Discussion: The Power of Voices and Speech Patterns
When we hear someone speak, what are the different things we pick up on? What are the things we assume about them?
During a recent long car ride whose soundtrack was a medley of NPR podcasts, I noticed a verbal mannerism during scripted segments that appeared on just about every show. I’ve heard the same tic in countless speeches, TED talks and Moth StorySLAMS — anywhere that features semi-informal first-person narration.
If I could attempt to transcribe it, it sounds kind of like, y’know … this.
That is, in addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection. (This is a separate issue from upspeak, the tendency to conclude statements with question marks?) A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.
In literary circles, the practice of poets reciting verse in singsong registers and unnatural cadences is known, derogatorily, as “poet voice.” I propose calling this phenomenon “NPR voice” (which is distinct from the supple baritones we normally associate with radio voices).
It took me YEARS to start WRITING how I actually SPOKE in real life. #pubradiovoice
— Sam Sanders (@samsanders) January 29, 2015
“He was hinting at the difficult balancing act reporters face in developing their on-air voice. It isn’t just a challenge of performance — and it’s not as simple as channeling some “authentic” voice into a microphone. It requires grappling with your identity and your writing process, along with history of your institution.”
Here’s an actual intro by Ira Glass: sound similar?
Common speech patterns in today’s world that everyone, even men, use all the time:
According to Ira Glass:
“…listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word “like” and about upspeak… But we don’t get many emails like that anymore. People who don’t like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.”
99% Invisible podcast responds to criticism about women’s voices
So all of this leads us to the question: How can we be intentional about how we use our voices to tell the best stories as effectively as possible?
Luckily, in radio/podcasting, speaking naturally is what we actually WANT. No one wants to listen to a robot, or someone who sounds like they’re reading.
You can actually incorporate some of these things that you naturally do and naturally say into your scripts. Think about how Brian Reed, in episode 5 of S-Town, has a piece of narration that just goes, “Urgh!” The word “like” doesn’t make it into his narration too often, but it does once or twice. And in the moments when we hear him talking to the characters directly in scene, he uses it much more often. He also uses slang: “narc.”