Captivate and Screencasting: Measure Twice, Cut Once

I’ve been working this summer on a student/intern contract at the Patrick Power Library at Saint Mary’s University, here in Halifax. I’ve joined the Information Literacy crew as well as the Research and Reference team, and right now I think it’s safe to say, “So far, so good”. I’ve met some good people, learned a few things, and shared a few others. I’m happy, and I think they’re happy, so we’re all smiles.

One project I have been working on extensively is the development of audio and video screencasts for the library. I’ve gotten my hands dirty by working with Adobe Captivate and one of my favourite pieces of GNU GPL software – Audacity. For the record, Audacity is a lean, mean, sound-engineering machine, but I find Captivate incredibly difficult to use. I’m a seasoned tech-geek veteran and can catch on to different pieces of software fairly quick, but all that I quickly learned about Captivate is that its functionality and GUI are finicky. I think the software needs a re-boot, but that’s a thought for some other post.

What I’ve quickly learned about screencasting, however, is that one should aim high but never aim for perfection when working with audio and video. There is no such thing as a perfect-10 when you’re developing screencasts that are primed for smart devices like iPhones or similar LG or RIM products. Although it’s easy to be critical of our own work, we need to stay focused on releasing a finished product in a timely manner. Always remember that most small glitches or hiccups are barely noticeable on small screens or will generally be overlooked in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say that one should throw production value out the window so much as it is to suggest that it’s okay if the hex color code you though you wanted was one micro-shade lighter than you expected.

When it comes to screencasts, we need think “gestalt”. We need to think “big picture” and be focused on the aim of the product. Most screencasts are small 1-3 minute wayfinding guides, so it won’t be the end of the world if you mumble your way through “open access electronic databases” on every take when laying down your audio.

So whether or not you use Captivate, Camtasia, or even Wink (long live freeware!), try to keep the following ideas in mind. Aim for elegance, but also aim for efficiency:

1. Measure Twice, Cut Once.

We all may know this slogan from our own favourite home design shows, but its message is definitely applicable to screencasting. Before you capture screens, before you record your audio, and before you start toying with images in GIMP, make sure you’ve created a game plan. It doesn’t matter if you make a story board or a script or hash out a linear map of your slides – just make sure you’ve thought about the message you have to deliver as well as how you’re going to deliver it.

2. Kill your babies.

I cribbed this little saying from some journalist-friends. You will almost certainly fall in love with your subject matter and its delivery, especially in your first few attempts at its design. Now, be prepared to chop it into pieces. Your subject matter and the screencast itself will be worthless if you lose the interest of the user, so always think about how you can reduce your content without losing context. Remember: the revisions you make to the screencast will make it stronger and better. Have one point and one point alone, and keep to it.

3. You do not have a professionally trained voice.

Micromanaging audio will waste your day and delay the development of your next subject, so when it comes to audio, just make the cut and be done with it. Making five or six or even seven takes of one paragraph to make sure you sound “just right” is going waste your time. Instead, create a simple production key for each section of audio. First, take one or two practice runs of the section you’re recording just to be sure that the language is simple and that your pronunciation is on track. Then, make two – no more than three takes – of the section which are free of serious glitches. Don’t worry if you think you’ve paused too long between sentences or if your voice tailed off at a comma because in all likelihood you are the only person who will notice these minor infractions. Ultimately, all the takes are going to sound virtually the same to the first-time listener, so take the cut and move on.

Long live the screencast.