ProcessWire Open Source TV

Making a Tutorial Video

Tutorial videos have become very popular now that publishing on platforms like YouTube is so easy and there are plenty of free screen capture facilities around.

However, as with much that becomes easier, it does not mean that suddenly it has got better. In fact, the web is now littered with thousands of badly presented, badly made, badly edited and badly conceived tutorial videos that are of no help to man nor beast.

But if you have a story to tell, if you want to pass your knowledge on to others, then a video is a good way of doing it and why shouldnít you make it yourself?

Well, in this little, non-video tutorial, I will try and get you thinking like a producer so that when you do make your video, even if it is far from a great, professional work, it at least gets your ideas across clearly and helpfully so that your effort does not join that vast sea of pointless contributions to human knowhow.

Just a quick note, I am not going to go through what equipment or software to use or to give you technical tips here – this is purely about the production values you need to employ. Without getting that right, all the top level equipment in the world won’t make your video stand out from the crowd. Well, it might, but not in the way you wanted...

Should you make a video in the first place?

Not everything is worth turning into a video.

Videos demand total attention from the audience. Unlike radio, which can be listened to in the background while doing something else, television programmes require the use of two senses at once ñ sight and hearing, especially the sight bit. This means that to get the most from your teaching, the audience needs to be able to concentrate on the programme and be able to absorb the detail easily for later use.

If your subject requires a huge amount of detail, lots of coding examples, and vast amounts of typing, then the audience is going to have to stop and start your tutorial continuously, will probably lose their place easily and might end up putting a price on your head.

Likewise, if what you are teaching is tiny and could be written in a post in just a couple of sentences, then to go to all the effort of loading your video, switching on sound cards, plugging in headphones, waiting for the video plugin to load just to sit through twenty seconds of you hitting a button, then your place on the hit list is assured.

So what makes a good subject for a video?

Overviews are the most obvious contender where it is not vital that the audience remembers everything, but gets a good general sense of how something works or what something offers.

General techniques that do not require a lot of code but may benefit from some general explanation is another good area. For instance, a video on how to use ìforeachî in php would maybe only consist of five or ten lines of code, but a video would allow you to chat about when it is good to use this sort of loop, explain how to add breaks, remind users to keep track of brackets, talk about any limitations and so on.

Workflows and Processes are other good areas. For ProcessWire a video may give some very good pointers about where to start when it comes to developing a site ñ should you create fields first? Should you work out templates first? What is the difference between a template and template file and so forth.

Again, this does not need huge amounts of code or line by line tuition, and can often benefit from a friendly presentation style.

This is not to say that videos cannot be used at all for very detailed tutorials, but you may need to consider the inclusion of lecture notes as a PDF (as would a good lecturer at a college do, I hope), or that your video is just part of a longer tutorial that may also be written.† But if your video is completely stand alone, then make sure it is presenting an idea that is suitable for the medium.

The Big Wrong Things

"So, what can go wrong? I mean, I know the subject, I sit there coding every day, this is my world - just turn on and record. What is the problem?"

The list is, sadly, endless.† But here are a few things that can ruin your plans† (and spoil my viewer experience):

  • Mouse pointer waving around pointlessly
  • Bad visual quality so it is unreadable at full screen
  • Irrelevant windows all over the place
  • Endless leaping between this screen and that screen and this and that folder, application and so on
  • Muttering
  • Repetitive, "I will just ... er,...not there ... oh yeah, that one.... oh, forgot a bit..."
  • Forgetting to introduce not just the video but the various parts
  • Tiny font size
  • Buzz words, nicknames, unexplained short cuts ...
  • Too long
  • Trying to tackle a too complicated a subject

And there are many more.

So, how do the pros do it?

I probably have a bit too much fun listing all the things I have done over the years just to confuse people, but the truth is that my main role has been rather bland - I have produced and/or recorded THOUSANDS of sound tracks for corporate productions, and video edited and even directed quite a few too.

These have tended to be big budget affairs with professional camera operators, enormous Grass Valley editing suites, professional presenters and voice overs and so on.

