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Voiceover tips for podcasting

By Graeme Hague

Podcasting provides an excellent opportunity for aspiring radio presenters and journalists to be heard all over the world, thanks to the ease of digital downloads and the internet making their broadcasts both accessible and locatable. The downside is that the sheer amount of people producing podcasts has created  fierce competition. At the first sign your podcast isn’t up to scratch it’ll be trashed by the Delete button and the listener will move on to something else. Quality and presentation are enormously important and they need to be immediately apparent. A large component of most podcasts is some kind of spoken script or a question-and-answer interview. Your own voice is in the starring role and that can be scary for a lot of people. Audio plug-ins like compressors and reverbs can play their part, but the initial recording has to be good.

For a start, it would help if we all had one of those “voice-over” voices like you hear in film trailers and advertisements.

That isn’t as hard as you might think. Sure, you may not have a deep, sonorous voice that makes Nicolas Cage actually seem heroic, but that isn’t necessary. The real trick- and it is a “trick” - is to learn how to highlight particular phrases and be consistent in your speech. Listen carefully to good television presenters and you should hear that they’re not speaking normally at all (although we’ve come to accept it as such). They’re performing and like any stage performance there is an added, unreal dramatic element to their speech. They can make the most mundane things sound exciting.

It’s not that difficult. Hear the two examples below. The first is spoken normally. The second has been given a “voice-over” edge.

This is spoken normally. The file below emphasizes certain words.

Choosing various words to frequently add accent will arouse your audience’s curiosity

By accentuating certain words you are continuously pricking the reader’s interest. In this example I’ve accented “claiming”, which suggests the scientists might be wrong, creating suspense, while “first”, “beginning” and “last” are all words that we find exciting. We’re naturally curious about things that are the first, last, biggest, longest… just look at the success of the Guinness Book of Records. The “trick” is to identify which words in your script can be emphasized to keep prodding that curiosity in your listener. Circle them or underline them with red pen, so you see them coming as you record. In some ways it’s kind of cheating, because it turns out to be a false promise, but by the time your audience has figured that out you’ve said something else to keep them hooked.

It’s easier said than done, but you must teach yourself to stop “umming” and “ahhing,” and saying words like “whatnot or whatever” when you speak. It sounds very unprofessional. It doesn’t mean you have to learn- and stick to- any well-rehearsed script, because too often you’ll discover a script isn’t worth the monitor screen it’s written on and you have to improvise. The alternative is to slow down your delivery or even say nothing at all! In fact, small silences also heighten a sense of expectation in the audience prompting them to keep listening. In the next two examples I’ve deliberately sounded uncertain in the first, then in the second I’ve taught myself to slow down or pause slightly instead of umming or ahhing when I’m searching for the right word.

This example sounds uncertain. The example below is more confident.

Replacing bad speech habits with a pause or slower delivery instead can work well. Note I’ve also added some voice-over “edge.”

Adding music underneath some of your voice-over can be really effective to set a mood, especially if the script needs a little help to tell the audience what’s going on. But you have to be careful not to make it distracting through being too loud or inappropriate. Software like Sony’s Cinescore can provide great sound “bites” of music and keep you on the right side of the copyright laws. Also, don’t use music all the time. Too much of a good thing can minimize its impact.

This file has no music. The file below enhances the spoken word, giving it a bit of suspense.

Even though the actual script provides drama anyway, the addition of music cranks it up further.

When your podcast is completely recorded it’s a good idea to use a wave editing program like Adobe’s Audition 2 or Sony’s Sound Forge to process a gentle compression across the file. You’re not after some radical effect here- all you want is to make a consistent volume across the recording and this is where compression works well. Also, you might want to use an EQ plug-in to add a little top end or treble “sizzle”. This will increase the recording’s legibility and allow for the fact that with some file download formats and the compression algorithms they use, high tones are the first to go. Things can get a bit dull.

Practice your voice-over technique and don’t be afraid to sound a little weird and “over the top”- everyone does it. Challenge yourself and attempt to sound excited about a very unexciting object such as a box of breakfast cereal. Remember, people do this for a living! Soon, like a singer who creates their own sound, you’ll have your unique voice-over style that will become second nature when you hit the “record” button.

Major and minor chords. There are many different musical key signatures based on whether the scale is “major” or “minor”. I once heard Phil Collins describe the D Minor chord as the “saddest” chord. It’s true that minor chords have a certain unhappy or tragic tone, while major chords are more uplifting. So if your music creation software has a dialogue box that prompts for a key signature remember that minor scales are best for sad, dramatic or even frightening music and major scales are good for happy, positive vibes.

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