Improve my elocution!
November 16, 2011 6:55 AM   Subscribe

How can I work on a more "natural" delivery (emphasis, pitch, etc.) when reading books aloud?

I've got a volunteering gig that involves reading aloud-- in front of other people-- excerpts from ancient and classical texts in English translation (mostly essays and philosophy, some poetry). I'm cool with public speaking, but these texts are tricky to deliver, largely because the non-English grammatical "shape" of the underlying language doesn't play well with the patterns of emphasis and inflection I'm used to in spoken English. Consequently, I feel as though I'm spending a lot of time in I'm-Ron-Burgundy? mode, producing stilted and unnatural-sounding readings of texts that really deserve to be read meaningfully and well.

I would like to get better at deliberately adjusting my word-to-word intonation, pitch, tempo, etc. in order to produce readings that sound natural and engaging, even when the prose style is a little odd. I'm guessing this falls under the general heading of "acting skills," since I've certainly noticed places in films where actors deliver lines with emphases that seem surprising or counterintuitive, but end up totally selling the meaning of the words. Unfortunately, most intro acting resources I've seen seem to cultivate that skill in conjunction with other habits-- getting in character, emoting, etc.-- that aren't useful for someone aiming at respectful/scholarly rather than dramatic reading. Where else should I be looking, now that elocution manuals have been off the bookstore shelves for well over half-a-century? Can anybody recommend either specific techniques, or alternative resources to consider? (I've seen this helpful previous thread, but am hoping for some slightly more specific/ technical leads.) Thanks!
posted by yersinia to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How much money do you have to spend? Could you hire an acting coach, so that you could focus on the aspect you want without the other skills that aren't useful for you?
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:20 AM on November 16, 2011

Choose a few passages. Videotape yourself reading those passages, then watch the video and pay attention to what you could do better. Practice reading the passages again without taping, then tape again and watch the tape.

The first time you tape, do it cold. That is, read passages you've never seen before.

If you do this with a bunch of passages, it will improve your overall out-loud reading skills. You'll learn tricks and learn to recognize gotchas in advance.
posted by alms at 7:36 AM on November 16, 2011

Are you reading the passages cold? Because actors have time to work out how to inflect their speech and a director to assist them in conveying the desired meaning. So rehearsal time would help, as would having an active listener. Is there someone familiar with the texts who might be willing to help you work out how to read them effectively, maybe after you've had a few practice rounds recording yourself, as alms suggests?
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:14 AM on November 16, 2011

I did industrials where the text I had to perform was mostly technical info and it was kind of hard to make it interesting and not "Ron Burgundy." I read it over a few times until I was able to make it sound more conversational.

Just read it out loud and put the inflection in different points until you can find a good rythmn. Maybe even imagine it as a song. I also imagine the time and how people speak when I read period pieces which help.

The short answer is, the more you read out loud, the better you get, so just do it as often as you can and you'll find your rythmn!
posted by Yellow at 8:23 AM on November 16, 2011

Definitely rehearse and get familiar with the text if possible. If you want some more structured exercises, you could get a few books on tape from different narrators, and listen to them to see what you like/don't like. You can then try to imitate what you like, listen sentence by sentence, stop the tape, record yourself sentence by sentence, then work up to paragraphs, then whole pages, etc.
posted by shortyJBot at 8:39 AM on November 16, 2011

Thirding or whatevering the suggestion to read aloud in advance so you understand where the tone, sentence and inflections are headed. After reading aloud to my kids for the last 7 years (and recording some books on tape for them and for RFB), that alone makes a huge difference.

Poetry can be very hard. IMO, most people read poetry with too much "up-down-sing-song" attention to rhyme and meter. Read it as if it's a written sentence (perhaps even retype it this way). I think this helps listeners focus on the meaning and the words.
posted by Yoshimi Battles at 9:22 AM on November 16, 2011

I am going to go a different direction here and suggest working on your voice itself. What you're describing comes from trying too hard to control each and every sound perfectly. Hence the stiffness. Obviously control is great, but the paradox is that tension (especially the kind that comes from the volume required for public reading) flattens out your tone by tightening your throat. In turn, you actually have less flexibility and control because angry sounds like surprised which also sounds like sexually aroused. It's the reason why bad theatre sounds like everyone is shouting... they're acting the hell out of things, likely, but their voices aren't relaxed enough to let the subtleties through.

Cicely Berry's Voice and the Actor is super flaky (you will do a lot of lying on your back and doing odd things with your breathing) but very effective. Ultimately, you have to unlearn what you think you do vocally in natural conversation; natural conversation gets control through relaxation and impulse, not through planned specificity. Obviously, reading the text is useful, but I wouldn't over-practice or even try to get it "right." I think your goal is to stay open to the text and the moment; that takes vocal training; that can be started with a good library, no sense of shame, and twenty minutes a night for two weeks.
posted by Dromio_of_Columbus at 2:08 PM on November 16, 2011

My apologies for an inordinately and accidentally bolded remark.
posted by hatta at 11:07 PM on November 17, 2011

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