“It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it” – William Carlos Williams
Many actors will be familiar with Albert Mehrabian’s often-quoted statistic, which claims that only 7% of communication is verbal, meanwhile body language accounts for a massive 55%, and last, but not least is tone of voice at 38%. As disputed as these stats are at times, what is clear is that what you say (the script), is not as important as how you say it.
Nuanced performance can overcome bad dialogue
With Mehrabian’s statistic in mind, it’s easy to understand how poorly-written dialogue can be rescued by a convincing performance, but the same cannot be said for the reverse.
Use tone to connect with your audience
As actors, your mission is to convey not just information, but emotion; to create worlds where your viewers can lose themselves in. When rehearsing, pay special attention to your vocal tone and speech patterns, which work alongside physical performance and costume to help create that world for your viewers.
Record and listen
Most people can’t accurately judge the sound of their own voice or what their tone of voice communicates. So, start by recording or filming yourself. If you are rehearsing for a role or an audition, it may be helpful to use this dialogue for your recording.
How the voice is created
At its most basic level, the human voice is created when air vibrates the vocal cords to create sound.
There are other contributing factors that work with the vocal cords to decide vocal pitch, projection, tone (nasal, breathy or husky) and more.
Lungs – Pushes the air that vibrates your vocal cords and helps project the voice.
Throat muscles – Manipulate the length of the vocal cords to create pitch and tone
Nose – Affects the resonance of the voice. Anything from a cold, to a deviated septum will affect the tone of your voice.
Mouth – Tongue, palate, cheeks and lips working together to articulate the sounds into words.
Listen to/watch your recordings critically and note down what you notice, using the following traits:
This means emphasizing/de-emphasing certain words deliberately, using tone and volume, to reflect mood, point of view, circumstance, and more.
– Which words are emphasized in each sentence and what meaning does that reflect?
– How does this reflect your character’s mood, motives or circumstance?
– Does your character’s overall speech sound melodic and upbeat or monotone and downbeat
– Is your cadence an accurate reflection of your character’s personality or overall mood?
– How fast is your character’s speech patterns?
– Are they either fast-paced and rhythmic like a drummer, or slow and drawn-out like a violin
– Does the character sound frantic or deliberate?
– Do you as an actor notice any words you struggled pronouncing?
– Does your natural accent affect the character positively or negatively?
– Does your character have an accent or verbal tics and how successful were you portraying this?
The relationship between the voice and delivery has become so ingrained in the audience’s mind, that it can sometimes explain why certain actors are typecast. For example, actors with high-pitched voices, frantic-paced rhythm and melodic cadence tend to be cast in comedy roles as neurotic or feisty characters. Actors like Kevin Hart, Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) fit this category.
Voice training practice
There is a lot you can do to keep your voice sounding healthy and clear. Using our anatomical breakdown, here are some quick pointers
– Work on expanding your lung capacity to help projection
– Research breathing exercises such as pinched lip breathing and others
– Also research similar techniques used by singers and trumpet players
Involve your diaphragm in your breathing, allowing the lungs to expand fully
– Yoga or cardio (such as walking or swimming) are very helpful
– Practice correct posture as much as possible
– Avoid pollutants such as cigarette smoke or other fumes as much as possible
– Look for natural “breath breaks” in the flow of the dialogue
Throat / Vocal cords
– Drink between 8 to 10 glasses of cool water a day
– Avoid yelling, whispering or any extreme uses of your voice
– Cigarette smoke also affects your vocal cords
– Research and practice vocal warm-up techniques like lip trills that help to open the throat and vocal cords
– Regular sleep – tiredness will be easy to spot in your voice
– Research and practice jaw exercises which help unclench your jaw & facial muscles
– Watch out for excess saliva and swallow it, as this can also affect your pronunciation.
How to improve your speech patterns
Using our earlier linguistic breakdown
– Practice raising or dropping either pitch or volume to reflect different states of mind
o Example, the question “Are we there yet?”
o Practice pitching up the “we” to make the speaker sound like an impatient child
o Work out how to change the inflection of those four words to make the speaker like a demanding hostage-taker
– Practice a slow-paced delivery to make your character sound elegant or wise/deadly
– Now combine with a limited or monotone cadence to make them sound world-weary and jaded (e.g. Rami Malek’s “Elliott Alderson” character (Mr. Robot) or Krysten Ritter’s “Jessica Jones” character (Jessica Jones / The Defenders)
– Now combine it instead with a more melodic delivery to make them sound like royalty or a wise mentor (e.g. Conleth Hill’s “Lord Varys” character on Game of Thrones or Gina Torres’ “Jessica Pearson” character on Suits.
– Highlight any words you struggle pronouncing & break it down phonetically
– Pay attention to how your lips, palate, tongue and teeth interact for each part of the word
– Practice this repeatedly, both as singular words and within a sentence
– Work with a vocal coach or accent coach
– If your character has an accent or speech impediment, work with a voice coach to fine-tune this
– If an accent is needed, Pinpoint the exact location and research the accent and local slang
– Breakdown what makes that accent work (i.e. vowel sounds, exaggerated or dropped letters, etc.)
– Don’t take shortcuts (i.e. an Australian accent is not the same as a New Zealand accent)
An actor’s voice is such a powerful tool in creating a world where your viewers can feel free to suspend disbelief. It’s no accident that the most lauded actors with the most varied resumés have mastered the art of being able to mold their vocal delivery, their patterns of speech or accents at will.
Take a movie like Legend for example, where Tom Hardy plays both parts as twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray, legendary East London gangsters in the 1960s. Hardy’s performance is widely acclaimed, in large part because his vocal delivery helps the audience believe they are truly watching 2 separate characters.
This could be a vital key to unlocking your creativity in whatever role you take on and helping your audience buy into your role and the whole movie you’re onscreen.