This article is not about the right way to make a video. Instead, this is a humble video production workflow that works for people who don’t really know what they’re doing — and have been asked to deliver on the job anyway.
For an uncomfortably long time, that was me. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone ever really caught on, and in the meantime I did get better! Now it’s one of the things I do professionally. I helped write/produce/direct/edit/deliver the first YouTube Certified Online video training for YouTube, and have worked on plenty of other eLearning video projects, small business promotional videos, and a few commercials. Now I’m all into making cinema-quality stuff, but it didn’t start out that way at all.
Embedded in these ten steps are the ingredients for you to get started with making a basic “person talking on screen” video and to get better, if you want to do that. And what better way is there to find out if this video thing is for you, anyhow?
1. Think everything through from their perspective
You’re about to put people on camera. People who would rather be someplace else, often anyplace else. Play all your plans in your head as if you’re them.
- What does it feel like to show up?
- What signals can you give them that it’s safe, that you will take care of them and make them look good?
- What tasks can you give them that help them feel in control?
- If you have other people helping you out (and I hope you do!), what will they do when they show up?
- How can you give your helpers/crew specific things to do that really do help you be less crazy and produce better results?
- How can you make everyone feel welcome and appreciated for their important contributions?
- How can you gently show that you are in charge? How do you make it clear what kind of feedback/help you do not want?
The more you can embody and non-verbally signal people around you, the fewer words you’ll have to say. People hear your actions louder than words anyway, so think about how they’ll perceive what you do.
2. Get ready to work
Wear comfortable shoes, grab a few high-performance snacks, a big water bottle, and be prepared to sweat. You probably won’t stop for a while, and your stress buttons are about to be pressed.
Don’t expect to sleep the night before, you probably won’t. If you actually do go to bed, keep a notebook nearby to write down all the things that will wake you up between 2–4am. Stretch, caffeinate, do whatever you need to be ready to run at full-speed while presenting an air of calm & collected confidence.
Hopefully, you’re only doing the smallest, simplest, easiest part of this project first. But that may not be in your control. Whatever it is that you’re up to that day, you’re either all in or you’re not. Drop the excuses, seal the exits. Ready or not (likely not), you are where you are, and it’s time to give it your best.
3. Press record on everything you can
Don’t use fancy gear, use your phone. Also use that old phone that’s been in a drawer for a year. Get out that laptop and point the webcam where the action is. Put that tablet somewhere where it can do some good. Grab that old silly low-res device from 2005. If it’s got a red button on it, charge it up and press that red button.
Once all the buttons are pressed, go stand where the action will be, point the lenses & microphones at yourself, give a unique name to what’s about to happen (“Test One” is a great start), and clap real loud (once!). You now have cheap redundancy.
Redundancy is your friend.
Stuff will fail, so you need plenty of backups. You can sync all this stuff up later. You can’t capture more later.
Why no fancy camera? Because that stuff is hella confusing! You are not ready for good production gear yet. Good gear will slow you down and screw you up right now. You need devices that you can understand and work easily. Things you can mostly set and leave alone. You have enough to worry about without needing to understand f-stops, light temperatures, scopes/stripes, polar patterns, etc.
4. Watch your monitor, listen to your playback
This is a situational awareness thing, it’s very simple but also the trickiest to learn. Absolutely THE most important: see what is on screen & hear what is in your headphones.
It doesn’t matter what happens in real life, it matters what you captured. No matter how good it was, if you didn’t get it then you can’t use it. So check it.
- That motorcycle that drove by during the perfect take? Again.
- The person who walked on screen in the background and looked surprised? Post a sign where they entered, and again.
- That glare on their glasses that flared in the lens? Adjust lights, and again. That glare on the forehead or nose after an 45min of trying and not getting it? Makeup, and again.
There will always be stuff you miss, but everything that you catch now makes your life easier and your result better. Pay attention, razor-sharp attention to what matters. What got in the lens and the mic is all you have.
5. Make your “Never Again” List
This day was hard, and hopefully you’ll have something to show for it. Before you race off to check or do whatever you do to blow off steam, think through the entire process and write down everything that could have gone better and how you can make sure it does next time.
This is how you learn after all, and you have a lot to learn! It also becomes a valuable asset for you and your employer. That silly checklist is what allows others to help you in the future, and you to move on to other things someday, should you wish.
6. Import, label, convert, and BACK UP your files
It’s tempting to grab your files and start editing. You’ve got a deadline to meet, after all. But give in to this temptation and you will miss your deadline. Trust me on this.
The most important thing you can do right now is gather all your stuff into one place, call it what makes sense so you can find it fast, and then make that one place two places…or better yet three!
Even if you captured stuff right, cards & drives corrupt, files & folders disappear, uploads & conversions fail. So expect these things and don’t let them bother you.
Back it up or you are declaring to all the gremlins in your computer that this content is not important to you, and they may feast upon it with glee.
Along the way you may notice that, oops! This device made frickin’ HUGE files, while that device made little teeny ones. Convert everything to a manageable size, as similar as possible in all the parameters (framerate, codec, resolution, other stuff you probably don’t really get yet). Don’t delete any big, hi-res stuff (yet), just don’t plan to use it. Set what you will actually use for import to your editor, and come back in a few hours.
7. Edit for audio
Okay, now it’s time to edit! It seems like you should start to put things together based on what you see, right? Nope.
In video, sound wins over sight. It’s actually what the viewer hears that determines whether they will continue to watch or not. So first and foremost, you should edit for that.
- Do you hear only what is supposed to be heard, or are there distraction noises?
- Do the words flow together well?
- Does the pacing feel natural for the content?
- Does it sound consistent through the whole video?
