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…

Using portable handheld audio recorders for voiceover

SonyRecorderI picked up a Sony digital handheld stereo field recorder to play around with.  This category of portable digital recorders are primarily made for location recording of  music performances and ambient sound (I use it for both of these purposes), by journalists for conducting interviews, etc.

After playing around with this great recorder, I have found that it can function pretty well as a recorder for capturing voiceover.  The Sony (there are a number of comparable brands available as well) is battery operated, has 2 condenser mics, and can record 24-bit/96kHz stereo WAV files on an internal 4 gig flash drive.  The recorders usually interface to a PC via a USB cable allowing fast transfer of files to a PC for editing.

These types of recorders can be an excellent option for use within a corporate production environment, allowing the recording system to be moved to the voiceover narrator (or a more quiet location) as needed.   They set up quickly (get a small photo tripod for this purpose – 8 inch is fine), and have a headphone jack that allows for monitoring.  The Sony has a fur-style windscreen that minimizes breath pop.   And the quality of the microphones is great.

Consider this approach as a low-cost option to building a standard recording setup.

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).

Multiple narrators within a program

I often receive requests for recording multiple narrators for use within a single program.  This usually works out fine, but the approach raises a number of issues that the designer/writer should consider:

  • Adversely impacting comprehension:  One narrator typically gives the program a cohesive and consistent voice.  The viewer becomes familiar with the voice, aiding comprehension.  Multiple narrators can create a slight increase in cognitive load, requiring increased concentration in order to adjust to the new timbre, accents, speaking rhythm, pacing, etc.
  • Increased variety:  Multiple narrators can create an increase in the level of excitement in the presentation, by providing a new voice at various points within the program.  For example, shifting from male to female, or through various voices, can increase the overall impact of the program.
  • Increasing Production Safety– using multiple voices throughout a program can allow you to revise or add to the program at a later date with minimal impact (even if the original narrator(s) are no longer available).  Since the audience is used to hearing several voices, they will not perceive a new voice to be out of place within the narrative.
  • Consistency – make sure that the voices are not to dramatically different.  For example, too much variety in accents, pacing, timbre, level of “professionalism”, etc. can be distracting, as the audience will be required to concentrate to interpret what each new voice is saying.

One approach to increase the impact of multiple narrators is to use specific  voices for specific areas of the program.  For example, one voice carries through a single topic or section , with the new voice signaling a change in topic or section  Or you can have specific voices for topic overviews or summaries, and another for topic presentations, with another for questions and interaction prompts/instructions.


Simple Accoustic Treatment/Control of a Recording Environment

Creating a decent sounding room for recording voiceover narration is not necessarily a major effort.  Some simple approaches to controlling the acoustic environment can include:

  • Using thick drapes or hanging thick blankets to absorb sound reflections and help deaden a room.
  • Home environments can use pillows strategically placed around the microphone to reduce reflections
  • Commercially available acoustic control products  can help address specific problems in an effective manner, though these can end up being somewhat expensive.
  • You can build simple but effective home-built acoustic control devices such as a board covered with standard insulation, covered with fabric, hanging thick rugs hung on a wall, etc.

The key is to first identify the specific characteristics of the acoustic problem, and determine how is can be addressed.  For example:

  • First, find the best position within the room, with minimum background noise, reflections, and standing waves.  Then work to address any remaining issues.
  • Computer noise can be reduced by moving the CPU away from the recording position, covering the CPU with a heavy rug or foam isolation (making sure to leave an opening for the cooling fan air), etc.
  • Standing waves require larger surface treatments.   This is where you need acoustic panels, rugs and foam wall covering, etc.  Or move some furniture around, such as placement of high shelves, to change the overall acoustic characteristics of the room.
  • A microphone position that sounds too lively can be addressed by a smaller treatment in the vicinity of the mic, such as using acoustic foam in the immediate recording area, pillows, etc.

You may need to continue experimenting to determine what the source of the issues is, and how it can best be addressed.