How do Voice Actors convey emotion?

How do you convey emotions with a voice and a microphone?

I was asked to put together my thoughts on “how do you put emotions across with a voice and a microphone” by a friend who is teaching students via a new online course.

I recorded this using the techniques mentioned as I read it. This is not a definitive guide to voice acting! This is very much an introduction to voice acting, with a few techniques highlighted that were targeted at the audience for the course.. nevertheless – hope it’s useful!

You might not have considered it but recorded voices are everywhere

From train announcements to your bank’s phone system.. to commercials, podcasts, radio drama, art and your smartphone letting you know it’s set an alarm for you.

Recorded voice doesn’t just convey information though. It conveys emotion.

My tools

In my work I use a range of tools to convey emotions
The way we receive emotions from a recorded voice is the same way we receive emotions from life, in-person voice. It’s the same cues, recognisable traits and clues we are already using in real life.

My job as a voice actor is to know what those are and how to recreate them with my voice and a mic using a blend of techniques.

I pick from a few main pots of tools. These are:

  • Mic Proximity
  • Breathing
  • Facial expression

There are many subtle blends and techniques that can be used but let’s use these 3 areas as a good starting point.

Conveying emotion with Mic Proximity

This is all about how close you are to the mic when you record.
In most radio presenting you are a standard distance away from the mic. In voice acting, this isn’t the same.
We treat the mic as an actual ear!

If I want you to think I’m telling you something secret, that’s just for you, that will make you think I have something important to say then I’m going to get closer and lower my volume.
Using close proximity I can put across feelings that are quite personal. Real sadness, panic, urgency, love, my inner thoughts. Internal monologue. It can be threatening, intimidating.
It’s the same as having someone invade your personal space.
You can create a sense of intimacy or of unease.
People pay attention when you get close and quiet

Proximity is a technique used a great deal in Gaming Voice over – it ads a 3D effect.. I can be whispering in your ear like you are standing next to me in battle one minute.. then I can take a step back and shout commands to my left at a team member who isn’t pulling their weight.

We can get across panic both quietly and close… as well as stepping back and barking!

Conveying emotion with Breath and breathing

Let’s think about when we are upset. When we cry, our breaths are short, they catch.
We are used to associating this breath pattern with pain, upset and high emotion.
So using short breaths is a great way to put these emotions across. Remember to check on the proximity to the mic as well – this places you in the space around your listener

The breathing also affects the pace you use – you can put across hurry, panic, laziness, relaxation – all with pace.

Interestingly, breaths can also signify if a character is younger and therefore sometimes more naïve. Children breathe more often in their sentences and speech patterns in a way that adults don’t. Adding emphasis in slightly odd places. You can add a sense of naivety in this way.

If you want to sound confident, assured, like you are in control – then make sure you have plenty of breath. Take the chances to breathe whenever you can.
“Add air to show you care” is a good thing to remember.
In particular for corporate and medical voiceover work, my clients want me to help them sound confident and strong.
This is usually done by making sure I have plenty of air.
It adds presence to the words. It fills them out. It’s not about volume, it’s about fullness.

The proximity from the mic for a confident emotion would probably around a standard “radio presenter” distance

Remember, we can use what people are familiar with to our advantage.
Radio presenter equals confidence and trust.
Your voice performance that requires confidence and trust can use this technique to do some of the work for you.

The other thing to remember with breath is that sometimes breathing puts the emotions across for you.
A sigh, an exhale, a sharp intake of breath. These sounds are known as “Non-Verbal Vocalisations”
You’ll hear LOADS in video games. AND in real life. Very useful tools!

Conveying emotion with Facial Expressions

The final area to think about is Facial Expressions

This sounds obvious but people forget it!
If you want to sound happy then be happy, act it – a smile makes a huge impact on your sound.
If you want to sound proud then before you start to use your voice, use your eyes. If you think about being proud in your eyes it changes your vocal sound and the whole voice performance!

Your whole body changes when you express emotions. If you take on the emotion physically, it will result in a change of emotion in the voice,

When I create sound art, I enjoy playing with peoples perceptions and emotions.
For example, in my piece Well Being I use my voice to put messages across that are totally untrue that I want people to believe.
I do this by sounding confident and authoritative by using a vocal technique that I would use in news and documentary. People believe it as they have been conditioned to do so

In my sound art piece The Shepping Forecast, I use the emotionless style of a shipping forecast read to put across non shipping forecast content, some of it humorous to the audience it was made for.
People heard it and took the cues assuming it was a weather forecast without even listening to the actual content.

There are many more techniques and layers of techniques that go into putting emotion across using the voice and a mic. These 3 areas cover some main basic aspects

The voice is a very powerful way of putting across emotion and with a selection of techniques, tools and knowing what the conventions are you are working within. You can create an impactful sound that will provide information to the listener that I believe is more powerful and registers more strongly with them than the actual words you are saying.

You can book time with Clare if you’d like some 1-2-1 advice on your career in Voiceover