The Conversational "Read"

During our weekly VoiceActing Academy Conductor’s Club coaching calls, we’ll often discuss a specific aspect of voiceover performance, or get into the nuts and bolts of some aspect of our business, or discuss something new in home studio or recording technology. I’ll be sharing some of those topics and tips in these blog posts. If you’d like to be part of our regular weekly coaching sessions, please visit www.ConductorsClub.com for all the details.

Now… on to this weeks topic:

We see it in audition directions. We hear it from our coaches. And our clients are constantly asking us to do it. 

It’ac38c931b069f179da7377b4_1920s the “conversational read”… and it’s a trend in voiceover delivery that has been around for awhile and shows no signs of going away any time soon. Long gone are the days of the VOG announcer, although there will be the occasional project where the big and boomy delivery style will be requested. And there will still be times when the requested delivery style is more “talking at” than “talking to.” 

But, more often than not, in today’s voiceover world, the requested delivery style is “conversational.”

That sounds good, but just how do you get to a conversational “read?” By definition, the word “read” implies a certain delivery style which is more storytelling than conversation. In fact, many scripts are written in a way that is anything but the way people normally talk. Yet, we’re asked to speak the words “conversationally.” 

Speaking conversationally comes naturally to most of us when we’re just being ourselves, talking with our friends or those around us. One reason this comes naturally is because we don’t have to think about what we are saying and we don’t have to be concerned with being who we are. But speaking conversationally when reading from a script is one of the most difficult things to do in voiceover. Most people just starting in voiceover find it very challenging to deliver their copy conversationally. 

OK, sure there are lots of techniques for “getting off the page,” but that doesn’t explain why this is such a challenge and why some voice actors have a very difficult time sounding like they are just “talking to someone” as they read their script.

There are actually several reasons why this can be such a challenge. One of the biggest reasons has to do with childhood education. Most of us learned to read by sounding out the words individually in a linear sequence called sentences. As our reading skills developed, we began to understand sentence structure, which often made sense in the context of what we were learning, but was very different from the way we normally spoke. Reading was basically a learned, linear process that initially required lots of thinking in order to put the pieces together. Only long after we had mastered our basic reading skills were some of us able to scan the written text to acquire the message and meaning without having to sound out individual words. But for many (probably most) of us, reading is still a process of sounding out one word at a time in a linear sequence.

And THAT creates a big challenge! Our primary job as a voice actor is to take the words on a script and bring them to life through our interpretation and delivery. Until we figure out what the words are, what the story is, and how the story should be told, we’re often stuck in a “read-y” delivery. We’re woodshedding, breaking down the copy, marking up our scripts, experimenting with different inflections, and much, much more.  And all of that is good and completely understandable! In fact most VO coaches teach these and other techniques and processes in order for you to understand the story and your role in it. But all that processing takes a lot of thinking… and we need to bring those words to life quickly… we need to sound like we’re talking TO someone, not AT them… and we cannot sound like we’re thinking!

So here’s what I suggest:  Go through your VO books and workshop notes, and review all the techniques you can find for making your performance “conversational.” Study those chapters and notes until you’ve got it… and then let it go. Stop thinking about it. And the next time you’re asked to deliver a script conversationally, let the words guide you to the conversational delivery. If you are thinking about what you are doing – even in the slightest – you’ll sound like you are reading.

Here are some of the keys to delivering your copy conversationally:

  1. Stop thinking about what you are doing! With most scripts, you should be able to get a good sense of the story and a basic interpretation during your first read-through. Once you’ve got it, stop thinking about it and just tell the story as if you are actually talking to someone. 
  2. Use a photo for the eyes, if you need to: A photo of someone you do not know can sometimes be helpful by giving you eye contact with another person. Even though you’ll be talking to a photo, you’ll usually hear a noticeable difference.
  3. Relax your body: Unless there is a strong emotional subtext to the script, a relaxed body will often move you into a more conversational style. Physical tension is important when communicating emotion, but to be conversational, the emotions cannot be overly expressed.
  4. Faster and Flatter: Speaking a bit quicker and flattening your tone of voice will usually take your words into a conversational sound. Most of us normally speak fairly quickly without a lot of inflection anyhow, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. 
  5. Speak softer: The tendency when reading is to speak louder than normal, or project your voice “to the back of the room.” To achieve a believable conversational sound, reduce the volume of your voice to about one-half of your normal loudness. This would be about the loudness you would use if the person you are talking to was sitting right next to you in a quiet room.
  6. Stop worrying about your articulation: Sure, the words you speak need to be understood. But if you over-articulate, or are too careful about getting the words “right,” your speaking style will sound stilted or artificial – and that’s far from conversational.
  7. Use smaller gestures: Big gestures and large facial expressions are important when performing a specific character, but can put your delivery “over the top” if you’re going for a conversational style. Reduce your gestures and facial expressions to create a more believable reality if the moment.
  8. Use Air Quotes: If you need to quote something (either yourself or someone else), use the classic “air quotes” gesture. Don’t make the gestures too big, though. The physicalization of the “air quotes” will add just enough of a beat to set the quote off from the rest of your conversational delivery.
  9. Use Thought Pacing: Thought pacing is a concept I cover in detail in my book “The Art of Voice Acting.” The basic idea is that you break out of the normal sentence structure by speaking the words in a way that implies you are thinking about what you are saying. When properly delivered, the listener can “hear the wheels turning in your head.” They can literally hear your thoughts as you speak. This is achieved by moving punctuation marks around, tying sentences and phrases together, putting short beats in unexpected places as you speak, not focusing on breathing, and more. In other words… speaking the words in the script in the same way you would as if you were speaking them for the first time as you talk to someone else. The important thing about Thought Pacing is that you absolutely canNOT be thinking about what you are doing. It must be completely natural or it won’t sound believable. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the conversational “read.” Please post your comments below.

