The How and What of 2-Column Scripts—and Why You Should Try One for Your Next Online Course

First impressions are powerful — even in a 20-minute TED talk. Van Edwards and her team found that participants watching TED talks had already made decisions about how smart, charismatic, and credible the speaker was within seven seconds of watching the video.”

Lindsay Kolowich, “The Science of a Great TED Talk: What Makes a Speech Go Viral” @lkolo25,, April 3, 2015

2-Column Scripts Help Integrate Visuals with Content

2-Column Scripts Help Integrate Visuals with Content

Are you making a video online course? What will you deliver from? Here are common choices:

  • Wing it. I know this stuff and don’t need notes.
  • Notes on cards. I just need cues.
  • PowerPoint or Keynote. I like to know what comes next, plus I can throw in visuals.
  • Half script—a combo platter of notes and full sentences. I like to make sure the facts are correct and new areas flow well. But some stuff I know cold.
  • Full script. I like to know I’ve covered everything, including transitions, jokes, and asides.

Notice a common theme here? Except for the first case—“winging it”—all these approaches use writing to teach, via the act of reading. But here’s the thing: great teachers don’t just read a written lecture—even if they’re working with a full text.

They deliver. And they teach.

And on video, they have about 7 seconds to engage the viewer.

The best teachers pay attention to their students while they’re lecturing. They watch for glazed eyes, or confused expressions.

But when you’re teaching online, you can’t do that. So you have to compensate in as many ways as you can for the fact that you not only don’t have people in front of you, you also have a screen between you and your students.

A screen that holds many other, much more fun websites to play on than the one where a teacher is reading material to a student.

That’s why I recommend using a 2-column script for video teaching online. It puts the attention back on your end goal: communicating your information so that someone will understand and learn it through a visual medium.

How does it do that?

A 2-column script forces you to think like a director, a producer, and a camera operator, as well as a teacher, because you think about the end result even as you craft your material.

It’s a class and a course, yes. But it’s also a visual and audio product.

If, as you write out your content, you stay aware of that end product throughout the process of writing and editing, you will write differently. You can’t help it. You will write to deliver and teach, rather than to read and teach.

What is a 2-column script? It’s also called a shooting script, or an audio/video script. Whatever the label, it’s simply a script that has been prepared to be filmed and produced. It can include as much or as little detail as you need and want. Typically it includes directions about the kinds of shots, props, graphics, and delivery you need.

Your directions go in the left column. Your speaking text—what you will say—goes in the right column. Each section is broken into rows.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s backtrack a second to understand why a 2-column script can improve a video course. To do that, we first need to examine what happens when we write notes, PowerPoint, or Keynotes for the lesson. Then we can look at what goes into making a 2-column script so you can write one yourself.

If you are teaching in front of a live audience, you look for cues to guide you to expand a point or skim through it. You can see if students are nodding off, if they are trolling through their cell phones, or multitasking rather than listening.

You can tell if they look engaged, bored, or confused, and adjust accordingly. You fill in the gaps as needed.

Without the students in front of you, the tendency is to read the material without embellishing. The likelihood is that the exact same written material you used in your classroom and barely squeezed into the allotted time now comes up short. Because you are missing those cues.

I’ve seen this happen literally hundreds of times. A PowerPoint presentation that lasted 40 minutes in the classroom gets recorded at 15 minutes. The worst was a lecture that came in at 6 minutes instead of the target of 30.

Let’s take a look what happens when you write out everything you intend to say, or even half of it.

If you write a standard script—a Word document—the tendency is for it to morph into an article or book chapter. You focus on the writing and not on the teaching, for the exact same reasons that the shorter versions fail—you don’t have students in front of you to direct the interaction and redirect the lesson when it’s not working well.

Full or even half scripts often run long for this reason. But they also can run short, because you forget to add in the little comments that can enliven and clarify the lesson. I’ve seen it go both ways.

When we write for a reader, we use different conventions than when we write to speak aloud. A few examples:

  • Longer sentences
  • More complex syntax
  • Formal transitions (“whereby”; “in other words, as it were”)
  • Spatial references to other parts of the text (“as we saw above”)
  • Formal language (“I would not” v. “I wouldn’t)

You don’t have to recap as often, because a reader can review challenging passages as many times as needed to comprehend it.

