Looking for tips on how to "coach" a narrator

Feb 05, 2014

I'm creating procedural videos with voice-over narration.  I don't have a budget to hire voice talent, so I'm using employee volunteers as narrators.   I have one narrator who has a great voice as far as tonal quality but I can't get her to sound "natural" when she records.  She sounds like she's reading, even though she's not stumbling over words or pronunciations.  Her pitch is like a bell curve, going up in the middle of sentences, and then coming back down.   When she tries to force herself not to do that, she starts getting lost in the script because she's thinking too much about how she sounds.  She's enthusiastic, and there are a lot of other good things about her voice - so I'd like to help her succeed if I can.  I just don't know how to coach her.  Any ideas?  Her voice does not do that in normal conversation.  It only seems to happen when you turn on the recorder...

17 Replies
Bruce Graham


I am not trying to be facetious here - but the only thing will be practice.

Most people do not realise that what they hear is themselves speaking - resonating through their skull (like a bass speaker) as well as through their ears, so they "...hate the way I sound".

Most people talk, they do not speak on a regular basis - it is a new skill.

Please ignore the silliness and the (ironically...) varying voiceover levels, but this may help:


Daniel Brigham

A sensitive situation: A few ideas off the top of my head:

  • If possible, give her more freedom with the script, so she can deliver it in a way the feels natural to her.
  • She's probably taking her role too seriously: ask her, just for fun, to give a wacky delivery. See how wacky she can get. If nothing else, it will relieve some of the tension. Can you give here an example? Have some fun and record some blooper takes with her? She'll probably here you and say, "shoot, I can at least do as well as that," which is of course what you want.
  • Might help if she memorizes the opening lines. These often set the tone for the rest of the slide. Ask her to look away from the script and just say what she knows the script says.
  • Where is she recording? Is the environment adding to the "seriousness" of the situation.

Anyway, a few thoughts. --Daniel

Andy Bowyer

Teaching, as it were, a "new narrator" to sound natural is quite a task, but it can be done.

Early in my career as the night-time host for an active radio format, I asked a peer to listen to out takes from one of my shows, and he gave me the single best advice I've ever heard. And while it sounds simple, it does require discipline, practice, and dedication to pull it off. Here's what he said:

"The next time you're having a phone conversation with a friend, pay attention to how you're talking and to how  you sound. THAT is how you should try to sound when you're presenting material."

There's a natural cadence to the way we all talk.

Here's a video I did that covers this very topic. I hope it helps!

BASIC VO Tutorial


Andy Bowyer

And, as he generally is, Bruce is exactly right: one of the biggest "fear factors" in the role of a new narrator is knowing that they're going to have to hear the thing when it's done.

The voice we hear "in our heads" is NOT the voice that others hear when it comes out of our mouths. And that can be VERY OFF-PUTTING to someone who's never had that experience before. In fact, it can be quite demoralizing.

As someone who has spent the majority of his adult life speaking into a mic, and then spending an incredible amount of time editing the subsequent recording sessions, I have learned to hear myself as others do. I'm not sure when it happened, but there you go.

For a first, third, or even 15th timer, it's a different story.

Remember to encourage your narrator that "no, that IS how you sound!" It's weird at first!

Daniel also makes solid points, especially "give her more freedom with the script, so she can deliver it in a way the feels natural to her." If she's a member of your staff, then ostensibly, she should have a rudimentary familiarity with the material being delivered. Provided it doesn't affect "the facts" of a script, it may very well be a good idea to allow her latitude to "play with the script" (given client approval). Allowing a narrator to put things into their own words, to deliver material from their own experience and understanding can have an INCREDIBLE impact on the success of a recording session.

No matter what, though: it can be done. It may take nurturing and time, but in the end both of those things will be more than worth the effort involved.

Good luck!


Bruce Graham

Robert Lengacher said:

Hi all, probably the best document I've seen on this is titled "Formatting Scripts for Voice Talent" by Shelley McIntyre. It reads like Julie Dirksen's "Design for How People Learn" with a specific focus on narration. 

Here's a link to the pdf: http://www.shelmac.com/Formatting-Scripts-for-Voice-Talent.pdf

Robert - I want a "Like Enormously" button or +1 at this point.

That is a GREAT article

Saved to my "Send to, or at least discuss with all new clients...." folder.

Great link.

Matt  Josdal

A couple of suggestions:

1. - Ask your narrator to concentrate on the END of the sentence rather than the beginning. Driving towards the periods in a sentence can help eliminate that "bell curve" you refer to. (I know exactly what that sound like!)

2. Have her talking "to" someone. An actual person, not an imaginary one. People don't often talk to themselves out loud in complete sentences structured the way something on a script is. So it immediately creates a false and forced environment. Put another person right across the table/booth/chair from them, or patch them in if you're in a small booth. Ask your talent to concentrate on speaking to that person rather than to the mic.

3. I'd like to second the point about memorization. That can really help. It might take a while, but you can even have her memorize one sentence at a time and then edit them together after the recording is done.

Hope that helps!


