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"You Sound Robotic!"

This one is for the voiceover people in our Gig Doctor ranks.

One of the most annoying pieces of feedback we can get is to be told we sound “robotic.” First of all, what does that even mean?! Second of all, who are they to say you or I sound robotic. It’s nonsense, right? We’re professionals! We don’t…sound… we?

Today I’m going to jump in on this and we’re going to cover it in a big way, because, as much as none of us ever wants to admit it, we can all get a little robotic from time to time. So let’s get into it. We’ve all had this happen, one time or another…and it’s actually more common than it used to be, because the expression “robotic” has become kind of a thing. I’ll admit that the first time I ever heard someone say that of my delivery, I was really miffed. To have been doing voiceovers for over 40 years, been called smooth, and suddenly be told your voiceover sounded “too robotic” seemed like a real insult.

In order to get a handle on this thing, first let’s look at it from the client’s perspective. They sent you a script, and you gave it a deliberate, paced out style, because that’s what the piece seemed to call for. They said it sounded too robotic. got a script and didn’t really understand what it was saying, because it was kind of technical, but you plowed through it, and when you sent it to them, they had the same criticism. Sounds too robotic.

So what do they mean? Most likely, they’re saying it has the feel of text to speech. They’ve heard computer voices from Alexa, or Siri, or from the National Weather Service, and something about the style we’re doing for them reminds them of that. It sounds too formal, or too broken apart into separate words, or it sounds like the words are being spoken without understanding or meaning, kind of like a machine might speak them.

In fairness to the client, a lot of times, they don’t have as much of an ear for this sort of thing as you or I do, so some of the subtlety you DID put into your read is lost on them. All they can tell us is the overall effect of the read had on them…and the word that comes to mind for them is, robotic.

The point to all of this is that, regardless of what label they put on it, the read we provided them didn’t meet the image they had in their head for this job. They heard what you sent, and it fell outside of what they had pictured in their mind. It sounded too…something. Maybe stiff, formal, unmeaning, hesitating, too consistent from word to word and sentence to sentence. Sentences ending in odd or illogical inflections, or at least that’s how it seems to them.

Sometimes their criticism is supplemented by something useful. I saw this critique left for another voiceover person recently: "It sounds a little like it's a machine, rather than a person. I would say keep it a little smoother and more natural sounding."

So there you have it. That’s really what it boils down to, 9 times out of 10. It doesn’t sound natural enough. Now we’re getting somewhere. But what’s natural?

Well, think about human speech. When we talk, it’s all driven by meaning, isn’t it? We say what is in our own mind…it’s our own thoughts and feelings, and the result is what comes out of our mouths. It comes in rushes and pauses. Inflection varies all over the place, because it’s driven by the thoughts that are being formed and spoken, and the emotion we have about those thoughts.

What’s needed in order to carry that same approach over to the copy we read for a client is to put ourselves into the copy and deliver it a little more as though we’re thinking the stuff up as we’re saying it. That means the words come in gusts, and pauses. Sometimes we get a phrase out in a hurry because it’s all part of the same thought. Sometimes we stop to think, or to let the other person register what we’ve just said, before we go on. We end our sentences all different ways, not in a predictable pattern.

Becoming more conversational in our voiceover speech is a lifelong adventure, and no matter how good we get at it, there will always be room for improvement. Don't give up, and never stop working at it. You and I CAN (and should) continually make our delivery more real life, accessible...and...human!

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