Lend me your ears! Tips for effective use of audio in eLearning
Audio can add an extra dimension to your courseware and increase both user engagement and retention. But like every other aspect of instructional design, it needs skill to do it well. Here are a few tips from Unicorn’s experience.
The YouTube generation has made us remarkably tolerant of low quality video, but this is not the case with audio. Poor quality audio can be worse than none at all.
There will be occasions where you want the genuine voices of colleagues, or an inspirational opening address from the CEO. But where you are asking the speaker to play a role, professional actors will give you a far better outcome. The voice of a professional can add depth, richness and character to your course. They are not expensive and even when budgets are tight, this is not the place to economise.
Mix it up
Try using more than one audio character. If your content doesn’t lend itself to dialogue and scenarios, you can still add variety with different experts, or “the man or woman in the street”. Use your imagination.
Shhh! Recording in process
Background sounds are fine if they are planned and not intrusive – bird song, traffic noise or office background sounds can all add to the sense of realism. But unplanned footsteps, slamming doors and pinging microwaves can ruin a recording. The best solution is to use a professional studio, but if the budget or timescales don’t allow, then here’s a tip, stick a decent directional mike in your laptop and do the recording in your car for a sound proofed temporary studio.
A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks
People don’t speak the way they write. So when writing an audio script you will usually want a more informal and “human” tone. Don’t ask the narrator to read out bullet lists. Don’t let your narrator lecture the user or talk down to them and avoid management speak. A friendly tone will typically be the aim.
In one ear and out the other
There is a temptation, particularly if you are trying to fit a lot of content into a 30 minute elearning course, to give the narrator more to say just to keep the text off the screen. But beware, audio takes control of the pace of the course away from the learner, and if the clips are too long or too many, the user will tune out.
Don’t just read what’s on the screen
While it is usually essential to give the user a text alternative to the audio, you should give them the choice of whether to view the text, and at what pace to read it.
Sound effects are not much used in elearning but can be very effective. Note how sound effects are used in video games to give auditory clues. There are many familiar sounds all around us that can be a quick and even amusing alternative to narration or text – an incoming email, ringing phone, knock on a door, alarm clock, the gentle thwack of leather on willow …… but, don’t overdo it!
Screen reading software is largely used as an accessibility tool, but can have other uses. For example, if your content is going to change frequently, then using screen reader software to create your audio can save you the trouble of return trips to the studio. If the result sounds a bit like a robot, then why not make your narrator a robot?