In all areas of life, your perspective colors your reality. This isn’t a fault of yours or mine, it just is. We can only see the world through our own eyes. Our experiences, knowledge and unique way of thinking naturally filters how we understand the words of others. So, when we receive direction from a coach or client, it is important for beginners to understand certain industry terminology to be able to discern true intentions from mere words.
Before we go further, there is a need to explain something about myself. Much to my detriment, I tend to think in a very literal way. So, if someone says a particular thing, I innocently think they mean that particular thing. As everyone besides me instinctively knows, this is not necessarily so. For instance, when your mother says “Why don’t you help me with this?”, the correct answer is not “Because I don’t want to”. Similarly, if I am looking for my missing car keys and my hypothetical wife says “Where did you last use them?”, what she really means is “Again? Are you blind, stupid or both?”.
The case for the defense
We humans don’t always say what we mean, do we? Here is another example. If a totally hypothetical other woman to whom I am not hypothetically married asks me “Do these pants make my butt look big?”, she really isn’t asking for my opinion. Obvious? Not to me. I had to learn these things the hard way. It turns out she is asking for reassurance and a little confidence boost, delivered without hesitation, with just the right words, in just the right tone, in a completely believable way, the combination of which is humanly impossible, under penalty of prolonged painful death if you get it wrong, which is very, very possible. Yes, I have hypothetically learned first hand that the literal, honest truth has no place in this conversation, nor does any answer of any kind, no matter how lovingly intended or sweetly spoken. Trust me young men, just pretend you didn’t hear her. It is far better for her to think you inattentive than to die in the attempt to prove otherwise.
As you can see, literal thinking and misinterpretation can create a minefield out of relationships. The same applies to voice-over. Success is all in the interpretation.
Smooth it out
In a training session a while back my coach told me to read a script over again, but “smooth it out”. This is a perfect example. Smooth it out. The words seem so simple, but I had no idea what she wanted. Reduce inflections? Moderate my volume? Smoothly retreat from the microphone, the coaching session, the booth, and any dreams of becoming a successful voice-over because I suck so bad and why am I wasting her time? It was a few months later when working with a different coach that it finally dawned on me. I hadn’t been aware of it myself, but my natural form of speech is choppy. I, literally, break sentences up, into fragments, with little pauses, all the, frickin’ time. Who knew? Everybody except me, apparently. Smooth it out. Got it!
There are many times when a beginner to voice-over may fall into traps simply because they do not understand what they are being told. A little online research will reveal various lists of important voice-over related terms and definitions which are very helpful to the uninitiated. Here is one. And another. Read them and become enlightened.
What I have never seen is a list of common things we may hear while receiving coaching or live direction. Here is my start to such a list. To make it easy, the list has been listed in list form. Each of the common phrases you might hear is followed by the entirely fictitious and frightening way that I am not admitting my brain may or may not have heard them or responded, followed by what they really mean. Feel free to laugh either with me or at me, whichever makes you feel better. I’m pretty sure I know which one you will choose.
The Beginner’s Guide
They say: “Smooth it out.”
In my head I hear: “Quit sounding like a robot with a memory buffer too small to load more than three words at a time!”
They mean: Make it flow better by reducing the unnecessary pauses when you read.
They say: “Lift the words off the page.”
In my head I hear: “You sound like a little kid reading ‘Dick and Jane’ for the first time. Were you homeschooled by rabbits?” (FYI: It is well known that rabbits don’t read well)
They mean: Inhabit the character so it sounds like natural, spontaneous speech.
They say: “Good job, but . . .”
In my head I hear: “I can’t believe you just did that. Who hired you? I don’t want to be rude, but are you sure you want to pursue voice-over?”
They mean: If you can fix this one thing, you’ll have it!
They say: “It’s not about the sound of your voice.”
In my head I hear: “Get over yourself. You don’t sound that great anyway. Learn to act!”
They mean: All different kinds of voices can succeed in voice-over. It’s more about the acting, how hard you work and how persistent you are.
They say: “Give me a little bit more.”
In my head I hear: “Am I boring you? You sound like you are falling asleep. Maybe try sounding like you didn’t just attend your own funeral.”
They mean: “I like what you are doing, so expand on that attitude. Don’t be afraid to express yourself.”
They say: “Throw it away.”
In my head I hear: “This is a heartfelt image spot for a hospice center. Not sounding like we are having a fire sale might be a good idea.”
They mean: Say that part in a casual, offhand way, to the point of sounding disinterested.
They say: “Let me hear an ABC.”
In my head I hear: “Have you ever done any actual reading before today? Do you even know your alphabet? Prove it!”
They mean: Give me three different versions of that line.
They say: “Give me a wild on that.”
In my head I respond: “Okay… I guess I can do that if you want… let me put on my loincloth… now, what did Johnny Weissmuller sound like?”
They mean: Read this one line separately from the rest of the script.
