Most corporate eLearning courses, and even adult continuing-education eLearning, involve an audio track, mostly as voiceover for video and also for animated characters. As a result, many eLearning professionals find themselves writing audio scripts as part of their work.
However, there’s a lack of formal training for instructional designers about how to write an audio script that keeps the audience’s attention and enhances learning. In this article, we will provide 10 tips for writing better eLearning audio scripts.
Writing for voiceover
Writing for voiceover is different from writing text that a learner will read; it’s writing for the ear, not the eye. But when you learn to write for the ear, you become a better writer, even when you’re writing material for reading on a screen.
Tip 1: Second person
In English, this means directing the script at the learner and using the word “you.” You might also sometimes use a directive, where the “you” is implied. This is like a command: “Do this!” Writing in the second person means that you have to know who the target audience is and what they will do differently as a result of the course. Audio scripts are more memorable when you tell participants what they need to do and why. Listen to these two audio segments that demonstrate the difference between second person and third person.
Tip 2: Directions
eLearning audio is meant to support and enhance the visuals and is rarely the main event (unless you’re doing a podcast). I can’t tell you the number of times that we’ve reviewed eLearning courses and it’s obvious that the scriptwriter didn’t know what would be on the screen when the script is playing because the script doesn’t support the visuals. In order to write a good audio script, you have to know the elements on the screen, where they are positioned, their labels, and what the learner is supposed to do with them. If you’re writing a script for a particular authoring tool (for example Captivate, Articulate, or Lectora), go to the tool’s website, view sample interactions, and write the script to explain how your selected interaction works. The script needs to match the screen, otherwise it causes cognitive dissonance for the learner and they focus more on trying to figure out what to do than what you are trying to teach them.
Tip 3: Conditional logic
A conditional logic statement tells a learner to do something when or if certain conditions are met. “When” and “if” are the key words. Studies show that if you state the condition after the action, a large percentage of the participants will do the action without listening to the condition. People live in a busy world and often try to take shortcuts. With conditional logic statements, the “if” and the “when” are the most important part of the teaching, so this part of the statement should come first, before the action statement. A common instance of this is that your screen directions should be, “When you’ve completed the exercise, click the Next button.” If you write, “Click the Next button when you’ve completed the exercise,” at least some participants will click Next before they listen to the rest of the sentence. Listen to these audio segments and note your reactions to the action statements when they come before or after the condition.
Tip 4: Active voice
Active voice specifies what or who is doing the action. Using active voice is all about clarity. You need to tell learners whether they are supposed to do the action or whether someone else is supposed to do the action. The “who” is just as important as the “what.” Read these two examples and notice that in the passive example, who does the action is unclear.
Active: Product engineers test products during development
Passive: Products are tested during development
When using the passive voice, a product engineer might take this course and would not know that this task is her job. Or a manufacturing line worker might listen to this passive sentence and think that testing is his job.
Also keep in mind that narrators should be active and not passive. Passive voice can sound dull and scholarly, but writing the same sentence in active voice will make it more interesting and easier on the ear.
Tip 5: Short sentences
Run-on sentences are difficult to read when they are in print. They are even more difficult to comprehend while listening to them. When sentences are too long, participants can easily get confused and stop paying attention. When writing audio scripts, shorter sentences are generally better than longer ones. If you have a compound sentence, break it into two sentences instead of keeping it as one. A compound sentence has two independent clauses joined by a coordinating word, such as “and” or “but.”
Tip 6: Characters
Make your characters memorable. A memorable character can be fundamental to propel interest in a story. What makes a character memorable? Think about it. What characters do you remember from movies or TV? Why do you remember them? Was it their quirky qualities? Was it how they talked? Characters can make points that can truly be made no other way in eLearning.
Here’s an example of a character who proved memorable to learners: Santa Fe Community College created a how-to program about the installation of home insulation. Most learners had only a GED or high school diploma and weren’t used to learning online. This was a flipped course with an online component, then a classroom practicum. Getting the learners to do the online component was difficult. The writers invented a character named Carlito. Carlito didn’t pay attention to his training and consequently he made frequent errors on the job. The key message was “don’t be a Carlito,” and it was memorable because of the humor and short duration of the “episodes.” To view an example, click the link below.
Tip 7: Storyline
There’s very little difference between storytelling thousands of years ago by ancient cultures and an eLearning story told today. Ancient cultures used stories so that their descendants would remember the lessons of their culture and history. The same is true today. Telling a relevant story is one of the most memorable learning methods. Stories should have these three parts:
- A beginning that introduces the characters and the plot
- A middle that includes some conflict or controversy
- An ending that resolves the problem
Tip 8: Voiceover artists
Many (too many) eLearning developers are using voices that just don’t have the emotional impact to tell the story. That’s worse than boring. You can have the greatest script in the universe, but if it doesn’t have emotional impact, it will fall flat on learner’s ears. Many voiceover artists are more in love with their own voices than they are with “selling” the script they’re reading. Good voiceover is a godsend. Bad voiceover is worse than having no voice at all. If you’re going to use voiceover talent, find someone who can and will give some emotion to the script. The voice doesn’t need to be deep and totally professional sounding; it just needs to sound real.
Tip 9: Recording equipment
Recording good audio requires a small investment (about $300); buy a decent digital recorder and a microphone. Recorders like Zoom or Tascam come with the added benefit of having built-in condenser microphones that sound pretty good. You will still need an external microphone, though. NEVER use your computer “microphone” to record. The sound recorded by these microphones is noticeably inferior. It’s always easy to make a good recording sound bad with distortion, echo, etc., but it’s impossible to make a poor recording into a good recording. Start with the best quality you can.
Tip 10: Sound effects
Since we almost never (almost) hear a single sound in isolation, sound effects (SFX) and ambient sounds are extremely important. Our environment surrounds us with sounds. Many are subtle, like the sound of air flowing through HVAC ducts, traffic rumbling outside, or rain on a roof. If you watch Mad Men (or most modern shows), you should close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack. It’s very complex, with layers of sound, some louder, some softer, but layers and layers of sound that imitate the environment the actors are acting in. As training developers and designers, we should try to emulate this as much as we can.
Want more? How about a class?
To learn more about how to write and produce an audio script that is engaging and memorable, sign up for our eLearning Guild Academy course on Scriptwriting and Audio Production for eLearning starting in September.