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Is Hesitancy Allowed in Voice Overs?


I have recently been following a conversation on a media site in which a radio professional criticises a presenter for using too many 'ums' and 'erms'. The exchange has divided opinion so much, the thread has been sizzling with lively comments for well over a month. 


For one contributor this style of presentation is best described as a 'curse' that needs to be eradicated with proper training. To be fair, they are referring to a broadcaster on a local community station and the poor radio presenter they are castigating is most likely a volunteer who gives up his spare time generously and freely. 

However, it does raise interesting questions about this type of speech interruption. Is it really undesirable and should we all be pursuing a silky smooth delivery?

Of course it's not just the 'ums' and 'erms' that cause speech patterns to be ruptured; punctuating our delivery with 'like', 'actually' and 'literally' is often regarded as unwanted sentence intrusion. In public speaking such jerky dialogue can be attributed to nerves, but the effect may be to diminish the authority of the speaker.

You may have noticed a lot of people start a sentence with 'so' and I know personally I have a bad habit of dropping 'I think' into my speech... usually when I am not thinking at all!

But, surprisingly, these linguistic tics can help improve your voice over delivery.




The good news is that in voice overs the words are there on the page clear as daylight, so aberrant terms and phrases are simply not on the script. The voice actor does not need to know which thought or idea is around the corner, because the sentences are there in front of her eyes. The difficult job is to bring meaning to those words in an interesting way. 

But voice overs are changing.

The last few years have seen a dramatic shift in what clients want from a voice over. No longer the mannered polished delivery of old, but rather a subtle, natural, more nuanced approach is often required. In short, conversational or un-announcery.  

Directors and producers eschew 'voiceoverman' or 'voiceoverwoman' in favour of the neighbour next door or the fellow parent we may chat to at the school gates. Not all voice overs are like this, of course, particularly where characterisation is required, but the mainstream has now seen a marked move towards an easy, 'normal' style of reading.

Ordinary is the new distinctive.

This begs the question - should we now be adding hesitancy into scripted copy, so as to reflect natural speech patterns?

Have you ever watched BBC News presenter Huw Edwards?  As he reads the teleprompter, he pops in the occasional 'ahm' or mini-pause. This loosens up his anchoring style, so it is less formal and more natural. He is giving the impression of talking to the viewer as an equal, rather than delivering the news in an announcer style at them. It is very effective, but the irony is you need bags of experience to sound 'everyday'.

"Ah" you will be thinking "that's all very well, but I can't really put ums and erms in an explainer video or e-learning script - the client will have a very dim view of me taking such liberties."

The answer is - it depends how you do it. 

Peppering your VO performance with ill-considered 'ahs' and 'ums' is not going to go down too well with your director, but judicially applied in a spontaneous way can enrich any prosaic copy. My advice is not to overdo the 'erm' intervals, but to let them out when you feel they will work. 

In fact 'feeling' is an accurate way to describe the process. Although I usually suggest marking up a script before you begin voicing, in the case of adding in these interjections, you should take a more organic approach: if you sense a 'filler word' coming on, let it out - if not, leave well alone.

Don't force it.

Not only do your spurious utterances have to sound convincing, they also have to be appropriate. A corporate project requiring precision and authority will not benefit from your ad-hoc vocalisations, so leave well alone. 

Experiment with these 'verbalised pauses'; as with many aspects of voice over, it is all about trial and error. Record, playback and listen - some hesitations will work, others won't, but if you are sounding false - leave out and stay fluent.

You don't want to lose your, er, credibility.


Gary Terzza has over 30 years experience in the business and runs voice over training programmes in the UK.
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