Rob Grable is an Emmy award-winning sound engineer who has cast, directed, and produced thousands of tech narrations for clients like IBM (including AI and Watson), Meggitt, and the CDC.
It’s through IBM I work with Rob and have found him to be an insightful director with outstanding client relationship skills. Bridging the vast divide between an analytical tech client and a creative voice talent takes a person with Rob’s natural abilities. Not only is he a seasoned professional in the tech narration arena, he’s recorded and mixed a Peabody Award-winning NPR program and is a popular music composer and producer whose work has been featured on numerous broadcast, network, and radio projects. Add to his bag of tricks that he’s a voice talent as well and we have an informative interview on the ins and outs of technical narrations.
What are the VO skills needed to do technical narrations?
You need the ability to handle both technical words and concepts, and read naturally. You need to be interested enough to basically understand what you’re talking about and then be what you were hired to be—a voice worth listening to.
You need good reading skills so you’ll recognize how sentences are structured and how they’re usually spoken. You need to care enough to prepare ahead of time, stay calm, listen to direction, and realize that it’s not as hard as actually doing the thing you’re talking about. Have fun with it. What may first look like gobbledee-goop will get more familiar as you get more experience.
What are the read styles used in technical narrations?
The range of styles is wider than you’d think. There’s a chance to be real, helpful, thoughtful, friendly, empathetic, or maybe humorous. It’s not necessarily entertaining. It’s about information, instruction, or sales, but it can be dramatic in order to make a point. Many clients and producers like a more commercial style for a bird’s-eye view script. Longer scripts may need a more knowledgeable, informed style. Always, there’s a desire to sound as real as possible—to be a normal person with a candid voice. Of course, that means a person who has trained to speak in that way and has experience as a VO artist.
What makes a technical narration different from other corporate narrations?
The details. At some level, you’re explaining the details of something. Some scripts are more academic, instructional, or persuasive, but the details matter and they will be in there.
How are technical narrations used by clients?
They are used to introduce, explain, or sell products and services. Some technical narrations are a bird’s-eye view, some are deep dives. They might be one minute or maybe hours of narration broken into modules. Usually the audiences are small or specific, and they are customers or businesses who can buy and use the product, software, hardware, and service. They might be employees or personnel who are completing training.
Do technical narrations use more male or female voices?
In my experience, it’s about even.
What is your casting process?
I have a pool of talent that I’ve worked with so I know they’re capable. I have demos of their work for clients and producers to listen to. When a new script comes in, I send a bit of it to the talent who match the casting request. I ask for auditions and then the clients and producers can choose who they like based on the demos and auditions. Over the years, I learned that giving new talent a chance is a win-win for VO artists and me. They get a new opportunity and I get a new voice, but I have to know they’re not in over their head. I don’t want them to fail and I don’t want my clients to be disappointed. It can take time, but it is worthwhile.
What will kill and what will make a technical narration audition?
There are the usual things that will kill any audition: not caring, not paying attention to the specs, not asking questions, or not checking your work. Specifically, for technical narrations, not being confident can make a difference. I’ve been a VO talent as well as a producer and director, and I realized after a year or two that knowing something about what you’re talking about is required, but at some point, you have to get on with simply sounding like you know what you’re talking about. Make it easy to listen to you. You have to be the bridge between the tech company or organization and the listener.
Is a technical demo needed?
No, not necessarily. If you have a good commercial demo and a good narration demo, those will do at first. My clients and producers like to hear actors audition their actual script. It really helps them decide who to choose. But demos get you in the door, of course. As you find new opportunities, markets, or industries you can create new, specific demos. But I think it’s more important to keep the demos you do have updated because you need to sound like your demo. Time changes our voices and our delivery. Styles change. Fresh usually sounds fresh, so does stale.
Any suggestions for voice actors wanting to get into tech narration?
Get training and coaching on a regular basis. “Seek outside instruction” is one of “Wynton’s Ways,” a list of successful behaviors by Wynton Marsalis. Another one from his list is “practice the hard parts more.” Know what you’re good at and know what you’re not good at. Record and listen to yourself.
Study technology and be familiar with trends and terms. Definitely look up how to pronounce any unusual words, acronyms, or names. Accept these kinds of things as your new friends. You’re going to talk about your new friends like you’ve known them for years. Ask questions before and during the session, and be interested. A script with ordinary words is straight ahead. You focus on all the aspects of your delivery and what the client and producer wants. With a technical read, you’ll have to do some extra work beforehand and during your read.
What are the changes you’ve seen over your years of casting, directing, and sound designing tech narrations?
I’ve seen things go from “we just need a professional voice” to clients and producers being choosy about the voice they select and having it read in the styles I mentioned before.
Participation has been and will always be important. I invite producers and clients to my VO sessions. Too many cooks can sometimes be a problem, but people tend to know their roles and can share their ideas and direction constructively. I always try to make my sessions as comfy as possible for everyone involved. Most clients love the change of pace from their usual work. When they participate, they’re really getting something done, and they have a say in how it gets done.
With sound design being a bigger part of the picture now, it’s important that you find out what the production will look and sound like. Ask all about it. What are the images? What’s the soundtrack? Is there a draft version you can watch or hear? Those things can make a huge difference in the way you read. There will be clues in the script, but you should find out by asking and listening.
As the audio producer, I like to collaborate with the post-production supervisor and video editor, and create a complete final mix that includes the VO that we recorded, music, SFX, and sound design. Once the client is happy and the production is finished, I like to share it with the VO artist, too.
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