The One Thing That Will Improve Your Voice Acting Immediately

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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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, Studio

26 Responses to The One Thing That Will Improve Your Voice Acting Immediately

  1. Rebecca Haugh

    YES!!! And… it’s so great that way!

    [Reply]

  2. Rebecca Haugh

    Very true. Haven’t seen you write about this before, Paul. It’s something I believe is dealt with in practice and continuously just like with Bradley Cooper. My path to a solution was improvisation. Regular improvisation doesn’t work with a script but teaches you how to create the situation in your imagination. Then using the muscles built from improv practice, you apply to a script. More details here: http://bit.ly/ImprovWscript. For some actors, the traditional approaches work. For me, they helped me learn the basics but not the ‘natural’ way. Improv is my answer and I can’t speak for others. But the bottom line, is that is acting. And it’s an art, not a science!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    At the VO Atlanta conference, the members of the video game panel told us about a new trend: storylines are becoming more important than ever. Characters have backstories, and drive the plot. This means that voice-overs have to become voice actors. Improv is a great and fun tool to explore characters, and to free oneself from the script.

    Your link leads to a LinkedIn sign-up page, Rebecca. Could you please send me the correct one? Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Rebecca Haugh Reply:

    I’ve always believed that voice-over talents should consider themselves actors. That’s always also been my personal approach. Improv is not just a fun activity, but a skill that you can use to help you within a script. I know that sounds goofy but the article went into more detail, that’s why I shared it. I disagree that it is a tool to free oneself from the script, unless you mean to free oneself without a script?

    The link is to an article I wrote within LinkedIn. If you don’t have a profile or aren’t signed in, I guess you can’t read it.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    By “freeing oneself from the script,” I really mean “having the ability to sound spontaneous.” Doing improv has helped me get into the spirit of spontaneity, and speak the words, instead of reading them from a piece of paper.

  3. Hal Vincent

    Paul great piece re: natural delivery. Depending upon the topic, mood, etc. I think a helpful way to look at it is imagine you’re having an animated conversation with a friend (albeit one-way)

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    That’s a really good way to think about it, Hal.

    [Reply]

  4. Kent

    Such a simple resolution to a problem, but with a multi-faceted implications! But, you’re right, Paul, the more you think about it, the more you OVER-think it! Wonderful advice, to be sure.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Here’s the problem: if it’s that simple, why is it so difficult? Simple things should be easy, right? Well, part of the answer is that as multi-tasking VO’s we spend so much time judging our performance as we’re bringing the script to life. We almost have to over think the process, because there’s so much to think about. That’s why I call what we do the “illusion of spontaneity.” It’s faking that we’re not faking it.

    [Reply]

  5. John O'Hern

    Great advice and yes, hard to do. But I think if you start with your thought….be calm, just talk…don’t perform… your voice can begin to dance. It now has room to go up and down…sideways, low, high. You can paint way more colors almost just by thinking them. I keep catching myself dropping into a comfortable narrative voice that even I can hear becomes monotonous. Again…great advice.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I love your use of words. It’s almost like a verbal dance. And as in dance, one has to know all the steps before one can let the joyful movement take over.

    [Reply]

  6. Thomas Varhol

    Thanks for this instruction. I’ve spent far too long trying to sound like an announcer being natural. Been doing this for a long time, and you’ve given me a fresh start. Thanks, T

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m so glad to hear that, Thomas! Of course different jobs require different kinds of reads, and sometimes a client really wants the announcer to come out. But it’s good to have a range as voice actor. It makes you much more marketable.

    [Reply]

  7. Pingback: Another post on how to sound natural | San Diego City College Acting for Radio / Voiceover

  8. Jem Matzan

    To what extent is “sounding natural” a problem that comes from a poor-quality script? For instance, one that sounds robotic because it contains no contractions and the sentences are short and abrupt. Hollywood movie stars can probably change the script a little to fit the character, but you can’t do that as a “no-body” commercial VO. Granted, most adequately-paying commercial work isn’t going to be badly written, but there are some top-selling books out there that read like they were written by a 13-year-old.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Some scripts can be a challenge because they’re written to be read, not spoken. Just as a musician has to do everything s/he can to make a poor composition sound phenomenal, narrators have to do the same with scripts that are seriously lacking in quality.

    [Reply]

    Jem Matzan Reply:

    Do you think that “written to be read” could be (or suggest) its own style of delivery? The concept of this reminds me of the audiobook narrators who do “straight reads” — they just calmly and clearly read the words as though they’re a slightly more adept version of a text-to-speech engine. I find that boring, but maybe it has its place. Maybe there are times when sounding human and conversational isn’t what a client wants?

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Sounding human is one of the things that separates us from text to speech software. There is a place in VO for the promo read, the movie trailer read, and even the announcer read. Listening to the video game experts at VO Atlanta, there’s an increasing demand for VO’s with acting chops. In short: different reads for different needs. That’s why it’s so important to have a range in our delivery as a voice talent.

  9. KC Cady

    Good Stuff~
    Thanks for sharing.
    -KC

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My pleasure, KC!

    [Reply]

  10. Conchita Congo

    Fantastic insight into being natural on the mic.. The take away for me – adjust your gain, not your volume.
    And Messner, of course.
    Thank you, Paul. I can’t be in Atlanta, but I’ll catch you on the live stream.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Super. If you wave at the screen, I might just wave back!

    [Reply]

  11. Patrick Sweeney

    Excellent as always Paul! Have fun in Atlanta.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you, Patrick. I have a feeling that Atlanta is going to be epic.

    [Reply]

  12. Paul Garner

    Oh, too true, Paul! I continue to work on sounding natural behind the mic. Have to let go, relax and focus.
    Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re very welcome, Paul. I’ve found that self-direction can be self-defeating when it comes to trying to sound natural. We’re so used to the way we sound, that it’s hard for us to hear when we get stuck in old patterns.

    [Reply]

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