My posts for the last month have all been performance-oriented. Today, I’d like to add another in that vein with one of my favorite genres. eLearning is a big wonderful market to play in for voice over actors. It has seen exponential growth over the last couple of decades and is on track to be worth an estimated $325 Billion by 2025. And this might be a low projection in the face of Covid-19, which has brought an uptick in the production of e-learning as much face-to-face instruction has been replaced with online education. To be hired consistently in this arena requires a certain skill set. I’ve been narrating eLearning weekly for the past 20+ years and believe the secrets to a successful career in eLearning narration lie in this list of 10 must-have voice over acting skills.
Skill Number 1 – Consistent Sound
When I started working in this genre of voice over twenty-odd years ago, I had the good fortune to work on a particularly difficult 100+ hour medical eLearning project. Needless to say, there were a lot of pickups. In these long narration marathons, energy needs to be smooth all the way through and I wasn’t quite nailing it. My sound engineer remarked that I always came in hot at the beginning of lines, settled down midway through and sometimes dropped off quite low at the end of lines (when I was running out of breath). Check your sound waveform to see if this is you too. It was a quick learning curve for me. Work on softening your in-cues and maintaining energy in your out-cues so your sound is consistent.
Skill Number 2 – Maintaining Flow
Flow in acting refers to being present and attentive in the moment. Related to maintaining consistent sound, staying in the flow helps you read in large (natural) phrases – not choppy little bits and pieces – and makes it sound conversational and avoid (the dreaded word) “robotic” and unnatural speech patterns. Performance tip? Learn to look longer in the phrase. Rather than seeing only 4-5 words at a time, see the whole 10-14 at once while concentrating on delivering that one that you’re speaking.
Flow is extremely important to performance and the transmission of the writer’s message to the listener’s ear.
Skill Number 3 – Expand Your Vocabulary
You’re going to read words for a living. Having an expansive vocabulary is like saving money for a rainy day – you never know when it will come in handy. So build your stockpile of words – read widely for enjoyment & research – play GRE vocabulary games – listen to Merriam Webster pronunciations. Pick an area you want to work in (IT, financial, medical, engineering, etc) and search industry terms. Make this part of your regular research work. You waste your time (and your client’s if it’s a live directed session) if you stumble repeatedly over vocabulary. So expand yours.
Skill(s) Number 4 – Stamina and Accuracy
This is a two-pack of skills needed for long-form narration projects. Stamina and accuracy can be strengthened with cold reading – reading out loud for long periods of time. You need to sustain your energy through eLearning much in the same way as for audiobook work. (Even though the trend for eLearning has of late been broken up into shorter and shorter modules, there will likely still be many of them to accomplish in a session). And accuracy directly impacts your stamina. The less stopping, rewinding and repeating you can do, and the quicker you can get through the information, the easier it will be to maintain your stamina.
Skill Number 5 – Emotional Intelligence
It is scientifically proven that we learn better when our emotions are engaged. Though it has been long thought that intellect had to be free of emotion, new, more multi-faceted theories suggest that emotional intelligence (in addition to interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence) works in concert with cognition rather than in opposition. Or in less geeky terms – how you feel about what you’re learning may contribute to learning it (or not learning it). So, in order to effectively engage learners, you’re going to have to appeal to their better emotions, as well as their smarts. In order to achieve this, you have to apply your own emotional intelligence to tap into positive emotions in your learners that encourage excitement and attachment to the subject matter.
Good actors employ this on stage and screen by listening to the other actors in a scene, determining their wants/desires/emotions and then interacting with them (either positively or negatively) to propel them to action. Because you won’t have direct access to your learners, you will have to discern from the material what is exciting and interesting to keep the listener engaged.
Skill Number 6 – On The Fly Script Analysis
Unless you sit with a script and read it over a few times and analyze it before you deliver it (which is recommended for those new to eLearning voice work, and is definitely part of the work for film, theatre and tv roles, but much less so for VO industry vets), you likely won’t have the best delivery. “But..!” you say, “analysis is time-consuming and I have to be in a session tomorrow!” This is why you want to be able to analyze the script on the fly (as you are narrating it) to best know where to emphasize certain words, phrases, and expressions. Where are your power words and anchor points? Where are your transitions, connections, and moments? In my experience, good on-the-fly analysis happens when it can function like a reflex. When your first thought is to look for beats, or break down the scenes (or sections) of a script. This only becomes second nature with practice. The more you do, the better you get.
Skill Number 7 – Connection To The Text
The next 3 skills go hand-in-hand. First, connect to the text. Do you understand it? Understanding comes from not only understanding the words on the surface level, but understanding the subtext. Especially if the subject matter is not one with which you are familiar…your listeners will disconnect if you don’t transmit the message with the correct nuance and meaning.
Skill Number 8 – Connection To The Role
Next, connect to the role. Who are you? The teacher? The manager? A character? One of the reasons some eLearning content creators prefer hiring a prof or an SME (subject matter expert) is that they bring great authority about the subject to their reads…you must do that too. You have to connect to your role (and the subject matter) as much as an SME would – that’s where your acting comes in. If you’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with this – read up on how actors connect with and prepare their roles. Good voice actors do the same with their “narrator” roles.
Skill Number 9 – Connection To The Learner
The last of the three is, connect to the learner. Who are they? Why is it important that they learn this? What will it mean to them in the short term? Long term? They are your audience. Your audience of one at a time. Actors think about how to connect with audience(s) in plays and in film.
Skill Number 10 – Passion
Remember your favorite teacher in school? Why were they so great? Did they inspire you? How? Passion. Passion for their subject, passion to share knowledge, passion to see and enjoy your aha moments. Channel their love for teaching and bring that same passion to your eLearning performance. Your learners will love you for it.