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Rules for natural voice over performances

The tools we use for voiceover success all come from what we ALREADY DO.  That’s right; you already have what it takes to book more voice over jobs!  This is because getting voice over work mostly comes from being BELIEVABLE.  There are of course many nuances that also win you jobs on top of this, such as sounding confident, engaged, empathetic, personal, interested, etc….but even all of those have no foundation unless we believe you.  So, how to be believable?  Use what you already use in real life, where you are unequivocally believable because you’re the author of those words.  Unless, of course, you’re a liar J

To be clear, when we use the word “rules”, we are speaking in very general terms.  There are general ways that the majority of us express ourselves.  We do deviate from this all the time as we are complex creatures with micro-expressions that identify us as individuals.  However, in the beginning stages of learning voice acting, you will want these general rules to lean on until you’re confident that your own instinct can run the show.  These rules can be broken down into many categories such as timbre, pitch, inflection, volume, pacing, etc….and for all you music geeks out there who will certainly find the flaws in my definitions, just know that this is for the layperson only.  Here goes:

First up is PITCH, which gets confused with all sorts of things such as intonation, inflection, timbre etc.  For our purposes of simplification (layperson!) we’ll just discuss it as how high or low our voice goes.  Another way of saying this is the difference between speaking with the deepest sound your voice can make or the squeakiest brightest most “up” place.  In general, even though it’s not necessarily pitch they’re using to make this sound, when we think of deeper pitch it’s similar to James Earl Jones, and a higher pitch would be someone like Sally Struthers, Jennifer Garner, or Anna Camp.  But back to how you can use it as your tool in adding authenticity to your voiceover audition.  Here’s the general list of intentions/emotions that has us using a DEEPER, LOWER pitch more often than not:  confident, authoritative, powerful, sincere, honest, certain, serious.  There are probably many more words.  For our HIGHER, LIGHTER pitch, we are often expressing excitement, enthusiasm, positivity, friendliness.  Again, you will break these rules based on context and character and other things, but they’re good to have in your back pocket when you’re just not sure where to go.

Now, we utilize pitch as well when we are speaking in terms of INFLECTION or INTONATION.  I spent way too much time researching the difference between the two, and I’m sure someone will chime in eventually, but anyway….they’re often used interchangeably by many “experts.”  The best example of how we use the two and what it sounds like is to imagine how you sound at the end of a sentence.  If you’re asking a question you will usually go up at the end of the last word.  I say this precisely because if it’s a multi-syllabic word, you need to really remember not to shoot up at one of the earlier syllables because your voice will naturally want to go down towards the end of the word, having it sound like you just made a statement.  To prove this to yourself, imagine a question you would ask someone, and make sure the last word contains more than one syllable.  Note how you go up mostly on the last syllable of that last word, which leaves the ending of the entire sentence sounding like a question.  Similarly, if you’re making a statement you will point your inflection downwards at the end of that last word.  Imagine simply closing up a storybook and saying “The end.”  You’ll probably go down on the word “end”, but just as important is recognizing that you’ll go UP on the word “the” to avoid sounding monotone.  This is real life.

Our volume levels also reflect real life, as we vary its levels based on the situation, emotional undertones, background noise, amount of people we’re addressing, and even how close or far we are from the person(s) we are speaking to.  Let’s address emotion first: If we are being thoughtful, introspective, sincere, reflective, or empathetic we will most likely speak at a slightly quieter volume level than we normally do.  On the other hand if we’re excited, angry, or confident we often bump up our level of volume and get noticeably louder.  It goes without saying that the closer we are to someone the less volume we need, and vice versa with persons further away from us.  When you’re not sure what the script set-up is for that scenario, go with averages (speaking to one person who is about a yard or two away from you) and rely on the normal amount of volume you use for everyday situations.

Pacing follows a similar predictable pattern.  When we’re excited we talk a bit faster, when we’re in a more thoughtful place we slow down.  Another more nuanced aspect of pacing is our use of pauses.  In real life we don’t pause that much, and when we do it’s usually very very briefly and for either only grammatical or dramatic reasons.  Overdoing pauses either in frequency or length of time results in an everyday commercial or elearning video sounding like a Shakespeare performance.

The bottom line is to use what you use in real life.  Go listen to an interview of….anything.  Listen to how this person, who is authoring their own words, naturally uses their inflection, pacing, volume, etc….Listen to how they emphasize certain words over others.  Listen.  Observe.  Repeat.

