By Deborah Sale-Butler
As a voice actor and a voice/speech and dialect coach for over twenty years, I've heard a lot of very talented actors who weren't getting the work that they wanted because of a simple lack of awareness of their speech.
Most good voice-over coaches focus on your acting and how to break down copy. And they may give general notes like, "you need to articulate more," but, for the most part, they don't have the training to tell you exactly how to fix the problem. The result is that actors get frustrated and start to over pronounce everything so that it sounds completely unnatural. Then they're told to relax and they mumble and get even more frustrated!
That's where speech coaching comes in. There is a technique to sounding clean and also speaking naturally. Who needs it? Well, anyone considering a career in voice-over probably wants a voice that is as flexible as possible. Flexible, meaning that you can create whatever style of speech that is appropriate for the kind of job you're doing.
Of course your speech will usually be more casual for a commercial copy than for corporate narration, but in both instances, you need to be clearly understood. After all, your job, as a voice actor is to tell the story, or sell the product and the audience must understand every word you say. Flexibility also comes into play when you are substituting another way of speaking (like a dialect or character voice) for your own. Certain dialects require a vocal agility that you may not have in your everyday speech. You need to be able to jump into a new speech style quickly and naturally. It comes in handy for animation or game work where you may need to create several characters at a time. Having a few dialects at your disposal can make this task easier.
So, how do you acquire this range of speech? Some lucky folks are born with "an ear" for it. People fortunate enough to have this skill can recreate any sound or dialect they have heard or can imagine - very handy as a voice actor. I happen to have "an ear" and use it often as an actor, but it's also useful to me as a speech and dialect coach. For those without a natural ear, I serve as a substitute, for a while. I can hear the differences between what my students are doing, and what they want to do and then, I help them to hear and recognize it too. Then the work of substituting the new sounds, music and rhythms for the old begins.
Mostly, it's about breaking habits. You've been talking the way you do for however many years you've been alive and most everyone understands you, so you've had no reason to think twice about the way you speak. Suddenly, you're told you have to make a change.
The first question most people ask is, "how long will it take?" And honestly, there is no one, answer to that question. It will take some time to make the transition. How much time depends on many factors. But with daily practice, in small increments, most people find they're doing things they never imagined in a few months, weeks, or even sessions.
The next question usually is, "do I have to speak differently all the time?" That depends too. Some people need to fully immerse themselves in their new way of speaking, until the kinks are worked out. Others can move in and out. Regardless of what technique works best for you, I promise - all you need to do is make one phone call home and your original speech will be back in full force!
What is the process like? I can only talk about my own work, but I know other coaches work similarly. First I do an assessment, either in person, or over the phone (for speech and dialect coaching, I can work both ways). We talk about your speech history and goals. Then I assign you exercises to help you with your particular speech challenges. We apply this work to cold reading and prepared copy and even to current projects and auditions.
I've worked with students from all over the country and all over the world. Sometimes, a student has trouble letting go of a regionalism or an accent. They'll say something like, " but this is who I AM!" What I always ask them is, "when you hear your own, inner voice, does it have an accent or regionalism?" That voice in your head is your true self, your true voice. Your speech is a way of shaping that inner voice, but it's just a tool. You will always be at the core. You are the spark. Like a painter with a new paint box, gaining awareness of your speech and learning to change it at will, allows you more colors with which to express that inner voice and deliver the message to your audience.
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