There are many people who want to break into the voice-over and narration business. As a narrator myself, I can honestly say that I definitely understand that desire. LOL
Like any form of art, of course, narration has certain fundamentals which must be practiced in order for it to be GOOD narration. A lot of people seem to think that vocal tone, inflection, and modulation are the only important elements to successful narration. But there is one basic element that I find many voice-over projects seem to let slide – to their detriment.
What’s is it? Correct pronunciation! Yes, just a quick check of a dictionary is all it takes to make sure you’re saying a word or a name the way it should be said. And yet so many seem to skip this step.
A voice-over artist must be credible in order to hold his or her audience. Take, for instance, the flak our former President took over his mispronunciation of the word nuclear. I’m talking about President Bush, here. Every time he said that word, he pronounced it NOO-kyoo-ler. But the correct pronunciation is NOO-klee-er. Yes, the former is used by many people. And it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal to anybody if it weren’t for the fact that he was in charge of so many nuclear devices. So people had the expectation that he was an authority on the matter and should pronounce the word correctly. It didn’t affect his ability as a President or politician or statesman. But he lost some credibility as a result of pronunciation or mispronunciation.
Same holds true in narration and voice-over. But your audience hasn’t voted you into your position. You haven’t yet earned their confidence, so you have to prove that you deserve it. If you – the voice-over artist – don’t take the time to find out the proper pronunciation of the words (be they everyday words or technical terms or proper names) that you are recording, you have not done a good job. It doesn’t matter how great you sound.
A New World Pronunciation
I was recently channel surfing while waking up on a weekend morning. OK, I was eating my cereal and watching TV. Anyway, I came across one of those shows dedicated to exploring and explaining certain geologic facts. There was an off-camera narrator, a main expert or host we were following, and various other guest experts who weighed in on this or that. Within the first 5 minutes of my watching (and listening), the narrator pronounced the Missouri town of New Madrid as New muh-DRID instead of New MA-drid. He said it several times in a row. And then … one of the guest experts was featured in a clip pronouncing it correctly.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only word he mispronounced. So I changed the channel. I was initially interested in hearing what the producer of this show wanted to share. But within 5 minutes, the narrator lost me. Worse still – for the narrator – that show is a permanent record of his work.
A Caveat or Two
In defense of narrators … First and foremost, we are all human. That means we will make mistakes from time to time. Secondly, I know that time is money in the studio. It’s possible that a producer or director won’t hand a voice actor his or her full and final script until they’re at the studio. So maybe the narrator mentioned above did his best under the circumstances. Thirdly, perhaps (unlikely though it seems) the producer or director instructed that narrator how to say those mispronounced words. Even so, it is very rare that a voice actor doesn’t have the script at least a day or more in advance. That’s plenty of time to identify the words that need looking up and to check the reference section of the local library or available online sources. Sometimes a word – esp. in the case of proper names – is truly not to be found. But it’s in a narrator’s own self interest to at least try.
One last point: where there’s a rule there are always exceptions. There are definitely times when following commonly used pronunciation is preferable over using the dictionary version. If, for instance, the narration is for a popular culture piece, common usage may be better. If the voice-over artist is reading dialogue in which the character is not well educated, wouldn’t take care in his or her pronunciation (a child, perhaps), has a clearly defined accent, then common usage or even vernacular is likely more appropriate. But the script, producer or director should give clear guidance in those instances. If you are narrating a non-fiction, instructional piece, however … well, enough said.
Note: The dictionary graphics used as illustrations for this post were chosen at random. I am not endorsing any particular reference source. You should use what’s best for the job at hand.