15. 05. 2023 Charles Callaway Documentation

Making Your Own Video Tutorials, Part 13: (Data-Driven) Communication

You’ve probably watched a number of YouTube tutorials over the last 10 years, whether to help you with a specific task at work, to keep your IT skills refreshed, or even just to learn something new about one of your personal hobbies (no, we don’t want to hear about your favorite cat videos).

So I’m not going to surprise you when I say there’s not just a large range of things to teach, but also a large range of video tutorial styles. And they don’t work equally well. But by “style” today I don’t mean like high-level vs. hands-on, both of which are equally valid for their respective goals.

I mean how the person explaining is conveying the information. Are they laid-back, or a bit wooden? Professorial? Do they make lots of jokes, or do they seem very corporate (including dress and location)? Are they even onscreen? If not, what is onscreen?

Because we should also include the supporting materials seen in the video. Are there screenshots or screencasts? Static or animated graphics? (How) are they coordinated with the speaker? Is the speaker seated with graphic elements clustered around their head? Just plastered on top with a standard green screen Do they alternate full screen with the speaker?

Some Raw Data

A quick aside, and then we’ll pick up that thought again.

In the last 2 decades of science, medicine and computing there’s been a revolution in the use of large data sets to make decisions, rather than just doing what feels right or has been taught for a long time. Of course both approaches have their advantages, but the data-driven way can also make us aware of the success of various approaches that anecdotal evidence can’t.

YouTube can help us out here with some raw data, the kind that used to be hidden because it provided a competitive advantage to whichever company collected it. In this case, I’m talking about the number of views and subscribers, which is displayed below each video.

So let’s ask a data-driven question. Suppose you go to YouTube and type in the search term “IT monitoring”, what do you find?

  • Major companies (think Cisco, IBM, Microsoft) with a few videos on monitoring mixed in with all their other videos. Very corporate style with lots of screencasts and mentions of features. And maybe 5K – 50K views even after 3 – 5 years; up to 100K views if they include other topics in addition to monitoring.
  • Medium-size companies that focus on IT monitoring (think SolarWinds, DataDog, Zabbix) with product showcase videos, FAQs for particular products, and detailed HOW-TO videos (even 1 – 2 hours long!) showing you how to use their product to do the most important tasks. (I did find one notable exception here, which I can’t believe has only 6.2K so far.) Sometimes you’ll also find a truly horrible video that you can’t believe was greenlit by such an important company. 500 – 25K views over 3 – 5 years.
  • Smaller companies (I won’t name names here) that make the same type of videos as medium-size companies, typically with fewer resources and probably <= 1 FTE person (full-time equivalent), who is probably dedicated to both videos and other communication activities like writing user guides and promotional materials. Their YouTube channel has a small number of videos, perhaps used more often by their own employees than by external clients. I’ve seen as low as 10 views, and 500 is considered great.

Learning from Good Examples (Videos and People)

By now perhaps you’re thinking, “Great, I get more views than my competition!” or “Only that many views? You can’t post a cat video that took 20 seconds to make without getting 100K views!”

Either nobody is interested in videos about monitoring software, nobody can find them with YouTube’s search algorithm, or the quality or appeal is so bad that nobody searches a second time.

So what if I told you that there are YouTube videos out there, specifically about monitoring, that have more than 300K views in less than a year? What’s their “secret”? And who are “they”?

These aren’t videos made by monitoring companies. They are made by individuals who already have channels where they talk about all kinds of IT topics for instance, and have millions of subscribers, or millions of views.

Instead of working for a particular IT company or focusing on one company’s products (despite sponsorship agreements), they tend to look at IT products neutrally. They often provide basic information, briefly explain how things work, compare and contrast a number of alternatives, or provide a review of a specific product.

The people who create these videos have learned that there’s an audience out there, interested even in videos about something as “boring” as monitoring. And they’ve become experts not at a very specific product or technology, but at communicating to their audience in an effective way.

How could you reach an audience of that size? If you’re working for an IT company and your job is to promote a particular product, you probably can’t take their wide-ranging approach to making a video about whatever you think will garner attention.

You can however, assume that they’ve learned how to make appealing, communicative videos, or else they wouldn’t have over 50 videos with over 250K views each. And I’ll bet you can learn a lot from looking carefully at what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.

Improving Your Communication

You might argue that if channels like these have millions of subscribers, then of course it’s easy to get lots of people to watch any kind of video they make, even about IT monitoring.

This ignores four things:
1) How the channel got that large in the first place
2) All their videos don’t have the same number of views
3) When was the last time you watched EVERY video in a channel?
4) Would they put out a bad IT monitoring video knowing it would cost them in the future?

The creators of these channels have an incentive to continue to produce high-quality videos that are interesting enough to attract viewers. After all, it’s probably become their day job. How likely is it that they’ll introduce something below their standards, if it will lead to the people who know that channel not wanting to return?

So over time, and across hundreds of thousands of channels, they’ve learned what makes an interesting video. You don’t even need to watch that many high-quality videos on tech subjects from channels with both high numbers of subscribers and lots of views on each video to figure out what you should do.

The data has already been crunched for you, so let’s assume the channels with less compelling content have already been weeded out and the Darwinian survivors have that communicative edge and have become the experts.

I’ve watched quite a few videos from these tech channels, and here’s what I can summarize:

  • Put yourself in the video. No voiceover will be as authentic as you. Your face is what conveys enthusiasm and belief in what you’re showing.
  • Put other things in the video besides yourself. Unless you’re a natural storyteller, it’s hard to hold attention for a long time. If you need to show a screencast for a long time, consider techniques like porthole videos, but keep mixing them up in different ways. Variation is always good.
  • Don’t make “cookie cutter” videos. Each one has to have something original and different. It’s better to just start over with each new video, remembering what you’ve learned, and then building on it rather than copying it.
  • Have a personality, and have an opinion, though it doesn’t have to be edgy. Don’t change yourself like you change your videos (see the point above) though, or you’ll lose your perceived authenticity, which is a valuable asset.
  • Have a narrative. If people want a recitation of facts, they can read the user guide. The emotion in your voice and face should match the narrative.
  • Be informal, even if you’re making a corporate video. Always keep that human touch going, using skills like humor to connect. Act and speak like you’re in front of one person, not the entire internet.
  • Write well and write informally. Make sure you set aside the time you need to do a good job at it, because what you say is the heart of communication, and everything else is just supporting that. There’s a reason movie stars want to read the script before almost anything else.
  • Show an increase in the quality of your videos over time. If viewers see constant improvement, or even a constant attempt at improvement, they’ll
    take you more seriously.


I won’t pretend I have all the answers, or that following my suggestions above will make you a YouTube star. After all, having a channel with excellent, interesting videos probably isn’t enough. So make sure that your audience finds you by sprinkling some keywords that they will probably already be searching for into your script, titles, descriptions and hashtags.

But also remember to ask yourself if you think your videos are getting better over time. Are you taking the time to learn new skills and doing a bit of experimenting to getting the best use out of them? Do your colleagues think you’re getting better? If so, it’s probably because you’re getting better at communicating.

Charles Callaway

Charles Callaway


Charles Callaway

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *