As many e-learning developers can attest, there’s a lot of work that goes into writing audio narration. From organizing and refining the content to getting it proofed and formatted for easy recording, it seems that most of the time that goes into producing audio for e-learning is spent in writing the script and getting it ready for recording, rather than actually recording, editing, or syncing audio files.
So what are some ways you can make the process of writing an audio narration script a little more streamlined and a lot less time-consuming? Here are more than a dozen tips and pointers I’ve picked up that can help.
Before You Start Writing
Does your project really need audio narration? Sometimes Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and stakeholders expect us to add audio narration to courses because they see e-learning as a platform for delivering narrated slideshows or animated lectures. But audio narration is so much more effective when it’s used supportively—to explain or describe on-screen visuals—rather than read them, verbatim to learners.
How can you get to the bottom of what kind of audio (if any) your course really needs? Here are some tips and resources that may help:
- Debunk the auditory learner myth. One of the reasons that some folks give for narrating on-screen text is that it supports “auditory learners.” Unfortunately, the notion of “auditory learners” isn’t really backed-up by any science. Check out the research explored in this article, Redundancy Principle: Should You Duplicate Narrated Text On-screen?
- Put SMEs into the learner’s shoes. Struggling to convince your org that reading on-screen text isn’t effective? Try putting folks into the learner’s shoes by asking them to compare and contrast a course the contains narrated on-screen text with a version of the same course that doesn’t use narration, like in this example from Tom Kuhlmann.
Propose other ways of using audio. Audio doesn’t always have to be used as narration. For instance, background audio can give your courses a great sense of atmosphere and mood. And using audio for scenario-based learning can really help learners emotionally engage with the material.
For more creative ideas on other ways to use audio in your e-learning, check out this article from David Anderson, How to Use Audio to Enhance Your E-Learning Course.
Writing Your Script
Once you’ve sorted out your audio needs, identified that audio narration is necessary, and finished storyboarding or prototyping your project, you’ll eventually reach the stage where you can start putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as it were). Now you’re ready to start the process of writing an audio narration script. Here are a few pointers for making this step of the process a piece of cake:
- Start with a content outline. Have a long-winded SME on your project? Instead of trying to rewrite the SMEs content right away or asking her to cut out information she may feel is crucial, try asking her to outline the key talking points. You can suggest that the SME add some notes or comments about what absolutely must be covered under each key point or elaborate on how a talking point will drive performance. Not only is this a great way for helping SMEs to simplify and streamline information themselves, it can also be a helpful strategy for pulling SMEs out of the “learners need to know absolutely everything” mindset.
- Nail down the tone you’ll be using and then stick with it. Nothing is more jarring than a course that looks fun and inviting, but feels and sounds deadly serious. If your course is on a serious, high-risk matter, make sure the tone of your writing is appropriate for that subject matter. And if your course is on a less critical topic or more light-hearted topic, give yourself a little more leeway for keeping the tone easy-breezy.
- Decide if you’ll be writing from a first person, second person, or third person point of view. It can be hard to follow who’s on first when the point of view keeps changing. As you’re scrubbing your script keep both the tone AND the point of view in mind, and make sure both are consistent throughout. For an easy explanation of these writing perspectives and how they’re used effectively, check out these handy tips from Grammar Girl.
- Keep your writing conversational. No one likes to feel like she’s reading a textbook or is being lectured by a robot. To keep things more conversational, use relatable words and phrasing. Use contractions to keep from sounding too formal or stilted. And for some more writing pointers along this line, be sure to check out this article: 10 Tips for Becoming a Better Designer.
- Get to the point—quickly. Speaking of struggles with streamlining content, one of the things everyone struggles with is the urge to explain everything. When it comes to scriptwriting, you’re better off cutting to the chase, since listening to someone speak can make you want to tune out. One good rule of thumb: write with only one key idea per sentence or one big idea per slide or page.
- Avoid stating the obvious. One of the easiest ways to streamline a narration script is to avoid restating things that are obvious to learners. For instance, instead of telling learners to “Click the flashing Next button to continue” on every. single. screen...point it out to them once at the beginning and then rely on visual cues from there.
- Don’t forget about transition statements. Transition statements help people see how all the dots are connected when moving from one thought, chapter, or topic to another. One example of a common transition statement for e-learning is something like, “Now that you have a better understanding of X, let’s shift gears to see how X applies to Y.”
