Question on narration

Jul 02, 2012

I've been wanting to do a bit of research, and think this is probably one of the better places to start.

Having narrated a fair number of eLearning shows over the years (including an award winner for the NECA), I sometimes wonder, from a design standpoint, when it's appropriate for a presentation to feature narration, when (if ever) it isn't, and how important course designers think strong narration is to the overall flow of a good eLearning experience.

I know some folks provide their own narration, while others rely solely on professional Voice Actors/Artists to say the words for them.  Is this a matter of preference, material, budget, or some combination thereof?  What other factors determine whether or not a professional narrator is brought into the scene?

Thanks, gang!


63 Replies
David Lindenberg

Hi Andy,

I think as far as appropriateness, you have to look at it on a project by project basis.  Narration can definitely draw the learner in and provide more engagement.  However, reading text directly off the screen isn't going to draw anybody in (think death by PowerPoint).  I think it is a great asset to have narration as it helps "tell the story."

As far as which to use, my own voice or pros, I think for most it comes down to the almighty dollar.  Using your own voice is a lot cheaper than hiring someone else.  However, if you really don't like the sound of your voice (or more importantly, if the client doesn't like it), then definitely seek outside help.  I personally think my own voice lulls people to sleep, which can be good in some situations, but not usually the greatest in elearning.



Bruce Graham

Personally, I cannot sit through "voiceless" elearning now, having created voiceovers for courses for so long, I just find them without "life".

I think you CAN read off the screen of the reading is so aminated and expressive that concentration turns from the screen to the voice, but this is rare.

Saying that, it does not always go to plan when you record either.... 

@David - I think you were giving this presentation if I remember correctly


David Lindenberg

I forgot to say also, that sometimes it depends on project requirements.  In a previous job due to various circumstances we could not use audio.  It wasn't optimal and not nearly as engaging, but sometimes you have to work within certain restrictions.

I agree with Bruce that voiceless elearning is hard to sit through.  I think when you have a dynamic voice (ala Bruce) it can be engaging, but I still think that reading text word for word is not as effective.  The learner is trying to read ahead and listen to you at the same time.

@Bruce Yeah, that was a successful presentation.  Lulling them into submission. 

Daniel Brigham

Hi, Andy:

Bruce is a first-rate voice over specialist. There is also

Personally, I think course sans narration are on the way out. I'm an independent Articulate specialist and I haven't created one for over two years now. I think it comes down to engagement: you are inclined to pay more attention if you feel that someone is talking to you. And there's some research to back that up.  Of course, the narration has to be done well. Bad narration is far worse than no narration.

When do people use pros, such as Bruce Graham? Often when the training is to be sold. In-house narration may be fine for an internal audience, but the stakes are higher when you are selling the training. Then people expect a pro. As a developer who does quite a bit of voice over narration, I can say the learning curve is steep, though you don't realize it until you are almost a professional. --Daniel

Andy Bowyer

Thanks, Daniel.  Those are some great insights.

Actually, I've been professionally narrating eLearning projects for the past seven years, but have found myself in a bit of a "lull" lately.  Sometimes I find it's best to understand the "whys" of a thing, in as much as it's advantageous to understand the "how-tos" of it as well.

Again, thanks for the insights!


Daniel Brigham

Just a few thoughts based on my experiece creating elearning courses:

When it's best to include narration:

--If you want to create the feeling of a human presence (this is what avatars do as well)

--If creating emotion is somehow important; sound is better at transmitting emotion than words. Consider the word "Scream!" with the sound of someone actually screaming.

--If you want to ensure your learners that they are safe to take chances. Learning is taking chances and if you have a compassionate narrator is helping you get up when you've fallen down, that helps.

--To create a bit of interest, especially if there has been silence for a while.

A very good question, Andy. Something I've been thinking about as well. Do you consider yourself a professional voice over artist, or an e-learning developer who also does voice overs? --Daniel

Andy Bowyer

I'm a professional Voice Actor.  In addition to eLearning, I've done vast amounts of character voice work for the eCards division of American Greetings, have recently had three audiobooks launched at Audible, and have provided the voice for a Transformers toy for Playskool.  Not to mention the countless on-hold messages and TV and Radio commercials I've voiced over the years.

I once tried to create an eLearning presentation, again, to learn the nuts and bolts of it all.  It was a spectacular lesson in "stick with what you're good at."  Fortunately, this was a personal project, and not at all client based.  I developed a whole new appreciation for what you guys and gals do.  Trust me on that.


Bruce Graham

Daniel Brigham said:

When do people use pros, ........ Often when the training is to be sold. In-house narration may be fine for an internal audience, but the stakes are higher when you are selling the training. Then people expect a pro.


