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How to use peripheral vision in reading voice-over copy

Edge Studio

Did you know that 99% of our vision is peripheral? It is, if we define “peripheral” as the part that we don’t see sharply, the part not captured by the central part of the retina called the “fovea.” The structure of the eye is such that the only truly sharp part would be like a large coin in the middle of a big, wide-screen TV. We see the “big picture” sharply because the eye moves around, incredibly quickly, and the brain pieces the sharp parts together in a way that would make Photoshop jealous. It’s a good thing to know. Because by expanding your peripheral vision, you can expand your ability to read copy, in several ways.

In everyday life, increasing your peripheral vision has been touted as a way to improve many things, from increasing your reading speed to combating the effect of aging on your vision. We’ll leave it to you to peruse such discussions online. Beware, peripheral vision may also be used as a way to sell software for improving it, which we haven’t evaluated and some of which might be rather dubious. (For example, although speed-reading techniques appear to work for some people, they may not work for everyone, or at least not to the same extent.)

But there are some ways to use and enhance your peripheral vision when it comes to VO.

Since we started this discussion in the literal, physiological sense, let’s stick with that. How can you use and even enhance your peripheral vision when reading copy?

Sometime fairly early in our VO careers, almost all of us learn to “read ahead.” That’s when, while you speak the words you are reading, your eyes are aware of the words you will speak next. Some people learn this approach by having it drawn to their attention and then practicing. Others come by this ability through chance and experience. Some voice-over talent need this ability more than others, depending on their genre and specialty – for example, if you specialize in cold reads (recording with little or no rehearsal, or even not having read the script beforehand at all).

In any case, it’s an important skill.

You will find various drills for widening your view, and we suggest you try them. But maybe the simplest approach is to widen your mind. As you read copy, simply be aware of the surrounding text – or rather, the following text (of course).

Three drills that may help are:

  • Read quickly. Your eyes can move faster than your mouth. With some practice, you’ll find yourself reading ahead of the words you are actually saying. Practice till this occurs. (If it does happen for you, it will probably happen pretty quickly). Remember, though that this is just a drill or demonstration. When recording, you shouldn’t read copy that fast. Also remember that this will absolutely mess with your expression of meaning and emotion. Let alone the time required to express emotion, and for your listener to grasp what they’ve heard, you can’t be thinking about what you’re reading when you are focused on how quickly you’re saying it.
    It’s like driving a familiar route across town while talking intently on the phone – you may get there without incident, but you will probably remember none of the trip and were not prepared to deal with the unexpected. In voice-over, it’s possible to zip through even a full-minute of copy, reading it clearly and without error, maybe even employing some rote inflection, and then realize you haven’t a clue what you just said!

    (And as long as we’re in reminder mode, remember that VO isn’t about “reading,” it’s about “speaking” – the reading process is just the way you get your input.)

  • Use the “1,000-foot stare.” Well, maybe not that distant, but rather than focus on one word at a time, diffuse your view. Look a bit past the paper, so you see entire phrases. Practice seeing longer and longer groups of words (again, favoring the direction in which you read). You might even try visually catching the phrase, and close (blink) your eyes as you say it. Encourage yourself to see longer and longer phrases, or the start of the next line. Just don’t let the blinking thing become a habit!

    Once you’re familiar with the script, the words on paper become merely a reminder. You may not need to see them clearly word for word. Instead, be looking at your director, or the “person” you’re speaking to in your mind’s eye. (Or is it ear, or mouth?) At that point, you’re using peripheral vision to look at the script itself.

    But if you’re self-producing, DO be sure to listen back while reading the script, to be sure you’ve spoken it correctly word-for-word.

  • Practice the common speed-reading technique of following your finger down the center of the page, rather than your eyes moving side-to-side. Since you’ll quickly run out of text with a voice-over script, practice this with a small book. Our objective here is not to get you to become a speed reader (that would probably take more instruction than this), but to train your eye and your mind to see the larger view.

The point of these exercises is to see the text as phrases. Better yet, to see it as thoughts – because that’s what you’re expressing.

Once you’ve got a sense of seeing the wider view, forget it. Like most of your other voice-over tools, it should be a habit. When “on the job,” you should be able to do it without thinking about it, without being distracted from your core objective, which is the expression of meaning and emotion with clarity and interpersonal involvement.

In other words, when you’re recording, the thing to focus on is … your listener.

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].