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What we teach kids, voice actors should also remember.

Edge Studio

Kids are amazingly natural. They breathe naturally from the diaphragm – and their voices tend to be vocally free – they say what they mean to say, without physical restriction or inhibition. By the time we’ve become young adults many of us have lost these capabilities. As voice actors, we may need to re-learn them.

But kids don’t know everything. Parents need to teach other good speaking habits … like slowing down, not mumbling, and being sure they’ve been understood. As voice actors, it’s good to review these habits, too.

One of our staffers recalls being told as a child, “If they haven’t heard you, you haven’t said it.” That pretty well sums up any conversational statement, and definitely encapsulates the goal in voice-over. It’s the responsibility of the speaker to be understood – don’t expect the listener to bear all that burden. In fact, in some VO genres, you can’t even count on them paying attention!

Here’s a list of good speaking habits, and how to relate them to your voice-over delivery.

Get their attention. Parents teach that it’s not polite to shout “Hey!” at the dinner table; there are more polite ways to get someone’s attention. In voice-over, such an obvious attention-getting ploy is a very rare but accepted procedure. For example, a script that starts with “What’s this?” or shouting (figuratively, at least) in a pushy commercial. But in most cases by far, there are more sophisticated ways to capture the ear of your listener. One of the best is to value that first word. Pronounce it clearly, and just a bit more slowly than you otherwise might. Then, rather than pausing after it, deliver the first complete thought (the first phrase) to bring your listener mentally up-to-speed. Consider, for example:

“The state of Arizona is very dry.”

Don’t swallow the word “the” – Let them know you’re speaking. But of course it’s not a “rich” word, so link it to the word “state,” pronounced a bit deliberately. But keep going – for one thing, the word “state” has many meanings, and until you’ve said “Arizona,” your listener hasn’t a clue which one you mean. But keep going even then, because the key thought in this sentence (probably) is that Arizona is “very dry.”

Speak clearly, don’t mumble. This advice is so obvious, it almost goes without saying. Except that people who mumble often don’t realize that they’re mumbling. So listen to yourself after recording, focusing on this. The key is to speak naturally — don’t artificially exaggerate your speech — but be sure to pronounce every sound (vowels and consonants) that should be pronounced, taking care to move your jaw and tongue sufficiently. And avoid bad habits such as “lazy mouth” – that’s when you start vocalizing before your mouth is open. For example, “mmbye-bye.”

Be succinct and to the point. Even as adults, there are countless times when verbal exuberance is as wonderful as the exuberance we displayed in our playground days. But at other times, at any age, it’s important to be aware of what we’re saying. Some people come by this habit naturally, while others should organize their thoughts a bit better and know when to stop, and yet other people need to be drawn out a bit. As a voice artist, you may not have direct control over the script, since you must stick to a script that you didn’t write. But you do have control over your understanding of the script. Know what you’re saying; don’t just be saying the words. And if you are involved in the writing, or are ad-libbing a podcast or something, make your words count.

Don’t speak in a monotone. As kids, we hear this from time to time. For example, when reciting a poem at the head of the class. It’s boring. It’s usually bad form in voice-over, too, unless the specific script situation calls for it. Similarly, falling into a predictable sing-song pattern (or any pattern not related to your words and thoughts) also becomes boring, or even annoying.

Be interested in what you are saying. As we said above, be sure you understand what the script has you say. It helps you impart energy to your words. But that’s just the start. Now, how do you feel about what you’re saying? Conveying the appropriate emotion – at the appropriate level – is another quality that imparts energy. As the script proceeds, how does your emotion change, and does it vary? (Sometimes it varies subtly, sometimes greatly.) Being interested in the message at this level helps your listener be interested, too.

Be interested in the other person. This is another side of the above coin. But you don’t even know who you’re talking to – how can you be interested in them? Ha! … that’s correct, in that you can’t see your listener and probably don’t know much about them personally. But you can often characterize them – are they a radio listener driving a car or doing the laundry? Are they a student who needs to learn this subject? Are they a customer with a question or complaint for sales or Customer Service? For virtually every script in every genre, you can at least narrow it down. And, as a voice actor, you can visualize (or, if you prefer, “imagine”) a representative individual – hopefully someone you actually know, from your own experience – someone you are talking to. For example, if the script has you reading a telephone on-hold message about the client’s great loan offer … do you have a friend or relative who might need an auto loan?

Get an acknowledgment. Okay, this final advice is very good in personal conversation. Always be sure the other person has heard and understood you. No need to get pushy — the look on their face, or an “uh-huh” reply, is often sufficient to know if they heard you. But this advice would be genuinely difficult to translate into a VO situation. You can’t see the other person’s face, and (since you’re recording), you’re probably not even talking to them in real time. How can you tell they’ve grasped what you’ve been saying?

You can’t. That’s why remembering the rest of these lessons is so important in any voice-over situation, whatever your age.

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