Blog post:

5 Golden Rules of Creating Course Content

So you’ve got your fancy new LMS or web training portal up and running. You’ve got your course outlines in place, documents and handouts set up. You’ve got your subject experts and teachers set up with their recording equipment to make some truly great multimedia content and share the collective knowledge you’ve gathered. Now you can just sit back, slot all that great stuff into place in your outline and educate the masses.

However, have you really thought about how your video content is going to catch and keep the attention of your students? Long gone are the days of monotone voices over boxy screen captures and two hour live recordings of event lectures having the power to hold the attention of the online world at large.

Lucky for you there are some easy things, low-hanging fruit if you will, that you can use to help not only keep the attention of your viewers, but also simply make for a better learning experience.  I like to call these my 5 Golden Rules.

1.    Put a face to the name

As interesting as it is to watch a mouse cursor move over an unmoving program interface (it’s not), does it keep your attention?  Now think of the last time you watched the news. Why do you suppose reporters are on camera while describing a news story? Hint:  It isn’t coincidence.

People are programmed to pay attention to other people, so if you want to better connect with folks viewing your training content, especially video, it’s important to have your instructor’s face be on screen. Having a face on screen creates focus, creates a sense of trust and demonstrates real involvement in the training on the part of the instructor.

It’s simple to demonstrate.

Look at the following simple images and consider which one catches your attention:

 I know it can be sometimes be difficult to get your instructors, even when you are the instructor, to put themselves out there and be on screen, but keep working on them because the ROI is worth the effort when it comes to student engagement.  The result will be viewers who are much more likely to watch your content all the way through, really digest the information you are putting out there, and actually enjoy the learning process.

2.    Speak to your students like you would speak to your grandmother

So, you have your face up on the screen and are all set to train the world how to use this thing you’ve spent so much time creating.

Now is the time to use your LMS to engage your stakeholders in the proper training to enable efficient usage of your workflows, relieve some pressure on your SLA for your support organization, and support the release cadence of your end product.

See what I did there?  

If you’re anything like me, you completely glazed over the second statement as soon as your brain spotted the first acronym, or you forced yourself to push through word by word translating in your head as you went. When you’re training a wide variety of folks on how to use something, anything really, you need to speak to them conversationally: There is a good reason textbooks don’t typically make the New York Times Bestsellers list.

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The rebuff I often hear to this concept is that since the training is geared towards people who are already steeped in their industry’s jargon that they will understand. The precise reason that they already must endure the onslaught of acronyms and business speak every day is reason enough to give them a break from the usual and speak to them casually, especially if you expect them to push through a technical training course. Try to explain things in a way that is easily understandable for the layman, and you’ll be surprised at how appreciative the experts in the field will be.

Using metaphors is a great way to do this. Let’s say you’re training someone on how to migrate a whole bunch of data from one storage platform to another. Rather than getting into specific types of data and the specifics of each transfer type, try explaining the process as different types of geese migrating from their Summer habitats to their Winter habitats. Not only does this give the learner a chance to look at the lesson in a different way, but it gives you the chance to add a little humour and candor to your content, which will in turn make your viewer enjoy the lesson more, remember it better, and be more engaged overall.

3.  If they can’t hear it, they won’t watch it

Audio. It’s far too often that this word isn’t a consideration when it comes to video.

“Oh don’t worry, the built-in microphone should be good enough” and “We can just use our phones to record the voice and sync it to the video later.”

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The truth is that it doesn’t matter how good your camera is and how great your video content looks on screen, if the viewer can’t hear what you’re saying, or if the background is a constant hiss, or the sound of traffic is flying by your open window, then your video quality doesn’t matter. Your viewers will simply walk away. As someone with a background in audio and video editing, I can tell you right now one of the hardest things to fix after the fact is bad audio, and I’ve too often come across examples when content creators didn’t even bother trying to fix it.

In the modern age of high quality, sub-hundred dollar, USB microphones that you can plug directly into your computer, there is no real excuse for audio quality issues. Shut that window, find a quiet room, buy a decent USB microphone and use it so that all the work you have put into your great video content is matched by a full toned, clear instructor voice to match.

4. Video Quality Matters!

Now bear with me here – I know I just finished ranting about how much audio matters regardless of video quality.  But you don’t go ahead with the golden rules of course video content without talking about video quality.

In many, if not most educational video content there will be text up on the screen, and often there will be mid-sized to tiny text that figure greatly into the lesson being delivered. Almost all of your viewers will be watching your videos on modern computer monitors configured for 1080p or higher resolution. Some will even be watching them on big screen TVs capable of 4k resolution or higher (that’s really really big). So the rule of thumb here is to never record below 1080p.

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It’s really important to pay close attention to what video resolution you are recording in when you (or whoever is teaching) sits down to record that first clip.  Viewers may excuse a slightly blurry video when watching a speaker on stage, or an action scene, or even just a talking head, but when users view a screen capture of a user interface covered in text, and that text is too blurry to read then you have immediately lost your viewers and lost your lesson.

In this same vein it’s also important to keep in mind that just because text is legible in a small embedded frame within a website or LMS, does not mean that the same text will be legible once blown up to full screen on most monitors.  A great number of your viewers will want to blow the video content up to full screen to be able to better follow the lesson, so it’s very important to review your content in both small frame and fullscreen to make sure it is still legible at all resolutions.

5.  The Attention Span of Kittens

So who doesn’t love kittens?  The online world is practically built on the backs of the adorable goofy balls of fluff, so who am I to break with internet tradition and not mention them if even just as a handy metaphor.  In the age of YouTube and Instagram we’ve collectively long since lost the attention span we need to endure a two hour recorded lecture, even on a topic we are passionate about. Like kittens we will typically just go find another toy to play with as soon as we get bored with the current one.  

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For the sake of maintaining the attention of your viewers, keep your videos short and concise.  Resist the urge to build out an hour- long lecture on that one really technical subject and find a way to break it down into six to ten smaller subtopics.  Keep those videos down to around five minutes if possible, ten minutes at the maximum!  

Especially on heavier topics, give your viewer a chance to relax their brains and think about what they just took in, maybe check their email or go take a bathroom break before pushing on to the next piece of the puzzle.

Try to keep movement on the screen.  If you’re using static slides to talk over, try and make sure you animate the slide points either in the slideshow software itself, or even in a post production suite like Camtasia or After Effects, to create not only focus on the specific point that is being made in the video, but to simply make the viewing more enjoyable.  Like the aforementioned kittens, us humans too like seeing movement happening on that screen.

Both of these tips make a world of difference when it comes to how much knowledge your students actually take in from video content, and how comfortable they are completing your training.

So don’t forget when you get wrapped up in the complications of your learning systems and course building, that the actual content you put into your courses matters a great deal, and there are simple ways to make it shine and keep your learners engaged, and on board.

About the Author

Adam Silver is an enablement manager and instructional designer with more than fifteen years of experience in generating multimedia content for training and a special passion for technology, people, and anything that connects the two. He has had a unique journey, from training and enablement services for small to large sized businesses to managing shows and artists for a major music label. When he’s not building course content you can find him convincing random folks to get on camera and speak casually to the masses, or trying to rid the world of slide decks one edit at a time.


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