The Worst Acting Advice Ever

Looking glass smileIn my last blog post I talked about delivery.

No, I wasn’t referring to your local pizza parlor. I was sinking my teeth into our performance as (voice) actors.

If you’ve missed it, here’s the takeaway:

Delivery is what separates the pro from the wannabe. You may have the most pleasant pipes in the world; you may be an okay reader, but if your delivery is flat,* you’ll never have a career as a voice-over.

Delivery can kill a joke, and it can bring tears of laughter to the audience. Delivery can put people to sleep, and it can make them jump for joy.

Delivery is like magic dust. It can turn a text from bland to grand. It’s one of the reasons why computer-generated voices will never be able to perform a Shakespeare play in a most moving way.

Delivery, good or bad, is never neutral. Masterful delivery is:

  • Clear and Clean
  • Convincing
  • Consistent
  • Context & content appropriate
  • Charismatic


Let’s break these factors down a bit.

CLEAR & CLEAN

In order to change and improve your delivery, you first have to be aware of the way you speak. Most people mumble and stumble through life, and they don’t even know it.

People have no idea how they come across because they don’t hear their own voice the way others do. They’re so used to it that they cannot be objective. Unless they’re an expert, they’re probably not even equipped to properly analyze the way other people sound. This is not their fault. It’s built into our biology.

Our brains are conditioned to detect meaning, and to filter out fluff. By fluff I mean irrelevant sounds such as background noises, lip smacks, breaths, and um’s and ah’s. Most of the time, we’re not even listening, but we’re interpreting what we believe the other person is saying, which is also based on their body language. Plus, every conversation takes place in a specific context which helps us determine meaning.

THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

Now, take away the context, take away someone to talk to, and replace the conversation with a script. Bring the speaker into a small dark room, and have him or her talk into a microphone. Ask your wannabe to read the words on the page without making any mistakes, and make sure they know that critical ears will be evaluating every single sound. No pressure!

If you would, imagine yourself in that hot seat. 

Unless you’ve had some training and experience, you will quickly discover that the microphone works like a cruel magnifying glass. It exposes all the sounds you didn’t even know you were making. As nerves take over, your mouth gets as dry as the Sahara desert. You start fidgeting in your chair, and on top of that, your full stomach decides to make an embarrassing guest appearance.

Then you see the people on the other side of the thick studio glass, and you realize you can’t hear a word of what they’re saying. As you begin to read the first lines of the script, they start laughing, and you wonder: Is it me they’re laughing at? Am I making a fool of myself? What am I even doing here?

It gets worse.

When you’re done reading, you’re greeted with absolute silence. You can see the team on the other side, and it’s clear that they’re discussing something. They’re not laughing anymore. In fact, you detect a couple of grim faces.

Finally, the sound engineer gets on the intercom, and says rather sternly:

“Alright, let’s do this again. Before you begin, let me play this first take back to you, so you can hear what we’re hearing, okay?”

As you’re listening to yourself, you panic. This doesn’t sound like you at all. Who is this person? What’s up with those loud breaths and shrill S-sounds? What did you do to produce this sickening symphony of mouth noises? Drink a gallon of milk? Eat super salty food? And what’s up with all the mumbling?

Before your internal dialogue sends you into a deep depression, the engineer has something to add:

“Let’s try it again. This time, I want you to drink some water first, and relax a little. There’s so much tension in your voice. Please remember to E-Nun-Ci-Ate, but don’t overdo it.

And one last thing: “Be you, and you’ll do just fine.”

THE WORST ADVICE

I’ve heard that phrase a million times: “Just be you, and you’ll do just fine.” It’s supposed to sound reassuring, but it’s as contradictory as, “Act normal.” It’s impossible to do. If you are your normal self, you don’t act. You just are.

Whether on stage, in front of a camera or in the recording studio, you’re not hired to “just be you.” You’re hired to be your best, most professional self, and to make it sound (and look) perfectly spontaneous.

(Voice) actors are paid messengers. They’re paid to get information across in a way that’s easily understood and remembered. That’s why your speech needs to be clean and clear. If it’s not, it will distract from the message. In my experience, this is something the average person -regardless of their sound- is unable to deliver.

BECOMING A PRO

The average speaker is a lazy speaker. The professional speaker is aware and articulate.

If you’re thinking of becoming a professional speaker, you have to unlearn bad habits, and learn to dramatically improve your diction to the point where it becomes second nature. This is not something you can pick up through trial and error. You won’t learn it by reading books. This needs guided practice, and lots of it. Compare it to learning how to play an instrument. It’s not something you pick up overnight.

