Ed Wilson: Zune casting: considerations for success


So your manager has decided you need to create some Zune casts. The first thing you need to decide is do you wish to do a video or audio only presentation. If you wish to do an audio only presentation, you can get away using a digital microphone. When you have completed talking, you post your Zune cast, and you are finished. If you wish to do some editing, or add other features to your Zune cast, you will need some editing software and perhaps additional tools as well.

Choosing your style

Audio Zune casts work well for interviewing people, expounding about poetry, or history, but in the technology world, video Zune casts are where the rubber meets the road. The ability to quickly show someone the graphical interface of an application and walk them through various scenarios is what makes this medium really shine.

Selecting your tools

Microsoft Expression Suite 3.0 contains a number of tools that are of interest to Zune casters. The Microsoft Expression Encoder 3 Screen capture tool can be used to record a desktop as well as the mouse movements. You can also use an external web camera, and microphone to allow you to be seen while you are making your presentation. A low cost web cam and a medium cost digital microphone when used with Microsoft Expression Encoder 3 Screen Capture can produce good results.

Once you have produced the recording, you will want to use the Microsoft Expression Encoder 3 to encode the recording for different display formats. Using the Encoder, you can splice together different pieces of video, add additional audio, and perform all kinds of additional post processing. One of the nice things about using the Microsoft Expression Encoder is that it can produce a Silverlight ready video.

Creating a specific plan

So much for generalities; what about the specifics of your presentation? What do you say? How long do you talk? How do you gauge success?

One of the most common questions that people ask me about video Zune casts, is how do you know what to say? If you ever run into the Scripting Wife, she will tell you that I never run out of things to say. For your first topic I would suggest that you choose something you have delivered to your team, or to customers. Choose something that you know really well, and then practice it before you begin recording. I can tell you from experience that mastering the editing controls in your video encoding software will take you until the next release of the software. It is a very powerful and confusing piece of software. It will be much better to record it perfectly the first time, than to try and edit it later on. Here are some hints that will make the recording go smoothly.

Choosing a target length

If the most common question I get from people is "What do I talk about?" the second most common question I receive is "how long do I talk." This question is one that is currently greatly disputed, if not even hotly disputed by many of the experts. The reason is that many experts state outright that people are not interested in long pod casts, and that a good target length is 20 minutes or less –with emphasis on less.

Personally, I think that you should talk as long as you are interesting. You should bring your Zune cast to a nice conclusion before you cease to be interesting. If you find yourself yawning while you are making your Zune cast, your poor audience doesn't stand a chance. Here are some considerations for determining the appropriate length of your Zune cast.

1. How is it hosted? If you require your audience to sign in, register, fill out surveys, download special software and jump through other hoops to receive your content, you had better make it worth their time.

2. What is the subject matter? If the title of your Zune cast is "Three reasons for upgrading to Windows 7" and the length of the Zune cast is 10 minutes, I might click on the link to watch it if it will immediately stream to my desktop easily. On the other hand, if the title of the presentation is "Advanced Kernel Mode Debugging on Windows 7" and it is a 10 minute presentation, I will not even bother with it, because the subject demands a more involved treatment.

3. What is your audience makeup? Is your audience IT Pros, Developers, Management, Sales professionals, or home users? Each of these audience groups has a different level of tolerance for streaming media in general, and for Zune casts in particular.

4. How will the Zune cast be displayed? Will it be downloaded to a portable media playing device, or will it be watched via a Silverlight control embedded on a web page. (See Script Center 101 for an example of a Silverlight media control).

Best Practices for Video Zune casting

1. Practice your demonstration completely. Perform it several times until it is flawless.

2. If the software you are demonstrating takes a few minutes to completely load, launch it prior to beginning the recording.

3. If your demonstration will entail typing from the command line, or from within a Windows PowerShell console, make a cheat sheet of complex commands, or populate a notepad with the commands. This will enable you to cut and to paste your commands if you are not comfortable with typing. Please remember that you are on camera. If your cheat sheet is beside your keyboard, your video will feature the top of your head instead of your face. I like to use an old fashioned typist's copy stand to hold to hold my cheat sheet off camera.

