Capture video from your screen | tools and best practices

Would you like to learn how to effectively capture video from your screen and create professional output? Such videos make excellent teaching and marketing tools, and they are becoming a standard means of web-based communication.

In this post, we'll cover best practices for producing an engaging screencast and talk about tools for getting the job done.

What we'll cover:

  • How to give your screencasts a professional feel
  • How to structure your content for optimal engagement
  • Tips for focusing on key concepts
  • Ideas for simplifying the capture / recording process
  • Free and paid tools for getting the job done

Adding a professional touch to your screencast

Before you begin recording, take some time to look over high quality screencasts and get a feel for what makes them attractive and engaging. Often, subtle techniques are all that is necessary to give your screen captures a professional edge. Well-executed animation, text effects, and presentation will help to keep your viewer from losing interest; just don't go overboard and create confusion.

Whether your project is for instructional or marketing purposes, a dynamic presentation will draw in the viewer's attention and help them to absorb the message.

For tips, check out How to Screencast Like a Pro. It includes tips for...

  • Increasing visual clarity
  • Capturing quality audio
  • HTML 5 and mobile video
  • Animation and layering for visual impact
  • Integrating popular tools such as Camtasia and Powerpoint

Now, let's talk about best practices...

Planning your content

When you plan your video, consider the attention span of your viewers. The longer your video, the more buy-in you'll need from viewers in order to keep them focused.

For longer conceptual screencasts, be sure that you include an introduction that tells the viewer what benefit they will gain from watching it to the end. Use your marketing skills here; no matter how useful your content is, you'll need to convince the viewer that it is worth watching.

For shorter screencasts, an introduction may not be necessary. In fact, viewers who are expecting short, quick demonstrations might not sit through your introductory content.

Create an outline of the major concepts you wish to convey. This outline will guide you in rehearsing the steps you will capture.

Many authors find it helpful to create a storyboard that shows rough sketches or mock-ups using actual screenshots from the software. These screenshots can be juxtaposed with the text content that explains them, whether you plan to show the text on screen or record it as audio.

The more detail you add to your notes, the less trouble you will experience when you actually begin recording your video.

Practice makes perfect

Now that you have your key concepts nailed down in the form of an outline or storyboard, you should practice your presentation.

Without opening your screencast software, go through the steps that you will demonstrate to viewers. Try to perform them exactly as you will when you begin recording the screens.

Practicing in this manner will help you avoid any mistakes. You're likely to have a few brain lapses, or visual "uh..." moments, the first few times through. Keep practicing until you nail the presentation and can demonstrate the entire process smoothly. Mistakes are easy to work around when you are just practicing; they are much more troublesome if you try to edit them out of an actual recording.

If you are recording audio, practice that as well. You can always add the audio track later, but speaking the process out loud will help you stay focused on the steps you wish to demonstrate. Also, it will train your auditory senses so that you'll remember your lines instead of stumbling over them when you do record the audio.

Preparing for your recording session

Before you begin recording, you'll need to set up a few things.

First, take a close look at the software applications that you will capture in your video. Focus specifically on the toolbars, menus, and other customizable interface features. Do they appear exactly as your viewers will see them when they launch them on their own PCs?

Try to set up your application so that it accurately mimics what a basic user will see (unless you are targeting advanced users). Doing so will reduce confusion and make it easier for the viewer to follow along and actually perform the steps in the same way you demonstrate them.

Now, take a look at your desktop, and apply the same principles. If you switch between applications in your video, your OS desktop will likely be visible. Are there any icons or desktop backgrounds that you do not want the viewer to see? Fix them before you get started.

Test your audio equipment also. Is your microphone set at the appropriate volume for recording clearly? You may need to find an area without a lot of background noise and practice mic placement to get a clear recording of your voice. Don't forget to keep a glass of water nearby in case your throat gets dry.

Last of all, check the settings in your screencast software. Are the project settings appropriate for the video you are about to create? Check the screen capture area, project titles, and other settings. Getting these right at the beginning could save you a lot of trouble; you don't want to re-record an entire video because your settings were wrong.

It's go time!

Relax. You've practiced this before, and you know the material.

Click the Record button, double-check that the screen capture area is correctly positioned, and move at a steady pace through the process you wish to demonstrate.

Aim for a moderate-to-slow speed. Mouse movements should be gradual. If you plan on using text captions, you'll want to give the viewer time to read those captions. Often you can adjust the timing during editing, depending on your software, but the closer you come to getting it right the first time, the easier editing will be.

When you are finished, hit the Stop Recording button and test your results.

Now, play back your screencast.

Does the pacing feel right? Are there any areas where you captured something unintentional, or where the software failed to capture what you wanted to demonstrate? You may need to go back and record additional slides and insert them where appropriate. (This assumes your tool is slide-based, like Adobe Captivate. Some tools produce a single video stream that makes such editing more difficult.)

Keep adjusting your output until you get the desired results, and then have others review your work.

Tools for capturing video from screen

Adobe Captivate - Part of the Technical Communication Suite. Captivate is a robust, slide-based tool that allows you to edit slides on a timeline, insert text, and more. It is one of the more expensive tools for recording screencasts, but produces very professional results. (It's what I use.)

TechSmith Camtasia - Another industry standard tool for producing high-quality results. Camtasia functions differently from Captivate, so you'll want to pick a tool that fits the type of projects you wish to create.

DebugMode Wink (Free!) - A freeware tool that offers robust features for screencasting. Handles audio and produces multiple output formats.

If you follow these guidelines, you should be producing high quality videos in no time.

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