6 Ways to read VO copy faster or slower, still naturally. Part 1 of 2

NOTE: This is the first post in a 2-part article. Click here to read part 2!

When a producer hands you the script, they may specify how long your recording should be. This is especially the case in the Commercial and Promo genres, not so much in Narration (such as telephone messaging systems, training films, audiobooks, educational material, and long programs.) When timing is specified, your “internal clock” should automatically turn on. It’s up to you to bring in the finished recording at the desired length. In a recent article (“Put time on your side...”), we discussed the importance of being able to do this, and ways to tune your sense of elapsed time. One of those ways is to practice reading faster and slower.

Now let’s discuss how to actually do that – to read faster or slower.

Note: Digital recording enables you or the engineer to adjust speed up or slow down a recording by as much as 10%. However, sometimes the sound quality is degraded, particularly when pushed past 6 or 7%.

How to alter your timing

Method 1: Speed up or slow down the entire read.

This would be as if you were a phonograph record, just spinning a bit more slowly, or faster. (Without altering your pitch or your energy, of course!) If you're a beginning voice-over talent, this might be advisable in any case because many beginners tend to read a script too quickly. (It’s a common reason why some contestants in our weekly Voice-Over Recording Contest do not win. For a look at the psychology of this, see our article, 5 Reasons many people read voice-over scripts too fast.)

We cited an example of this in our article on the late William Schallert. He was proud of his ability to shorten a read by up to 20% (by his estimate). (Full interview is at http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/william-schallert. He discusses VO at 20 minutes into Part 2.)

Method 2: Speed up or slow down the speed of the words or phrases.

That is, elongate or shorten the pronunciation of the words, but not the duration of pauses. This may feel easier than changing everything down uniformly (which may be difficult anyway – after all, you’re not a robot).

The difference between this method and #1 is more theoretical than practical because the differences are so small, they're almost superhuman. (Although you can see such difference very clearly when looking at a voice waveform.) But it may help you adopt a mindset that works for you.

To demonstrate:

Original 1 (said deliberately, this takes just under 4 seconds):
You ... could ... nev er ... tel e graph ... mes sa ges.

Method 1 (both the words and spaces are quicker, total about 3 seconds):
You .. could .. never .. telegraph .. messages.

Method 2 (only the words are quicker, maybe 3.5 seconds ):
You ... could ... never ... telegraph ... messages.

You might be doing this anyway. Keep an ear out for interviews on radio and TV – some sports players, businesspeople, and ordinary people on the street tend to say words quickly by nature.

Again, you’re not a robot, and uniformly expanding or contracting the space between words, even if possible, requires far too much concentration. But as a matter of habit (perhaps lifelong), different people vary naturally as to which method they implement. It’s handy to be aware of such characteristics, but do whichever works for you. Dwelling on such timing subtleties, except maybe academically when you practice, is a recipe for disaster. As long as your read comes in on target, it’s far more important to be thinking about meaning, emotion and staying in character.

Method 3: Speed up or slow down some words and/or phrases.

This, on the other hand, is very do-able. If you have time to fill, use it to emphasize words and phrases, even play with them for dramatic effect. If you’re shortening the read, speed up on only the less important phrases.

To demonstrate, try the following example. Your speed can range from 1.25 seconds to twice that, 2.5 seconds.

It’s the largest selection anywhere.

(Reminder: Whatever the speed, take care to enunciate, not slur. At 1.5 seconds or less, it’s likely to sound like “It’s the largest election anywhere.” If you must combine sounds for speed’s sake, in this case, lose the “T” sound on” largest” and be sure to clearly enunciate the “S” sound in “selection” – because that is the potential source of confusion.)

Method 4: Lengthen or shorten the natural gaps between sentences or paragraphs.

This is how some talent are able to get more words into, say, a 10-second commercial without sounding rushed – words or phrases are said quickly, but there’s still some time between phrases, which sounds more natural and allows the listener to absorb and keep up. Even a tiny pause between phrases will help make the read seem significantly less hurried.

Try this: Reading this example, varying the spacing between the items. Your read can range from 3.5 seconds to almost double that, 5.5 seconds.

Johnson Lighting Company has bulbs, fixtures, lamps, shades, candles, and chandeliers.

Tip: If reading the above example at 3.5 seconds, it might help to exaggerate your lip, tongue and jaw movements, as that will help with enunciation and – surprisingly – doesn’t take significantly more time. (In reality, you probably won’t be exaggerating as much as you think.)

Method 5: Add or delete dramatic pauses.

Here’s an example for that. Vary the amount of dramatic pause, ranging from 2.5 (no pauses) to 5 seconds overall. As you include a pause or two, take care that it still “flows,” and does not sound choppy. The pauses do not necessarily have to be of equal length. For practice, try two approaches: 1) saying the words quickly and using just the pauses to extend the read, and 2) combining pauses with other techniques we’ve mentioned (such as extending a word or phrase).

The Johnson Lighting Company, we’re light-years beyond our competition.

One caveat ... When elongating your read, don’t insert too many dramatic pauses, or the result can sound choppy and unnatural. That’s a strong reason for having the full range of techniques in your toolkit, all recently practiced – using a mix of these will keep you from sounding like the original Captain Kirk.

Method 6: Mechanical editing.

By “mechanical” we mean that you do this in post, using your editing software. It’s a post-processing alternative to using time compression or expansion software.

By editing out every little breath, mouth click and even significant pauses between words (perhaps cutting all spaces in half or so), you can often shed a few seconds from a 30-second commercial. Important, however, is that the cuts be made imperceptibly. And in a long spot, listening to someone read for 60 seconds without taking a breath (even if inaudible) can be downright painful. Unless there is some distracting factor (e.g., music), it just isn’t natural.

The examples above are taken from Edge Studio’s publication, The Voice Actor’s Performance Guidebook. The guidebook has additional tips and examples for altering the speed of your read.

Click here to read part 2! How to read VO copy inhumanly fast on purpose.

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