The Vital Voice-Over Skill We Never Talk About

It’s no secret.

Voice-overs love to talk. Sometimes, they even get paid for it.

But there’s another skill that’s almost as important, yet we rarely speak about it.

It’s listening.

Do you hear me?

Here’s the weird thing. Early in life, we learn how to walk, talk, and color inside the lines. But did anyone ever teach you how to listen?

We’re instructed to sit still and shut up, or else…. One day, my Kindergarten teacher dragged me by my ear, and shoved me into a corner for incessant talking. To add insult to injury, she taped a huge Band-Aid over my mouth.

I’d love to run into her one day, and tell her how I make a living….

By the way, keeping one’s mouth shut is not the same as being a receptive, retentive listener. Listening is a lost art that begs to be rediscovered. Why? Because we’re so used to tuning things out, and for a very good reason.

TOO MUCH NOISE

I don’t know about you, but on any given day my brain finds it easier and easer to reach stimulus overload. That’s no surprise. Every minute of every waking hour we are bombarded with images, smells, sounds, and other sensations. They all cry out for attention like ravenous septuplets wanting to be breastfed, and it’s too much to handle.

If we’d give equal attention to all our sensory input, we’d go mad. Literally. So, our noggin needs to prioritize what it’s going to pay attention to, and for how long. The rest gets tuned out. While that’s a good thing, we do run into another problem.

As we are drowning in information, our attention span is getting shorter and shorter. In fact, I’m surprised that you’re still reading these words! What’s wrong with you?

You may have heard of this one notorious consumer study claiming that the human attention span has gone down from twelve seconds in 2000, to eight seconds today. In contrast, the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds!

I’m not surprised. Goldfish tend to be very good listeners. Although they are a bit slippery, they’d make great shrinks.

Joking aside, my point is that in order to be a good listener, we need to be able to focus on something or someone, and preferably for longer than eight seconds. Why is this particularly important to voice-overs? To begin with, it is vital to the success of our one-person, volatile business, to listen to our clients. We need to know what our clients need to hear from us to be satisfied with our work.

PAYING ATTENTION

One of my students was working on a project, and the client had asked her to give what he called “a decisive read.” “Say no more,” she said. “I know exactly what you’re after.”

A day later she delivered the audio, and guess what? The client was not happy. He called her up and said: “I asked you to sound decisive. I just listened to your recording, and you sound aggressive. I can’t use that.”

“I’m sorry, I really tried,” answered my student. “You asked for decisive, and this is what I thought you meant. How could I have known you wanted something different?”

“Well,” said the client, “you didn’t give me a chance to demonstrate. Before I was able to give you an example, you interrupted me, and said you knew what I was after. Make sure you really understand what the people you’re working with want. Don’t make assumptions. Just listen, and ask questions. Do you think you can do that?”

There was a long pause on the other end of the line.

Lesson learned.

FOCUS AND INTENT

So, the secret to being a good listener has to do with focus and intent. Give yourself permission to focus on someone for longer than eight seconds with the intent to understand (instead of the intent to reply). Be genuinely interested in the other person. Keep your ears open, and your mouth shut.

Resist the impulse to interrupt and fill in the blanks. Those blanks are YOUR blanks, and may have nothing to do with what your client is trying to tell you.

This may sound easy, but in this fast and crazy world filled with manufactured distractions, it’s hard for people to sit still and slow down the running commentary between their ears. That commentary is usually evaluating what we just did, or figuring out what we should do next. It is rarely in the moment.

For us to really listen, we need to be in the moment.

To me, the ability to be in the moment is an essential life skill. There are many ways to achieve this state of mind, and some are more esoteric than others. I like to close my eyes, and slow down my breathing. After watching a documentary about Spartacus-star Andy Whitfield, I added the following mantra to quiet my mind:

BE

HERE

NOW

As you are reading these words, give it a try.

Close your eyes.

Begin breathing more deeply and s l o w l y.

Say to yourself in a soothing voice:

BE

HERE

NOW

 

BE

HERE

NOW

 

Thanks for playing along! You may need to relearn what it’s like to be here now (I certainly did), and this could be a good start. Take a few minutes each day to center yourself, and practice being in the moment. It may take you a while, and that’s okay.

Be gentle. Be patient, and be quiet.

