Craig Williams wrote a blog post recently about being comfortable with what makes us unique. He challenges us to embrace our training and coaching without losing who we are in the process. I think this is a valid idea and it got me thinking on a related tangent.
How can we know what makes us unique? More importantly, it is certain that not all things that make us unique are to our benefit or are even tolerable in a civilized society. So once we figure it out, how can we know what to keep and what to fix?
For brevity’s sake, and as you know I am always intensely concerned about brevity which is why I always keep my sentences short and don’t meander without purpose in the middle of a sentence, let’s steer the conversation away from tangents like personal hygiene and sociopathic tendencies and narrow the discussion to our voices. It can be a difficult line to draw. Which characteristics should be kept and protected and which should be dealt with through professional psychotherapy, incarceration or exorcism?
Do I really sound like that?
Here is a major complication: we don’t hear ourselves objectively. We really don’t know what we sound like, which is why so many people hate to hear a recording of their voice.
In a brief article in Neuroscience News entitled Why Do We Hate the Sound of Our Own Voices? it is explained that when we talk, the words are created by living flesh, which we hear primarily through internal bone conduction rather than through our ears. When we listen to a recording of our voice, the sound is captured by a microphone, then recreated by a speaker, conducted through air then interpreted by our ears. It doesn’t sound the same. It isn’t possible for it to sound the same. The article goes on to say,
“For this reason, people generally perceive their voice as deeper and richer when they speak. The recorded voice, in comparison, can sound thinner and higher pitched, which many find cringeworthy.” (Emphasis mine)
It boils down to self-perception, which of course colors our evaluation of what is unique and good about us and what could be improved. We are so accustomed to the way we talk, the way we sound, the way we enunciate, our accent or our dialect, that it seems “normal” to us. Good, bad or indifferent, everything else is defined as “other” or even “wrong” to varying degrees. Due to the separation between how we think we sound and how others perceive us, when we externally listen to our own voice, it also often falls into the “different” category.
“There is another reason hearing a recording of your voice can be so disconcerting. It really is a new voice – one that exposes a difference between your self-perception and reality. Because your voice is unique and an important component of self-identity, this mismatch can be jarring. Suddenly you realize other people have been hearing something else all along.” (Emphasis mine)
So, what do I really sound like?
Assuming all of this is true, how can we know how we truly sound? And if we cannot truly know how we sound, how can we, as Craig Williams suggests, protect the valuable characteristics which make us unique? Hopefully, we connect with peers, coaches and mentors who will tell us the truth. We must do one of the hardest things in life there is: find someone to trust.
No, I do not have a list of professionals to suggest, but there are a few out there which you can find. You may have to try a few on for size to find the one or two that you connect with. The relationship that works for me might not work for you.
I’m just typing out loud here, but it seems to me there is another more basic solution. Relax. Don’t worry so much about sounding like [insert name of astounding mega-professional here], or hitting the spec exactly. I know that I am at my best, do my best, and sound my best when I stop trying so hard. If I can both physically and psychologically relax and stop trying to be anything other than some version of myself, my unique characteristics come out and I sound more natural. Whether that is good or bad is in the ear of the beholder, which is out of my control.
If I am right, in addition to getting guidance from reputable professionals, it will help to listen to old records and stop worrying about it so much. Let it be, as the Beatles would say.
Let’s play dress-up!
All of that is well and good, but it isn’t a full picture. Adding to the list of potential mental disorders, we are often called upon to take on another persona as part of our daily work. Every genre of voice-overs require us to play a part. And the truth is that many of those making casting decisions are looking to hear a certain sound or type of delivery. If we ignore the current trends and expectations, we severely limit our chances of booking. Which raises more questions.