More strategy for understanding Voice Over Scripts

There is no hard formula for gleaning keywords from voiceover copy.  There are too many writers in the world with too many creative ideas (hallelujah!) about how to present the information and so the presentation style will always be varied.  This leaves us scratching our heads each time we get to a script to try and understand what is being said, what is most important, and most importantly HOW it is being said.  That’s right – time and time again when I ask a student to tell me how a writer is presenting the information they go straight to telling me WHAT the information is – but I can see the WHAT – the what might be, for example, that there’s a quality coffee beverage on hand here in the case of this sentence:

SOMETIMES YOU JUST WANT A GREAT LATTE.

But the HOW is something else entirely.  The HOW falls into the category of these possibilities: sarcastic, warm, friendly, upbeat, mischievous, confident, and so on.  Here’s where the lack of formula gets challenging.  There was nothing about this sentence that was formulaic.  But – there are clues.  The sentence implies that the speaker already knows something about the listener by surmising that they might crave a latte.  This speaks to a sense of familiarity, that the only way the speaker could know this is if he or she knew the listener or has had this same craving themselves before.  Either one implies that sense of connection between speaker and listener.  It says, in other words, “I know something about you” or “we have something in common.”  This way of being has a SOUND that is unique, in the same way that sarcasm or sincerity has its own unique sound.  This is the HOW and it could very well be the thing that books you the job.  But it’s not addressing keywords.  The keywords in that sentence are simple – GREAT LATTE.  Some might say YOU, but whoever is listening knows that they are the “you” and what they really want to know is what’s in it for them?  Or what about them??  Some might say the WANT is important, but – want WHAT?  What here is of BENEFIT to the listener?  Yup, a GREAT LATTE.  It doesn’t mean the other words aren’t important, but if you have to choose carefully…..this latte speaks to the heart of the matter.  One tiny bit of “formula” for spotting keywords, at least in commercial copy, would therefore be to find the BENEFIT, or what’s on offer to begin with (product).  But one important thing to note is that yes the product is obviously important, but if you are the listener you don’t want a product name simply shouted at you – again, you want to know how it is going to enhance your life (what is the benefit to you?).  Hence the reason that GREAT is just as important here as LATTE.  The next bit of possible formula could be found by examining the beginning of the following sentence in that same script:

COME TO MCDONALDS FOR FREE LATTE FRIDAYS…..”

When looking for keywords you also want to make sure to look for the new information, to not repeat yourself so to speak.  The writer has so little time to convince the listener of something that communication needs to be tight and precise.  Meaning – you have already implied that a great latte is on offer, and here the new information, the new benefit, is that these lattes are FREE if you come in on FRIDAYS.  Perhaps one would argue that MCDONALDS get enhanced as well, since that is where you would find this deal.  If you come HERE, you get THIS.  Sure.  It works.  Just remember, less is more when it comes to keywords, lest you wind up enhancing every other word in each sentence and nothing really pops out as important at that point.  It all just feels shouted at that stage.  When in doubt, try it out.  Read it aloud with the words you deem important and hear how it sounds.  If it doesn’t “feel” right, it probably needs adjusting.  If you want to keep going on this path of analysis, check out the breakdown of another voiceover scipt here to increase your success in understanding.  You can also get in the mindset of understanding copy through an actual voice actor here in this article about Interpreting a Voiceover Script.  The work never ends, does it?

Voiceover success from ANALYSIS

It’s time for another round of voice over script analysis.  To book voiceover jobs, you MUST know what you are talking about, and more importantly, HOW they want you to talk about it.  As usual, we will cover both these areas….the BIG picture being the tone they want you to evoke, and the LITTLE picture being all the keywords on each line that support the tone and also the message.  If you’re brand new to voice over technique you may want to start with understanding an overview of all the basic elements of voiceover first.

We are working today with a commercial script from Tudor Watches:

We’re devoted to the classic, but reject the status quo.  We keep the best of the past.  The best watchmaking practices, the best designs.  And push the boundaries of what’s new.  Born for a purpose.  Field-tested to the extreme.  For those who are up for anything.  Those who face their fears.  Those who reinvent themselves every day.  A tudor….is born to dare.

So, first off is that TONE we are seeking to understand.  Here I am getting around to tone by first noticing the audience they are speaking to:  adventurists, those who take chances and make bold moves in life.  They also speak to the romantic traditionalist, the one who favors things that are done the way they have been for centuries.  With these two aspects clearly defined in the writing, I get a sense of an overall sophistication and also a sense of pride and challenge, as if the speaker is daring you to be this best and boldest version of yourself.  The way this tone is now put into practice easier is to focus on the points being made here that actually support this tone, and therefore make it sound more authentic and more purposeful.

