The Words We Use Matter.

Today I listened to an interview with a woman who is a researcher at a respected Canadian university.  The topic was the reporting of terrorist attacks.  Her assertion was that words matter – that the words chosen by reporters can define as well as describe the event, and therefore affect public reaction and political response.

She was an intelligent woman and she made strong points.  But it was her own use of words that struck me.  She frequently used “fillers” -- the umms and uhhhs, those little habitual placeholders we throw in while organizing our thoughts.  “Y’know” was a biggie, but the one that really got me was “sort of”.  It got me partly because she used it a lot, but more in her particular placement of it.  

Each time she made a strong assertion, she preceded the strongest or most definitive word with “sort of”:

“…an act is terrorism if it, sort of, clearly provokes terror and fear…”

“The, sort of, actual risks…we’ve all seen those charts that show the, sort of, actual statistical probability of dying in a terrorist attack…”

“…in the, sort of, immediate coverage…”

 “The recent shooting was…a typical example of the, sort of, folly of, y’know, hasty and careless reporting…”

How is something done “sort of” clearly?  Can statistics be “sort of” actual ?

I want to be clear: I do not mean to ridicule her or diminish her arguments in any way.  They were rigorous, observant, well constructed and backed up with good evidence.  She was articulate and well educated, clearly an expert in her field.  Yet when she spoke, she undermined her status.  Her “sort of”s served as apologies for her statements.  Ever so subtly – maybe subconsciously – she was ensuring that what she said wouldn’t make her appear too strong, too assertive.
Of course men use fillers when they speak as well, but in my experience they generally place them in between thoughts: “So, y’know, the point I’m making is…” and so on.  Once the thought has been formulated in the brain, it’s spoken without being subverted or undermined along the way.

So is this another form of “don’t speak up too much or too often”?  “You don’t want to come across as a strident, opinionated harpy”?  Do we need another hashtag, #TalkLikeAWoman, to go with #DressLikeAWoman?  Because I’m not crazy about #IAmSortOfAStrongConfidentWoman, or #IAmSortOfAnExpertInMyField.  When women own it, as they very much and very often do, I want to hear them own it.  Full stop.

The famous voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg says, “we have to stand by what we say”.  It’s a big thing to do, to commit fully to the words we utter and the ideas carried through them.  It’s not always easy.  But we are living in adventurous times and, as uncomfortable as it is to put ourselves on the line, our lives may get much more uncomfortable if we don’t.



Summer is Over But I Still Can't Stop The Feeling...

The Kid informs me, with an epic eye roll, that I should have tired of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’ months ago.  It's true, this ain't usually my kind of music.  But thanks to a funny and insightful podcast called 'Switched on Pop', I now understand why I’m still going electric wavy over this pop tune...text painting!  A synesthete's dream, text painting makes me think of Shakespeare -- how sounds and rhythms often reflect or underscore the literal meaning of characters' words.

Pick it up at the 15 minute mark for the specs on how exactly JT text paints this song, or listen to the full podcast for the broader discussion.  Plus, MC Hammer and Elvis Costello too:



The Gap of Time

Okay look, I know there has been an onslaught of Shakespeare Anything "because 400th", but the Hogarth Shakespeare Project is actually a great thing.  A bunch of award-winning authors are writing novels based on Shakespeare plays.  Like peanut butter and chocolate, put two great things together and there's just no downside. 

Jeanette Winterson's novel is called 'The Gap of Time', based on 'The Winter's Tale'.  I have my own reasons for wanting to read this particular story at this particular time.  But I'm compelled to tell everyone I know to read it too, whether or not you ever intend to see a production of this play again. 

Winterson's modern take will crack this old fairy tale open like crazy for you.  In London's financial district: a digital camera lens into Leontes' insane and terrifying jealousy.  In Louisiana: piano bars, car repairs, and families.  The confusing and complex nature of love. 

And in the end, the possibility that what is lost can, in fact, be found. 

Don't They Realize I'm An Artist?

Today I read an op-ed article by a voice-over artist describing, with weary condescension, a “pitch” recording session.  In Canada we call these demos -- rough versions of commercials recorded on spec for a client who will decide if the spots should be made for real.  If it’s a yes, the same voice artist may be brought back, or the job may be re-cast, but the original artist is paid for their time regardless.

In this instance, it seems the agency executives were too focused on their phones, they didn’t give the right kind of direction...the artist felt under-appreciated. 

I get it.  It’s not always easy to relate to the people on the other side of the glass.  Often I’m twice the age of the agency creatives (they’re mostly millennials).  And sure, we all like to joke about the kind of direction we’re given in sessions:  I do, my colleagues do, and so does Joe Cipriano in the movie “In a World”.  But we do it with respect, I believe.  And appreciation -- most important, appreciation.  I’m grateful to be able to earn a living on the mic.  In my work as a voice artist, I have not only been challenged and supported, I’ve also learned more about acting, about the human voice, and about listening than I could have imagined. 

