How to Create the Best Course Outline

It’s always great to start a journey (a successful one at least) with the destination in mind.

Metaphysics and philosophy aside, the journey is not the destination for an online video course – you need to tell people what you are going to tell them (the intro), tell them (the body/main content) and then tell them what you told them (the outro).

Quotation Marks

All good performance starts with clear goals

-- Ken Blamchard

It may surprise you that you need to tell your audience the same things over and over. Or it might not.

When people view your course, they’re taking in new information and constantly evaluating what it means to them. Viewers are easily distracted because well, people are always easily distracted. Repetition is an important step in ensuring the message is delivered. And it makes sure they didn’t miss something while yelling at the kids or petting the cat.

If what you are trying to teach ‘sticks’ with the audience, they’ll love your course.

Repetition and clearly established (and delivered) goals will be essential to your audience understanding you, and therefore recommending you, and buying more courses.

A map that shows the way to your eventual destinations, and all the hazards or key navigation points in between makes you much more likely to arrive where you were supposed to. Just ask Columbus – he used St. Brendan ‘The Navigator’s’ map to find North America.

Your outline is your map. It starts with where you plan on going (the intro), the information and then a recap (the outro) to reinforce what you said. Start, journey (with waypoints) and destination.

We’re stressing the value of ‘a map’ or outline FIRST because we’ve all been in the car when someone doesn’t know where they’re going, and worse, refuses to ask directions or look at the map the passengers are trying to interpret. Most of us should probably admit to doing this – I don’t think it’s just men who don’t read instructions anymore.

When creating your course, you’ve already decided what to talk about (see the article on choosing a profitable course) and you know who you are talking to (see the article on researching the demand for your course) so now you have a chance to create a map (outline) that shows you how to get your audience from the beginning (zero) to knowledgeable and empowered to do something (hero).

Video version of this article here

Podcast version of this artilce here

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Quotation Marks

Sometimes things aren't clear right away. That's where you need to be patient and presevere and see where things lead.

-- Mary Pierce

It’s only when you have a start and an endpoint that you can chart all the steps in between – and creating your outline is the magic to creating good flow and not missing vital steps. Even better, you can do all this on paper first, do the research to back it up second and film it third – because the alternative can be sitting in post-production editing your video and discovering you missed something important. It’s very easy to do that in the heat of filming.

When writing and researching you will discover endless side trails and fascinating details that can slow down your course’s progress. An outline can save you from this too.

If you’ve read or seen our previous information about creating a course, see the links above, you’ll see that we constantly recommend you bounce your ideas off people who know the subject you’re dealing with, or, possibly, people who might take your course. An outline is something delightfully easy for other people to read through and see if you’re covering the essentials and if the journey you’ve plotted makes sense to them. Trying to ‘tell them’ verbally is generally not as successful.

As we have said before: your mum doesn’t count here. She loves you, thinks the sun shines out of you and that anything you do will be brilliant. Great for a quick self-confidence boost, but not usually accurate research.

At this point, you should understand ‘why’ you need an outline, and why you should put real effort into creating one beyond a couple of post-it-notes. Now let’s delve into the mechanics. The ‘what’ and ‘how.’

Once you’ve penciled in your introduction (telling the audience where you intend to go) you can create ‘high level,’ as Dan calls them, ‘categories.’ These are like chapter headings wherein as few words as possible you write what you need to cover in this part of the course.

Quotation Marks

On a good day, when you have a clear plan, you are able to execute whatever you wanted.

-- Jasprit Bumrah

You have a great opportunity here to move the order around a bit until you see a simple flow of ideas from one to the next that makes sense to your viewers.

Let’s take our fictional ‘Forge Your Own Ax’ creator we mentioned in other articles. His intro is ‘we are going to forge an ax’ with a few details about what you will need and what to expect. Now the categories: what you need to do this course, preparing your workspace and materials, lighting the forge, and so on.

At this point, our creator might suddenly realize he needs a few safety tips – so he can insert that early into the categories, then fill out the details later. Remember this is an outline, not a script or research document – just get the big ideas down and rework the order until you have a flow.

Once you have the categories in place you can see how to divide each subject into smaller videos. This makes it easier for your audience to follow along or even do each step along with you. Each ‘step’ or idea in its section. If they pause the video or want to go over a step again later, they can easily find the right video segment rather than wading through an hour-long video. You will find pretty quickly from your outline what ideas need to be put together, and what ideas need to be a self-contained video chapter.

Don’t break your course into a hundred little snippets, but don’t put it all in one bucket either – let your outline be the first guide to how to break ideas down.

Just to repeat – create the high-level categories, then start writing the videos that go within that. The beauty of this is seeing where you’ve missed something and being able to get ideas in the right order.

Don’t go into massive detail – just the headlines at this stage.

Quotation Marks

It's impossible to map out a route to your destination if you don't know where you're starting from

-- Suze Orman

Dan feels that the intro video is the crucial step to getting people to buy your course and watch it. We’re doing a whole separate video and blog post about this – but this is your chance to tell people what they will get from your course.

Remember, we are all selfish and think mostly in terms of ‘what benefit will I get from this.’

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“Learn to make an ax” is factual but lacks a benefit. “Be the envy of your friends as you forge a mighty ax with steel and fire and demonstrate your mastery” sells the benefit of being freaking awesome in the eyes of your friends. You’ll get more on this with our article about marketing your course – sign up now for our free e-mail so you don’t miss out when new videos and blogs are released!

Building the basics of these ideas into your introduction will be very powerful in turning your intro into something that compels your audience to buy your course.

Dan’s consistent about creating a second video that covers ‘getting started.’

