Help, I Want to Make a Video But My Topic Is Not Very Visual!

I recently received an email from a reader who was having difficulty figuring out how to make a video about his non-visual topic. He wanted to communicate his research on data technology but was at a loss as to how to depict this topic using video. I gave him some suggestions specific to his situation, but realized that there were likely others out there like him. So, I decided to make a tutorial that shows three ways to generate film footage about a non-visual topic. Here it is:

12 Filming Mistakes to Avoid

In the process of learning how to make a video, we all make rookie mistakes. That is, unless we are warned about them. I made a lot of mistakes when I first began making science videos. However, I avoided some of the most common filming errors by reading about them or watching tutorials. I recently gave a lecture to a university class about how to make a video with a smartphone. This particular science course requires the students to make a video about one of the topics covered in the course. One of the topics I always cover in these lectures is common filming mistakes.

When I finished the lecture and was walking back to my car, the thought occurred to me that I could use my lecture presentation (made with Prezi) to make a helpful video about avoiding common filming mistakes. Later, I recorded that part of my lecture about filming mistakes with the screencapture software, Screenflow, along with my voiceover. All I had to do was play my presentation fullscreen on my computer while Screenflow recorded the screen and my voice. I then edited the footage in Screenflow to trim out unwanted sections and to insert The Scientist Videographer intro/outro at the beginning and end of the video. It took about fifteen minutes. My point is that recording your lectures, seminars, or conference presentations is a really easy way to make a video.

If you have a presentation made in PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, or some other application, you should be able to use that as the basis for a video about your science topic. Some journals are even encouraging authors to use this approach to create a video abstract that will accompany their scientific article. So, it may be worthwhile to know how to make a video this way.

Here is the video I made:

How to Make a Custom Thumbnail for Your YouTube Videos

When I first started making videos and uploading them to YouTube, I did not think much about how viewers made their decisions to click on one of my videos instead of one posted by someone else. In an Internet search, several videos may be suggested. People often decide on which one to watch based on the thumbnail image. One way to make your video stand out to viewers and tell them that your video is what they want to watch is with a custom thumbnail.

An eye-catching thumbnail is an easy way to attract viewers to your YouTube videos. If you’ve gone to the trouble of making a great video, then you shouldn’t hesitate to spend a bit more time to make sure people notice your video and decide to watch it. In a new tutorial (see player window below), I show how to design and create a custom thumbnail in PowerPoint and how to attach it to your YouTube video. Although Photoshop or Illustrator can be used for crafting the thumbnail image, many people do not have this software or do not know how to use it. In this tutorial, I use PowerPoint, which many people are familiar with, to create a custom thumbnail. Moreover, if you create a thumbnail template in PowerPoint, you can use it to quickly create thumbnails for all your videos.

But first, let’s go over some important information to help you design the best custom thumbnail for your video.

What is a thumbnail?

A thumbnail is a small image, often clickable, created for a webpage and that represents a file such as a photograph or a video. When someone conducts a search for a video, the thumbnail gives the viewer a visual preview of what your video is about. Some thumbnails stand out more than others. These are custom thumbnails. When you upload your video to YouTube, you are presented with three random frames from which to choose a thumbnail. Now, these are totally random, which means you basically get to choose among three really bad choices. Obviously, being able to create a custom thumbnail that best represents your video is preferable.

Who is eligible to use custom thumbnails?

Some forums suggest that you must become a YouTube Partner to enable advanced options like custom thumbnails. This is not true; if your channel is verified, you then become eligible to upload custom thumbnails. This option became available to me as a YouTube video creator in late 2013. Since then, crafting a custom thumbnail has become a routine part of my workflow when making a video. I consider it a key part of the process in creating an effective video and actually enjoy the challenge of finding just the right image and text design to use in the custom thumbnail.

What factors should be considered in designing a thumbnail?

  • First, take a look at other thumbnails for your topic and see what other video creators have used. Although this review will give you some ideas for crafting your thumbnail, you also want to take note of the features most often used and think of new ones to use for your thumbnail. In other words, you should try to design a thumbnail that stands out from the crowd.
  • Second, select an image that best represents your video. This image should be distinct but not misleading. Images featuring a person tend to attract the eye. If you can also show that person doing something related to the topic of the video, then your thumbnail image will be informative. For example, if your video is showing a scientific method, a photo of a person using an instrument or demonstrating the method is what you want. Those thumbnails featuring an image of a person jump out at you, which is why many people use them. However, you can also feature a photo of an instrument, an organism, a landscape, or a graphic—assuming it has something to do with the topic of your video. Planning ahead for the thumbnail and getting that photo while filming is the best approach. Failing this, you can extract a freeze frame from your raw footage. I show how to do this in the tutorial.
  • Third, resize and crop your image to ensure a good quality thumbnail that also meets specifications suggested by YouTube. In general, follow the rule of thirds to create a more interesting visual but mainly to allow space for text. YouTube suggests an image size of 1280 x 720 pixels, which is a 16:9 aspect ratio. You should keep the file at 2 MB or less and in an acceptable format such as jpg or png.
  • Fourth, add text to your video, which informs the viewer and reinforces what the video is about. Include keywords that people will use in their search. In many cases, all you need to do is restate the title of your video using a larger font and colors that make the text stand out.
  • Fifth, strive for a combination of an informative image and eye-catching text. In the tutorial below, I show some examples. You can make things easier on yourself if you use an image with some blank space in it, such as the sky, a solid fence or wall, as background for the text. In the tutorial, however, I show how to deal with a busy background.

