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7 Ways to Sound Conversational
& Real - Not Like A Bad GPS Audio
By Susannah Kenton
Voice Artist
Most of us take for granted that we can produce the ubiquitous "conversational read." It's like falling off a log for an experienced voice artist, right?
Well, not necessarily. In reality it's all too easy to fall into automatic speech patterns that, frankly, make us sound like text to speech apps.
I recently worked on a project with an accomplished voice talent who read the male portions of an e-learning script that I had to read the female parts for.
He sent me his voice files so I could match them.
His files were flawless: perfect dynamics compression, normalization, a super quiet noise bed, no audible breaths. The only trouble was he sounded like an automaton.
While it's true that copy can be dry and uninspiring, let's remember that some poor person -  probably squashed into a cubicle, working a soul-destroying 9-5 job (can anyone relate?) has to listen to us.
Surely they deserve to hear a real person, and not a robot on the other end of their e-learning program.
If you suspect you're starting to sound like a bad GPS system, consider these tips:
1. Listen Honestly.

Rehearse and record a portion of your script, then listen back. Assess whether it feels like you're pushing the information onto the listener or genuinely connecting with them and sharing.
Does the listener have space to come toward your voice, or are you ramming it down their ears?  
2. Set the Tone.

Before you start a read, set a casual tone by conjuring up a close friend to talk to and then saying: "Hey, I think this information might help make your life a little easier or better, do you wanna hear about it?" Then begin.  
3. Ask and Answer Questions.

Imagine the listener needs the information you're sharing and asks you a question that your copy then answers.
For instance, suppose the question is: "What's so great about the Perspectives software system?"
Your read then becomes their answer: "One advantage of Perspectives software is the incredible flexibility it offers."
You can even ad lib - and later edit out - before you begin reading the copy "Well, you know " to help keep it casual.
And if you notice those automatic speech patterns start to creep in again, stop and find a new question to ask and answer.  
4. Emphasize Action Words.

Instead of using that random emphasis/inflexion that old school newsreaders were taught (to supposedly keep the listener's interest), emphasize only what really matters in each sentence.
If you're not sure what needs emphasis, a great clue is: the verbs, along with the product or company name, of course.
5. Throw it Away.

Don't emphasize everything! It's exhausting to listen to someone accentuating every syllable as if it's earth shatteringly important.
Throw away the unimportant stuff.  
6. Don't Try Too Hard.

One voice coach gave me feedback on an audition I did that made me laugh out loud.
She described my read as "bug-eyed" with enthusiasm. Ever since, I keep a keen note of when I start to feel my eyes bulging. 
7. Center In.

Finally - and this is personal - before beginning a recording, I like to take a few centering breaths and relax. (Relaxation is always a good place to start, even if you're going for a hyped read.)
I then imagine aligning myself with the people who will be listening to the project, as well as the company that is being represented.
I set the intention that my read will serve the highest good of all - and then dive in.


Susannah Kenton is an experienced voice artist based in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her natural accent is British, but she's often called to do a mid-Atlantic read. She's also a best-selling author and coach who is passionate about tools that can enhance a person's ability to live to their full potential.


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Comments (12)
5/27/2016 at 2:11 PM
Thank you for these very helpful tips. Speaking someone else's words in a conversational way is a real challenge, especially long-form copy.

I am also going to post this article where I can see it every time I have to record copy.
Susannah Kenton
10/5/2011 at 1:35 PM
I know what you mean about horrible copy, Paul. My biggest obstacle with it is always getting past my own eye-rolling resistance. Whenever I come across beautifully written copy, it makes me want to dance with joy!
Ken Budka
9/28/2011 at 4:01 PM
Great article, Susannah - I'm grateful to have read this before recording my auditions today. A good place to start tomorrow as well ...
Elizabeth Holmes
9/28/2011 at 1:18 PM
Wow, Susannah!

This is SO helpful to me -- particularly the Ask-&-Answer-Questions idea. It never occurred to me to intentionally ad lib, then edit out. Self-direction at its finest!

Many, many thanks for this list of wise, practical advice.
Johnny George
9/28/2011 at 11:34 AM

I do a lot of narration that requires the conversational approach. Additionally, dialog in a spot needs that "normal" & "real" tone. You gave some valuable ideas I plan to implement and re-think some of my style too after reading your words.

Thank you for your insight.

Paul Strikwerda
9/28/2011 at 8:50 AM
That was very refreshing, Susannah! Here's one of the challenges I run into all the time.

Many scripts are not written to be spoken, but written to be read. That's why - when spoken - they sound unnatural and contrived.

No matter how I change my inflection or approach, it's putting lipstick on a pig.

Can interest, engagement and intonation make up for horrible copy?

9/28/2011 at 8:43 AM
Susannah, your article was exactly what I needed to read today - thanks so much!
Roy Wells
9/28/2011 at 8:36 AM
Great article, Susannah! I've been having lots of trouble with this conversational voice concept, and your tips are going to help a lot I'm sure. I love the "bug-eyed" allegory.
Paul J. Warwick
9/28/2011 at 8:36 AM
Thanks for sharing! I found it most insightful.
Ron Chandler
9/28/2011 at 8:31 AM
Thank you for a good article, you hit the nail on the head. I will keep this in mind when recording.
Darla Middlebrook
9/28/2011 at 7:04 AM
Boy, this article is just what I need at just the right time. I am finding that the gigs that I land are for documentary, biography and e-learning jobs. When doing these, it is so easy to fall into a boring voice read. I am going to copy this article and tack it up over my mic to remind myself about ways to avoid sounding boring. Thanks for the tips, Susannah!
9/27/2011 at 2:39 PM
fantastic stuff, susannah! thank you for sharing.
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