When eLearning moves, as it often must, from mere text and still images to video, animations, or simulations, content takes on new dimensions. Storytelling, formerly done through text or PowerPoint animations, moves to the next level: sound.

This poses some choices: Do you want to narrate? Use voice-over? Create a full-fledged soundtrack? This article will help you make that decision by explaining the differences and the pros and cons of each.

First, some definitions:

  • Narration or voice-over is the easiest to create. You can do this yourself or hire a professional. It consists of a single voice or multiple voices telling a story, or narrating or describing a video or presentation. You can use a voice-over track with a slide deck, such as a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, and with videos, games, and animations.
  • Dialogue involves the characters in a video, game, or simulation; the actual audio track might be created using professional voice actors or members of the eLearning design team. In this case, however, each character has a unique voice.
  • A soundtrack generally refers to an audio track that is a composite; it includes more than just voice-over or dialogue. The soundtrack might include music as well as dialogue or narration, and it also has ambient sounds. If the video is filmed in an outdoor urban location, for example, you might hear traffic or a siren or people talking in the background. In a restaurant, you might hear background music, murmured conversation, and the clinking of silverware.

Choosing an audio approach

Instructional designers face many considerations and constraints when deciding how—or even whether—to add voices to their eLearning content. Using text or subtitles in slide decks, animations, and even short videos is inexpensive and relatively simple. Someone writes a few short lines of text, the designer chooses a font and colors, and away they go. When adding audio, budget and time constraints are definitely factors. To use a voice-over or dialogue, the designer needs a script. Creating a soundtrack requires recording or generating other sounds as well.

When using voice-over with one or more voices, the question arises: whose voices? The designer can voice the audio track, of course. Many corporate eLearning videos and animations use designers, developers, and other staffers to create voice tracks in-house. Alternatively, hiring one or more professional voice actors is an option.

For lengthy web-based training, even if the eLearning is a series of very short videos, it’s often a good idea to use more than one narrator for voice-overs. Why? Listening to one person gets boring. The idea is to engage learners, not have them tune out. Alternatives to voice-overs include having the videos feature interviews with different experts or conversation between characters, as in a simulation or game, or presenting content and perspectives from two or three experts.

Going pro

Hiring a voice actor offers significant benefits, not least of which is a polished project. “If the point of eLearning, in all its ever-changing forms and genres, is to engage the listener so that they might absorb the content and learn from it, why spend so much time and money on the software, design, layout, and content only for it to sound awful?” Amy Fisher, a voice actor, asks. It’s important to have a professional who can respond to the type of content and intended audience, “someone who is experienced and sensitive to the entire process,” she said in an email interview.

In addition, a trained professional can take on a variety of accents, personas, or tones. “One of the toughest for a non-pro to achieve is sounding conversational, believable, real—which is often needed for testimonial-type modules,” Fisher said.

There are technical reasons to go pro as well, Fisher points out. Training teaches the voice actor to enunciate, use proper inflection, pace appropriately, and avoid “plosives (popped p’s, t’s, etc.) or sibilance,” which is a sort of hissing sound that can occur with repeated soft consonant sounds.

While it is possible to assemble a sound studio on site, the trained voice actor is likely to have a setup already—as well as the experience and practice a polished presentation demands. “Pros have learned how to build a home studio, record, edit, and sometimes even engineer their audio files and deliver them in a very timely fashion,” Fisher said.

Hiring a pro doesn’t have to break the bank; and audio is as essential to the success of the project as the user interface design, the navigation elements, and the actual content. “Rates are all over the place since new technology has made it easier for anyone with a mic and a walk-in closet to proclaim themselves a working voice talent,” Fisher said. “You can get a quote most easily if you provide a budget based on a number of things—word count or length of your project. We have all kinds of online tools for converting word count into length to estimate a rate. Some voice talent use per finished minute (pfm) or hour (pfh) of audio rates, and others, like myself, prefer a sliding scale based on word count,” where the per-word rate drops as the length increases. “Rates should include recording and editing but don’t always,” and some voice actors charge a small per-file fee for splitting, especially on larger projects, she said.

The amount of time to build in to the schedule for selecting and recording a voice actor varies. “It’s going to differ greatly depending on the length of the project, and whether or not you hire a vetted pro who can accommodate you into their schedule, and if they have experience with long-form eLearning,” Fisher said. “I’ve turned around shorter modules in hours and moderately long projects in a couple of days.”

“The voicing of your modules should never be left to the very last minute, however,” Fisher cautioned. “Rush jobs will add to the cost and might lead to more ‘pickups’ or revisions as well. Along with audition samples or demos and rate quotes, ask for turnaround estimates in your hiring process.”