Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Don't Cast Your Net So Wide!

   My current client, in my work as a freelance software developer, uses Jing screencasts heavily.  The QA analysts use them to demonstrate problems and how they test solutions.  I've started using them myself for demos of my implementations (for BA/PO approval) and bugfixes (for QA approval).

   But don't worry, this isn't going to be a heavily technical post, with programming and systems terminology thrown at you.  It's just going to be a bunch of tips I've figured out for making a good screencast that your viewers can easily follow.  These tips apply whether you're recording with Jing or any other tool, and hosting the video at like Jing offers, or anywhere else.

   First, sometimes people screencast a very large area, when they don't need to.  It might be the entire screen of their monitor, or a very large window that could have been made smaller.  This means that the viewers have to use a very large window themselves, or scroll around a lot, in order to see everything.  Maybe they don't actually have to see everything that's being shown.  That's a prime indication that the size should be cut down!  This becomes even more important with Jing-type videos (as opposed to YouTube), since you can't just click anywhere, or press the spacebar, to stop or pause it.

   But how can you cut down the size?  What I've been doing is to use a relatively small window (whether browser or terminal or whatever), usually as small as I can.  For what I've been doing lately, that's around 960x720, but I've done others at 800x600 and even 640x480.  (If you host your videos on YouTube, they have several standard sizes you can aim for, for the clearest picture.)

   You might need multiple windows, such as if your demo involves both a terminal or editor window where you're editing code or directly manipulating data in a database, and a browser window where you show the results.  In that case, stack them in the same area, so that the largest one completely covers the other(s).  If you need to have multiple of them visible at the same time, lay them out that way, within the size of the largest one.  If that's not possible, use another window that's there just to establish the size; you don't have to ever actually show it.

   Then, when starting your screencast, tell your software to record the area covered by the largest window.  With Jing, it's easy; upon telling it to Capture, it will give you crosshairs so you can lay out an area.  Instead of dragging an area, simply click on the window, and it will choose that as its area.  (It will also tell you just how wide and tall the area is, so you can get the size you want.)  If you're using something else, it probably has a similar feature; at the very least, it should let you switch which window is being recorded (so you might not need to stack them), maybe even following along with focus.

   Sound quality is also important.  If your voice sounds "distant", with your system's fans making a lot of noise, you may be very hard to understand.  The usual cause of this is using your laptop's built-in microphone.  That's fine for informal chatting, but for recording, where the listener can't just ask you to repeat something, it doesn't cut the proverbial mustard.

   At the very least, use some kind of external microphone.  You can use an old-fashioned one, or even the one on a pair of cell phone earbuds, plugged into your system's microphone jack -- if it has one.  If you opt for earbuds, just be careful about letting it rub against your shirt, as that will make noise.  Even laying it on the desk in front of you will probably be better than a laptop's built-in mic, as it will be further from the fans and closer to your face, but beware of typing noise.

   Better yet, use a headset, with a boom mic.  (Position the mic higher than the base of your nose, so you don't get breathing noises.  I usually put mine beside my cheekbone.)  If it's the kind with a fairly directional mic, "listening" mainly in the direction of your mouth, it will even help cut out some of the other random background noise.  Headsets can still come with the old-fashioned 1/8" plug, but USB headsets are everywhere nowadays.  You can get a decent-quality USB headset for well under $20, though you may find it worth splurging if you use it a lot, or need fancy features like a noise cancelling mic.

   (For about four years now, I've been using the cheap-seeming set that came for free with my Rosetta Stone order.  I've used it for an average of about half an hour a day in that time.  It's comfortable, very light, and gives very good voice quality -- as you'd expect, to feed into their speech recognition software.  The only problem that has developed is a slight looseness in the boom when within about 45 degrees of straight up.  You could probably find something of similar quality for the princely sum of $10 on eBay.)

   Then there's the whole matter of presentation skills.  On that, I'll mostly defer to Toastmasters International.  The few tips I will put in here are: plan out what you're going to say and do (typing, mousing, window switching, etc.), speak loudly enough to be heard easily but not painfully loudly, and don't drone on in a boring monotone.  Keep your sentences digestably short, and use vocal variety to emphasize the important points.  Remember, the listeners can't see you!  (Except of course if what you're screencasting is your camera feed, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

   After you've finished making your screencast, watch it yourself!  You might spot some parts where it might not be clear what you're trying to show (or even what you said), or where you make the watcher sit through an extended period of your floundering around trying to figure something out.  If so, take it as a practice run, and do it again.

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