voice acting tips

Don’t Drive Yourself Crazy

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 8 Comments

Road rageDo you remember the time you learned how to drive?

I sure do!

In the beginning it was utterly overwhelming and scary. My hands and feet were supposed to do different things at the same time, and they vehemently refused. When I had to shift gears, I felt the urge to look at that darn stick shift, but my instructor insisted I keep my eyes on the road, and use the mirrors to monitor the dangerous world around me. 

How on earth was I supposed to peek at the dashboard; leave a safe space between my car and the one in front of me; keep a semi-intelligent conversation going, while figuring out where to go without getting everyone killed? 

As my hands were digging deep into the wheel, I couldn’t imagine ever drinking coffee while driving, or listening to a Shostakovich symphony on the freeway. And what would happen if I had to sneeze?

Mind you: at that point I was only doing fifteen miles per hour on a back road. 

“Give it some time,” said my overweight instructor as he wiped the pearly sweat from his impressive forehead. “Before you know it, everything will become second nature, and you’ll love being in the driver’s seat. Now, make sure not to cut off that cyclist on your right. I don’t think my insurance covers fatal accidents. Besides, I just washed the car.”

He paused for a moment, and said: “That was a joke.”

Then he took a long sip from his stainless steel flask. “Look,” he said proudly, “My wife had it engraved. Can you see what it says?” 

“Do not dangle that thing in front of me. I don’t want to see what it says,” I squeaked, barely avoiding a ditch. “I’m trying to focus!”

“It says: 

If everything comes your way, you are in the wrong lane. 

Isn’t that funny?” continued my instructor. “I love a woman with a sense of humor. You know, my first wife was way too serious. She got car sick all the time. That should have been a sign. It was a messy divorce, but it was worth every penny! Do you have any kids?”

At that point I firmly put my foot on the brake, stopping the car so abruptly that our bodies turned into crash test dummies. 

“Please take me home!” I cried. “My mind is in overdrive right now, and this is all I can take. I’m sure your new wife loves you very much, but giving you a flask for work? What was she thinking?”

“It’s just to take the edge off, Mr. Strikwerda. I think you should have a sip yourself. Believe me, you need it. Is it okay if I eat a bean burrito? I haven’t had lunch yet.”

Ten years and two driving instructors later, my mind took me back to this unsettling experience. The brain works in mysterious ways, especially when it consists of dark matter and black holes, like mine. 

I was at a fancy New York voice-over studio, surrounded by self-absorbed nitwits who all believed they were crucial to the success of the recording I was hired to do. It was some stupid script about a new type of air bag, designed for driverless cars (and instructors with engraved flasks). 

As five people argued over some last-minute script changes, I looked at the audio engineer. He nodded knowingly, and whispered in my headphones: 

“Just remember: your meter is running. My meter is running. The longer they take, the more we make.”

In the past, these types of situations would have been as stressful as learning how to drive a car. I didn’t like being in a different environment with different people. Too many things were going on at the same time. Lots of egos, and me feeling inadequate and insecure. My internal dialogue would almost paralyze me with its ugly voice:

“Are they talking about me? What if I make a mistake? What if they hate my take on the text? Why is my mouth so dry? Is it okay to take a bathroom break? And what about that horrendous tongue twister in the third line?”

That was then. This is now. Things have changed.

I’ve learned how to drive while drinking a tall Latte as I listen to the BBC. I even drove myself to New York. In rush hour, and I only got beeped at once. 

Call me Mr. Cool!

I leaned back in my chair, looking at the microphone. The folks on the other side of the studio window were still deliberating, and for some reason I had to think back to a radio interview I just heard on my way to the Big Apple. It was more of a conversation between two pianists, Gabriela Montero and Khatia Buniatishvili.

The interviewer asked:

“Could you describe the moment when the concert hall hushes, your fingers are poised above the keys… Take us inside your head. What are you thinking then?”

Khatia, who is from Georgia, answered:

“Actually, on stage I try not to think, because on stage there are things much more important than just human thinking that happen there. I’m totally forgetting my ego.”

“What about you, Gabriela?”

“I sit down, and I just want to be able to tell stories. That’s really the only thing that matters to me. I want to be able to convey in the deepest ways who we are, as a people; who we are, and what moves us. I want to move the public.”

Listening to these two professional performers, I felt a surprisingly close connection. As I was getting ready for my voice-over, I took a nice deep breath, and said to myself:

This script is my score, my voice is my instrument, and this studio is my stage.

The best thing I can do right now, is to stop thinking about myself. 

I’m a conduit. A storyteller, paid to move people with a message.

I have worked on my technique. I have analyzed the text. I have rehearsed it at home.

I am ready to let it go, and let it flow. 

I am in my comfort zone, and this is just as easy…

as driving a car.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.


The Worst Acting Advice Ever

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 24 Comments

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