neutral English voice-over

The One Thing That Will Improve Your Voice Acting Immediately

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 29 Comments

Bradley Cooper

Question:

What’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better?

Warm-ups?

Tongue twisters?

Sufficient hydration?

Well, in order to answer this question, we first have to agree on what “better” sounds like. “Better” is one of those vague words we all use, but rarely clarify. We always tell each other to do better, be better, and get better, but how? I’d better explain.

Before I do, let’s take one more step back, and find out what it is that actually needs to be improved. After all, we can’t come up with a solution if we don’t know what the problem is. 

Today I want to focus on something that many of my voice-over students struggle with. They have trouble sounding “natural.”

People who pose for pictures suffer from the same phenomenon. As soon as they see a camera, they become self-conscious, and start acting differently. Unnaturally. 

The same thing happens when you put people (even professionals) in front of a microphone, and it’s time to record. During the sound check they were chatting away carelessly, but as soon as the engineer utters the words “… and we’re rolling,” something weird happens. 

Immediately, the voice changes. With men it often becomes deeper, and forcefully resonant. Words start coming out in a more deliberate, over articulated way, as if the voice talent is impersonating what they believe a voice-over should sound like. It’s that intolerable tone that’s so cliché and contrived. It tells you a text is read aloud, instead of spontaneously spoken. 

This vocal switch-flipping phenomenon is not limited to voice-overs, by the way. I see it in grown-ups trying to interact with infants. Give them two seconds, and out comes the baby voice! Teachers have their teacher’s voice, priests have their preacher’s voice, and some nurses have this annoying way of saying: “And how are we feeling today?” 

Back to the recording booth. Apart from a clear change in diction and tonality, I’ve noticed two other things both men and women are equally guilty of, as soon as they realize they’re being recorded.

One: they start talking louder.

Two: they start talking faster

If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know what I’m talking about. A conductor asking his choristers to sing softer, will tell you that they’ll automatically start singing slower. When asked to speed up a bit, people start singing louder. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction. 

Because this not a deliberate process, most of my students aren’t even aware that they’re suddenly talking faster and louder. I’ll often interrupt them and say:

“Who are you trying to reach? Your deaf grandmother in the back row of some imaginary theater? Right now you’re talking straight into a microphone. Think of it as my ear. There’s no need to raise your voice. The script doesn’t ask you to. This is a simple educational narration. Adjust your gain if you feel your signal is too weak, or come closer to the mic, but whatever you do, please use your normal, inside voice.”

At this point I wanted to write “It’s easier said than done,” but that’s not true. Saying it, is the problem. Consider this.

The relationship between a narrator and a listener is delicate, and intimate. Rarely will you be closer to a human being than when you’re whispering into his or her ear, even though both of you are invisible to the other.

At that moment of connection, you breathe life into the lines, creating a world with your words. It is your job to make that experience as truthful and natural as possible. When you manage to do that, a few things will happen: 

1. The listener will be able to focus on the content, without being distracted by an over-the-top delivery. 

2. The listener will become more receptive to your message, because you sound more real. 

3. By treating your voice gently, you’ll be able to go on longer, because you’re not putting so much stress on your vocal folds. 

Everybody wins.

Now for some bad news, and some good news. The bad news is that old habits tend to die a slow death. Think of all those ex-radio people who just couldn’t shake their announcer voice. It takes awareness, coaching, and practice to unlearn what has become automatic, and do more with less. 

The good news is that even the greatest actors of our time struggle with sounding natural. When the movie Silver Linings Playbook came out, leading man Bradley Cooper was interviewed by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. This is what he told her:

“As I’ve been acting the last 12 years, I’ve thought, ‘Well, the one thing I do have is this ability to make things seem … that I’m not acting.’ I’ve always felt like I can make lines that have been written come out of my mouth in a realistic way. … Then I met Robert De Niro and did the movie Limitless with him and realized that that wasn’t the case.

“I … still remember the table read for Limitless. … He comes in on about page 25. … The beginning of the movie is basically my character talking — there’s a lot of voice-over — and then all of a sudden he says something to me, and I stopped the reading, and I turned to him and I said, ‘I’m sorry. What’s that?’ And I realized he was actually saying his first line, but it was so grounded — as if he wasn’t acting — and I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve just been acting my tail off for the past 20 minutes. And here’s an example of somebody, you know, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.”

Of course there’s a difference between playing a role in a motion picture, and narrating a documentary, or an eLearning project. However, being a narrator is one of the roles voice-overs play, if you will. Good narrators give the impression that they’re not playing that role. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say with the least amount of performance. They create the illusion of spontaneity, giving the audience the impression that they’re not acting at all. 

Great (voice) actors are masters at pretending not to pretend. 

So, what’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better? To put it bluntly:

Quit trying so hard!

Relax.

Breathe.

If you want to sound more natural, use your normal speaking voice and volume. 

Stop yelling, and start telling. 

Imagine you’re talking to someone across the table from you. 

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? 

Well, there’s the rub.

Only a true and talented professional knows how to make something unnatural seem natural, even if it’s as normal as making conversation. 

The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner explained it best when he was asked for his definition of acting.

