Show, Don’t Tell: Tips for Great Demos

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Benjamin Franklin

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates.” —William Arthur Ward 

Have you ever watched a teacher do a demonstration (demo) in an auditorium? Anyone in the front row has a great view. Back row, not so good. But film that same demo, and everyone gets a great view. In fact, if done right, they get a better view.

the human suspension bridge  Except for the fact that students can’t touch or taste any materials, I’d say that a demo online is a better teaching vehicle than one seen in person.

An online demo offers numerous advantages to the viewer. Whatever the teacher is doing can be filmed from multiple angles, with close-ups, overhead shots, slow motion, and split screen views to show before, during, and after the action.

That’s a lot of opportunity to teach better. Let’s start with when and why you use a demo. I’ll let International Fitness Expert Dean Hodgkin explain:

  • The most vital point is to be sure a practical is warranted. I’ve seen many demos inserted purely for the sake of eye candy and that therefore didn’t induce greater insights into the discussion topic.
  • The demo is a highly useful vehicle for confirming understanding. Deploy it only when it’s felt that words alone will not suffice.

If it will confirm understanding and do so in a way that words cannot, use a demo. Think of the old adage, “Show and tell,” and put the emphasis on the showing.

Using demos for “how-to” lessons is what typically comes first to mind when we think of online demos. Here are some examples of demos we used at The Teaching Company:

  • How to use a telescope
  • How to build an arch
  • How to lift weights correctly
  • How to assess the color of wine
  • How to meditate

But a demo can also serve as an effective and exciting vehicle for explaining complex principles, in every discipline from nanoscience (using basketballs) to geometry (using quilt pieces) to ancient history (using chess pieces). Indeed, some of the “how-to” demos mentioned above also served to explain principles of physics or physiology, for instance.

In addition, you can use demonstrations as a way to change the pace, make a point more engaging, and help you teach as if you had an audience.

Hodgkin says, “I try to use the demo as an opportunity to lift the energy, both mine and that of the viewer, by injecting enthusiasm. The demo is an opportunity to bring my subject matter to life, so I don’t want to miss it.”

Mathematician James Tanton uses a glass board in his online courses so he can write out problems in real time. The process of demonstrating solutions, rather than showing slides of prewritten answers, keeps viewers engaged in the action of writing the formulas. Even the act of writing is a demo of sorts, since it steps away from strictly lecturing.

What are the most important considerations when filming a demo? Here are two tips from Hodgkin:

  • The most basic consideration is visibility, which for me, means turning to and away from the camera to allow different angles on an exercise.
  • I try to focus on the camera as a viewer, imagining I’m trying to initiate a physical response that will only come if I explain clearly.

What are some of the challenges using props and doing demos for a recorded course? Ancient historian Gregory Aldrete talks about this.

  • I use props in the classroom because props bring the past back to life for the students in a direct, personal way.
  • It’s a bit harder using props in [courses that are both video and audio] because of the restriction where you can’t refer to things that listeners as opposed to viewers can see.
  • Certainly the biggest difference between doing this with a live audience versus on camera is the inability to have the audience directly interact with and handle the objects.  I can model how they are used, but it’s another thing entirely for someone to use it for him or herself.

The online teacher using props or demonstrating something when both sight and touch would improve the experience must explain the experience more robustly than when the students are present.

In Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s courses on wine and spirits, she overcame this challenge by asking her viewers to do all her actions along with her. At the beginning of each lesson, she listed (and showed) what she would be discussing and tasting. She set up the entire course in a way that enabled the audience to follow along, and I’ve talked to viewers who said this worked well for them.

Typically they would watch a section, try whatever she was demonstrating, and replay it if necessary. It wasn’t the same as being there, but it was a close approximation.

However, this tactic won’t work when you’re trying to convey the density of a piece of granite or the sense of drama in a battle-nicked spear. Close-ups and good storytelling are your best weapons in those cases.

Shooting effective demos requires a lot of practice and the objective eyes of a director, producer, and video editor to help you convey your key points visually, dynamically, and (above all) clearly. You’ll need to do a “walk-through” of the demo before recording it, so that your video team knows what your moves will be and what is most important to show.