I hate the cynical attitude.  I know not every session is ideal.  The people you work for sometimes seem disengaged.  I know it’s advertising, and it’s hard not to feel cynical about that sometimes, even when you have chosen to work in this industry (and there are many people out there who’d love to get work in this industry).  And we are talking about a job that pays well above minimum wage for work that involves no more heavy labour than lifting a pencil.  It’s not a huge hardship.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt says you can bear anything by taking it in ten-second increments.  “Just count to ten.  And when you’re done, start over and count to ten again.” 

I know that’s what I did when I finished reading the article, and it seemed to help.  

Play Dead


Waking up this morning, it drifted through my mind how Shakespeare liked to have actors play dead. Of course, the actual death toll in the Complete Works is substantial, and people have compiled lists, created pie charts, and performed new plays to illustrate the many ways characters are sliced, diced, pummeled and poisoned.

But there are also characters who only pretend to die, and that event is usually the turning point in the story. There’s Hero in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: she ‘dies’ because of being shamed at the altar, and so that Claudio can feel the grief and loss and regret for his mistaken punishment of her. In ‘A Winter’s Tale’, Hermione is another virtuous woman accused of being false. She too must appear to be dead until her husband truly recognizes her innocence and mourns his loss.

This summer at Bard on the Beach, you will see Juliet pretend to die to avoid marrying Paris. In ‘Pericles’, Marina will be thought to be killed by the evil Dionyza’s henchman, and Thaisa, believed to have died in childbirth, is thrown overboard a ship by Pericles.

Sometimes the audience is in on the secret although the characters are not. The deaths, real or pretended, are always important. Men really die and their ghosts often return to haunt the killer (or an indecisive child). When the women die they don’t haunt anyone. And sometimes they have to pretend to die just so the men can grow up. 

The Beast is Back

Years ago, I was hired to tag some radio and tv spots for Playland, the Vancouver amusement park. Rethink had taken over the account, and they wanted to try something new for this well-loved summer family tradition. Instead of a cheerful, friendly announcer voice inviting listeners to come and enjoy fun rides, these ads featured the Cranky Megaphone Lady. She was tired, bored, fed up. With an irritated sigh, she gave the information ("Playland, now open daily"), but she really did not give a... you know.

I thought this would be a one-off, I really did, but the campaign was a hit.  Rethink was ahead of the curve, anticipating the shift away from "perky". Cranky Megaphone Lady was an early-days version of what's now the ubiquitous "anti-announcer" read.  And she has returned every summer to (sigh...) remind you to check out new rides, like The Hellavator, The Beast... We recently recorded the 2016 campaign, and the guys at the studio and I were counting how many years it's been. I think we're at 14 now, right, John? Which, in advertising, is what's called a campaign with legs.

Poor Megaphone Lady will be working a longer shift this year.  The Beast is back, she's got legs, and she knows how to use them.

Burned Out On The Fry

Who isn’t talking about vocal fry these days? Google will give you 509,000 responses in .28 seconds and they come from journalists, speech therapists, actors, job coaches, physicians, singers, politicians…

In a Guardian newspaper article, Naomi Wolf called on young women to “give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice”:

A response to that article accused Wolf of “missing the point”. Complaining about vocal fry, says Erin Riley, is just another excuse not to listen to women:

In some ways I agree with both points of view. It seems (anecdotally, at least) that we are often more critical of women’s voices than men’s. Traditional authority figures still, in 2016, try to discount the voices of young women in particular. However, standing up for the right to be heard also means resisting pressure to conform to a popular sound which could damage your voice. I hope that women, especially young women, can be true to themselves -- expressing themselves with authenticity, and saving and cherishing their precious voices. Our voices are the means with which we tell the world who we are.

This debate came up for me again in a recent visit to a Women’s Studies class at Vancouver Island University.

The students expressed differing points of view, and some admitted they had not previously been aware of vocal fry, or had never carefully considered their own voices. By the end of the discussion, they were excited to continue reflecting on these questions, and inspired by the possibility of harnessing the power of their authentic voices in their careers and their personal lives.

That Was Then, This Is Now

 Here's a photo I found in a old file folder, taken when I was coaching ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in 2007.

Here's a photo I found in a old file folder, taken when I was coaching ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival in 2007.

 ...and here's another one, taken recently by the genius Mark Halliday, during rehearsals at Bard on the Beach again this summer.

...and here's another one, taken recently by the genius Mark Halliday, during rehearsals at Bard on the Beach again this summer.

These pictures track a decade of my coaching life.  I'm now bespectacled, goofier, and apparently still unable to speak without the hand.