Keep crafting until it sounds clear. Until it feels okay with your eyes closed.
I call this The Braille Edit.
It comes before your Rough Cut, before you finesse anything or add background music or sound effects or anything. It saves a ton of time when you make one. Best if you can do it all in one sitting. (And if you can’t, your video is likely too long.)
8. Make “Art” from Accidents
That low-res video looks awful! Especially next to the pretty footage that was shot in (oops!) 4k.
Never ever try to make bad stuff good! You’re not skilled at that. Instead, just make it different.
- Do the colors seem off in that footage? Make it all black & white.
- Everything from this camera looks grainy? Drop a filter effect on it and make it look worse.
- This took too long in real life? Show it at double-speed.
- What about that part where the person on screen just looked funny? Throw something over top of the planned visual to cover it up the awkward moment.
- Too much extra space around your subject or action? Not enough? Crop in, drop a frame around it, blur/highlight whatever helps direct attention where it’s needed.
People will think you shot it that way on purpose. Modern viewers have a high threshold for funky visuals. Move quick but do not mess up your audio, because that already works.
Seriously, just slam your visuals together, cover your mistakes, make everything that’s not the same look VERY different. Then cut between them. It seems counter-intuitive, but the pacing of your cuts will often make more difference than their quality or content. Do not even try for quality, leave that to people who know more than you do.
Play it once through without stopping. Ok, it’s time! Export your Rough Cut!
Yeah, alright. Tom Hanks makes it look easy. But then he has experience and knows what he’s doing.
You’re scared that it sucks, you’re not ready, it feels embarrassing. That’s great! If you feel good about your Rough Cut, you will likely try to defend it, and thus you’re doing this part wrong. You don’t know what you’re doing yet, so you’re on the right track if it seems like the wrong track. Bottom line: run with it anyway.
9. Test with Target Audience
You don’t have a good perspective on the content at this point (maybe you never did?), but at this point you’re WAY too close to know which way is up on this thing. So don’t even try to be objective, just run some objective tests.
Send this to someone within your target audience.
Ask them what it is, and what they learned. Resist the urge to tell them anything about what it is or where it goes or why you made it.
Now ask four other people, one by one.
Now listen to what this small sampling of representative viewers tell you. Do not defend or explain, the only thing you’re permitted to say in return is “Thank you very much for helping to make this better for everyone” — or something along those lines.
The person who told you to make this video will pretend to be one of your Target Audience people. So will other curious coworkers, stakeholders, and the people who appear in the video.
Hahaha! That’s a good one! Nooooooo, they are SO not the Target Audience!
Okay, so you may need to share your Rough Cut with them if they make you, but do anything you can to prevent this if at all possible. Why? Because their opinions are not relevant data. Though once these people give their opinions to you then you have to kinda pretend that they are important.
It’s as uncomfortable as it is avoidable. Hide your Rough Cut from prying eyes. Get your info from the people that matter.
10. Deliver by Deadline
You are watching the clock and wondering how you’re going to turn this around in time. DO NOT ask for an extension, DO NOT miss your deadline.
Know without a doubt that you’re about to deliver something. And it’s probably something you don’t like.
Luckily, you don’t have to like it. This video doesn’t represent all your capabilities, all your tastes, all the work you’ve done before, and it has nothing to do with your worth as a person. It’s an on-time delivery, and that’s enough. For someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing yet, hey that’s plenty!
Of course the less it sucks, the better. So using the feedback you got from your tests, take all the things out that people were confused by or missed. Maybe you’re pulling out content that someone said was important — oh well! You’ll have to deliver that some other way because this way clearly didn’t work. Supplemental resources, anyone?
Don’t let anything keep you from calling this particular resource done. Keep refining one little issue at a time, stripping out all that does not clearly add value, then deliver it strategically just before the deadline. This way no one can request any edits or offer input that makes you question what you made. Get it out, let it go.
Now you’ve delivered what you said you would deliver by the time you said you would deliver it, and you’ve done it for much cheaper and faster (and maybe even better?) than anyone else around you could.
You’re helping people learn trust you, and learning to trust yourself even when scary feelings try to sabotage you. Nice work! Take a break.
Now it’s up to other people to make decisions.
- Do they want more quality? Then they’ll have to pay for it, either in time or money or both.
- Do they want to pull the plug? They can, that’s something they are empowered to do and you are not.
- Do they want to use it as is and give their input that helps make the next one more on target for their expectations? Then that’s what they will do.
Other people like to be in charge, so let them. Encourage them. You don’t really know what you’re doing after all — not yet anyway.
Do not defend your work. Just defend the results of your testing if you need to defend anything. And if people actually like what you did (as they usually do, believe it or not!), you get to say things like “Thank you! I’m looking forward to seeing how it performs.” or “Thank you! I’m learning a lot from this process myself.” or “Thank you! I’m glad you liked it.” If you apologize upon receiving any compliments, you kill the energy of this project and some part of your own creativity with it.
You don’t get to apologize. You get to learn. And in so doing, to help others learn.
That’s enough. In fact, that’s more than enough for what they gave you to work with. You will do better next time, yes. You’ve laid the groundwork for that already, go ahead and review/update your Never Again list if you like. Then take a moment to notice that you just did better than you’ve ever done before!
Again, if you’re looking for the way to make a video that makes sense at scale, the way that’s professional, the way that you’d be taught in school, this wasn’t it. But these ten steps can help you get by until you want to do all that.
If you ever want to do all that. Do you?
I’m Sam and I help make change more doable by writing, speaking, coaching, training, and most importantly by building community hell bent on learning and conscious self-improvement. For more info, visit DoableChange.com.