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What a voice artist can learn from a PowerPoint artist

Edge Studio

Like all industries, the world of Voice Over constantly evolves. New genres emerge, others fade, styles go in and out of … uh, style.

Yet some practices and advice in voice over remain unchanged. They’re based on virtually universal truths, not just in our industry, but in the nature of effective communication.

Like all industries, the world of Voice Over constantly evolves. New genres emerge, others fade, styles go in and out of … uh, style.

For example, Microsoft has produced a very entertaining set of videos about how to create effective PowerPoint presentations. The lessons are aimed at graphic designers. But with a bit of translation, they also provide sound principles for a voice artist to follow. Since the videos are related to e-learning, we’ll apply them to the e-learning voice over genre.

Here’s where to see the videos:
(If you’re not able to view the videos at this time, no worries — the rest of this will be meaningful whether you’ve seen them or not.)

In essence, Microsoft’s overall message is this:

  • With the great power of today’s presentation technology, its users often tend to get carried away – they let “creativity” and overused options get in the way of effective communication. For example, amateurs tend to use too many typefaces in too many sizes.

Here’s how every one of these videos’ key points also applies to voice over in an e-learning situation, as well as most other VO genres.

Advice to the designer: Don’t have too many charts, and don’t make them complex.

Lesson for VO: Don’t embellish your read unnaturally. Use your natural voice, in a natural manner. As in most other genres, “natural” is what works. And is what’s in demand.

Advice to the designer: If you have to explain the chart, it’s probably too complex.

Lesson for VO: If the listener isn’t sure what you said and has to go back to check, you haven’t said it clearly enough. (And users don’t always have the ability to stop or replay.) Furthermore, if you don’t understand what you’re saying, it’s likely that the listener won’t either, especially if you’re delivering complex concepts or data.

Advice to the designer: Simplify your message. Don’t have too many bullet points. They get really boring.

Lesson for VO: You may not have the liberty to suggest cuts in the script, but you do have the chance to add appropriate emotion. Determine the key point (or points) and focus on that. This doesn’t mean to add a corny emotional touch. It might mean, for example, that you read the key point more deliberately and move more conversationally through the supplemental data. By thinking about what you read (ahead of time) and feeling what you say, you’ll help maintain variety in your voice, and attention from your listener.

Advice to the designer: Instead of words, maybe you can make your point with a well-chosen image.

Lesson for VO: If an image is worth a thousand words, you don’t have to hype the text. Simply say your piece and let the image say the rest. (This is also especially true in Narration.)

Advice to the designer: Don’t over-use animation, and avoid such distraction if it doesn’t make your point.

Lesson for VO: Don’t add artificial drama. For example, dramatic pauses. Rather than being dramatic, they can be confusing or distracting … even annoying or tiring when repeated. The same goes for over-acting.

Advice to the designer: On a text-heavy page, don’t have the voice over talent read every word.

Lesson for VO: Fortunately for the voice artist, that does NOT mean to avoid VO in presentations altogether! Well-done audio and video reinforcements aid the learning process. (Incidentally, so does repetition, which is more palatable if not repeated in exactly the same way each time, or if the repetition is limited to one key phrase.)

If the producer follows the other advice here, your script won’t consist of multiple screenfuls of text that turns “gray” and boring before long. Hopefully you’ll have just the right amount of thoughts and words to work with.

But what if you do encounter a script that parrots screen after screen full of words? Here’s what you do: Break the words into thoughts. Understand the implication of each thought you express. And let your inner emotion progress as you move from statement to statement, reflecting the particular feeling that that statement should convey. For example:

  • Are balloon sales down 30% this year? Sound concerned.
  • Is next year expected to have 40% more children’s birthday parties? Happy confident.
  • Is the company expanding into the manufacture of rubber bands? Proud and optimistic.

Advice to the designer: Keep the graphics simple. Don’t print on a cluttered background. Don’t distract from your message. Make the font large and readable from a distance.

Lesson for VO: What goes for graphics also goes for sound. If music will be added, you’ll need to be heard over it. Enunciate, in a distinct yet natural manner. Don’t lose energy at the end of sentences. Even if music or sound effects will not be added, this is important. In many e-learning environments, it might be a noisy room, or the speakers might not be so great, or might be … at a distance. If you’re doing the music/SFX mixing , take this even more to heart.

We said these tips apply in e-learning situations. Actually, they apply in virtually every genre. But considering that e-learning itself encompasses elements of almost every genre, that makes these points even more key to remember. They’re timeless and universal.