In VO, it’s important to communicate, not just read

We recently came across a saying, “The art of communication is understanding what others understood.” We don’t know exactly what its originator intended (or when that was), but in a voice-over context, it has rich meaning. One meaning is literal: in voice-over work, sometimes the person listening mishears what was said, and thus could misunderstand. Other meanings are broader; the concept of “communication” means many things. It’s important for any voice talent to understand the value in all of them.

When you read a script, do you “communicate”? And do you and your listener really understand each other? Maybe yes and no. Consider how many types of communication there are.

Literal communication. What you say should be what the listener understands. Communication becomes miscommunication if the listener can’t make out every word you say, or if they think they have caught every word, but heard something incorrectly. That latter situation is arguably worse than the former because the listener might remain relatively inattentive and thus not be aware that they misheard a word or phrase until some time later, when they might be misled or hopelessly confused. Does that mean you should mumble and mispronounce words so that your listener will listen more closely? Of course not! It does mean that you should enunciate, in a natural way, and speak so that your listener catches every word correctly in the first place, on the first time, though.

Incidentally, in Advertising, there’s a principle that the truthfulness of an ad is determined not just by what it says, but also by what the reader or listener understands it to say. The same is true of personal relationships. (Ask any married couple!) So, even in the literal sense, understanding is an essential part of true communication, as our title suggests.

Understanding is enhanced by the other various forms of communication.

Emotional communication. This is a deeper difference between “reading” and “communicating.” In most VO genres, virtually every statement you make merits the communication of some kind of emotion.*

*(An exception might be “For Technical Support press 1.” But even then, might you not have a slightly different emotion for “For Sales, press 2” as opposed to “To report a problem, press 3”?)

Without some emotion, why are you (or your character) talking at all? As voice talent, you are usually called upon to speak in a conversational manner (as opposed to “announcing”). And why do ordinary people have conversations? Yep, it’s because they want to ... communicate.

Depending on what they intend to communicate, they'll have a certain emotion. Maybe they're telling a story with joy or relating facts with a serious desire to convince, or are relating news with sadness. The emotions expressed in everyday conversation can be strong or weak, shallow or deep or repressed, but they're there.

What’s more, with each sentence (or more precisely, with each new thought), a speaker’s emotion changes. For example, one thought builds on another, perhaps deepening the emotion. Or (another example) a statement might introduce a new line of thought, a new direction, in which case, the emotion changes. Or (yet another example) your next sentence might introduce details, calling for another change of emotion (maybe proud, or confident, or ...). Or your next statement is in reaction to the look on your listener's face. Or what you think their reaction is. The number and range of examples and possible nuances are virtually limitless.

Here’s an admittedly obvious one:

“I dropped the can of paint. But it landed right-side-up. And splashed out all over the floor.”

That’s clearly three different emotions. Which emotions they are, will depend on the situation – is the speaker sad, embarrassed, chagrinned, being instructive, or what? Figuring that out before you start recording – that’s part of the art.

Body Language. How does body language figure in voice-over? In many genres, to be most expressive, you should MOVE! It comes out in your voice. It can also release tension, helping you to sound more relaxed. (It might look silly, but what the heck ... if it works for you, let yourself go with the flow.) It can even help you hit a desired pitch or sequence of pitches, although this relates more to singing. (Watch Mariah Carey sing. Although she flutters to excess, notice how her arms move in relation to rapid and/or extreme changes in pitch. She says it's not intentional. But it works.)

Media communications. When communication is a technical thing, it’s usually stated as plural. As we all know, there are many communication technologies.

Various media require various approaches to the read. A mattress commercial on TV proceeds at a different pace than announcing the lineup at a baseball stadium. A narrated video is different from a video game. And it's not just a matter of speed. An online video heard over a low-fidelity tablet speaker, or a telephone message, will sound different than audio played over a home theater system. Where the specific medium is known (e.g. telephony), the audio can be mixed and processed accordingly. The person doing that might or might not be you, depending on what services you offer.

In any case, as talent, it's helpful to be aware. And this focus on technology brings the discussion full-circle ...

With the expansion of media to cover so many more technologies and contexts than just “radio, TV, print and websites,” the nature of communication media covers an increasingly wide spectrum. Not only must the technologies be understood, but also the nature of the people who use them.

Some years back, the College of Communications at a large U.S. university changed its name to the College of Media, ostensibly to reflect the popular interest in this technological and social explosion. Now, that college is considering whether it should be folded into the Liberal Arts Curriculum. After all, media will continue to change, and study it in its many forms covers and exceedingly wide range.

But whatever direction that college takes, we trust the school will continue to teach students about the one thing that doesn’t change: the importance of mutual understanding. Ultimately it’s not about the tools. It’s about communication.

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