LET THE WORDS SPEAK

Now, there’s a second reason why as a voice-over you need to learn how to listen. This has nothing to do with the people around you, and everything with what’s in front of you: your script. No matter what it is, an eLearning module, a historic novel, or a commercial, this script is trying to tell you something. It has a message. It wants to be understood.

While part of your restless brain is still conditioned to skim the words, please take your time to take them in. Don’t tune out. Tune in! Find out how the information is organized, and how the ideas unfold in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Some scripts can be like jigsaw puzzles. They come to you in many pieces. The only way to put them together, is to have a clear understanding of the big picture.

As a listener, I can always tell whether or not a narrator knows what he or she is talking about. I can hear the difference between a rush job and a thoughtful recording. I know when a narrator is in love with him- or herself, or with the text. It all comes back to listening. There’s a reason why a well-known Turkish proverb goes something like this:

“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.”

THE QUIET CONDUIT

Author and radio host Celeste Headlee wondered why people would rather talk than listen. She says that when we’re talking, we are in control. We are the center of attention. I think she’s right.

As a voice-over professional, I see myself as a conduit. It’s not about me. It’s about the message. And the only way to honor the words I am about to speak, is to let them speak to me first.

All I need to do, is be in the moment, and listen.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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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.”

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal

10 Responses to The Vital Voice-Over Skill We Never Talk About

  1. Howard Ellison

    What a great encouragement to switch the mind from Play to Record.
    And listening, in its most literal sense, means we pick up nuances in the way everyday people speak (not just admired actors!), hearing how tone changes with emotion, those little mannerisms and resonances – and much else.
    All nourishing to the day.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You made another great point, Howard. I hear you!

    As voice actors, listening to how other people speak gives us information and inspiration to create characters for audio books, games, and commercials.

    [Reply]

  2. Viktor Pavel

    Paul, bedankt! Yet another valuable, well written food for thought contribution from you! Best wishes from Berlin! Viktor

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I appreciate the touch of Dutch, Pavel. Alles Gute!

    [Reply]

  3. Patricia Corkum

    Hi Paul…yep…I am guilty as charged!
    If we Voice folk looked at each & every word as a gold coin – a script would be an overflowing treasure chest! Thanks (again) for sharing! Cheerful regards, Patricia

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for coining that phrase, Patricia. It’s gold!

    [Reply]

  4. Ed Helvey

    Great wisdom in your words, Paul.

    I don’t know about other folks, but as a lifelong entrepreneur, I found I was ALWAYS in a hurry – there was always so much to do from wake up to shut eye and even then my mind didn’t always turn off.

    Now, in my “somewhat retired” years, it’s changed a bit. I’m not so much engaged in the hustle of business life of my younger years. Now, I realize I’m entering the “home stretch” and there’s so much I still want to do, that I’m rushing to get it all done. I find it hard to slow down and just take in and assimilate words and sights and conversations. So, I am a typical example of that shortened attention span.

    However, I’m also fully aware that everyone dies with “unfinished business.” So, I’m making a conscious effort to “BE HERE NOW!” Thanks for the reminder.

    Here’s a resource for you and your other readers. A good friend of mine from another of my lives, the speaking world, Dr. Lyman “Manny” Steil, has spent decades teaching and training “listening” in the corporate world. He has a terrific book, it may be out of print, but used copies are available. It’s titled “Listening Leaders: The Ten Golden Rules To Listen, Lead & Succeed.” You may find it useful.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for the tip, Ed. I just turned the book title into a link, so everyone can look it up.

    Compared to a century ago, life has become more and more fast-paced. If our ancestors were alive today, they’d probably go crazy within the hour. Thanks to the wonders of technology everything has to always be faster, which somehow is equated with better. This may also be a bit of a cultural phenomenon. What I’m about to say is a huge generalization, but I have observed it many times. It has to do with eating.

    Americans like to “grab a bite.” Europeans go out to “have dinner.” When I first came to the U.S., turning tables seemed to be the name of the game. There’s a reason fast food was invented in the USA. In Europe (where I was born and raised), I could easily spend a few hours with good friends and good food.

    Like you, I’m all for taking time to smell the roses and all the other flowers in the bouquet of life!

    Be Here Now!

    [Reply]

  5. Paul Garner

    I’m still working on this one. Thanks for the reminder, Paul!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Same here, Paul. This piece was one, big note to self, and to my readers. Thanks for being one of them!

    [Reply]

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