I would agree with the above, (when it is to be sold), however, I would also say that internal audiences also like a voice that is not recognisable " one of their own...". My business USP revolves around this - they get the full set of options, including v/o. Many of the companies I work with have never considered v/o before. I always try and provide a 3-4 slide "taster", to sell the vision (which includes sound, rather ironically for the word "vision"...). Anyway...I do not want in any way to "diss" those REAL "pros", guys like Andy who can do voices and characters, probably have wonderfully expensive microphones and soundproof rooms, but there comes a point where "enough is enough". Companies LOVE the "one person provides all" concept. By the way, this can include when there are many people involved, but they only ever see/talk to one person.... One of my clients think their current v/o artist is great, but charges exorbitant prices. I've won the eLearning business, and (sorry!), now also taken a portion of what for that artist was probably a sizeable pay cheque. It's just business, not personal...

The audiences for your courses, in most cases, are going to be more attuned to the messages and the course, (if it is interesting), rather than the tonality of the voice, the inflections, and the breathing patterns. For this, you need the skills that we as IDs bring to the table. Of course, all those facets of a v/o ARE important, and the voice has to be played like a well-tuned instrument, however, if you have a good voice, some good software, some great editing skills, know what the voice should sound like, are confident, learn some good v/o theory, practice your craft, and persevere ('coz for the 1st 3 months your throat will be sore as he77!), then I believe that v/o is within the grasp of many people. It also means you can offer a "complete service" as part of your eLearning package. Tools like Articulate Storyline are "democratising" the production of eLearning. I am winning more and more business that companies previously gave to larger companies, the companies that I dreamed of joining 3-4 years ago.

I'm currently at the start of discussions with someone who wants to produce eLearning for no job/no hope youngsters here in the UK, to give them really BASIC skills to get jobs. I want the v/o to be done by one of them, with my guidance. That's one way to get through to your audience. I may not be able to understand a lot of what they are saying (!), but the audience will. Hopefully it will also give THEM some confidence, and start them on a road that leads them somewhere.

Voiceover in some areas is also being democratised, people hear voices everywhere now, and the concept the "media with a voice requires a v/o artist" is one that whilst true in some cases, is becoming less and less relevant (IMHO). We all need to recognise and stay ahead of this curve. I remember my brother heading up marketing at a well-known chain of UK booksellers 10 years ago - he said "People will always want to pick up a book a feel the paper...", whilst that IS still true, may I humbly introduce, eBooks, audiobooks, and the Kindle. Those are the areas I want to ride. I am sooooooo envious of Andy and his success in that sort of marketplace....

If companies think their infrastructure will sustain the deployment, it can be sold as a very viable option in almost ALL cases, (in my experience anyhow). Companies are getting very attuned to the "project management" costs involved (added?) to many bids, so if you can offer it all at an attractive rate in a package, (networking with folks is important here...), then you should try it.

Just my 2p worth.


Andy Bowyer

This is fascinating stuff, gang.

And in the previous post, Bruce touched on another aspect of dealing with audio:  the editing portion of it.  I recently hung out my shingle as an Audio Editor, in addition to providing Voice Overs, and have been amazed at some of what I've heard.  Some great stuff, some not so great, and all from "professiona VO artists."  So I agree that VO is absolutely within the grasp of those willing to apply themselves, and really *listen* to what they're producing with an unbiased ear.  Which isn't always easy.

Here's a bit I put together (with all this in mind)'s a bit tongue-in-cheek in its own way, but hopefully conveys a strong message:

a.b. Voices eLearning Promo

Thanks for the insights, everyone.  Keep 'em coming!


Bruce Graham


Why not target, in your capacity as Editor..., all those people that DO create their own v/os', but need a bit of Normalisation, Noise Reduction, echo etc etc?

That sounds like a VERY clever niche to me.


"AB's Voiceover Surgery - Making You Sound Your Best".

  • Hourly rates for "Tweaking your speaking".

Send me 1 minute of your recording, and i'll make you sound like a Pro. You owe your Learners the BEST, without the Cost.

etc etc.

"Sound like Bowyer - Oh Yeah".... 


Andy Bowyer

Actually, I do have a very "bare bones" site set up for just such a thing:

a.b. Voices Editing

Rates are affordable, the program is easy, and I've had great success so far.  Also, while I don't (strictly speaking) add "effects" (i.e. Normalizing, etc.) to most audio that comes in, I will be happy to create a system for anyone who requests it, to give their audio the best sound it can have.  Of course limitations do apply, and the "GIGO" principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out) certainly applies here.  I can't take something recorded in a busy office environment, for example, and make it sound like it was done in a sound-proof booth.  But I can do some pretty slick things, given the opportunity.

And I really dig the "tweaking your speaking" line, Bruce...I may just have to liberate that one.


