Whether it’s audiobooks, podcasts, internet videos, or video games, online content consumption has doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic. YouTube has seen the most significant gains, and audiobook sales have increased. You have amazing content, and you want to narrate it yourself. Well, welcome to a crash course on performing your narration.
As a long-time successful voiceover artist with decades of experience under my belt, I coach people on how to do better voiceover narration. Subjects I advise on include recording equipment, sound quality, script preparation, voice delivery, and performance. Just like a finished book, a sleek video or a honed presentation doesn’t show all the work that goes into it behind the scenes, nor does excellent voice over.
Narration is tricky, even for a professional. As a budding voice artist or an amateur enthusiast, there are some things you need to know before you attempt your voiceover narration.
Your Voice is Your Instrument
Some people like the sound of their voice, but others do not. It’s interesting how many people who are not professional voice over artists think that all you need for a great voiceover is a pretty voice. That’s a bit like saying all you need to be a concert violinist is a good violin. In the industry, your voice is an instrument. However, it is only about 10 to 15% of what makes a great performance. There are several ways to improve the sound of your voice.
When coaching other voice over actors, one of the first assignments I hand out is to study their speech patterns and be aware of how they sound. A spoken voice has a theme, and everyone has a unique pitch, rhythm, and cadence. Understanding your voice helps you learn how to play it better.
Your Narration Requires High-Quality Audio
And a study by USC and the Australian National University demonstrated that audio quality influences how much we believe the information provided. “When the video was difficult to hear, viewers thought the talk was worse, the speaker less intelligent and less likable, and the research less important,” the scientists reported. “When you make it difficult for people to process information, it becomes less credible.”
Our tolerance for poor sound quality is lower than for visuals, as touted by the LA film school, “Poor sound can ruin an otherwise spectacular production.” At least we can flick our eyes away from a YouTube video with bad visuals, but we can’t blink our ears. There is no break from the sound, and a beautiful video can turn ugly with bad lip-syncing, echoes, or strange reverberations.
We “watch Netflix” while making dinner (or writing blogs). Popping, crackling, narration as quick as lightning or boringly slow, we switch off, change the channel, and click to another video. And then all those lovely visuals never get seen, and the engaging script never gets heard.
Your Microphone and DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Technology has come a long way, and microphones equipped inside current smartphones and tablets are much better than they were a decade ago. You can use your top-of-the-line iPhone to record narration, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Your phone might be fine for throwing something casual up on TikTok, and there are apps available to help smooth out any sound bumps recorded on a phone microphone, but beyond that, please don’t.
If you want a final product to sound sleek and professional, purchase a good mic and some audio tweaking software. Depending on the project’s scope, you might want to purchase DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or find a freebie online. If you want to up your TikTok game, purchase a low-end but decent microphone for a couple of hundred dollars. Professional voice over artists don’t use USB microphones, but if you are in a pinch, a good USB microphone will be better than your iPhone or laptop.
If you want to do narrations for more than one short project, consider investing in a high-quality microphone and some top-tier DAW for recording, editing, and producing professional-sounding videos. If you want a better sound, but don’t have a sound studio, get a hypercardioid microphone. These are highly directional and will forgive a lot of poor recording space by zeroing into the space exactly in front of your mouth. They are popular for film because they are less sensitive to the background and outside noises.
Your Voice Over Booth or Bedroom
Jump onto YouTube, Quora, or Reddit, and you will find comments on the virtues and importance of good recording space, voiceover booth, or studio. Some will say it’s more important than an expensive microphone, and a well-captured sound will save editing hours in front of the computer. As one Quora user says, “A cheap mic can sound far better if the control room is decent, and a thousand-dollar mic will still sound terrible if badly used in a poor environment.”
If you’ve ever stood under an echoey space, like in a big empty room, under a bridge, or in a church, you have heard sound reflections. That’s on a large scale. In small rooms, the sound comes back much quicker, resulting in echoes, reverberations, and overall unpleasant sound quality.
Sound Booth Suggestions and Solutions
Many windows, metal, or large open spaces will cause sound waves to bounce all over the place, ruining your recording. Below I’ve listed some sound booth solutions, ranging from a pillow fort to a professional-grade recording booth.
