If you're not a voice actor, don't worry––I didn't write this exclusively for that purpose. If you want to know how marriage and the skill of listening can help you hire better voice talent, be a better voice actor–– or a better spouse––read on. If you're in a hurry, you can scroll down to my "6 Tips to get the most from a Voice Over".
Here's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.
When I first began doing voice over, I resisted the idea of method acting. I went to a seminar and the lady said that voice acting is the only way to be believable, and I thought "I'm not in Hollywood, this is just my voice, what's the big deal?"
So I just winged it by mimicking other voices I heard on commercials and documentaries. At that same early time, as a producer, I just let the talent do their thing, with little direction, mainly because I didn’t really know how to direct. That was a long time ago.
Then I got married. Marriage taught me key points of voice acting. I learned immediately after the honeymoon that my wife could tell––just by the tone of my voice:
When I was not listening to her––even though I said I was.
When I did not understand her––even though I said I did.
Quietly I wondered to myself: How does she know…
20 years later, my wife can still tell by just the tone of my voice what I'm really thinking. She knows because she is a human. Like all humans, she has an entire ear-brain-soul system that is finely tuned to detect true meaning within the dynamics of voice inflection. That listening skill is within every one of us, and we use it every day to determine a wide range of important cues embedded in voice tone.
So anyway, how exactly did I learn to be better at voice over by getting married?
The first step for me was to truly listen when my wife spoke to me. This is similar to film actors studying real-life people so as to know how to “behave” as a character, rather than “act” as one.
From her voice tone, I could easily tell the level of importance of what my wife was saying, and whether she was angry, concerned, worried or happy. By listening to her tone, I can know things that printed words alone cannot easily communicate––at least not without adding lots of other printed words. Most importantly: By listening carefully, I know how I should respond.
Listening to my wife before I respond is akin to truly understanding a script before I record the voiceover.
From the simplest explainer video to the high-stakes world of political ads, written text must be studied and understood by a voice actor in order to convey meaning and believability when recorded. With believability, emotion and sincerity, a great voice over increases the effectiveness and recall of any content––even accompanying visual content.
What makes a good voice actor and why do you need one?
By voice acting, I don’t mean character voices or over-the-top drama. I mean being able to precisely nail the tone needed to communicate what is needed, including the right emotion, as well as that very important thing called believability. Because if the voice isn't believable, is annoying, or just sounds "off", you're message is dead. This matters very much in marketing.
Good voice actors are good actors, period. And every voice over needs a good voice actor. Every word, every phrase, every pause... .. .. . carries weight... and... meaning. My job as a voice actor is to make the audience believe that I believe what I am saying, whether it’s a radio ad, TV voice over or explainer video. As a director, I aim to help other voice actors do the same. Tone is everything. Which brings me to Siri, and why does she sound so... um... snotty?
Why does Siri have an attitude?
We react badly to Siri's tone because we are humans and we have feelings. Siri obviously does not have feelings.
Google the words “Why is Siri so...” and you’ll see the suggestions of “mean”, and “rude” at the top of the list (along with other suggestions that are way less kind). In fact there’s a whole Quora thread on “Why is Siri so annoying.”
As a utility, a voice-bot like Siri or Alexa is incredibly useful. But when it comes to the delicate control of voice intonation needed to be kind, sincere, warm, thoughtful, empathetic, excited, fierce or simply believable––bot’s just can’t pull it off without sounding like, well, robots. In a world of big and small businesses alike aiming for a message that sounds sincere and friendly, it’s doubtful robot voices will gain much ground in anything to do with marketing. So what exactly is it that we humans have that Siri just can’t nail? I doubt I need to say this but: Siri is a soulless robot. Your dog has a better chance at doing a voiceover. At least he has a cute bark, and you can use subtitles.
Emotion and the Human Voice
“Sales is 90% emotional and 10% rational”, and “People are driven by feelings”.
We’ve all heard those statements at some point. So it’s of great importance to remember that human voices can convey emotion with great precision. This is exactly why voice actors have replaced "announcers".
Ferris Bueller's economics teacher is remembered by everyone––remembered for being the poster child for monotone voice delivery. You've repeated his lines yourself, you know you have. The character, played by Ben Stein, was clearly a cornucopia of knowledge in his field––but had the voice delivery of a zombie. Why does everyone relate? Because we've all heard that monotone voice elsewhere in our lives––whether it was a teacher, instructional video voiceover, or someone's call greeting on their phone. It doesn't matter how much you know, or where you went to school: knowing what you're talking about and knowing how to communicate it well––are two entirely different things. This is another opportunity to point out that who you choose to record voice over for marketing or informational content doesn't have to be the person with the most knowledge about that subject. The most knowledgeable person should write the script. The individual who records that script should be a voice professional with the ability to do two things:
- Study and understand the content.
- Communicate that content with complete control of their voice.
Yes, good voice talent will always study the script you provide to them––and practice it––before ever stepping in front of the microphone.
6 Tips to get the most from a Voice Over
If you use, or are considering professional voice over for your projects, below are 6 quick tips that will help you get the most from it. I've written this from the perspective of both my experience as a director of voice actors, and my experience as a talent who receives direction. If you produce radio, TV, documentaries, or any type of multimedia content, I hope you find this useful!
