Forbes.com - July 25, 2017
A while back, our family took a long driving vacation across the western U.S., with two small children in the back seat. To save our sanity, we relied on a hastily rented batch of audio books. Road miles go a lot faster when LeVar Burton holds court, or when a similarly skilled narrator conjures up the secrets of a Harry Potter novel.
Hang on to that concept of the "skilled narrator." I've spent nearly 20 hours in the recording booth myself this summer, in an adventure both daunting and exhilarating. In this post, I'll share what the pros have taught me about narration -- and how those tips could help you become a better public speaker in any setting.
The journey started in early 2016, when I embarked on a new nonfiction book, "You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a 'Useless' Liberal Arts Education." (You can learn more about the book via this link.) My editor at Hachette Book Group, John Parsley, wanted an audio version, too. That left us with the tantalizing question: Who should do the narrating?
"Give it a try," John suggested. Authors' voices are gaining appeal these days, he explained, even if we aren't as polished as the best-known narrators. My recording-studio credentials didn't extend much beyond a few local podcasts, including one recorded in the muffled environment of a Weber Grill packing crate. No matter. In that context, I'd been a one-take wonder, speaking confidently and clearly.
Swept up in the easy euphoria of these small-time triumphs, I told John: "Sure!"
I forgot about this rash promise until a few weeks ago, when an ominous email arrived from Lisa Cahn, a producer at Hachette Audio. Very soon, she told me, we would start a five-day recording session at Studio Circle Recordings in San Mateo, Calif. To succeed, I should stop consuming dairy products for 24 hours before the recording; they could make my voice sound congested. I should plan on reading the manuscript off an iPad, to avoid the unbearable noise of turning printed pages. And it would be essential to dress appropriately. "Starchy dress shirts are bad," Cahn informed me. "Soft cotton is good.”
On the morning of my big day, I nibbled on a peach -- nothing more -- for breakfast, and then donned faded jeans and a rumpled old work shirt. I probably looked like an extra from "Grapes of Wrath." So be it.
Arriving at the studio, a sudden attack of stage fright took hold. No cardboard boxes here! Instead, our engineer, Jermaine Hamilton, was adjusting sliders at a control board the size of a church organ. He rose, shook hands, and pointed me toward a stool in a glassed-in booth. Masking tape on the carpet marked the stool's position; my seat wouldn't budge an inch during the entire session. Settling in, I welcomed the sight of a chest-high music stand in front of me, containing an iPad version of my manuscript.
But what was this scary metal object about eight inches from my face?
Behold: a Neumann U87. The next few days of my life would be governed by this $3,600, German-engineered microphone. The burnished metal contraption has been the first choice of everyone from the Beatles to Beyonce. "It's what gives NPR's programs such a distinctive sound," Jermaine told me. "It's an amazing mic. It picks up everything."
Yes, it does. Over the next few sessions, the Neumann U87 would record my fingernails clicking against the screen of the iPad, in the midst of page turns. It would record my toes jostling against the recording stool. It even recorded the sound of my sleeve brushing against my headphone cord, when I made the mistake on Day 2 of wearing a properly ironed shirt.
During my five-day stint, we re-recorded nearly 80 passages because of the Neumann U87's powers. Initially, each slip-up embarrassed me. Over time, though I came to appreciate the caliber of technology (and coaching) that defined this project. As long as I didn't mind being corrected . . . as long as I was willing to learn . . . this difficult debut could turn into something magical.
We weren't just creating an audio book. I became the lucky beneficiary of what amounted to a master class in how to be a strong narrator -- and, by extension, a better public speaker. Here's what I learned.
Thanks to the wonders of digital editing, all the studio misadventures described above have vanished. The experts assure me that intermittent sounds fine each time in the final version. As for the healing powers of Granny Smith apples, that will remain our little secret. It may be years before I'm back in the book-recording studio again, but the next time around won't be quite so terrifying.
If you're interested in seeing how this audio book turned out, the answer is just a click away. To sample (or buy) the Audible version, click here. The recording also is available via Downpour, here. And for yet another version, try this link.
— George Anders