This exercise for actors and speakers is especially useful for people who have to deal with very formal or heightened language, for example: ministers who are dealing with scripture, or execs discussing company mission/vision or formal PR communications, and of course actors dealing with verse or historically informed language.
I learned the value of paraphrase when studying Shakespeare analysis with the hyper-brilliant culture snob Roger Downey. For other great approaches to Shakespeare, the John Barton series is super fun, but paraphrase was by far the most useful tool I ever gained for approaching any heightened or sticky language.
The simplicity of the tool almost feels like cheating.
Take your text, re-write it line by line, word by word, so that you could say the line to your best friend’s jaded younger sister who doesn’t know your industry, and she’d get it. Be brave with your word choice and take liberties. Use metaphors and your own slang.
Then act the paraphrased line, fully committed, and observe how your natural communication strategies come through. How do you use your inflection, your body and gesture? Once we do this, we go back and use those same delivery techniques on the original heightened language. Almost always, the result not only makes more sense to even an untrained ear, but also carries much more personal, individual interpretation.
Paraphrasing won’t teach you to sound like Royal Shakespeare Company actors or BBC newsreaders, but it will absolutely turn dormant, vague text into active, blood-pumping text that belongs to YOU.
Try it, it’s fun.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Here’s one possible paraphrase:
You want me to say you’re as pretty as a summer day?
No, no, no, baby, you’re way prettier, and way more gentle, too.
One bad summertime storm can ruin your whole garden,
And besides, summer’s just a short little season.
When I choose these words, I’m subconsciously also choosing a character, one that I more easily understand and identify with. I’m making stronger choices about situation and relationship. I’ve even imagined a Moment Before. So when I speak this second version, I’m using inflections and intentions that are more immediate, evocative, clearer pieces of communication, and I embody them more fully and naturally.
Now, if I like those physicalizations, intention choices, character traits, inflections and conceptual emphases, I can swap them wholesale into the delivery of the original verse, and observe what happens.
Here’s another example using biblical verse:
1 The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
2 Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.
3 They have no speech, nor are there words, no sound is heard from them.
One possible paraphrase:
Look at this sunset, good gravy! That’s God talking right there.
See those clouds? Those clouds are saying “God made us!”
Every passing hour of the day is like a squad of cheerleaders, cheering about how great God is.
And nights, ooh, nights are like crazy college professors who want to tell you the coolest secrets.
Now they don’t have actual voices, they don’t blather on, like we do.
They do all this…. Totally silently.
Read this paraphrase and imagine the inflection, pacing, gesture, emphatic energy and dramatic arc. There’s a character inside this language. Now try using those same techniques while speaking the “heavens are telling” version.
It feels irreverent at first, almost always. But reverence often kills language.
I’m certainly not a traditionalist, but I believe we discard older, more formal texts sooner than we have to. On the occasions when we do use it, we often unconsciously imitate a stentorian formal cadence we think indicates intelligence or authority. It’s deadly to communication. Thus, we kill the text, encasing it in this airtight interpretative glass, and then we complain that it’s dead.
Fortunately, in the case of the best heightened language and sacred poetry, it’s not dead at all. It just needs a little wake up, and an invitation to dance.
I hope these two techniques – The Speak-thru and the Paraphrase – work for you and your studies. Or, to whip out my Deuteronomy 32:2:
Let my teaching drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, As raindrops on the tender herb,
And as showers on the grass.*
*And that’s some that’s barrel-aged King James lingo, baby. That’s the good stuff.