The Rapid Elearning Blog

no audio narration for e-learning

Audio narration is part of multimedia and adds a lot of value to your elearning courses. However, there are times when it makes sense to NOT use audio in your courses.

Do Not Use Audio Narration When They Can’t Hear It

If those taking the course can’t hear the audio narration, then it makes sense not to include it. This probably seems obvious, but often we don’t get to meet those who take the courses so we’re not always aware of their audio limitations. In fact, many of the people I talk to get handed the course content with no access to the intended audience.

There are usually three main reasons why the person can’t hear the course:

  • Technology. Many access the elearning courses from computers that don’t support audio. The computers may not have sound cards or speakers. This is not as common as it used to be, but it’s still a good idea to ask your client if the end users will have access to computers that support audio and if they need headsets.
  • Environment. Some people access the online modules from shared computers in a production environment. Many of those systems don’t have audio output, and even if they did, the environment is too loud to hear it.
  • Hearing disabilities. You may have learners with hearing disabilities. In those cases, you’ll need to make modifications so that they can learn what needs to be learned. Some organizations already require accessible content. Even if it’s not required for your course, it’s a good idea to add closed caption text or some sort of transcript for those who may need it. Here’s a free e-book that discusses best practices for 508 and accessible content.

Do Not Use Audio Narration If You’re on a Tight Budget

Producing good audio narration takes time and doing it right costs money. You need to write, rehearse, and approve scripts that sound like real people talking. Here’s typically what happens:

  • Write the script.
  • Review the script with subject matter experts.
  • Re-write the script.
  • Review again.
  • Re-write the script.
  • Record audio narration and realize the script doesn’t sound right.
  • Re-write script.
  • Record audio narration.
  • Review final course and have upper-level manager tell you that they don’t like the audio and the legal team needs to make a few edits.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Seriously, producing audio narration takes time and adds many variables to the production process with a lot of extra meetings. If you don’t have the resources, it’s better to skip it than doing it wrong or wasting time.

Do Not Use Audio Narration If the Narrator is Not Professional

I have mixed feelings on this next point. There’s a lot to be said about the authentic voice of a real person. And the reality is that in many cases, it makes sense to record your own audio narration. However, there is a big difference between a good speaking voice and a professional narrator.

  • You want a voice actor. Someone once told me that you don’t want a professional narrator, instead you want a voice actor. And recording your subject matter expert who has a good speaking voice is not the same as the person you’d qualify as a voice actor.
  • You don’t need to spend a fortune. There are a lot of ways to hire good voice talent at reasonable cost. Fiverr and services like Voice123 are worth exploring. And you can even find some freelance elearning developers that can produce their own audio.

On the flip side, if you do record your own audio narration:

  • Get a good microphone. I have used the Samson C01U & C03U. Travel with the very portable GoMic, and currently use the Yeti Pro for most of my recording. They’re all good mics. You can get a decent microphone for about $75.  The links to Amazon mics may produce a slight commission.
  • Learn some of the basics with these tips and tricks.

In an ideal world you have a budget to create the best course possible. And this includes inserting great audio narration. Keep in mind that bad audio is the least tolerable form of multimedia. People will tolerate less than perfect image quality before they accept bad audio narration. If you can’t do it right, perhaps it’s best to not do it at all.


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18 responses to “Three Reasons Not to Use Audio Narration in Your Online Training”

Mostly good points, but there are relatively few instances in which narration would not be appropriate, over the long haul. And most importantly, you contradict yourself by suggesting that a professional voice actor is most appropriate, then suggesting going cheap by using a service such as Fiverr or V123. That is the equivalent of getting Sharon from Accounting to do your narration, there is absolutely no guarantee that the person you hire through one of these services is actually a professional, as there is no barrier to entry with these ‘pay to play’ or ‘freelancer’ sites. Anyone with a pulse and a credit card can ‘play voice actor’ on these sites. So while you might save money in the short haul, your output will sound like it, and will telegraph that you have a cheap product. Do you really want to take that chance? Just as you do not want unqualified service people in other areas of your life, develop a proper budget out of the gate for voiceover, it need not be expensive but it cannot be ‘cheap’ – seek out and hire an actual pro (through a voiceover agent or casting service, or ask the VO you approach to provide a list of references or past clients).

