5 Steps to Writing a Great Video Script

If you’ve been around the training and development game for a while, you can probably remember when video was the latest thing. Of course, you may have also been wearing parachute pants and jelly shoes while listening to “Let’s Get Physical” on the radio while you were watching your shiny new video! Video may have lost its “new kid in town” status, but one thing is certain: it’s not going away any time soon.

Despite all the technical advances in training, there are times when an “old fashioned” video just works. Demonstrating a manual procedure. Showing the time elapsed between two events. The list goes on. Chances are, your training content strategy includes video in some form, whether it’s a stand-alone presentation or part of a multimedia training module.

There has however, been one very big change in training videos since the 80s: they’ve become DIY affairs. Years ago, video equipment was extremely expensive and difficult to master. Professional cameras cost tens of thousands, and editing equipment required an army of engineers for installation and maintenance. Today of course, you can purchase a high-quality camera for a tenth of the 80s cost, and you can add an editing program like Adobe Premiere Pro to your home or work computer for $21 a month.

So, if you’re a trainer, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be asked to be a video producer at some point in your career. For an overview on video production, check out this blog from earlier this year. But a great video — whether born in Hollywood or the storage room behind your office that you use as a studio — starts with a great script. Video script writing is an art unto itself, and even good writers can struggle to get it right. Here are five script writing tips from a veteran of the video wars!

#1: Don’t Try to Wing It

I guess the first tip about writing a good script comes down to HAVE A SCRIPT! Even documentary filmmakers start with a rough script and concept before they shoot a single frame of video. It’s easy to think you’re going to just “go down to where they’re doing that job, talk to them and record it,” but this approach rarely works. You’ll come out of it thinking, “If only I had asked them . . .” and the opportunity is missed.

You need a solid structure with most or all of your narration written before you start shooting. Can you change it? Of course! But having your information well-organized and a vision of the final product will win the day. And don’t forget, you’re making a training and development video! You need to be sure the lesson structure is pedagogically sound — and the best way to be sure you’re video provides “good teaching” is by having a good script from the very beginning.

#2: Focus on Visuals

Repeat after me: Video is a visual medium. The best videos allow the pictures to drive the words, not the other way around. It’s easy to get caught up in creating beautiful prose so your narrator can extoll on the beauty of whatever process you’re demonstrating. But you simply can’t forget that the whole point is to demonstrate the process!

Remember when your English teacher always said, “Show, don’t tell”? Well, think of me as a video version of Mrs. Crabtree from The Little Rascals. Don’t tell me what’s on screen. I can see it!

A good way to keep yourself visuals-focused is to format your script in the classic side-by-side form:

The above script was written in Celtx.com, which allows several different formatting options for scripts. There’s a free version, but you can only store a certain amount of scripts before you have to upgrade (or delete old scripts). Give it a try!

#3: Watch for Cheesy Dialog

Wanna see a group of salespeople roll their collective eyes? Give them something like this:*

* Script made ultra-cheesy for illustrative purposes. Do not try this at home.

Cheesy dialog like the sequence above will destroy the integrity of your video training. So, what do you do when you really need to write some dialog to illustrate your point? Sales training is a good example when you’re stressing a certain sequence and phrases.

Here’s my trick: cut away before the customer responds. In the case above, you don’t need to hear what the customer says — the salesperson’s dialog is the only important part for training purposes. Your dialog will almost inevitably start to steer into the dairy aisle if you’re doing any kind of re-enactment and you continue to its conclusion. How about a mnemonic: “When you smell the cheddar — cutting away is better!” (I seriously just made that up.)

#4: Read It Out Loud

Your narration and dialog are designed to be read out loud, right? So be sure you’re not rolling video the first time you hear your words spoken. I’ve been writing video scripts for more than 30 years, and I’ve never once read a script out loud and NOT made changes as a result. Hearing your script reveals flaws in logic, readability, and understanding — it will be there! — that simply reading it on the page won’t bring out. And all these flaws? Now they’re your little secret! No one will ever know!

If you’re really under stress about a particular script, it’s also sometimes a good idea to have a trusted colleague read it out loud for you. Just be sure they understand what you’re trying to accomplish with the script and that they can read it with a bit of expression.

#5: The Best Video is a Short Video

You can’t beat a short, concise video when you’re training. If your audience is silently thinking, “Get to the point!” you’re losing them.

  • Get to the point quickly.
  • Have a well-organized approach.
  • Keep demonstrations as brief as possible, editing out pauses.
  • Don’t waste time on “extras” like entertainment elements.
  • Have a VERY brief recap and conclusion.

If it really is a ton of information, break it into multiple videos. Without some kind of interaction, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep an audience’s attention for more than five minutes.

Related: You – Yes, You! – Can Make a Professional Training Video

The Best Movies You’ve Ever Seen

Chances are pretty good that the best movies you’ve ever seen — your favorites — started with a great script. Sure, there are plenty of silly movies we “just like” that don’t have any great production elements. But the movies and TV shows that move us? It starts with writing.

The best training videos start with great writing as well. If you want to move your audience, a terrific video script is a good place to start.

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About the Author:

Allan Dodson is so much more than a writer and instructional designer. He’s helped develop strategy in Fortune 500 boardrooms, and he’s taught acting skills to 4th graders.  He’s developed training programs for everything from hair highlighting to pest control to DSL lines, and he’s made presentations to C-level execs, teachers (tough crowd!) and all workforce levels. In short, he has the experience, versatility, creativity, and energy to move projects large and small, and he’s ready for any challenge.

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