The Voices in Your Head, OR How NPR reporters do their voicing

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 8, 2009

I recently posted an entry about one of the best jobs I’ll never have — a reporter job at NPR.  But I did have the good fortune to dip my toes into the yummy warm pool that is NPR for a summer, when I was a AAAS Mass Media intern at NPR’s Science Desk.  You can hear the clips when I was on the air on NPR here.  I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to have your name mispronounced on the air!

Anyway.  One of the things that fascinated me (and still does) is how people make their voices sound so conversational when they’re reading script.  Try it.  It’s not easy.  When I did my first voicing, I kept trying to sound genuine.  I thought I’d do OK, and then Richard Harris would shake his head no…   Finally he grabbed me and brought me back into the studio, and sat across from me at the table and said “Tell me the story!” and shook his head enthusiastically and listened to me with rapt attention.  My voice changed so that I was underlining words with my voice, using the right emphasis, and telling him the story, instead of reading a blank script.

This gets easier with practice, of course, and I’m able to relax more easily now and (at least some of the time) make a script come out sounding good, even if I’m in a room alone.  I can hear my own voice, and use it as a paintbrush on the words, and can tell for the most part when I’ve done it well or not.  It’s still easier when there’s someone there.

And of course the NPR reporters get more practiced at this with time, but it can still take some work to make your voice sound lively.  One of the funniest things I ever saw was David Kestenbaum, who could read the phone book and sound interesting.  He does this funny thing when he’s recording, twitching his body and jumping a little, to sound lively.  I feel bad writing this, even — these are the private things that we do as writers, be it writing your first draft in your favorite bunny slippers, or putting colored post-it notes all over one wall of your office to outline a novel.  We do funny things, but whatever works for our creative process, go for it!  So, I’m not making fun of David at all, but rather, it was interesting to see that someone with such an interesting voice has these tricks to keep it lively.

Another funny thing was dear old Bob Edwards on Morning Edition.  You could tell when he was the one talking (even though you were outside the studio and couldn’t really see people’s mouths moving.  He would bob his head up and down in time with his words, “And I’m” (nod) “Bob” (nod) “Edwards” (nod).

I also heard of a reporter who put a picture of their grandmother on the studio desk and told her the story.

Joanne Silberner showed me a trick, too, of writing out your script with one idea per line (regardless of where the sentence breaks were.  For example, my All Things Considered story on the first cloned horse:

HOST

This week italian scientists reported the birth of the first cloned horse. The foal, named Prometea (pro-ME-tee-ah), joins a growing list of cloned animals. NPR’s Stephanie Chasteen reports.

CHASTEEN

The horse is the second equine species to be cloned. Just a few months ago US researchers successfully cloned a mule, named Idaho Gem.  This latest cloning success comes from the Italian firm CIZ.  The new foal, Prometea, is different from her cloned cousins in a few key ways.
She was born to the very mare whose DNA was used to clone her. This is the first clone that’s an identical twin of its birth mother.  And unlike the mules, Prometea was created from an adult cell… This means that if a mature horse can be cloned, then breeders could duplicate an exceptional animal even if it could no longer breed.  The research is published in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

Stephanie Chasteen, NPR News, Washington

Becomes

CHASTEEN

The horse is the second equine species to be cloned.
Just a few months ago US researchers successfully cloned a mule, named Idaho Gem.
This latest cloning success comes from the Italian firm CIZ.
The new foal, Prometea, is different from her cloned cousins in a few key ways.
She was born to the very mare whose DNA was used to clone her.
This is the first clone that’s an identical twin of its birth mother.
And unlike the mules, Prometea was created from an adult cell…
This means that if a mature horse can be cloned, then breeders could duplicate an exceptional animal even if it could no longer breed.
The research is published in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

Stephanie Chasteen, NPR News, Washington

It’s amazing how differently you read something depending on how it’s written out.  This helps your voice highlight the key ideas, instead of slurring on from one idea to the next.

