Daniel Burstein

Voice-Over Coaching: Tips for improving external webinars, internal trainings and other content

May 1st, 2018
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Webinars, demos, videos, external online trainings, internal trainings posted to an intranet and many other types of inbound, outbound and internal content require voiceovers. But many marketers don’t have time or budget for professional voice-over (VO) artists, or they don’t want someone external representing the brand.

So many content marketers, sales directors and marketing managers find themselves doing the voice-over work, even though that isn’t their expertise.

A MECLABS Institute Research Partner (MECLABS is the parent organization of MarketingSherpa) recently found himself in this situation while preparing to record audio to go with PowerPoint presentations that would be hosted in an LMS (learning management system) for internal training.

The MECLABS team suggested we connect to discuss the presentations (“Dan leads our publishing team and has conducted many interviews, webinars and training — he’d be a great resource to get some tips on how to best prepare and conduct the recordings for the training.”) In this blog post, I’ll provide a few voice-over tips we discussed in that call, along with some other advice if handling a VO isn’t your primary (or secondary or tertiary) skillset but you find yourself doing it as part of your job.

I have the benefit that none of this comes naturally to me. I’m incredibly introverted. So I’ve had to really think through, learn, and put a lot of effort into being able to speak publicly or have my voice recorded. Learn from my shortcomings …

Tip #1: Speak slowly

I’ll out myself and admit it right up front — this has always been a big challenge for me, but it really came to light when I did some public relations training. The PR consultant recorded us answering questions in an interview, and then we had to painfully watch those recordings back. It really hit home with me how fast I can speak in an audio recording if I’m not careful.

Try it yourself. If you’re doing any voice-over work, you need this lesson.

And then slow down. Working with many speakers and presenters over the years, I think people speed through a presentation when they’re speaking for three reasons:

  • They’re nervous — so have someone with you in the room giving you a subtle hands-down-pausing gesture to remind you to calm down and breathe deeply.
  • They think their audience will be impatient listening to them — That’s true. Your audience likely is impatient. But cramming 15 minutes of content into seven minutes won’t help. It will just overwhelm them, and you’ll lose them.
  • They haven’t managed their time well — Some speakers will take way too long on the upfront and speed through the rest. If you’re speaking with slides, have a clock and understand the breakpoints beforehand. Print the slides out nine-up or similar and write different time stamps by certain slides. Let’s say, you should be 10 minutes into an hour webinar or recording by slide seven, 20 minutes in by slide 14, etc. If you’re longer or shorter than that, you’ll know if you have to speed up or slow down way ahead of time and not try to cram 15 minutes of content into the last five minutes.

One thing that helps is listening to someone who talks for a living and you think has a really smooth delivery. Listen to him or her right before you speak or record. For me, that person is Kai Ryssdal, host of NPR’s Marketplace.

Tip #2: Articulate

Speaking too fast can lead to a second problem — all the words start running together so that your speech sounds slurred.

When doing a voice-over for a webinar, demo or on-demand lessons with slides, even when you speak at a nice medium pace it helps to slightly overarticulate compared to your normal speaking.

That’s because the person isn’t right there in front of you. There is an intermediary — a computer, phone, etc. Due to the nature of web audio, this likely won’t be “you can hear a pin drop” level audio clarity. It’s probably compressed, choppy audio. And they’re likely listening through tinny laptop speakers or lousy earbuds with distracting background noise, not quality studio monitor speakers or headphones in a quiet room.

So you have to overcompensate by slightly overarticulating what you’re saying.

Pacing and clarity are even more important if some of your audience are non-native speakers (say, international attendees of a webinar) or if you’re discussing some unfamiliar industry-specific terms.

As an example, I’ve had an Indian transcription service write out “paper click advertising” before. If I had articulated better, they would have understood I was saying “pay-per-click advertising.”

Tip #3: Transcribe your audio

It often helps to get your audio transcribed. This will come in handy if you’re going to edit the audio in any way — either you personally or someone you’re working with. (If you’re using it for editing, make sure to get it transcribed with timestamps).

If you’re doing anything that requires a legal or compliance review — say an internal training in a highly regulated industry — a transcription can help ensure everything you say is compliant.

An audio transcription helps with the actual content delivery as well. Some people simply learn better by reading than they do by listening or watching, so they’ll prefer that format. Non-native speakers often find it difficult to follow along with someone speaking, and the written word is a helpful companion. And as a bonus, it can help you get some SEO for audio or video recordings.

Tip #4: Care about your topic

We’ve all watched a webinar with someone who has the passion of Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Just droning through the slides and charts and on and on and … oh, what was that? We’re 23 slides in, and I’ve spaced out.

If you’re speaking about something, find your passion for it. Truly care. And let that shine through.

I probably overdo the passion when I’m on a webinar. But I know getting an attendee is only the first step. I’m competing with Outlook. And Facebook. And text messaging. You really need to reach through that microphone and grab their attention. Having passion will help you naturally modulate your voice to keep your audience’s attention.

Back in college (before online, on-demand), one of my business classes was so large that it was broadcast over the local cable station. I would record it on a VCR and watch it later.

Well, I would “watch” it. For example, if my roommate came home, I would instantly engage in conversation while the class still droned on in the background. Technically I got through all of it, but really, it was painfully hard to pay attention.

I blame MTV. And smartphones haven’t helped either. No one has an attention span anymore. Plus, everyone multitasks.

So care about the topic. A lot. And reach out and grab them. If you’re doing an internal training about TPS reports, make sure you’re belting it out to the back row.

Because if you don’t care, why should they?

Tip #5: Put your audience first

Perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve heard in working with amateur speakers and voice-over marketers for many years is that they’re nervous because they’re concerned about what the audience will think of them.

