Videomakers are, by definition, visual artists. We communicate with pictures and images. But, in many cases, the images alone may not tell the whole story. That’s where narration fits in. When used well, narration adds depth and harmony to your production. When used poorly, narration can ruin an otherwise perfect project.
Narration, often called voice over (VO), is the off-camera voice that imparts the important information that the video footage itself doesn’t. Carefully constructing good, crisp narration is critical to the success of your video. If you don’t start with well-written narration the end result will still sound flat and out of tune, regardless of how well the narration is delivered or recorded. Fortunately, writing effective narration isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Use the following ten tips and your narration skills will tune up in no time.
1) Plan Ahead
Decide how you want to use narration in your project before you start writing. Narration can do many things. How you use the VO depends upon the video itself.
A typical travel video can highlight examples of some common uses of narration. Picture a small Hawaiian beach surrounded by hotels. The narrator can introduce the subject: "To some people, the place where the surf meets the sand at Waikiki Beach is a piece of heaven on earth."
Narration can also impart information not obvious to the viewer. "With millions of visitors each year, Waikiki is perhaps the most famous beach in the world."
Or you might use narration as a bridge between segments. "Only miles away from Waikiki is a vision few people have seen up close. Fiery balls of lava explode into the sea at the most active volcano in the world, Kilauea."
Narration does many other things, too. It can tell the viewer what to look for, or it can summarize the video in a few words.
Make certain that the narration matches the tone of your project. For example, if you’re producing a comedic short, try using the narrator as the straight man. If you’re creating a video on how to bake a wedding cake, it might be appropriate to give your VO a motherly tone.
Don’t wait until you’ve finished shooting the video to flesh out the narration. Write in advance. Put your narration into words at the same time you are scripting your visuals. A good narration written ahead of time can actually help improve your shooting.
Writing narration differs from other forms of writing. Most people will never see your script; the script is read to them. The narrator is the only person who reads your script, everyone else hears it.
Read your script aloud. How does it sound? Is it conversational? Any tongue twisters? If you’re struggling to get through it, then replace the troubled spots. Make sure you can read it aloud before asking anyone else to try it. Avoid words or combinations that are hard to pronounce. Use common contractions when appropriate; they make the narration sound more natural.
Keep your words to a minimum. Break up the narration into separate segments. Avoid sentences that are too long. Keep thoughts simple and organized. The narration will flow better and you’ll give your talent a chance to breathe. Narration is often one of those situations where less is more.
3) Tailor the Script
Visualize your audience watching your video. Who are they? What do they do? How do they talk? If you write your narration with a specific audience in mind, the words will have a better chance at making sense to the viewer.
Consider the audience’s point of view. An educational video discussing childcare facilities in your community will sound dramatically different if you’re marketing the video to professionals in the industry rather than to new parents.
Use words and phrases known by the viewer. If you’re producing a video on how to properly rebuild a carburetor, for example, you need to talk about intake manifolds and air/fuel ratios. Use terminology common to the industry. When in doubt, limit the amount of technical terms to those easily understood by the average Joe.
Adjust the speed of your narration to the audience. If your primary audience is mostly seniors or young children, allow for a slower read. Teenagers, on the other hand, can handle a faster pace. Seen MTV lately? Reinforce the main points through repetition. Give your audience the time they need to follow along.
4) Timing is Everything
Timing is an integral part of video production. Your project may need to be of a specific length, from a standard 30-second commercial to an hour-long documentary.
When writing your script, use a stopwatch to time yourself reading it aloud. We read faster silently than we read aloud, so it’s important to get accurate time estimates by actually saying the words, rather than reading them.
Leave some wiggle room. If you’ve got a 20-second bridge between two interview segments that you want to fill with narration, write 15 seconds of copy. It’s a lot easier to stretch words to fill the allotted time than it is to edit them out later. And keep in mind that your announcer may read at a different pace than you do; those few extra seconds may come in handy.
5) Pace Yourself
Good pacing is a balancing act between narration and visuals. Work closely with timing; the pacing of your video dictates when to use narration and when not to. Use words only when you have to, otherwise let the visuals send the message.
