Voice Over Education Blog

February 2016

How many of these words do you mispronounce?

Did you know that the English word "bird" was once pronounced (in England) as "brid"? Language evolves, and far be it from us to complain about that. As someone has put it, “English is ‘open-source.’”

But when you're in the booth, your director or client might feel different when it comes to words that are not yet fully evolved. Just because a lot of people -- even most people -- might mispronounce or misuse a word or phrase, doesn't mean you will impress your client by joining the errant throng. A VO pro should at least know the options. We've collected a bunch of them for your perusal.

First though, some ground rules.

We’ll omit words and phrases that are incorrect but not your fault. For example, “I could care less” (commonly heard that way) is technically all wrong. If you could care less, then you actually do care at least a bit, right? The correct phrase is “I couldn’t care less” – in other words, you care so little that it would be impossible to care less. But a professional writer should understand this. If you encounter the “wrong” version, you should probably read it as written.

To give a more subtle example, a writer should also know that it’s “repository of information,” not “suppository.” So should you, and by tactfully asking, you might save the client embarrassment later. But there are a lot of words and phrases like this, and they would be a list in itself. For now, just one more ... a writer might confuse “cornet” with “coronet.” The first is a trumpet, the second is headgear. The need to catch such distinctions is yet another reason we at Edge Studio remind everyone, “Learning never ends.”

Can smart VO talent learn from an intelligent computer?

A recent New York Times article reported that IBM linguists, engineers and marketers began in 2009 to determine how they should best design the synthesized voice of Watson, their state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence computer. What sort of voice would be most pleasing? What should be its “personality”? Stuff like that.

Since then, there has been remarkable progress in the field of voice synthesis, but we doubt the voiceover community at large need to be worried about job security anytime soon. On the other hand, there are things that a live, human talent can learn from the IBM team’s findings.

Where does voice synthesis stand as of 2016?

Although you might be fooled for a bit – say in a weather forecast or driving instructions, even the narration of some nature videos found on YouTube – before long, you’ll realize that you’re listening to a computerized voice. (Bear in mind, we’re talking about purely synthesized voicing, not concatenation of words and phrases spoken by a real person.)

As researchers near their ultimate goal, new difficulties emerge. In the 1960’s, a robotics researcher predicted that as animations closely approached being humanlike, they would be seen as kind of creepy. And, in fact, now that animation technology has reached that benchmark, you’ve probably noted that the prediction was correct– if you’re not expecting animation, or aren’t used to the effect, watching a near-perfect animated human being can be unsettling.

Near-perfect synthetic speech has the same effect. It’s sometimes unnerving
But when speech is from an actual human, what’s not to like? By definition, it is “perfect,” right? Well, yes. And no – at least when the human is reading a script but pretending to speak from the heart. It can come across as unnatural, even if the listener is not quite aware of what the unnatural qualities are.

Got a VO swipe file? Your secret source of fresh ideas!

Cartoonists do it. Copywriters do it. We don’t know if educated fleas do it, but we do it. So should you. Let’s talk about building a swipe file.

A swipe file is a collection of thoughts, ideas, observations, practices, whatever potentially inspiring information you happen to encounter in your daily activities. You’ll probably have no particular use for the thought or observation at the time you save it, but since it’s interesting or different, it might be useful sometime in the future. Make it your constant pal.

Something “interesting” could be anything – voice, a mannerism, promotional idea, turn of phrase, occasion, situation, tactic, motivation – simply add it to your file. Then, when you’re stuck for an idea, it’s the first place to look. You’ll probably find a bunch of prototypes you can swipe, improve and adapt to whatever need is at hand.

If the idea of “swiping” an idea doesn’t appeal to you, you can call it a “tickler” file, or an “idea” or “inspiration” file. But really, it’s not simply about “swiping,” per se. It’s about freshening your memory, getting out of a mental rut, planting seeds, and synergy. It’s about adaptation and creativity. It’s about taking an existing idea (or more than one) and combining or modifying it to make it your own. And yes, sometimes in a pinch, it may remind you of something to copy.

Even Newton needed an apple.

Whatever, when you add to and draw from your swipe file regularly, it becomes a treasure trove of fresh ideas. Also review your file from time to time just for the heck of it; with the different perspective and a more open mind, you may notice yet another seed for a new idea.

Here are some ways to use your resource:

Attention span: The millennium’s most critical 8 seconds

Last spring, Microsoft released a study purporting to show that Canadians’ attention span has shortened to a mere 8 seconds. It was all of 12 seconds when this millennium began. While Canada is not the same as any other country, this has to do with cerebral wiring, and that knows no nationality. So we presume that the average digital-world human now loses focus faster than a goldfish (which, if anybody asks, is 9 seconds).

This finding has implications for the voiceover community. So, if you’re still reading, please read on ...

Sometimes, eight seconds can seem like a pretty long time. For example, you can fit a surprising amount of information into a mere 10-second commercial. That’s even more true now, since digital recording and computerized broadcasting systems let you take audio right to the limit. (In analog, pushbutton days, the rule of thumb was to make the audio a second or so shorter, as a kind of “pad.”)

But eight seconds is also alarmingly small, especially when it comes to longer commercials and websites. Grabbing your audience’s attention and drawing them in becomes ever more important.

In both situations, it’s important to remember that, as you begin speaking, the audience is not committed to paying attention. With commercials, that’s always been obvious. The classic scenario is that your viewer/listener waits for that moment to go get a beer. These days, maybe it’s a kale smoothie, but regardless, they’re not hanging on your words. Even if they’re hearing them, they’re not listening to them. So you have just seconds to capture the listener’s – sorry, the hearer’s – attention. If you rush, mumble or swallow the first word, you may have lost or confused them. (A confused listener is virtually as bad as lost.) And now, when you do grab them, you may have just 8 seconds to draw them in.

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