Tip of the Month

Emotional Weight

Every verbal communication, every sentence, contains one or several specific words (mostly nouns), each of which calls for emphasis for dramatic effect, unless they are redundant.  However, this emphasis will not be the same for each of these words.  You must consider the relative emotional weight of these significant words relative to each other within the framework of the message.  Listen carefully for this phenomenon when you watch an effectively narrated documentary.  Observe this also in spontaneous, highly motivated conversation, where the person speaking is totally immersed in his or her subject.

Your mastery of this phenomenon will be readily apparent to your audience, as well as to prospective producers who will become your future clients.

Destinations Part 2

To recap from last month’s Tip, a destination extends the ending of an event in a sentence farther into a phrase, clause, or sentence.

Added to last month’s who, whom, what, when, where, why, and that, plus infinitives, are prepositional phrases, descriptive phrases, and the combination of as (modifier) as.

First let’s look at prepositional phrases. They further a destination by extended description. The underlines indicate emphasis.

Here’s an example without the prepositional phrase:

“There are several exceptions to the rules.”

With the prepositional phrase:

 “There are several exceptions to the rules about acceptable behavior.”

Extended even further with another prepositional phrase:

“There are several exceptions to the rules about acceptable behavior in the classroom.”

Now let’s look at descriptive phrases, and how they can add destination after destination. Underlines indicate emphasis.

Here’s the basic sentence before adding one to several destinations:

“Apart from the pyramids, it was the largest, costliest single project ever.

Now we add the destinations:

“Apart from building the pyramids, it was the largest, costliest single project ever conceived.”
“Apart from building the pyramids, it was the largest, costliest single project ever conceived by civilized man.”
“Apart from building the pyramids, it was the largest, costliest single project ever conceived by civilized man in 2000 years of history.”

Finally, the combination of as (modifier) as extends the destination.

Two examples, before adding the combinations:

“The doctor will see you.”
“Do you love me?”

With the combinations added:

“The doctor will see you as soon as he is available.”
“Do you love me as much as I love you?”

These are basic examples to help you understand the concept of destinations.

As you read through scripts and other materials, you will discover that destinations appear in almost every other sentence you read. Watch for them and look for where they end.

 

Destinations

One of the most difficult areas of sentence structure that consistently confounds my students is the concept of destinations.

In other words, do you end an event in a sentence, or is there a word or phrase that extends the event to an ending farther into the phrase, clause or sentence?

To clarify, here are a couple of simple examples: “I wonder.” (short destination) “I wonder how I’m going to find the time to finish this project.” (longer destination) The word how takes the sentence through a longer destination. This is also true of who, whom, what, when, where, why, and that, as well as a few other words that perform a similar function. Example: Jane didn’t understand.”(short destination) “Jane didn’t understand what was expected of her.” Now the word what leads to a longer destination.

An infinitive can also extend the destination. Example: “I went home in the afternoon.” (short destination) I went home in the afternoon to help my wife move some furniture.” (long destination) The infinitive to help
extends the destination.

In all extended destination situations, never emphasize the word that immediately precedes the one that extends the destination. It would be emphasized if it were the last word in an event, but since it flows into a longer destination, it is not emphasized.

There are other parts of speech that can extend a destination. These will be discussed further in next month’s Tip of the Month.

Stay tuned.

Sibilance

Sibilance is a pitched hissing sound produced by some people. It occurs when the natural placement of the teeth and tongue create a whistling sound when pronouncing the soft consonants sh and ch, as well as z, x, f, and soft c.

A perfect sentence for testing one’s tendencies toward or away from sibilance is “Sneaky Susie snatched Sally’s soft satin shoes stealthily.”

If you hear this problem in playback of your work, you can teach yourself to eliminate it by doing the following: Get a thin stick, roughly a sixteenth of an inch thick (a Popsicle or ice-cream-bar stick will do the job nicely). Insert the stick between your upper and lower front teeth. Do not bite down on it or press it on your upper or lower front teeth. Hold it so that your teeth can come together and separate freely. The idea is to put the stick gently between your teeth to create enough of a space to stop the whistling. Over time, you should be able to capture a muscle-memory sensation that enables you to keep the space created by the stick without keeping the stick itself between your teeth, thus eliminating the sibilant whistle. If you find that over time your teeth gradually come together again and you start whistling, you should be able to consciously move your teeth slightly more apart without needing to use the stick. If you can’t readily do that, go back to using the stick. Over time, you should be able to avoid sibilance without the stick.

Redundancy and Reiteration

Consider this example:

“This is my friend Tom. I have known (Tom) for over thirty years. He’s my best friend.”