Also note that this piece took 2 days to write, in order to interview the researcher, and condense years of work and societal implications into 1 minute of script.  One minute of script is not very much, as you can see!

I went to voice coach lessons with David Kestenbaum and Ari Shapiro (yes, I went to biweekly meetings with two incredibly intelligent and attractive young men, tough job!).  This was interesting because, even though David’s voice is so good, he didn’t like how he sounds sing-songy.  And as I listened to him, I realized he’s right — he has a tendency to hit every 5th word or so, regardless of whether it needs emphasis.  Like, “In today’s budget analysis, the congressional leaders decided that they needed to take some time to debate the matter.”  Listen to him on Planet Money and see if he’s still doing it.

Another thing was all the different tools available to your voice.  You can stretch out a word to emphasize its importance, or you can hit it louder, or you can be more subtle.  For instance, in a story on the shuttle, they were referring to the “delicate heat-shielding tiles.”  It was more important that the tiles were delicate, instead of heat-shielding (since we were talking about how they had broken off).  So we wanted to hit “delicate” but you don’t want to hit it like “DELICATE”.  That just doesn’t work with the sense that you’re trying to convey.  So, you hit it, well, delicately.  Say it like it’s a piece of china you don’t want to break.  Lightly on the tongue, with a bit of uplift.

This is what I love about audio and the voice. There is so much chance for expression!

{ 13 comments }

sibylle March 9, 2009 at 3:32 am

What a fun job! But why do you think you’ll never have it – if you did it as an intern, why not apply for the job someday?

sciencegeekgirl March 9, 2009 at 6:08 am

But why do you think you’ll never have it?

Thanks for the encouragement, Sibylle, but it wasn’t a self-deprecating statement… as I said in my previous post, I have zero desire to move to DC, and I simply don’t have enough radio experience. I could go out and bust my butt getting that experience, freelancing for pennies at the local NPR, but I’ve been working in other directions. No need to become a trainee in a whole different field now that I’m on the education bandwagon! So, NPR will have to be one of those paths not traveled. Or perhaps I’ll come back to it when I’m 60!

Tim Wilson March 9, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Great post! One of the articles I read after Paul Harvey died reflected extensively on how he prepped and notated his scripts to try to make them sound more flowing. Of course, I always thought that, while Harvey’s work was distinctive and imminently listenable…it wasn’t conversational (thus, the “Page 3!”). Another person who came to mind with this post was another NPR alumnus — Ira Glass. “This American Life” does really nail the conversational tone — often because the pieces are structured as conversations. But, I’ve heard Glass speak about how much they work on the pieces to make the scripts come across that way (obviously, the direct interview pieces are conversations).

Andy Carvin March 9, 2009 at 1:44 pm

I really enjoyed this post, especially since I got to find out the hard way how tough it is to do this, just a couple of weeks ago. I’m on air at NPR about once a month, but always doing analysis, which means I get to riff in the studio, something I’m very comfortable doing. While working on a Weekend Edition Saturday story, though, I got called in to help record an interview – Rainn Wilson from The Office. Scott Simon was supposed to do the interview but he was running late, and since I was going to go into the studio anyway for the segment involving Wilson, I was asked to run to the studio and interview him for 10 minutes.

At first I thought it’d be a piece of cake; I’ve done plenty of interviews with performers over the years. But when I sat down in the studio booth, someone handed me a script and said, “Ask these questions.” There was an intro, a closing, and a bunch of questions all written out – written in a way Scott Simon would say them. It was the toughest 10 minutes since I’ve been at NPR.

Thankfully, when they aired the story, they took mercy on me and edited out my side of the interview completely, so all you heard was Rainn talking. If they’d left in the bits of me reading from the script, I probably would’ve crawled into a cave and refused to come out. 🙂

Arun Shanbhag March 9, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I Like!

