15th of June 2017


VO tips – 5 ways to make your elearning cutscenes more engaging

Voiceover cutscenes are a break from the main narration in your elearning course and an opportunity to further engage your audience and clarify the learning. However, if they’re not done well, there’s a risk your course users will become disconnected and apathetic. With this in mind, here are a few ways you can improve your VO cutscenes and develop more captivating and effective training.

One of the most important things you need to establish at the beginning of your script is who the characters are. Be clear. Outline which VO is playing who and add a line or two to describe the scene; perhaps something like this:

VO Alan is playing John, a new-hire
VO Jennifer is playing Jane, John’s boss
VO Ferenc is playing Freddie, a customer

Jane is angry because she arranged a meeting for 9am with John and her client, Freddie, but by 9:30am, John still hasn’t shown up.

The VOs’ acting can only be as good as the writing, so if your scenes contain conversations between various parties, try to use language that sounds conversational. One simple idea is to use contractions; so “it is” becomes “it’s” and “will not” becomes “won’t”. There are exceptions to this of course, for example, if your character is emphatic about not doing something, they might say “I will not do that!” In this case, contractions aren’t necessary, but use some formatting to show the VO which words you want them to ‘hit’, or emphasise.
Also, in elearning scripts, it’s common to see parenthetical abbreviations after a noun, such as “National Health Service (NHS)”. This is fine for narration, but in a conversation, would someone really speak this way? I think it’s unlikely. So choose one or the other and stick to that. More often than not, by the time your course users get to listen to these conversations, they’ll know what the abbreviations mean. If not, go with the long form.

Including little bracketed cues in your text is also helpful. For example: “but [sighs]… I thought we’d covered this already!” One little word can go a long way towards conveying the tone of the line. You can even give a little more direction in a separate column to the right of your audio text. For instance, a line could simply say, “yes”, but the context might not tell the VO how to read it. A little note to the VO saying “John is frustrated here”, or, “John is elated here”, will help bring the scene together.
Finally, one very simple thing that will help your writing is reading it aloud to yourself. This isn’t very practical if you’re sitting at your desk in an open-plan office, so try to find a quiet place. Maybe the canteen during work hours; the carpark down in the basement; or even your car — anywhere you can get some peace and quiet and won’t feel too self-conscious.

VO selection
If you really want to bring your scenes to life, choose VOs who can act. This might seem obvious, but great narrators don’t necessarily make great actors. Conversely, some actors aren’t so strong at narrating. So it’s always important to choose the right VOs and in this case, you need to choose VOs who can act. If some VOs only have narration voice-demos, ask them to record a short acting-demo for you on their phone; within just a few lines, you’ll know whether or not they’re right for your project. Bear in mind that it’ll only take one flat read to diminish your scene and render it less believable, so it’s vital to choose your VOs carefully.

When casting, it’s also worth keeping age in mind. Actors usually have an age-range of 10 years; this means that a given actor might be able to convincingly play the role of a character aged between 25 and 34. So if one of your characters is a 60-year-old woman, it would be ideal if she wasn’t played by a 20-year-old VO.

Be careful with accents, too. Many actors will include on their CVs a list of accents they can do, but how well can they do them? How good is their Scottish accent going to sound to Scottish course users? If it’s not good, it could be distracting. Think for a moment about where you’re from. Now think of an actor who isn’t from your location trying to do your accent. It’s potentially cringe-worthy. Wouldn’t you prefer they just spoke in an accent they could nail? So either try to find VOs who are proficient in a required accent, or write your scenarios with very general accents in mind, for example: English, North-American, etc.

As mentioned above, there are several things you can do at the writing stage to make your scenes more believable, but just as the actors rely on a good script for a good scene, the scene also depends on good actors to bring it to life. A good scene will engage the listener, but poor acting will let the learning down and see the course user scrambling for the ‘Next’ button. Once the actors have read the brief, know who they are playing and understand what the scene is about, it’s time to start recording.

Like singers, actors need to warm up. You can do a take or two and think it’s fine because you’ve nothing to compare it to. I like to ask the actors to go over the top with one of their takes; over-dramatise it just to see where it goes. It’s like an exercise and helps them open up and flex that dramatic muscle. Oftentimes I find that what we want is somewhere between their first read and their over-the-top read.
Record multiple takes. Even when you know what a scene is about and understand what tone is required, there is still a multitude of different ways a line can be read within that mood. Experiment with a few different reads because you never know what is going to sound better at the editing stage, when you’re putting the entire conversation together.

Sometimes you might have more than one VO in the studio at the same time so they can act out a scene together. This can lend itself to better chemistry between the characters, but if you have 10 people in a scene, it’s not practical to have everyone record together and you may wind up having to record each one separately. This isn’t a problem. When you have one VO in the recording booth at a time, you, as the director, can feed them their counterpart’s lines so they have something to bounce off. However, you need to be mindful of the overall tone of the scene and ensure that when you’re recording the other VOs’ lines, their tone and energy match. You don’t want to find at the editing stage that one VO is almost whispering and their counterpart shouting. It’s helpful when recording VO#2 that you play some of VO#1’s recordings so they can get an idea of tone and projection.

Sound effects
Using sound effects is a wonderful way to make your scenes more immersive and you don’t have to go overboard to achieve this. For example, one simple way to bring a phone call to life is to have the person at the other end of the line sound as if their voice is coming through the phone’s tinny speaker. This is easy to achieve and adds depth and clarity to your scene.

