Voiceover for eLearning – The Basics

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I recently read an article on voiceover for eLearning on the ElearningIndustry.com website.

I was amazed at how many things the author got wrong, including a picture of a female holding on to a condenser microphone like it was a banana. (For and on the record, voice talent don’t hold a microphone in their hand like a banana while recording a professional voiceover).

This sort of thing has been a problem since the dawn of the internet. People writing content for the sake of SEO and accuracy be damned.

So, I decided that – for my very first post on my shiny new website, I’d write on the subject of voiceover for eLearning basics.

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Voiceover for eLearning is highly effective

Right along with text, images and video, voiceover is a critical element with respect to getting your message into the head of the student.

A good narrator engages the student, sounds like they are speaking “to” the learner (not “at” them) and make your script sound like…..well, they’re not reading a script at all.

While aforementioned sounds like straightforward common sense, it’s pretty difficult to find a VO talent that can pull it off. By “pull it off” I mean, actively engage the learner throughout your entire course. The longer the course, the more critical that the voice talent’s performance be engaging and thought provoking.

Used properly though – combined with text, images and video – voiceover used in eLearning can do much more than just enhance retention – it can make or break the student’s retention.

Don’t bore them….

A story comes to mind of a teacher I had in Jr. High School, Mr Stepaniuk or “Step” for short.

Step, taught social studies. Well…”taught” in this case is a somewhat subjective term. Let’s say that he “facilitated” our learning on the subject.

Step was a big fan of the overhead projector. Class after class after class, he’d sit with his feet up on his desk, close enough to the overhead projector so he could swap out one piece of viewfoil after another while the class took notes.

Well……some of the class took notes….the rest pretended to or simply fell asleep.

Imagine the boredom. I would dread going to his class year after year. The reason was, Step didn’t get up and “teach” us anything or interact with the class….he just spent his time composing viewfoils for us to take notes from and then test us on those notes for our exams.

Step – from a teaching perspective – was “mailing it in” – and we paid for his lacsdaisical approach to teaching with a fundamental lack of understanding on the subject of Social Studies.

I’m sure our Social Studies retention percentage hovered around the 2% mark.

In the same way Step bored us with his teaching method year after year, a voice talent who can’t properly interpret script in an engaging manner with have the same negative affect on learner retention. And make no mistake, the student will “check out” of the course in about 20 seconds.

You Get What You Pay For

I guess what I’m trying to say here is….if you don’t have the budget to hire a really good narrator, then you should be considering not using voiceover in your project at all.

I mean really….why spend money on a narrator that can’t effectively communicate and/or bores your student to tears?

Here’s a link to my standard rates for eLearning voiceover. You can have a look at them later, but the reason why I’m linking to them here is to give you an idea of what you “should” be spending for a professional narrator to voice your project.

Just like Step would flip viewfoils on the overhead, a narrator who can’t engage an eLearning student will be a waste of their time and your money.

It takes about 20 seconds of a bad eLearning voiceover for your student to mentally “check out” of your eLearning course. Interestingly, about the same amount of time it took me to check out of Step’s SS class as he rolled the projector to the front of the room and plugged it in.

This is why the selection of your voice talent is so critical.

There’s no “I” in Team

I’m going to start this section with a comment on a common mistake many people make when choosing a voice talent. If you find yourself saying:

“Oh! I like that voice…..”

Then it’s very likely you’re making a bad mistake.

In many cases, the choice of a voice talent for an eLearning voiceover is left to a single person who will present a short list of talent for upper management to approve…or it’s simply one person.

What is often ignored, is the learner or end-user.

Many people make the mistake of leaning toward what is aesthetically appealing to their own ear “personally” rather than what would be better served for the end-user (learner or student). Usually, it’s a lower-pitched, warm, male voice who sounds…..well, warm, deep and comfortable. People also often get the misconception that a radio broadcaster or someone who has “on-air” broadcast media experience is the best way to go.

Again, you want to look for someone who speaks ‘to” an individual learner, not someone reading a weather forecast to a city in rush hour traffic.

The bottom line is, the guy (or gal) with the velvet tones and the broadcast chops sounds great, but they’ll bore and/or otherwise not effectively engage the student. You wouldn’t choose a teenage voice to speak to a CEO of a large corporation, so why pick the guy who sounds like a traffic reporter?

Do you know what you’re talking about….?

Well…..as the person composing the script for your voice talent, I’m sure you are very versed on the subject matter. But, does the voice talent have that same level of knowledge.

In most cases, no.

However, good voice talent don’t need to have a fundamental understanding of the subject matter to get the message across to the student.

I remember a client a while back who approached me to voice a technical book for students learning how to repair computers. He really wanted a pro to do the narration, but his boss was ridiculously cheap so I only ended up doing a single book for the company.

During a phone conversation, he remarked that in listening to my audition, it really sounded like I knew what I was talking about. I responded by telling him I actually kew how to fix computers and have for many years. He figured that he’d hit the jackpot finding me. I remember him saying to me on the phone….

“Do you have ANY idea how rare it is to find a professional voice talent who is also a computer technician…?!”

Yes, he was correct in his observation. However, I’ve voiced eLearning for pilots and I haven’t flown a day in my life…..but yet, I “sound” like I literally wrote the book on flying.

The bottom line is, if you have written your script very well for “voiceover” on the subject you are teaching via an eLearning course, then your voice talent should “sound” like the expert.

If they don’t sound like they’ve been doing it all their lives…..you need to find yourself another voice talent.

And on that subject…..

Are you writing to your student….or are you “speaking” to your student….?

Here’s something that’s going to make you laugh. In all my years of doing voiceover for eLearning; over a thousand hours of recorded audio, the most challenging scripts I’ve ever had to interpret were composed by……


No word of a lie. For some reason, those who are educated at the university level and beyond are the worst voiceover for eLearning script writers I have ever come across in my 30+ years of doing this work. I don’t know why, but I think it has something to do with an inability to read script “aloud” while composing. I do know one thing for sure, the tip off is always the same…..a 100 word paragraph that’s one long, run-on sentence.

Yes, they can write very well, are accurate and the research, impeccable. Even the grammar is perfect. But try to read it aloud for voiceover? It takes me forever. And yes, sometimes I really don’t sound like I know what I’m talking about, because the script is not written properly for voiceover.

Here’s an example. Two scripts. One written for voiceover and the other…..just “written.”

“If you want to excel in this course, you will need to focus on the basics and how you are going to learn those basics with a great degree of concentration.”

And now, the same message written for voiceover:

“If you’re going to excel in this course, you’ll need to focus on the basics. And, you’ll really have to concentrate.”


About the Author:

In 1998, Todd Schick invented the business model that is: "The recording and sale of high quality voiceover audio on the internet from a home-based recording studio." Today, thousands of voice talent around the world make their living recording voiceover from the comfort of their homes.
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