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Basics of Narration Reads

This lesson is a part of an audio course Introduction to Voice-Over by Joe McNeil and Allison Moffett

Welcome to Lesson 6 “Basics of Narration Reads.” In this lesson, you’ll learn about narration voice-over.

Just a reminder, the elements we’ve discussed previously—energy, speed or pacing, inflection, smile, how to end sentences—apply to all types of voice-over.

Narration falls into three broad categories: industrial, documentary, and audiobook.

Industrial narration is not for broadcast, so it’s used internally at a company or played at a trade show or used on a website. Examples are corporate training and e-learning, marketing videos for companies and organizations, explainer videos, and product videos. This course you’re listening to right now fits into this category.

Documentary narration is pretty self-explanatory—that’s the narration you hear when you watch a documentary. audiobook narration covers both fiction and non-fiction audiobooks.

In commercial reads, there is a specific time allotted for the commercial and the VO has to fit within that time, so that dictates the speed or pace of the read. Let’s talk about the speed of narration reads, in general.

When the narration goes with a visual element, such as a documentary or explainer video, there are often timings for different sections that will dictate the speed or pacing of the VO. In some instances, the visuals will be adjusted to match the voice-over, so there are no timing parameters. When the program is audio only, such as an audiobook, the pacing will be whatever sounds and feels right. The VO has to be slow enough for the listener to process what is being said, but fast enough to keep the listener’s attention. And the pacing may change from section to section. Pacing on longer reads is something VO talent must learn to finesse.

Some commercial reads are high energy. You can listen to someone talk to you with a lot of energy for 30 or 60 seconds. What about the energy of narration reads?

In general, narration reads fall into a more medium energy category. If the program is long and the energy is too high, it is exhausting to listen to! So, overall, the energy will be comfortable, conversational energy. As with pacing, there may be moments or sections within a narrative where the energy is more intense. A dramatic moment in an audiobook or documentary is a good example. True crime documentaries tend to have more intense energy than historical documentaries.

An audiobook for a work of fiction will most likely have a lot of drama in it. Good acting skills are very important for that type of work. But there is a wide variety of tones for ALL narration. Even within the industrial narration category, some reads are authoritative, some are friendly and conversational, some are caring and concerned, some are sales-y. Just because something is instructional doesn’t mean there is just one way, or one right way, to perform it. The “everyday acting” we’ve talked about in our last two lessons still applies. Relating your own experience to the script, deciding on someone specific to talk to, and tuning into your feelings are all important for narrative reads, even if they’re for instructional or sales purposes.

Here are two short examples of different tones for industrial narration.

There is often an impression among people who are just learning VO that industrial narration is just a straight, boring read. Nothing could be further from the truth! All voice-over requires performance and engagement of the audience. If you’re not interested in what you’re saying, why should your listener be?

We’ll wrap up our section on narration by discussing a sub-category of industrial narration—medical reads. Medical reads are directed at either doctors or patients. Medical reads for doctors are heavy in medical terminology and the tone is often a matter of fact, that is, one professional speaking to another. You have to be good at pronouncing medical terms with ease to do this type of copy. You don’t have to know all the medical terms; you can reference a medical dictionary and learn the pronunciations. But you must sound like you say them every day of your life. You’re talking to doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who DO say these terms every day of their lives. You must be able to talk to them in a way they find believable.

Medical reads for patients have fewer medical terms in them. Tones can be caring, comforting, informative, and conversational. These are programs that explain procedures or treatments to patients. They need to be accessible to a general audience.

If the treatment or procedure is serious, what do you think the tone might be? Before you answer that question, think about this one: if someone is about to undergo serious medical treatment, how do you think they’re feeling? Anxious, frightened, concerned are all very likely. So, if you’re talking to someone who is anxious, frightened, and concerned, what is an effective way to speak to them? In other words, how should you feel when you speak to them? Confidence, comfort, and kindness are all good choices. Your feelings affect your sound. It’s always important to decide on your emotion and let the performance follow.

Let’s do another analysis. If the VO is for a cosmetic procedure, something completely voluntary that the patient is doing for their own reasons, how do you think they’re feeling? Excited, happy, possibly a little nervous. So how should you feel when you talk to this patient? Maybe upbeat to match their feelings of excitement, confident to address their nerves, informative so they understand everything they need to.

As you can see, this type of analysis is something you do for all types of VO. It helps you give an effective and appropriate performance.

Let’s recap before we move on.

  • Narration falls into three broad categories: industrial, documentary, and audiobook.
  • Examples of industrial narration are: corporate training and e-learning, marketing videos for companies and organizations, explainer videos, and product videos.
  • Documentary is the narration you hear when you watch a documentary and audiobook narration covers both fiction and non-fiction audiobooks.
  • The speed or pacing of a narrative depends on the circumstances and is usually less restrictive than in commercial reads. The energy tends to be medium. Not too high.
  • There are a wide variety of tones and performances that are appropriate for narratives. Everyday acting skills are important, as is understanding the feelings of your audience.
  • You need to analyze your own feelings to give an effective performance.

Thanks for listening! In Lesson 7, we’ll talk about character reads.