One site that contains only vetted professionals is VoiceOver.biz, which is curated by the voiceover industry association World-Voices Organization. Those listed on VoiceOver.biz do not pay to be included, as they have already been vetted as Professional members of the organization, and are offered the listing as a side benefit. It is not a commercial operation, the association receives no income from it and charges no fee or commission to either side to participate. These are people with proven track records, who do confirmed quality work for major clients in various areas of voiceover.

The combination of a well-written script and effective vocal delivery, particularly a tone that connects with learners and makes them feel they are spoken ‘to’ rather than ‘at’, is a winning combination for eLearning.

Good article, as always. I have mixed feelings about professional narration. On one hand, there is no doubt that a VO professional can produce better quality audio than a SME, even one with a kickass mic. On the other hand, I haven’t found a shred of evidence that professional narration produces better learning outcomes. In fact, I have a hunch that a respected SME–sputtering and popping into the mic–may elicit more credibility.

Last night my wife and I were watching a show about undersea explorers searching for an ancient species of fish. As footage of the divers appeared onscreen, an audio track of the explorers talking to each other over a walkie-talkie system played. It was immediately obvious, however, that this track was recorded by professional voice actors in a studio and then doctored to sound like it was coming through a walkie-talkie. The delivery was just too slick. The show immediately lost credibility in my mind. If the scientists–unpolished and unprofessional as they are–had provided a voiceover track, I would have been captivated.

So, my question to you (and anyone else reading this) is this: is there any reliable evidence that professional VO enhances elearning in any way beyond making it sound prettier?

Hi

Rather than going through the whole process and recording the audio near the end, it can be a great time saver to record a ‘ghost’ track – a very quick, low budget track such as someone reading into a smartphone – which can be used throughout the development process, tweaked and amended, then replaced with the real track when everyone’s happy.

I think we should be pushing for closed caption on all videos, here’s 5 good reasons why: http://whatyouneedtoknow.co.uk/5-good-reasons-use-captions-videos/

You can also create alternative captions in different languages so that the video is accessible to even more people – it’s really easy to do. We’ve just done our first one and I blogged about it here http://whatyouneedtoknow.co.uk/increasing-your-video-audience/

Andy

November 3rd, 2015

@Andy: good tip; we used to do something similar with a text-to-voice app we had.

November 3rd, 2015

@Ben: I agree there’s a point where the VO should be authentic and people do tolerate less than perfect VO in many instances. However, bad audio can also be distracting. I haven’t seen any research but I will make the assumption that if the audio is distracting, that it possibly has a similar effect as other cognitive dissonance and perhaps impact retention.

With that said, that would be a good research project.

November 3rd, 2015

@Chris: Thanks for the link and feedback. I don’t see what I offered as a contradiction. I only provided some resources, it’s not my job to vet every person on those sites. 🙂

November 3rd, 2015

Another reason not to use audio: It makes maintenance a hassle. Three months later the client will need to make a small change because a product feature has been added or something needs additional clarification, and what could have been a 15 minute text update becomes a hassle, especially if you no longer have access to the same voice talent.

November 3rd, 2015

Good point. Sometimes we forget to add the ongoing maintenance costs to the productions costs.

Ben, great point. I tell clients that narration can ratchet up the perceived quality of the learning (assuming you use good talent and follow good production practices), but I have evidence that those courses are any better than courses w/o narration.

In fact, I’ve made the point that non-narrated courses are better for learners with English as a second language. It is easier for them to follow and comprehend written English than spoken.

