When I coach voice over artists, I evaluate diction as early as possible. It’s not just a fundamental building block of the voiceover narration industry but an essential asset to any voice acting professional. Back in the early days of theater, the only thing a stage actor could rely on was natural acoustics and the power of their voice. While the methods and technology change with the rest of the world, the foundations remain the same.
After a recent coaching session over Zoom with one of my regular clients, who happens to be an 11-year-old girl (an aspiring voice-over artist), I thought a lot about diction and its role in voice-over work. I want to teach an essential lesson to any voice acting hopeful, no matter their age. So today’s blog post focuses on how to improve your diction (and why it’s so crucial for voice over).
Know the Diction Rules Before You Can Break Them
Now, for many directors who work with kids, diction standards are more forgiving than adults; kids are less formal and usually sound that way. Until recently, adult voice actors were held to a more stringent standard, but now the trend has shifted to less formal speaking – especially if you compare the US to a UK accent. However, as colloquial as the standard might get, you still have to know and understand diction rules before you can break them.
Diction is Different From Regional Accents
Diction differs from regional accents – spread as far as we are, we all have different flavors and dialects across the North American map and beyond. Still, the lion’s share of voice over work is done in the common vernacular of the US. That is, what’s known as General American, and it makes up most of what we hear from Hollywood movies, TV shows, and podcasts. From a performance point of view, diction is critical because it allows us to access an entire continent at a basic and controlled level that makes messages easy to understand.
Why is Diction So Important to Voice Actors?
Diction is the skill that will help you get the job. When words aren’t clear, they can distract people. As a professional voice actor, you need to pay special attention to diction and ensure that every word is clear, concise, and impactful; it’s the bread and butter of our industry. Potential clients and casting directors listen for a voice actor who delivers their material in a way that won’t distract end clients or viewers but informs them and keeps their attention. What people listen for, among other things, is clarity and ease of grasping your message. So, poor diction can stunt a voice over career before it has a chance to get started. Your job as a voiceover actor is to give great credence to the message that a client has hired you to convey clearly.
One of the first steps to improving your diction is understanding that there are a few smaller muscles that all support each other and work together as a whole. Let’s start with articulation and enunciation.
Articulation and Enunciation are Different Things
Even though the two are part and parcel of the industry and can appear identical to the layman, articulation and enunciation are two entirely different things. The first step in improving your diction is to know the distinction between the two and work on them independently as you would with any other set of muscles; the two make each other stronger. While enunciation has to do with the kinds of sounds, people make to emphasize the meaning of what they’re trying to say, articulation is the method of actually vocalizing it. That’s why it’s essential to buff up your diction skills with articulation exercises and enunciation – articulation plays a keen role in any prospective voice-over artist’s career (or lack thereof). It should be taken as seriously as any other component of the industry.
As I alluded to before, they’re muscle groups that all work together in tandem and rely on each other to create the building blocks of voice over acting. So by improving your articulation, you also strengthen your enunciation; by refining one, you elevate the other. Here’s a quick guide to three ways to improve your diction.
Three Ways to Improve Your Diction
Now that you better understand how vital diction is to a voice-over actor, let’s go over how to improve it.
- Slow Down
- Practice Your Articulation
- Don’t Over Articulate
First things first, slow down and make sure that you’re getting the words right. If you’re swallowing, mumbling, leaving off endings, or crunching words, you need to slow down your speech and pay close attention to the way things are meant to be pronounced. What kind of emphasis needs to be vocalized, and where does it need to go? Try recording yourself under different scenarios for the same script and listen to them closely; decide which take fits the best and work at refining it.
Practice Your Articulation
While articulation exercises before reading text can help get you in the zone, don’t do them as a one-off thing. To improve your diction, you need to practice your articulation regularly. Get into the habit of incorporating them into your daily schedule and fit some tongue twisters wherever you can. Your diction will improve if you practice your articulation regularly instead of just right before a performance (gig, audition, etc.).
Don’t Over Articulate
Over-articulating can be as career-crippling as under-articulating to a voice over actor. English-as-a-second-language speakers often over-articulate because the language is not as natural to them as their mother tongue. Sometimes this manifests as over-attention on consonants or extra air behind “s’s,” which can lead to sibilance. Sometimes it happens when a voice actor attempts to ensure that the message gets across to the listener, but they focus on the words in a heavy-handed manner instead of on how they want to influence their listener. (How they want to make them feel.)
While we have to be precise and make certain the message is clear, we also have to conform to the brand, the point of voiceover narration, and legitimately speak to the audience. Every client is different and has a specific vision for their brand. Some will be ok with a colloquial approach to their text, and some will want you to be more clear.