Got Audiobook Talent?

Paul Ruben

Wonder what goes into the art of narration? Interested in how actors break into the audio world? When I attended the Audio Publishers Association Conference in June, the top in the trade were on hand to lend their expertise in sessions that offered insider tips for the newbie narrator wanna-be. Most audiobook fans know that some narrators have that extra talent that makes an unforgettable listening experience. But just how do actors learn the unique skills that will help them break into the audiobook profession? I asked some of the very best industry coaches how they train voices in the art of narration, and will feature their responses here on Audiobooker each Wednesday in August.

First up is the Grammy Award-winning producer/director Paul Ruben, who has guided the best voices in the business.

Who is the audience for your workshops & why do you have the expertise to conduct the sessions?

My narrator’s workshop is designed for working actors and/or voice-over talent and trained student actors who are new to the audio book industry and experienced narrators as well. This workshop is particularly suited for actors and aspiring professionals because the level of instruction requires their ‘performance intuition’ in order to successfully help them. Non-professionals tend to lack an actor’s intuitive ability to hear and then activate specific performance instruction into their work.

To measure the viability of any training program it’s certainly fair expect results. My workshops have been the springboard for multiple participants to land their first professional audio book job. Some, including former participants Nicola Barber, Erik Bergman, and Caitlin Davies (who came to our workshop directly from her undergraduate college acting program) have gone on to work regularly for major publishers. Everyone of my workshops (limited to 8-10 people) has resulted in professional employment for some participants.

My professional theatre directing background has left me with a great affinity for actors. I enjoy speaking their ‘performance language.’ As an audio book director since 1990 and teacher/coach the past several years I have, enjoyably, sharpened my own coaching skills and successfully been able to locate specific performance vocabulary that assists audio book narrators in becoming more compelling storytellers.

It seems fair to suggest that a significant measure of my expertise is a participant’s regard for the workshop experience. I have been fortunate to have received numerous kind and extremely positive responses (see my website) from former workshop participants, some of whom were already established narrators when they enrolled. Additionally, my New York AFTRA audio book night has, over the past couple of years, filled almost instantly after each announcement.

What range of previous training do you find in participants?

As I mentioned, all of my workshop participants are either experienced performers or recent graduates from established acting programs. Participants’ background has ranged from the industry’s most experienced, talented and award-winning narrators to successful voice-over people. In terms of training, all the workshop participants have an acting resume but few have ‘storytelling’ experience. And it is this storytelling skill that particularizes audio book narration. The learning curve, if you will, isn’t so much acting, but rather, storytelling.

What skills do you focus on and why will this knowledge advance a participant’s career in audiobooks?

This is a great question. The bottom line is that narrators face increased competition, largely driven by the emergence of home studios. Ten years ago a career as a narrator meant that you either lived in New York or LA. No longer. Given the enormous influx of narrators from across the country entering the field, it is – at least from my point of view – incumbent on narrators to make themselves as ‘employable’ as possible. That means, simply, they must become the most compelling storyteller they can.

I often suggest to participants during our first session: What’s the difference to a consumer between you (the aspiring storyteller) and someone I might pull off the street, or say, my Aunt Mary, who everyone says has a nice voice? The difference is Aunt Mary has no idea how to connect the listener emotionally to the author’s story and take them on a viscerally exciting journey. But the storyteller does, and what we’re here to discover is precisely how the storyteller does this. So what I do with each participant as they narrate in the booth is evaluate, not their voice, but their interpretative abilities and their capacity to translate the feelings embedded in the author’s story to the listener. If I detect narration that’s not emotionally connecting, I stop the talent and we work to discover – by way of very specific performance directions – ways to first reconnect emotionally with the text and then deliver those feelings to the listener.

How does the changing world of audiobook creation – digital technology, home studios, economics – impact the focus of your workshops?

Another very important question. The primary focus of the workshop is to provide narrators with the tools to direct themselves. Ten years ago virtually every book was recorded in a professional studio with an engineer and director. Today, publishers, in an effort to cut costs, often require recording studios to supply an engineer. And when they employ a home studio narrator, they are also expecting that person to wear engineer and director hats.

Publishers want professional, compelling narrators, even if they can’t afford a studio setting with engineer. Narrators who can direct themselves will, I think, be more desirable to publishers who, as I mentioned, still want the same level of performance they were used to in the old studio setting.

Do you have any upcoming sessions? How can an interested person register?

I do. The best way to register is go to my website: The site will take potential participants through the entire registration process.

Upcoming Workshops
New York
Weekly: Sept 10, 17, 24, Oct 1, 15, 22 (limited to 8 participants-filled)
Weekend: Sat-Sun, Oct 27-28 (limited to 10 participants)
San Francisco
Sat-Sun, Sept 22-23 (limited to 10 participants)
Sat-Sun, Sept 29-30 (limited to 10 participants)

Thanks, Paul, for stopping by!

You can learn more by following Paul’s blog here. Next Wednesday, narrator Johnny Heller will share how his workshops, such as his August 4 session with Paul Ruben, help prepare aspiring audiobook talent.




About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

1 Comment on "Got Audiobook Talent?"

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  1. I would have to say that learning how to use sound editing software has been my greatest challenge – like GREATEST challenge. I’ve done lots of acting (am also a camera acting coach), VO’s, etc, but am no techhie, so it’s been a herculean task to learn how to edit. It’s taken months. while I’m used to going into a studio and taking a few days or at most 2 weeks to narrate a book – my first book took months. In fact in more than one case I’ve had to start over again from scratch. I’ve hired sound engineers to come to my home studio to train me and help set up my primary calibrations for recording – which had to be completely redone after recording nearly all of one book. Although I’m getting very good at this and a lot faster, it would help if you could have some folks talk about the editing side – the software, technical calibrations, how to get rid of all sorts of minor and major sounds that interfere with the pure enjoyment of listening, and how to add and finesse great narrating work. Thanks! cp

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