It’s a bit ironic that in a time when media hosts are worried their jobs will be taken over by A.I., many of them already sound like robotic versions of themselves. Let me explain.
There’s an odd vocal habit out there that somehow survived the turn of the millennium. I call it the over-under. You used to hear it from old-school news anchors (some of them still do it). But in a strange twist of fate, it was somehow appropriated by YouTube and influencer culture. These folks are very interesting because most of them never had formal performance training or coaching, but found success regardless. The result is a host who is often very engaging off-script, but as soon as you put a script in front of them, their inflections often default to a fairly predictable roadmap.
When you visualize it, it kind of makes sense. It has drama. There is tension and resolve. It’s almost musical. But what looks good on paper doesn’t always come off the same way in practice.
(I threw Will Ferrell in there just for fun)
I’m sure you can hear the pattern. It’s pretty unnatural. No one talks this way in actual conversation. This is the sound of someone who is emotionally detached from the words they’re saying. To put it bluntly, it sounds lazy.
Think of the best storytellers you know. I’m willing to bet they don’t talk like this. They tell their story through their tone, their pacing, their personality, and maybe most important of all, their intrepidity. They’re able to make it sound spontaneous, even if it’s not. They don’t rely on copy-and-paste speech patterns.
Working with amateur talent is always interesting because you never know what you’re going to get. They may be very engaging in their day-to-day interactions, but once you hand them a script, anything can happen. Some of them will surprise you with a very natural and engaging performance. Others will suddenly turn into robots struggling to select the right emotional responses.
Reading a script isn’t just relaying what’s on the page. If that were the case, the isolated text would be just as effective, and so would an A.I. generated voice for that matter. The whole point of reading something aloud is to make the content come alive. Sure, you’re reading a script, but it can’t sound like you’re reading a script. Some people are able to make it their own, and put it through the filters of their personality (their best self). But others who lack the proper instincts or experience to tell an engaging story often find themselves compensating with arbitrary and formulaic patterns, which is why many of us default to the over-under.
If you have a decent sized audience, it’s probably because you already have good presence off-script. That’s a good start. Now it’s a matter of bringing that same energy to scripted material. That’s sometimes easier said than done. So how do we get over the over-under?
- Listen to your media with a critical ear. Listen to how you sound on-script versus off-script. Ask yourself, does this sound like the same person? Does it have the same emotional signature?
- Write the way you speak. The more formal the writing is, the more formal the vocal performance will be. Don’t be afraid to personalize your language. Don’t just relay information. Tell a story.
- Get professional feedback. Talk to a vocal coach. Talk to a casting director. Talk to another voice performer. Heck, talk to me. I’m always happy to offer advice and critique to anyone who’s serious and passionate about what they do.
Remember that it’s all about authenticity these days. Your best voice comes from your best self.