You read VO scripts clearly. Why don’t people hear you? Part 2 of 2.
Oct 17 2017
NOTE: This is the second post in a two-part article. Click here to read Part 1!
In personal conversation, have you ever known someone who doesn’t listen to you because they think they already know what you’re going to say? Sometimes they’ve assumed correctly. But not always. And when they’re wrong, it’s kind of maddening, isn’t it? Why don’t they listen to what you’re saying?
In that conversation, you might be able to bring your friend around to listening more politely. But in a spoken-voice recording, you can’t do that with your unseen listener.
Or can you?
In some ways, you can encourage listeners to pay closer attention, to improve how they hear what you’re saying.
The first step is to understand why they don’t. There are various reasons:
A. They’re distracted. This is virtually a given when the script is a commercial. In all but a handful of situations, people aren’t listening for commercials, and in fact might be planning to do something else as soon as you start talking. (An exception would be a Super Bowl broadcast, where some people actually watch for the funny or edgy commercials. But how often is that?)
You’ll encounter distracted listeners in plenty of other genres, too. For example, telephony … scripts often say, “Please listen carefully, as our menu has recently changed.” Everyone knows d**n well that it probably hasn’t, but a system has to do something to get the caller’s attention. After all, they didn’t phone for a menu – they called to tell a live representative that the f****e on their widget broke, or to check the balance on their checking account, or to find out how to size new tennis shoes.
Even a corporate training video — where the viewer’s job might hang on knowing what you’ve recorded – meets with distraction. After all, few people are listening in an isolation booth. You’re competing with the sights and people around them, or their grumbling stomach, or daydreams. Unlike a personal conversation, where each person has the benefit of eye contact and other feedback to gauge interest, and the listener has an opportunity to respond, a voice-over recording must (with the help of a good script and maybe video) maintain interest without the luxury of real-time adjustment.
B. They’re not hearing you in real time. Or rather, their brain is not. Neuroscientists have demonstrated a lag time between the instant that sounds enter a person’s ear, and the moment that the person becomes aware of it. In fact, it’s not a linear process. If the sound suggests danger, the person might react reflexively, even instinctively, before they quite know why. It takes a few tenths of a second (or sometimes even a few seconds, if we remember our pop-science correctly) for the brain to pull it all together and turn it into “cognition.” Let alone “understanding.”
C. They assume they know what you’re saying. This is like that friend who assumes they know what you’ll say. Even when your voice-over listener is earnest and attentive, the script might have some information they already know. Or they think they know. So at that point, their mind wanders. (In fact, has your mind sometimes wandered even when you’ve noted, “This next part is interesting. I should listen carefully and remember this.”?)
D. Their brain assumes it knows, too. Similarly to the situation in (B) above, the brain takes what it hears, runs it by past experience, factors in hopes for the future, and whatever else the listener has stored up there, and turns it into awareness. One of the “past experience” factors involves subjects and phrases the person has heard before. In pulling things together, the mind sometimes fills in what it expects to hear. For example, maybe you say, “On July Fourth, he signed the Declaration of Immigration,” but the listener at first hears, “… Declaration of Independence.” Then by the time the hearer’s mind realizes you said something else, their short-term memory is already processing whatever you say next, causing a moment of confusion. Usually, their mind sorts it out, corrects the error, and the listener might be consciously aware of only a momentary feeling of distraction. No harm done, and things move on. But what if that distracted moment is critical to your delivery, your presentation?
How to help your listener pay attention, and hear you better.
1. Enunciate. See Part One of this article, It explains that by “enunciate,” we simply mean “speak clearly.”
Being overly formal isn’t necessarily good, because informality can help maintain interest – depending on various factors (e.g., the subject, the audience, the character), the listener might relate better to a more natural mode of speech. And in most genres, “naturalness” is generally sought by producers.
Nevertheless, you still need to be understood. By practicing enunciation so that speaking clearly feels natural to you, you’ll be better able to adjust your speech without thinking about it, so that you are understood yet still sound natural and in-character.
2. Be enthused. Don’t just sound enthused. That often comes across as artificial – like the exaggerated enthusiasm of some motivational speakers, or feigned interest from a salesperson, waiter or flight attendant. Be enthused. In whatever brief time you may have to rehearse a script, get to know the subject, as if it were key to your career. Because, for at least those few hours, it is! (We should mention that plenty of speakers, salespeople, waiters and flight attendants sound genuinely enthusiastic, because they are.)
3. Catch their ear. There are several ways to do this. Say the first word or two of the script a bit slower than you otherwise might. Speak clearly. And care. It might help to “pre-sentence” – ad lib a line that would logically precede the first line of the script. (Later edit it out of the recording.) This helps get you up to speed emotionally, and promotes natural intonation and volume. Sometimes (in some Commercial character situations, for example), you can give your character a quirky mannerism to help capture attention. But be sure it’s consistent in tone and character with the rest of the script.
4. Identify words and phrases in the script that are especially important. Almost every word of every script is important, but some words are critical to understanding and memorability. These should be said not only clearly, but also with some form of emphasis. That doesn’t necessarily mean louder. (In fact, most voice-over reads should be consistent in volume.) It might be a change in pitch. Or speed. Or a slight pause before or after.
5. Don’t rush it. You have the script. You know the subject. You’ve rehearsed. You know what’s going to happen on the screen (or maybe there is no visual decided yet). Your listener has none of those advantages. If it’s an audio/video script, the video is both a distraction from what you’re saying and an elaboration of it. So allow for that; don’t rush your words. Do pause just enough for the viewer to take in the visual. And, whether there is a visual component or not, leave some “air” so that the listener can catch and absorb your words. Remember that all audio is “visual,” whether the images are on the screen or in the listener’s imagination. (A video’s engineer may add pauses, but this takes extra work. Minimizing the engineer’s work will be appreciated by the producer.)
6. Understand why the scriptwriter or copywriter may have done certain things – like using certain words, or repeating key points.
As a kid, you probably played the game of “Telephone.” That’s where someone whispers a sentence to the person next to them, then that person whispers it to the person next to them, and so on. By the end of the chain, the sentence usually bears no relation to the original.
The sentence gets corrupted because of the reasons we outlined above, and also because different people have different assumptions, vocabularies, attention levels, and other mismatches. Techniques such as repetition, strategic pausing, emphasis, and phrasing variety can enhance accurate transmission.
You usually can’t work with the writer to change the script, but you can observe their intended punctuation and note what seem to be the key copy points. Or, if the punctuation seems haphazard or the words confusing, you can add (or suggest) a pause, or take extra care with a troublesome or unfamiliar word. Or phrase things to simulate shorter sentences that are more easily grasped.
It depends on the situation, and in the course of your career you’ll encounter a wide range of situations. But all voice-over jobs have one thing in common:
Being heard and understood is ultimately up to you.
How the Brain Completes Sentences, Neuroscience News, January 25, 2016.
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Click to read Part 1: In voice acting, what does “enunciate” really mean?