If you’re planning to make an instructional video, you might ask, “Where do I start?” Training-video development starts with pictures, because video is about pictures, not about words.

Can you remember the last time you saw a weather forecast on TV? If I were to ask you what the forecaster said, word-for-word, could you tell me? Most people can’t. But they do remember the fluffy cloud icons that indicated it would rain. And they can describe the radar map.

That’s because video is a visual modality. People remember more of what they see than of what they hear. As a result, TV professionals learn to think and communicate in pictures.

When TV news crews head out and report a story, they ask, “What am I going to show?” They then shoot their footage and edit it. They usually write the voice-over scripts last. Video is a picture-first modality.

However, in many training departments around the world, pictures are the last thing people think of when they put together instructional videos. Many write their script first without even thinking about what the learner will see on screen. As a result, they miss out on all that video has to offer learning.

If you’re planning to create video to support learning, the first step is to learn the language of pictures. When I talk about the language of pictures, I refer to everything you see on the screen: Footage, effects, text graphics, lower thirds, and so on.

Learning the language of pictures is not always easy because we were taught from an early age to communicate with words. Schools had spelling bees, not picture bees.

Video is a series of message layers

While pictures are at the heart of video, other elements work with the pictures to bring your message alive. They include:

  • Special Effects
  • Graphics
  • Music
  • Sound Effects
  • Spoken word

Special effects include transitions such as cuts and dissolves, as well as sweeps and starbursts which can be a little tricky. They include filters that change the pictures like making a color shot into black and white.

Graphics include anything from photos to images such as graphs and text graphics.

Music is a powerful message element that can affect the mood and energy of a video piece and make the viewer feel they are somewhere else in the world.

Sound effects are used more in professional video production, but some trainers will use them to add a sense of realism to their video stories.

The spoken word includes commentary such as a voice over, dialogue where we watch several people having a conversation, and monologue where someone talks directly to the camera.

Search out an award-winning TV producer or filmmaker and you’ll find they always plan their videos and films by starting with the pictures—then they add these other elements.

The professional practice is to convey much of your message in the pictures, then add parts of the message that are missed in the pictures using these other elements.

For example, consider you’re making a video on how to roll pizza dough. You could show a man kneading the dough. But how do we know when it “feels” ready? This is hard to convey with pictures. So, we might add a text graphic or voice-over to add that detail.

The challenge

If you’re currently making training videos that are simply talking heads or screen captures, it’s worth reflecting on what you can do to add more visual elements. People will lose interest very quickly if all they see for three minutes is a headshot of someone talking.

An immediate solution could be to add text graphics with key learning elements that you cut to from the talking head or screen-capture video. You could also add B-roll (supplemental or alternative video intercut with the main shot) to the talking head video.

In practice

So, what does this mean when planning instructional video?

Once you have written the objective and planned the structure for your video, resist the temptation to immediately write a script. First, draw a storyboard that shows the viewer step-by-step what they’ll learn.

Given that video is all about pictures, we could say that it’s good for learning that needs to be shown, but not told.

So, before expending time and energy into making video, start with this question—if you were teaching this topic in a classroom, would you explain the concept? Or would you demonstrate it?

If you’d likely explain the topic, it’s probably not suited to video. A podcast or providing the learning as written content might be better. If you’d likely demonstrate it, video will be perfect.

It’s a mindset shift

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of fun arguments with folks who write scripts first and feel that doing the storyboard first is counterintuitive. It’s only after they try the storyboard first, that it makes sense.

If we write a script first, we’re likely to spend most of our time on it. (Ironically, the part most people will forget.) And then we’ll match everything else to the script.

Doesn’t it make sense to focus first on the element of the video that will have most impact? And then go add everything else?

Some folks run into the problem that their legal department won’t sign off on a video until they see a script—that’s an issue for another column.

It’s hard work

Adopting a visual mindset is not always easy. You may not have the budget to go the extra mile. Your boss may just like those talking heads of his.

But probably the biggest challenge is learning to think in pictures. Pictures are a language. They have their own set of rules—known as visual grammar—that guides us in making them work for our messages.

For example, choosing to use a wide shot over a close-up can affect your message. Opting for a low-angle over a high-angle can too.

Learning the visual language is not easy. From an early age we were taught to tell, not show. For training-video development, it’s more effective to show, not tell, because video is about pictures. So, give yourself time to develop into the visual mindset.