstation screen that depicts an (usually) unseen operator operating a software application.
If you have interested a prospect enough to click a “Play” arrow button on an embedded video, then you must make the best possible use of this sliver of his limited attention. This blog entry shows you exactly how to craft the delivery of those words that cap off your screencast professionally.
How Do You Prepare the Words for a Screencast?
Silly question, right? You connect a microphone and you speak into it as you run the program.
Not so fast.
There are three choices available to you for screencast narration:
- None. Produce a silent screencast, or use a musical accompaniment.
- Ad-lib the narration: connect a microphone and start talking (or, narrate as you record the screencast.)
- Script the narration, as this article recommends.
Most screencasts are ad libbed: the person who is operating the software talks into a microphone and explains as she is performing actions.
If you believe that you can just connect a microphone and start ad-libbing a cheerful description of your product… well, you can. But the results will be unlikely to be professional, or to result in customer interest.
Typically, an ad libbed screen video rambles, focuses on low level operational details while not providing a good overview of the entire product, and appeals mainly to technologists, not management decision makers.
Why Plan a Screencast Video?
A carefully planned screencast presentation – which includes voice-over narration using a script that is prepared with product marketing in mind – will create an exceptionally professional and positive impression for your product. (In large part this is because most product screencasts are unscripted – your screencast will radiate professionalism by rising above the norm.)
In essence, a well scripted screencast is an extremely cheap salesman for your product.
If you want to promote and evangelize your product, then a narrated screencast that is methodically scripted will give your business and your product an appearance of being serious, “big time” and ready to serve the customer’s needs.
Besides the consistency and quality that the scripting approach described in this blog can provide, a script allows you to easily outsource the voice portion of the project. There are many providers of high quality, professional voice services available online, such as Voices.com, which will record your script using professional voice talent, in some instances for extremely modest prices.
How to Create Effective Screencast Scripts from Scratch
The following is an outline of the basic technique that I used to develop screencasts for a client earlier in 2008. Since the resulting screencasts combined with professionally recorded voice-overs appear to have created a stunning result for my client, I feel very certain that this “recipe” will work for many other software products where a live demonstration of the software is used to reinforce the marketing message.
Here are two pieces of general advice.
- Repeat yourself: The process of script creation is iterative. You may record a screencast that you believe is well-paced, easy to understand, and that “should” be easy to narrate. Once you start developing the script, you may find that things fall apart when you actually try to plan the wording. This is to be expected, and I believe that most screencasts will have to be re-recorded or at least edited a few times in the process of developing a workable script.
- It’s all about time: It will be for the very best if you are working with a screencast video that has a time position counter somewhere in view in the video frame, and which also has a “pause” control and a position slide adjustment. Not all video capture packages produce these features by default. If the video does not contain a time position counter, then you will have to use an external timer, and errors can creep in and accumulate in the timing of your script.
Here is the basic flow of screencast script production.
- You need to first watch and preview the newly recorded screencast video. Maybe twice. Get the “feel” of the screencast. It may be useful to ask for the video to be recorded with ad hoc commentary made by the operator, so that you understand every action being taken during the video.
- To frame your script development, ask fundamental questions that a client or stakeholder would ask – detailed and also broad-agenda – to enhance your understanding of the video and to frame your script development. The most important single question is: “What is the whole point of this demo?” You should have a general outcome shown in the video that will be important to most users of your product.
- Start writing rough draft. Select time points at which segments are to be spoken. So you will wind up with a list of paragraphs, with time stamps noted in minute:second format at the start of each paragraph. You will have to view the video and pause it continually and rewind it in order to write each paragraph.
- Speak aloud with the video to test your script’s content and timing. Preview the screencast again, this time reading your script aloud at the prescribed time points. This is not a recording session. This is to determine how the narration flows with respect to the video. You should make a point to speak methodically and more slowly than you would in normal conversation (as an example, pay close attention to the cadence that newscasters use for reporting on broadcasts.)
- You are striving for a “Goldilocks” effect – just the right length of material. The purpose of the previous step is to verify that the words you write will fit into the time slots that you are working with. As you complete reading each paragraph aloud, the video time position counter should not yet exceed the time that you have assigned to the start of the next paragraph. In other words, running-over to the next time point at which new narration should begin is an error. You must correct it either by somehow shortening that paragraph, or by editing the video recording and inserting a pause at the appropriate point.
- Consistency of style is important: gaps of more than 5 seconds or so in an otherwise very “chatty” narration feel awkward.
- The video itself may have timing problems that you cannot compensate for by scripting alone. Problems that I have encountered during script development tend to be issues introduced during the video recording – such as not allowing “dead” time (a motionless video) for a few seconds at the start and the end of the recording in order to allow for introductory and final words. Another problem is the operator in the video doing very complex actions too fast to allow you to insert a reasonable explanation into the script. It may be necessary to re-record segments of the video, or to freeze the video action using video editing software.
- Edit your written copy (the script) after the video has been edited, to refine the timing. Use the “speak aloud” technique to re-test each modified paragraph. You may have to adjust the timing starts of the paragraphs that follow if time has been inserted or removed from the video.
- Some steps above may require an iteration or two in order to arrive at narration that you believe represents your product well.
- After completing some scripts, you will find that you can skip or accelerate some of the steps above (for example, identifying too-short sections of the video) as you learn what to watch for. You will also develop a feeling very quickly for the time that each line of your script requires to be spoken, so you will soon learn enough to minimize the effort of revising each passage.
To summarize these steps: watch, learn and get the “feeling” of the screencast. Work on understanding the points that should be conveyed to the audience. Then write a script that, when spoken, fits the actions that are shown in the screencast. You will need to write this script as a series of paragraphs that are crafted to be spoken within fairly restrictive time limits.
What I Didn’t Explain
I explained a way to produce screencast scripts. What I didn’t explain are the following essential techniques and skills: operation of the screencast recording software; video editing; selection of voice over talent (voice actors); and, the copywriting of the script itself. Each of these subjects could be covered by a separate blog entry.
Conclusion: My Own Show-and-Tell
Screencast scripting is a simple procedure, but is somewhat tedious with mechanical bits. There is quite a bit of fussing required to achieve a good result. And it does feel a bit like you’re being a movie producer. I think the results are well worth the trouble.
If you would like to see the end result of the type of planning that I advocate in this article, please visit my client’s site and press the green “View Demo” button.
(Please consider recommending Ernic Software’s excellent product, Optitask, to your IT department.)
I create screencast scripts, and a wide range of other marketing materials for my clients. Please visit my site, SoftwareCopywriter.com, contact me at (513) 760-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your needs.