Do you make these annoying vocal “mistakes” in voice-over?


In everyday conversation, some people do certain things that many other people perceive as wrong. In fact, most people do some of these things, so you – and most other people -- might not consider them to be wrong at all. That’s why we put the word “mistakes” in quotation marks.

But when you’re reading for a client or director, or need to adopt a certain vocal persona, that’s a different situation. A voice-over recording has special needs and limitations. And casting pros listen for a living. So casting pros and clients may listen with different standards, a different sensibility. When a voice-over professional is listening to you, it helps to know what they might hear as annoying.

(If you do these things to fit into a group, or convey a character, that’s a different matter. Congratulations on your insight! But you might be surprised how many people aren’t even aware they have these habits.)

Uptalk. This is when every sentence ends in an upward inflection? Even when it’s not a question? It’s also known as “upspeak,” the “rising terminal” (that’s what it’s called in England), “rising intonation,” or even “high-rising terminal inflective.” Whatever it’s called, it drives many people over age 30 up the wall. Except in locations where it’s part of the local accent (e.g., India, Canada, Northern Ireland), it makes the speaker sound insecure, young, mindless, or all three. Theories as to its origin vary, and we’ve encountered reports that it isn’t heard as annoying or negatively by people under age 30 (since they grew up with it), but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to listeners who might wonder if you grew up at all. On the other hand, losing this habit offends no one, at least in a business environment. By the way, remember that your slate is a “business environment.” A rising inflection sounds less confident, or at least will raise eyebrows among a casting team, so heed this recommendation when slating. Even when your name begins a word series (e.g., “John Doe, brandname”), state your name proudly and confidently, with a downward inflection.

Vocal fry. Also known as “glottal fry” (not to be confused with “glottal stop,” see below), this is the “growling” sound that has become widespread among younger people. Whoever started it (Brittney Spears?), many listeners would like to make it stop. Vocal fry not only wears figuratively on the listener’s ears, it literally wears on the speaker’s voice. Over time, it can fry your vocal chords.

Confusing wording, combined with dropped sounds. This is often the scriptwriter’s concern, but if the writer didn’t catch it, talent should. For example, if the script says, “You can make free calls to the United States and Canada,” a listener might hear that as “three calls.” The writer might avoid this amusing confusion by rewording (“You can call free to ...” or “You can make calls free to ...”), but if the writer doesn’t, then talent should. “F” is always going to sound like “TH” on a poor loudspeaker or in a noisy environment, but other initial consonants fare better. Be sure to give initial consonants every chance, by not dropping them altogether.

Incorrect or non-mainstream pronunciations. A classic error is saying “nucular” instead of “nuclear.” Is it so wrong, when such authorities as President Jimmy Carter (a former naval nuclear engineer) and Orson Welles (at a no-nukes rally) have said it that way? Well, two wrongs don’t make it right.

Some other examples of annoying pronunciation are more cohort-specific, such as when military people say “heliocopter” as a reconstruction from “heelo.” How this got started, we’re not sure. Maybe it began when helicopters were invented, and kids were taught not to say “hell” ... and it crept into military culture. In any case, the helical motion of helicopter rotors has nothing to do with the sun, or perdition for that matter, so “hel-i-cop-ter” is the right way to go. Another annoyance is saying “chr” instead of “tr,” as when “instruction” becomes “inschruction.” (President George W. Bush often does this.) Acceptable pronunciation or not, it sounds sloppy in a voice-over read, so use a crisper T (don’t pucker so much).

But sometimes this sort of thing is a judgment call. Once upon a time, for “negotiation” newscasters were taught to say “negossiation” rather than “negoshiation” because the former sounded cleaner over the radio. It’s no longer de rigeur, but watch out with similar words. Pronouncing “association,” as “assoshiation” still sounds sloppy.

Glottal stops. A glottal stop is when you close the airway at the back of your throat. This is often done with initial consonants, sometimes for emphasis, but very often out of the speaker’s habit (e.g., a glottal stop before “every” in “he does this every time”). It’s also used in place of a T or even a D sound (e.g., “moun’n” for “mountain” or “she di’n’t” for “she didn’t”). Casting people tend to disapprove of this for a variety of reasons: In neutral American English, it’s not the way the sound is supposed to be made. (A “proper” T is made by placing the tongue behind the top front teeth.) It’s not as clear. It contributes to choppiness. Some people hear it as uncultured. A client might find it objectionable even when used for emphasis, so consider using pitch or pacing to hit that word instead. In any case, if your speech is constantly peppered with glottal stops, its emphasis value gets lost in the crowd.

Illogical words and misplaced modifiers. We’ll cite only one example for now – the word “only.” Virtually everyone, whatever their education, social level or background, places “only” illogically. We all say, “this handyman only paints houses.” A stickler (or the handyman) might note that, no, he also fixes plumbing, does carpentry and washes windows ... what he doesn’t do is paint offices.” So, what he means to say is “this handyman paints only houses.” But what the heck, go with the flow.

However, it still annoys people if you say, “one of the only things” when you mean “one of the few things.”

Cultural-trend habits. Did you know that, in Olden Days when someone came into a room they were greeted with “Hi” instead of “Hey”? The migration to “Hey” is just one of those cultural evolution things, and we haven’t met anyone seriously objecting to it.

But beware of other habits that have probably slipped into your speech, because some are annoying, no matter how ubiquitous. One of them is saying “y’know,” instead of simply pausing as you think of what you mean to say. People used to say “um” in that situation. Speech coaches railed against that, but we would almost welcome an occasional “um” instead, and a brief pause will exude confidence. (Really. It might even be argued that by not pausing, you’re impolitely suggesting that your friend would discourteously interrupt you. It’s another habit that can make you seem insecure.)

Another annoying cultural convention is starting a statement with “So” when your statement is not a wrap-up or a conclusion drawn from what was said before. (E.g., “How does an engine work?” “So, the gasoline goes in here, and ...”).

Yet another annoyance is going “I’m like” (or, for that matter, “I go”) instead of saying “I said.”

Saying “Sorry.” In everyday relationships, if you’re wrong, apologizing is a healthy practice. In the booth, don’t do it. Everybody makes mistakes, even the most experienced pros, and apologizing after a routine slip-up gets old fast. It also wastes time and distracts, because then the Director has to say something like “That’s okay ....” If you flub, just pause for a beat, so the edit point will be easy to spot, say it right, and continue. Experienced pros know this, and have the additional advantage of slipping up less. Less often. That is, they have the advantage of making fewer slip-ups. Whatever.

Saying “whatever.” ...

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