Alright, Alright, Alright: Elevating Audio

Jodi Sali

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey. When he spoke, I could hear his smile. I knew there was a backstory hidden in the nuances of his delivery. I could feel the gravity of a memory in the way he led me through the journey.

The way he would break away in voice accents and draw out certain parts of words was akin to an artist adding color, depth, and detail to a scene. All of the context was masterfully tucked into the tonality and cadence of his storytelling.

Listening to him was like listening to a symphony-trained musician perform a piece of sheet music. The difference was that this sonata was not just any piece of music. It was his symphony, his story, and I was in. Green light.

Do yourself a favor, listen to the audio book rather than reading it. Your perspective will be rearranged. You will gain insights into the wiring and operating system of one complex guy as he weaves his story together. It’s a masterful performance of the book as could only be done by the person who lived the pages.

McConaughey’s reading of his memoir reminded me of the steps we–advertisers, storytellers, creators–can take to transform a one-dimensional script into a multifaceted performance. How we can take it from 2D to 3D.

Transforming Voice Acting Through Delivery

What stands out to me the most is the idea of delivery. Just as a musician can take a simple sheet of music and turn it into an emotive journey that resonates with the audience, we have the power to do far more than simply read words. We have the power to tell the story.

Have you ever looked at a piece of music written for a symphony? It’s not the same as listening to that piece of music performed by experts. We don’t consume music by looking at a piece of paper. The best experience is to hear it not just played, but performed—and the delivery matters.

As a writer and producer of audio and video content, I am constantly asking myself, “what makes better content?” I also wonder what I can do to ensure I’m reaching my audience in a meaningful way, and how I can add more dimension to the final product.

Take a tangible example: a piece of paper. Start drawing something, anything. How can you add to a 2D piece of work and make it more interesting? Perspective and shading will give it more depth. But, you also have to understand how your drawing exists in the real world. Where is the light source? Does anything overlap with other elements in the drawing that would catch the light or create a shadow? Understanding the construct and context of our 3D world and transferring that information onto a 2D representation is what really transforms the content we create.

Creating an audio piece should be comparable. Ask yourself similar questions: What’s the story? Why does it matter? What is the context for the statement? What is the emotion behind the line the voice actor is delivering? How can we use that emotion to best engage the audience?

When I write a sentence that is rhythmic and lyrical, it’s on purpose. When I write, I hear the words. I think beyond the words on the page and focus on the delivery.

 Concrete Tips for Directing VO Actors

As a director, I’m never going to be content with a voiceover (VO) actor simply reading a script. My job is to guide them to the character to help them tell The Story. Because there absolutely is a difference between reading and telling. There are times when the difference is subtle, and there are other times when the difference feels like a 2×4 to the side of the head.

As I direct a VO actor reading a script, I say things like, “smile when you say that line.” Why? Because you can hear the smile. There are subtle weight shifts and facial expressions that matter. They impact the delivery and can be heard in the tone of voice. These shifts are equivalent to taking that 2D script and giving it more dimension of interest. I direct things like hand movements and posture. (There’s a direct correlation between what your hands are doing and what is reflected in your tone.)

When you read a story, your hands might hold the paper. When you tell a story, your hands become part of the instrument of communication. As creators, we have the ability to make content that can communicate more–more story, more emotion, and more connection.

The audiobook version of Greenlights achieves everything I strive for when making content: it communicates a richer story without relying on additional words because it’s all in the delivery. Read it and you won’t get as much information as hearing McConaughey perform it.

Trust the Process, Then Go

For my process of recording voiceover, I start by thinking about how the character must connect to the audience. What is the context and perspective of the target audience? What will they respond to?

Tone and cadence enable us to add a dimension of connectivity to our message. What lies hidden between the lines of the script that informs the way a line is delivered? Emotion.

When raw emotion forces the vocal cords to constrict and the speaker struggles to finish the line, we as listeners are unable to ignore it. You can read the line on a piece of paper and totally miss the mountain of emotion hiding behind the words. Speaking those words unveils that emotion.

For those of us who create content, there is always an underlying desire to make it better. We are artists. Communicating is art. Design is art. Music is art. Writing is art. Voiceover is art. It’s all connected.

Matthew McConaughey knows his art. He knew his story, and he played a character that did more than simply read. He performed a symphonic version of his memoir with passion, intentionality, and brilliance. As he would say, “green light.”