I've had lots of people ask me to write up a guide to creating great technical screencasts. Here it is.
You can use any number of tools for screen capture. They are largely the same. My preferred tool is Camtasia. Other valid tools are CamStudio (a free and open source tool) and Expression Encoder Screen Capture.
At the risk of sounding uptight, how you setup Windows and your environment is the difference between a professional and an amateurish screencast. It's shocking how many folks will start recording a screencast without changing a thing, then wonder why their 1600x1200 screencast looks bad on YouTube at 360p. If you find yourself doing screencasts a lot, considering making a Screencast user on your machine with these settings already applied.
First, decide on your aspect ratio. Is this a 4:3 Square (mostly) screencast or a 16:9 Widescreen screencast? Use 1024x768 for 4:3 and 1280x720 for 16:9. Run with normal 96dpi fonts.
If you're running a VM in a Window, that's cool, but really do take the time to resize it to exactly 1024x768. It can be maddening, especially with Virtual PC, but just do it. Then us the screencast software to record exactly a square of 1024x768
Choose a standard looking background photo. I prefer to use one from http://www.vs2010wallpapers.com or the defaults that come with Windows 7. Avoid complex backgrounds as they don't compress well during encoding.
Hide your icons. Right click your desktop and hit View | Show Desktop Items. You can also use Stardock Fences and just double click to hide your icons. Either way, we don't need to see them.
Also consider whether we need to see your desktop at all. If it doesn’t add value, don’t show it on the screencast.
Use the standard Visual Studio Font Colors. Remember that your audience likely hasn't changed theirs, and if you show them something fancy, they'll be thinking about how they get that fancy widget rather than your content. Go to Tools | Options | Environment | Fonts and Colors and click "Use Defaults."
In all your text editors, change your fonts to Consolas Size 15. It may seem counter-intuitive to have such large fonts but in fact this will make your code viewable even on an iPhone.
Remember, most video sites, including youtube, restrict the video player size to a maximum of around 850x480 unless you go full-screen or use a pop-out. Video is typically smaller than that. Use the font size recommended here, and use Camtasia’s zoom and highlight features during editing to call out key bits of code.
Don’t highlight code in the editor by selecting it with the mouse. It is typically hard to read editor selections in video. Instead, zoom and highlight in post.
Unless your screencast is about using different browsers, pick a browser and stick to it. Hide your toolbars, clear your cache, history, and your autocomplete history. You'd be surprised how many inappropriate sites and autocomplete suggestions are published on the web forever and not noticed until it's too late. Don't view pr0n on your screencast machine.
Your browser shouldn't show any, and this is a good time to uninstall or hide whatever coupon-offering nonsense or McAffee pixel waster that you've stopped being able to see after all these years. Remember, default is the word of the day. Go Tools | Manage AddIns in IE9 or your favorite browser and remove it all.
If you are using Visual Studio or an IDE (Eclipse, Photoshop, etc) be aware of your toolbars. If you have made extensive customizations to your toolbars and you use them in the screencast, you are doing a great disservice to your audience. Put things to the default. If you use hotkeys, tell the audience, and use them for a reason.
Fred is online! Yes, but not during your screencast. Turn off Gmail, GChat, Messenger, Skype, Office Communicator and anything else that can "pop toast" during your screencast.
Right click on the clock in Windows and click Customize Notification Area Icons. Remove the Action Center and Window Update and anything else that looks like it could bother you. Next, click on Turn System Icons On or Off. Turn off the clock! Why? You can't easily edit a screencast if there's a convenient time code in the corner that jumps around during your edits. Also, no one needs to know you're doing your work at 3am. I remove ALL notification icons. All of them, including Network and Sound.
Use a decent microphone. I use a Samson C01U. You can also use a USB headset-style microphone but be aware that breathing and "cotton mouth" really show up on these. Try moving the microphone above your nose so you aren't exhaling onto it directly. Use a pop filter to help eliminate plosives. You can get them cheap at a music store.
Be aware of your keyboard clicks. Some folks feel strongly about whether or not your keyboard can be heard during a screencast. Ultimately it's your choice, but you have to be aware of it first, then make a conscious decision. Don't just let whatever happens happen. Think about your keyboard sound, your typing style and your microphone, and listen to it a few times and see if you like how it comes together.
Avoid prolonged silence. There should be ebb and flow of "I'm saying this, I'm doing that" but not 10 seconds of "watch my mouse." Speak in an upbeat but authentic tone. Be real.
Don’t apologize or make excuses for mistakes – either work them in as something to learn from, or remove them completely.
If you make a mistake when speaking or demonstrating, clap your hands or cough loudly into the mic and wait a second before starting that portion over. When editing, the mistakes will show up as loud audio spikes, making it easy to find them.
Camtasia has decent automatic noise reduction. Use it. You’ll be surprised how much background noise your room has that you, but not your audience, will easily tune out.
If you must overdub a portion of the audio, sit in the same position you did while recording the original, and have the mic in the same spot. You want your voice to blend in seamlessly.
Your screen capture should be produced at the highest reasonable quality as it will be compressed later when it's uploaded. Think of it like producing JPEGs. You can make a 5 megabyte JPG, but often a 500k one will do. You can make a 10 gig screen capture if you use uncompressed AVI encoding, but often a high bit rate MP4 will do.
The trick is to remember that your compressed screencast will be recompressed (copies of copies) when it is run through the encoding process.
Edit your screencast, if you do, in its recorded native resolution which hopefully is what you'll publish to as well. That means, record at 1024, edit at 1024, and publish at 1024. Let YouTube or your final destination do the squishing to smaller resolutions.
Personally, I like to know what's going on in my production process so I always select things like "Custom production settings" in Camtasia rather than presets. Ultimately you'll need to try and find what works for you.
When I know that my screencast will be encoding again by some postproduction system, first I'll ask myself, will they have my codec (compressor/decompressor) installed? That means, if they will have the TechSmith Screen Capture Codec used by Camtasia, then I can produce an AVI using this optimized codec, then THEY can make a MP4 or whatever.
But, if they don't, I consider what the post production system prefers, then give them a high bit rate QuickTime file, Windows Media file, or a MP4.
In my experience, if you use Windows, using WMV at the "best bit rate" gives a good balance between size and quality and can be easily squished downstream. Otherwise, use an H.264 encoder with a high bitrate for the video and 44.1kHz/441000Hz 16 bit mono for the audio.
Take some time. I put about an hour of work into a 5 min screencast. Your mileage may vary. Watch your video! Listen to it, and have your friends listen to it. Does it look smooth? Sound smooth? Is it viewable on a small device AND a big screen?
Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.