Creating narrated software demonstrations in PowerPoint

I often prefer using PowerPoint to create narrated software demonstrations, instead of some of the real time screen capture utilities, like +Captivate.   Here is my general process:

1. Determine the objectives and focus of the demonstration. This is the scripting phase, where you should be able to refine your message and create an outline or script that will guide your overall development process.

2. Open the Software, as well as PowerPoint.

3. Go through each step of the process that you want to demonstrate.  At each step, press ALT/PrtScrn to capture an image of the current window.

4. Switch to the PowerPoint document, and paste the image within the document to a separate page, in the sequence that you intend for your presentation.  Also enter some text describing the action, or other notes to yourself, that you will later use as a basis for scripting narration and any on-screen text messages that support the instruction.  Use this approach to go through the entire software process that you plan to present.

Note that you can simulate specific software functions by ensuring that you grab all steps of a software function display.  For example, grab the initial screen, then grab the screen with the highlighted menu button, grab the screen with the drop down menu visible, and grab the screen with the appropriate drop down menu option highlighted on the drop down menu.   This will allow you to later prompt the user to select all of the options in the procedure (as in “select File, then copy) by creating hyper-linked areas within the PowerPoint display that correspond to the appropriate software option screen location.

5. If you plan to do a presentation that shows the software screens as full screen, then resize as necessary to full the presentation screen.  If you want to use a less than full screen size (for example, when you are presenting the content within a standard elearning interface with banner and navigation buttons), then you may need to place a box in the background of the master screen to serve as a guide for sizing and placement (to ensure consistent sizing and location across all of the screens).   You can always delete this box from your master slide after placement of the software screens, if necessary.  Note that if you also want to trim some elements of the software screen, such as browser menus, do that for each screen prior to sizing and placement.

6. Go through each screen, and finalize any additional on-screen text, highlights, or other elements, and finalize your narration script.   Also, if you are simulating the software options, create a transparent hyperlink box that routes users to the next screen, and place this box over the position that you want the users to click on.   As users interact with the end product, it will appear like they are using a live version of the software, since the screen display will progress as they click on the appropriate on-screen options.

7. Record and incorporate your narration, finalize animations, etc.  Then package using a flash conversion utility such as Articulate.

The look of the end product can be as basic as you want, or can be made to look like standard elearning (by including a banner and navigation), and can take advantage of the animation and graphic features of PowerPoint.

I love Noise Gates

When you are speaking, the higher sound levels of your voice will mostly cover up the lower level ambient noise present within the room.  You can hear it if you are looking for it, but in many cases, background noises can be effectively masked by your voice. However, the ongoing ambient noise becomes much more apparent during the pauses between words and sentences.

A noise gate can make a big difference when recording within a less than optimal environments.  tools that cut out the audio signal when the sound level drops below a user-defined level. Noise gates are hardware or software-based audio processing applications that function by inserting silence in the spaces between phrases and during pauses when the audio level drops below a user defined threshold level. Narrators can use gates to reduce the impact of background sounds and noise within their recording space.

Hardware based noise gates are a great addition to any recording setup. Most recording software also includes software-based noise gates that you can apply to a noisy file after recording.  These tools are relatively easy to operate, and can really make a difference in the quality of your final voiceover narration file.

You can also use software-based noise reduction functions that analyse the characteristics of the ongoing noises present within the recording, and apply selective processing to diminish these noises. These noise reduction functions are available as plug-ins or as part of the audio recording and editing software package.

Native audio vs. dedicated recording software

Many multimedia development programs have native recording capabilities that allow users to record directly within the software production environment, instead of using a dedicated recording software or device.

I usually prefer using the dedicated recording software (I like Sony SoundForge), as these programs have greater capabilities and options that enable the narrator to produce higher quality results, with greater flexibility in the production and editing.

For example,  I always run a noise gate processor to remove background noise, and tweak the equalization slightly to increase intelligibility.  These capabilities are well worth the small investment in dedicated recording software.

Processing narration audio files

Professional sound recording software provides a range of effect and processing options that are particularly useful for improving the overall quality of narration files.  The ones that I typically use are:

  • Noise gates – this is a processing tool that allows you to set a lower level threshold for the sound, and then mute any sound that occurs below that level, in the space between words and sentences.  Used properly, it can help make your recording sound like it was done in a well soundproofed area, because listeners hear silence in the spaces between statements, while the room sound is mostly masked by the (much louder) sound of your voice.  It can take some experimentation to set a gate properly, and it will not cover up undesirable room sounds perfectly, but it can really help clean up a recording.
  • Equalization – EQ can be used to (slightly) reduce a continuous noise issue (such as HVAC hum), or to brighten up a dull sounding recording to increase intelligibility.  It can also be used to (slightly) fix the sound of excessive room reverberation.
  • Reverb – you can enhance a signal that is too dry by (sparingly) using a little bit of reverb (select small bright room, quick decay).
  • Time compression/expansion – though I have rarely needed to use it, preferring to time the performance to the visual, narrators can use this function to adjust the duration of a narration segment to match the duration of a visual event, such as an animation.  Note that this can result in some artifacts that can make the segment less usable, but it is worth a try to attempt to fix a segment that is too long or too short.

Most recording software includes  these types of processing effects and other processing that is intended to address specific needs, but for most cases, they are not that useful for narration, and can distract from the narrative impact if overused.