Another way to augment a scene is to add an ambient sound effect in the background. There’s nothing more immersive for the listener than to hear in your café scene the murmur of customers chatting and the occasional clatter of crockery. This will make it sound as though your scene was recorded on location and helps transport the listener. Some sound effects websites offer a selection of free sounds, but even the commercial ones aren’t expensive and, once bought, can be used over and over again.

Careful use of reverb can also be useful in your VO audio. If you have a scene where some of the lines are just the thoughts in someone’s head, adding a little reverb can make this more obvious and distinguish those lines from the ones they’re supposed to be speaking aloud. Reverb can also be used to bring a room to life, but it must be used carefully; too much reverb will wash out the dialogue. Also, for the more audio-adept among you, it’s ideal if you can use a graphic-equaliser to remove the lower frequencies of the reverb so that it doesn’t sound too muddy.

You may have heard it said that one of the most important things in comedy is timing. This is true and it also applies to drama. This is why editors win awards for their work on TV programmes and movies. A badly timed pause can, at best, change the tone of a scene and at worst, can ruin it. Take the simple example of a phone call. The phone rings, Steve picks it up and says, “Hello.” The caller, Rachel, says, “Hi Steve, I’m just wondering if you’re free for that meeting at eleven?” Now, this is a very basic exchange, but if the pause is too short, Rachel may come across as abrupt. If the pause is too long, her response will sound oddly tardy and might distract the listener. Experimenting with pauses — increasing or decreasing them as necessary — will help you find that sweet spot so that the conversational flow sounds natural.

One major aspect of conversations where editing is crucial is interruptions. In a scene where someone interrupts another person, the audio needs to overlap to make this work. When people are interrupted, they don’t stop speaking before the other person butts in; they stop speaking after the other person butts in. So have the audio of the person interrupting start about a single word before the original speaker stops. This will make the interruption sound much more real.

Another way editing can help is when it comes to breath intakes. When editing narration audio, it’s quite common to remove, or mute, breath intakes. This is fine. VOs tend to take deep breaths in the studio so they can get through a line without pausing unnaturally, so you might even want to remove these breaths from dialogue. However, wherever they’re important to the scene, leave them in. Maybe the character is gasping because they’ve just run from the carpark to the meeting room because they were late, or maybe they’re sighing heavily because they’re fed up. These breaths add to the drama of the situation and are best retained. I usually just lower their volume by about 8dB so they’re not over overbearing, but blend seamlessly with, and add drama to, the scene.

I hope you find some of these tips useful and that they’ll help you produce more-effective VO scenes in your future projects.

17th of May 2017


Ethnic diversity in elearning VO recordings

One of the things I’m often asked by elearning clients is how to handle ethnic diversity in a project that requires voiceover (VO) audio. Their end-client might envisage people of various ethnic backgrounds playing the roles of the characters in their training scenarios and the project manager needs to find a voice for each. In order to offer a solution, we first need to establish what precisely the end-client is looking for.

To my mind, there are two options, so my first question to the elearning project manager is: do you want characters who are, for example, first-generation American, but second-generation Asian, African, etc? i.e. they are American and therefore speak perfect English with an American accent. Or do you want characters who are from a variety of countries around the world and who speak English as a second language very clearly, but with their native accents? These are two very different requests.

Let’s deal with the first one because it’s the easiest to arrange from the point-of-view of the elearning project manager and VO studio.

Imagine our training scenario involves five characters as follows:

• an Asian male
• an African female
• a Hispanic female
• an Eastern European male
• an Indian female

All of these characters will be represented in the training course by stock photography, all of which has been pre-approved by the end-client. Looking at the images of these characters, the elearning project manager’s initial request to the studio might be that they need all of the above: an Asian male VO; an African female VO; etc. But if the end-client envisaged all of these characters with diverse ethnic backgrounds as being first-generation Americans, then they’re American and are just going to sound as such. So here, the task becomes not so much one of finding VO talent with diverse ethnic backgrounds, as one of finding VO talent who sound like they could be the people represented in the images. Maybe the photographed male who looks Asian is around 25, so the studio just has to find a male VO who sounds around 25 and whose voice could plausibly be that of the person in the photo. As we’re looking for something much less specific here, the task is much easier. It becomes more about finding VOs who sound like they could be the people in the photos, rather than finding VOs with specific ethnic backgrounds. This means that the photos in the training course, rather than the voices, will be responsible for depicting diversity in the elearning.

Now let’s look at the second option, where the situation is quite different. Let’s say we’re depicting the same five characters in the training scenario, but this time, the end-client has specified that they want VOs who are native to those backgrounds. From a VO selection point of view, this is a very different request. Here, the studio has to source five VOs from those regions, who can speak perfect English, but with their native accent. This is a tougher challenge for the studio and not as straight-forward as it may appear. For example, the studio might know a Chinese VO who performs very well when speaking his native tongue. This VO might have excellent conversational English, but when it comes to voicing a project in English, he might not be as proficient as he is when voicing in Chinese. From the studio’s perspective, a different vetting process is required for there is a fine line between such a VO having a strong accent and being unintelligible. Also, when recording, the recording session director will have to decide which mispronunciations are acceptable, given the accent, and which mispronunciations are so alien as to be unintelligible and distracting to the listener. The director will also have to take into account that the training’s audience might also be so diverse such that many course-users will have English as a second language, too and therefore may have trouble with strong accents from regions of the world other than their own. However, once this project is complete, it will be both the VO audio and the character photographs that establish the ethnic diversity within its scenarios.

As you can gather, while neither of these options presents insurmountable challenges to elearning project managers and studios, it is prudent to establish early in development what level of diversity your client has in mind for its training-scenario characters.