The best way I’ve found to overcome this is to take the focus off yourself and put it squarely on the audience. Don’t focus on what they will think of you, but on how you can help them. Your audience knows you’re not a professional speaker anyway and doesn’t really care about your performance. They care about themselves and getting the information they need.

If you’ve ever given a similar presentation before in person or communicated in person about the topic, even one-on-one with a similar audience, go back and think what some of the most common questions are; make a list, and make sure they’re addressed.

If you have a lot of industry terminology and an entry-level audience, pause and explain what the terms mean.

Pull out stories and anecdotes that the audience can relate to.

Think of one specific audience member in mind, and pretend you’re talking right directly to that person and not a crowd.

You might worry you stumbled over some words. Or your anecdotes were cheesy. Or you don’t know enough about the topic and people will think you’re a phony. Or a million other things people might think of you.

Stop worrying about yourself and start focusing on the audience. You’ll find these worries fade away and your performance improve.

Much like with marketing, put the audience first.

Tip #6: Intersperse audience interaction; don’t just save it for the end

As I said, you want to keep things as lively as possible to keep your audience’s attention. This can be difficult when you’re not right in front of them in person. But there are still things you can do to add audience interaction.

One thing you can do if you’re on a live virtual event like a webinar is to include audience questions. I see many webinar hosts go through 45 minutes or so of webinar content just speaking AT the audience, and then save 15 minutes at the end where they methodically go through questions. Frankly, this can be boring.

Something I’ve found to be more compelling is to take audience questions throughout the presentation. For one thing, this level of interactivity gives the audience a reason to attend the presentation live instead of just watch the replay on-demand.

This also keeps the answer close to the content that raised the question. Proximity will help other audience members understand the concepts you are presenting. And it helps you get a better sense of how well your audience is tracking with what you’re saying.

Lastly, it’s just a little more interesting. It chops things up a little. It fosters somewhat of a virtual conversation.

You can use a Twitter hashtag or the webinar platform to facilitate these questions. And use people’s first names. Talk right to them. Make it feel warm and personable.

This can be more difficult if you’re recording something on-demand. However, you can still attempt to intersperse some virtual audience interaction. If it makes sense for what you’re doing, have someone co-present with you, introduce you, interview you or perhaps just come in at regular intervals with questions. Two voices will always be more interesting than one.

If you can’t add a second voice, you can still add in questions you’ve collected beforehand through the demo or presentation. You can read the questions yourself, and use people’s first names, titles and situations as much as possible to humanize the question.

You can also ask the audience to do things. Overdoing this can be cheesy but done right it can further engage your audience and help them learn your content better. Tell them in the intro you’ll be doing this, and then add in points of interaction, like “OK, now pause the video and think of the three biggest pitfalls you’ve faced when implementing a software. In the next module, we’re going to discuss how better communication with your vendors and internal team can help you overcome any pitfalls.”

Or encourage them to write something down they can refer to later. The software your audience uses to watch the content may allow for interactivity as well, such as a quiz or voting feature in an LMS.

Tip #7: Pretend it’s live when it’s not

For a recording that isn’t live, don’t give yourself the safety net of editing. Pretend it’s live. If you stumble slightly, just roll with it and keep recording. Much modern content has a more organic, homegrown feel to it anyway, so your audience won’t expect it to be perfect.

I’ve seen that when people know something can be edited, they’re much more self-conscious about being perfect. The result is, they do many takes if they don’t feel like something is perfect. They stop. They start over. And they stop again.

While audio can technically be edited together, it won’t have the same flow and feel as will a piece recorded all at once.

So, of course, if there are major changes that need to be made, you have the power to go back and edit. But go in with the mindset that you don’t have a safety net. 

Tip #8: Record in order

If you’re recording a multipart series, like an internal or external training, you may be tempted to record different sections at different times.

It’s not impossible, but it can be challenging. It’s the reason many TV shows and films have continuity supervisors. So just make sure you have a clear outline and someone in the room who will pay attention to what you’re sharing and when you’re sharing it.

Tip #9: Have a resulting lesson for each slide as well as the entire presentation

Every slide should have a purpose. And ideally, not more than one purpose.

For each slide, you should be very clear on what you want the audience to take away from that slide. If it’s more than one thing, you should break it up into multiple slides. If there isn’t anything in particular, the slide doesn’t have a reason to exist. You should delete it. You’re wasting people’s time.

Unless it’s cute puppies. Cute puppies need no justification.

Tip #10: Use bullets instead of scripts

When some presenters are nervous, they overprepare. They write a script of everything they’re going to say and hope to read it when they record.

This is extremely hard to do well. You pretty much have to be a professional actor or actress for it to sound good.

Stick to high-level bullets to remind yourself of key points or anecdotes. And then just pretend you’re speaking to one person.

Tip #11: Be warm and inviting

Smile. People really can hear it in your voice.

Tip #12: Be yourself

This can be the toughest one of all after reading this blog post. After I’ve coached someone about speaking, the very next time they must present, I can see they are overly conscious of some of the feedback I’ve given them.

When you’re speaking or recording audio, you just have to go with it. Be natural.

So it’s an odd dichotomy. Take the tips and feedback in. Learn them. Remember them. Soak them into the fiber of your being. But then in the moment, let it all fade away and just go with it. Your muscle memory will naturally kick in.

Also, while you can learn a lot by listening to and dissecting other speakers and voices you respect (like I mentioned Kai Ryssdal above) don’t imitate them. It will just come off as a bad impression. You really have to find your own style.

As Don Rickles, a unique voice and style if ever there was one, said, “You got to be true to yourself, right? You play the room the way you need to play it.”

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director, Content & Marketing, MarketingSherpa and MECLABS Institute, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

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Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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