Let’s start with the disclaimer, shall we?
The point of this blog is not to discourage anyone from pursuing voiceover work. I’ve never told anyone that they’ll never make it in this business. I don’t want to be that guy. I am, however, very upfront and direct with people. If there are challenges they must overcome to get to the point where they can do this type of work (and get paid for it), I tell them. If you want to do it, by all means go for it. Hard work and a willingness to risk failure go a lot further than raw talent on its own.
I’ve been both reading and directing voiceovers for about twenty years, so I hope I’m able to bridge the two disciplines and hopefully bring a unique perspective.
1- Can I read?
Seems pretty fundamental, doesn’t it? While most people certainly are literate, you’d be surprised how many people can’t read without sounding like they’re reading. If this is a struggle for you, take steps to prepare for the session. Practice performing the content before you get in the booth. Important to remember that it is just that; a performance – not a reading.
2- Do I have a good voice?
A lot of people think you have to have a big sexy voice to do this kind of work. While a pleasing voice is a good start, it alone won’t take you to where you want to go. It’s true that some voices are more palatable than others, but knowing how to use your voice is just as, if not, more important than just having a nice sounding voice. Which brings us to…
3- Do I have good instincts?
Do you know how to tell a story? Do you know which words to emphasize in order to properly tell that story? How about pacing? Flow? Inflection? Where to pause? Where to breathe?
A lot of people in radio and TV broadcasting think they can just breeze into this kind of work, and some of them can, but both industries can be very insular, and as a result, many of these folks develop some very bad habits.
For example, many radio broadcasters are used to reading for thirty seconds. As a result, they often have a hard time adjusting the pace and volume of their delivery. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve asked someone to read something slower and they read it again at the same pace; often right down to the exact second. These problems also aren’t helped by an increasing dearth of producers in the radio industry. That’s a rant for another day.
Television hosts (journalists especially) tend to struggle with mic technique and inflection. It’s a very different experience talking to a microphone deliberately as opposed to just talking freely in an environment where there happen to be microphones. Film and stage actors sometimes struggle with this as well. Journalists also get into some very bad habits with inflection. Some of them can talk like normal folks, and some of them sound like poorly programmed robots.
4- Am I articulate?
You may not notice this through casual listening, but when experienced, professional voice talent perform, you should be able to hear every letter and word, and it should sound effortless. Sure there are times where the project calls for a more relaxed, casual approach, but professional voice talent should be able to deliver every syllable with crystal clarity.
5- Do I have presence?
When you hear someone like Judi Dench or Morgan Freeman speak, you listen.
Why do you listen? Because they have presence.
Why do they have presence? I’m not entirely sure. Presence could just be the culmination of all the things we’re talking about here.
Even if you speak reasonably well, are you going to stand out? Will people listen when you speak? This may be one of those have-it-or-you-don’t kind of things, but if you do have it, even in small ways, it is something you can refine over time.
6- Do I know how to say the words?
Are you saying exit or eggs-it?
Imagination or uhmagination?
Asphalt or ash-fault?
Our or arrr?
Library or lie-berry?
Already or oh-ready?
February or feb-yoo-air-ee
If you are going to work in this business, you need to develop an almost obsessive compulsive sensitivity to proper pronunciation. It will drive you nuts when you listen to regular folks, but it will pay off in the studio. If the producer or director has to constantly remind you how to say common words, it can lead to a lot of frustration and wasted time.
7- Do I have any speech impediments?
The reason we’re so picky in the studio is not to create an elitist culture. The point of speaking is to communicate. If people have a hard time understanding you, it decreases the effectiveness of your project. It can also greatly distract the audience from what you’re trying to communicate.
Often people aren’t even aware of their vocal quirks. Fortunately, it usually just takes an awareness and some practice to overcome them. For more serious vocal impediments, it may be worth seeking professional help, perhaps from a vocal coach or a speech pathologist.
8- Do I smoke?
The correct answer is no.
Back in the day a lot of (mostly male) broadcasters would smoke to give their voice a deeper, grittier quality. While smoking can do this, it’s not sustainable. Today many of those same guys who smoked their brains out in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, can barely get through a whole paragraph without getting winded. In addition, prolonged smoking causes your voice to often break and crack at inconvenient times. If you want to enrich the sound of your voice, it’s best to do so with vocal exercises and warm-ups. We may cover that in the future as well.
9- Can I adjust my accent?
Yes, you have an accent.
For more on this, click here.
10- What’s my thing?
Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know yours.
I used to work with this older British gentleman. Every word that came out of his mouth sounded like a BBC documentary. That was his thing. That was his sound. Then there are people who seem to be able to mimic any accent or character voice they hear. If you can do this, that’s great, but most of us can’t. Some people are good at bright, bubbly performances. Some folks excel at narration. Some do goofy voices. Some flourish in the realm of drama. Whatever it is you do, refine it, perfect it, and get it on your demo (we’ll get to that).
Don’t be afraid to experiment either. Sometimes we find talents we never knew we had. Just bear in mind that experimentation should often be done on your own time. It’s usually best not to experiment on someone else’s time unless they request it.
11- Am I getting feedback?
Don’t work in a vacuum. It’s good to practice on your own, but make sure you’re getting feedback, and that you’re getting it from a credible source. Find mentors. Find producers, directors, or other voiceover people who will be open to listening to you and giving you feedback.
If you have the opportunity, it’s good to build a rapport and relationship with the person on the other side of the booth. To be a good producer or director, you have to be a good listener. If you’ve built that relationship, they already know what you can do, but more importantly, they know what you’re capable of. They listen to you, so listen to them. They may help you discover talents you never knew you had.
12- Do I have a demo?
Choosing what to include in a demo can be difficult. If you’re putting together a demo for a specific job, tailor it to that job. If they want something dramatic, send them your best dramatic performances. Try to put yourself in the role of the project director. They may be listening to dozens of other demos. They may give your demo just a few seconds before moving on to the next.
Sometimes it’s good to have multiple demos. This will allow producers to get right to the stuff they’re looking for. You could make separate demos for commercial reads, character voices, dramatic reads, etc.
If it’s a more generic demo you’re putting together, start with a strong, friendly commercial read. Then if you do other things, work your way into those. If you do a lot of silly voices, it’s probably best to ease into those. Don’t spend too much time on any one voice or piece. Once you feel you’ve effectively demonstrated one voice or skill, move on to the next one.