You don’t have a time limit for this same reason. This means that you can include more than a few major points.

But we know from research that a student can only absorb 2-3 major points in a 20 to 30-minute period. They’re not going to follow very dense material.

With fully written material or notes, it’s all too easy to forget that you’re teaching. Too easy to forget that the student hasn’t already heard and processed the material. Too easy to forget to approach the lesson with a beginner’s mind.

One last point: Reading from a half or full script can also deaden your delivery, again, because the emphasis is on reading.

To recap, with online video courses:

  • No students to give you verbal or visual cues to let you know whether you’re being clear and pacing well, or if the students are engaged.
  • Using notes in any form tends to compress the main points; teachers lose the nuances and details that occur in a live class.
  • Written presentations can deaden the delivery by getting too dense and too formal.
  • The experience of watching the course is far from the teacher’s mind since the focus is—naturally—on the content.

I’ve worked with instructors to solve every one of these challenges, and to be honest, there are many options. The 2-column script, however, can help solve all of them, with the advantage of crystallizing the visual aspects of your course AND sharpening your delivery.

Even if you try a 2-column script only one time, for just one lesson, it will help you improve every other approach. And fortunately, it’s ridiculously easy. I’ll even give you a template at the end of the blog that you’re free to adapt however you like.

Before we go any further, let me reassure you that you don’t have to build your 2-column script as fully as a movie script to be effective. It can be helpful to consider what kind of shot you want, especially if you are doing demonstrations (“DEMO”) in your lesson. But you are likely using only one camera, possibly two, so there won’t be as much variety as in a movie, not by a long shot (pun deliberate!).

It’s a good idea, even so, to think about whether you want a Long Shot (shows your whole body and your environment or “set”) to open and close each lesson. A Long Shot (“LS”) sets the scene. It helps establish where you are and what you’re doing. If you have props, it will include them.

A Long Shot lends a sense of introduction and closure to each lesson, especially if you are able to move from a Long Shot to a Medium or Close Shot in the opening and reverse that in your conclusion.

A Full Shot (“FS”) will exclude most of the set but still include your whole body. If you were  teaching physical fitness, for example, you might use a full shot to demonstrate the proper way to lift a weight without hurting your back. Or if you were teaching geometry and using your body as one part of a right triangle, again, your full shot would be useful.

A Medium Shot (“MS”) shows your body about halfway up. (I suppose it could show you halfway down, but that would be pretty weird…) This shot gives you room to use your hands to explain points or to emphasize points.

Remember to keep your hands away from your face. Also remember that you will be viewed in a box on a computer screen or laptop, and less often on a TV screen. This means that you can gesture in a medium shot, but your hands will go out of sight if you use really broad or tall gestures.

One great thing about the 2-column script, however, is that you can note when that might be necessary and adjust the camera shot and angle accordingly.

You can also note that you want to take a break to reset the shot—essential if you’re only using one camera. If you’re using two cameras, your second camera can pick up the shot, which you would have called for in your 2-column script.

If you are starting and stopping the camera action, you can identify sections as Scenes. This helps in postproduction (the phase of editing the video and audio). It also makes it easy to track if you want to shoot out of order. (For example, if you have a number of complicated demonstrations, it can be easier to shoot these separately and edit them in later.)

The next shot you will likely need is the Close Up (“CU”). This fills the screen with whatever the camera focuses on, typically your shoulders and head. This is great if you are on one of your major points. It reinforces the idea that the student should pay attention. In addition, it gives you a chance to be expressive and to connect emotionally to the student.

But you don’t want to stay on a Close Up all the time, or else you come across as a “talking head,” and it’s boring to watch. If you’ve got two cameras but limited options for other shots, you can at least turn from one camera to the other when you’re switching points. Again, the movement will echo and reinforce the points you’re making, so long as you don’t give yourself whiplash changing cameras. (Yes, I’ve seen this, too!)

If you do change shots, you’ll need a visual transition, such as a Dissolve (one shot fades into the next). This is usually handled during the Postproduction phase when the footage is being edited. It’s easy to go crazy with the special effects available in editing software; keeping it simple and limiting camera changes will look more professional. You can note transitions in your 2-column script or leave it to your video editor to handle.

