Learning a New Skill
When I first left the education system and ventured out into the world, I thought I hated learning. I had been pressed into learning what should have been exciting ideas and concepts in a factory setting. Societal pressure had crushed the sheet metal of my brain through the forms and molds of grade school and university into some strange shape that was supposedly beneficial for society. And that shape felt wrong to me.
From what I've read online, this doesn't seem to be a unique experience. For some, the education system seems to work, but for many of us, it is lacking essential pieces we need to grow. Worse still, it seems to teach many people (myself included) that they don't enjoy learning. At some point, I think it would be incredibly valuable to address the aspects of education that leave many of us behind. HOWEVER, that is not the purpose of this article. So, before this turns into me lambasting the education system that I was raised in, let me get off my soap box and clarify: I love learning.
As I grew older, I discovered educational methods that worked for me. I began to celebrate the failures inherent to the learning process, which in turn allowed me to learn from my mistakes. I went from being the result of someone else's educational factory line to being the crafter of my own learning. I began to enjoy the process of diving headfirst into new skills and tasks. I don't know if this is the same for you, but when I find something interesting and new, I fall into it for hours (if not days), and keep trying different permutations until I'm ready to try it out in the 'real' world.
In order to take my education into my own hands, I had to practice. I had, up until that point, internalized the idea that practice was something you did when you didn't understand the material (think homework). If you had been paying attention in class and grasped the core concepts, there was a good chance you didn't need to do it at all. However, once I started working on
voiceover and narration, something I truly loved that no one had forced me to do, I found that practice was far more important than I had previously thought.
Becoming an audiobook narrator requires a lot of individual skills, ones that, even if you know the theory, require practice. You have to know how to keep your head the right distance from the microphone, especially when you get really into the story or have different emotional states you need to get to. You need to know how to manage your breath so that you can finish a sentence with the same power and energy you started it with. And on top of all that, you need to be able to act (We talked about this in an earlier Food for Thought). These are just three of the numerous skills necessary, and none of them would be possible without practice.
The first piece of practice can be distilled into one, salient point: you're going to fail. You'll say words wrong. You'll record yourself in ways that leave you unable to fix them in post. You'll miss things in post that leave the project sounding strange (if not downright unprofessional). Not only is this not a bad thing, I would make the case that it's actively a good thing. Through doing and messing up, you create reference points that your brain can use to draw a grander picture for your long-term understanding. How you do this is up to you, but at the end of the day, learn to celebrate your mistakes as steps towards your future.
At some point in our history (In America for sure, but as far as I can tell in many other places too), we decided that failure was something losers do. I can't imagine the way we educate our children helps in that respect, but as I said before, I don't want to keep beating that dying horse. At the end of the day, the why matters far more on a societal level than an individual one. As individuals, we have to be ready to take the cards we were dealt and play the best game we can. And if we get too lost in the why, we won't spend the time doing the work we need to get better.
When we were little, we didn't worry about what we looked like when we were shoving those blocks into those holes. Or if we sounded stupid when we tried making noises we thought might make those pesky adults understand what we wanted them to do. We just did. While there is evidence to suggest that children have increased neuroplasticity (A fancy way of saying they learn quickly), I often wonder if adults lose neuroplasticity inherently or if we would be able to slow that loss down if we weren't so worried about failure. And if an adult were to learn to enjoy failure and try things with childlike abandon, would we really struggle to learn, or could we pick up skills like children do?
Either way, you're going to have to fail in order to improve your skills, so learn to enjoy failure. Research is great, and can lead to really fast improvement, but when all is said and done, practice is going to be the thing that helps you understand the nuts and bolts of what we do. So pick up that phone, record something in your closet, and then try editing it in your favorite Digital Audio Workstation (DAW, we'll talk about it more in one of our later Food for Thoughts). And when you inevitably get to something you don't know how to do or something that sounds weird, then jump on the internet and figure out why your project isn't working.
Practice Your Narration Skills
I've spent all this time telling you not to sweat making mistakes, now I have the audacity to tell you that there's a right way to practice? Yes, dear reader, I do. This section here will be less nebulous than our last one, and is going to be more focused on specific things you can do to get the most out of your practice when it comes to narration.
The goal here isn't to make you feel bad about your methods. If you have ones that work for you, that's great! But if you don't, here are some steps you can take, so you don't need to waste brain power on the method, and can focus more on gathering and executing skills.