What software should I use to create a custom thumbnail?

If you want to create a thumbnail from scratch, you have a number of options, including Photoshop, Illustrator, or PowerPoint. I’ve used PowerPoint in this tutorial because it’s a program that most science professionals use and are comfortable with. Photoshop and Illustrator are a bit more challenging to use and require some training and practice to use effectively. There are also online design sites that will assist you in creating a thumbnail. Canva is one example of a graphic design site, which offers templates and a user-friendly interface. I’ve not tried it, so can only recommend it as a possible site to check out. Although advertised as a “free” application, access to some key options seems to require a monthly subscription. In the end, you should use the software you are most comfortable with.

So with that bit of background, here is the tutorial showing how to create a thumbnail in PowerPoint (and direct link in case you can’t see the player window):

Barriers to Science Communication and How to Overcome Them

I embarked on an effort to help colleagues and students use video as a communication tool on May 21, 2012, just over five years ago. During that time, I’ve learned a lot, especially about what can deter science professionals from trying a new means of communicating their science.

One of the most frequent comments I have gotten from colleagues is that they don’t really see the need for them to spend time 1) learning non-traditional ways to communicate (social media, blogs, videos) or 2) engaging the public. While such comments did not surprise me (I had once thought the same thing), I recognized the potential consequences of this attitude. Among other things, I understood that scientists needed to be familiar to and trusted by the general public, but that our traditional behaviors were sometimes interpreted to be arrogant, uncaring, or self-serving.

In my early talks on science communication, I often included a prophetic quote from a British report on science communication: “In modern democratic conditions, science, like any other player in the public arena ignores public attitudes and values at its peril” (Anon. Science and Society Report, House of Lords, 2000). As we’ve all seen in recent months, the scientific community in the U.S. has received a rude wake-up call to the fact that the science enterprise is under attack and that one reason is the failure on the part of science practitioners to effectively communicate why science is important to society. As a consequence, some science professionals are rethinking their past practice of staying sequestered in their ivory towers and avoiding contact with the people who fund their research (i.e., taxpayers). The most dramatic manifestation of this shift was the March for Science, held in Washington, D.C. April 22, 2017 and in various other locations around the world.

Granted, there are lots of pitfalls in putting yourself and your science on public display, especially without the training to do it properly. But I think we’re seeing that staying disengaged from the public is perhaps even more dangerous. We are in a critical transition period—from a time when only a select few scientists communicated with the public to a situation in which anyone with a cell phone and an Internet connection can reach millions of viewers with their science message. At the same time, antiscience groups are on the rise and taking advantage of advances in communication technology. My impression is that those who are attacking science and “facts” are far more skilled at crafting and delivering their messages than those of us in science. And they appear to be far better organized and dedicated to communicating their message than we are. This dichotomy should be disturbing to all science professionals.

Those of us in science are still learning how (and whether) to make use of new means of communication; not surprisingly, there can be mistakes and failures during this learning phase. However, with proper training and preparation, the next generation of science professionals will be better positioned to navigate this new communication landscape. Better training, combined with a new impetus for scientists to engage in non-traditional means of communicating their science, will help to overcome the barriers described above.

When I started this blog, there was some help for scientists interested in learning new communication approaches, but not a lot focused on teaching science professionals how to use video to share their work. In this blog and on my YouTube channel, I’ve aimed my tips and tutorials at the working science professional who doesn’t have the resources to hire a media specialist or the technical skills and training to make their own videos (as opposed to professional science communicators who have formal training in crafting science messages and in the use of audiovisual media to convey those messages). My goal has been to help others avoid mistakes and waste time in preparing science videos.

In celebration of my blog’s anniversary (and reward for reading to the end of this post), I’ve made my book, The Scientist Videographer (text version) available for free at InstaFreebie. It’s part of a 20-author giveaway–check it out!

Basic Steps to Making a Science Video with a Smartphone

One of the biggest barriers for scientists to use video as a communication tool is the perception that video making is time consuming, expensive, and technically challenging. I know that this idea is out there not only because of comments from colleagues, but because this was my impression before I got involved in making videos. What I eventually learned was that advances in communication technology have made it possible for anyone to make a video—with inexpensive equipment and a minimum of time and effort. We now have (1) devices and software that make it ridiculously easy to create an effective and powerful video message and (2) the Internet where we can instantly share our knowledge globally.

To address this particular barrier, I’ve created a new tutorial that is designed to show the science professional just how easy it is now to create a video to share science. My goal with this brief tutorial was to demystify the video-making process for colleagues and students unfamiliar with it and to show how easy it is to plan, film, and edit a video with a smartphone (iPhone). I’ve emphasized the use of smartphones in this particular tutorial because: (1) most people already have one and know how to use it, (2) they have excellent cameras that can produce high definition video, (3) there are excellent movie-editing apps for mobile devices, (4) both the camera and editing software can be readily mastered with minimal training and effort, (5) their Internet accessibility facilitates sharing the video with others, and (6) filming, editing, and sharing a video is accomplished with a single device. Although other types of recording devices and more sophisticated editing software are available, they require somewhat more time and effort to master.

Here’s that tutorial (click here for a direct link):