Professional Standard: Most audio is recorded in sound-treated rooms, studios, or sound booths. They are soundproofed on all four walls and ceiling with acoustic material like Auralex. The floor is raised to stop the microphone from picking up rumblings and vibrations from the ground. And they are generally small; mine, for example, is four by six feet which is all I need, and bigger booths may bleed more sound. I like mine because my recording is crisp and clear, isolating my voice over. Some studios may introduce things like bass traps or diffusers.
Climb Into the Closet: If you’re recording something in your home, the best place is in a small room, or a closet, with the clothes left inside. The fabric of the clothes will absorb the sound reflections. Not all closets are created equal; you’ll need to run tests to check the quality. And it’s harder to get into the sound groove, surrounded by your denim and finery.
Get Creative: The room where you record is so essential that when professional voice over artists are on the road and in a jam, they might create an impromptu pillow fort—getting in touch with their inner engineer by building a sound-dampening space to record out of duvet covers, pillows, ironing boards, anything that works. One interesting place that sounds pretty good for a substitute sound studio is a car, but then you will need to contend with road traffic and noisy wildlife.
Rent a Sound Booth: It is possible to rent a sound booth preloaded with audio equipment or sound dampeners so that you can bring your own. There is a risk that the rented room next door will contain a whole band playing their hearts out, so be wary. You also won’t know how good the room acoustics are, and you might need to do some sound tests first. It’s also likely to be expensive.
Breathe and Hydrate: Most people breathe incorrectly. We all instinctively know how to breathe. This is not a big deal in everyday life, but breath control is paramount when performing.
Singers, actors, and voiceover artists learn to speak from their diaphragm. This practice brings sustainability and control to your narration, and breath control can also contribute to enhancing resonance and presence.
Maintaining Health for Your Voice
The other thing that will contribute to a more pleasing vocal sound is what you put in your throat. That is the foods that you eat and the beverages that you drink. Caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee have a drying effect along with certain foods. Dairy encourages the production of phlegm, which doesn’t sound great, or feel pleasant.
Professional voice actors care greatly about keeping their vocals in good shape, not just for a quality sound but also a consistent one. To perform for six to eight hours a day, we stay hydrated by drinking a gallon to two gallons daily, keeping our vocal cords healthy and sounding young. We wrap our throats tight in winter and act like 24/7 athletes with the big race starting tomorrow.
Your Narration Performance
Beginning voice over artists probably haven’t read out loud consistently since high school. And even then, good narration and acting are much more than just reading out loud. It’s about pacing and delivery. Unlocking the magic. If your voice is 10 to 15% of what makes up good narration, your ability to read well will be the rest.
Professional voice over artists have a language and a way of communicating that is all their own. They interrogate the script’s content, subtext, intention, goals, and objective and translate it into pitch, tone, and cadence. With the rise of AI robotic voice over, there has been a consumer-driven shift for a more natural, conversational style of voice over. One the listener can tell isn’t a machine.
Reading well doesn’t just mean reading without errors. It means understanding the content of what is being read, the subtext, and nuance—knowing why the writer chose that particular turn of phrase, where the emphasis should be placed, and where dry humor would be appropriate.
Honing your delivery is about making choices to discover why you’re saying what you’re saying. And why are you saying it in that tone of voice? When we communicate, there’s always a reason we speak. Something that inspires or pushes us to try to communicate with one another. The same thing must happen in a voice over narration. We play with the words and experiment with different intentions to discover the best way, the most impactful way of communicating the essence of the message.
Crafting the Script For Your Narration
If you wrote it, you presumably understand the essence of the message. You put thought into it, chose each word carefully, and discarded words that didn’t fit. If you didn’t write it, you are entering the world of the voice over professional.
Writing a script is different from reading it, and even though you typed that word, you might not know how to pronounce it (an awkward moment, I know.) You might also need to change the font or make it bigger, so it’s easier to read. Mess with the line spacing if it helps; write in pauses or spaces, so you don’t forget. Interrogate.
