September 2016
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TD Magazine

Instructional Video Basics

How to create content that engages learners.

What is video engagement, and what does it look like? This is an important question, and one that can't be answered completely in a short article. However, it's a question that learning professionals need to keep exploring. There are a few types of engagement with video, but they all lead to the same outcome: The learner will be more invested, and will walk away having learned more. For the sake of simplicity, let's consider two broad types of engagement.

First, there is passive engagement. This defines how the video and its contents lead the learner to watch—and keep watching. Strong passive engagement means that there aren't intrinsic barriers to distract the learner and detract from the content. For example, poor audio quality in video can be a huge turnoff. Good audio quality may not be the sole reason someone watches, but when it's good the learner is more likely to keep listening and stay focused.

The other type is active engagement, which can be defined as action that the learner takes or is encouraged to take. Active engagement comes in many forms, and may crop up in a variety of points in the video (or even outside the video). Adding a pre-knowledge prompt or survey to help learners understand what they do and don't know going into the video is an example of active engagement.

When creating a video for the purposes of teaching, passive engagement is required. Active engagement is encouraged, but not always necessary. Decide on your goals and the actions you want your viewers to take, then create an appropriate engagement strategy.

First, let's focus on the strategies that are necessary for video creation.

Passive engagement strategies

Storytelling. A lot of instruction is highly procedural in nature. It has steps and aims to achieve a focused outcome. Step-by-step instruction can be delivered effectively using video and sometimes requires nothing more than presenting the information in a concise, easy-to-follow format. If the steps alone aren't enough, using a story or scenarios is a powerful way to relate the content to the learner.

Stories and scenarios are great for helping to illuminate what folks in the industry sometimes refer to as WIIFM (what's in it for me). Stories don't have to be complex or elaborate, but setting a scenario can provide context around the when and why. Humans are wired for stories, and stories can be a powerful way to evoke emotion and interest.

Relevancy. Maybe this seems overly simplistic, but regardless of the medium used to deliver training materials (including video), if it isn't relevant to the learners or they perceive it as irrelevant, they won't engage. When creating your video, its relevance should be made clear early on and re-emphasized at various times throughout. If you are creating short-form video content—two to three minutes or less—you may not need to re-emphasize why the content is relevant.

Quality audio. There are two major parts to video: the image and the sound. If you have to invest in one over the other, I recommend you choose audio quality.

Since the rise of YouTube, many of us have watched a lot of videos with lower-quality camera footage. In my experience, most people tolerate the lower-quality video just fine. However, the same is not true with audio. Low audio quality diminishes the experience and, frankly, makes learning difficult. This doesn't mean you should outsource all audio creation, but you should make sure the audio is clear, can be heard well (not drowned out in noise or background music), and matches well with the video.


Quality images/video. Quality of images is important, too. Ask yourself: Regardless of how the footage looks, is it relevant to the story or instruction? Is it clear and is the emphasis on the right information? Will it help the learners better understand what they are learning?

With the quality of video that most major smartphones provide, cameras aren't the issue—it's about making sure your subject looks good, that you've used appropriate lighting, and that you cut together video that supports the story well during editing.


Movement. Video is a visual medium, and being able to show something (a person, a machine, or a screen) is why you choose it for learning. As you work through your storyboards and scripts, and then shoot the footage, know that humans are drawn to movement. Your video should keep things moving and changing on a fairly quick basis. Some experts recommend movement every two to four seconds. Conversely, if you change things too much without purpose, it can be distracting.

Active engagement strategies

Remember that adding more active points can be burdensome to create and manage, and may cause a negative outcome. Too many actions or steps for the learners to take may cause them to stop watching. As you look at adding engagement points to the videos you create, ask: Is this really going to engage the learners? Will it help them achieve the learning objective?

Here are a few active engagement strategies.

Knowledge checks. When watching a video, think about systems that enable you to gain insight into what learners are and aren't understanding. Knowledge checks, or quizzes, while not the end-all be-all, can provide insight.

From the learners' perspective, knowledge checks also can gauge if they are learning and areas that might need further emphasis. Knowledge checks are a way break up longer content to ensure that learners are paying attention and focused.

Pause. The pause button is an overlooked option in your video toolbox. It's a common and easily understood tool for interacting with your video. As you build out your video, consider what activities you might have learners do outside of the confines of the video; for instance, asking the learner to pause the video to review a document or gather information. There is a risk that learners won't continue watching, but even without pausing this is true.

Interaction. Interactive videos can take multiple forms and have levels of complexity, including everything from a simple click-through of a process in a software application, to a highly complex 3D flight simulator. For the sake of simplicity, you can add interaction by using buttons or places to click on the video that determines what content is shown or forces the user to take a specific action before continuing. Not every video needs to be interactive, but adding some interaction can help strengthen and focus attention.

Multiple surrounding resources. OK, maybe this one is cheating a little, but as you think about your video content, you also should think about the content surrounding it. If the video is embedded on a webpage, are you providing other documents, information, or context? These supporting items can enrich the information in the video, and can help to keep the video focused. Maybe your video will have learners open a guide that enables them to follow along step by step or to take notes.

Follow-up. After your learner has finished watching the video, don't assume that the engagement is done. Like all good learning, we should be shooting for outcomes and the ability to apply what has been learned.

When a learner has completed the video, we should put mechanisms in place that allow for follow-up, whether it's refresher content, a quick reminder message about something learned, or even a much more intensive personal check-up to see if the information learned has been successfully applied or lost in the recesses of memory.

About the Author

Matthew Pierce is an experienced instructional designer, training manager, speaker, and multimedia creator. He currently managers training and development at TechSmith Corporation (creators of Snagit and Camtasia), including overseeing instructional design, documentation, training, and tech support. He also has experience leading and managing the social media, video, and public relations groups at TechSmith.  For several years Matt ran TechSmith's visual communication web show, The Forge, interviewing guests from around the world discussing the use of visuals, video, and technology in education, training, marketing, and more. Matt is a regular contributor to several online publications, and has published articles in various training publications in the United States and the United Kingdom. He has spoken multiple times at national and international conferences, including ATD TechKnowledge, the Society for Technical Communication Summit, Technical Communication UK, and Online Educa Berlin. He is a graduate of the Indiana University School of Education’s Department of Instructional Systems Technology.

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