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Sounding natural (Voiceover)

Series: Voiceover techniques

by Tom Johnson on Mar 8, 2010
categories: screencasting

One of my goals in creating engaging video tutorials is to develop a warm, personable, natural voice, like the voice of an encouraging friend or mentor.

In search of this more personable voice, last year I attended a voiceover workshop in my area. The voiceover coach explained that good voiceover artists start by imagining a situation—in their minds they imagine who they are, who they're talking to, and what kind of situation and environment they're in.

Voiceover artists have to stick carefully with the script they've been given, my coach explained. But they can inflect, add emphasis to control meaning, and play with the rhythm and intonation to bring it to life.

People told me that if I want to focus on the audio like this, I would be better off narrating the audio first and then recording the screen later—in two separate steps, rather than at the same time. I recorded at least 40 different video tutorials like this, narrating first (while trying to imagine myself in a situation); after recording the narration, I listened to the narration while following along to record the screen. Syncing it up took a little practice, but not much.

No matter how hard I tried, though, the narration always sounded stiff, slow, and a little dull. If I put too much inflection and rhythm into it, the narration sounded cheesy and fake. Maybe a background in acting would make it sound as if I weren't reading a script, but I could never figure this acting thing out. It never sounded completely natural.

Not long ago, I decided to ramp up on PowerPoint through the video tutorials on As I listened to the tutorials, the narrator's voice epitomized the natural, personable voice I'd been trying to develop. He didn't seem to be acting, nor was he a seasoned voiceover pro performing a pre-written script. He didn't seem to have a script at all. He was just explaining, like a mentor, how various parts of the application worked. But it was perfect, and I quickly learned the more advanced parts of PowerPoint.

I was curious whether he even had a script, so I contacted him to find out. No, he said, he doesn't record a pre-written narration script first. And neither do any of the trainers, he explained. He records the screen at the same time as he narrates. He did rehearse what he was going to do beforehand.

If all the trainers record this way, and I enjoy these tutorials, I realized that I should probably do the same. So I started to record the screen at the same time as I narrate. I still wrote out a general script beforehand, but I didn't read it or follow it verbatim. I used my script more like an outline, glancing at it every so often to remember where I was going and what to include.

At times when I needed to explain a concept, I read a few sentences, because articulating complicated concepts in real-time can be tough to pull off with exactness (at least for me). But because the sentences that I read were mixed in with the unscripted narration, they blended well.

My opinion after recording and narrating at the same time? It works. And it has helped me achieve more of a natural voice—something I could never quite do reading scripts. The method isn't perfect, but it's better than before.

The downside with unscripted narration, unsurprisingly, is that I make mistakes. Listen to any real speech and you hear a smattering of slurs, missteps, poorly pronounced words, and other fumbles.

But I've found that I can re-record these problem patches and splice in my fixes somewhat seamlessly. A half a sentence here, a full sentence there. Sometimes it's tricky to match the sound, but if I listen to 10 seconds before and repeat it a couple of times before rerecording the fixed sentence, it usually blends in indistinguishably.

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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