P.S. a couple of glasses of wine also sometimes helps

Joshua Roberts

Nothing is worse than when you are on a roll recording a voice over and then you come across a misspelled word or incorrect placement of a comma. It brings added time to re-record the sentence and adds more time to the editing process. To help minimize reading errors from the voice talent, do all you can to have your script grammatically correct and printed out in a legible font. This seems like a no brainer but it’s surprising how much grief can be caused by simple script errors. If possible, have a stand that you can clip the script to so you can have two pages visible at the same time. You don’t want the sound of turning pages in the middle of a sentence on your recording.

Practice, practice, practice. Location is also key, you want to ensure that you are getting no interference but also that your volunteer narrator feels comfortable. I've often tried leaving them to record for an hour and then returning to go through the audio and discuss thoughts. Some people really find it more comfortable to be left privately for that moment especially if they are not professional.

T. Travis

The road that took me to my voiceover career included a period as an audio studio owner, and time as a multimedia director.  Here's what I learned about getting non-professional voice talent to sound better.

1) Exhaust the amateur  talent, so they get to the point where they don't care how they sound any more.  This is of course, time consuming.

2) Have them look at a sentence, then turn the page over and then have them recite it back to you, while looking in your eyes.  You then edit the pieces back together.  That takes less time than you'd think.  It's important to actually turn the page over, so it doesn't become a distraction as the "talent' recalls what they had just read. 


Andy Bowyer

"Exhaust the amateur talent"?

That sounds like torture.

Gentle coaching, in my experience, is the better way. I can, if necessary,  take six different takes of a sentence and cut it together so it sounds seamless. Nobody needs to be a one-take-wonder if there's strong editing involved. It's more time-consuming on the back end, but generally guarantees a better result in the long run.

If you're going to take that approach, take it sentence by sentence. Get the nuances you want from each sentence, and then move on to the next. Again: time consuming on the back end, but far more effective in my opinion.

This is, perhaps, why hiring a professional in the first place can be cost and time saving in the long run.

My .02.


Andy Bowyer

(Too, when you beat a VO talent down (and let's face it being told "do it again...and again...and AGAIN" can be palpably demoralizing)--through lengthy sessions--ESPECIALLY if they're an amateur, they tend to end up sounding resentful and tired at the end of the day, which benefits NO ONE.)

In my experience, NURTURING a talent achieves the best results. You have to weigh what it is that you're after versus what you're being given. And you have to find the best path to achieving that happy medium. And putting someone through an "exhaustive ringer" is NOT the best way to get that.

Praise what they're doing right. Pay attention to the bits that they nailed, remind them of those bits, and encourage them to replicate them in other places.

When you're dealing with a VO person, whether amateur or professional, you're dealing with an EGO. Egos are better "stroked" than "beaten". "Stirred", not "shaken".

Remember: if you've asked someone to narrate your presentation, you ASKED *THEM*. For whatever reason, you've effectively said, "I need you to do this because I believe in what you bring to the table." Don't reward them with a beat-down.

An effective session director should know how to pull from the talent what they need. It can take a LOT of time, but it need not be exhaustive.

Another .02.


Andy Bowyer

That said, when presenting a script to a VO person, NEVER let a sentence span two pages.

Format your script so that sections appear on a single page, even if that means a bit of white-space left over.

Font size matters, too. Make it READABLE.

Bottom line: if you're dealing with someone who's uncomfortable sitting in front of a microphone, your job is to make them as COMFORTABLE as possible, while at the same time encouraging them to give you what you need. Key word: ENCOURAGE.

It can be done.

But don't expect it to be done in a single take. That's where the "work" part comes in for dealing with audio editing.

T. Travis

Andy Bowyer said:

"Exhaust the amateur talent"?

That sounds like torture.

Gentle coaching, in my experience, is the better way. I can, if necessary,  take six different takes of a sentence and cut it together so it sounds seamless. Nobody needs to be a one-take-wonder if there's strong editing involved. It's more time-consuming on the back end, but generally guarantees a better result in the long run.

My apologies.... I should have taken more care to make myself clear.  By "Exhaust " I didn't mean "Beat" the talent.  In fact, "six different takes of a sentence" multiple times is quite likely to "exhaust" a talent pretty quickly - especially someone who is worried about how they are sounding.  I agree completely with your suggestions, Andy, but my experience has shown me that once the voiceover talent has become unconcerned with how they are sounding, or have been able "let go" after a while performing, things go much more smoothly.  Sadly, however, this does not amount to "teaching" a person how to perform.  You'll note, that the next session, you'll have to start all over again, with "six takes" of each line.

Barbara, the "great tonal quality" of your narrator is actually likely to be the problem.  She's probably been told countless times that she has a fantastic voice - and perhaps has even considered doing some voice work professionally.  That means she has some emotional investment in how she's doing - which means she tries to control her performance - to do a "great" job.  The harder she tries the harder it gets.

The primary thing many acting instructors teach is the exact opposite of what you would think - how to give up control during a performance. It's the whole "in the moment" thing you hear Hollywood actors talk about.  It's harder than it sounds.

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