When “Bad” Becomes “Good” in Voice Over

bra-strapsWhen I was a kid, I believed that Vice Cops would arrest me if my bra strap showed outside my tank top. These days, that shame has turned to chic. Jeans with holes in them? Everyone knew that you cut them off and they became shorts. Today we pay extra for distressed denim.

Is this just me? What former taboos do you see people embracing? One more…in the past, announcers with less than mellifluous voices who sounded like they gargled with Draino would never have been on the radio. But not so now! Well recently, I was told that my performance as a Webcast Host was too perfect. Too polished. What?

Fumbling to Fix the Problem

Join me in my journey of despair, won’t you? How can this be? When did it become wrong to prep the script so I could read it without a mistake? How could reading copy smoothly come across as condescending? And who moved my cheese?! Here’s what I was doing “before,” in other words, the performance that caused the negative feedback.

My first instinct was to change the tone of my read. Below, you’ll hear the fix I tried — to make my voice lower, and more dispassionate — like a documentary or news reader. Those folks are not condescending…they’re perfectly impartial.

Well, this is what got the “too polished” feedback. Further, I was told that it sounded like I was “reading.” The bottom line was that the problem wasn’t how I was reading, but that I was reading. So all the adjustments to my “character” (lower tone, newsier read, less personality) were irrelevant.

Remember the 4 stages of grief? I moved through denial and accelerated into anger. Seriously? You want me to sound like I’m making this up as I go along? To fumble, say “um” and correct myself? I haven’t done over 500 webcasts to sound like I suck, right? It took me 100 before I could read without making a mistake…and you want to pay me to stumble now and then to make it sound “real?”

Embracing Imperfection

Yes they did, and here’s why.

The main value in webcasts, whether they’re being used for selling or training, is that they are live. Dmitriy Ayrapetov, a Cognitive Scientist who I met at a SonicWALL video webcast, says that a live event feels more personal to viewers – they feel unique, even special, when attending a show that’s tailored to a real audience, rather than a generic group that views an on-demand version. Dmitriy even challenged a webinar speaker recently who was too smooth, by chatting him, “Are you live? Why am I attending a canned presentation?” During the Q& A section, the speaker assured him he was indeed live.

Further, there’s no personalization if the viewer perceives that they’re just being read text. One of the most important clues about whether you’re being read to is the lack of hesitation and absence of mistakes.

My patient client, Martyn Lewis of 3gselling, found positive ways to show what he wanted by saying that he loves the little hesitations, the corrections, even the mistakes that his Subject Matter Experts and Hosts make during his webcasts. His attitude showed me that webcast announcing in this form was a new ballgame, and I needed to learn how to play it. I was willing to try…and here’s a sample of that effort…

The Epiphany

Like I said, I was being paid to make mistakes. But not to like it! I remained uncomfortable with it…for a couple of reasons. From an early age, I was taught not to use mush words like “um,” and to gather my thoughts before I speak. Credibility comes from research, organization and experience – so will I seem like an authority if I appear to be “making it up as I go?” Finally, I don’t know how many times I’ve told my students: prepare your script so you can accurately perform the copy. Read ahead! Focus! So I worry, will they all demand a refund when they hear this performance?

Then the paradigm shifted. I was in an airport and heard a mechanized voice telling me where to pick up my bags. This was a computer voice…and it sounded like a robot talking. Dmitriy calls it “speech synthesis.” You also hear it when you use a GPS – that dispassionate voice that slides the sounds together — and if you concentrate you can catch the meaning. Dmitriy says the programmers’ goal is to make these voices indiscernible from one with an accent or a dialect. Windishar translation: to make voice over talent non-essential!

HAL Hello DaveThe good news is that no one wants to attend a webcast hosted by Hal, the speaking “intelligent” computer from 2001 A Space Odyssey. But I needed to devise ways to prove that I am a real person to audiences in the webcasts I host, and that our webcasts are live.

 

Adding A New Tool to Your V/O Tool Kit

And I did just that. And recently I was told that I have “nailed” my hosting character! Whew! Now this won’t change the way I perform in many voice or on camera jobs. But I have changed the way I voice, host and/or moderate live audio webcasts. Here are some tricks that I choose among. Maybe some of them will work for you.

  1. In the moment, change the order of the words on the script. You’re performing without a net here, and that’s what will keep you focused. And every time you make a mistake, mentally celebrate! You’ve proven that you’re live.
  2. Listen to what’s being said by others. Make note of it, and find relevant occasions to repeat it.
  3. Establish a relationship with others on the show. Tease them by finding trends, (“Greg, you’re going to have to start paying our attendee John royalties if you keep using his hunting analogy,”) admit what you admire about them (“I love that phrase ‘goat rodeo’ you used earlier,”) or ask their advice.
  4. Find places in the script to hesitate…as if you’re finding the perfect word to express a thought.
  5. If a co-presenter says something that needs clarification, ask for it.
  6. Take notes on attendees, and use their names when possible. (“Tony, how’s the weather in Texas today?”) If they come more than once to an event, mention it. (“It looks like Matthew’s joined again – welcome back Matt.” Or “Sam has another question…are you going for co-host status Sam?”)
  7. Admit that you make mistakes with copy like “Greg, why don’t you add anything I’ve forgotten here…”
  8. Find ways to make fun of yourself (“I probably sounded like your mother when I said David instead of Dave…sorry about that.”)
  9. As you read the copy, look at the slide that goes with it. It helps you to discover what you’re saying as you say it, and keeps you from droning.
  10. React to the stories of others in real time. (SME: “She was employee #3, and probably on the board of directors.” HOST: “Wow!”)
  11. Find a couple of opportunities to summarize what’s been said.
  12. Mention that you’re live.
  13. Use little carrier phrases like “y’know,” “it’s as if,” things people say to buy time while they think.
  14. As you paraphrase the copy, trust your own intelligence, and your ability to be concise and articulate.

Saggy PantsThink of it this way. Just as media evolves, so must its performers. There will always be room for a perfect performance; what varies is the definition of “perfect.” With that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see me at my next v/o gig wearing distressed jeans around my thighs. Represent!

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