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Trying to Find a Theater Stage/Voice for an Impossible Situation

by Tom Johnson on Jan 14, 2010
categories: technical-writing screencasting

In a recent design review meeting, I showed some of my screencasts to our team for feedback. We also reviewed some screencasts created by voiceover talents in our audiovisual department and screencasts created by trainers. In listening to my voice in the screencasts, it's clear that I still have a lot to learn. I'm not even close to the personal, conversational-sounding audio voice that I want to achieve. It sounds like I'm reading a script. It's slow and dull.

My teammates recommended that I read a little faster, that I add more inflection and maybe even switch to an outline rather than read a script.

I agree, but it's hard to do that. It's hard to develop that personal voice. It's not a technical problem to simply figure out. It's a theater art, and I have no background in theater. (Okay, in 8th grade I had a one-line role in Oliver Twist.)

As I've been reading voiceover books on Google, clearly the consensus is that you need to implement some acting. You have to imagine a situation, what character you are, who the audience is, and the situation you're in. This theatrical situation is exactly what a local voiceover coach said the very first day of a workshop I attended.

Voiceover pro James R. Alburger also emphasizes the role of acting in voiceovers:

Remember, voice acting is theater of the mind, and you are the actor. When you become the character in the copy, you will be believable to the audience, and a suspension of disbelief will be created. When the audience suspends their disbelief in what they hear, they become more open to the message. This all starts when you discover the character in the copy. (The art of voice acting: the craft and business of performing for voice-over)

Voiceover professional Bob Bergen gives similar advice:

"Acting, acting, acting!!! No matter what kind of VO [voiceover] work you are trying to break into, it's all about the acting. . . . The obvious trait that animation voice actors have is the ability to change their voice to match characters . . . you have to be believable. There is no such thing as a good voice! Everyone has a good voice! If you listen to radio and TV you hear very real, non-announcer-y, guy/gal next door reads. It's oh so much harder to be real than it is to be announcer-y!" (quoted in Voiceovers: Techniques and Tactics for Success, by Janet Wilcox)

In other words, good voiceover involves acting. The problem is that in commercial voiceovers, the situations are more story-driven. Sure, they could take place on a stage in a situation with characters. But in instructional writing, you're saying mundane sentences like click this, select that. Do this to create a new widget, and then save it, etc. I'm practically falling asleep writing this sentence.

Inflect your instructional script with some interesting pitch and emotion, add some drama and soul to it, twist a word here and there, and you end up converting the instructional script into a ridiculous soap opera. Click this. Now SELECT this button .... and when you're ALL finished, go ahead and save the information.

On what kind of stage could an instructional script like that take place? I've said in past posts that you can imagine yourself sitting in a cafe explaining to a friend how to use a software application. But somehow that isn't enough. You're still yourself, the user is too ordinary, and the setting is mundane.

But perhaps it isn't. The real problem in this situation is that a click-this, select-that script WOULD NEVER BE AN ACTUAL CONVERSATION THAT YOU HAVE IN A CAFE WITH A FRIEND. Can you really imagine yourself sitting across from Jim, a technical novice, saying Now Jim, in order to create a new group on your dashboard [sip your Coca Cola], you first click the Settings menu, then select New, choose the Group type, add the people you want to the group [take a bit of a Cuban sandwich]. Configure the attributes of the group you want by selecting the check boxes. [Chew food.] Then click Save. [ Wipe corners of mouth with napkin.] Refresh your page and you will see the new group ...

No. In a cafe, you would give a conceptual overview of the application, briefly describing the basic idea of a group and how it functions on the dashboard and within the larger purposes of the application.

Doc Guy explained this same idea in our review. He said,

When I choose to watch a video about software, I expect it to be a general overview, not full of specific steps to take to walk through an entire procedure. If I want the specific steps, I'll go to the written help material.

During our discussion, I showed a sample video from my favorite screencaster, Michael Pick of Here's his screencast on Carmen, the latest WordPress version released.

Don't focus on the pace (which is much faster than my screencasts). Don't listen to the Jazz music, which always add to the voice's appeal. Instead, listen to the script itself: it's general. It's an overview. It's conceptual. Specific, granular steps are not narrated in painstaking detail. It really is something you might hear a friend explaining in a cafe.

So perhaps I doom my own screencasting efforts by creating impractical scenarios and then kicking myself for my inability to make it sound conversational. I can't simply single source my screencasting scripts with my procedural help topics. The real first step in creating an engaging script, I believe, is to be honest about exactly the type of dialogue that might take place on the stage of your cafe.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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