This is your chance to tell people where to find the exercise or example files if you’ve got any, what materials they’ll need BEFORE they start (there’s nothing worse than discovering halfway through baking you need a special ingredient that might be hard to find for that ‘authentic ethnic flavor’).

Dan often calls this his ‘housekeeping’ video and that’s a great word to use when figuring out what needs to be outlined in this part.

While he’s creating the outline, Dan always includes a list of ‘extras’ he needs to write and shoot. Marketing videos for Facebook and YouTube, reminder notes to email or send as videos if you have an e-mail list (yep, we have a whole discussion about that, if you are on our mailing list, you’ll be sent a link) – there are lots of little extras.

Including them in the outline means they’ll get written/filmed while you make the course and you are already set up. If you forget, you might just weenie out and not do them. You lose.

Don’t forget to shoot a few still photos or quick ‘cell phone’ grabs (stills/video) while you’re making the course for use on Instagram etc. Again, if you make a note in your outline where appropriate, you are vastly more likely to NOT BE A WIENER* and actually do it. Marketing your course is vital, so you need to make the effort.

*Wiener is used in the non-gender specific role here – we thought it nicer than ‘lazy’ or other derogatives. According to the dictionary, “Due to its juvenile connotations, wiener can sound immature and is often a source of ridicule or humor.” We feel the same way about people who don’t make the effort to properly market their courses.

Your outline is your first chance to not forget something and it’s easier to remember now rather than in the heat of filming.

If you’re watching the video, and you should because Dan scrubs up well, pop to the 2:20 point and have a look at a clean and tidy example of an outline.

Notice how Dan hIf you’re watching the video, and you should because Dan scrubs up well, pop to the 2:20 point and have a look at a clean and tidy example of an put a clear title in bold at the top? This is so that everything he adds to the outline is on target. If it’s an ‘advanced’ or ‘seriously deep outta left field’ idea, he knows from the word ‘fundamentals’ in the course title to save it for another course. If it’s a ‘quick trip to Photoshop’ idea, again, his title tells him he’s off-course – this course is about Illustrator.

Your course title is an entire subject on its own – start here with our article about choosing the right course to create.

At 2:50 you can see that Dan goes on to create a more detailed map (aka outline) for himself to use while researching and writing his course – and eventually filming and editing it.

A bonus idea that you can develop while writing your outline is creating ‘projects’ or ‘assignments’ for your audience to put an idea into practice. Some courses suit ‘go and try this bit now’ moments and practice helps to get the knowledge into your audience. Practice generally beats theory.

Every course is different and knowing when and where to put the ‘practical’ stuff for the viewer to do themselves is up to you – but again, while you have the ‘birds-eye view’ of your course, it might be easier to see where those opportunities are best included.

It's only an outline, and it's extremley easy to add, subtract and move ideas around - which is why we stress how important an outline can be for you success.

Dan and many other instructors are quick to say how popular the practical exercises are being taken up by viewers. And it’s not just the practice the audience is responding to – it’s the confidence gained from physically doing something and achieving as opposed to just hearing about an idea.

Our valiant ax course instructor might think to include a few simple exercises upfront to get peoples’ basic skills ready – simple ideas like melting some raw material and pulling it out to test every minute or so to learn how long it takes the metal to be malleable enough to work.

You need to think of little tests and tricks appropriate for your course.

This is a great spot to go back to the ‘getting started’ part of your course (usually the 2nd video) and make a list of resources you need to do the practical parts. Could you provide a document with all the needed materials, a photoshop file or RAW file to edit, a starter piece of code to be added on to…think what your audience needs and how you can get it into their hands?

The more you can give them to do, and the more resources you can provide, the better. And we see a positive measurable response to this in audience feedback.

Dan has often given students a #tag or forum for posting their results on social media – it means you can give them encouraging feedback (a total winner, students love to hear from you) and it means your course gets promoted by someone proud of their work in front of their audience (which can grow yours!).

As part of the materials you provide to students, you might consider giving them a simplified version of your outline, so they too have a map of your course. This can be easily made as a downloadable PDF or similar and bundled with your course materials or link to where they can download it (e.g. Google docs). If you are doing something computer-related you could include a diagram/list of keyboard shortcuts, if you are doing photography a list of f/stops or exposure values, knitters could have a diagram of common stitches. These little ‘cheat sheets’ are invaluable and are your chance to tangibly help your audience. If you have graphic design skills, you can create something share-worthy that can drive traffic back to your course.

Finally, your outline is your chance to avoid creating content that’s not right for this course (you should already be thinking about creating multiple courses to build on your audience) and to make sure you don’t miss anything important. It’s on a screen, or pencil on paper – so make changes, sleep on it, check with people who know (sorry Mum) and take the opportunity to start with a clear and easy to follow map. Here’s a hint: if it’s easy for you to follow your outline, it’s easy for your audience to follow your course.

Hers's a hint: if it's easy for you to follow your outline, it's easy for your audience to follow your course.

Quotation Marks

Somewhere there is a map of how it can be done.

-- Ben Stein

Looking for a bit more about how and why to write an outline? Try these great (free) YouTube videos:

This video from the University of British Columbia covers a lot of the same ground through essay writing that you will need in creating a course. And it has squirrels!

Creating a course is like writing a book (only you have to present the information visually) so there is a lot to learn here. And, if you know what you are talking about, there’s nothing to stop you from writing a book (even a short e-book) to accompany your course!

Nick Nimmin is a well know YouTube presenter and what he has to say about scripting video is super useful to have in the back of your head while developing your outline and your script.

eLearning specialist Andrew Townsend shares his method for creating an outline


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