Step one: Listen
First, find a narrator that has a similar pitch range to you. Preferably someone who works in a niche or genre you would like to occupy (If you haven't figured out what genre you want to work in, that's totally fine, and in that case I would suggest you pick the genre you personally enjoy reading the most). An additional, incredibly important criterion is finding a narrator that is at the pinnacle of their craft. You want someone who is in the top five to ten narrators within the genre, and one that can really act.
Once you've found them, choose one or two pages (around 1-2 minutes of audio) and listen to them read the book you've chosen. It's important to make sure that your listening during this step is not passive, as it would be if you were following along purely for entertainment. You want to listen to the rise and fall of their voice, the way they emphasize words, how they enunciate and how they shape their voice.
It may be tempting to try copying their delivery as you listen to them speak, but for this first part focus on listening and internalizing their voice as much as you can. When you start the next step, it's going to be really helpful to be able to hear their intonation in your head as you narrate. Focus on the techniques and the delivery they use, taking particular note of anything that sounds interesting. If it sounds good to you, it's likely something that makes them stand out. And that is super useful data for your practice.
After you've finished, write down on a notepad or in a journal the things that stood out to you. What did they do that really drew you in to the story? What did they do that made seemingly boring sections come to life? Try to come up with at least 5 (but preferably more) things they did that really stood out to you. These are gonna be very useful to refer to in step two.
Step Two: Copy
We're going to be stealing a technique from the art world here. If you want to be the best, you have to study the greats and understand how they move. So here's where your listening practice in step one comes in handy. You're going to copy their delivery exactly. You want to rise where they rise, fall where they fall, and shape your consonants and vowels like they do.
Using the 1-2 minute section that you listened to previously, record this into a recording device of your choice. We are a lot less worried about the audio quality of these recordings and a lot more worried about the delivery, so just record it into your phone for now. If you listened to a book read by Charles Dance, inhabit the gravitas and intensity that is
Charles Dance. If you listened to one read by Awkwafina, you want every awkward pause and interesting lilt to be identical.
After you've finished recording, listen back to what you laid on the track and see how it compares to the original audio. Now is a good time to remind you of rule number one. It's good to fail. Listen to where you were different (which is likely to be a lot, and that's okay), and try to figure out what it is that you did that made it different. The goal here is to figure out what tools and techniques they used during their recording that you can put into your narration toolbox. Which, le gasp, means you're going to have to do this again (i.e. practice) until you start to sound like they do.
It's a lot more valuable to focus on a small section many times than a large section a few times, so if you want to shorten your 1-2 minutes even more, do so. Between each attempt, write down what worked and what didn't, keeping your feedback as specific as possible. The goal is to keep repeating this step until you can really nail their delivery.
Step Three: Create
So now, you've listened to a master, copied their work, and used that work to discover tools that you can add to your arsenal.
Now is your time to go ham. Find a piece you want to try recording and do so. Use the techniques you learned from the copy step, but make the text your own. Find the ways that the text speaks to you and express it in your own voice and style.
The goal here is to have the overall tone of your narration be in-line with the genre you are recording, but the individual style and flow to be your own. People who listen to the genre you are trying to enter have expectations of how they want things to sound, so if you want to be marketable, you'll have to meet those expectations... to a point. If you were listening to the latest track from your favorite rapper, and it sounded identical to another artist, you'd get bored really quick. You want to bring something fresh to the game as well, so the more of you that you can pour into your work, the more interesting you will be to listen to. At the end of the day, this is where one of the major tension points of any art form lies: how do I keep it real and stay true to myself while still being marketable enough to sell my work?
Step Four: Repeat
As you practice and develop your work more, you'll find ways that you can distinguish yourself while operating within the artistic constraints of a genre.
The other thing about practice is, as you develop your ear and understanding of the audiobook industry, you'll unlock new ideas and techniques you didn't notice before. This is totally natural, and honestly one of the biggest reasons to do this.
I've heard other voice actors say things like, "If you don't hate what you sounded like 6 months ago, you aren't working hard enough." While I don't agree with the exact metric they used, I agree with the intent. If I had to rephrase it, I would say, "If you don't notice a difference between yourself now and yourself six months ago, it may be time for a bit more growth."