- Point out on-screen text that must be read. Some courses, like certain types of compliance training, may require a lot of on-screen text. Instead of adding all of that text to the script, just refer to the on-screen text in the script, inviting learners to read it for themselves. You can also give folks the option to download a transcript or listen to an audio version of the script to make sure the information is accessible.
- Keep the 100 to 1 ratio in mind. When you’re writing and editing your script, keep in mind that 100 words is equivalent to approximately one minute of recorded audio narration.
Prepping Your Script for Recording
You’ve crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s. But is your script really ready for the voice artist to record? Here are some script prep tips to make sure that hand-off goes smoothly—and produces great results.
- Record scratch audio. Before your script goes to the voice talent for recording, it can be helpful to record the script as “scratch audio”—that is audio you or a coerced colleague record—and then give it a listen. Saying the words out loud gives you a great, low-cost way of confirming that the script has the right flow and tenor. This step can also give you a final chance to smooth over any clunky transitions or turns of phrase. You can even invite your SMEs to give your scratch audio a listen so they can help to catch any errors or omissions that may have been overlooked during the writing and editing process.
Add pauses. When people read, their brains add pauses to give themselves an opportunity to absorb the information being presented. When learners are listening to information, they need those same pauses to give their brain a chance to catch up and process what’s being said. You can add cues for theses pauses into the script using an ellipsis (...) or with a little note off to the side.
If you’re looking for a free audio script template with a space for additional notes, here’s one I created that might fit the bill.
- Provide a pronunciation guide to voice talent. Sometimes courses use a lot of complex or specific terminology. Instead of leaving your voice talent guessing, try linking to an online dictionary or to a YouTube video with the correct pronunciation.
- Clarify how you want acronyms handled. When your script includes an acronym like FEMA, your voice talent may not know if you want that pronounced as F-E-M-A or as FEEMA, or as Federal Emergency Management Agency. My rule of thumb: when I want the artist to spell it out in the audio, I use hyphens between the letters. When I want them to use the acronym, I’ll spell it out phonetically with a quick note (e.g. “pronounce as ‘fee-ma’) just to make it crystal clear. And when I want them to use the words instead of the acronym, I just don’t include the acronym at all, unless it’s parenthetical.
- Steer clear of the slash. In casual writing we sometimes use “and/or.” That slash works fine in print or on-screen, but sounds pretty clunky when it’s spoken.
- Use double-spaces. Double-spaces between lines of narration make your text a little easier for the voice artist to follow.
- Emphasize with italics. Want your voice talent to emphasize a certain word? Call attention to words using italics. You can even include a note up front to clarify what you’re looking for, like: “Emphasize words in italics.” In my experience, most voice pros will have a pretty good sense of how to emphasize the words, based on the subject matter of your course, but if you have something specific in mind, you can provide more direction.
- Exclude production notes. While notes about animations, images, or video may help you synchronize audio and objects on your slides, it’s a good idea to leave those cues off of the recording script. Cues that aren’t necessary for the voice talent, could be confusing or distracting—not to mention using extra words or characters that make your script seem longer than it really is. If you’d really like to keep production notes in the script document, try to include them in brackets and then clarify their purpose with the voice talent.
- Don’t forget the specs. Sometimes the technical details can get buried in your email with the voice talent, so I find it’s helpful to provide a few specs at the top of the script. For instance, I like to specify the type of audio output files I need (e.g. mp3, wav), the recording quality I’m looking for, and how I want them edited (e.g., provided as a single file that I edit, or as individual files).
More Audio Tips
It’s hard to believe it but, those are only a couple dozen of the many hundreds of audio tips to be found on E-Learning Heroes. While you’re here, don’t miss these related articles, chock full of helpful audio tidbits.
Audio Basics for Online Course Design by David Anderson
Forums Compilation: Narration for E-Learning by Nicole Legault
E-Learning Audio and Recording Tips #45 by David Anderson
E-Learning Audio Tips from an Expert by Mike Enders
E-Learning Narration and Voice Over Portfolios #104 by David Anderson
How are you using audio in your courses? Have any script-writing tips to share? Jump into the conversation with a comment below, or chime in with your ideas in our Building Better Courses forum.
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