In life, breathing is something we take completely for granted. We breathe! That’s all there is to it. When we listen to someone talking, we usually don’t notice their breathing. It’s so natural that it becomes part of the seamless way they communicate.
But often, when I’m working with someone in the studio, especially if they’re a little uncomfortable in their surroundings, it’s breathing and the use of breath that stand out as really ‘getting in the way’ of their performance. That’s because there are two things happening there.
One, they’re nervous. Nervousness always plays havoc with the breath. When we’re nervous, we tend to take in very little breath, and barely fill the lungs. For voiceover, we need to have a lung-full and know how to use that lung-full to get through the script in the best possible way.
Two, they haven’t made a decision about what kind of breathing is required for this script style. What, you may say? What ‘kind’ of breathing…this script style? What is she talking about? Well, hopefully what I’m about to tell you will clear that up.
Let’s just talk about breath and emotion. I’ll use two extremes to demonstrate what I mean. When we’re sad, feeling blue or just feeling low, our breathing reflects our emotional state. Often there’ll be an increase in sighing or a slow exhaling type breath, often accompanying what we’re saying. Try it yourself, to see how that feels. You’ll probably recognize that as something you do when you are feeling blue. That kind of breathing is literally all about feeling deflated.
Conversely, when we are feeling happy, excited or upbeat, our breath is all about the inhale, sometimes short, inward gasps, like we would use naturally of we were excited and communicating a story about something great that just happened. We can’t help those inwards breaths. They are all about optimism and taking-in and enjoying life. Give that one a try!!
Emotional breathing is a huge part of our natural way of being. In voiceover, we need to harness our knowledge of breath and the power of breath to express emotion, which in turn will create a more interesting, engaging read.
Now, if you’ve been listening to radio and television commercials or narration, you may or may not have a fair idea of whether breaths are left in or taken out. Let me just share with you, based on four script styles, how breath is dealt with.
Let’s look at ‘Conversational’ style scripts. First, I’d like to say that no matter how much writers try to create naturalism in some voiceover reads, they really aren’t natural. They may have rhythms and phrasing that mimic the way we speak but when it all boils down, in the commercial world, conversational scripts use language in a way that is designed to manipulate our thinking, to make us buy a product or a service.
Don’t forget, it’s an ad! 🙂
Conversational scripts though, do use emotion. You may be playing someone who’s frustrated, or bursting to tell you great news, or seducing you, or cooing over a new baby, any manner of things that will require you to take on a particular emotion to make the read believable. Sometimes in conversational scripts, you can use a breath to express emotion. For instance, an inhale right before launching into more good news will not only help your performance, it will add believability to your read.
And believability is often what gets you the next job.
When you first look at a conversational script, you need to look at the copy in these terms. As you travel through the script, trying to make sense of what it’s all about, you’ll be moving from one thought or idea in the script, to the next. Mark these changes on the script. Use the marks to pause and use these pauses to signify a change of thought, or that new idea.
Similarly, in ‘Character or Character Driven scripts’, the story-telling aspect will once again cause you to breathe for effect, to breathe to reveal emotion, which will enhance the character and make the story sound as though it’s your own story. Of course, there are times, when some breaths will be removed from either conversational or character reads. This could be to do with time or it could be that the breath just didn’t quite work but mostly they’ll be there…and using breath to great effect is a winning voiceover technique.
The next two script styles are definitely in the ‘stylized’ category. Both ‘Announcer’ and ‘Retail’ scripts are heavily stylized. Announcer is most usually wall-to-wall information. It’s seldom, if ever, able to be read in a conversational way.
Because it is pure information, it uses very different rhythms to the way we speak naturally. Listen out for Announcer style. You hear it a lot. You might like to now notice that you can’t hear any breaths. That’s because they’ve have been removed. And if ever an engineer is too lazy to remove them or for some reason doesn’t, you’ll hear how dreadful they sound when they’re left in.
Retail is the biggie of de-breathing. There are two reasons for that. Like Announcer, Retail is heavily stylized and, as you’ll hear, the script is often just product and price, product and price. This script style is what I call, ‘punch’ retail, where the read is jam-packed and you’re required to deliver with high energy and travel pretty fast through the copy. It’s often not very ‘creative’ work but ‘punch’ retail is everywhere and can mean the difference between an average income and a sensational one for a voiceover artist.
Of course these days, many retail accounts use what I call ‘classic retail’ to sell their product. Often these scripts are more event based, such as ‘our 50% off all floor-stock sale begins tomorrow’…etc. It is often more gentle, not so, ‘in-your-face’. However, it too will have all the breaths removed.
Now, technique wise, you might be thinking. How do I do that? How do I breathe if they’re all going to be taken out? Good question, because unless you do it really well, that read is going to sound really disjointed. Because the thing about a retail read – that will have all the breaths removed – is that you need to make it sound seamless. In order to do that, you first need to mark the script in the places that you will take a breath…and of course because the breath is going to be removed, you can draw in a huge lung-full of air, which will be enough to get you through the next paragraph.
The most important thing to know, or to practice about this kind of breathing, is that before you take the big breath, you’ll need to literally stop! You’ll then take the breath and…continue, but in order to make the breath edit work and the read sound seamless, you need to remember where you were rhythmically before you took that breath. You need to remember what inflections you used on which words. You need to remember whether you finished a previous sentence with a downward, an upward or a neutral inflection, so that subsequent choices will ‘sound’ right. Yes, this is a real skill. Not everyone can pull-off retail successfully.
So, I hope this has given you ‘food for thought’. As part of your approach to any script, you need to be conscious that you will need to breathe, but you’ll need to ask yourself this, ‘When am I going to breathe and how am I going to breathe…? Each script style requires something different.
So, this week, listen with a new ear for breath and breathing. When do you hear them, when don’t you hear them? Practice reading along with some ads and try to pick where the breaths were taken out.
Developing an ear for voiceover and what’s out there is a real key to voiceover success.
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.