To Documentaries, Bring Truth


“The events shown in this program depict authenticated facts.”

“Everything in this story is true. Only the names and locations are changed.”

“Scenes have been re-created by actors, based on the actual events.”

“Bunnies are cute.”

Truth is powerful, and seldom needs much elaboration. Lies are more typically embellished.

The documentary industry has long struggled to define what actually constitutes truth in showing a non-fiction story. Meanwhile as a documentary narrator, you have your own truth-handling issues. Whether a documentary is objective or pushing an agenda, above all, it needs to be credible. The quality of its narration plays an important role in that perception. Your narration should generate trust. Often, the less obtrusive your performance, the more truthful it will seem to the viewer.

Here’s a Truth in Documentaries pledge to consider as you work in this genre.

I will be genuine. Love to over-act? Maybe animation is the genre for you. Like flamboyance and improvisation? Consider certain types of commercials. Want to be the focus of storytelling? Audiobooks. But in a documentary, stick to the script, understand what you’re saying, and trust in the subtle power of thoughtful understatement. Know what’s in the script, and simply tell what you know. Most documentary producers will love you for it.

I will let the visuals do the shouting. Pictures are powerful. Unlike some other genres, there’s seldom any need to artificially pump things up with false emotion, aka over-acting. In fact, documentary producers and propagandists have long known that the perceived truth often is found between the words.

At the same time, it is important for the narrator to help maintain the viewer’s interest, by expressing true emotion -- what you’re saying varies from one sentence to another, and you should personally feel the point of each statement you make. Don’t “sell” it; just let it come out in your voice. That’s all. It’s already a lot to do well.

I will trust in the value of a well-written script. This is similar to laying back and letting the images do their thing. But words, too, are powerful. Again, you should understand their implication, feel their meaning, and simply let the words themselves work their magic, in conjunction the images. Work your magic by being sure every word will be correctly understood by the viewer, without their having to guess or re-think. Care about each word, genuinely, without over-enunciation. This thoughtful, caring delivery will keep your read from sounding monotonous.

I will help documentary producers make the most of their budgets where I am concerned. With increasing ease of production and new distribution venues, more and more documentaries are being produced. But at the same time, as more documentary projects compete for financing, budgets are shrinking. That doesn’t mean you should cut your rate. It does mean that you should work efficiently and deliver a technically excellent job. We assume this is always your mindset, but to assure you’re able to live up to it in a long-form recording, it might be time to review your skills and recording capabilities.

I will be ready. This is about truth in advertising ... your advertising. You might get the job on the basis of your demo and a short audition. But are you vocally ready to quickly deliver a script running 10 minutes, let alone 90? Pitching documentaries is even more reason to do your daily VO and vocal exercise, so you’re continually in shape.

I will consider all forms of documentary that I am suited for. In your voice over career, it’s very important to find your niche and market yourself in a way that tells prospective clients exactly what it is that you offer. In other words, do what you do well, that there is a good market for. But simply as a sensible business practice, remember there are more kinds of documentary than the major TV production and newsy expose. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open for any possibility, and give it a shot. But, since this article is especially about truthtelling, be truthful about yourself. If medspeak isn’t your thing, maybe you shouldn’t claim you can easily knock out a clinical look at the development of a new open-heart procedure.

I will understand the documentary process and trends in the genre. There are various types of genres, and the genre has always been exploratory, almost by its definition. At the edges are scads of very visible social media videos (e.g., YouTube) and “reality TV” programs (e.g., often focused on hyped conflict). They are often raw, sometimes very polished, and some people don’t consider them true “documentaries.” But they compete for attention, and in many ways they influence the scope and production styles in the documentary genre. Watch documentaries of all types, whenever you can, in various venues (TV, online and theatrical), noting their differences, similarities and what makes them work.

I will respect amateur narrators, but I will not imitate them. Many documentaries are narrated by their producer, or a famous personality, or a scholar or other authority on the subject. Some of these “amateurs” do an excellent job of narrating, and indeed, we’ve all heard many actors and newspeople (famous and not so) who have made a solid mark in this field. But many more of these amateur narrators make basic narration mistakes -- such as frequently pausing after the first word of a sentence, pronouncing the article “a” as a long A, or exaggerating their expression of wonder, just a few of many possible examples. They can do these things and sound okay, because they are stars, whose personalities are known, or because they are experts, and thus are accepted as “real” people, whose veracity is known. But you are an anonymous narrator, you don’t have that luxury, and you should do better. Otherwise, why should the producer hire you?

I will know what I’m talking about. This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert on the history of youth centers in Chicago, or whatever the subject is. It simply means you should understand the meaning of every word and every statement in the script. Nothing destroys authority like mispronouncing a common word. Hitting the wrong word in a phrase will raise eyebrows. And mangling a technical word or location will really blow your credibility. If you don’t understand the meaning, pronunciation or implication of something, ask the Director. And whenever possible, have at least a sense of what the corresponding visual will be.

In the future, you may encounter more and more challenging content, because documentary subject matter is expanding worldwide. In the United States, especially, many producers are looking at topics outside their national borders. And there are many more producers. In at least one US state, even high school students produce history documentaries in competition. Find your niche in the genre, and within that, expand your knowledge and your mind.

I will be true to myself, and true to my word.

Some documentaries are about controversial subjects. Should you accept to narrate a documentary that is diametrically opposed to your personal belief? For example, a leisure product, or a political party, or gambling, or fracking, or some other controversial subject? That’s up to you. But the time to consider the issue is before you accept the job. Unless the situation has been grossly misrepresented to you, rejecting the job after you’ve auditioned and been accepted reflects badly not only on you, but on whoever recommended you and the entire voice over industry.

And that’s the truth.

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To learn more about the Documentaries genre or to schedule with one of our voice over coaches, call our studio at 888-321-3343 or email training@edgestudio.com.

Wonderful post!

Thanks for this awesome post Carol! Fantastic insight into what we all should be considering and doing with documentary narration - something I certainly would like to do more of. I think many of your points can be applied to different VO genres - knowing your script, truly understanding the words, meanings and pronunciations, and really knowing if you are ready/equipped to handle the job, not undervaluing yourself, plus just good ol' fashioned professionalism - all perfect pearls of wisdom! :)

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