The VO needs to fit the length of the video. If, for example, you’ve written a five-minute narration on the joys of surfing at Waikiki Beach for your travel video, but you have only two minutes of actual surfing video, something has to give. Edit your script or get more footage. Don’t rush the VO in an attempt to fit it all in.
Make sure the narration matches the pace of the entire project as well. If you’re producing a product demonstration video and have a lot of quick cuts, read your narration faster. If you’re adding narration to a wedding video with lots of long, slow dissolves, your narration will need to be slower.
6) Silence is Golden
Don’t be afraid to not say anything. Some images speak so well for themselves that narration only gets in the way. The audience won’t forgive you for intruding on the moment.
Often, simple pauses can be very effective in highlighting dramatic moments. The narration should reinforce the video, not compete with it.
One way to decide if you need narration is to watch your video with the audio off. Is the message getting across? If so, the narration is unnecessary and you’re better off without it.
7) Format It
You’ve put the words on paper. You’re done, right? Wrong. A good script will not only tell the voice-over artist what to say, but how to say it. To do this you need to put it in a proper format.
There are two basic script formats for video production. The first uses two columns. The left is reserved for video information. This includes a short description of the shot, along with any additional graphics, single-spaced. The right column is the audio script. Dialogue is typed in upper and lower case, double-spaced. Commercials, brief documentaries and other short scripts frequently use this format.
The second format has one column in the center of the page. Type your video descriptions single-spaced and in all caps. The audio script is upper and lower case and double-spaced.
In both formats, write any instructions directed to the announcer on how to read the script in all caps, separated by parenthesis. If you want the narrator to wait a beat between words, for example, write (PAUSE). Separate different segments into paragraphs. Underline any words you want emphasized.
You can use variations of these formats, but keep one thing in mind. Your script is a roadmap; present it in a manner that is easy for anyone to read, follow and understand. Be consistent, but don’t let the format get in the way of communication.
8) Coach Your Talent
Your writing doesn’t end when you hand the script to your announcer. With a formatted script, you’ve told her what to say and how to say it, but you still may need to coach the narrator. Teach the talent how you specifically want the narration to be read.
Make sure the voice-over artist understands not just what the script says, but what it means. The narration will sound more convincing and sincere, and the audience will pay closer attention. To this end, you may find it helpful to read the script aloud to the narrator, demonstrating how you would like to hear it.
Be prepared to adjust your script to the needs of your talent (more in tip #9). Some word problems may crop up or the narrator may be unfamiliar with certain pronunciations. Close your eyes and listen to the narration being recorded. Make sure it sounds the way you want.
Coaching can bring out some of the more esoteric qualities in a VO. You may want to encourage your narrator to smile while she talks (you can hear the difference), or to make slight adjustments to pacing and intonation. Although you may not be putting pen to paper, directing the delivery is an important part of creating effective narration.
9) Don’t Write in Stone
Sometimes, when you’ve written the script well, with timing and pacing issues taken into account, it reads perfectly. But when it comes time to record, the narration doesn’t seem to fit as well as you planned. The answer to your problem is simple: change it.
Seeing words on paper seems to give them authority. Many people are reluctant to adjust a script simply because it’s typed. Avoid that trap. No matter how tight your narration is, don’t be afraid to make it better.
Your announcer may make simple suggestions to make it easier to read, or you may realize that a portion of the narration is superfluous. Whatever the case may be, don’t hesitate to make the changes.
Keep in mind that the essence of writing is re-writing. The script is never complete until the entire project is finished. Many times the finished video looks and sounds nothing like the original script.
Your goal should be a cohesive narration that flows with and enhances the visuals. If it takes rewriting the script to achieve that goal, then, by all means, do it. The viewer will never know you altered the script.
10) Let it Go
It is possible to write too much. One of the tricks to writing effective narration is learning when to stop writing. At some point, usually just before the project is finished, the narration is as close to perfect as it can be and you have to walk away.
If you don’t let yourself stop writing, you will never be able to complete the project. Possible changes will constantly present themselves, such as a different word or perhaps a longer pause. There comes a time when you have to let your work stand on its own.
Good narration enhances and complements your video. Use these tips and your narration will enhance the message you’re sending.
Putting Pen to Paper