The first sentence is a classic setup of contrast, thereby highlighting what’s there in opposition.  DEVOTED/CLASSIC and REJECT/STATUS QUO.  This is a few more words than I normally like to emphasize in a sentence, but making sure the surrounding words are played down assures that the listener gets a rest in between the words you will “hit” and also makes them have more impact.  Yes, emphasizing keywords is equally about downplaying the words that surround it, lest they steal the spotlight from your point.  Next we have BEST and PAST, because this is what they are saying is at the heart of what makes their watches tick.  Sorry, can’t even resist a bad pun.  Love ‘em.  Now they go on to give you an example, so you don’t need to repeat the word best, you need to emphasize what it is they are pointing towards: WATCHMAKING PRACTICES and DESIGNS.  We then have PUSH, BOUNDARIES, NEW.  You could also just hit NEW and let the other words just be lead words that get to the real point, that they do explore the future of watchmaking as well, when it works.  Then, PURPOSE.  Next up is EXTREME.  Next, THOSE and ANYTHING.  Then, FACE and FEARS.  And, REINVENT, and perhaps for dramatic emphasis EVERY DAY.  Then of course we emphasize the only one mention of the product, as well as any elements of its tag line such as BORN and DARE.  The reason you keep both words at the end there is that BORN IS EMPTY without it….BORN to what?  To DARE.  You could perhaps get rid of BORN however, because it is mentioned earlier in the script, and you usually want to stay away from emphasizing words that have already been called out.  So in this instance, we get that we are speaking of, and have already spoken of, ways in which this watch was born for – leaving the new piece of information all on the word DARE.  Just like a spare use of the most essential words only makes for good editing in a writer, hitting only what’s necessary in a script makes for good voice acting.

More Mastery of Keywords for Voiceover Success

If you want to book voice over jobs, you need more than just a pretty voice.  Way more.  Acting chops.  Good timing.  Articulation (but not too much).  And an understanding of the voiceover script.  This tells the writer or producer that you GET IT.  How exactly will they “hear” that you “get” the script?  You tell them in each and every sentence by emphasizing the most important words.  How do you know what the most important words are?  (cue the ironic laugh here)  You cross your fingers, pay attention to what you’re reading, and learn a little bit of detective work here at Voiceover Gurus.  Today we’ll go over some possible strategies (and why there is no “exact” strategy) and we’ll also dissect a few scripts.  Ready to peel some voice over onions?  Let’s get started!

First, let’s talk about the “ish.”  There is no specific formula for understanding what the key words are in each sentence, and this is mostly due to the fact that none of these thousands of writers are following an exact formula themselves.  Writers are creative, which means they go by the beat of their own drum, or pen.  Or laptop.  But after casting, coaching, and analyzing my way through thousands of scripts, I’ve begun to compile a few tools for identifying keywords that amounts to a method…of sorts.  Method-ish.

One aspect to finding what is at the heart of the sentence is to determine what is good about the product….what the benefit is.  This aspect usually only applies to commercials, so I promise to cover aspects that are universal to other voiceover genres as well.  These keywords can be adjectives, point out an aspect of the product that is unique to the market, or perhaps even speak to a solution it provides to a common problem.  These are just a few of the possibilities to keep your eyes open for.  While you want to focus on as few keywords  as possible per sentence, there will be exceptions.  Sometimes writers are looking for drama.  This means emphasizing a few words that seem to drive home the point harder.  Another case will be when there are commas in the sentence (see the Traditional Medicinals example below).  Commas are essentially used as a pause, when a writer has a separate, but connected point to make.

One thing that is most likely NOT a keyword is the word “you” or “your” (with a very limited amount of exceptions.)  The reason for this is that most people who are listening to a commercial automatically know that they are the potential “you” that is being addressed.  But what they are really listening for is what’s IN IT FOR THEM.  That means you haven’t arrived at your keyword yet on an empty word like “you.”  Same thing goes for words that are repeated – by the nature of their repetition they are already being emphasized.  It also sounds awkward when you emphasize the same word twice in one sentence, almost as if the listener may be dumb and didn’t “get it” the first time.  Example:  “The phones you want, for whatever you want.”  Try reading it out loud emphasizing just the “you’s” or just the “want’s”.  It will sound absurd.  Now emphasize phones and whatever (the product and its benefit).  Better?  Let’s get back to more of those keywords we want to find….here’s a commercial script for Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat tea:

If, like us, you’re vocal about sustainability, you’ll like that we partner with rural Appalachian families who harvest limited amounts of slippery elm by hand to help, well, make you even more vocal.  Literally.  Plant power for a better you.  Traditional Medicinals.