The last shot you might record is the Extreme Close Up (“ECU”). You would only use this if you need to show the details of a prop or a demonstration. For instance, if you are showing the color of a glass of wine, the stitching on a garment, or the details of a petroglyph, you might need an Extreme Close Up.

The angle of the camera is another aspect of a shot to consider, especially if you are performing demonstrations. There are many angles, but these are the 4 you are most likely to need:

  • BEV = Bird’s Eye View
  • OTS = Over the Shoulder
  • h/a = High Angle
  • l/a = Low Angle

These are self-explanatory. Just ask yourself, “What does the student need to see to understand this?”

Finally, in some instances you might need to note whether you are shooting inside or outside. The typical course will be shot inside, so there’s no point in noting this. If, however, you are demonstrating something outside—how to send a weather balloon in the air or how to make tree grafts, for example—you need to clarify when you have to be outside. Use the abbreviations for Exterior (“EXT”) and Interior (“INT”).

These are all the shots that you might note in your 2-column script. Don’t feel overwhelmed by how many there are! You will likely use only a few of them. Simply being aware of them can help you perform better.

What you mainly want is to think about the fact that you will be on camera.

You’ll want to note any Computer Graphics (“CGs” or “gfx”) that should be on the screen to reinforce your teaching points. Just calling these out reminds you that you are teaching in a visual medium.

This might be as simple as a Lower Third (this isn’t an official abbreviation, but I write this as “L3”). This is text on the bottom of the screen—a term and definition, for example.

Or it might be a Full Screen Text (“FST”)—a heading and bullet points restating essential information. Ask yourself, “What do students have a hard time remembering? What do I want to make sure they remember? What might they hear incorrectly?”

With any Full Screen Text, you will also want to note that you will be in Voiceover mode (“VO” or “V/O” or “V.O.”)—the student won’t see you, they’ll see an image or text. But you will be walking them through the visual. Since you’re not seen, it’s called a Voiceover.

Another option is a Split Screen

It’s also worth adding any special Sound Effects (“SFX”) you might need. For instance, “15 seconds of the beginning sounds of the universe” might be appropriate in a cosmology course. This cue would remind you to set up the sound.

Last, you can use the 2-column script to write notes to yourself about delivery as it’s tied to teaching. Put them in brackets so you know they are a cue and not meant to be read. These go on the right side of the column, with your other text.

Here are a few of the notes I’ve suggested that teachers use:

  • [Pause so students can absorb point. Restate]
  • [Raise voice]
  • [Slow down]
  • [Unpack concept]
  • [Ask question]
  • [If running short, add story about…]
  • [Show with hands]

How do you get started? This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question. It’s impossible to write your instructions in the left column if you don’t have a script, or talking points, in the right column. However, you could flesh out your columns by alternating between the two sides.

Say, for example, that you know you need 3 demonstrations to explain a particular concept. You can create a row for each one and note them in the left column, along with any props you’ll need. You can call out the shots you’ll need. And you can fill in the right side, the Voiceover script later.

Most of the teachers I have worked with started with a rough draft and “poured” it into the right column. This way they ensured that they covered their key points. They then made rows where they could identify their major points. These are natural dividing markers, such as when a camera change is needed for a topic change, special emphasis, or a demonstration.

Next, they filled out the left column with instructions about the shot, demonstrations, and graphics.

As they reworked the draft, they shifted from side to side, adding rows where a break or change seemed to be needed (a new scene). Each permutation refined the script (right side) and the directions (left side). It also helped them clarify whether the opening was strong and compelling, whether they were supporting the points effectively, whether they were being interactive, and so forth.

They ceased building something to be read. They instead built something to be delivered.

I’m hoping you can see by now that this process can help you visualize the course or class as the end product. The process should constantly reinforce what the user experience will be and how you might revise to improve it.

It is not a difficult process, but it takes practice to get used to thinking about more than just your content.

Go ahead—take the plunge! Link to the PDF template for a 2-column script to get started: 2-column template Issue 2

Tune in next week for Issue #3 of my ongoing blog, covering Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses. I’m headed to the New Media Expo in Las Vegas, so my post will be a round-up of the best presentations.

Please send your questions. I’ll address them in future posts. Also, please post your comments. Thanks for reading!

  Happy me oregon_signature4

About Marcy McDonald

Online Course Producer

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

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