To Read or Not to Read: How to use voiceover in elearning

Incorporating voiceover into e-learning programs presents learning designers with a few key questions to consider. For example, “What is the proper balance between text and voice over narration?”, “Should you present most of your learning content through text or through voiceover?”, “How long should I make my voiceover segments,” and “Should there be a limit on the amount of voiceover?”

Many designers create presentations in which voiceover is used to read all of the onscreen text. However, this removes control over pacing from the user, and actually interferes with the user’s ability to read and retain the text content. To test this, try reading a document while someone is talking to you and see how much you retain.

Other designers progressively display a series of bullet points, and provide the details as voiceover, replicating the classroom lecture experience. This also impacts pacing and user control, as most users can read at a much faster pace than is practical for voiceover. This approach may be influenced by using television programming as a model for multimedia design. The television video model suggests that the ideal approach is to present summary text on screen, while providing the bulk of the content through voiceover and background interview audio segments. This approach is used widely in television news programs and other programs that communicate factual content, and is the result of a period when television broadcasts had insufficient visual resolution to make large amounts of on-screen text a viable element of the programming. However, this standard is not necessarily appropriate for an interactive elearning presentation delivered on a high resolution screen placed 24 inches from the viewer.

The higher resolution of computer-based multimedia presentations changes the balance in favor of more text and less voice for delivering detailed content. Higher resolution displays and the expectation of interactive user control of pacing and content makes on-screen text more desirable in many cases.

But voiceover should still be considered an important component of e-learning. The key is in understanding where voiceover is appropriate and effective. This is based primarily on the nature of the content you are trying to communicate. For example:

  • If your objective is to have the audience digest a substantial amount of detailed and complex information, text is likely the preferred option. In this case, if desired, you can use brief voiceover segments to quickly identify the main points, displaying the text progressively one paragraph at a time while the voiceover identifies the subject of the paragraph in a concise manner. The user can use that summary to decide whether to read the full paragraphs, or continue by skipping ahead.
  • Back up bullet points. As noted above, many designers use voiceover to narrate the progressive display of bullet points. This is an appropriate use, but try to keep the voiceover as short as possible so that it coincides with the display of the on-screen content. A good rule of thumb is to ensure that there is always something happening on screen as the voiceover plays;consider long periods of static screen displays with voiceover in the background as a sign of something wrong in your design.
  • Voiceover is most useful in describing aspects of a graphic visual representation. Displaying a visual depiction of a topic progressively, describing the issues via  voiceover as the image builds on screen, is a natural strength of voiceover, and the optimal application of voiceover to elearning.
  • Setting a tone for the program. Voiceover adds a human element that sets the tone. Use voiceover to provide an “outside perspective” on the other module content, by providing introductions to sections of your program or specific topics, provide a friendly introduction to quiz interactions, briefly describe a series of on screen options as they appear, etc. In these cases, the user interprets the voiceover as taking on a specific role in the presentation – establishing context, and providing instructions and interpretations – that may benefit from a more human, natural feel.
  • Introduce a human element where needed. A human voice that plays when the user selects a “Listen to a customer” or “Ask the expert” link helps highlight the human aspects of your learning.

For more information on using voiceover, check out this Learning Solutions Magazine article providing some of the research background.

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