This was his answer:

“Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Shame on you, Mr. Nethervoice!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International 9 Comments

Something strange and unexpected has happened.

Thanks to the growing popularity of this blog, some of my readers now write to me saying:

“Dear Mr. Nethervoice, I enjoy your articles but I never knew you were into voice-overs as well. For how long have you been gracing this world with the sweet, seductive sound of your pleasantly persuasive pipes?”

At that point, I patiently explain that I’ve been working the mic since I was 17, and some three years later I’m still at it. Well, that’ s not entirely true. I feel and act like I’m seventeen… most of the time. Of course information about my illustrious career has been available on other pages of my blog. You know, the ones next to this text that nobody bothers to read.

Since every question is a golden opportunity to enlighten my fans, colleagues and clients alike, I will do something I have never done before, at least not this openly.

For once, I will shamelessly sing my own praises, and if you’re not comfortable with that, I shall retreat into a corner and weep bitter tears of shame and disappointment… and proceed as planned! After all, who is going to stop me?

This is me in a nutshell:

  • full-time voice-over artist and writer
  • records in English, Dutch (mother tongue) and German
  • most in-demand accent:  “neutral” or “European” English
  • specialty: intelligent international narration
  • impressive clients: Novartis, Deloitte, Plantronics, Farmers Life
  • expert-contributor to Internet Voice Coach
  • websites: www.nethervoice.com, www.dutchvoiceover.net
  • Favorite quote: “Your voice is like velcro. Whatever you say sticks

Based on that last line, I should perhaps go by the surname of Stick-worda.

GUIDED TOUR
Now that we’ve made our formal acquaintance, allow me to take you on a quick tour of some of my voice-over projects.

The Dutch are known for being great ice skaters. This is me, telling them about another exciting sport: skate boarding!

On to another mode of transportation. Here’s the only Dutch commercial I ever recorded for the black market:

Ready to get more mileage out of your gas tank? Then you should listen to “Muzzle the Guzzle: 50 Fuel Saving Strategies” by Michael Minsky.

This audio book received an average rating of 4.67 out of 5 stars on the earth-shattering Audible.com Richter scale. Narrated in English by yours truly.

On to other modes of transportation.

 

Meet Andreas Klauser. He’s the President and CEO for CASE IH, one of one of the world’s largest brands of agriculture equipment.

Born and educated in Austria, Mr. Klauser is a native German speaker. CASE IH asked me to dub a series of meet the CEO-videos, as the voice of Mr. Klauser… in German, that is! Kein Problem für mich!

The Austrian ski resort of Zauchensee is one of the hidden treasures of the Alps. Not for long, if it’s up to me.

The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was one of the most influential proponents of Liberalism.

Jörg Guido Hülsmann, professor of economics at the University of Paris, tells the full story of his dramatic and inspiring life and contributions in a 1143-page biography.

The Von Mises Institute commissioned me to record the complete audio version of this masterpiece (some 32+ hours) and next week, work will start on a second book.

The Wharton School is the business school of the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League university in Philadelphia. Wharton is the world’s first collegiate business school and the first business school in the United States.

I’ll tell you more about Wharton in this presentation:

Haliotika in Brittany (France), offers everything to do with sea fishing, including displays of boats, fish varieties, interactive education for children and boat rides. A very fishy place, indeed.

Take the audio tour, and you’ll hear me as the German voice of Philippe and Claude, two local fishermen talking about net profit.

 

Camp Gurs was an internment and refugee camp constructed by the French government in 1939. In 1940, it became a concentration camp for Jews of any nationality except French, as well as people considered dangerous by the government. I was honored to narrate the German audio tour.

 

This Dutch company has produced an ingenious interactive digital movie course. It contains a large collection of known and unknown film clips from 1878 up to the present day.

Each clip is an example of a new discovery in cinematography: editing, camera movement, image cutouts, sound, talkies, color film, acting method, etcetera. This time, I step into the role of English tour guide.

Speaking of tours, we all have our dream homes. I happen to have quite a few of them and thanks to Spartina Studios, I get to be the host of many of Connecticut’s most precious properties. Here’s one of these humble abodes:

There’s no doubt about it: video increases home sales as long as it’s done right. That’s why I have written “Real Estate Videos & Voice Overs,” a white paper for videographers and real estate agents.

Some people still believe that voice-overs is all about doing silly voices (click here for more misconceptions). Well, sometimes it is! Who would have thought that a Dutchman would ever dub Johnny Depp?

Here’s a video I voiced  for an insurance company. It will never win a prize for best animation, but I sure had a blast doing both voices! (the fun starts at 0:53)

This paint of this last video is still wet. Made in Kibbutz Gat, it tells the story of a multi-national  company most of you have probably never heard of.  It’s in Dutch, so I’ll leave it up to you to figure this one out!

Well, that’s all folks!

Thank you so much for enduring this exercise in self-indulgence. I admire your persistence and perseverance. Now you can go back to your daily chores as you reminisce about the delectable servings of eye and ear candy I had the pleasure of serving up for you.

I’m just going to look and listen to all the videos one last time…

… can’t help myself!

Paul Strikwerda ©2011
www.nethervoice.com

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