What Makes a Great Voice Over Narrator?

Mr. Newham, my middle school Biology teacher is responsible for my love of science. He was young and hip (it was the ‘70’s), but more than that he was interested in me. And Shelley to my right. And Hugh to my left. He made us all feel like we were the most important ones in the class and he was guiding us on an adventure every time we stepped into the lab.

As e-Learning bleeds into territories formerly commandeered by instructors and teachers, voiceover narrators take on that role. The narrator becomes the favorite teacher, the engaging guide, the partner in the adventure of learning something new and making it your own. Whether the goal is the more traditional information retention or the common business world target of behavior change. So, what makes a great voiceover narrator? What should you look and listen for?

Connection with the Material

As a carpenter fashions wood, an actor fashions words. A voice actor worth their salt will genuinely understand and connect with the script before recording anything. This may require research on their part. Questions to you about who the intended audience will be. This helps them care about the material. Which is important, because as Dr Immordino-Yang in her book “Emotions, Learning and the Brain” says, It is neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things you don’t care about. Once the voiceover actor begins connecting and understanding the material, their training kicks in and they find real actual passion within themselves to transmit to the listener.

A Comfortable, Engaging Voice

Whether the lesson is true long form, (i.e. 12 modules of 40-60 minutes each) or follows the increasingly popular micro-learning model (i.e. 2-5 minute bursts of info over multiple modules) we want a baseline voice that makes us comfortable. Something soothing on the ears but not tranquilizing to the brain. Apart from a great instrument, we like to listen to people who know how to control their voices. This minimizes distractions and helps us focus on content. Even better if that sonorous voice winds the content into a story, which is universally the favorite way for humans to receive information.

The Ability to Dialogue in a Monologue

Any kind of elearning text is in danger of becoming boring and losing an audience when it is delivered like a lecture. The best monologuers in the business – stand-up comics, Ted Talks experts, ToastMasters – all have something in common that inexperienced laypeople and (unfortunately) many professors do not. Awareness that their monologue is actually a dialogue. Their audience may not participate in a traditional dialogue of back and forth communication, but they do participate. Sometimes with laughter, chuckles or groans. Sometimes with tension and held breath. Occasionally with a verbal response, but always with attention and applause. The best eLearning narrators recognize that although they are recorded ahead of time and never come into contact with the learner physically, they engage their audience (one learner at a time) best, when they approach their script like a dialogue as well. Imagined participation makes for a riveting narration.

There you have it. Three powerful insights into what makes a great voiceover narrator in eLearning. Passionate connection with the text, an engaging, conversational approach and the ability to draw in and dialogue with the learner even when they are not in the same time and place as said narrator.

Kim Handysides is a prolific eLearning voiceover narrator with a motley background in education, theatre, broadcast, & multimedia and a penchant for ultimate crafting.