Writing for How-To Videos, Part 1: Basic Considerations for Scripts

Two notes before we begin: first, this article is about software how-to videos, not instructional videos that explain a subject or your business plan.

Second, this is the first article of two. I’ll present some basic considerations in this one, and focus on the content of the scripts in the second one.

Order of Business

To get your video:

1. Write the script.
2. Make the video again and again until you work out all the kinks.
3. Correct the script if the video requires it.
4. Make the final version of the video and record the narration. See the next section for more details about this stage.

There are two important aspects to this order. The first is that when the video is made, it might deviate from the script. From small things like re-naming a field or button, to larger issues like finding that some things require more information, some require less and some were discarded. Your script will then have to be adjusted to match the video.

The second important aspect is that the narrator shouldn’t be present when the video is made for the first few times – it’s a waste of time. Sort out all technical difficulties, make sure the demonstrator (the person showing the actions in the video) knows how the script goes and where to click, and get a final script. Only then do you need a narrator.

When Do You Record the Narrator?

There are three ways to record narration: before, during and after the video is made.

Before and after are equally popular methods, because the demonstrator or narrator can match their timing exactly to the other’s work, reducing editing. They’re also independent from the other’s mistakes; if one of them delivers a perfect first take, it doesn’t matter if the other requires several takes and some editing.

I don’t recommend narrating and demonstrating at the same time. Every time either the demonstrator or the narrator makes a mistake, the demonstrator might have to undo some actions, wasting their time. The final product might be a bit of a hard-to-edit mess, too.

How Long Will it Take?

There is only one way to find out how long your text will take to read (and act out): try it. And when you try it, please don’t do it at your natural pace. You’re probably a very fast user, because you’re very used to the application, and you may also be a fast speaker. However, your video will have to be slow enough for people to see what you’re doing and your narrator will have to keep to a medium pace.

How long should it take is not always your decision; you may just be the script-writer. But my experience with videos shows that people prefer short stand-alone videos to long ones, so each video should handle one topic and be only a few minutes long. So, for example, if you’re introducing the basic work-flow, don’t be tempted to show off the cool features. Those can have their own videos.

Helping Non-Native Speakers

A professional narrator should know what to do when the audience is presumed to have many non-native members. If you’re just using someone from the office, simplify things by asking them to keep to a medium pace. Too slow drives people crazy, but normal-pace speech is a little too slurred for many non-native speakers.

Always provide a transcript, as closed-captioning if you can or as a stand-alone text file if you must. Make sure it’s the text as it was spoken, not as written.

If you know that many of your users speak a specific other language (for example, if your application is extremely useful for French vineyards), forget about transcripts and just get your text professionally translated and narrated.

One Final Note: the Narrator’s Accent and Your Text

It might be that certain words in your text will be unclear, or too easily confused with other words, in your narrator’s accent. You should be ready to deal with this. If the narrator brings it up, don’t be rude and don’t insist on keeping the word (unless the word is an unavoidable part of the UI). If the narrator insists that he or she can get the word, give it a few tries – it might work, once the narrator gets into rhythm. But be ready to provide other options and be firm (though still not rude!).

I won’t get into the subject of selecting an accent. There are some very strong opinions around the internet about using only native-speakers versus using non-natives with clear accents, and about using regional accents versus using only the ones that Hollywood and the BBC have made almost universally understandable. A quick google will help you decide, if you haven’t already.

Next time: how to write the script.

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