4. Download and practice using the ZoomIt utility; version 4 was just released and is available from TechNet. ZoomIt will allow you to zoom in on a certain portion of the screen while you are making your presentation. This enables you to focus the attention on the action you are trying to perform.

5. Make sure your desktop is clear of all distracting icons, and program shortcuts. Too many items on the desktop will cause the audience to spend their time trying to figure out what programs you use, instead of paying attention to what you are saying. You can use the desktop properties to turn off the icons for my computer, Internet Explorer and other commonly used desktop icons. The best desktop is one that is completely barren except for a shortcut to your demonstration files.

6. Make sure you protect company secrets and customer data by not inadvertently revealing too much information during the recording process. In reality, you should not be using live data or production machines for demonstration purposes.

7. If possible use a freshly installed computer, or virtual machine to perform the demonstration. This is also a great way to make sure that you know exactly what pieces are required to actually make your demo work. If you use a virtual machine, you can elect to not save changes when you are finished practicing.

8. When you are recording, pay close attention to the background area that will be picked up by the video camera. If it is distracting, consider hanging a light blue sheet or something similar as a background.

9. When you are recording, pay attention to the lighting. If your face is dark on one side, and washed out on the other side, you need to balance the lighting. Consider making a cheap diffuser by hanging a piece of white poster board on the dark side of your face. Place it up and away from the light source

10. Pay attention to your microphone placement. If it is too close to your keyboard tray, the clicks will be really loud and distracting.

11. Remove your watch and any large heavy rings because they will make loud thumps when they bang against the desktop or your keyboard. Depending on the microphone you are using and its placement, these sounds will carry through to your recording and will be extremely distracting.

12. Place your microphone in the direct line with both your camera and your computer monitor. If the monitor is to one side, and your camera is on the other side, you will feature the side of your head. If the microphone is somewhere else, the volume will be really uneven when you move your head away from the direction of the microphone towards the direction of the monitor.

13. When you talk begin your presentation at least one octave lower than your normal speaking voice. This is because when people become nervous their vocal cords contract, which makes their voices rise. Be intentionally beginning at a lower pitch, as you become nervous your voice will rise to its normal level.

14. When recording consider using the wind shield for the microphone. This will dampen the noise created by the pronunciation of the labials.

15. Read the manual that comes with your digital microphone. Many feature multiple pickups that can be either enabled, or disabled via the controls. You probably only want to use one bank of transducers when making your recording if you are the only speaker. If you do disable one bank on the microphone, make sure you point the disabled bank away from you.

16. When you set the microphone sensitivity, make sure you are seated in your chair with the keyboard placed in the same location you will be recording from. Begin your presentation. If you cannot observe the meter from your normal recording seated position, have a helper watch the meter. A normal sensitivity meter ranges on a scale from 0 to 10. Your goal is to be in the upper green range as shown here. It is ok to stray into the red occasionally, but your sound will be distorted if you consistently peg the meter.

17. Pay attention to your apparel and general appearance when making the Zune cast. You do not need to wear a suit, or dress clothes, but you should at least appear presentable. In addition, certain colors of shirts will tend to wash out (white is really bad) and your video will lack definition. In addition, if you do hang a light blue background, do not wear a light blue shirt of the same color unless you really do want to appear as a "talking head." Watch your playback carefully to ensure that nothing unintended can be seen in the video.

18. When you are recording, place signs around the outside of your office to help to ward off interruptions. Disable all phones, and close Outlook prior to recording. When I am recording at home, I have small boxes that I have made up that I place over the door bell. In addition, I have a message displayed nearby that includes the current date and states "I am recording and not accepting any visitors." When you have completed your recording, don't forget to remove the signs. You might also need to corral pets, and alert any resident homo sapiens in your domicile as to the need for total silence.

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