How to sound natural: Easy, right?
May 29 2015
If sounding natural were a no-brainer, a lot more people might read a voice-over script passably well. At least it would be good start. But as so many voice professionals know, it’s not so easy. Just watch what happens when any body, professional or not, steps up to a microphone with serious intent.
Of course, there’s more to VO performance than being able to sound natural in an unnatural situation. But it is one mark of a pro. Why is it so hard to accomplish?
Well, for one thing, there’s the well-known “My voice doesn’t sound like me” effect. Most people get used to it, but regardless, there’s often a tendency to compensate. The person tries to sound like they sound to themselves. Their voice (in their head) is generally loaded with low-end tones and is relatively loud. So, subconsciously, they might adjust their voice and boom out a bit. And it doesn’t sound like them to anyone, including themselves.
Another issue is volume. Voice actors will use volume, and to some extent microphone proximity, to change the timbre of their voice. Thing is, as a person speaks with less volume, there’s a tendency to lose energy – to slow down, sound lethargic, or seem less involved – as a result. And correcting that can lead to over thinking as the actor speaks. The result becomes unnatural. (Nevertheless, screen actors can manage this mix, to great effect. In some movie scenes (e.g., De Niro and Pacino in Heat), they speak so quietly that amid the din of real-life, they probably wouldn’t have heard each other at all. Yet, there’s plenty of electricity; these are not exactly novices grabbed off the street. The scene is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=37&v=_rIYXfztyxA. )
Then there’s the matter of “radio” experience. It’s a classic example of the difference between an “announcer” and an “actor.” Radio voice professionals, especially DJs and other “great voices,” tend to fall into a certain style, even a habitual cadence and/or pitch range, that works against sounding totally natural in a voice acting situation. Busy local-radio announcers and production people tend to gravitate to hard sell, and may not stray far from their habitual delivery. Also, they need to work fast, working alone and delivering a pitch in one take … whereas voice actors are often asked to do many takes, each one of them different, and to take direction, working as a team. It’s not necessarily fair to assume that a radio veteran can’t transition between “announcing” and “acting.” Many former and current radio professionals do. Besides, some genres (such as Promo) can even benefit from such a style. And the trend in radio (and podcasts, etc.) has been to a more “natural” persona on the air in the first place, which helps build a common foundation. But in terms of being natural, it’s important to be aware of the hefty potential baggage that radio people often must discard.
Another cause of not sounding natural is that some people – especially when getting started on their career path – overthink their performance, or think about it as they speak. Rather than expressing true emotion during the read, and thinking the thoughts they are expressing, they’re thinking about the words they are saying, and how they’re saying them. The listener hears the result of this, and it sounds unreal.
Whatever the reason, if you find yourself being less than real (or, more to the point, if prospective clients might), here are a few things that could help.
Work with a coach. A good coach’s trained and dispassionate ears will hear things you don’t. And unlike friends and associates who might hear them, the coach can put a finger on what needs fixing, and guide you to a more natural delivery.
Work on speaking without vocal tension. Except in certain emotional situations, most people’s everyday speech is much more “vocally free” than when they read aloud. And even in a tense situation, the tension has different causes and probably comes out in a different way. When reading a script, relax your throat, relax your body, and relax your mind. Avoid the use of glottal stops and artificial (even unintended) pauses. Loosen up.
Use the script as a guide, not a score. You need to stick to the script (most likely), and marking it up (with your own “special sauce” of symbols) will be helpful. Also, you don’t need to memorize it or over-rehearse. But there is a point where you become familiar with it enough that you don’t need to mentally parse it word-by-word as you’re recording. That’s not how people talk in real life. People talk in “thoughts,” not words and inflections. Let it flow. Speak in thoughts, not words.
Take off your headphones. Instantly, you’ve removed the temptation to admire your sonorous tones. If you’re working alone, you probably don’t need them anyway. If you’re wearing them just to assure that you’re not popping or distorting, addressing your technique beforehand is the better approach to issues like that. Once you’re confident of your set-up, take off the cans, and just double-check from time to time.
Put on a headset mic, the kind of headphone(s) with a boom microphone attached. This is for a bit of training and practice, not for actual recording, so it doesn’t even have to be a great mic. (In fact, it doesn’t even have to work!) Sit down. Now just talk as you would over the phone. Or as if you were chiming in during an Edge Studio TalkTime! session. It works, in part, because it keeps you from projecting (the mic is right near your mouth), and it’s very natural. It replicates the conditions of a real podcast interview or phone conversation, where you’re likely to be focusing on what you’re saying, not how you say it.
Record yourself as you simply talk with a friend, in person or on the phone. Listen to yourself later. You’ll probably sound very different from your “VO” self, and of course totally natural. Note the differences and practice those.
This one’s a bit radical: Write yourself a script, then call up a friend, or start talking to whoever is in the room. See how far you can get into it before the other person says, “Are you reading this?” (Hopefully they won’t ever ask that. But just in case, choose someone you know pretty well, so they won’t be miffed when you explain the ruse.)
Practice good diction and enunciation in everyday life. Voice over isn’t only a matter of sounding real. It’s also a matter of being understood. But if you habitually mumble, rush or slur words, suddenly it can feel unnatural – and thus either sound unnatural or be unsuccessful — when you suddenly try to start speaking clearly and correctly. Make it a habit, get comfortable with how it feels and sounds. The point isn’t to change your personality, but to expand your comfort zone, so you can enunciate without thinking about it. It’s like when a person with a regional accent learns to speak in a neutral American accent, without losing the sound of their roots in everyday speech.
Be cognizant of “natural” mannerisms. Keep your ears open as people engage in conversation nearby. What “nonverbal utterances” do they use? (A non-verbal utterance is something like “uh” or “mmm” or a sigh.) Are any of them unusual, even interesting? Which ones are overused, even annoying? (For example, the automatic “y’know” has replaced “umm” in conversation these days, but as an ad-lib, it’s also a bit verbose.) And how are some used out of habits, as opposed to intentionally? For example, “you know” makes sense if the speaker has momentarily forgotten a word that the listener could probably provide; it speeds the conversation. (For example: “An airplane pilot sits in, you know … a cockpit.”) But if the speaker is about to say something that the speaker doesn’t know, it’s illogical and more annoying; it impedes the conversation. (For example: “A supersonic jet flies more efficiently when it has, you know … a stabilator.”)
Different things work for different people. You’ll probably not want to use all these tricks, and probably won’t need to. Use (or invent) what works for you. Once you’re over the h**p, sounding like a real, natural person will seem like the easiest thing in the world. Because of course, you are one.