Success in Audio Book Narration

6 Techniques to build your audio book narration skills!

I love any long-form narration.

In my work, mostly in the corporate area, I read a variety of long, information-filled scripts. I always enjoy the challenge of making sometimes rather dry material sound more engaging. Well, that’s what you get the big bucks for.

But one of the areas that I love working in, and wish there was more here in Australia, is audio book narration. The industry is quite small, so opportunities are limited.

Last year I did a series of children’s titles for Oxford University Press and it was a creative highlight of my working year. Not only did I narrate the books, I voiced all the characters as well.

As a voiceover artist, the work we mainly do is advertising messages and information driven scripts, so to immerse myself in the world of story and story-telling is always so satisfying.

Many of those who seek me out for coaching in voiceover skills want to work in audio book narration.

As I’ve said it can be an extremely rewarding experience and there’s no doubt that as consumers, we have a huge appetite for audio books.

Depending on where you are in the world, there’ll be work in this area if you have the talent for it.

It’s my feeling that the US is the biggest consumer and almost all publishers are building their audio book libraries. I know of a few people who are largely making their living from audio books in the US.

However, in Australia, the industry is so small it would be almost impossible to have a career only doing audio book narration.

And as I said, there is work…that is, if you’re really, really good at it.

To become a successful book narrator you need to have an abundance of skills.

I want to share some techniques for great story telling by looking at some of the most common mistakes made.  They are:

  • Reading too fast
  • Reading too loudly
  • Reading at the same pace
  • Not understanding the authors intention
  • Not creating the right mood, flavor or attitude for the story
  • Sounding fake when reading dialogue

…And worst of all, sounding as though you’re just reading words, rather than engaging us with the story.

I hear far too many book narrations done by those who fail to succeed in the most fundamental of all these skills.

Story telling!

If you think it’s just about your voice, or being able to read well, then think again.

So, I want to talk about 6 audio book narration mistakes and give you some guidelines for improving your performance


1. Reading too loudly

Crikey! No one likes to be yelled at.

The digital medium hates loud voices. Narrating is not just about reading words well. It’s voice acting.

When you read too loudly, you are least able to access the actor within, the performer who needs to ‘be’ this novel, this story.

Getting the volume right is simple really. You are just talking to one person. A book narration, no matter how you colour it, is an intimate engagement with another person.


2. Reading too fast

This is a major narration crime in my book (pardon the pun).

The most annoying thing about listening to someone reading too fast, is that they’re not including you.

When we read a story ‘on’ the page, we create our own visuals of the environment, the characters.

When you’re narrating a book and reading ‘off’ the page, you need to able to do that for the listener.

Analyse the material:

You really do need to get to know that book inside out.

Take special note in your preparation, of these two important aspects of language.

You need to know when you’re narrating (1) visual language, as opposed to (2) the language of thought or idea.

If it’s visual language, then take your time.

You also need to pause between one visual and the next, to give the listener time to create their own pictures.

When you first do this, it may feel as though the pause is too great, but you need to be relaxed and comfortable enough with the story and the language, to be able to see the visuals for yourself as you’re reading.

As the narrator, you always need to be ‘in’ the story.

If you’re not, then you’re guilty of just reading words, and probably reading them too fast. Criminal!


3. Reading at the same pace


When we’re in conversation, we seldom deliver everything at the same pace. We vary pace to give context and meaning.

When we say something important we will often slow down.

If it’s an aside, or a comment not central to the story you’re really telling, we often speed up a bit.

Book narration is no different and there’s nothing worse than listening to something read at the same pace.

Try listening when next you’re in a social situation to those who are great natural story-tellers. Notice what it is that makes them so easy to listen to, so compelling or engaging.

You can bet they vary pace and emphasis, to help us ‘get’ the story they’re telling.

If they delivered everything at the same pace, we’d all be asleep. Trust me.


4. Not understanding the authors intention

What are you talking about?

I’ve heard sample narrations that are so lacking in an understanding of what the story is, that I think, “Have they actually read this book?”

I studied writing in the 1990’s and I was four years into my part-time Diploma when something amazing happened that changed the way I wrote.

I became a conscious reader!

That is, I’d learned enough about the structure of writing, plot, jeopardy, turning points, A, B and C stories, denoument, character and exposition, to be able to see the bones, the skeleton of every book I ever read.

It didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the book. Happily, it increased it.

I believe that being a conscious reader is a crucial skill in being an excellent book narrator.


5. Not creating the right mood, flavor or attitude of the story

Great story telling sets a mood and draws us into the landscape and lives of those in the story.

Great story telling creates a feeling that causes us to want to return time and time again.

Once you’re able to understand the author’s intention, then you’ll be able to play with creating the right mood, the right attitude and the right colour.

You need to know who the narrator is in your story.

Are you:

  • Outside the story witnessing events, called third person, as in ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’
  • Narrating a story in which you’re a player, called first person, that is ‘I’, and probably your character will have dialogue, or
  • Someone commenting on events from a distance, 2nd person.  That is, the narrator talks directly to the other character or characters by using ‘you’, as in “You walked into the bathroom and saw the sand on the floor. You knew he’d been there….etc”

Once again, it matters not how lovely your voice is.

I know I say this all the time but it’s not just about your voice.

Truly great narrators seem to disappear in favour of the story they’re telling and the visuals they are creating of both the environment and the characters.


6. Sounding fake when reading dialogue

I know that a lot of potential book narrators worry about how to achieve believable characters when they are speaking for them.

One thing they worry about is how to sound like a male if they’re a female and vice versa.

Well, the worst thing ever, is hearing someone trying to put on a fake voice.

It never works. So don’t do it.  You’re not required to sound like a male or a female, a child or an elderly person, you’re required to tell us the story.

When you get a book with a lot of characters in it, you need to find a way of remembering what each character ‘sounds’ like.   But rather than thinking about them as a sound, (which is making it about your voice), make it about an aspect of their personality.

For instance, you’re a female, narrating a book with a male protagonist who’s a smart arse, with lots of money and little regard for others, you may like to choose the character trait ‘arrogant’. Just play this attitude under all his dialogue. Don’t try to find a ‘voice’ for him, just an attitude.

If you’re a male narrator and you have a female character who is being walked on and used by others, you may choose to play ‘innocent’ or ‘meek’. Perhaps through the journey this person grows in character and you may need to change the emotion to something like ‘triumphant’.

Just choose one emotion or attitude though. Then it’ll be much easier to remember where you are with that character.

So, I hope those techniques will help answer questions you may have had, or solve problems you may not have know how to get around.

Happy book narrating!