Three very ordinary conversational sentences acquaint Tom with the listener. The first sentence introduces him, since he is new to the person to whom the sentence is addressed. Here, Tom is emphasized. In the second sentence, however, the listener is now conversationally familiar with Tom. To emphasize his name a second time would be unnecessary, or redundant. In the third sentence, it would be a similar situation without emphasis on Tom, but it now appropriate to use the pronoun he, since it would be doubly redundant to say Tom one more time.

When a noun, and rarely another part of speech, has been established in a script, the next time it is stated, it must be without emphasis. This shows the listener that you are keeping track of what is going on in the script. People do this naturally when they talk. If you continue to emphasize what has already been established, it will be very confusing for the listener. When people tell a story or explain a concept, they always naturally keep track of what they have already introduced, and take care not to re-emphasize it.

Here’s a contrasting scenario:

“XYZ Company is making you this amazing offer. If you buy our gizmo, we’ll double the repair period of our warranty. Double it, up to an extra year!”

The first time the word double is introduced, it could be emphasized to therefore make the point that the company is making a great offer. This time, however, when double is stated again, it is not with some emphasis, but with more emphasis, as this is hammering home even further the special quality of the offer. This is reiteration, or “saying or doing repeatedly.” It is always emphasized to heighten its dramatic effect. Reiteration occurs often in many medium-sell and hard-sell commercial spots.

Unfortunately, when most untrained people read from copy, they miss what has already been established, because they are not focused on what they’re talking about, or on the flow of subject matter. The same is true of situations where reiteration should be applied. This is typical of the way most people read aloud, from grade school throughout life.

It is important to read over and thoroughly understand any script you are about to deliver, which, most emphatically, includes redundancy and reiteration considerations.

Pitch Control

An important conveyor of mood and emotion is pitch. In my evaluation sessions, many of my students exhibit misconceptions about how pitch works in script delivery. They pitch up where they should pitch down and vice versa, or they change pitch too little or too much.

Let’s address some fundamental concepts about pitch. Pitching way up at the end of a sentence conveys a question: “Is that person standing over there your guest?” Guest goes up and stays up. On the other hand, a rhetorical question ends in a statement: “Well, now, what do you think of that?” or, “What are we going to do about this?” The pitch is raised on the italicized words only slightly to give the sentence the feel of a statement, not a question. As for all other phrases and clauses, they are delivered as pure statements, one after the other, as this is the way most people talk in everyday spontaneous conversation. These statements end with a down inflection, or a low pitch, which gives the endings a sense of finality.

Animation is all about pitch variation. If a script is delivered with a lot of animation, the pitch goes up and down, often to extremes. If it’s delivered with less animation, as in more subtle, nuanced scripts (in particular, most narrations) there is far less pitch variation. Cartoons, children’s stories, commercials aimed at children, and hard-sell car commercials contain a lot of pitch variation, for example. It is very important that you understand these extremes and everything in between them, as your interpretation will depend on this understanding and application.

Dramatic Construction of the Message

Almost all sentences end with a bang; that is, the energy builds to a climax. There may be a high point in the middle, but nearly always, the ending, especially the last word, is the strongest hit in the sentence. That word also happens to be a noun most of the time, although it may be another part of speech as well.

When you read even the shortest sentence, ease into it and keep your vocal energy in reserve to hit on a big ending. The natural tendency for people new to voice over technique is to run out of gas by the time they get to the end of a sentence and almost cavalierly throw it away, when instead the opposite effect should occur. Ease into the sentence in the beginning, increase your energy gradually as your progress through the sentence, and give a strong dramatic push to the ending. Note that the listener always has a tendency to remember best the last word spoken, not the first. This dramatic push should be especially strong at the end of a topic, before a transition, and most of all, at the end of the entire script itself. Aim for a solid finish with follow-through.

Remember that the strongest ending of all is the ending of the last sentence in the script. Give this ending a sense of finality and closure by delivering it with strong focus, intensity, and purpose.

Ability to Visualize and React

Every subject we talk about requires visualization. All events evoke a picture. You must be able to clarify and color this picture for yourself and the listener. For example, if you are narrating the experience of a day spent in Paris, you must be there (or have been there) yourself in your fantasy. Otherwise, how can you possibly take someone else (the listener) there? If you talk about climbing the Eiffel Tower, see yourself (and others) climbing it. Smell the rarified air as you ascend the tower. Hear the hundreds of footsteps of people coming down past you as you continue your climb to the top. When you get to the top, you take in the panorama of Paris at its most glorious. If your description continues with experiences on the ground, feel the presence of the French people and smell the aroma of freshly baked bread.

In contrast, if you are reading a World War II script describing a fierce, deadly battle, place yourself there in your mind. Soldiers fall, wounded and dying, all around you. Cannons. Rifle fire. Machine guns. Grenades. You must react to it. The listener will react with you. Live the experience in your mind. It’s all about empathy—the ability to experience as your own the feelings of someone else. The best actors in the business fully understand and make use of this ability in every acting challenge they encounter.

