Your Voice is You
April 12, 2021 § 15 Comments
By Michelle Redo
About five years ago, I downloaded my first audiobook. It was Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. She’d just been interviewed about it on the prominent public radio station I worked for and I thought it would be a great way to test drive my new Audible subscription. I climbed onto the elliptical machine at 5:30 am before the onslaught of my workday and hit play as I began to pedal. The narration opened by clarifying that the introductory sections would be read by the author, but the book itself would be narrated by Debra Winger. What the…? Gloria Steinem shopped out telling her own life story to someone else!?
I was aghast. I found it difficult to continue (although I did… Debra Winger wasn’t too shabby a substitute.) But I loved the experience of listening to a book and thereafter found myself searching for good listens by a single criterion, memoir narrated by the author. True, not every author is a great narrator by default, but they are indeed the keeper of meaning. This simple key unlocked Heather Harpham’s gentle voice revealing the struggle of her baby born with a life-threatening blood illness. I learned what I had in common with Trevor Noah as he told me about his religious mother growing up in South Africa. Shonda Rhimes confessed her year-long experiment to just say yes to all the scary opportunities that came her way, despite her fears and anxieties. As these people generously shared their lives with me, I’ve counted them as my friends. Friends who have sat down in front of a microphone, pretending it was my ear and told me their story. Themselves.
This wasn’t so different from my job at the radio station, working with reporters and hosts to promote their features or shows. One day a new reporter followed me into the sound booth next to my office. She was young but super accomplished. She’d been published in the New York Times and The Atlantic, had a PhD From Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar.
She looked over the promo script I’d written about her story as I closed the door behind us. We hadn’t worked together yet.
“I know I have a high voice.” Her eyes flashed a pre-emptive confession. “I’ve been told to try and use my chest voice.”
Her voice is indeed high, perhaps obscuring her expertise and experience. But if I had a hundred dollars every time a female reporter said that to me… well, I’d have hundreds of dollars. They’d been told to use a more demure sound. Bring the tone down.
I too had been told this in my twenties. I did sound young. Worse, I sounded insecure (probably because I was insecure.) So I told myself, I didn’t really like talking anyway. I far preferred the scripting, directing, and editing side of the production glass. And in recent years I’ve noticed an increasing number of younger sounding voices on the radio. Voices that convey gravitas through their soprano register. At first, I felt a little resentful at what I’d missed out on. But I decided not to dish out what I’d gotten.
“Well, your voice is high…” I agreed with this reporter, “but that’s who you are. And you’re the expert on the topic of your story. So you can certainly assert what you have to say with confidence. Just hold your own with it.” In the years since, her reports have uncovered hidden toxins in drinking water; articulated nuances in important ballot questions; dug into the science behind the coronavirus in its early weeks. The “high-voiced” reporter has won numerous awards for her reporting.
Now I’m a freelancer, and as I was recently preparing to co-lead a workshop aimed at coaching writers in reading their own work aloud, my partner suggested we ask some writers what they’d most want to get out of such a class. I’d already begun compiling a tip sheet of techniques and practices for them… but their single immediate response? I don’t like my voice! How can I change it to sound better?
Uh-oh! I wasn’t expecting that!
My blunt response: you can’t.
Allow me to play this out…Your voice is your primal auditory thumbprint. It’s why a long-ago friend says, “It’s so good to hear you!” Our voices reveal emotion and meaning that words alone can’t. As with our writing, our voice is a simple thing to aspire to, yet an elusive, delicate piece of ourself to nurture, to coax. A unique gift that must be diligently, bravely unveiled. But simple is rarely easy.
So when you next find yourself in front of a microphone or an audience (let’s hope sometime soon!) remember this: your voice is the perfect vehicle to exemplify you, and bring the story of yourself to life. Your voice is you. I’m your listener friend out here, and I just can’t wait to meet you.
Michelle Redo is a freelance podcast producer and thirty-year award winning former public radio veteran at WGBH in Boston. She’s taught audio production at the Banff Centre. She’s at last sitting down in front of a microphone herself as the host her new podcast, Daring to Tell, which features writers reading their true essays, memoir chapters or non-fiction stories of personal daring.
Thanks for offering this perspective on voice! I also like audio memoirs narrated by the authors. The last best one I listened to was Natasha Trethaway’s “Memorial Drive.”
This was really encouraging–thank you!
So interesting! Thank you! I’ve discussed the process with authors of auditioning to read their own memoirs. It definitely takes some training and breath work. I’ve found learning to sing well (or sorta well)–I’m sing with a choir and am a Mass cantor–has helped me tune (but not change) my speaking voice. Still, I’m not sure that even my dead mom would want to listen to a whole book read in my nasal Midwestern twang!
Ha! Who knows?! Good observations though! I was a singer so that’s a great foundation to have. I’ve encouraged my reporters and other readers I coach to do some of the vocal warm up techniques I learned in singing… so yes, one needs to prepare- both the voice and the frame of mind. Thanks for reading!
Not everyone is born to read for others. I found that out when I was quarantining last year and only able to sit there and listen to audiobooks. Some were easier to digest than others. Yes, it matters who narrates.
However, you bring a great point regarding memoirs and personal stories. The author definitely does the best job showcasing the most accurate emotions.
I like reading my work, even though I don’t think I sound the best. But, on the other hand, I really enjoy hearing others read my stuff. Sometimes they pull out some emotions that I wasn’t fully aware of.
Completely agree- it matters who narrates! I’ve abandoned some audiobooks because as much as I was interested in the story, the narrator just wasn’t doing it for me. I can be very picky! I like that idea that you’ve picked up other emotions from your own work. That must have been interesting to observe. Thanks so much for sharing.
So helpful! I’ve been wondering about an audiobook for my memoir for the past year. I’d love to read it myself. Now I have a lot to consider. Thank you, Melissa! I’m going to your podcast…
I hope that you do! Hope you enjoy the podcast.
Great article! My debut memoir was recently published, and my publisher has found someone we might hire to do the audio version. But along with writing the book, I’ve dreamed of doing my own narration, for the reasons you describe. Food for thought! Thank you.
Congrats on the memoir! I hope you get the opportunity to do it! It’s no small undertaking, but extremely worthwhile!
I love this! As writers, we spend so much time honing our written words to harness and present our unique ‘voice,’ and, yet, many do not realize how those same words, spoken with our own cadence, weight, and peculiarities, can amplify our message to reach a deeper level of meaning and understanding. Thank you.
“Your voice is your primal auditory thumbprint. It’s why a long-ago friend says, “It’s so good to hear you!” Our voices reveal emotion and meaning that words alone can’t. As with our writing, our voice is a simple thing to aspire to, yet an elusive, delicate piece of ourself to nurture, to coax. A unique gift that must be diligently, bravely unveiled. But simple is rarely easy.
So when you next find yourself in front of a microphone or an audience (let’s hope sometime soon!) remember this: your voice is the perfect vehicle to exemplify you, and bring the story of yourself to life. Your voice is you. I’m your listener friend out here, and I just can’t wait to meet you.”
oops – I pressed enter too soon – I just wanted to say that I LOVE your post, and this part is particularly inspired and beautiful! Thank you for writing it and for sharing the truth of your experience!!!
Thank you so much! I’m so glad that it touched you.
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