The language/emotion connection in voice acting

Don't read. Speak.If you asked a professional voice actor to perform a script like a regular person reading out loud from a book, he or she could do it — and you would immediately recognize the poor performance. If you asked for a natural, conversational read, then you would immediately recognize that one as well (and be much, much happier with the result.)

Why is that? Why can we recognize when someone is reading and when someone is truthfully speaking?

In this post, I’d like to put on my “speech therapist” hat and offer up to you the answers. Be prepared, though. The explanation might get a little long-winded…

In a nutshell, language is just a combination of sounds that we, as speakers of that particular language, attach specific meaning to. This is why (obviously) we can’t understand foreign languages unless we know the meaning behind the new combinations of sound. But what does “meaning” actually mean?

The meaning of the word “dog”

If someone says the word “dog” to you in a conversation, how do you react? Does your mind immediately recall the Merrian-Webster definition: “a highly variable domestic mammal (Canis familiaris) closely related to the gray wolf.”? Of course not. In the blink of an eye your mind recalls an image of what a dog looks like, your feelings about dogs in general, or, depending on the conversation, your reaction to the speaker’s opinion about dogs.

Let’s take a look at each one, shall we?

The image of words

The first words babies learn to speak are objects: concrete things that they can see. Babies associate the image of what they are seeing with the sound of its name. To a baby, the sound of the word “Mommy” or “Daddy” has no meaning by itself. But when that sound is combined with the image of their Mommy or Daddy, then the sound has meaning.

Going back to our example above, when you hear the word “dog”, you associate your own personal image of a dog. Maybe it’s a dog you had during your childhood. Maybe it’s your neighbor’s dog. If you’re a parent like me, then maybe it’s the image of Clifford the Big Red Dog. (My kids love Clifford!)

Whatever the case may be, each person has their own unique mental image of what a dog is.

The emotion of words

As babies, we also attach emotions to the things around us. Seeing Mommy’s or Daddy’s face makes us happy (especially when we are crying for milk, attention, or relief from a messy diaper.) Again, the baby doesn’t care about the sound of the word “Mommy” or “Daddy”, it only knows the emotional connection to the sound.

When you hear the word “dog”, you have a unique emotional response as well. Maybe you love dogs, and so your reaction is one of fondness. Maybe you hate dogs, and so your reaction is one of loathing. Maybe a dog bit you when you were a small child. In this case the word “dog” sends a tinge of fear running up your spine.

Each person has their own unique emotions to the sound of the word “dog”.

The reaction to words

For this explanation, we’ll skip the whole baby phase since we’ll be looking at adult conversations. Let’s say your friend speaks the following:

“I just can’t understand why some people hate dogs, can you?”

From this one utterance, you can immediately see that your friend is trying to illicit the response of “I completely agree with you!” I this case, your mind isn’t totally focused on an image of dogs or your feelings about dogs. It’s focused on your reaction to your friend’s words and how you will respond to that opinion.

If don’t agree with your friend’s opinion, your mind doesn’t first picture an image of a dog, nor does it bring up deep feelings of canine hatred. Your mind reacts to the opinion of your friend. So a typical thought might be: “How dare he assume that I like dogs?!”

If you agree with your friend’s opinion, then your feelings wouldn’t necessarily be that of labrador love. Instead, you’ll be filled with emotions of camaraderie. “We feel exactly the same way!” you might be thinking.

Getting to the point

Okay, okay. I know the road to this point in the post has been a long one. So let’s get to it.

In normal conversation, we all have images, emotions, and reactions running through our minds as we listen and speak. So…

When someone speaks without images, emotions, or reactions in the sound of their voice, then there is NO BELIEVABILITY.

From babies on up we are conditioned to hear the emotional content in a speaker’s voice. When that emotional content is missing (i.e. when you just read a script instead of speaking it with images, emotions, and reactions firmly in mind) then no one will believe you. On the flip side, if you add too much emotion then you will sound fake, sarcastic, or just plain announcery.

If you are a beginner to voice-over acting, then you must stop reading the scripts. You must speak the scripts as if they were your own words. You must say the sounds of your language with the images, emotions, and reactions in the front of mind and behind the words themselves.

2 Comments

  1. Amen to that! There have been times when I received copy and my voice was colored by an experience. One time a producer asked me if there was a problem because they weren’t getting the right vibe from me. I was reading the copy way too fast, subliminally trying to race through it as fast as I could because the subject matter made me uncomfortable.

    Ciao!

  2. Christopher,

    Thanks for the comment!

    It’s amazing isn’t it how even our sub-conscience can influence how we perform a script. Before getting into voice acting, expressions like “finding my motivation” or “getting into character” had little meaning. Now I understand them with clarity. Acting really is a full mind and body experience.

    Thanks again! 😀
    -David

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