Honestly Compelling Screencast Narration

That was lovely, Daniel. You clearly have a lot of experience in front of the mic.
But you come across like a radio announcer. Remember, it can’t sound like acting.”

Sam & Max - screencast narration
I was a little offended at that.

A few years ago, I attended a special workshop on voiceover acting for video games, put on by OMUK, a voiceover recording studio in London that specializes in video game dialogue. Aspiring performers come from all over the UK to train themselves up on the art and business of delivering a convincing voiceover performance in the increasingly sophisticated world of interactive entertainment. I had come all the way from Spain.

I had always taken pride on being myself in front of the mic, on staying genuine even when specifically creating a screencast with the goal of hard-selling a product. And yet there I was, being told that I sounded no more convincing than the schlock-jocks who hawk fan belts, fast food, and financial services down at Lite-FM.

Days after the workshop, I went back and listened to the segments I had recorded that day, and my eyes went wide. My instructor was right.

Honesty’s a rare commodity in VO delivery. The slick, singsongy warbles of the radio pitchman almost invite suspicion nowadays. Consumers have been taken in before. We’re wiser now.

Voice acting and screencasting narration aren’t remotely the same animal, of course. There are wildly different goals for each, but do remember that honesty in the delivery transcends all genres of voiceover work. It’s essential no matter what reason you’re going behind the mic.

So how to attain it, that’s the question. The cliché answer is “be yourself.” It sounds like something out of an after-school special. But sometimes clichés are so often repeated for a good reason. This one happens to be “right as rain.”

So let’s talk specific tips…

  • First, take a look your script. Are there 75-cent words that have no place in everyday conversation? Strike them. Industry jargon that only a portion of your audience will understand? Simplify. The goal of your screencast isn’t to demonstrate how much smarter you are than your viewers. Whether training or marketing, you need to connect on a basic, human level. That’s a little hard to accomplish when you’re talking down to them.
  • On a related note, try to use the first person in your narration when possible. When working for a large organization, I know this isn’t always feasible. A lot of companies shy away from letting individuals in their group be, well, individuals. But think about the last time you were on hold after dialing up some corporate entity: “Your call is very important to us.” Yeah, right. Now think about the times (increasingly rare nowadays) that you actually managed to reach a human being on the other end who was compassionate, personable, and eager to help. In screencasting, you want to be that dude (or dudette). When one person is empowered by their large, impersonal employer to spread their knowledge and enthusiasm in a personal way, good things happen. Check out The Cluetrain Manifesto for more information on this.
  • Try to avoid too many layers of polish. It is of course vital to be professional. But one thing that’s always bothered me about products like Adobe Captivate, with its smooth-as-glass mouse movements, is that the content looks like a robot did it. In both your visuals and your narration, try to keep it a bit loose. Make an off-topic aside or a corny joke. Show a little emotion (so long as it’s genuine). Let ’em know there’s an actual human being behind the scenes. Of course, these assorted bits of personality tend to be first on the chopping block if you’re one of those unlucky souls who must submit their storyboards for committee review. Narrow minds will always try to suck the humanity out of your work in the interest of “professionalism.” Fight to maintain it when possible.

Based on this last point, it seems even I have some work to do, if my abysmal demo tape from that workshop is any indication. Radio announcers belong on the radio. Not in your screencast.