Audio Books—Narrating Non-Fiction: Reading or Acting?

Have you tried narrating your non-fiction book, only to find that you sound deadly dull? Are you wondering how to capture and keep your audience’s interest and attention to your non-fiction audio book? We are here to help….

This blog will feature internationally renowned narrator & coach Sean Allen Pratt. Having coached hundreds of other narrators who have successfully used his techniques, Sean is recognized as THE authority on how to narrate non-fiction. He will share the following insights on how to engage your audience using:

  • Don’t Read—Engage: The “TED Talk” performance concept that Sean uses for all his narration projects
  • Be Prepared: Scoring your text before you narrate and how to do it
  • Be enthusiastic: Find clues in the text (“colors”) to help create variety and capture your audience’s attention.

Don’t Read—Engage!

Sean, what do you mean by this?

Have you ever listened to a “TED Talk”? Or, do you have a favorite podcaster that you listen to regularly, who stimulates your thinking and gets you excited about a subject? What is the difference between this and the way you are narrating your book? The difference is that these speakers are engaging their audience, not reading their book. They are speaking through the microphone, not to it, to an audience that is either live or in their mind’s eye, and they are doing this with passion, energy, and excitement.

In order to do this, you must begin to look at the text of your book as the transcript for a presentation and at your audience’s point of view rather than your own. You must tell a story, not simply relay facts. As you do this, you will make a transition from lecturing to acting. There are three questions you need to ask yourself, in order to put together an engaging presentation:

  1. Who am I? You may be speaking to your audience as an expert on a subject, (“you need to do this or try that”) as a guru who will guide them in their search, (“I did this or learned that and you should too”) or as a fellow traveler on the same journey as your audience (“let’s work on life’s challenges together”). Which one is it? How do you want your audience to connect with you? Visualize yourself as that sort of person.
  2. Who is my audience? For whom did you write your book? Why do they want to hear you and what do they want to hear you say? Are they young, old, male, female, working, retired? Is this a general audience or are you speaking to a select group? Get a mental picture of your audience. You may find it helpful to imagine a single person who represents your audience and speak to that “person” directly.
  3. What is the location at which I am speaking to my audience? Are you speaking to a large group of people in a conference room? Are you speaking to a classroom full of students? Are you speaking to a small group around a kitchen table or in a living room? Or are you speaking to an individual, such as in a counseling situation? Are you speaking to someone who is in a specific location, such as a hospital, factory, office, garden or park? Visualize the location where you are speaking to your audience.

Now, put this altogether: you should be able to visualize yourself speaking in a specific location to a specific person or persons. Got that? Now, on to the next step.

Be Prepared: Scoring your text before you narrate and how to do it

But Sean, I wrote this book. I know what is in it. Why do I need to score it?

In order to avoid reading your text, you must know how you will present it. That means that you cannot simply read the text as written, no matter how well you know it.

Recognize first that authors write in ideas, not sentences. Therefore, narration should be done in ideas, not sentences. You may need to squish paragraphs together to get one idea. In order to do this, you will need to watch your diction, breath control, and the speed at which you read. The way to ensure that you do this, is to score the text before you narrate. How do you do this?

  1. Underscore operative words. There are some words that you want to emphasize. Underline
  2. “Put quotation marks around concepts”. Quotation marks might also be used around an odd phrase, such as a pun.
  3. Insert a slash mark at places where you want to breathe / or pause // or where to slow down. Breathing is a natural part of our speech. It may indicate that we are being thoughtful, or it may precede a change in emotion. If you don’t breathe normally, your audience may note this consciously or unconsciously. It will heighten their tension. The breath should be an eighth or sixteenth note pause, not a long drawn out breath. You may also need to insert such a pause if the next word is unusual or hard to say, before author quotes or before the title of a book
  4. When reading lists, go either low to high or high to low—high if it is positive, low if it is something depressing or negative. (You may wish to mark this as go high / or go low\). In either case, be sure to end DOWN at the end of a sentence.

Here is an example of how you might score a text: // I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to “be prepared”, \ as the Boy Scouts say. Whenever you are speaking to an audience/ you want them to feel that you are competent in your subject/, able to deliver it at a speed that is intelligible, \(but will not put them to sleep)/ and that you will complete the presentation without stumbling or losing your place.

Be enthusiastic: Find clues in the text (“colors”) to help create variety and capture your audience’s attention.

How do I do this, Sean?

Analyze each chapter and paragraph to make sure that you are giving voice to the ideas (and not simply reading). Here are several tips for doing this.

  1. Find the “spine of the paragraph”: Take a marker and highlight those passages in the paragraph that form the main idea or thread of an argument. By doing this, you’ll also identify all the digressions of thought. Then decide whether a particular digression is MORE or LESS important than the spine and narrate it accordingly. Remember this old adage from the theatre – If you make everything sound important, then nothing is important! 
  1. Text layout (paragraph formation): Are the paragraphs chunky or stand alone? If so, why? Does this style change?
  1. Style of writing: Are there certain patterns of delivery? Is the main idea stated at the beginning of every paragraph, summed up in the last sentence, or offered with a personal comment?
  1. Tone and attitude: What emotion is being conveyed in the book overall? In this chapter? In each paragraph?
  1. Point of View: 1st person; I, me, my. 2nd person; you, we. 3rd person; he, she, they. Each of these will have a slightly different style of delivery.
  1. Sense of Humor: Even relatively dry books have the potential for humor here and there. Finding it and narrating it as such is what keeps the audience listening.
  1. Words, words, words: Writing, like acting, is about choices. Why is one word or phrase selected over another? What is the intent?
  1. Punctuation: Think of these as musical rests or pauses that can indicate tempo, rhythm, and intensity. Lots of dashes and semicolons may be telling you to keep the energy of the sentence moving along. Periods end thoughts. Commas pause thoughts.

Final notes:

Sean, this is very helpful. Do you have any other advice for us?

I want to leave you with a few additional suggestions that will help you to communicate energy and enthusiasm to your audience.

  1. Record yourself doing the presentation and compare this with how you have been narrating the book. (You can do this using your smartphone or tablet. What did you like or not like? What would you do differently?
  2. Practice narrating at least two hours a day before you begin the actual narration. Are you able to last that long without losing energy? When you get tired, you begin to disconnect from your audience….and they can tell it! You may need to do this several times in order to build stamina before you begin narrating the book.
  3. Be comfortable. Speaking to a live audience is different than narrating in a recording booth. Dress comfortably. Have beverage available for when your throat becomes dry. Take a break every 45 minutes to an hour. Personalize your recording area with pictures or other items that motivate you and keep you on track.

This is great advice, Sean! Thank you so much! Your information and expertise have been very valuable.

Note: Sean coaches both authors and narrators, in one-on-one and in classroom settings. You can find out more about his coaching and upcoming speaking events at


In the next post, Narrating Audio Books— Practical Tips for Taking Care of Your Voice, we will discuss methods for taking care of your voice and warming up before you begin narrating.



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©2018, Becky White, The Voicing Expert, all rights reserved

2 thoughts on “Audio Books—Narrating Non-Fiction: Reading or Acting?”

  1. Thanks for this valuable advice. When I give talks I never write out the entire script. Speakers who read a script often come through as stilted. If I’m going to narrate my nonfiction book, I do need to read the words on the page, but I can bring in some of the techniques I learned when I took acting classes ten years ago as well as more recent speaking experience.

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