What is pacing? Basically, it is the speed at which you talk or at which you unfold a story. But like everything in acting and voice over, there is more to it than that. It’s not just the speed, but the energy as well. It’s the ebb and flow of time between your thoughts and the listeners. The understanding of when to use a pause for effect and to what effect exactly. Underlying emotions and subtext all affect the pacing of an actor’s delivery.
In some genres of voiceover, work pacing is a technical consideration because of the genre or the script or because, as in video work, for example, the visual images are created first and the narration added after. Or when you are dubbing, and the pacing has added imposed time constraints to match to picture or follow the flap (a term in dubbing for matching the mouth movements of the character with your delivery of their lines). There may be limitations because of the script. For example, commercials which are locked into 15, 30, or 60 seconds are sometimes “wall to wall” (overloaded with information) and so you need to keep a brisk pace. In this post, let’s examine how you can explore various elements of pacing to unlock its magic.
Study pacing in the Wild
To wrap your head around pacing and its effect, listen to the people around you. To those that can tell a good story and to those that cannot. What is working and what isn’t? Did you find yourself struggling to keep up with the rapid twists and turns of the story or were you frustrated, waiting for the person to “get on with” a story that seemed to be taking forever to get anywhere?
Great places to study pacing in the wild – where you can listen and observe – are tv shows, stand up comedy, uncomfortable family dinners, scenes of tension, scenes of humor, great documentaries, inspiring commercials, and poetry slams. All of these moments of conversation and stories have a pace, sometimes related to the story itself and sometimes related to the storyteller. All of them are great opportunities to observe without judgment and store some ideas for how to recreate that pacing in your voice over work.
Concentrate On Connection Instead Of Speed
While you’re observing pacing in various settings, I encourage you to let go of the framing of pace as primarily a function of speed and broaden your definition to include the moments in between the words – those moments of connection rather than speed. As it’s often what we don’t say that can communicate so much. A connection to the moment is what helps an actor to move beyond the script and the technical aspects of pacing and concentrate on communicating. Often when the actor is fully immersed in the moment, the pacing takes care of itself naturally.
And as you develop your craft, and are embodying your role in whatever script you are given, you will be able to play with the rhythm of a work as well. You’ll be able to find variations in pacing that are important to bringing your delivery to life. Your script may be measured and spread out and then build to a crescendo of activity in response to which you pick up the pace…or it may build with a quickness, then transition into something slower….As an exercise, take a script and play it several different ways paying particular attention to speed all fast, all slow, slow to start and speed up and the reverse – Record it and listen back. Which reads had the combined aspects of speed, rhythm, and connection naturally? In those, you will find the correct pace.
Let Your Narration Breathe
Good copywriting, whether it be for brand commercials, explainer videos, documentaries, etc. allow time for the impact of the visuals to filter through to the user. In audiobooks, pauses allow for impact, reflection, and building images (world building I call it). So find moments to let your narration breathe and don’t be afraid to incorporate silence if the moment calls for it (obviously there are fewer moments in a 15 second commercial, but even there, moments for a slight pause can be effective).
Keep in mind that slow or quiet moments do not lack intensity – if you’ve ever been in a car crash or some disaster you know what I mean when the world slows down to a crawl and a matter of seconds can feel longer. Artful use of pacing in voiceover conveys a myriad of meanings, it allows you to control time in a narrative, and allows listeners to explore thoughts and feelings along with you.
Let The Words Do The Work
The words in a script, who says them and even in what order the words are said all affect pacing. So sometimes it can help to get out of the way and let the words do the work to decide what pacing to use. For example, rapid pacing in dialog can create urgency, so don’t think, just act. More often than not, when you know the intention of the words (humor, drama, instruction), you can fall into the pacing with little effort.
Because pacing is an integral part of language, it is easy to hear when it “feels right”. And you can absolutely tell when it’s wrong as well. When something is too measured, too much the same it is labeled the dreaded “robotic”, but this isn’t a case where the voice sounds like a robot, but rather this is usually a pacing error where the words are all delivered with the same speed, rhythm and lack of connection that makes them sound less human. So to master narration with clever use of pacing, you’re actually mastering connection and acting – finding authenticity by creating tension to command attention, effective use of pauses, etc. to speak as a human to other humans.
Fix it in the Mix
Recently, when working with my sound engineer cutting demos, we experimented with pacing in the edit suite. Playing with your samples like this and listening back when you insert or remove a pause or breath will help get a feel for whether a pause is too long or if one is just right. Keep in mind that narration’s primary job is to hold a listener’s attention, so close your eyes, take a listen and see if it holds yours. If it does, you’ve likely found the perfect pacing.