Mindshift in Action: Barbara Oakley on Her Audiobook Experience

Photo © Shutterstock

When my editor asked me to narrate the audio version of my new book, Mindshift, I was thrilled. I mean, hey, I am all about being open to new experiences – that’s a central theme of the book – and nothing could be newer for me than hanging out for four days in a recording studio.

To my surprise, in these few days I spent recording my book, I had something unexpected spotlighted for me, something I write about in Mindshift: how information and skills from, say, a previous career or your interests outside work can become valuable tools in your next career or incarnation.

This is more true for all of us now than it has ever been, thanks to how interconnected and interdisciplinary so many jobs and careers and even our hobbies are.

The truth is, we each have a library of skills and knowledge we’ve acquired – sometimes in prior careers and sometimes through our hobbies. Identifying and bringing forward the skills of value that we already have can help us get a head start and be more competitive in a new career or be more accomplished and competitive in the job and career we have.

However, this thought was not on my mind on the chilly January morning when I arrived early at the recording studio in Michigan. Sound engineer Ryan Arini was there to meet me, and producer May Wuthrich was there with us from New York, on Skype.

I was excited to get reading, but I was also nervous. I would be reading words I wrote and am passionate about; however, I’m not a professional reader, and I wanted to make a recording people would engage with.

This requires more than speaking lines from a page in an appealing voice. It involves communicating.

Listen to talented speakers and, especially, talented voiceover artists, and you’ll hear that they select and highlight certain words vocally, almost the way musicians play different notes.

As a professor, I do a good bit of public talking, so I am used to hearing myself. But, in that recording session, hearing my own voice through the headphones, I realized that I needed to bring in more of the tonal color that professional voiceover artists bring to what they do.

I wished I could say, “Okay, May and Ryan, I’m off to practice! I’ll be back to read in a few weeks!”

But the studio was booked, and May and Ryan were right there.

I needed to get good fast – bring in some nuance right then and there, the way professional voiceover artists do.

But how?

It occurred to me that I could do a “mindshift” right then and there.

barbara-oakley-beringI reflected back on my time, in 1982, as a translator on a Soviet fishing trawler on the Bering Sea. As an American, I was mostly the only non-Soviet on board, and it was my job to help the Soviet sailors talk to the Americans on the huge fishing boats that would pass them the fish for processing – twenty or thirty tons of fish. This is risky business even in the best of weather and extremely dangerous in bad weather. One slight miscommunication or mistranslation on my part and the results could be terrible – with costs in tens of thousands of dollars or lives.

Making my work back then harder was the fact that the kind of translating I did isn’t like the kind they do at the U.N., which is called “simultaneous translation.” In simultaneous translation, you wear earphones to hear the voice of the person you’re translating and to block the sound of your own voice speaking the translation into the other language. What I did on that boat was “sequential translation,” with speakers sometimes going on for a long time before I gave the information to the other side.

Because of that, it was my job to convey the gist of what each speaker was saying. This required me to develop a skill of noticing and picking out key ideas – the little essential gems in a sentence and in someone’s ideas. I realized this was exactly the skill I needed to make a vibrant reading of my audiobook. I dipped back in my memory and flexed the mental muscles I used in doing those translations on the boat. In doing that, I went back into neural pathways I’d laid by repeatedly doing that work.

And then, there back in the studio, I applied what I’d built in my brain, all those years ago, and used that skill to highlight key words and ideas in the text, which I then brought out in the recording by highlighting them using my voice.

I left that studio with a recording under my belt – and with something new in mind: the importance of modulation and tone when I’m speaking. It is possible to step outside your head and listen as others hear you. Underneath it all, people like hearing a voice that has charm, conviction, and nuanced emphasis.

I write about learning, and as I’ve discovered, creating an audio book is a great learning experience. Let’s hope this experience will help you, as it’s helped me, to be more aware of the library of skills you already have available to you from your past, and how you can put them to use to be more skilled and competitive in your current career or whatever is next for you.