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Sounding Authentic: Secrets From A Top Voice Coach

Tips from Head of Voice at The Oxford School of Drama Ashley Howard

I was once told a story about the magic spells of the sun god Ra who, it is said, told the goddess Isis that the power of the spells he taught her was not in the words themselves but the sounds of the vowels and the intonation.

The voice is indeed powerful, but in the 21st century, authenticity and credibility trump all, whatever material we are voicing. These days there are so many, many voices out there, and beating the mediocre talent is in part to do with sounding authentic.

I’m Ashley Howard, a professional voice coach: I have an MA in Voice Studies from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I’m Head of Voice at The Oxford School of Drama in the UK, and I’ve been coaching for over 12 years. I’ve coached hundreds of actors and voice over artists, such as Claire Foy, Babou Ceesay and Sophie Cookson, and I want to share with you my top 3 secrets for sounding authentic.

#1 The ‘Who’
Whatever the script (advert, corporate, character, narrative) there is always a ‘who’: 

• Who am I the speaker?
• Who is the listener?
• Who is the writer?

Maybe you ask yourself these questions and answer them, but do those answers actually manifest in your voice? Are you flexible enough vocally and imaginatively to bring the nuances of these answers to life on mic?

We may think that asking ourselves ‘who am I the speaker?’ is simple, right? If we have a sales script, we might be the happy customer or the friendly salesperson. If we have a corporate script explaining a new process or aspect of the business we might be the educated voice of the organisation. Or with a character script we are simply the character.

But just finding the ‘happy’ voice of the happy customer ain’t gonna cut it with your listener. It’s like a stock photo next to a testimonial on a website – we smell the lack of authenticity (or in our case, we hear the lack of authenticity in the microtonal qualities of the voice).

So who is this happy customer? Why are they happy? What makes them want to come onto the radio and broadcast to the world their satisfaction? What’s in it for them?— Ashley Howard
We might start with a reflection about the last time we felt genuinely happy about a customer-service experience. Maybe there is something in that memory that might change the tone and nuance of the voice to bring that quality to life with the script?

Then there is ‘who is the listener?’. Personally speaking, talking to my mother is a very different experience than talking to my daughter or a stranger or someone in authority. Talking to a stay-a-home dad is different from talking to a hard-nosed business type or a social worker or a group of kindergarten children. Talking to one person is different to talking to many.

And these differences are a product of the way we feel about that person or people and how we feel about ourselves in relation to them.

Are you strongly connecting to these qualities when on mic? If in our minds we can call upon the physical image of those kindergarten children as we speak, or we bring into our bodies the feeling of addressing a group of children, that information is going to supercharge the voice with the tone of authenticity and credibility. Couple that with a sense of how they are looking at us and what their state may be, is like jet fuel!

And then there is ‘who is the writer?’. I don’t mean the actual person who wrote the script. I mean, from the vocabulary, syntax, grammar and layout, who do we imagine the writer to be and does that affect the voice or our choices? Do the word choices suggest something about the intellectual image of the writer? Might short, direct sentences suggest something about their attitude to what they are writing? Might endless repetitive questions or statements suggest something about their attitude toward the listener? The thinking and feeling behind the writing, if discovered, automatically enriches the voice with meaningfulness, and this captivates the listener.

If we don’t know what we as the speaker want or what the content itself wants from the listener, we may as well be saying nothing. When we speak, we always want to change something: someone’s mood, their opinion, their behaviour…

Identifying the want with a verb (better still a transitive verb) will make everything we say feel active. It gives us a focus, a target, a means by which to judge how well we are affecting our listener. For example, if you starting reading this paragraph out loud and actively think about trying to persuade me, so long as you are vocally and imaginatively flexible enough, your tone of voice and intonation will have changed.

Try this: keep reading aloud and now try to warn me instead. Again so long as you’re flexible enough, your voice and intonation should sound different.

The want might change during the script (it often does) and this gives huge potential for finding the journey through the script and naturally encourages variation.

The clues for these wants may be in the script itself but can also reveal themselves through asking: ‘who am I the speaker?’, ‘who is the listener?’ and ‘who is the writer?’

This is when it can all fall apart. Mostly because there is good direction and bad direction. Just as there is good and bad teaching. And good and bad writing ete.

‘Sound more sexy’ says the enthusiastic director. Within only a few seconds, we’ve got to process that in the context of the script, the who, the want and whatever else is running through our minds.

I’ve heard the phrase ‘being director proof’ from many professionals in the industry. My take on this is that we have to develop the resources to unpack this sort of clumsy code into actionable thoughts that manifest authentically in the voice.

As we said at the top, being ‘happy’ or ‘sexy’ isn’t going to work – there are a thousand other voiceover artists who can do that. Can you unpack the word ‘sexy’ and turn it into something relevant and credible? Do they want a wash of ‘sexiness’ or just a bit towards the end or in the middle? Is there a verb that you could use instead to make it feel more active? Why are they asking that question in the first place? What questions haven’t you asked yourself that led to this note?

Maybe you didn’t ask ‘the who’ or ‘the want’?

So if you want to standard out amongst the sea of voices out there then ask more questions and invite more authenticity into your work.

To learn more about Ashley or to get some private coaching online or with him in the UK, learn more here.

Welcome to the VoicesUK blog. Here we explore all facets of the amazing world that is the voiceover industry. We feature guest authors on topics such as how to get started, what equipment is best for your recordings, how to find clients and how to best show off your skills on VoicesUK. To join our family of British voiceover artists please click here. To audition the perfect voice for your project click here.

5 responses to "Sounding Authentic: Secrets From A Top Voice Coach"

  1. Jane McIntyre Jun 07, 2019 at 14:21

    Thanks, Ashley, there are some really useful thoughts and tips in this piece. Always good to consider a different approach! 🙂


  2. Kerry Hutchinson Aug 29, 2019 at 09:15

    Great point about what you ‘want’ the listener to do – an emotional ‘call to action’. Good advice, thank you.


  3. SEO Affiliate Program Jan 25, 2020 at 05:30

    Awesome post! Keep up the great work! 🙂


  4. AffiliateLabz Feb 16, 2020 at 00:27

    Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂


  5. Margaret Ashley Nov 13, 2020 at 12:23

    Thanks for this, enjoyed the read. Authenticity is key, your ears are sensitive, peopel can tell if you are not being ‘real’.. Good reminder.


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