"Best" narration voice?

I'm wondering if anyone knows of any research on whether specific voice characteristics are "best" for narration?  I have a client who says she heard that learners prefer female voices with a British accent. I'd never heard anything like that, and am going to poke around a little to see if I find anything to support that, but I thought I'd see if any of you have thoughts on this...

18 Replies
Sheila Bulthuis

Love the idea of giving options, but not sure the client will go for recording two complete sets of VO - it's a fairly long course.

I did just find in Ruth Clark's e-Learning and the Science of Instruction reference to a study that showed both men and women prefer a female voice for female-stereotyped subjects ("soft" stuff) and a male voice for male-stereotyped subjects like technology.  Of course that's only one study, but it's interesting.

Russ Sawchuk

Sheila,

For all of our serious e-learning projects, we now use both a female and male narrator. The interaction between them and the changes in voices seems to keep the learners more engaged and interested. We took the idea from television where news and sports shows seem to commonly have a male and female hosts. Yes, it costs more, but professional narrators are available at very reasonable costs, and we feel it is worth the extra effort and money.  

Here is one example that we have developed.

Russ

Sheila Bulthuis

@Russ - I really like that idea.  I've used it in the past for in-house podcasts, and I think it makes great sense for e-learning as well. 

@ Alexandros - I'm curious about what types of things you do differently in Storyline now that you've been working with it a while, vs,. when you first started with it?

Russ Sawchuk

Sheila,

Here is an informal, ongoing poll that we run on our website asking our visitors what format they prefer. Note that the female voice is the top choice followed closely by male and female. Also, when I give an example of a female and male combination to my clients, they usually insist that is the format we use.

Russ

Sales Framework

I use different types of narrators depending on the subject matter, and also the look and feel of the course. I've been creating a series of courses that is reminiscent of a game show, so the male narrator is sort of over-the-top and cheesy. In another project the style of the course is much more business-like, so I chose a female with a news-anchor type tone. 

I think what people like the most is variety, and I agree with the posts above that recommend a male/female combination. Or, use one narrator with an accent and one without. Spice of life, and all that. 

Sheila Bulthuis

Steve Flowers said:

Interesting data, Russ! Curious about what the make-up of the audience for that survey might be. Is the audience predominantly female? 

I think survey results might vary based on many factors. Context / content would be one of those. Audience would be another.

Totally agree about all the factors that could influence preference.  And then of course we have to consider preference vs. outcome - it's possible that what people prefer isn't necessarily congruent with what helps them learn/retain (if narration voice even has an impact at all on that).

Judith Blackbourn

Hi Russ,

I liked your combination of male and female voices, using them in a kind of mentor to learning conversation. That type of interaction helps focus on the material by relating it as questions and answers rather than just "lecture". Importantly, you also include text on the screen summarizing the information. In a case like yours, I don't think it matters whether the speaker is male or female.

Great choice!

D Rooks

Judith Blackbourn said:

Hi Russ,

I liked your combination of male and female voices, using them in a kind of mentor to learning conversation. That type of interaction helps focus on the material by relating it as questions and answers rather than just "lecture". Importantly, you also include text on the screen summarizing the information. In a case like yours, I don't think it matters whether the speaker is male or female.

Great choice!


I agree!

Russ Sawchuk

The example I provided was a short unit. I am now working on a much longer course (4+ hours) on a rather boring topic (money management). Without the back and forth conversation between the two narrations, I think learners would have a hard time staying awake.

I am well aware there a other ways to make your e-learning more interactive and engaging, but using 2 narrators is one strategy that seems to work well for us.

Russ

Nick Leffler

HI Sheila,

This isn't exactly research but I know to reduce cognitive load, the voice over should be as easy to understand as possible. When you are simply trying to entertain then variety is great, I agree. When the subject matter is technical and requires a lot of attention to understand, a narrator with as closely matching voice to the audience is ideal. I know this isn't always possible but here's what I've done and know:

When I'm creating training for another country, I use a narrator from that country if possible. A recent example is for a British audience, I used a British English speaker. I know there are a lot of different accents within that but it's hard to account for that. I guess you just cross your fingers and hope they have a good knowledge of all the accents similar to my knowledge of various accents within the United States.

If I'm recording a narrative for the US, I try to stick wit the common accent. That's the accent you typically hear on the news, some have said the California dialect but I know that's not accurate. Using a southern accent for example usually isn't a good idea unless your audience is all speaking a southern accent.