And Jeanne, I often use your argument when clients are on the fence. When I tell them that a one-word change will result in several hundred dollars in recording, editing, etc., that’s an eye opener.

November 3rd, 2015

Love the distinction between a “professional narration” and a “voice actor”. I developed a highly interactive, visual, engaging course and we had a ‘professional’ narrator give a really boring, flat delivery and I think it ruined the course. Though the client thought it was really “professional”. Yawn. I go for “authentic” anytime for my audiences. I do my own narration as a draft so I can sync the animation with it. Then I pull in a “better” narrator who can listen to my draft audio first, use about the same speed/cadence, record the audio – then I simply switch the better one for mine. I also use a headset and have had no problem with the quality.

Comment via twitter: If you do use audio, it’s a good idea to add a Mute button & include a transcript (as mentioned) or onscreen text

November 4th, 2015

Hi,

I once worked with a VO artist who removed every slight sound of breath from her recordings. To me that ended up sounding oddly flat and mechanical. Pop and click removal makes sense, but do you think you really need to completely sanitise the recording, or should it be left more natural sounding?

I’ve also worked with a “professional” ie expensive, who worked at a radio station. Although he gave me 3 recordings of each track so I could pick the one I preferred, on different days he had wildly varying volumes which meant a lot of processing by me to try and make it sound consistent slide to slide. There’s a huge difference between someone who is used to a 30 second sound bite vs someone that can narrate a course.

November 9th, 2015

I agree that sometimes audio is not appropriate. You must know the audience and how and where they work. Even within courses with audio, there are places where you should not use it. An in-between solution is that on certain slides, I have a voice over, but the learner can choose whether or not to listen to it (by hoovering the mouse over an icon, for example)

For me it is obvious that I need audio in the e-learning course I produce for user training (in this case SAP CRM).

But after doing several voice overs myself and working (often late nights to meet a deadline) with subject matter experts, I decided to go for text-to-speech and I am now using Virtual Speaker from the Acapela group. http://www.acapela-group.com/

Creating the audio is now a small step in the entire production process, while corrections and future course updates are done at minimum costs and effort, and are independent of the training developer or SME.

Leggi la traduzione (autorizzata) in italiano di questo post qui: http://www.mosaicoelearning.it/blog/?p=3537

I have a funny anecdote related to this topic. As designers and developers we assign so much importance to audio as a way to deliver our message. I had an interesting situation a couple year ago. I have an annual project updating 22 courses for Delta airlines in English and Spanish. We commonly revise the audio along with the screen content to comply with FAA regulation changes. Coincidentally, my next door neighbor works for Delta in cargo. SO, I asked him a question, “Is it a problem for you to hear multiple voice talent in the same course?” His response was classic. “No, not a problem. We all turn the audio off.” Every year Delta spends thousands of dollars to re-record audio for content changes and the learner just turns the audio OFF. I really couldn’t help but fall out laughing. Every time I take myself too seriously in what I’m designing or building, I just refer back to my next door neighbor’s comment and I’m grounded again ;-).

November 25th, 2015

Excellent points about recording audio narration for e-learning. It’s not as easy as making a home recording. You want a professional quality product for your employees. Sometimes a little music in the background with a short video demonstration is all you need. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words!

You say:
You want a voice actor. Someone once told me that you don’t want a professional narrator, instead you want a voice actor. And recording your subject matter expert who has a good speaking voice is not the same as the person you’d qualify as a voice actor.

But you don’t back this up with any facts. I think an SME with a professional mic is far more valuable. Plus there is the factor of needing to teach the VO all the terms the SME knows.

Brian

November 30th, 2015

@Brian: You say “I think an SME with a professional mic is far more valuable.” But you don’t back it up with any facts. 🙂

I do think there’s value in having a non-pro/SME do the VO narration. Although, there’s also some risk–one of those being the quality of the VO. As far as teaching the narrator all of the terms the SME knows, I’m not sure that’s an issue when you have a good script and talented narrator.