As eLearning expands its methods into media beyond text and into video, scenarios, and virtual reality, the human voice becomes more important. Most of us in eLearning creation are writers, not speakers or actors. Making dialog that sounds human while keeping to the technical and meeting compliance requirements can present obstacles that interfere with learning objectives and engaging the users. Most eLearning dialog is created to be read, not to be heard.
Last week I spoke to Dan Lenard about this challenge. Dan is a professional voice actor and the president of World-Voices Organization or WoVo, the industry association of freelance voice talent worldwide. Dan specializes in commercial and eLearning voice work. We spoke about a number of benefits that professional voice actors can bring to eLearning production.
Keeping it human
When I asked Dan what makes voice narration effective, he made a point that he returned to several times during our conversation.
“It’s being human. People want to be taught like they’re talking to or listening to another human. Good, well-trained voice actors, especially ones that have experience in education, understand:
- Who they are talking to,
- Why they are talking to them,
- What they are talking about.
"Most of all, they are able to portray the information from a position of authority.
“There are different genres of material in eLearning. Each one of them requires a slightly different style, an understanding of the audience, and of the material. The best people in voiceover are the ones that (1) are good actors, and (2) have really good cultural literacy.”
In addition to not being speakers or actors, most of us in eLearning development are not playwrights. How can you fix a script that is not working? Dan has one important point about voice actors that is often overlooked. Their experience gives them skills that go beyond simply reading copy.
“If you hire a professional who does this work a lot, they can make adjustments. Technical writers, including eLearning creators, tend to write for the written word rather than for the spoken word. When someone just reads the copy and the punctuation is very tight, a professional voice can look at it and say, ‘I can humanize this without taking away the meaning of the content’. It’s bringing the human factor into it.”
What if there is a mistake in the recording or if the script is changed? Sometimes when a script goes to the attorneys or to marketing for compliance review after recording (often a mistake), it will have to be redone. What can you do about that?
“That’s something that goes into the negotiation when you hire a voice actor. The term is a ‘pick up’. If the voice actor makes a mistake, it’s on the actor. If the script is wrong or if the script has to be changed, it’s on the producer. If the voice actor is good at editing, which most actors are, they can do a drop-in edit and it doesn’t sound like there was an edit there at all.
“With eLearning, or something with technical or legal information where it has to go through compliance, there’s normally a negotiated fee for pick ups.
“If the material is inherently dull or puts people to sleep, there’s a way to bring it to life. Really good voice actors who do this type of work are very good at that. Bringing the human factor to it can be just a subtle little delay or pause and how they draw out a word. That can just make an incredible difference in how listenable something is.”
Situations in which you can anticipate major or total re-dos
For cases in which you can anticipate having to re-do substantial changes, for whatever reason, is there anything you can do to avoid complications? The person who wants the materials needs it to sound a certain way, for example, that goes beyond what a pick up can accomplish.
“In those cases, the producer will have to pay again. A good way to prevent that is to always do a live session with the voice talent. The producer or the director can listen while it is being done. It’s a great time saver. It allows the director or whoever is running the session to say, ‘Oh, hold on a second, can you say that a little bit differently?’ The whole thing will be recorded and can be edited down to a point where no one will ever know there was a change. It gets done right the first time and everyone is happy. It saves time, money, and effort. Going back and forth with five or six emails drives everyone crazy. By doing a live session, you do it in one session. I always recommend that if it’s something very, very specific in nature and they want it done in a very specific way and, say, the instructions are not very clear, I might insist on doing a live session.”
How can an eLearning producer find the “right voice”?
What's your advice about the selection of voiceover talent? How do you find the right voice?
‘It's an interesting thing because casting is an art form. I think your question is probably more geared to how do you find any voices in the first place? And there are a lot of outlets. At our organization, worldvoices.org, one of the things we did to sort of counter this was we created a searchable directory of our professional members. It's called Voiceover.biz, and you can enter search terms. ‘I want someone with an Irish accent’, ‘I want somebody who does eLearning specifically’ or, ‘I'm looking for somebody who does medical narration.’ Those search terms can also bring up IT professionals that know how to do this with demos, a portfolio of stuff that you can listen to: here's how this person does this type of material. It doesn't cost the person looking for somebody anything, and they can hear several different voices that come up in the search. And that way they can determine which is the best voice for their particular project.
“Generally, when you're hiring somebody who's a professional that really knows what they're doing, it just shines!”