Hope some of this is useful and might help some of the discussion a bit. Funny you mentioned female voice with British accent. I just used that specific narration type and it worked great for the audience, just not sure if it would work great for me being that I speak the California accent

I debated whether to use dialect or accent, hope I chose the right word.

Sheila Cole-Bulthuis said:

I'm wondering if anyone knows of any research on whether specific voice characteristics are "best" for narration?  I have a client who says she heard that learners prefer female voices with a British accent. I'd never heard anything like that, and am going to poke around a little to see if I find anything to support that, but I thought I'd see if any of you have thoughts on this...

Sheila Bulthuis

@Nick - good point about considering cognitive load.  This is one of the reasons that, if I'm building a course that will only be provided in English but will be taken by a lot of non-native-English speakers, I do some of the more technical stuff in text instead of voiceover - it's easier for people to read than listen to a foreign language, especially if while they're listening they're also looking at things happening on the screen.  (Of course, my preference would be to use less text and translate all the VO, but that's not always feasible.)

And it makes intuitive sense to me that you'd try to use a voice that wouldn't seem out of place to the audience.  That's really what sparked my initial question - the client was talking about a female British voice being "best" but the course is for US employees, mostly blue collar, a lot of them in rural and/or Midwestern locations.  It didn't seem like a British accent would be "best" for them.  We ended up going with a VO pro who has a "neutral American" accent - which is really more a lack of an accent!  (like the newscaster voice you mention.) 

Renee Lubaway

I agree with the statements about using a voice over with the native dialect so that it is familiar to the learner. But I can see how that could deviate depending on the content. For example, I still remember the book on tape I used with my kids for Peter Rabbit, narrated by a very proper Englishman and I'll never be comfortable hearing that story in any other voice, it was THAT on point. I'm from Detroit.

I recently completed several courses for a state-wide organization, target audience was their membership.  The SME's were all staff members of the organization for this phase of their elearning and one of them agreed to do his own voice over. We just completed it and he did an awesome job. The narration was written in his words and it sounded best with his voice. He's also the go-to guy for their members who need more information and guidance on the topic.

Wondering if anyone else has incorporated the SME to do their own voice over. (PS I've already been warned by the pros in these forums to make sure I have their script first!) 

T. Travis

My "expertise", if you will, in this area comes from many years working as a voiceover performer.  I've worked on literally thousands of productions, everything from a cable spot for a small bicycle shop in Colorado, to performing narration tracks for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" - and hundreds of instructional programs.  After a while, you get a good feeling for what works and what does not work for narration. 

My answer to this subject? - It depends on what you're trying to communicate!  I've heard some fantastic narrations performed by "British female" narrators, and I've heard some which are truly horrible - in some cases by performers who would have been highly effective if the program had been structured differently - to match the performer's particular voice style.

My very first paid voiceover job came about through a miscasting.  The client had chosen, and paid for,  a very famous voiceover performer - Thurl Ravenscroft - Known for "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"  in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and as the voice of Tony the Tiger.  However, the narration was for a medical device training program, and as you might expect, the result was unintentionally hilarious.  As a narrator, Thurl was fantastic, but for this particular program, not so much.  I got chosen because I was available and cheap, since they had blown the budget on Mr. Ravenscroft.

The most important factor is that your narration voices are able to sound like they mean what they say.  If they can sound like they have some interest in the subject, that's even better. If they sound distracted or bored, or insecure in the subject matter, that's a problem.

The very best narrator for your program will be able to instill some "magic" into the program - that thing you can't quite figure out, but makes all the difference in the world in terms of establishing real communication.  That "magic" can come from a professional performer who senses how to communicate, or can come from a Subject Matter Expert who is so inspired by the subject they can't help but share their passion - often by accident.

Some of my recent narration projects can be viewed at http://www.Narrate.biz .  (Okay, it's a cheap attempt to get you to check out my work, in case you're looking for a narrator, but my point here is still valid.) I was chosen for these projects among thousands of other performers because the directors thought I was somehow "right" for their project.  I can assure you, I was "rejected" for hundreds of others.  Same deal for my recent "commercial" projects - http://www.Ad-VO.com . (Yeah, another cheap promotion for myself.) For the commercials, the directors were even pickier - many more were rejected, and I got many more rejections from other commercial projects.

Even though these were documentaries and commercials, the "casting" process is still the same - to determine who is the best communicator for your particular subject, style and audience.