Know What You're Saying

In the last post I did on the matter, we organized our thoughts into a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end.

We have some structure, but we're far from being done with creating our masterpiece. Just like a gymnast: depth of knowledge conveys a sense of ease in your voice, which the listener will pick up on completely.

Note: this does not mean you have to be an expert. It means you need to know what you're talking about. These are two different ideas if you can believe that and we'll explore this idea more in this post.

Filling Out the Outline

Let's get back the outline we made last time. I mentioned that we're now going to write everything we want to say out - and I mentioned that you won't want to do that. It will take you, literally, 6-8 hours to do this.

And then it will take another 6-8 hours as you rewrite half of it.

And do it again.

And again.

This is where the polish is born, and where we separate ourselves from the keyboard-pounding, mouth-breathing "ummmmm"-filled mess that screencasts can (and tend to) be. Stay with me.

Just like an essay, start off with your abstract - but remember you're writing dialog here, not an essay :). For example, lets say we're doing a screencast on something like BackboneJS - and you've created an outline that you like.

Here's one way to do it:

BackboneJS was written by Jeremy Ashkenas of Document Cloud and is a popular MVC (Model, View, Controller) framework for Javascript. Its focus is to help you create compelling, feature-rich Javascript applications, providing much-needed structure at the right level of abstraction.

That's a pretty concise, complete description of what Backbone is - and is something you might find in an abstract somewhere. Now, try reading it aloud - as if to a friend. Can you imagine? You're out having a beer and someone says "Hey what's Backbone all about, anyway?". Read it aloud again... framing it as your answer.

Let's try this again - remembering that we're introducing Backbone to people and giving them a reason to be interested in our screencast:

BackboneJS is the most popular Javascript MVC framework - loved because it's small, simple to use, keeps you out of trouble when things get complex (which is pretty normal for any Javascript application). It was written by Jeremy Ashkenas - the same Jeremy Ashkenas that created CoffeeScript - and was extracted from the work he was doing for the New York Times and Document Cloud.

Do you see the difference? Hopefully you do - we've conveyed the same core ideas: Backbone is popular, it's an MVC framework written by Jeremy, and it's small.

The first paragraph is dry, the second has a soul - like a human has a soul - and that's what we want here. Human to human communication.

Then SAY IT

Giving your words soul and meaning isn't difficult: it's what you do naturally every day. Your task is to push your soulful grooviness beyond your mouth and into your fingers. Here are some tips if you have trouble with that.

"Fuck Your Filters." When I was in college I hated writing - but you have to take writing classes so they let you out. A professor was reading one of my papers once and he said "you really hold back when you write" and I said "I have no idea what you're talking about."

He said "same here, dude. Now, take some of that fire and put it on paper - and fuck your filters". It was shocking to me, that a professor would swear like that. But why not? He's human, and he was trying to emphatically get his point across. He finished by saying: "think about what you're trying to say - and then say it. I'm not interested in anything beyond your inspiration".

I got an A that year in my English Comp classes, and every year afterward (I kept taking them - I loved writing). I felt like I found a secret - but it's something you already know: people love truth. So give it to them.

Repetition. You've said it, now leave it. I'm guilty of this constantly - be happy with knowing your audience heard you and hopefully understood you.

Rule of Threes. I don't know why it is - but if you have more than three demos, more than three supporting points - more of three anything it's likely you're saying too much :).

Let it flow

Man, so many rules! Let's write something. Go to a quiet place and put some music on that matches the mood and overall "sense" of your screencast. It helps to keep the energy level moderate (FFS please no Korn) so your typing flows.

Write out every word you want to say, and while you do it, imagine you're speaking to your best friend. Not your kids/brother/sister/someone you just met: your best friend. And use a voice in your head that want to emulate.

I have two that I use consistently, depending on the topic:

  • Ira Glass. Host of This American Life and a natural at what he does.
  • Terri Gross. You have to know who this woman is

I like their tone and pace - especially Terry Gross's. Note that you're not trying to copy them - you're hearing them say the words you type. Be careful here - it's easy to pick up their affectations (Ira sucking through his teeth, Terry's stutter/stop).

Once I heard Geoffrey Grosenbach in my head as I wrote out the script for one of Tekpub's Real World MVC3 productions. I don't recall why I did - I think it was to change up the tempo or something - and I ended up sounding just like him.

It was embarrassing - someone noticed and called me out on Twitter. Weird the way the brain works.

As you're writing out your script, remember it's a dialog. Hear your words in the viewer's mind and try to answer questions they'll have:

BackboneJS is just one of many Javascript app-building frameworks. Many love it because it's small, but some feel that it doesn't do enough for the developer so other frameworks - like EmberJS and Angular - popped up later on.

Along these lines it really helps to know your audience. At Tekpub we have a large Microsoft customer base - so I might throw in something like this as well:

If you're a .NET developer you no doubt are wondering the difference between Backbone and Knockout, from Steven Sanderson. The simple answer is that...

Don't be afraid to use as many words as possible to get your point across - you're writing, not recording here. We'll fix that up next.

Demos

I usually just flag the parts of the dialog where the demos are going to go - and what those demos are going to convey. When writing your script out just assume that you gave an amazing demo of whatever point you're trying to make - I'll come back to this in the next post when we talk about recording equipment.

Editing

Now comes the fun - you've spilled a ton of words out - now let's tighten it. Reread everything you've done, again with your favorite narrator's voice. Your goal is to get away from wooden, George Lucas-style dialog and to be able to say things that people actually say to each other.

Edit freely. You can't imagine how valuable this part is: you'll hear yourself sound unsure, say silly things, or (worse yet) say something completely wrong. This is where you start to polish up the "know what you're talking about" part.

Be very sensitive to this. You can hear it in your voice, see it in your writing. If you don't know something for sure, go find out. If it's not there to be found - leave it out. Or, if you can speak to it and say you don't know - that's good too!

This is what I alluded to earlier: you don't have to be an expert - you just have to have knowledge of a topic and, hopefully, you've been thorough with it!

Take three passes at it and polish it down. You may rewrite it a few times, but your attention here will show tremendously.

Now, on the last pass go through and weed out the repetition. This should be the very last pass - and you should remember this is video! People can rewind if they didn't catch what you said.

It's All Preparation

Have you noticed I haven't said anything about tools yet? That's coming next - right now you should have a solid understanding of what you're doing and what you're going to say.

Also - I hate to drop this bomb on you but you're likely going to alter your script by 20 to 30% ... again. Demos never go as planned, and you'll likely find something in there worth talking about.

Or, more likely, you'll realize that many things you thought were either wrong, or that you should add a whole mess of detail to one part of your screencast.

More on that next time...