Bruce Graham

OK matey...

So if you assume everyone in corporate land is trying to cut costs, you might consider putting your prices up, or even suggeting that they are "indicative" prices.





Your site offers your services at price x.

Corporates are looking for eLearning voiceovers that are Price Y (their existing price) * 0.5 or more. I bet that is more than your price x.

You are not EVER looking to be cheap when you sell a service, unless you want to be cheap. You should be looking (currently) at offering better value and a saving that what they currently have.


Use that site to tell them how you can make their voices sound like a million dollars. Sell the vision. Have some "before" and "after" voices on there, (hell....I'll do you a bad one if you want!)

The only chance you get to put your prices up is now - whan you are starting to attack a niche market aggressively - you can always negotiate down again...(to higher than where you are now).

Just a thought.


Steve Flowers

One of the things that I LOVE from narration talent is turn-around time. The guy I use most often makes it seem like he has a time machine - really. I send it and an hour or so later I receive a message that it's all done and cut up. It doesn't happen all of the time but it's consistent enough that it sticks. 

The read quality needs to be great but responsiveness is worth some serious value to me. This becomes critical if the client makes a last minute script change (not good but it does happen) just before deployment.  I think others might think quick-turn or even a flat "rush" fee would add great value. Test reads are a plus as well (which I'm sure you already probably do) -- not something that's typically put out there -- making that process frictionless and painless.

Bruce Graham

Andy Bowyer said:

Hmmm...The rate I quote was suggested by someone else in "the game"...but I always thought it was on the low side.  I'll tweak it.



Well - I would say "Change the game". If they have given you that advice, it sounds to me as though they are also trying to compete on price. Competing on price means you will always be in a price game.Competing on value gets you further up the chain immediately, above those other guys, until you get to a point where you not only fix their voice issues, but ALSO get some of the real gigs.

Compete on value, not price. Personally, I would not put the price on my website.

Perhaps explain that your pricing is based on the number of learners based on tehir company size, (which you can find out in most cases).

I guess what I am saying is that you need to think creatively with pricing when attacking a new market and making it your own. That does not mean that anyone gets ripped off, (you will not survive if you ever do that), but that price is not important - value add is.

Let us know how it goes.


PS - if you ARE gong to quote rates, ensure you say "$x...2012 rates". That way you can flex up a change if they end up as a longterm customer.

Andy Bowyer


Typically, I provide some pretty serious turn-around time myself...although that's really dependent on the size of the script in question.  Typically less than 24 hours is my rule.  Mostly it's same day service, though.  As for providing a demo, or "test read", I'm ALWAYS happy to do that.  I'd love to discuss nuts and bolts with you.  Drop me a private message and let's talk philosophy!

Bruce--I TOTALLY agree with you on everything you've said.  I'll be picking your brain on this topic as well, I think.

It's great to be back here.  I've been away for WAY too long.  You folks ROCK.


James Blackburn

Speaking as both a Award Winning Radio producer and presenter and now an eLearning developer, get the right voice for your products i hear so many deep male voiceovers it becomes very corporate. Also listeners and learners have a higher rate of concentration when the accent is from their region (UK speak for state) So that is something you might want to consider. 

An in house VO is fine just get the right kit to record it. You wouldn't use word art in an articulate so don't use a cheap headset to record it, a decent microphone and kit will cost about $200. sometimes it is not the voice you want it's the quality. 

Maybe also consider voices outside of narration Podcasts are a great tool in a learner's toolbox!

If you ever need a British VO just message. 

Andy Bowyer

James, you're SO right when you mention "deep male" voices.  Somehow over the years, James Earl Jones, and subsequently, Don LaFontaine, became the "Gold Standard" because their voices have/had such PRESENCE.

But stop to consider:  these days it's Morgan Freeman.  And while Mr. Freeman's voice is ostensibly "deep", that's not the first thing that strikes you about the voice.  It's his PRESENCE.  His ability to articulate and convey meaning to the words he's saying.

You're also right about the affordability of decent equipment.  A good mic is essential to a good recording.  My philosophy in recording eLearning is, and always has been that there should be as few distractions for the learner as possible.  And nothing can be more distracting than poorly recorded and poorly edited audio.  And while many eLearning shows are stripped down into the "leanest" formats possible, and audio quality suffers as a result, that makes a good initial recording more important than ever!

Oh, I could go on for days on this topic.


Andy Bowyer

Over-taxing a learner's imagination, I've been told, limits the learning process as the brain is focused on "processing" information, rather than "retaining" it.  But that was another post in another forum from another day.  And erroneous for all I know.  But in its way, makes sense.

But when it comes to narrating presentations that are strictly audio based, like audiobooks for example, you absolutely have to pull out all the stops to keep the listener engaged in the material.

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