5 Reasons to Dump Your Narrator

Ken Burns, Documentary filmmaker
Image via Wikipedia

Every time I help a client create a video, it seems someone during the planning stage brings up narration: “And here the narrator should talk about …”

And I’m thinking, “No, there will be NO narrator!” But I don’t usually bring it up at that point because for some people it’s too difficult to imagine a video without narration. In fact, for a lot of people the very act of thinking abstractly about something is hard.

But narration sucks. It really does.

“What about Ken Burns?” you may ask. “He uses narration!” Okay, then, let me ask you something. “Are you Ken Burns? And do you plan to hire David McCullough or Peter Coyote to do your narration?”

Ken Burns is different. He’s better than most of us, for one thing, so he gets to do what he wants. The rest of us should just avoid narration. Here’s why:

1. It’s dated

Any time I hear a narrator I’m immediately transported to elementary school and one of those primitive filmstrip presentations. Or, more likely, The Simpsons, and one of their Phil Hartman-narrated parodies of those primitive filmstrip presentations.

2. People don’t like to be spoonfed

A narrator spells things out. It’s too literal. I like the way the author of this excellent article on branding lessons from Raiders of the Lost Ark puts it: “Your audience will learn more about your story by experiencing it directly, not by being told about it.”

3. It’s lazy

Sure, it’s much easier to tell a story with an omniscient voice, but it’s not as creative or interesting. Do you want your audience to sleepwalk their way through your video or do you want them to be engaged?

4. It gets in the way of the characters

Your interview subjects should be front and center. It’s their stories that are (presumably) compelling. Anything that comes between viewers and the characters is a needless distraction. Let’s hear from them — direct, unfiltered and in their own words.

5. It’s distracting

Who is that narrator injecting herself into the story? What’s her agenda? Unless you specifically need a narrator with a strong viewpoint or big personality, a la Michael Moore, it’s better to just leave her out altogether.

Yes, foregoing narration is harder. It’s more difficult to weave together a narrative from different peoples’ stories. But that’s what you hire professionals for, right?

So do yourself and your audience a favor. Dump the narration.

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