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  • Tom Brooksher

For Narration, Go with a Pro

When developing an online learning program, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is whether to include narration. It adds expense and complexity but makes for a more professional, engaging and effective learning experience. We’re strong proponents of professionally narrated online learning.

Without narration, the learner is forced to learn strictly by reading, which can decrease effectiveness, particularly for those with poor reading skills. If one of your objectives is to enhance the reading skills of your learners through practice, you may not want narration. But that’s not frequently the purpose of online learning; typically, it's mastering the content. So taking friction out of the experience will contribute to your learning objectives.

This is less of an issue for very short learning experiences. We believe that for micro-learning, narration provides less value. But if the module is more than a minute or two, consider narration.

Once you determine that you want your program to be narrated, the next decision is whether to use a professional or amateur narrator. We've seen a lot of online learning programs developed in-house using the developer, subject matter expert or other company employee as the narrator. This saves the time required to find a professional narrator and the expense of paying them for their work.

But unless you happen to have a fellow employee who has professional narration skills and experience, the narration will likely sound amateurish. Most people can easily tell the difference. The amateur will likely emphasize the wrong words, use too little or too much inflection, sound like they're reading, or likely not have a professional quality voice. The result is distracting. Learners will focus on the delivery of the narrator rather than the content of the narration.

A benefit of professional narration that many people don’t take into account is the time spent recording and editing. Professionals expect to provide you with finished, edited files. They spend the time to do the recording and audio editing. If you record yourself or a co-worker, you’ll spend that time. Editing can be particularly laborious, especially if you have to find the software to do it and then learn to use it. In addition, professionals tend to record more efficiently than amateurs. They require fewer takes and corrections, which makes it more efficient for them to edit their work. Amateurs more often have multiple retakes, which slows down the editing process.

But if you haven’t used voice professionals before, finding and managing them will take some time. Fortunately, there are several great online marketplaces to find voice talent, including, and Upwork. You can post your job, get bids, listen to demos, and read reviews and ratings. Pricing varies by artist, but you can expect to pay about 10 cents per word. So, for example, if your script is 1,200 words, you should be able to get finished, professionally narrated files for about $120.

Another important decision about narration is approach. Will your narrator be anonymous to the learner, like the voice-over for most documentaries? Or will the narrator be a character in the program, maybe an expert imparting years of wisdom? We often use character narrators to establish a slight emotional tie with the learner. A typical approach is for the narrator to identify themselves early in the course by saying something like “Hi, my name is John. I’ll be your guide for this course. I’ve been in the industry for more than two decades and will be sharing my experience with you today.” The narrator can be vulnerable, sharing mistakes and difficult experiences, as well as highly accomplished. But the simple bond that a learner forms with the narrator can bring emotion into the learning process, which has been demonstrated to increase learning effectiveness and particularly retention.

Multiple narrators can be used to add depth to your learning program. We often use two narrators, one male and one female, to add variety to multiple-module courses. In addition to helping avoid gender stereotyping, it can increase the chance that a learner will strongly relate to one narrator or the other. We often have the narrators interact in the first module, such as: “Helen, why don’t you tell them about the time our team had to…” Then they individually narrate subsequent modules, alternating for variety.

You can also use multiple narrators to add additional expertise or credibility. For example, the second narrator may be a specialty subject matter expert and have a more limited role. The main narrator might bring in the expert to explain particularly complex points. Or your narrators can offer social diversity to add credibility and identification.

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