I’ll cover other topics in future posts. If you haven’t already subscribed to this blog, just CLICK HERE to receive future posts in your email.

Until next time… Keep the conversation going.

James R. Alburger
VoiceActing Academy

10 comments to The Conversational “Read”

  • Wayne K

    This is absolutely wonderful information, and I agree that point 5 is a very important key to relaxing and being in the moment. I have that soft relaxed flowing feeling when I’m reading copy to myself and it feels and sounds great, but sometimes, more often than I’d like I get the announcer come out. Thank you very much for your post.

  • Stella Ramos

    Thanks Jim,
    It’s good to know that I am not the only person having the difficulty of trying to speak words that are not mine “conversationally”…I need to remember to become that other person and then speak the words. Thanks for the tips!

  • Isa

    Great post and information! Tip #5 (speaking softly) is an especially helpful one for me, too. Thanks, James!

  • Graziella Giambalvo

    Thank you James, for your emails. Very informative. I’m also coaching with Steve Harris.

  • James Massard

    Thanks for this! Tip #5 (speaking softly) was especially helpful for me. I’ve bookmarked this page for future reference.

  • Terrific tip, James. I’m reading the “Art of Voice Acting”, currently on Chapter 4. Gee, I hope you didn’t spoil the ending for me.

  • Great information here. You’re first tip stopped me in my tracks. It’s the same reason I have not been successful doing improv. I can’t seem to “stop thinking about what I am doing.” The problem with this is more often complicated when the client often doesn’t want you to stray from the printed word. There comes the rub. I don’t speak in conversation like other people write it. If I were to tell the story, I wouldn’t tell it like they wrote it. With improv, my years of public relations training need to be unlearned. A PR practitiioner NEVER speaks without first thinking about what he or she is going to say. These are two big barriers that are so difficult to shake off.

    • James Alburger

      My guess is that part of the problem you’re having with “thinking” about what you are doing is because you are approaching your performance as “you” speaking the words. That’s only scratching the surface of “acting.” When you (the real you) are in conversation, you don’t think about what you are doing or saying. You just do and say it! The challenge is that the script (as you said) is NOT your words and YOU might never speak that way. Approaching a script as “you” doing the words will almost always put a road block in the way of your performance. The solution is to realize that the “acting” part of your work means that you need to put yourself in the shoes of the character who is speaking the words – and that character is NOT you. Learning how to work outside of your comfort zone can be easy for some and very difficult for others. Your epiphany will occur when you realize that you can safely step outside of the normal “you” to temporarily become that character. It can take a long time before our ego will allow you to get out of your own way, but when it happens, it will be like a ton of bricks has been lifted off your shoulders.

      Penny experienced her epiphany during one of my copy workouts. Up to that point every time she was in the booth it was “Penny” working the words. Every script she performed sounded exactly the same. That night, however, she was given a script and she just “knew” what the voice needed to sound alike. She had told me time and time again that she “didn’t do characters.” But that particular script was all it took for her to give herself permission to play and let the character within her come out. The result was that we heard something from Penny that was a very pleasant – and totally unexpected – surprise. The entire group was laughing and applauding Penny for finally allowing herself to take the risk. From that point forward, Penny realized that she doesn’t have to be constrained by the words and that letting the characters inside her come out, won’t bruise her ego. During our P.I.E. workshops, Penny would teach that the more she allowed herself to play, the better she performed.

      I hope your epiphany comes soon.

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