Creating Audio-based media programs for learning

Audio-based learning programs

A brief scan of the radio dial illustrates the power of audio as a communication media — news and talk programs, National Public Radio magazine style programs, commercials, etc.  The popularity of podcasts and audio books suggests that workers are looking for productive ways to use their commuting time.

Learning professionals can leverage this low cost media option as an innovative method for transmitting information to their organization’s staff.  Audio is relatively simple to produce, and can be distributed via podcasts, CDs, MP3s posted on a website, etc.  Audio programs can be easily and conveniently reviewed by busy employees, hard to reach road warriors, long-term on-site consultants, and everyone else on your staff.  Almost any category of employee can benefit from this effective and compelling training medium.

Audio program content examples

Audio-based learning programs can be composed of any combination of the following elements:

  • Moderated panel discussions can be arranged quickly, and require minimal up-front instructional design labor. Just identify the discussion topics, brief the panelists on the objectives of the discussions, schedule a room, and bring the recording equipment. Also consider including an audience that can prompt the panel with questions and issues. This often helps increase the discussion’s authenticity and relevance.  After the discussion is recorded, the ID can use low cost audio editing software to edit the content of the discussion, to improve the content flow and delete dead space and errors.
  • Individual interviews are also easy to design and arrange.  Identify the topics, select an appropriate subject matter expert, and record his/her comments.  Then edit to produce a tight and compelling presentation.
  • Narrated, scripted segments can be used to deliver detailed information on specific topics, explain complicated issues, or describe a current situation. These types of scripted segments are best delivered by a professional narrator or staff member with a professional sounding voice, or by someone within your organization that can add special credibility to the message.
  • Scenarios can be used to model appropriate behaviors. For example, you can provide the audience with a series of scenarios depicting sales or support interactions with typical customers. These can be actual recordings, or simulated performances using your staff or voice actors to play the roles.
  • Telephone conferences can be included when historically important or especially suitable for the topic, however, the lower quality audio of a typical telephone conference may make these elements less desirable.
  • Use scripted narration to deliver introductions and tie together segments, and music to help identify transitions.
  • Commercials for your products and services can provide breaks in the narrative. Mock commercials can provide opportunities for humor to make the program more entertaining.
  • Humor and fun segments can also be interspersed to increase the entertainment value and lighten the mood.

When creating audio programs for your organization, always keep your audience in mind, and strive to create an entertaining and informative program that will capture and maintain their interest.

Creating narrated software demonstrations in PowerPoint

I often prefer using PowerPoint to create narrated software demonstrations, instead of some of the real time screen capture utilities, like +Captivate.   Here is my general process:

1. Determine the objectives and focus of the demonstration. This is the scripting phase, where you should be able to refine your message and create an outline or script that will guide your overall development process.

2. Open the Software, as well as PowerPoint.

3. Go through each step of the process that you want to demonstrate.  At each step, press ALT/PrtScrn to capture an image of the current window.

4. Switch to the PowerPoint document, and paste the image within the document to a separate page, in the sequence that you intend for your presentation.  Also enter some text describing the action, or other notes to yourself, that you will later use as a basis for scripting narration and any on-screen text messages that support the instruction.  Use this approach to go through the entire software process that you plan to present.

Note that you can simulate specific software functions by ensuring that you grab all steps of a software function display.  For example, grab the initial screen, then grab the screen with the highlighted menu button, grab the screen with the drop down menu visible, and grab the screen with the appropriate drop down menu option highlighted on the drop down menu.   This will allow you to later prompt the user to select all of the options in the procedure (as in “select File, then copy) by creating hyper-linked areas within the PowerPoint display that correspond to the appropriate software option screen location.

5. If you plan to do a presentation that shows the software screens as full screen, then resize as necessary to full the presentation screen.  If you want to use a less than full screen size (for example, when you are presenting the content within a standard elearning interface with banner and navigation buttons), then you may need to place a box in the background of the master screen to serve as a guide for sizing and placement (to ensure consistent sizing and location across all of the screens).   You can always delete this box from your master slide after placement of the software screens, if necessary.  Note that if you also want to trim some elements of the software screen, such as browser menus, do that for each screen prior to sizing and placement.

6. Go through each screen, and finalize any additional on-screen text, highlights, or other elements, and finalize your narration script.   Also, if you are simulating the software options, create a transparent hyperlink box that routes users to the next screen, and place this box over the position that you want the users to click on.   As users interact with the end product, it will appear like they are using a live version of the software, since the screen display will progress as they click on the appropriate on-screen options.

7. Record and incorporate your narration, finalize animations, etc.  Then package using a flash conversion utility such as Articulate.