Well written! We do the same with live presentations we give in class-rooms or at conferences! Helps to make eye contact with the audience and ‘have a conversation with them.’ the intonations then come out automatically.

sciencegeekgirl March 9, 2009 at 4:38 pm

If they’d left in the bits of me reading from the script, I probably would’ve crawled into a cave and refused to come out.

Wow, Andy, what a story. Of course, how much might the outcome have been different if you’d known to expect a script, and were prepared?

This reminds me of my own “worst NPR” story. When I did that horse clone spot, Joe Palca was in charge of the full story for All Things Considered. But he was out of town when we needed to interview the scientist, who was in Italy. So, they let the intern do it. How fun, doing an overseas phoner interview? NOT! The researcher could speak english fine (though with a heavy accent), but he couldn’t drop the jargon. I’d ask him, “Could you tell me what you did?” and he’d start talking about all the embryos and how long they took to gestation. I could hear that I was getting no useable tape. I asked in as many ways as I could for him to explain it plainly, or asked for his reactions when the horse was born, anything. Nope. He wasn’t playing our game.

Joe Palca later asked me if he could use that piece of tape in his classes when he talked to journalism students about how hard it is to talk to scientists. [head in hands]

You can listen to that story here:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1387175

Notice how few comments there are from the actual scientist.

Denise Graveline March 11, 2009 at 1:37 am

Stephanie, these are great tips and I’ve posted them on my Eloquent Woman blog for women on public speaking, at http://dontgetcaught.biz/webdocs/blog/dgcnews.htm

The good news, perhaps: I’m also helping AAAS in training scientists to communicate clearly for public audiences. Slow work, but you are a good role model!

Mandy March 11, 2009 at 2:14 am

Hear! Hear! Doing the narration is hard and you wouldn’t think so. I like your tip to write each idea on a separate line. I’m going to try that with my next audio piece.

michael March 13, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I thing i like your aticles, i am a student i am studing mass communication i will like you to tell me how to speak in public so as to deffined my silf and speak realy like a presenter when the time come, and for you to advice me on what to do so that i will be perfect when it comes to presenting and more please.

David C-L March 18, 2009 at 2:50 pm

It’s funny you should mention David Kestenbaum and Planet Money, because I was thinking about the voicing on that show the other day.

Planet Money has four regular hosts (in rotation– most days only two are on the air): Adam Davidson, David Kestenbaum, Laura Conaway, and Alex Blumberg. Alex has a distinctive voice (at least, it’s distinctive on Planet Money– when I hear him on This American Life I sometimes have trouble differentiating him from Ira Glass.) Laura has a distinctive voice– not just because she’s the woman, but she just has a fairly unusual voice. But David and Alex sound quite similar– they sound like they are men of similar age and background. I often have trouble remembering which one of them is speaking (especially when they host the show together– which they do relatively rarely).

However, your tip about the cadence of Kestenbaum’s voice has made this much easier– he totally still does it, and Adam Davidson doesn’t! So that makes them easier to tell apart.

David C-L March 18, 2009 at 3:48 pm

But David and Alex sound quite similar

Sorry, should have said David and ADAM sound quite similar.

sciencegeekgirl March 23, 2009 at 2:15 am

However, your tip about the cadence of Kestenbaum’s voice has made this much easier– he totally still does it, and Adam Davidson doesn’t! So that makes them easier to tell apart.

Neat — my random pieces of knowledge are useful to someone! And it’s interesting how this little voice quirk helps you tell the two apart. Now if I could just find some way to tell Ira Glass and Adam apart…

Missy July 25, 2015 at 2:53 pm

I have to respectfully disagree about David Kestenbaum’s voice! I find that he swallows the end of his sentences to such a degree that I’m adjusting the volume on my speakers up and down to compensate when he dips below audible. I enjoy the sound of his voice; I just wish his register was more consistently audible. I imagine the levels on the audio equipment dipping and spiking all over the place.

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