Five tips to nailing down that speech or audio presentation

By Mark O’Neill

If you ever hear anyone tell you that reading and recording audio files is childs play then I can assure you that you are safe in calling them a liar. I’ve contributed 90 minutes of my life recording three audio chapters of War & Peace 3 by Leo Tolstoy for Librivox.

The 3 MP3 files which I created will eventually go towards a larger audio book download, and these audio books will particularly benefit people who are blind or infirm. War & Peace is a fascinating book but it’s more difficult than anyone thinks to read it aloud for recorded publication. In fact it was one of the most difficult things I ever did. But now that I have done it, I feel exhilarated.

I thought I would recount my experience here on GAS as there are many situations in life where you may face the problems I faced – a company presentation or a wedding speech are two that instantly spring to mind. Recording an audio book is no different than public speaking in many respects – you have the text and you have to deliver it to your audience without hashing it up and breaking down. I’ve seen grown men who were normally tough macho Rambo’s pyschologically break down when they had to give a speech or read aloud some text for a presentation.

After Librivox assigned me my chapters, I fired up the Audacity open-source audio recording software, got my headset on and I was brimming with confidence. I thought it was simple and I’d get it done within a half hour. More fool me. Within 15 minutes, I was sweating profusely, kicking the trash can in frustration and eyeing the bottles of beer in the fridge.

What did I do wrong? Well it is VERY easy to mispronounce words. It’s even easier to stutter. Plus if you hit a home stretch and you get through a big passage without a hitch, your rising confidence will make you read faster and that makes you cocky and therefore susceptible to stupid mistakes near the end. I also made the mistake of not leaving my ego at the door. Someone had previously remarked that I sounded a lot like Orson Welles and this unfortunately made me a bit cocky when I was approaching this project. So it’s good to stay grounded and accept that you’re not a professional, that it will take some time to nail it down.

But if you are reading a Russian classic like War & Peace, your biggest issue is going to be the mispronounciation. Russian names such as Mikhaylovna, Ismaylov, Pavlograd and Drubetskoy abound throughout the chapters. When you encounter these names for the first time, it is only natural to hesitate, stutter and completely cack it up. Can you say those Russian names first-time without stuttering or hesitating?

After 45 minutes, I had done 15 takes and I was now on take 16. I had had a beer which loosened me up a bit (which actually resulted in me trying out dodgy Russian accents). I was getting frustrated with something I initially thought to be a cake-walk and everyone in the house was avoiding me because I was cursing like a sailor on shore leave. My throat also hurt from having to speak louder than I am used to and this was making me even more irritable.

Then magically I sailed through it. Then I sailed through the other two chapters and this is how I finally did it :

1. Print out the chapter and stand up : If you are speaking through a microphone on a headset, print out your script and try standing up and walking about (if the cable extends that far). Reading from the screen just hurts your eyes and hurts your back when sitting in the chair. That discomfort is only going to distract you and make you do stupid mistakes. So walk about and read from a printed sheet. The feeling of being liberated from your computer chair really does help the frame of mind and walking about the room really does stimulate the mind. This is also something to bear in mind if you’re delivering a speech to an audience. Walk around, don’t stay in the same spot and have your speech in your hand.

2. Make the text size on the sheet larger : I was reading from a MS Notepad version from Project Gutenberg. The downside of that is that the text size is way too small and I was straining my already-not-so-perfect eyesight trying to read it. I would also accidently miss lines in the text and end up jumping to the next line. So before printing it out, I moved the text over to Notepad++ which is actually for coders and programmers but I like it for other tasks too. I increased the font size to make the text more visible and each line is numbered so I was able to avoid missing a line by following the line numbers. This is also good if you are on a stage making a speech. If your eye-sight is not perfect, you don’t want to be straining to read the words. So blow up those words to double the size. No-one but you will ever know.

3. Get rid of distractions : Doing something like an audio book narration requires total concentration so that means no interruptions and distractions. Turn off any PC programs that might distract you (like IM programs, your email notification program and so on), mute the ringer on your phone, throw out any partners / flatmates and close the door on them. Close the windows. Let everyone know you don’t want to be disturbed until further notice. Same with making a speech. Shut down all electric devices. One guy I tutor in English went into a presentation and his mobile phone started vibrating in his jeans pocket. He was so startled he dropped the speech and shrieked out loud. After that he was done – he just couldn’t go on after that. Everyone was laughing and his confidence was blown.

4. Screw it, just do it : To quote Sir Richard Branson, “screw it, just do it”. Don’t worry relentlessly if your voice doesn’t sound right or if a pronounciation might be a bit skewered. Just throw caution to the wind, hit that record button and let it rip! If you insist on procrastination, you’ll never get anything done! Same with a speech. Don’t worry if you think you sound like Henry Kissinger. Just go out there and nail the sucker!

5. Drop the dodgy accents : after having a beer, I decided to screw around a bit and I did some accents which I was convinced were Russian. But upon playing the recording back, I realised that it just sounded stupid and I wasn’t being consistent with the tones of the accents. So just be yourself and don’t put on any acts or pretenses. Jim Carrey may get away with making fake accents but it would just mark you as the clown.

Are you experienced in doing audio recordings or giving speeches? If so, what tips would YOU recommend?