The first 5 steps to getting one million views on YouTube

About 4 years ago I made a decision that changed my life: I started creating educational videos and posting them on YouTube. I had never filmed anything before (I still had a flip phone at the time, so no practice with Snapchat), but for some reason I always wanted to give it a shot. I tracked down a cheap camera and decided I would figure it out as I went. Right from the start I fell in love.

I made pretty simple videos (just me talking to the camera), and within the first month of posting I had already received thousands of views. After about a year I surpassed a million views for the first time. Since then I’ve partnered with a friend who has received hundreds of thousands of her own views, and I’ve worked with kids of all ages to teach basic filmmaking and editing. Recently at dot Learn, we’ve been training several teachers to begin creating educational videos on a range of topics, and these teachers have gone on to create thousands of new educational videos.

I still have trouble believing all of this started because I sat down one day and gave video making a try. Ever since I’ve been trying to convince everyone I can to start creating videos of their own. So here’s my pitch:

I believe that everybody has something to teach. And when I say everybody, I mean everybody. That includes you, person reading this article. Maybe you know how to use a specific computer program, like Excel or Photoshop, or maybe you know a really great recipe for a delicious meal. Maybe you figured out how to take really cool pictures on your phone, or maybe you can simply share your unique experience in life. Nobody has experienced life in your shoes, and people would benefit from hearing your singular perspective on the world.

I have yet to meet anyone that doesn’t have something to share with the world, but I think too often we underestimate ourselves, believing that our unique skills and experiences aren’t worth passing on to someone else. I believe the world would be a richer place if everyone shared these lessons, and I believe there is a real thirst among students and learners of all ages to access this wealth of knowledge.

This is where there’s good news: we live in a time where it is easier than ever to share these lessons, and it has never been easier for students to connect with teachers of all varieties (for the record, I consider everyone a “student” and a “teacher” of some kind). The internet has obviously changed things, making it possible to connect with people when geography and time didn’t allow in the past, but it is not just the internet. The hardware and software necessary to create all kinds of content are cheaper and more accessible than ever before. High quality videos are easier and more affordable to make than they’ve ever been.

So start making videos! Share your gifts! Each lesson you share will make it easier for the next person to benefit from your successes and learn from your mistakes.

Like many things, I think the hardest part can be getting started, so I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from creating my own videos and helping others to create their own. Keep reading and I’ll offer the 5 most important pieces of advice I would give to anyone creating videos for the first time.

First, let’s talk about logistics:

  1. Use the best camera that’s available to you!

Finding the right equipment to start recording videos can sometimes be difficult (and expensive). However, a common misconception is that you need a “good” camera to start. Most of the time a phone or computer will work perfectly. These devices may not film in perfect definition, but don’t let that stop you. Some of my favorite video creators, the ones that originally inspired me, were posting videos on YouTube back in the mid-2000s when even expensive camcorders produced grainy, low-definition online videos.

In the end, good content shines through. Creative filmmakers get the most out of their devices, not the other way around. So use the camera on your phone or computer (or a friend’s phone or computer), and start recording! And if you don’t have access to a camera on your phone/computer, you can use one of the many free “screen recording” programs on the device you are using to read this article!

(one quick note about filming with a phone or computer camera: make sure to film with as much light as possible. You may need to stand by a big window or even film outside to get the light you need, but the right light will make a huge difference in the final video quality.)

2. Just start filming!

I know, you’ve heard it before, and I know “just starting” is easier said than done. But it’s true, the most important step is beginning. It’s going to feel weird to record yourself at first, and you’re going to make mistakes (everyone does, it’s part of the fun!). But video making truly is a skill that must be practiced. Nobody makes a perfect video their first try, and those early mistakes are by far the best way to improve.

And remember, you control the entire editing process. That sentence that you fumbled through? Film it again. That part where you were making a weird face? Delete that part. That is one of the great things about recording videos, nobody sees the mistakes that you don’t want them to see.

3. Don’t be intimidated by video editing!

I think the most intimidating part of making videos for the first time is video editing. Editing softwares are not always the most user-friendly programs, and at first glance they can look overwhelming. That said, the basics (deleting unwanted pieces of video and connecting together different scenes) are usually easier to learn than you’d expect, and I’ve taught students as young as 10 years old to edit video on a computer/phone.

Start by finding one of the free softwares that works for you. If you have a PC I would recommend trying out Windows Movie Maker. It might look unnecessarily complicated at first, but there are tons of free tutorials online, and it is worth investing the 10–20 minutes to learn the basics. If you have access to a Mac, iMovie is a good free program as well, but again, I would recommend googling a tutorial video. Otherwise, you can edit with an app directly on your phone. There are a huge number of apps out there, so do a quick Google search and see which ones work best for you!

(If you are still too intimidated to use a video editing software, you don’t have to! You can always just record your video in one take and share it as is, without any edits at all.)

OK, enough about logistics. What should you keep in mind before getting in front of the camera:

4. When you film, be WAY MORE energetic than what feels normal!

The first few times I filmed myself, I discovered something unexpected: my normal energy level just wasn’t showing up in the videos, and my videos felt stiff and boring. I realize now this happened for two main reasons:

First, when you record yourself, either with video or audio, a huge amount of your energy and enthusiasm is naturally lost in the process. Remember, when people are watching one of your videos, it will typically be on a small screen with a small speaker. A lot of your energy and presence that might come across very clearly in-person will not come across as well with the small screen and speaker of a mobile phone or a laptop.

Second, when you record your videos, you’ll typically be recording them by yourself, talking directly to the device you are recording on. In real-life conversations, we feed off each others’ energy and we tend to naturally speak with animation and enthusiasm. However, it can feel awkward recreating this same natural energy when filming by yourself. Maintaining that natural energy is so important when you film though!

In the end, as you film try to think of it like you’re telling one of your favorite stories to a friend. When you tell a good story, there is something about your energy level and animation that just holds that person’s attention. There is nothing fake or artificial about it, it is just a natural part of engaging conversations. Recreating that energy in a video will usually require you to be WAY MORE animated than you expect, but in the end it will be worth it. Talk with a smile, raise your voice, talk with your body, or do whatever else it takes to keep your energy up!

5. Keep up the pace!

When people watch one of your videos, your video is competing with a lot of other options. Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and a million other apps are just a click away. Because of this, we need to do everything we can to make our videos engaging, and a big part of this is keeping an engaging pace.

Part of this is simple: nobody wants to watch a video filled with awkward pauses and “um”s. Practice makes perfect, so rehearse until you feel comfortable and confident in what you are going to say.

Part of this is a little less simple: what exactly is a “good pace” anyway? Once again, think about a good conversation. When someone tells a good story, they aren’t thinking about the pace that they are speaking with to keep people hooked, the words just naturally flow out of them. We need to do our best to recreate this in our videos.

A good way to judge if the pacing of your video is OK is to close your eyes and just listen to the audio. For some reason, our ears are really good at picking out the right pace. We get used to the rhythm of a person speaking, and when someone breaks that rhythm, we notice immediately. So sit back and listen. If the audio sounds right, then the overall pacing of your video is probably OK.

So as you start your video-making journey, remember: you have gifts to share with the world, so go out and share them! The world will be richer place when you share the stories or lessons that have gotten you to where you are. No idea is too small to deserve a video! And most importantly, making videos is fun! Good luck and happy filmmaking :)

(and if you’re curious about some of my videos, I actually teach in Romanian. I lived in Moldova in Eastern Europe for a couple years, so I teach English to Romanian speakers. You can check out my videos here)