I’ve been teaching voice overs for twenty years and every student begins with the same declaration: “I can talk and I can read, so I can do this”. One of the first things we discover is that half of these talents can’t read. Now, I don’t meant they read like in the first grade, “See Spot run. Run, Spot, Run”.
I mean they can’t get through a sixty second ad without stumbling on words, missing words or substituting words. Some aspire to read audio books in their career. Well, trust me, if you can’t nail a sixty second spot, you’ll never get through a 257,000 word Harry Potter book.
Why Johnny Can’t Read
Reading isn’t as simple as you think it is. Your eyes have to track the words as you read and synchronize with the pace of your speech. You have to recognize and pronounce the words as they flow by. Then you process the meaning of the words in your mind. Finally you express, not just the words, but the meaning of the words in your speech by adding various inflections.
And things can go wrong at any stage. So if you have trouble reading here are some hints on how to identify your weaknesses and improve your skills.
Synch Your Eyes
You learn to read by reading out loud. But very soon you learn to read to yourself. And you can read to yourself faster than you talk. So you may find your eyes are a racing rabbit and your mouth is crawling tortoise trying to keep up. Suddenly your brain says, “where am I?!
To teach your eyes and speech to synchronize, try guiding your eyes by pointing to the text with your finger or a pencil tip. Keep it moving along as you read. You’ll find this keeps your eyes from jumping ahead. This will improve the flow of your reading with less stumbling.
Automatic Word Reading
You may think we sound out the letters when we talk. We do at first, but very quickly we just learn the shape of the letter combination and we process a word as a unit. Taht si wyh yuo cna udnersatnd tihs sentesne. But is takes practice to learn this automatic recognition of words. If you don’t recognize a word, you have to pause to decode it. Or worse still your mind may guess the intended meaning and just substitute any word that works.
The more words you automatically recognize, the faster and more accurate your reading will be. To improve automatic reading you need to… read! More. A lot. Out loud. Don’t worry about speed. Concentrate on accuracy. Start with simple material and then work toward widening your automatic vocabulary.
The actual recognition of words should become unconscious behavior. If you don’t have to concentrate on decoding the individual words then you can allow your mind to pay attention to comprehension of the meaning of the words.
Word Grouping And Phrasing
We also don’t read individual words. Most languages group words together to enhance ideas. Adjectives connect with nouns, adverbs describe verbs for example. The sentence, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” really says “Fox jumped dog”. Ah, but it’s:
- the [quick brown fox] who
- [jumped over]
- the [lazy dog].
As you’re reading, try to sense which words work together like this and learn to group these words in your speech.
Also most sentences, especially in business copy or in advertising copy are constructed from smaller, easy to read phrases. So the previous sentence becomes:
- Also most sentences,
- especially in business copy
- or in advertising copy
- are constructed
- from smaller,
- easy to read phrases
If you have trouble with [word grouping] /or phrasing/ you can try/ marking your copy /with [brackets for grouping]/ and [slashes for phrasing].
Then Add Prosody
There’s a word you don’t see every day. “Prosody” is the linguistic term for the melody and variety in speech. Prosody includes changes in pitch, tone, stress and rhythm. Two important aspects of English are word stressing and sentence pitch direction.
Word stress is so common we have a way of writing it with underlines, italics or bold type. And word stress adds additional meaning to a sentence. In “Tom is here”, Tom doesn’t move, but where we think he is changes:
- Tom is here — we didn’t expect Tom to arrive.
- Tom is here — we thought Tom wasn’t here.
- Tom is here — Tom didn’t leave.
Try reading this:
- Sentences can go up.
- And sentences can go down.
- Or go up and then go down again.
- Or go down and the go up again.
Become a Fluent Reader for Better Voice Overs
Remember that one kid in third grade who could make “The Cat in the Hat” sound like Orson Wells or Katherine Hepburn reading the Old Testament? When all these reading skills come together you become what we call a Fluent Reader. And it is an ability you can acquire.
So if you’re having trouble reading out loud don’t fret. It’s a skill we last worked on and practiced in elementary school. Look over this list of possible problems to identify your weakness and then practice to improve that aspect of your reading.
Fluent reading will speed up your auditions and make your jobs easier. And it will give you more time to concentrate on your artistic interpretation of the copy. Then, who knows? Maybe you will book that Harry Potter job.
Remember… keep talking!