How To Be Believable

Founders Hall ©nethervoiceCongruence.

It’s one of those mysterious English words I had to learn as a native Dutch speaker. Little did I know that this word would come to play a pivotal part in my voice-over career.

Congruence is not a word you hear very often. At least, I don’t. It’s sometimes used in mathematics or geometry. What does it mean?

Congruence is actually a state achieved by different elements coming together. It’s a state of agreement and harmony. In a moment, I’ll tell you why this state is so important to professional speakers.

As I continue my series on performance, I want to remind you of the five characteristics of masterful delivery. They are:

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

SAY YOU’RE SORRY

Last week we talked about the significance of clean and clear delivery. Today we’ll move on to the next C. Let’s start off with a question:

How can you tell someone’s apology is not sincere? To put it differently, how do you pick up on the fact that someone doesn’t mean what he or she is saying?

It might help to think back to a moment where one of your friends or colleagues sounded totally unconvincing. From the moment this person opened his or her mouth you knew something was wrong, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.

Was it the choice of words? Could it be the tone of voice? Was it the body language that tipped you off?

I’d like to suggest that it was all of the above.

You see, what we say, how we say it, and the way we hold our body while we are saying it, is utterly revealing.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Years ago, a collection agency wanted to know the difference between a successful debt collector, and someone struggling to collect. In this case, they looked at employees who were using the phone to commit debtors to pay. In other words: these guys were making collect calls.

Both the successful collectors and the unsuccessful ones were using the same script, verbatim. So, why did one group succeed and the other fail? One of the determining factors turned out to be the very last sentence in the script. After informing the respondent of the outstanding debt and ways to take care of it, here’s what the collectors had to ask:

“Can you make a payment today?”

Because it is constructed as a question, the natural thing would be to read this line with a question mark. In other words, the speaker’s voice would go up at the end of the sentence. That’s exactly what the unsuccessful collectors did. Collectively.

UPTALK

We all know people who are in the habit of ending their sentences on a higher pitch. Phonologists have named this tendency HRT or high-rising terminal, and they believe this trend is growing in Australia and North America. Down Under they call it the Australian Question Intonation or AQI.

To many listeners, upward inflection (or uptalk) is an indicator of insecurity, and that’s exactly how the debtors interpreted it. Listening to the collector on the phone, the person owing money didn’t think the situation was urgent, so most people would put off making a payment.

The successful collectors on the other hand, treated the question “Can you make a payment today” as a statement. Instead of going up, their voices would go down at the word “today.” It almost sounded like a command, and it had the desired effect.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN

Same words. Different tonality. Different meaning. The French even have a saying for that:

“C’est le ton qui fait la musique”

It’s not what you say, but the way you say it.

Just as our tone of voice conveys meaning, our body language can be very revealing too.

At a party, one of my friends was rather quiet and withdrawn. He avoided eye contact, and looked down at the floor.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Oh, I feel great,” my friend said. “I’m really enjoying this party.”

“If that’s the case, why don’t I see it in your face?” I asked.

It turned out that his partner just broke up with him, and he felt as happy as a sad sack of potatoes.

PANTS ON FIRE

You see, it’s easy to choose the right words. We can also make an effort to sound upbeat even if we’re not, but it’s tough to make our bodies lie. That’s because our posture and facial expressions are a result of unconscious processes that are hard to manipulate, unless…. you’re in the acting business.

Actors are paid pretenders. The more convincing they can “lie,” the higher their paychecks.

As a (voice) actor, it is your job to sell your lines so that the audience is buying it. In order for them to believe in what you’re saying, they have to believe that you believe it yourself. How do you do that? Here’s one clue:

If you wish your audience to access a certain state, you have to access that state yourself first.

What do I mean by that? Lets assume you’re a keynote speaker at a conference, and you want to pump the audience up. They’ll never get out of their seats if you take forever to come on stage, start adjusting your microphone, and you begin by arranging your notes saying the following words in the most sleep-inducing tone of voice:

“Ehhh, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor and a privilege to be here with you tonight.”

Zzzzzzzzz

Now imagine a hypnotherapist trying to put his patient under while speaking in a most animated, rapid-fire way. It’s not going to work because his words are saying one thing, and his actions are saying something else. 

CONFIDENCE

If you want to be a successful (voice) actor, you have to become masterful at evoking and managing your states. Like so many things in life, this starts between the ears.

Your external dialogue begins with your internal dialogue.

We started this story by talking about being convincing. You will never be able to convince anyone of anything without confidence. If you wish to come across as confident, you have to access a state of confidence. 

But what if you’re insecure or nervous? What do you do? Well, there are a few ways you can approach this.

Strategy number one: Just pretend that you’re confident. As kids, most of us were very good at pretending. This is your chance to become a kid again, and feign the state you wish to access. It’s fun and it works, as long as you give yourself permission to play. Are you willing to do that, or are you too stuck in your adult ways?

Strategy number two: Model confident people. Study how they walk. Study how they talk. Study their beliefs. It’s the basic stuff actors do when preparing for specific roles. Once you’ve analyzed people’s mannerisms, speech patterns and body language, it’s your turn to reproduce them, and make them your own.

Strategy number three is based on the following principle: Competence breeds confidence. In other words, the more competent you become, the more confident you will feel. For instance, years of doing live radio taught me that I can cold read any script any time and sound like I know it inside out. What’s one thing you can do to increase your competence? 