Our job is always to bring other people’s words to life. We do this through a deep analysis of words and language, along with story, inspiration, comedy, pain points, and solutions. It’s no wonder so many narrators are also writers. There are a lot of crossovers. Analyzing the script to draw out the best choice of emphasis is critical. And just as important as finding how best to say a word is finding the best way to say nothing at all: pause and add emotion, meaning, and gravitas through silence.
Voice actors will break down a script into beats. A beat is one complete idea or thought consisting of a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It is the smallest unit of action. Some beats are apparent, and some are subtle, but there is always a shift. And shifts are best indicated with a change in your voice. You can sense the lack of beats when an AI reads a script, and it’s jarring.
You’re In Voice Over Country
Working with the director or creator of the content is an integral part of the voice over process, and sometimes, they don’t know what they want until they hear it. If you are performing your handcrafted content, you will be wearing two hats, which might complicate your decision-making process.
As every writer knows, editing (particularly for longer pieces) can be a grueling, never-ending process. One piece of advice I once heard was never to use a name that ends with “s” when writing, for example, “Chris,” because when reading it out loud, it becomes challenging to pronounce possession. Chris’s, or Chris’ car. Writing or reading silently to yourself is not a problem, but you’re in voice over country now. You’re welcome.
Your Narration Focuses on the Listener
There are three major players in any good narration, the writer, the narrator, and the audience. A good writer and a good narrator have the same thing in common, the audience. Whether it is one person (Steven King writes for his wife, his “ideal” or “first reader”) or many, a good narrator always keeps the listener in the booth with them. Figuratively, of course.
A bad narrator thinks the words are the only thing they must worry about. They should just get through it and make as few errors as possible. They fall into a rhythmic cadence and pitch, which doesn’t sound real. And they completely forget about the most crucial person in the equation. Hopefully, the person who will receive the message will be changed by it.
I recommend putting a picture of the learner in the booth. Then talk to them, resisting the urge to monologue. This is a conversation between two people, not someone alone, talking to metal and wires.
Putting it All Together
All these elements need to be layered in and polished. A great narrator makes it sound easy. But it’s not. I have taught and coached hundreds of people, and it’s a long process to get it right. Like most creative endeavors, it’s a craft that needs to be continually worked on, honed, and perfected.
A lot of people can read, but it takes practice and effort to be able to narrate and perform well. It will also take time; a voice over artist doesn’t just tilt the microphone and start reading. Instead, the script will need to be analyzed (even if you wrote it), the tones and voices will need practice, and the pacing will need to be polished. Like many endeavors, it’s one step at a time.
Editing Your Narration Performance
Voice over editing is time-consuming, and the wobblier the recording, the more time spent at the computer correcting mistakes and sound errors. Professional voice over artists are expected to produce professional-grade voice over. No mistakes, no mouth sounds, echoes, dogs barking, children screaming, etc.
The voice-over artist will review the recording to check for mispronounced words, poorly recorded audio, or missing words. We might even re-record because we don’t like our delivery or gain new insight. After that, either the voice over artists or hired sound engineers will remove breaths, clicks, and popping plosives (Ps, Ds, and Bs) and minimize or treat any sibilance.
Voice Over Coaching
You can take classes to become a better voiceover narrator. As BunnyStudio so succinctly puts it, “Seriously, even Morgan Freeman had a voice over instructor.” A good coach will have worked in the voice over industry for 15+ years, and they will understand how to break down the elements of great voice over narration. And they will need to be a skilled teacher, all the experience in the world won’t be advantageous if they don’t know how to share it.
I think it’s also helpful to find someone who is a good match with your temperament and someone who knows how to be honest but kind. It won’t help if your confidence is decimated before you have even begun.
There are a lot of great coaches available for hire, but you will also need to be critical and careful in your search. There are a lot of bad coaches out there, beginners posing as experts, wasting your time and money. When GravyfortheBrain surveyed 2,200 voice-over artists, they found that “68% of attendees said that they felt that they had either been ripped off or not gotten their money’s worth from training companies, individual coaches, and trainers.” That’s bad.
Experience Makes a Difference
A growing number of new voice over artists offer service without building up their skills and experience. It’s the inexperienced leading the inexperienced. Those who think voice over is easy are talking to artists who aren’t professionals. So, buyer beware.