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Video Trailers: Treat Your Work like a Coming Attraction

Online Teaching and Learning

Video Trailers: Treat Your Work like a Coming Attraction

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An Asian American male teacher records himself with a digital camera
When a new movie comes out, people often watch the trailer to decide whether they want to see it. Similarly, our eyes are immediately drawn to a video on the website of a product we are considering purchasing.

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When a new movie comes out, people often watch the trailer to decide whether they want to see it. Similarly, our eyes are immediately drawn to a video on the website of a product we are considering purchasing.

Unfortunately, higher education seems to have missed this trend. Online course catalogues are still only text descriptions of topics covered. Conference websites provide only text descriptions of presentations. Faculty pages are merely text summaries of CVs, and courses welcome students with syllabi that merely list course policies.

A good way to draw interest to your work is with a short, exciting video trailer. You have put a lot of work into your courses and presentations, and you should want to get people interested in them. Today’s computer technology makes it easy to make engaging video clips at little or no cost. All it requires is an understanding of a few basic principles.

Apply “video thinking”

Here are some suggestions on how video might bring enthusiasm to what is most commonly a dull text description.

Your bio: A faculty bio is often a listing of the education or papers the faculty published. Few students pick their courses because of where faculty went to school or what they published. Using video, you have an opportunity to talk about what students would find interesting or relevant about learning from you, such as your teaching philosophy or that you spent a year at the South Pole.

Your course description: A video course trailer can cover why the course is important and interesting. If you are talking about a medical ethics course, then you might start with an example of a medical ethics case that piques student interest and note that the course covers such cases, which the student will encounter and need to resolve as a medical practitioner.

A course trailer is not a substitute for a welcome video; it’s an enhancement intended to draw interest in the course. The welcome video will prepare students for learning after they have signed up. Thus, a welcome video should also alert students to anything they must know about the course. If students need to sign up for a web service at the beginning of the course, the welcome video is a good place to remind students of that.

Here is a trailer I made for my presentations at the 2018 Distance Teaching and Learning Conference. I posted it to my social media feeds such as LinkedIn and Twitter to get the word out; the conference organizers posted it as well. Note that this video uses narration over imagery, an easy videomaking method that you can read about in my May 2016 article on digital storytelling.

By contrast, take a look at the live shoot by Beth Kiggins and Julie Gahimer that cleverly uses props to grab the viewer’s attention to their presentation. Notice the intro and outro added by the conference organizer. Additionally, this trailer by Jane Sutterlin and Emily Baxter blends video with music to create an enticing invitation to their workshop.

Video recording tips

Show interest

Academics tend to fall into a monotone when put in front of a microphone. This tells the viewer that the you find the topic boring, and if you do, the student will as well. Any video intended to generate enthusiasm must show enthusiasm itself. Thus it is important to use voice inflections and imagery intended to amplify what is interesting about the topic. Focus on exaggerating your interest, and you will likely hit it right. Also focus on speaking faster than you would in a lecture as your listeners’ ears have become attuned to a faster pace in video formats than they have during live talks.


Keep these videos to two minutes or less; some would say that even two minutes is long. This means neither trying to cover every possible topic nor lollygagging over topics. You are just piquing interest, not giving a complete lesson. Provide just enough information to generate interest.

Get the sound and lighting right

Because nobody will sit through a video that is hard to hear or see, it is important to get decent sound and lighting. Using a headset microphone is a good idea if you have one, though webcam microphones get decent sound today. Avoid using a laptop to shoot your video. The pinhole microphones on laptops often produce poor quality sound, and the laptop’s tiny cameras produce poor imagery. Plus, most people make the mistake of leaving their laptop on their desk while shooting so that the viewer is left looking up at the speaker’s nose hairs. The camera should always be at eye level, so webcams and cell phones are much better than laptops for shooting video. Also make sure to have plenty of front lighting (i.e., from behind the camera) so that your face does not turn dark from back and side lighting, and avoid mixing natural and artificial light. Natural light will nearly always overwhelm artificial light, creating deep shadows.


Music helps set the mood and thus amplifies the effectiveness of the message. Easily add music tracks to videos using programs such as WeVideo and iMovie; sources such as Bensound offer royalty-free music to incorporate into projects. Once you get familiar with video editing systems, you might also want to add intros that come free with the software as well as titles and other flourishes.

More video examples

This is an introduction to a course for faculty on the use of technology in teaching. Here I use the digital storytelling method with screencasting videos interspersed.

By contrast, here is a webcam video welcome to a business ethics course. Many people would consider the background too busy, and if you agree, then use a simpler background for your shots, such as a bookcase. But avoid the blank-wall background that better suits a mug shot.

One final rule of rules for making videos: have fun! Anything that adds a little levity or humor to a video will help it do the job of creating interest in what you are covering. Don’t be afraid to get creative. As long as you are having fun, you will instill enthusiasm in your viewer. Enjoy the journey!