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Say What? Why Your Voice Sounds So Weird in Videos

When we make videos with new teammates at Wistia, they're often weirded out by the sounds of their own voices being played back to them.

Do I really sound like that? Is something wrong with the mic? These thoughts are totally common. In fact, I remember being surprised by one of my first videos at Wistia. I didn't even have any lines, but I couldn't believe what my voice sounded like:

 

Sorry—couldn't resist. In case you didn't already guess, that's not what my voice sounds like, but I'm often thrown off by recordings of my real voice.

It turns out that there's a reason why hearing your own voice in a video (or in any recording) feels so strange. It all comes down to a simple fact of physics, but our brains don't let us see it this way. Instead, our brains perceive our recorded voices differently, and for us folks who aren't accustomed to hearing ourselves in videos, it's easy to believe we'd be better off behind the camera than in front of it.

"It all comes down to a simple fact of physics, but our brains don't let us see it this way."

Here's why we all struggle with listening to our own voices in videos.

It's all about that bass

A few weeks back we wrote about the shudder we all feel when we see ourselves on screen. One of the first comments on that article reminded us of another strange phenomenon related to watching yourself on screen—listening to the sound of your own voice:

As Guido pointed out in the comments, what you sound like to you is not what you sound like to everyone else.

The voice you hear as you're speaking? You are the only person that ever hears that voice. Everyone else is hearing something different. It all comes down to the way sound travels through air versus through a solid.

"The voice you hear as you're speaking? You are the only person that ever hears that voice."

For most of the sounds you hear—a dog bark, a baby laughing, a car beeping, a giraffe greeting another giraffe—the sound is traveling through the air.

Source: Human Anatomy 101

Sound comes into your ear canal, vibrates your tympanic membrane (eardrum), which in turn moves the tiniest bones in your body—the malleus, incus, and stapes. These are connected to your cochlea, which is a fluid-filled sac with small "hair cells" inside.

As the bones vibrate, the fluid moves inside the cochlea, moving the hair cells. These cells convert this movement into electrical activity, which your brain perceives as different sounds—barking, laughing, beeping, giraffe greetings.

When you're speaking, you hear some of the sounds the same way. Your voice comes out of your mouth, travels round to your ear, and down your ear canal. But there is another way for the sound of your own voice to reach the cochlea and for you to hear it: through the bones in your head.

As you speak, your vocal chords are vibrating, which in turn vibrates your entire skull. But different frequencies are transmitted better through dense material such as bone. Higher frequencies are weaker, whereas the lower frequencies in your voice can travel all the way to your temporal bone in which your ear sits.

This is called bone conduction, or otoacoustics. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt and Imperial College London have recently shown that these temporal bone vibrations can then act on the cochlea directly, not even vibrating the eardrum, increasing the bass component as you speak.

Your skull is effectively a subwoofer for your voice, turning your David Beckham into the low James Earl Jones you know and love.

Getting used to the sound of your own voice

That's the physiology, now to the psychology.

Once you hear the recording, our friend mere exposure rears its head. When we first encounter something new, such as our disembodied voice for the first time, the immediate response is one of aversion. It sounds so weird.

As Guido (our friend from the blog comments) says, it is the familiarity principle at play. Just as you're used to looking at yourself in the mirror, and as a result don't like the way you look un-mirrored, you are used to your otoacoustic voice, so you don't like the un-bassed version. The unfamiliarity is what makes you dislike it, not the voice itself.

But try telling your brain that. When you hear your recorded voice, the dissimilarities to what you normally hear stand out. You might find that it's difficult to step in front of the camera again without being hyper-aware of your voice as you speak, which doesn't make for a very natural, conversational tone.

"When you hear your recorded voice, the dissimilarities to what you normally hear stand out."

So what if you find yourself wanting to get in front of the camera (or record a webinar, podcast, or anything else where your voice will be shared with the world) again?

To overcome your brain's biases, you'll want to apply the same tactics we talked about using to get comfortable with seeing yourself on screen:

  • Get out of your head: As with The Science Behind Why No One Likes to Be on Camera, the fundamental takeaway from this article is that, apart from skulls being excellent subwoofers, your brain has to take shortcuts to make sense of the crazy amount of information it has to take in. It falls back on the familiarity principle because usually this works. But in this case, it's misleading—you don't sound strange in videos. You sound like you.
  • Practice, practice, practice: The first time you speak in front of a camera you will be nervous, but that is why you are allowed to do multiple takes. After a few tries, you'll begin to relax, forget about how you sound, and start to have fun.
  • They've heard it all before: Your voice is just your voice to everyone else. They don't hear the bone conduction part. It sounds exactly as it always has, so don't worry about people thinking you sound odd. You sound great!

And if all else fails, follow Morgan Freeman's advice and yawn a lot.


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