Strategy number four: Face your fears. People who aren’t very confident and convincing are usually afraid that something unpleasant will happen should they assert themselves. Unless and until you deal with that, you’ll always be stuck at the level of pretending.

NEED PROOF?

So, let’s assume you’ve taken the time to use these strategies, and you’re ready to put them to the test. How can you tell you sound convincing? How do you actually know you’ve nailed it? This brings me back to the very first word of this blog post: congruence. It’s the polar opposite of sending mixed signals.

When your tone of voice and your body language match your message, you’ve become a congruent, convincing communicator.

This does not mean that you always have to act as someone who knows what he or she is doing. It totally depends on the part you play. If your job is to portray someone who is insecure, you embody that role as convincingly as you can. 

Secondly, -like the debt collectors- you will know you’re on the right track by observing how people react. Are they paying… attention to you?

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

One last question. Well, two actually, but who’s counting? 

Have I convinced you?

Is congruence key to a solid delivery?

As a writer, I have a bit of a problem here. All I have to work with are words. You can’t see me, and you don’t hear me.

Unless you’re blessed with a rich imagination.

In that case, I hope you’ve made me look and sound incredibly convincing!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 3 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link.

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

20 Responses to How To Be Believable

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  2. Elissa Weinzimmer

    Paul we are on the same page with this for sure! And even talking about it on our blogs at similar times. I think “congruence” is a totally excellent word for what I call “letting every thought have its own energy.” I also love these five things: Clear and Clean, Convincing, Consistent, Context & content appropriate, and Charismatic and I’d love to hear you break them down more in future blogs.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Hi Elissa, thanks for reading my blog post on believability! The element of energy is very important in our work (and our life). Without “prana,” everything we do is lifeless. You’ve definitely given me something to write about in the future, because the whole concept of energy is worth exploring more.

    As far as Charisma is concerned, I have written about that in a blog post called: “Defining the IT-factor.” Check it out! In my past two blog posts I have also written about other elements affecting our delivery. It’s more of a big picture overview, though. I usually leave the details for individual sessions with my students.

    [Reply]

    Elissa Weinzimmer Reply:

    Sounds great Paul! Looking forward to reading more!

    [Reply]

  3. Ruth Weisberg

    We’re all on the same page and footing here. I have a friend who is a retired FBI agent and he knows a thing or three about spoken AND body language when succinctly and swiftly sniffing out folks and how they roll: “Liars convince. Truthtellers convey.”

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I love that last saying, Ruth. Having said that… there are some convincing liars in the world.

    [Reply]

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  7. Matt Forrest

    Great post as always, Paul. You’re right about inflections – the debt collector scenario reminded me of my time in Nashville working as an evening callroom manager for a telemarketing company. We pounded it into our staff’s brains NOT to EVER sound like they were asking questions. We didn’t want wimpy, insecure-sounding people calling homeowners…we wanted strong personalities who sounded like they knew what they were talking about. That, coupled with an unusual script, made a huge difference, too – we had a 60% closing rate, which was unheard of.

    It’s like the old saying, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for backing up my story with your experience, Matt! Small changes can make a huge difference!

    [Reply]

  8. Johnny George

    Spot on Paul. Read, understood and shared.

    Thanks for your insight.

    [Reply]

  9. Kent Ingram

    Paul, great article, again! Reading it reminded of how I’ve used various vocal styles and adapted them to my own repertoire. The best example is how I adapted the late Paul Harvey’s delivery and tones to one of my vocal ranges. There was a “lilt” to his delivery and emphasis and you could “hear” a smile behind some of the stories he related. Thanks for a great one, Paul, and, as the late Mr. Harvey ended his broadcasts, I say, “good…daaay!”.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Kent and Ed. I love the image of hearing a smile behind a story. Even though you can’t see it, you can always detect it.

    [Reply]

  10. Ed-VO

    I’m convinced, Paul. 🙂

    I can still hear my mom say, “It’s not what you say.It’s how you say it,” (when instructing me;) and, “It’s not what you said. It’s the way you said it, (when punishing me.)

    [Reply]

  11. Jane

    Beautifully written, Paul- you’ve described perfectly how to create a seamless,real performance.
    When I think of congruence,I picture several small rivers or creeks flowing into one smooth body of water. The different “parts” disappear. My singing coach put it a different way; “get out of the way of the music.”
    When Your 5 “C’s” come together… it’s magic.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Jane and Kevin, thanks for your comments. When I got my start in radio (many, many years ago) I was asked to sound more convincing. Unfortunately, nobody told me how to do that. Till this day, some directors still believe that simply saying words like “make it more believable” is enough for an actor to go on. The trouble with words is that different people have different associations. That’s why I wanted to break it down in this article. Stay tuned for the next installment!

    [Reply]

  12. Kevin Scheuller

    Great advice, as usual, Paul. Since you tend to write in such a conversational style, I usually do imagine hearing your blog. Of course, the benefit of having heard your work, and your guest spots on EWABS and other shows helps this reader “hear” your convincing voice in your blogs.
    While I don’t have as much experience directing folks as you, I do remember simply directing a Sunday school class as they prepared an Easter pageant with the words,”convince me.” Let me know that you’re not just reading these words off of the page because you have to. Of course, since they were young,I tried not to get too profound with them by telling them that these words give them life, so they should give life to the words. Just basically telling them to make me believe they believe what they’re saying makes a difference.

    As you indicated by telling about your sad friend at the party, nonverbal communication also plays a huge part in conveying the message. Thanks for another great blog post.

    [Reply]

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