The value of observing conversational etiquette at the mic


With the U.S. Presidential Election season under full steam, maybe you’ve encountered situations where people you know are talking (or more likely posting) rather heatedly, even to other friends. It might be nice to remind them that there are common rules of etiquette for polite conversation, and even passionate discussion. But that’s not why we mention this here. We mention it because the rules of conversational etiquette can also serve you well in your reads.

We don’t mean “booth etiquette,” such as “don’t adjust the mic” and “take direction.” That’s important, but here we’re talking about the etiquette between you and your listener. The fact that you never actually hear them makes it even more important.

Listen, don’t just talk. This may be Rule #1 for having a rewarding conversation. Obviously, it’s a hard rule to follow when your listener can’t respond. But you can follow it in spirit. Before you begin your read, imagine your listener’s situation. Where are they? What were they doing before you started? Are they still doing it, or have the stopped to pay attention? Do they agree with you, or disagree, or are you just irrelevant noise in the background of their day? Do they know the subject your script is about, or are you bringing them up to speed? Knowing more about your listener will give you clues as to your best choice of tone and use of emotion.

(Note also that, although your “listener” is often a wide array of people in a great many situations, most reads should be person-to-person, not like a PA announcement; that’s why we use the singular, and why you should try to identify whatever qualities your audience may have in common.)

Know your stuff. People are seldom convinced by someone who lacks confidence. When voicing a script, there are two types of confidence to convey. One is confidence that the script is meaningful and correct. You are the authority; sound authoritative. That doesn’t mean boorish, stentorian or necessarily anything like that. It does mean to avoid uptalk, mumbling, halting speech, and other verbal signs of insecurity (unless, of course, they are traits that you have purposely chosen in order to convey a character).

Think before speaking. This is the other type of confidence -- confidence in your own ability. Know how to pronounce all the words fluidly, and understand their meaning. Not just the meaning of the word, but the implication of every phrase. How does one statement evolve from or elaborate on the statement just before? Or does it go in a new direction?

An essential part of this confidence is preparation – pre-read, mark up, and if you have any question, ask the client or check it out yourself.

And, while we’re talking about speaking confidently, apply that rule to your slate, as well.

Get their attention. Maybe a parent or grandparent taught you not to just say, “Hey” and start talking. That’s not polite. It’s also often ineffective. In a real conversation, you should first know that you have your listener’s attention, not just assume it.

The scriptwriter can be a big help in gaining the listener’s attention. (Sometimes they even start with the word, “Hey!”) You should also do your part, so don’t just assume they’re listening closely. Be sure the first word is clear, and don’t rush it. Begin with your energy already up. Sometimes “pre-talking” helps with this – that’s where you ad-lib a few words before the script, with just enough of a break that the ad-lib can be cleanly deleted later.

Find things you can agree on. As every salesperson knows, finding common ground not only helps move an argument forward, it contributes to trust. And trust is a very desirable vocal quality to have. How, when again you and your listener can’t respond to each other, how do you convey a sense of trust and agreement? Smile. A genuine smile will come through in your voice, and also in whatever emotion you express.

Wait your turn. This is a variation on the first rule. It’s rude to just walk up and start talking. First, see what the conversation is about, and where it’s going. The analogy to VO here is that you should give your listener a chance to see where the conversation is going.

Sometimes a pause is essential. A loquacious friend once told us of a situation where he was having phone trouble – able to hear the caller, but at some point in the conversation, the caller could no longer hear him. Once, he said, he had been talking a mile a minute, not realizing that he was not being heard ... until the call-waiting signal sounded, and it turned out to be the other party, who had hung up and called back!

That’s not quite the same thing, but it may feel like it. In many genres (such as documentary narration), it’s important to speak at a pace that lets your listener mentally keep up with your thoughts. It may help for you to imagine their thoughts. (Not as you speak, so much as when you’re planning). And if there’s video, give them time to absorb the video. Wait your turn, and let the video be the star.

Watch for cues of understanding, agreement or disagreement, or boredom. This rule, too, depends on your ability to anticipate your listener’s reaction. It overlaps the rules above – when you speak conversationally with someone, you benefit when you have empathy with the other person. Have a sense of their emotional involvement, and, as we’ve said above, their frame of mind.

One thing is certain: If you sound bored, your listener will be bored, too.

In everyday life, people seldom speak because they’re forced to speak. (Life is not a speech class!) So when you’re speaking at the mic, it’s also presumably for a reason. Good etiquette suggests that you make that reason clear.

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