But that does not mean that the skills eat up the budget - it is just the fees that do. The skills are straightforward and logical and are free to anyone who wants to practice a bit. So here is a bullet pointed step-by-step guide.

1. Preparation

Knowing what you are talking about ISN'T preparation - it is nothing more than a knowledge base. Most technical videos are written by people who do not know the subject but do the research and turn it into something meaningful.

Trust me, even if you know the subject inside out you still need to do research and preparation:

  • What level of expertise does the audience have?
  • What is your tutorial trying to achieve?
  • Do you know how to explain every action you will make?

If you go through what you are trying to do correctly, you will find out there are lots of things that you know instinctively that you realise others might not know, or you have no idea how to explain.

List them. Break it down. Remember that your audience cannot read your mind, so look for the things that you frequently skip over that may lose someone not living in your head.

It is very important not to make the aims of your tutorial too ambitious. Stick to one lesson, one idea and explain it properly. Good prep will make sure you stick to the lesson plan and do not include bits that will over complicate the tutorial or confuse the audience.

2. Script Writing

I cannot emphasis this enough - WRITE A SCRIPT!!!

I don't care that YOU think you are the best ad libber around - you ainít. I probably am, but I would never do a lesson unscripted. Even politicians who do long speeches "unscripted" don't really - they script every word and then learn it inside and out over days.

Writing scripts scares the bejeesus out of people, which is why there are so many terrible, unscripted tutorials out there, but it is not as hard as it seems and it will make the rest of the process far easier in compensation.

Start with a list.

Coding tutorials, in particular, are nothing more than a list of actions - write this, press that, check this. So, when writing your script - start by doing that.

Make each action as short as possible:

"Open a new file"

"Write <?php at the head"

"Save file"

and so on. It is as boring as hell, but you will not only get the lesson in the right order, you will quickly find out what is missing or what does not work.

Break it into scenes.

I think most people think that scenes in videos and film are three or four pages long. Well, to be honest, a lot of them are just a few lines.

Think of it as a paragraph. Take my bullet points above; creating a new file and preparing it to be used as a php file is a complete action - it is a scene. The next scene maybe setting out two or three empty functions for one particular aspect, or perhaps preparing some other files.

These scenes are intentionally short and this will become important later.

Turn it into SPOKEN English/other language.

This is distinct from language to be read. When we speak, we use short phrases, breath a lot, use huge amounts of semi-colons and frequently start sentences with "and."

Your script will be spoken out loud and when you start turning your list of actions into sentences, you must remember this. Read each sentence out loud as you finish it; not in your head or mumbling, but right out loud at the volume at which you will record the finished video. Do not run words together, remember to hit the consonants NICE and clearly and look for the emphasis words; you can ALWAYS use capitals if that HELPS.


This is your make or break moment!

Actually, no it isn't - you just did that when you wrote your script. If you have written the script well, the next stages are predestined to be okay. You will make mistakes, but they will be easy to correct. It will only go wrong if you have left stuff out of your script, so read it through a few times to make sure it is perfect.


Should you rehearse?

Yes and no. You will not be recording this in one lump (that way lies madness) so it is a waste of time rehearsing the entire thing. However, rehearsing each section before recording is a good idea.

You need to work out your moves between screens and how you speak the words. In the pro world we would only do a guide vocal at this point and then the voice over would come into my studio with a tidied script and we would re-record the final version. That is why pro stuff is so good. You can take that route if you wish, but the chances are you want to talk as you go.

Take One

You have written this script in scenes, so only record one scene at a time. Play it back when you are happy and make sure it makes sense. These are now bite sized so are much more manageable that working in huge chunks.

Put your screen recorder into record and wait a few seconds before you start talking or making screen actions - it will take the pressure off. In the pro world, when the director yells ACTION, there is always a pause while the performers get their brains into gear. And good thing too - otherwise their first words would be a reaction to the shouted word "action" and not as part of the scene as they should be. This applies as much to a corporate as it does to a drama.

