How to write powerful voice-over narration scripts for video

Here’s the next in HTWB’s series on writing and producing video for business and other activities, following my own article on Blab chats, Steve Crawford’s excellent piece on what to wear on video and Gail Spooner’s truly cool article on how to use make-up for on-camera perfection

How to write powerful voice-over narration scripts for video

The smooth, silky, appealing “voice-over” tones you hear on videos on YouTube and elsewhere online don’t happen by accident. It really is worth investing in a professional…

This time, we turn to pre-recorded video and the ubiquitous voice-over narration … the unseen “voice of God” that partners with the images to present a multi-sense message for your business or other activity.

But how exactly does voice-over narration work?

Although this is the “official” name for it, voice-over (VO) narration is called by other names in some countries. But essentially it works as an unseen voice (or voices) to explain the story of a video, accompanied and enhanced by complementary moving images.

Some videos consist only of VO to go with the images; some combine sections of VO with “lip synch live action,” another fancy term – means we see and hear someone speaking on the video.

VO is very valuable because you can pre-plan and pre-write it, so the resultant voice track says exactly what you want it to say. That can be good news or bad news; see below.

Why you need to script voice-over narration

VO can be recorded either before or after the images of a video are filmed.

VO recorded before the images are shot (or at least edited) means the timing of the video can be exact, because you can write and record the script precisely to time. Audio is easier to edit than video, even with today’s technology. Pre-recorded VO is particularly useful for videos that use a series of still, or animated still images – like those lovely fast-drawn cartoons. Often VO recorded this way is used for videos that depend more on the audio track than the images; the images are “hung” off the VO track and sometimes even are originated after the VO track has been completed.

VO recorded after the images have been shot and edited means that it must be scripted and timed to fit into the sections of the video where voice-over narration is needed. Often this happens in a video that combines VO sections with lip synch live action sections. Recording the VO in this case is done towards the end of the editing process, with the voice artist speaking the words “to picture” (while watching the images concerned) to ensure the timing works.

Who should speak the voice-over narration?

In our current fashion of doing more and more of video production ourselves, it’s tempting to think you can save money on your video for business by recording the VO yourself.

Essentially that’s true, of course, especially if you don’t factor your own valuable time into the budget.

But even if your video has been shot using an IPhone and is being edited on a fancy Mac system on your dining room table, is it really worth making a relatively small saving on a professional voice-over artist … unless you are an expert actor or VO artist yourself?

Think about your audience and forget your book-keeper and accountant for a moment.

A professionally spoken voice-over narration track can lift even the sketchiest of business or other propositions out from, well, sketchiness, into an inviting and gripping conversation with your viewers that brings you many more clicks and brownie points. 

If you can’t be sure to deliver that yourself, invest in a professional. The smooth, silky, appealing tones you hear on videos on YouTube and elsewhere online don’t happen by accident.

How to write a powerful voice-over narration track

Remember the boring-old-but-still-essential principles of features and benefits. Talk to you, the viewer. Appeal to you, the viewer. Keep any pompous self-congratulation out of it; turn your features into benefits for the viewer.

Use a crisp, uncluttered style. Use easy, shortish sentences, but vary their lengths. Stick to one idea per sentence where possible. Make each new idea flow logically out of the previous one.

Check everything you write by reading it aloud. No matter how relaxed a sentence may look on paper or screen, it could read awkwardly. Always, always check what you’ve written by reading it to yourself or preferably to someone else. Or into a recorder, so you can listen to it as often as you need. If it does read badly, change it – even if that involves doing something ungrammatical. Remember, write as people speak, even if it would make your old English teacher blanch.

Words on their own become boring. After a minute or two, wall-to-wall words begin to drone and make people’s attention wander. If your video is to be longer than 2 minutes or so, break it up with musical interludes. Use simple sound effects. Use pauses. For a script that’s more than a few sentences long, use a second voice for contrast. Get the voices to relate to each other, bringing the audience in as the third party in a 3-way conversation. Use “character voices” as well as straight-sounding narration (most good voice artistes can do numerous different accents and styles). Above all, use your imagination – audio has much more creative potential than most people realize and can add substantially to a video’s visual content.

If you’re post-recording VO narration sections, time them so you can write accurately. Depending on the style of the voice-over narration you use, the VO artist will speak at somewhere between 125 and 175 words per minute. Do the math and write the number of words within that. More on that here, although “natural” recorded speech tends to be a bit slower than “live” speech.

Don’t make the voice-over narration say what viewers can see anyway. The main advantage of video is that it tackles sight and hearing simultaneously, so don’t fall into the trap of using the VO to say “this is a widget, and this is how you should use it.” Use the voice track to add an extra dimension to the images – or where appropriate, the other way around; use the images to illustrate points the VO is making.

Get a professional to speak your voice-over narration: it’s worth it. And you don’t necessarily have to hire the top artists in Spotlight. Google “voice-over artists in XXX” (your town, city or region.) If that doesn’t work out, enquire at your local or regional radio and/or TV stations. Many presenters and DJs moonlight quite openly and will welcome the extra income. They will have the necessary skills to speak your words in a natural but effective way that will add huge value to your video.

Further reading on creating good videos for business and other activities

How to make good business videos without going to Hollywood

Hey, business videos: aren’t you forgetting something?

DIY videoers: why proper scripts save time and money and don’t bite

Blabbing on live video: some useful tips I picked up

How to look your best on live streaming video

How to use makeup to look your best on camera

Creative training videos: this the renaissance at last?

How to get powerful off-camera interviews for your online video

Next time: how to write scripts for in-vision presenters on your business video

If you have any questions about this article – or about in-vision presenter scripts, which I’ll be writing about in a few days – please share them here!

 

 

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Thoughts

  1. This is one of best articles I’ve read concerning voiceover for video. As a professional voiceover talent, I’ve been hired for projects before and after editing. Collaboration goes much smoother if scripts are recorded before editing.

    Your suggestion that scripts be read aloud is also appreciated. Natural conversations are spoken in bite-size phrases. Narration should be, too.

    Lastly, most voiceover talent are open to being directed live leaving no surprises once the audio is delivered. Clients can direct talent via phone patch and Skype to make sure emphasis and pronunciations are voiced correctly.

    • HI Lisa and I’m so pleased you liked the article. I agree with you that in an ideal world, recording the voice track first and fitting the images to it is preferable, because trying to record to picture and drop in the VO sections in Post is usually quite fiddly. As you’ll see we’ve been running a series on video production recently here on HTWB. Despite the comparatively low cost of equipment today, there is a resurgence of interest in higher production values; SME businesses are getting fed up with the DIY look. That’s in the UK where we’re based; would you say there’s a similar trend in the USA?

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