An Educator’s Lessons from YouTube with Valerie Pennington

Want to learn how to master YouTube?

Creating video and pushing it out into the world can be a massive challenge – especially if you’re an educator who needs to create engaging and informative videos.

Valerie Pennington of The Penguin Prof YouTube channel joins this episode of The Visual Lounge to share her tips and tricks for mastering YouTube. She explains the lessons she’s learned to overcome common challenges that educators face with video.

Besides being a YouTube whizz, Valerie is a Professor of Biology at Southwestern College and a Teaching with Technology Coordinator.

She began creating videos for her students to teach them about biology, anatomy, and chemistry. Eventually, she decided to make her videos public, and today her YouTube channel has amassed over 100,000 subscribers. Recently she’s been teaching other educators about using technology and video as a Teaching with Technology Coordinator.

You can watch the video on this topic at the top of this post, to listen to the podcast episode, hit play below, or read on for more…

Humanizing educational YouTube videos

When Valerie first began her video creation journey, she simply made videos to help her own students. It wasn’t until around six or seven years ago that she considered that these videos might have a wider audience. Valerie decided to make her videos public, and it all went from there.

“I had no idea what this would be like. It changed my life, my personal life, my professional life. It’s been an incredible journey.”

When Valerie took a new position at her college as a Teaching with Technology Coordinator, she began to help educators master technology.

“It’s like everything else in your life. It’s a journey. Start small. I do a lot of cheerleading and try to make them feel good about themselves.”

Valerie always tries to help her viewers believe in themselves. When she’s teaching something as complex as chemistry, she wants people to believe they can do it. It just may not be easy.

“My entire YouTube journey really became solidified by one comment that I got way back when I first started making my videos public instead of unlisted. And somebody wrote, ‘I just come here for the hugs.’ And I thought that’s what I want to do!”

To Valerie, injecting warmth and humanity into video is so important because it’s easy to feel disconnected when behind a lens. She always likes to ask herself how she can humanize this process. She says this is key to making highly effective videos.

The challenges of creating video

When Valerie became a Teaching with Technology Coordinator, she was working with people who had never been in front of a camera. While there’s always a learning curve with any new technology, Valerie noticed there was another challenge people were facing.

She knew that getting the tech down was simple enough, but the real challenge was talking to a lens. The other faculty members she taught would often share how challenging they found it. But most were unsure why.

Valerie spent last year focusing on why it’s such a common struggle, even for educators who are used to speaking to groups of people. What she concluded was that there’s no real feedback. It’s not like a conversation. There’s a distance between you and the other person or audience, and with that comes uncertainty.

“We don’t want to look like an idiot. I think it comes down to just being that simple. I don’t want to look like an idiot. Nobody wants to look like a fool.”

In a normal conversation, there’s subliminal communication that you can respond to. In video or on Zoom calls, that’s less prominent, and so you’re left second-guessing yourself.

“It’s that voice in your head saying, I feel like an idiot. I look like an idiot. I sound horrible. The judgment is so much worse. I have counseled faculty who are phenomenal presenters live, and yet they can’t make a video.”

Valerie’s strategies to overcome video nerves

The simplest solution is, of course, to practice being on video. Valerie highlights that you can’t expect that your first attempts will be perfect. It’s all about practicing going out of your comfort zone.

Valerie goes one step further than this. She was determined to learn more about being on camera and feeling at ease. She spoke with people who study theatre and a vocal coach who still helps her today.

An Educator's Lessons from YouTube with Valerie Pennington

She became very interested in audio during her research because “nothing ruins a good video faster than bad audio.” As she studied more about audio and her own voice, she realized that improving her own voice was so important as someone who speaks for a living.

“It was a lightbulb moment again. I took a course at the University of San Diego, and this woman changed my life. I still work with her. She’s a vocal and dialect coach, and the course was called Voice and Speech. I learned that vocal coaching isn’t just for singers.”

The lessons she learned here are part of what Valerie now teaches when training educators.

One tip she shares is to purchase a small clip-on mic and get used to wearing it. Start recording yourself and move around when you do it. Go for a walk and get used to talking and recording yourself when you’re relaxed.

“As soon as we get ready to push record, everything in the body tenses, especially in the chest and the throat, which is precisely where you want openness. You want it to be free and easy. You want what we call the diaphragmatic breathing or breathing from the belly.”

The three phases of video creation

How do you overcome the nerves and challenges of video creation? Valerie says you need to work through the three phases of video creation

1. The Struggle Phase

This is the one that everyone’s most familiar with. It’s when your sympathetic nervous system is in flight or fight mode. This is when you hit record, and your heart rate goes up. You start to perspire and feel like rubbish.

Where people go wrong is by trying to push through it. Valerie suggests that you need to give your brain more experience when you’re not recording to push through that feeling.

2. The Release Phase

The second phase is when your flight or fight mode turns off, your heart rate slows, and you feel more relaxed. But it’s not over. Once you jump back in front of the camera, you go back into The Struggle Phase.

3. The Flow Phase

If you can push through, you can make it to the third phase – the flow phase. This is when you’ve practiced a lot and are becoming more comfortable being on camera.

Valerie says it’s to do with your prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that controls all your high-level thinking, decision-making, and also all that self-judgment as well. In the flow phase, this self-judgment shuts down.

To work through these three phases, Valerie says the key is to practice and learn to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.

Script or no script?

Valerie is not a scripter for her videos but recognizes that plenty of people feel more comfortable when they have a script to go on.

“If you want to have a script, and that’s going to increase your comfort level, you’re going to be breathing and speaking better, use one. I’m not saying that scripts are bad. For me, it’s bad because, for some reason, I can’t get over that robotic reading feeling.”

What she does highlight is the importance of eye contact. Eye contact is essential to help you build up a connection with your audience. It gives a real sense that you’re talking to the viewer.

An Educator's Lessons from YouTube with Valerie Pennington

However, with a script, it can be a bit of a challenge. Some people figure out ways to display their script right by the camera or above it to help them keep eye contact. Others will look at their script while recording and cut those shots out in the final version.

Making educational videos interactive

Once you overcome the fear and worry of creating videos, the next stage is to make your videos more effective.

This is where Valerie suggests making your videos more interactive. For example, she would present sample problems for her students to solve in her videos. She would also introduce exam questions to help students prepare for them.

She even does something she calls pre-lab videos now. As working and training in a lab can be highly stressful, Valerie likes to create pre-lab videos to introduce her students to the lab, the equipment, and the work before they even arrive. That way, it’s all familiar to them, and it can save a great deal of time in the long run.

It also makes the students more engaged, informed and encourages them to ask better questions once they’re in the lab because they’ve already engaged with the video.

Video is a powerful tool in the classroom and beyond. Getting it right can be a big challenge, but practice is key!

If you’re ready to start making videos for your business, classroom, or yourself, be sure to check out the TechSmith Academy. There are lots of free courses and resources to dive into, which will teach you everything you need to know about video content.

For more expert advice and tips visit TechSmith Academy on YouTube or listen to the Podcast.

Matt Pierce

Matt Pierce is a Learning & Video Ambassador at TechSmith. In this role speaks and teaches about video creation and visual communication. A graduate of Indiana University he has ten years of experience working in learning and development with a focus on visual instruction. He has directly managed the training, user assistance, video, and other teams for TechSmith. Teach him something @piercemr

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