When the audition specs call for a certain kind of voice or delivery, do we hit the delete key just because our most natural, unique voice doesn’t fit? My voice for instance, has a natural low-end grit. If I smooth that out to fit a casting spec, does that modification constitute losing my unique sound? If I pitch up to tap into my inner 30-something dad vibe, is that an acceptable compromise? Where is the line drawn? Does it really matter? Does anyone else get sucked into a mental black hole with questions like these or is it time to schedule another visit with my psychologist?
My branding says “I hear you”.
When coming up with this line as well as “A voice actor who listens before he speaks”, I realized that clients hear voice talent everywhere shouting “Listen to me! Listen to me!”. Of course I want them to listen to me too, but my intent was to turn that message around to be more about the client than myself. I want my customers to know that I am going to ask questions, listen, then work with them to tailor my schedule and delivery to best fit their needs. To listen before I speak.
I believe in this approach, and if it requires a compromise on my natural sound, I’m okay with that because most of the time I can still deliver that script from a place of authenticity. If I can’t find some little bit of me to inhabit that read, I pass. I know that if I don’t believe at some level what I am saying, no one else will either.
Have you heard the saying “moderation in all things”? The simplest form of this idea is that the things we consume or experience are fine – up to a point. Which leads to another common idiom, “too much of a good thing”. This includes introspection, analysis and trying too hard. It is never in our best interest to get too wound up by things like that. Or to be too wound up about not being too wound up about the things you are wound up about.
I agree with what Craig said. Do your best to let your true voice shine through with all of its unique characteristics. Be authentic. Anchor yourself in these things as you are coached and learn from others. Don’t lose what it is that makes you unique.
At the same time, if you can do a quality job of it, don’t hold back from adapting to meet the specs! Become the character or express the enthusiasm you don’t really have. Just don’t overindulge. Do the job, but do it how you would do it.
As an example of this, I frequently audition for jobs that ask for a “Sam Elliott” type of read. This is right in my vocal wheelhouse and I can do it all day… but I never even try to give them an impersonation of Sam. I give them me, with my natural low key soft gravel, seasoned with some Sam Elliott coolness. Most of the time I can be me and still meet the spec. Besides, my opinion is if they really want Sam specifically, they should hire Sam. If they want me – and they should want me – they will know it when they hear it.
So lean on trusted voice professionals. Learn what is unique about you that needs to be retained and protected. Stretch yourself. Take on different roles, try on other voices and expand yourself emotionally. Just keep anchored in who you are and how you sound. Oh, and relax.
Thanks for the shout-out Jon. Great blog and you are correct. People should ground themselves in who they are. That can be very difficult as many have an inferiority complex or low self esteem. It can be very hard for some to get to a place where you believe you are good enough.
You’re welcome, Craig. You’ve hit on a major point. Our confidence is built on how comfortable we are with ourselves. The road to get there can be a long and rocky one.
In some way or another, I think we ALL get sucked into the black hole with these questions, it may just be human nature. When I first started this journey I would hear my voice and say “Wait, that’s not me!” but when I’d play something for my family or friends, they didn’t bat an eye. It was JUST how I sounded to them all along. Add to that the fact that you really just NEVER KNOW what the CD is looking for, regardless of what they write (those descriptive terms are pretty subjective, after all). The first time someone actually RECOGNIZED me from a radio spot, I was FLOORED. I didn’t think it sounded like me at all. Now, after more than a year, I know (even though I can’t HEAR) how I sound to others, and it is not as jarring. Knowing how you actually sound is a great first step in choosing what to (and not to) audition for and ultimately results in less rejection.
All great points. Since I have a history in radio, I can’t remember when I experienced the dissonance between the way I sound and the way others perceive me. These days, I struggle more with knowing what casting people hear and what I hear. I mean, can’t they hear how awesome I would be for their project?
Jon!! This was SUCH a good read! There were so many great things to absorb from this, and a lot of themes that I’ve also been recently learning. It really drove it all home for me.
And “A voice actor who listens before he speaks”
What an absolutely ace description! I love it. You’re amazing!
Wow. That was quite an effusive response and much appreciated. By the way are you married?