How to Narrate

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Photo Source: “Dexter” Courtesy Showtime

The way a story is delivered can make or break it—and that includes the literal voice in your head. A good narrator needs to have knowledge of different story types and perspectives, a good grasp of speaking technique, and the ability to infuse a narrative with complexity and emotion.

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What is a narrator?

Stranger than Fiction“Stranger Than Fiction” Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing

Voice narrators deliver a story or commentary that accompanies a video or audio broadcast. They provide exposition that helps propel a story forward and introduce significant thematic narrative elements. Voiceover narrators can work for professional audio projects across multiple genres

Narration vs. voiceover: Although the terms “narration” and “voiceover” are often used interchangeably, voiceover is a technical device, while narration is a plot device. 

Diegetic vs. non-diegetic: Diegetic narration happens within the fictional world of a production. If the characters can hear the sounds, such as in a dialogue scene, it’s diegetic. Non-diegetic narration, such as the narration throughout most of “George of the Jungle,” cannot be heard by characters in the fictional world.

Marc Forster and Zach Helm’s 2006 film, “Stranger Than Fiction,” self-reflexively (and amusingly) blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic narration when protagonist Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, begins to hear a disembodied voice narrating his life story—only to later discover that the narrator is the author of a book in which he is the doomed protagonist.

What are the different types of narration?

Meerkat Manor“Meerkat Manor” Courtesy Animal Planet

There are four major voiceover genres that involve injecting scripts with narrative elements. These are:

  • Documentary: Narrating a documentary is about more than just sharing facts—it also involves getting an audience invested in the subject being covered. Think of Kenyon Laing, Amanda Jacobson, and Lucy Fitzgerald’s hilarious Minnesota accents as they tell true-crime tales on the podcast Wine & Crime, or Sean Astin’s friendly, charming voiceover on the Animal Planet series “Meerkat Manor.” Documentary narrators must sound knowledgeable and confident, but also be entertaining.
  • Audiobook: Narrating an audiobook is a lengthy process that often involves voicing multiple characters. For example, Luke Daniels performs character voices with different intonations and inflections in his narration of “The Three-Body Problem.” Audiobook narrators should be dynamic storytellers with strong acting skills and a desire to flex their performance muscles. 
  • Commercial: Commercial narrators deliver a message about a company, brand, product, or service to a consumer audience. From Tim Allen’s enthusiasm as the voice of Pure Michigan to Rashida Jones’ distinctive “transfarency” as the VO artist for Southwest Airlines, voiceover for commercials prizes authenticity. VO actors were used in movie trailers for many years—so often, in fact, that narrator Don LaFontaine’s trademark “In a world…” became a cliche. 
  • Corporate/educational: Like audiobook narration, corporate and educational narration tends to lean longform; unlike audiobook narration, the tone is educational rather than entertaining. If you have a clear, steady, commanding voice, this type of narration might be right for you.

These categories are by no means definitive. Podcast hosting, for example, is sometimes documentarian in nature. No matter the genre, the ability to craft a narrative around a script is the key to producing strong narration.

What is narrative perspective?

You“You” Credit: John P. Fleenor/Netflix 

Narrative perspective is a rhetorical conceit that demonstrates a narrator’s position in relation to their story. They essentially serve as a tour guide for the audience. Types of perspective include:

  • First person: A first-person narrator is participatory and self-referential—think of Bob Saget narrating Ted Mosby’s romantic journey on the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”
  • Second person: Second-person narration is used when the narrator speaks and ascribes action directly to the reader. For example, Penn Badgley uses the second person to heighten the stakes as obsessive serial killer Joe Goldberg on Netflix’s “You.”
  • Third-person limited: This narrative perspective details the story from the point of view of an observer, such as Morgan Freeman’s Red narrating the story of fellow inmate Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
  • Third-person omniscient: An unknown narrator walks the audience through the events of a story, as André Dussollier does in the French film “Amélie.”

How to effectively narrate

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No matter what you’re narrating, there are certain techniques that will help make your voiceover engaging and evocative.

1. Breath work: The best narrators know when to pause for effect and when to take breaths. “Breathing is good,” advises audiobook narrator Patrick Fraley. Your breathing should be faster during exciting parts and slower at more sedate moments. Fraley recommends focusing on breathing first when narrating a project; you should only think about other elements after you perfect your technique. 

2. Articulate: Use your tongue, teeth, and lips to pronounce each part of a word properly. Be careful not to over-articulate, which can make a recording sound stilted, or under-articulate, which can make it sound unintelligible. 

3. Consider pitch and tone: Variety in pitch and tone keeps the audience interested. Try delivering some lines higher and others lower to avoid being stuck in a monotone.

4. Vary your speed: The average speech rate for English speakers in the United States is about 150 words per minute. No matter your average speed, it’s important to change it up to keep listeners engaged. Speaking fast can indicate excitement, anger, or urgency, while speaking slow can draw attention to details or indicate sadness and seriousness. To vary and perfect your speaking pace, practice using a metronome or a speech app such as Ovation, Speeko, Voice Analyst, or Ummo. 

5. Interrogate your purpose: Conveying a character’s inner world should sound very different from purely expositional narration.

6. Refine your acting: All narration is performance. Study acting fundamentals such as characterization, tension, and emphasis to refine your craft and perfect your narration. You can do this by enrolling in online classes, attending acting school, or seeking certification from programs offered by institutions such as New York Film Academy, Temple University, or VoiceOver LA.

7. Differentiate between characters: Depending on the project scope and producer preference, you might have the opportunity to voice more than one character. For example, in the audiobook of “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens, narrator Cassandra Campbell uses a variety of North Carolina accents to differentiate between characters. Campbell told Literary Hub that she always starts by “listening to the author’s tone, listening for the cadences of the story, and hearing it in my head before I speak it out loud. Every author has a different voice, every character has a different tone.” This practice allows her to create different characters in her narration.

8. Be consistent: While variation in pace, tone, and character voice is key, it’s also important to have consistent narration throughout the entirety of a recorded project. This can be difficult for lengthier projects such as audiobooks, documentaries, and feature films. A good way to ensure consistent delivery is to listen to a clip of your first recording for the project before each subsequent recording, and then try to match your narrative style to that sample.

9. Maintain your instrument: Protect your vocal cords through long recording days by hydrating, resting your voice between jobs, and doing vocal warmups and cooldowns

Once you have these elements down, it’s time to start looking for your next voice narration gig. Check out our casting calls today—and happy narrating!

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