1. Content should be written for the spoken word.
Most copywriters dwell in the visual world of web and print. But what reads well to the eye doesn't necessarily sound good in a voice over. Contractions are a good example. "I did not" sounds curt and stern compared to "I didn't". Using contractions is a good way to relax a script, and keep it from sounding stiff. Contractions also take less time to say, which matters a lot in ads that have strict time limits. Contractions help voice actors speak normally, as people do when they're just talking. Because in normal, one-on-one conversation, we all use contractions to the extent that entire sentences are connected like syllables in a word. And yes: The voice actor's job is to pretend they are speaking to one person, as opposed to standing at a podium shouting a speech to the masses like it's 1940. If the listener feels the voice is speaking directly to them, the effect is intimate and powerful, and the listeners attention is much more focused. If you are a voice actor reading this, I suggest you always picture––I mean literally picture––someone standing right in front of you when you record your content. This will have the magical property of taking away all those spinning thoughts of "how do I make this sound real?". Making it sound natural will just happen––naturally,
2. Copywriters: Read the content out loud.
If you're unsure of how it will sound when read by the talent, read it back––out loud. Don't cheat by just half mumble-whispering it to yourself. Trust me, that won't help nearly as much as actually reading a script out loud exactly the way you want it to be read by the talent. This has several advantages. Firstly, proofreading a voice over requires this step. If you read it back aloud, you’ll know if it sounds right––or awkward in places. Even better than just reading it aloud: record yourself reading it on your cell phone, and listen back. This will also tell you how long it is. Believe me, I’ve received many 30 second ads to voice that were, in fact, 40 or more seconds in length when read at a reasonable pace. Upon receiving this information from me, every copywriter responds with confusion: "Really...?" So yeah, just whispering it to yourself won’t work, because you’ll go too fast. Voiceover content should also have wiggle room and still fit within the time frame. That way, the talent can speed up in some places, and add pauses or slow down in others. Those dynamics are absolutely necessary to keep the audience engaged.
3. Direct the voiceover session as it’s being recorded.
This will save you time, and probably money, by avoiding unnecessary re-dos. You can direct from wherever you are via phone, Skype or Source-Connect. I suggest Source-Connect because it is the highest quality sound, and all you need are a laptop or Android device using Chrome browser, and the built-in microphone on your device. A pair of headphones are highly recommended. It's literally like hearing the talent from the booth if you were sitting in the control room. You'll also be able to make changes to the script on-the-fly, and ask for "alternates". An alternate read is where you have the talent read a line with different wording, just in case it covers a base you need covering when it's time for the final edit. Right then and there, you can have the voice actor read a "safety" line, that can be added later in post production, without the expense of scheduling the talent again. Example: The ad says "Sale ends Saturday", but what if corporate decides to extend the sale til Sunday? Hey, just have the talent read "Hurry, sale ends Sunday" as an alternate. Boom! You've saved the cost of scheduling the talent for a second session should the sale be extended! By directing in real time, you'll be sure to get everything you need––and everything you might need, plus exactly the inflection you want in every line. And of course, you can experiment with different approaches, and note which take has the best feel. Remember, most voice over sessions are an hour minimum, so use the time wisely!
4. Choose a voice actor who is more than an “announcer”.
Choose someone who’s portfolio includes samples of great diversity––from a whisper to a scream, so to speak. Experienced voice talent will deliver what you want, because they have the ability to do so, and with a smooth, engaging quality to boot. Remember that the value in pro voice over lies in the talent’s ability to make subtle adjustments in tone quickly and precisely, based on simple directions such as “friendlier”, “warmer”, "mysterious",“questioning” etc. Talented voice actors are like sports cars: they handle like a dream.
5. Hire talent who will be there next time you need them.
OK, here's the scoop: Not everyone on the internet who says they are a voice actor––is one. Keep in mind that voice talent service websites, the ones with thousands participants, typically do not vet the talent on their sites. Why? Because they make money by charging people to post their voice demos on those sites, not by the quality of the talent. This creates a very long list of "voice actors", some of whom are professionals, and many who are try-hards. By experience of having to hire talent myself, I've learned that a scary-big chunk of people on those websites will have given up their dream of being a voice actor before the renewal date comes up again on their signup for that voice service. That will suck badly when you or your client need the voice that recorded your last thingy to do an update––and you can't find the talent––and all you needed was for them to record two freaking lines to update your thingy––and now you have to hire someone else to re-do the entire thing because you can't have a different voice fill in two random sentences. Professional voice actors are there when you need them. They have experience. They have access to a studio. They're good at what they do, and they get hired enough to keep doing it, year after year. Most importantly, those of us involved in pro voice services realize that voice over isn't a product, it's a service. We're here to please you, and we realize that our voice is an investment in your brand.
6. Don't forget music!
I'm sure you know that adding music will greatly enhance the power of any voiceover. I prefer, if possible, to at least hear music to be added before I record a voice track, as it can defiantly help set the mood and pace. Once the voice is recorded–– assuming I'm the editor––I always edit the music, as closely as possible, to hit at least one key change in the voice content. Music should be edited to follow the storyline created by the voice over, and visuals, if there are any. This is far more effective than a simple “loop” of music that doesn’t follow the content at all. In fact, a great audio track is the result of massaging both the music track and the voice edits to fit together as one. If there is video involved, that too will be probably be adjusted somewhat. In a multimedia project video, voice over and music are flexed to the arc of the story.
A little nerdy stuff, just for perspective
Science says we're hardwired to tune in to human voices. Seems pretty intuitive to me, but here's the tech stuff for you. Your hearing range, in terms of sound frequency is 20 to 20,000 hertz (vibrations per second). 20 hertz is like earthquake and deep thunder territory. The upper range, above 10,000 hertz, is the sparkly overtones of wind chimes. But human hearing is most sensitive at right around 3000 hertz––and that's smack dab where the human voice resides. In other words, you can hear a sound in the range of the human voice at a much quieter volume than you can hear sounds in higher or lower frequencies. The theory is simple: Our ear-brain system is precisely tuned to hear the range of sounds most important to us––other human voices.
Director of Sound Design at Dogwood Studios
Check out these Voice Talent Supercuts for good examples of voice actors doing their thing