What’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better?
Well, in order to answer this question, we first have to agree on what “better” sounds like. “Better” is one of those vague words we all use, but rarely clarify. We always tell each other to do better, be better, and get better, but how? I’d better explain.
Before I do, let’s take one more step back, and find out what it is that actually needs to be improved. After all, we can’t come up with a solution if we don’t know what the problem is.
Today I want to focus on something that many of my voice-over students struggle with. They have trouble sounding “natural.”
People who pose for pictures suffer from the same phenomenon. As soon as they see a camera, they become self-conscious, and start acting differently. Unnaturally.
The same thing happens when you put people (even professionals) in front of a microphone, and it’s time to record. During the sound check they were chatting away carelessly, but as soon as the engineer utters the words “… and we’re rolling,” something weird happens.
Immediately, the voice changes. With men it often becomes deeper, and forcefully resonant. Words start coming out in a more deliberate, over articulated way, as if the voice talent is impersonating what they believe a voice-over should sound like. It’s that intolerable tone that’s so cliché and contrived. It tells you a text is read aloud, instead of spontaneously spoken.
This vocal switch-flipping phenomenon is not limited to voice-overs, by the way. I see it in grown-ups trying to interact with infants. Give them two seconds, and out comes the baby voice! Teachers have their teacher’s voice, priests have their preacher’s voice, and some nurses have this annoying way of saying: “And how are we feeling today?”
Back to the recording booth. Apart from a clear change in diction and tonality, I’ve noticed two other things both men and women are equally guilty of, as soon as they realize they’re being recorded.
One: they start talking louder.
Two: they start talking faster.
If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know what I’m talking about. A conductor asking his choristers to sing softer, will tell you that they’ll automatically start singing slower. When asked to speed up a bit, people start singing louder. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction.
Because this not a deliberate process, most of my students aren’t even aware that they’re suddenly talking faster and louder. I’ll often interrupt them and say:
“Who are you trying to reach? Your deaf grandmother in the back row of some imaginary theater? Right now you’re talking straight into a microphone. Think of it as my ear. There’s no need to raise your voice. The script doesn’t ask you to. This is a simple educational narration. Adjust your gain if you feel your signal is too weak, or come closer to the mic, but whatever you do, please use your normal, inside voice.”
At this point I wanted to write “It’s easier said than done,” but that’s not true. Saying it, is the problem. Consider this.
The relationship between a narrator and a listener is delicate, and intimate. Rarely will you be closer to a human being than when you’re whispering into his or her ear, even though both of you are invisible to the other.
At that moment of connection, you breathe life into the lines, creating a world with your words. It is your job to make that experience as truthful and natural as possible. When you manage to do that, a few things will happen:
1. The listener will be able to focus on the content, without being distracted by an over-the-top delivery.
2. The listener will become more receptive to your message, because you sound more real.
3. By treating your voice gently, you’ll be able to go on longer, because you’re not putting so much stress on your vocal folds.
Now for some bad news, and some good news. The bad news is that old habits tend to die a slow death. Think of all those ex-radio people who just couldn’t shake their announcer voice. It takes awareness, coaching, and practice to unlearn what has become automatic, and do more with less.
The good news is that even the greatest actors of our time struggle with sounding natural. When the movie Silver Linings Playbook came out, leading man Bradley Cooper was interviewed by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. This is what he told her:
“As I’ve been acting the last 12 years, I’ve thought, ‘Well, the one thing I do have is this ability to make things seem … that I’m not acting.’ I’ve always felt like I can make lines that have been written come out of my mouth in a realistic way. … Then I met Robert De Niro and did the movie Limitless with him and realized that that wasn’t the case.
“I … still remember the table read for Limitless. … He comes in on about page 25. … The beginning of the movie is basically my character talking — there’s a lot of voice-over — and then all of a sudden he says something to me, and I stopped the reading, and I turned to him and I said, ‘I’m sorry. What’s that?’ And I realized he was actually saying his first line, but it was so grounded — as if he wasn’t acting — and I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve just been acting my tail off for the past 20 minutes. And here’s an example of somebody, you know, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.”
Of course there’s a difference between playing a role in a motion picture, and narrating a documentary, or an eLearning project. However, being a narrator is one of the roles voice-overs play, if you will. Good narrators give the impression that they’re not playing that role. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say with the least amount of performance. They create the illusion of spontaneity, giving the audience the impression that they’re not acting at all.
Great (voice) actors are masters at pretending not to pretend.
So, what’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better? To put it bluntly:
Quit trying so hard!
If you want to sound more natural, use your normal speaking voice and volume.
Stop yelling, and start telling.
Imagine you’re talking to someone across the table from you.
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?
Well, there’s the rub.
Only a true and talented professional knows how to make something unnatural seem natural, even if it’s as normal as making conversation.
The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner explained it best when he was asked for his definition of acting.
This was his answer:
“Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.