They say: “Give me some attitude.”
In my head I hear: “He just insulted your poor, invalid saint of a mother! Are going to let him get away with that? Tell him what you think about his lame-ass choice of pizza! Loser! Any fool knows Mario’s is much better!”
They mean: Make me believe you have an opinion about this.
They say: “Billboard that.”
In my head I respond: “Billboard? As in those huge ugly signs along the highway? Am I in the right place? I thought we were doing a voice recording thing. Hey! Do I get paid for the additional medium? I’m confused…”
They mean: Make sure this word stands out.
They say: “Give me a cold read.”
In my head I respond: “I’m sorry, I can’t. There is no ventilation and it is so damn hot in here that I am standing in sweat up to my ankles and I am beginning to swoon even though I have already stripped down to my birthday suit and boy am I glad I’m not doing this session with my web camera on and what are you all laughing hysterically about? Anyway, doing anything resembling “cold” is out of the question. I’m not that good of an actor.”
They mean: Read it without preparation.
They say: “Record this as a donut.”
In my head respond: “I’mm rrreaddinnngg wwhhille eeatinnngg uhh donuut buutt I ddoonnt thhinnkk it ssounnds vurryy guuuhhd.”
They mean: Leave a space in the middle for other content to be dropped in later.
They say: “You have good pipes.”
In my head I respond: “That’s kind of creepy, but yes, I just had the plumber in last week. How did you know…?”
They mean: I like the sound of your voice.
They say: “Lay out here.”
In my head I respond: “Is this a Nancy Wolfson kind of thing? Okay, but… this is a pretty small booth and there isn’t really enough room in here, but I’ll see if I can get down there…… zzzzz.”
They mean: Don’t speak during this section.
They say: “Milk it for me.”
In my head I respond: “This is WAY too personal of a request from someone I only met a few minutes ago.”
They mean: Stretch it out a little to subtly emphasize it.
They say: “Do a pickup for me.”
In my head I respond: “VrooooOOOMMmm. VrrrrRRRRooommMMMMmmm. Screeeetchh-Crashssshhh!”
They mean: You made a little mistake, so let’s go back and record it again.
They say: “Try it with a pre-life.”
In my head I respond: “I used to be an aardvark with a lisp in a previous life, so… how would he say this?”
They mean: Lead into the read with a previous sound, word or phrase which sets the scene for the script.
They say: “Give me a safety.”
In my head I respond: “Checking… seat belt on… and tray table in the upright and locked position. Good to go!”
They mean: Let’s do another take just to make sure we have a backup.
They say: “It sounds like you have some sibilance issues.”
In my head I respond: “Any problems I have with my brother and sister are personal and not any of your business!”
They mean: Your S and T sounds are drawn out and overly prominent.
They say: “Do it according to specs.”
In my head I hear: “Say it as if you had put on your glasses and could actually read and speak.”
They mean: A read that closely matches the specifications on the script directions.
Here are a few other highly professional tips to help you in your live directed sessions:
Everyone loves a pleasant, positive person, so always smile, even when your cat inevitably tries to climb your back in the middle of your best take of the day, leaving long bloody stripes as she slides back down. As a side note, cursing, screaming and crying do not make you look like a competent professional.
In the immortal words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… Don’t Panic! There isn’t anything to be worried about. The person you are working with is just another human being who can make or break your entire career with a single word. Don’t let it enter your brain how they can ruin your self-image, your confidence and your general will to live. They have seen people fail utterly and make complete fools of themselves many times before, so they most likely won’t even hang up on you in the first five minutes. What’s to worry about?
If you make a mistake, don’t draw attention to it or acknowledge it in any way. For instance, when you are in the middle of a sentence and your foot gets tangled in your drooping headphone cable, you violently lurch and fall to the ground with limbs flying everywhere, slam your knee against the wall, bang your head on the table, break your microphone stand off as you grab to save yourself, jolting your webcam out of position so it gives a stunningly detailed look up your nose… stand up as quickly as you can on your one remaining good leg, wipe the blood off your face and continue reading as if nothing has happened. They probably won’t even notice.
Clearly, I am a difficult person to give direction to.
Come to think of it, this might explain why my last coach kept raising the cost per session as we went along.
It is marginally possible that my interpretations and reactions in this list might be a tiny bit… off. I will own up to the fact that I tend to interpret things too literally, which can lead to misunderstandings. Even though you probably do not have my issues and are in fact right now kneeling with hands tightly clasped, face raised to the heavens fervently thanking God that you don’t, I do hope that you can benefit from the lessons I have learned. Wait, did you hear something? Excuse me for a moment…
“What did you say, Honey? How old do I think you look? Ummmm…” *scurries to the back door and grabs jacket* “Sorry! I can’t hear you! I’m just leaving the house to take the dog for a walk! Back in a while!” *door slams*
Dammit, I forgot. We only have cats.