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.

Determining rates for voiceover performances

Determining an appropriate rate for voiceover services can be complex, especially when creating voiceover for broadcast. Here is a posting of SAG-AFTRA union voiceover rates for the Los Angeles area that illustrates some of the complexity.

On the internet,  rates are all over the place, creating disruption in the market and lots of anger from traditional voiceover artists.  Voices.com has a rate sheet posted that covers a range of voice end applications, both broadcast and non-broadcast.  Voiceover artist Todd Shick has a nice description of some voiceover rate issues.

Determining an appropriate rate for your projects (or for your voiceover work) should include the following considerations:

  • What is the final use of the performance files?  Broadcast is a higher quality, more demanding performance that has a traditional pricing model that is attractive to professional VO artists.Non-broadcast, less demanding applications, such as elearning or industrials, can obtain VO services from a range of semi-pro online voiceover performers, so the rates are much less.  The audiences and budgets are much smaller as well, so that makes sense.Since these are separate types of products with different requirements, pricing varies accordingly.

 

  • What is the level of quality that you are required to provide? Smaller home studios should not charge as much as performers providing professional level studio recordings. So a greater investment in professional level sound should allow you to charge higher rates.

 

  • What is your level of skill in performing the voiceover?  This is the key issue when determining rates. You are selling your performance, not your equipment (though a pro level performance is diminished in value when recorded on a substandard system).  Voiceovers are like other types of professional performances. You can immediately here it when you review the final product. The characteristics include consistency and control, an ability to create a performance that matches the specific characteristics needed for the final product, etc.Comparing VO with music, there are bar bands,  classically trained quartets, union studio musicians, and  touring name acts. Each provides a different level and type of service, and each gets paid according to a different calculation that can include name recognition, size of following, type of venue, etc.

 

  • Are you starting out, or have you built a name that draws in clients? Building your name and reputation takes time, but will eventually increase your earning potential. If you are new, without a established track record, (using the music analogy) you will not be able to charge the same as a touring name act…

 

Adding up voiceover duration

I often need to add up the duration of voiceover files that I have created for a client, or using audio to determine the overall duration of a presentation.  A quick method for adding up the total audio time within a program can be to select all the audio files within a folder.  At the bottom of the folder, the total run time duration of the audio files should appear, along with the total size of the selected files.   Note that you may have to select “more details” to display the detailed rundown on the folder contents (that include total duration.

While this will not necessarily represent the total seat time of your presentation or elearning course, since you will likely need to include time for the user to read text screens, it will give you an idea of the duration of the voiceover components.

Voiceover narration rates

The typical pricing approach used by many professional voiceover narrators seems to be stuck in the past – based on the radio/TV broadcast model that required expensive studio time and union performers.  Non-broadcast clients expect a lower cost approach to creating voiceover for small audience presentations, such as elearning.

Hourly rates based on how much time it takes in a studio to complete a project are obsolete in the era of low cost PC-based recording systems.  Going into a “studio” for recording voiceover is no longer necessary for the majority of projects, when you can record great quality files using a PC-based recording system in an office-based dedicated recording environment (with some attention to soundproofing, etc.).

Having to submit a script to get a rate quote also seems to be overly cumbersome and opaque for non-broadcast elearning, online projects, or corporate videos.

Voiceover artists should be able to post rates in a transparent manner –  rates based on duration, pages, or words – like other types of media production services.   Producers need this information – judgments should be based on price, quality and level of service.   And the voiceover artist can always adjust their quoted typical rate if an initial review of the script indicates that the project is overly complex, or requires additional time to complete.  And you can use a traditional pricing model for broadcast.

I know that the old school narrators deride this approach as a race to the bottom in rates (which is true, but unfortunately seems to be  inevitable), but this approach is likely going to be the future for this and many other media production services.  And there will still be producers and projects that require a higher level of quality that will support a traditional approach and more traditional rates.

Remote monitoring of Narration Recording Session

Should you monitor narration sessions live to ensure that the narration performance has proper emphasis?

Many narrators use a live  link that allows the client to monitor the performance in real-time in order to provide performance directions.  This is a useful tool for directors that have very specific vision of the narration performance.  However, this usually adds to the overall duration and cost of the narration session (and adds to the labor hours of the director /producer). This can be important during high stakes projects, but for smaller level projects is is often not necessary.

In most cases for non-broadcast applications such as elearning,  remote narrators given proper performance instructions within the script can produce an acceptable performance without live direction.  Personally, I find that I can concentrate more on the performance if I do not have live monitoring.

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.