The goal is not to make you sound like an over articulating British stage actor from the forties or fifties. The goal is simply to be understood without having to work hard to get your words out. Once this becomes almost effortless, you know you’re on the right track. At that stage, you’ve become “unconsciously competent.” You don’t even realize that you’re doing it.

But good delivery requires another skill: the ability to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t always know what you’re talking about.

It has to be convincing

How do you do that?

Let’s continue that conversation next week!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 2 in a series on performance and script delivery. Part 3 is coming next week.

*To me “flat” refers to speech without vocal variety. Variety in pitch, tempo and volume.

photo credit: helenadagmar via photopin cc

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career

24 Responses to The Worst Acting Advice Ever

  1. Pingback: The Big Secret To Audio Book Success | Nethervoice

  2. Paul Garner

    Great look at what it takes to make what we do sound so “easy” (not)!
    Thanks, Paul

    [Reply]

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  4. Dave Long

    An excellent article and couldn’t be more true. Audio narrators who read like they’re a third grader happy to just get the words out without stumbling and ad no inflection, no vive or vitality to their reading just drive me freaking crazy! Great advice Paul!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, Dave!

    [Reply]

  5. Jason@VanEman

    Great tips.Always bring a picture and resume. Don’t make excuses and do your best.

    [Reply]

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  11. Ruth Weisberg

    I’ll have what Debbie Irwin is having. Here’s another narrative nugget to add to her helpful pronunciation guide: When you see the pesky word “anonymity” in a script, write down the name of your new best friend, “Anna Nimity” and you will instantly nail your read. Word.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Hi Debbie and Ruth, many thanks for the great tips. I just goes to show that even the best teams need a great coach, as well as helpful reminders.

    [Reply]

  12. Debbie Irwin

    And this is one scenario where
    ‘Don’t Shoot the Messenger’ does apply?!

    I’ll never forget the first time David Goldberg and I really connected. He listened to my demo and left me a message that there were many mispronunciations. Was he kidding? English is my first language!

    In fact, when he went through the audio file with me, bit by bit, with a fine-toothed comb, he pointed out numerous examples of sloppy speech. I was flabbergasted, and appreciative, and knew I had plenty to learn from his ears.

    And like a dog that has to be reminded of her tricks, I too need the occasional brush up to catch the unarticulated Ps, Ds and Ts; the word ‘to’, which can sound like ‘tuh’; ‘our’ which can sound like ‘are’; and ‘for’ which can sound like ‘fer’.

    Helpful tips:

    1. Wherever the word ‘to’ appears, write the number 2– you’ll never say ‘tuh’ when you see that.

    2. Whenever the word ‘our’ appears, write the word ‘hour’– and it will always sound right!

    3. Whenever the word ‘for’ appears, write the number 4,
    never fear you’ll say ‘fer’ again!

    [Reply]

  13. Nicola Redman

    Good advice Paul, the step to pro speaker is an exciting one when it happens and you can feel the difference.
    http://www.nicolaredman.com

    [Reply]

  14. Paul Seidel

    Interesting you should talk about water – I have issues with my voice going from wonderful and bold in the morning to gruff in the afternoon, and even though I drink water it’s not helping – but I am starting to use Entertainer’s Secret Throat Spray – hopefully it’s not just advertising hype 🙂

    [Reply]

  15. Ted Mcaleer

    This is a print, stick up and save. Compelling, I second Cliff Z

    [Reply]

  16. Pingback: Another Winning Blog Post from Paul Strikwerda | San Diego City College Acting for Radio / Voiceover

  17. Jason Lechak

    Hey Paul!
    I believe you have posted about being ‘unconciously competent’ in the past.
    Thank you for taking the time to write your weekly blog, and have a great weekend! 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Hey Jason, you’re right. I did once write about the four stages of learning. Cliff, thanks for the compelling reason to add “compelling” to my list. Philip, you need to enlighten me about the “Iranian Double Pause.” My brain came to a full stop on that one.

    [Reply]

  18. Marlene Bertrand

    You’re right. The first instruction I ever received from a director was, “Just be you.” It was the only time I ever ignored directions because the real me is so boring. The paragraph about “The Magnifying Glass” had me rolling on the floor, especially when you added, “What am I even doing here?” I’ve had that experience.

    [Reply]

  19. Cliff Zellman

    Great read Paul! This gives the newcomer a very real inside peak and a great checklist. I’d love to see “compelling” on that list.

    [Reply]

  20. Chris Camilleri

    Great stuff, Paul, as always!!

    [Reply]

  21. Philip Banks

    AWESOME! You should’ve mentioned discrete use of the Iranian Double Pause, a life changer!

    Other than that …Awesome!

    [Reply]

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