The look of the end product can be as basic as you want, or can be made to look like standard elearning (by including a banner and navigation), and can take advantage of the animation and graphic features of PowerPoint.

Elearning voiceover narration vs. traditional media voiceover

Creating voiceover narration for elearning programs requires an understanding of the specific characteristics of the user’s experience of the program.

Radio and television are passive media – users experience of “watching” these media has certain characteristics.  They passively receive the media, usually for the purpose of entertainment.  And they expect either a natural conversational voice, or a traditional “announcer” voice.

eLearning is an active experience.  Users make conscious selections and interactions with the programs and content, follow topics, actively read and evaluate information with the specific purpose of integrating it with their existing knowledge, and are prompted to answer questions or perform other interactive tasks.

You can likely expect elearning users to be more focused, and therefore a bit less patient, especially with narration that reads long blocks of on-screen text.  It is therefore often desirable to create voiceover narration with a  slightly  quicker pacing than other traditional media, and keeping it as lean as possible.

Also keep in mind that these segments will be often played back through lower quality computer speakers, or laptop speakers with less than optimal intelligibility.  And many users may speak other languages as their primary language. This suggests that along with the quicker pacing, the narrator should strive to place additional emphasis on clearly pronouncing the narrative, using slightly higher registers when possible, and/or boosting EQ to increase the clarity of the enunciation.  It may sound a bit less “natural” and conversational, but the audience will be better able to understand the narrative content…

How much text should you narrate per screen?

When scripting a elearning program, it can be challenging to determine how much to narrate on a specific screen.  Do you read the entire screen text content, allow the user to read the text, or land somewhere in-between?

I strive to keep the narration segments brief  – 30 seconds or less, if possible.  You can go longer if there is something meaningful happening on the screen appearing in sync with the narrative, but opting for a shorter duration screen is usually best.

Some options for addressing narrative associated with longer text blocks include:

  • If a screen has a large amount of text, consider displaying text for the user to read, but play a tone to let the user know that their audio is working.
  • Read a prompt that says something like “Take a moment to learn more about…”.
  • Read the first sentence or two of a large block of text, bolded, in sync with voiceover, then display the remainder of the text block, along with a verbal prompt to “take a moment to review these issues…” or something similar.
  • Try breaking up large text blocks into separate displays accessed via rollovers or pop-ups.  Then you can limit the narration to introducing the interaction.

Whatever approach you take, it is important to always have something happening on the screen during the narration – either text blocks appearing, or visuals appearing in sync with the narrative description.  Reading block after block of static text  verbatim usually is a attention-killer…

Working with external voiceover / narrator talent

Here are a few tips to facilitate the process of working with external voiceover/narrator providers:

  •  Be sure that your scripts are as final as possible.  Correct any errors.  Keep in mind that the narrator will assume that you want the script read verbatim, and will read it as is (unless the error is very obviously an error).
  • Take the time to read the script out loud, prior to finalizing.  This will help you to identify phrases that do not work, overly long sentences, etc.
  • Spell out any specialized language or acronyms phonetically.  It is usually a great idea to send links to audio files containing the correct pronunciations – you can often locate english pronunciations at http://www.merriam-webster.com/ that you can include via links within your scripts.
  • As you finalize your script, pay attention to punctuation – it provides critical guidance to the narrator for how to read a specific passage.  For example, commas indicate pauses, use of  quotes or italic indicates titles, phrases or names that require special treatment, and bolding can be used to indicate special emphasis.  Also include performance suggestions that will guide the reading in the desired direction.  “With enthusiasm” can help guide the narrator to punch up segments with a specific emphasis, or use “serious” to indicate that a section should be read with greater gravity, etc.
  • Send your script as a final edit that has all changes accepted and all comments hidden. I have received scripts that included many levels of review comments that were distracting.  I was always a bit worried that the script was not final.

Scripting vs. extemporaneous narrative

Many developers, especially those creating software demonstrations using tools such as Captivate, often create extemporaneous narration as they perform the software demonstration.

Some projects I have had involved using subject matter experts as narrators, who insisted on speaking of the cuff instead of scripting out their comments.   These were usually SMEs who had done stand up lectures of their topics, and were confident that they could save effort by reproducing their classroom narrative as the basis for the narration of a elearning version of the program.

Neither of these approaches are optimal.

Voice content created off the top of the SME’s head often either require extensive editing to produce a focused and efficient narrative, or are later abandoned in favor of creating a script (often based on the recorded narrative, as in “…just create a script on what I recorded, and just tighten it up a bit…”).

I would strongly recommend discouraging your SMEs or instructors to attempt to do an off-the-cuff performance as the basis for the narration for an elearning program (though you may have to convince them via a  test recording session).