Tips for Becoming a Skilled Sight Reader
If you want to successfully build a career in voiceover, you can’t underestimate the importance of sight-reading skills.
They have to be brilliant, because voiceover is not about just ‘reading in a nice voice’.
It’s about so many other elements, like:
- The structure of the language in the script or story
- The way language is used – is it formal, conversational, colloquial?
- Whether the text it’s information or instruction
- Whether it requires you to jump into someone else’s shoes, or
- Whether it needs you to create a unique style that’s poetic, poignant or moving, menacing, intriguing, or just plain scary.
So the choices you make about ‘how’ to approach or read the text will always be informed by content and concept.
No matter which area of voiceover you’re working in, you are always working from a script.
Mostly, especially in the commercial world, you won’t have seen the script before. You need to be able to read it ‘off the page’ and be able to comprehend pretty quickly what the text is saying.
Of course there’s a big difference in the sight-reading skills required for a 15 second read for a radio spot, as opposed to an audio book narration or a 16 page e-learning script.
Because being a brilliant sight-reader is not as crucial in the commercial world where, because of the shorter length of the spot, anywhere between 5 and 60 seconds, it can be pieced together from a variety of different takes.
For this kind of work you need to understand how to deliver the information, instructions or concept by working out what the message is about; and knowing who you’re directing it to, and why.
Then there’s long-form narration for the ever-growing area of non-broadcast, which includes Explainer Videos, e-learning and training videos, as well as promotional, presentation and sales material.
Audio book narration (also called long-form) is a highly specialized skill of its own, requiring not just storytelling skills, but consistency with volume, pace, energy, tone, and characterisations.
I want to talk about the skills you need in abundance and give you some tips and techniques to improve your sight-reading and build a career in voiceover.
Skill number one.
Building your vocabulary
You need to understand that any text will be a series of different thoughts or ideas.
Contained in those thoughts and ideas will be:
- visual descriptions
- emotive or poignant language, and
- repetition, of either individual words or phrase, or ideas
You’ll come across words and language that’s meant to be expressed in a specific or certain way.
Sometimes if you’re not clear, you’ll need to ask. “What is meant by this?”
It’s good to ask. Never hold back. You need to know.
If you want to build a career in voiceover, you’ll need to build your vocabulary.
So get curious about words, about the history of words and how and why they’re used the way they are.
Skill number two
Understanding grammar rules – so you can break them J
Here’s the thing. The ‘written’ word requires structure, so we can understand what we’re reading; and written-word structure requires rules.
But rules are made to be broken and converting written word into spoken word is one of those occasions when you start breaking those rules.
However it will really help you to understand what the rules and terms are for language, and how and why they’re structured that way on the page.
There are many blogs and sites that deal with grammar. Most of them rather too pedantic and dense to apply to voiceover or ‘spoken word’ but here’s a link to one that has simple, easy-to-understand explanations.
When you know more about grammar, you’ll begin to understand how and why you might want to break some rules.
You see, in life we don’t speak in correct sentence structure.
We create our own rhythms.
We pause and group words together in ways that serve our own story.
Working in voiceover requires us often to create a rhythm, a tempo and a feeling for our text that makes it sound as though we ‘own’ it; that the words are ours.
So get curious about grammar.
Skill number three
Making language sing
When I’m coaching or producing in the studio, I often talk about voiceover in terms of ‘notes’, a high note, a low note etc.
Understanding pitch in much the same way as a singer or musician does, can be incredibly useful.
For instance, if you start a sentence on a high note, you may have no where to go and you might sense that your delivery is sailing up and up and up…and you can’t work out why it sounds wrong.
Try playing with the text in the previous paragraph and really listen to what’s happening in ‘note’ terms.
Sometimes reading sounds awful if there is too much inflection on individual words for no reason, a bit like a roller-coaster.
This always causes the read to sound disconnected, disjointed and gives away that the person is reading (badly).
Generally what you need to do is look beyond ‘sentence structure’ itself and into the sentence to find how many different thoughts and ideas are there.
In grammar rules, what I term thoughts and ideas will be referred to as clauses or phrases.
Treat these as stand-alone thoughts, each with its own meaning, distinct from any thoughts or ideas either before or after it.
Then string those individual thoughts together like they’re one long word, just as singers do.
Now when you read those thoughts or ideas, you need to notice whether you leave gaps, or pause or stop between words.
Your delivery must be natural. You must sound authentic and understand how to deliver a read that is not only easy on the listeners ear, it connects with the story you’re telling whether it’s an ad, a training manual or an audio book.
Of course just like anything, to become proficient you must practice.
To build a career in voiceover you must know your voice intimately. So ‘read off the page’ every day. Set aside time to read ‘aloud’ for at least 20 minutes,
When you read you need to train yourself to listen to yourself as well. Read and listen…listen and read.
Take on these little lessons and you’ll be amazed how your sight–reading improves.
Find Your Voice As a Voice Over Actor And Artist With The Voice Over Coach. For over 30 years I've had a successful voiceover career. I work in mainstream voice over for radio and television, narration for the corporate sector, website content and documentaries, as well as characters for animation, IVR, ADR, on-hold and foreign film dubbing.