Plosive Consonants

B, hard c, d, hard g, k, p, and t are plosive consonants; that is, they can push out a lot of air when pronounced. On condenser microphones (which are the microphones of choice for voice over work), a puff of air from a plosive consonant may produce a bassy “pop” in the middle of the delivery, which can be an annoying distraction.

To avoid this problem as much as possible, we use a windscreen, which may be a porous foam sleeve over the microphone, or a double windscreen inserted between the performer and the microphone. These serve to divert the puff of air from a direct line to the microphone and soften the plosive.

You can learn to deliver plosive consonants directly to the microphone without popping by practicing your delivery four or five inches in front of a burning candle. It may take many hours of practice, and you may have to relight the candle countless times, but over time you will adjust and learn to deliver plosives without blowing out the candle. Then, when you work close to a microphone, you will be able to avoid popping entirely.

Breath Control

Most breath-control problems stem from a lack of understanding of phrasing and from overlooking breathing pauses. Others are caused by simply delivering at too high a volume level, not taking in enough breath at every opportunity, and not staying relaxed. Anxiety is the mortal enemy of breath control.

Let’s talk about pauses first. Pauses give us obvious openings to breathe, and if the pause is a long one, a chance to grab a big breath. Most long sentences can be broken up into several shorter phrases or clauses that can stand alone, and can therefore offer many breathing opportunities.

Now a word about loud delivery. Many stage actors (as mentioned in a previous chapter) as well as amateurs who are new to voiceovers, often project the message as they would on stage. This is a surefire way to run out of breath. Delivering at a comfortable, relaxed, conversational level will conserve your breath in a way that may surprise you.

Keep your breathing relaxed and try not to overdo the intake. Don’t rush it, either. I have heard many broadcasters (mostly from reading too fast) take short, quick gasps for breath that are frequently quite audible. The use of electronic compression often exacerbates this phenomenon. Easy does it. Try to pitch the breath as low as you can by making the opening in the back of your throat as wide as comfortably.

One way you can build up your breathing stamina is to take a script – any script – and read it in an easy, relaxed, albeit expressive manner, while eliminating all of the pauses. The ideas to take a comfortable breath in the beginning and go as far into the script as you can. Try using the same script for a few days for this exercise. Each time you read it aloud, mark how far into the script you ran out of breath. The next time you do it, try to go a word or two or three further. Over time, you will be amazed at how far you can go without a breath. When I first started this myself, I could only do two to two and a half lines. After working on it for several months, I was able to do fourteen to sixteen lines. Many of my students have achieved similar results.

Building a Solid Working Vocabulary

On the narration and audiobook sides of this business, we often encounter words whose meaning or pronunciation are unknown to us.

Get in the habit of looking up every word you encounter in a new script, whose meaning you do not fully understand, and look up its meaning in a good dictionary, as well as its correct pronunciation.  Study and learn the phonetic spellings in the dictionary and how to use them to pronounce the new words you encounter.  Bookstores offer vocabulary builders of many kinds that you can use to learn 15 to 20 new words per week.

If you specialize in medical, technical, or IT scripts, it would be a smart move to buy an appropriate dictionary for any/one of those categories, as the necessity for looking up definitions and pronunciations of new words occurs far more often in these areas than in the average script.

With these approaches, your vocabulary will grow steadily, and poring over a new script will go much more efficiently.

How to Avoid Running Out of Breath

1. Keep your volume to a minimum.  The louder you talk, the quicker you will run out of air.  Remember, too, that voiceover delivery is an intimate medium.

 

2. Mark the places where you can catch a breath:  ends of phrases, ends of clauses, end of sentences.  Commas generally are good places to take a breath, especially in front of prepositional phrases, or in front of a conjunction (and, or, if, but, when, as, etc.).

 

3. You can take a big breath (and a big pause) at the end of a paragraph that leads into a transition – a change in time and/or place or a change in subject material.

 

To increase your own breathing and endurance capacity, take a deep, quick breath.  Then close your mouth tightly, pursing your lips to form a very small opening.  Let the air out slowly, and keep pushing it out until you are absolutely out of air.  Then breathe normally.

 

Wait 3 or 4 minutes, then repeat this.  This time, when your last breath is expelled, let the breathing in that follows be the intake for the first line of a script you’re working on.  Then read into the script without a breath or a pause, and see how far you can go on that one breath.  Do this every day with a different script. Count the number of words you made it through, and try to go a word or two further each time you do this.  You will be amazed at how your endurance will improve over time.

 

To summarize:

 

  1. Keep your volume at a close-up conversational level.

 

  1. Mark your scripts for breathing opportunities.

 

  1. Look for transitions for deeper breaths.

 

  1. Work on your endurance and capacity.  Remember that breath and energy are handmaidens in this business.