Part of why I prefer 'growth' and 'difference' over 'hate' and 'working hard' is because the language you use when you talk to yourself matters. It's part of why learning to love failure is so important. Self-reflection is a wonderful skill you gain as you age, but when you use it as an excuse for self-aimed malice, you are unlikely to be able to grow as quickly. You'll spend your time second-guessing and being overly critical, which is time you could have spent putting in some reps and learning new and interesting techniques.
To belabour a point, avoid negative self-talk as much as you can during this process. I have had people tell me that it helps them stay motivated, but the danger here is a big one. If you associate your discipline with fear and resentment, eventually that will come back to bite you. It can lead to fear of failure, which hinders growth, and can even cause you to reach full burnout. And which is the worse outcome for you, making a few mistakes or giving up on your goals altogether?
You Lack Discipline!
This is a deeply personal issue for one Daniel C-M Ryder (I'm looking at you, mirror), as discipline is one of those beautiful things I never really developed in my youth. My lack of discipline never really hurt me in school, as I was a good test-taker and picked up new skills relatively easily. Unfortunately for present me, that also meant that I didn't develop systems for focusing when I needed to. And as someone with ADHD, not having tools in the toolbox for staying on task means that, unless I really like something, I am unlikely to stay focused.
If you're like me, you will eventually find yourself with two options:
Option 1: Develop systems for self-management.
Option 2: Believe you are at the mercy of your brain chemistry and do nothing.
I've chosen option 2 many, many times. It's a hell of a lot easier to put the blame on my brain than it is to develop new systems. But eventually I realized I needed to start choosing option 1 or I wouldn't be able to get my narration business off the ground.
The problem with option 2 is that you're very likely to get stuck in a cycle of trying something new, finding something about it you don't enjoy doing, giving it up, and repeat. I found myself doing this with every skill I learned until I got to voice acting. I would try a new thing, get to a point where the thing was boring or difficult, and quit. As I got further into narration, somewhere deep down I realized that I loved narration enough to stick with it; however, since I hadn't figured out systems that kept me focused, I ended up being super inconsistent.
As I have grown in my journey, I have begun the process of developing self-management systems. For me, this looks like therapy and consistent morning rituals. My therapist helps me think through my mindset and develop new tools for self-actualization. And coffee and a good book first thing in the morning gets me in a flow state that progresses into recording audiobooks naturally.
Regardless of what this looks like for you, consistency is king. Consistently taking small steps beats inconsistent large ones every time.
Be Better than Yesterday's You
If you haven't heard of the Level-Up Mentality, I narrated a lovely book on it here: Level-Up Mentality. As an aside, this is an affiliate link. If you are interested in this book, buying it through this link supports me directly without increasing the cost. However, if you're uncomfortable supporting me in this way, I totally understand. Now, back to the idea at hand.
The core principle of the Level-Up Mentality is being better than you were yesterday. This is sometimes also called the Mamba Mentality after Kobe "The Mamba" Bryant. He actually wrote a book on it, called The Mamba Mentality: How I Play.
While competing with others can be a good tool for motivation, it can also be a limiting one. If you are always competing with someone else, the best you can do is surpass them. That sets the bar at wherever they're at, and limits your growth to just past what they're able to do. However, if you focus on being better than your yesterday-self, the only limiting factor is your lifespan. You can keep getting better with each passing day, until your past self wouldn't even recognize the current you.
I want to take the time to note, better is defined by you and your goals. If you want to be the greatest narrator you can be, then your focus should be on leveling-up your narration skills. If you want to be an amazing business-person, then focus on that. You define your goals, so you know when you are making progress on them.
To really get the best out of this method, define simple, concrete improvements you can make. For narration, this might be adding another narration style to your repertoire, improving the speed at which you can record a given text, or working on improving your vocal stamina. The more specific you make the area of improvement, the better you will be able to judge the end result.
That's a Wrap
Hopefully, me talking through the way that I practice and work to improve has inspired you to start working towards your goals as a narrator. Maybe it gave you some insight into what you need to do next. Either way, just remember that anyone who is new to something will make little mistakes time and again as they grow, and that's a good thing. You are the best you that you can be, so work to be the best future you you will future be.
Alright, enough silliness. Love you all. By the by, I do my best to read every comment posted, so if you have an idea about any new topics of discussion or have questions about the article, definitely post them below and I'll do my best to get to them quickly!