Talk Like a Human: A Beginner's Quest to Sound Natural

I’m Andy, Descript’s Head of Content — and a total radio novice. I’m chronicling my journey to get better at podcasting. In this episode, I share how I’ve transformed my on-mic voice from a weird android robot into a living breathing human being, with some sage advice from the professionals for learning how to sound natural on the microphone.

Many of the things that helped me along the way are from radio veteran Marianne McCune who you might know from NPR’s Rough Translation. So, thank you, Marianne

Episode Notes

When I first started recording the podcast tutorial for the app, I sounded like a weird android robot. Every word had the same amount of attack and the same exit and it didn’t sound like me. And now I sound much better. I’ll share what’s helped me in hopes it’ll help you too.

Talk like yourself

There’s this Ira Glass quote, “When I was first on the radio, I just tried to talk like somebody on the radio. And, of course, everything is going to be more compelling — it’s just like one of the laws of broadcasting — everything will be more compelling the more you just talk like a human being, and just talk like yourself.” The only voice that doesn’t exist yet is yours. That’s the one you’re trying to unleash.

Check your inner critic at the door

Marianne rightly pointed out that it’s hard to do anything when the voice inside of yourself is yelling that you’re not good, and Scott Carrier said something similar: “Everybody’s going to know you’re just pretending and your work sucks. And it, you know, you’re just a big failure. That’s part of the creative process pretty much every time.” I have been picturing my inner critic as a small child that I have called to the principal’s office and I’ve asked it to sit outside in a little chair and think about all the mean things it’s said.

Imagine a true fan is listening

When you’re recording, you’re not actually talking to anyone, which is one of the magical elements of radio and one of the things that makes it really challenging. There’s no one there to nod their head, or give the kind of feedback we get in a normal conversation. Marianne said, “You know, Andy, just picture that there’s a true believer on the other side.” This is who I picture: a true fan who is so excited to hear what I have to say and maybe they’re new at audio and you know, we’re like two marathoners with 25 miles to go just making eye contact.

Use your hands as you talk

It feels really silly, especially if you don’t use your hands to talk normally, but it comes through in the voice. Loosen up your body and your voice will loosen up too.

Highlight the emotional shifts in your script

This is extremely practical: literally highlight the emotional changes in your script. Why? One of the scripts I’d written had a narrative arc, but when I read it I sounded super flat: there’s this problem and it has a solution. I was so dead-set on getting every single word correct that I wasn’t paying any attention to what those words were or their narrative arc.

Marianne suggested highlighting those emotional beats it in different colors in the script so that when you’re in the problem, you can really be emotionally connected to the problem. It’s a visual clue to change the emotion in your voice. And it makes the world of a difference.

Change the script

If you cannot say the words as they’re written, it’s not that you’re terrible. It’s probably just that the script needs to be adjusted. So, unless it’s some kind of pre-written copy that’s been approved by 700 people, you can say it how the script has it, and then you can just try it again and say it how you would say it.

Use lead-in words

Let yourself ease into the script with some kind of like lead in words. I have a million of them: like, the thing is, so, what I’m really getting at, or just. You can cut them out later.

You know how you get on the stage and then they say action and there’s a blank? For me, a few lead-in words make that all melt away and I remember, Okay, right. I’m here to be myself to someone who really wants to hear me.

Parting advice

My final tip to you and most of all to me is to go record bravely and be yourself in front of the microphone which is in front of the world, but also in front of literally no one.

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