macOS Big Sur For Dummies
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With VoiceOver and Text to Speech, your Mac, running macOS Big Sur, can both narrate what's happening on your screen and read documents to you.

The camera pans back. A voice tells you what you’ve just seen. And suddenly it all makes sense. Return with me now to those thrilling days of the off-camera narrator … . Wouldn’t it be nice if your Mac had a narrator to provide a blow-by-blow account of what’s happening on your screen?

Or your eyes are tired from a long day staring at the monitor, but you still have a lengthy document to read. Wouldn’t it be sweet if you could sit back, close your eyes, and let your Mac read the document to you in a (somewhat) natural voice?

Both are possible with macOS Big Sur: the first scenario with VoiceOver, and the second with Text to Speech.


Big Sur’s VoiceOver technology is designed primarily for the visually impaired, but you might find it useful even if your vision is 20/20. VoiceOver not only reads what’s on the screen to you but also integrates with your keyboard so you can navigate around the screen until you hear the item you’re looking for. When you’re there, you can use Keyboard Access to select list items, select check boxes and radio buttons, move scroll bars and sliders, resize windows, and so on — all with just a simple key press or two.

To check it out, launch the System Preferences application (from Launchpad, the Applications folder, the Apple menu, or the dock), click the Accessibility icon and then click VoiceOver or press Command  +Fn+F5 on MacBook models and most Apple keyboards (or try Command  +F5).

After VoiceOver is enabled, you can turn it on and off in the Accessibility System Preferences pane or by pressing Command  +Fn+F5 or Command  +F5.

While VoiceOver is on, your Mac talks to you about what is on your screen. For example, if you click the desktop, your Mac might say something along the lines of “Application, Finder; Column View; selected folder, Desktop, contains 8 items.” It’s quite slick. Here’s another example: When you click a menu or item on a menu, you hear its name spoken at once, and when you close a menu, you hear the words “Closing menu.” You even hear the spoken feedback in the Print, Open, and Save (and other) dialogs.

VoiceOver is kind of cool (talking alerts are fun), but having dialogs actually produce spoken text becomes annoying fast for most folks who aren’t visually impaired. (Those who are visually impaired, however, rave about VoiceOver and say it lets them do things they couldn’t easily do in the past.) In any case, I urge you to check it out. You might like it and find times when you want your Mac to narrate the action onscreen for you.

The VoiceOver Utility

The VoiceOver Utility lets you specify almost every possible option the VoiceOver technology uses. You can adjust its verbosity; specify how it deals with your mouse and keyboard; change its voice, rate, pitch, and/or volume; and more.

You can open the VoiceOver Utility by clicking the Open VoiceOver Utility button in the Accessibility System Preferences pane or in the usual way: by double-clicking its icon (which you find in your Utilities folder).

Of course, you might get the machines-are-taking-over willies when your Mac starts to talk to you or make sounds — but if you give it a try, it could change your mind.

I wish I had the space to explain further, but I don’t. That’s the bad news. The good news is that VoiceOver Help is extensive and clear, and it helps you harness all the power of VoiceOver and the VoiceOver Utility.

Text to Speech

The second way your Mac can speak to you is via Text to Speech, which converts onscreen text to spoken words. If you’ve used Text to Speech in earlier versions of macOS, you’ll find that it’s pretty much unchanged.

Why might you need Text to Speech? Because sometimes hearing is better than reading. For example, I sometimes use Text to Speech to read aloud to me a column or page I’ve written before I submit it. If something doesn’t sound quite right, I give it another polish before sending it off to my editor.

You can configure this feature in the Accessibility System Preferences pane:

  1. Open System Preferences (from Launchpad or the Applications folder, dock, or Apple menu), click the Accessibility icon, and then click Spoken Content in the list on the left.
  2. In the System Voice pop-up menu, choose one of the voices to set the voice your Mac uses when it reads to you.
  3. Click the Play button to hear a sample of the voice you selected.
  4. Use the Speaking Rate slider to speed up or slow down the voice.
  5. Click the Play button to hear the voice at its new speed. I really like Alex, who says, “Most people recognize me by my voice.” My second favorite is Fred, who sounds like the Talking Moose and says, “I sure like being inside this fancy computer.”
  6. (Optional) To make your Mac speak the text in alert boxes and dialogs, select the Speak Announcements check box. You might hear such alerts as “The application Microsoft Word has quit unexpectedly” or “Paper out or not loaded correctly.”
  7. (Optional) To make your Mac speak text you’ve selected in a document, select the Speak Selection check box. The default keyboard shortcut for Speak Selection is Option+Esc, but you can assign any key combo you like by clicking the Options button and typing a different keyboard shortcut.
  8. (Optional) To make your Mac describe whatever is below the pointer, select the Speak Items Under Pointer check box.
  9. (Optional) To make your Mac speak whatever you type, select the Speak Typing Feedback check box.
  10. (Optional) To explore additional options for the previous four items, click its Options button.
Now, to use Text to Speech to read text to you, copy the text to the Clipboard, launch any app that supports it (I usually choose TextEdit or Pages), paste the text into the empty untitled document, click where you want your Mac to begin reading to you, and then choose Edit → Speech → Start Speaking. To make it stop, choose Edit → Speech → Stop Speaking.

Another great place Text to Speech is available is in the Safari web browser. It works the same as TextEdit but you don’t have to paste — just select the text you want to hear and choose Edit → Speech → Start Speaking.

If you don’t care for the sound of the default voice, choose a different one in the Accessibility System Preferences pane. First click Spoken Content in the list on the left, and then choose a new voice from the System Voice drop-down menu or choose Customize to download additional voices.

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