How many takes you do is up to you - but do not be pissed off if you have to do several. Coders are meant to be perfectionists, and doing a voice over and screen shots requires just the same attitude and degree of patience.

What speed should you speak at?

Slower than you think is about right.

This is not a commercial and you are not a professional voice over. Speaking clearly at speed takes YEARS of practice and even some of the best voice overs never get it right.

But in corporate presentations, speaking fast is an absolute no-no.

Speak evenly, in a considered, non-patronizing way, emphasising all the important words and resist the temptation to speed up towards the end of the sentence. Also, in English, you should use a downward inflection to make it clear you have reached the end of a sentence. THIS ALSO APPLIES IF YOU ARE AN AUSSIE! I have recorded hundreds of Australian voice overs for corporates and it is generally considered to be bad form to sound like an extra from Cell Block H.

Emphasis is a funny beast - many people believe that we emphasise by speaking louder. But in reality, we emphasise by slowing down the word and leaning on one particular syllable.

Which word and syllable you emphasise is important too. There are two main forms of emphasis - importance and comparison.

Importance is where you want to make something the most important bit of information. That can be a verb or an adverb or adjective.

"It is VITAL that you shut the door."

Vital is the important word here - you are emphasising the importance of the action "shut" by saying how vital it is.

Comparison is when you are offering an either or - even if you are not explaining or referencing what the other thing might be.

"It is vital that you shut the DOOR"

Here it is now the door that is important and we are saying you should shut the door, rather than a window or cupboard or anything else. It is making a comparative.

You can get it wrong.

"What did you do in the nineteen seventies?"

"I went to school in the nineteen SEVENTIES."

That is the wrong answer, even though it is the correct words. You have made a comparative of the date. You should have said:

"I went to SCHOOL in the nineteen seventies."

On your printed script as you rehears, underline words that you should emphasise to make sure you don't start making it confusing simply by emphasising the WRONG words, and make marks / where pausing slightly / will also help with clarity. Your reading will be much better and the whole process much easier.


You can ruin good footage in an edit, but you cannot make a great edit out of terrible footage.

Do not rely on the edit to save you - get it right at the recording stage and the editing will be more fun and a hell of a lot faster!

You have written this in scenes and when you edit, respect those scene breaks. You probably broke it up at logical points so it will not help if you try and run it altogether seamlessly. This is a tutorial, not Die Hard 4.1.

Pause between scenes - if there are major breaks, consider fading to black and slipping in a caption; it might give people break points to stop and take stock and it will help with the clarity.

Do not put music over the main content ñ wrong sort of video.

Clean up the sound as you go - remove any paper rustles or next doors dog barking! Remove any violent breaths, or lower them in volume if you have that facility. Again, you may well have sorted that out at the record stage.

Think about pace - keep the edit pace even. Some of the best editors out there are also musicians. There is a very definite correlation between the way a piece of music works and the way a film edit works; it has a rhythm to it and pace changes are carefully constructed in the same way you would do if composing the score.

Avoid tricks and effects. Just stick to fading in and out of black - don't spiral stuff in and out or do other things that your editing software can do. Again, wrong sort of video. People are not looking at this for your editing skills, but your coding skills. They should not notice the edit at all - just absorb the wonderful knowledge that you wish to impart.

Try to avoid zooming into a screen - the quality can fall apart very quickly and you will have achieved nothing. If you need close ups, do that at the record stage as a cut, then cut it in.

Presenting your final edit

You have gone to the trouble of writing a script, so when you put your video up, maybe put the script up there with it - might help people as a quick reference! Better still, write proper notes including any coding examples and add it to your video as a PDF or similar.

Make sure you prÈcis your video with a good written summary of what it is about and what you hope the viewer will learn/achieve ñ nothing worse than sitting through a video to find out if it will actually answer your questions, just to find out it doesnít.


And that is about it!

I have not covered every single pitfall and problem you will encounter - that would be a book's worth and a boring one at that!

But hopefully I have given you some fairly straightforward, easy to follow advice that will just help your next video turn the corner from "nice chatty person telling us something" to "expert giving serious guidance."

Happy filming!

Written by Joss.