Depending on how many cameras you are using and how they are positioned, you may have to shoot the demo several times from different angles. Typically close-ups are done separately from the main action, for example.

Demos are recorded in real time and then some. Anything you can do to speed up that process will be helpful. For instance, if you are going to show how to cut a board, prep a board by cutting it partway and nearly all the way through. This way you can show only what is most important to see, and the viewers don’t have to sit through an hour of unimportant and boring video.

Of course, this means that you have to analyze beforehand what is most critical to see—but you should do that anyway as part of your evaluation of how the demo will help convey your points. Remember Hodgkin’s advice—if it doesn’t do it better than words alone, it shouldn’t be in the course.

The teacher, producer, and video editor will need to collaborate after filming to make decisions about the optimum way to present the demos. Are additional graphics needed to identify or highlight elements of the demo? Will a split screen aid comprehension? For example, should one screen show slow motion, another actual time, and yet another high speed? These are the kinds of questions that lead to better teaching than you can do in person.

Courses with a significant number of demos take much longer to prep and record than courses without demos. Don’t let this deter you. Even the occasional demo can elevate the teaching when it explains a point in a fresh way.

John Long, the professor for Robotics, offered six valuable suggestions for doing demos without losing your mind.

1. Keep it simple. Complex processes have a high probability of failure, both from the perspective of the presenter and the camera operator.

  • If you have to trouble-shoot a complex demonstration during a filming session, you will find yourself under pressure to fix it quickly, since studio time and personnel hours are limited and often tightly scheduled.

‪2. Bring back-ups. In case your demonstration components break (and they will), have a back-up ready to go. Nothing will please your director and producer more than if you suffer no down time.

‪3. Bring alternatives.

  • Sometimes you only realize that a demonstration isn’t a good one in the studio, when lighting and camera conspire to render the process invisible or unexciting to the viewer.
  • If the process is essential to your story, then have an alternative demonstration ready to try.

‪4. Video important demonstrations yourself, before you get to the studio.

  • As part of your preparation with your team leading up to studio work, good videos can show that it is possible to film the process.
  • These home-grown videos may also serve as “B roll,” video that can be used in case the demonstration doesn’t work in the studio.
  • Make sure that you mount your camera on a tripod and avoid panning (moving or swiveling the camera).

‪5. Use discrete steps.

  • Simple or complex, your demonstration should be something that you can do as you narrate the process in real time.
  • That may seem obvious. But it’s important that you are able to decompose the process into discrete steps.

‪6. Try collaborating with companies. Depending on what you are trying to show, you may find a company that is excited to have you use their product for the show.

  • The great thing about using someone else’s commercial product is that it is likely to be working. Compare that your own custom, hand-built or prepared demonstrations.
  • You will need about six months of lead time. Start by contacting a sales rep and then work your way up the food chain to a person, usually the director of marketing, who can give approval.
  • You will have to exchange legal documents between your team and theirs.
  • Then you have get the product in time for your shooting, and, sometimes, coordinate with a trainer or engineer if the product is complicated enough that you can’t work it right out of the box.

Whether you’re demonstrating Newton’s first law of motions with a rod and a block or using dominoes to teach cause and effect, you do your students a service when you use demos to explain your material innovatively. Take advantage of one of the few genuine advantages of online teaching.

This ends my 3-part series on overcoming the biggest hurdles online teachers face. Tune in next Friday for Issue #19 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll take a look at some tips for postproduction.

We’ll be answering these questions: What should be on the screen to support your teaching? What are the best ways to present on-screen text? What works well and what doesn’t?

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Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:

Special thanks to the following contributors (in alphabetical order):

Gregory Aldrete, Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin. Multiple courses, including History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective and The Decisive Battles of World History.

Dean Hodgkin, International Fitness Presenter. Multiple courses, including Physiology and Fitness and Essentials of Strength Training

John Long, Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science, Vassar College. Robotics

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine, Senior Partner at Wine Ring, Inc. Multiple courses, including The Everyday Guide to Spirits and Cocktails and The Everyday Guide to Wines of France.

James Tanton, Mathematician at Large, Mathematical Association of America. Geometry: An Interactive Journey to Mastery


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