So – we’ve got our work cut out for us here on this first monster sentence.  Several commas mean several individual points being made by the writer.  If there’s a stand-alone word then obviously it gets attention….you don’t really have to “punch” it or emphasize it in any special way since the pause after it that comes with acknowledging the comma will be sufficient enough to put it on its own platform.  After that you have a choice between the words like or us.  Given what comes after it I would choose us.  The first reason is that they’re clearly creating a connection between their company’s stance on sustainability with your own.  If you’re not convinced, I covered that as well on my second reason – I read it aloud and punched the word like instead.  It sounds as if you’re using it incorrectly, as if you’re talking about someone “liking” them.  It didn’t stand up when actually tested.  The best way to believe this is to record yourself.  It’s hard to hear yourself while you’re in the act of performing/being.  Next I would say the heart of the whole spot is here in the word sustainability, however I would also raise my inflection up higher on the word vocal, as it creates a leading sound….it creates expectation on the part of the listener.  It makes us perk up (thinking…vocal about what?!).  Next I would choose limited and by hand.  I think Appalachian families are important, and we’ll still hear it no matter what, but the exact execution of that sustainability they were promising comes in the form of the “limited” and “by hand” points they’re making.  The last point in that sentence comes in the word more.  It can’t be vocal, because we’ve already made that point.  It’s redundant.  As was just saying that.  The last line before the product is mentioned may break some rules.  It reads like a tag line, and that usually means they’re making their biggest, most memorable point.  The most impactful here if made to choose would be plant and better, because it sums things up in a concise cause and effect manner.  Let’s explore more possibilities with this ad for Naturtint:

Unlike most dyes, Naturtint’s ground-breaking formula brings maximum color and shine to your locks without harsh chemicals like ammonia and resorcinol.  Enriched with natural ingredients like non-GMO corn, oat, and soy, Naturtint provides strength and vitality to even the most damaged hair.  With 29 exclusive shades, what color will you choose?

First keyword here is most, as they are setting up a comparison.  Next would be Naturtint,  maximum, and without.  It obvious we are speaking about color and shine when we are speaking of hair dye, but THEIR dye brings out the MAXIMUM effect.  Same goes for the chemicals.  There are common chemical culprits in the world of hair dyes, and the benefit to using their dye is that you don’t have them(without!). I ignored empty promises like ground-breaking in favor of the RESULTS of that formula.  Same would go for the next sentence – I would favor the actual ingredients over the promise of “natural ingredients” – non-GMO corn, oat, and soy.  Then it would be strength, vitality, and perhaps damaged.  Lastly,  we have 29 and exclusive (every dye company offers shades), and then (rule breaker alert!) YOU.  The reason is that color is a given, as we know, and choices are obvious given the “29”, so by default you can assume they just want to draw the listener in and give them ownership of this possibility.

For one more example of keyword dissection, as well as an understanding of what else it takes to nail a voiceover performance, check this out:  http://www.voiceovergurus.com/guru_blog/?p=80

Shake up your voiceover techniques

Today’s top voiceover tips for honing your technique come first from Anton Chekhov.  There are so many to choose from that we will only dissect a few here, but the lessons from each are each a gold mine of treasure  The shortest and simplest is one I was recently reminded of while re-reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  If you haven’t read this book and you are looking for creative inspiration, to unblock something emotionally or artistically, or to simply expand yourself as an (any kind of) artist, this book is a MUST.  The quote: “If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”  This brings back an old blog here that talks about replenishing the well, so to speak.  If you find yourself writing every day, and running out of ideas, go read a book.  If you find yourself doing voiceovers and just going through the motions in a disconnect, go listen to some commercials.  Go listen to some music.  Those emotive singers don’t “disconnect” for a split second, as they are too intensely engaged in their emotional outpouring.  They’re having too damn good a time crying their hearts out, singing with unbridled passion or joy, releasing…..Take your cue from them and don’t bother uttering a single word of that voice over script unless you FEEL it.  Or unless the direction calls for vocal fry.  Bottom line, we can’t take money out of the bank unless we first put some in.  Put life experiences in your bank – ones that inspire, devastate, amuse, warm your heart, make you feel something real.  Now you have something to bring to that script….even the one that’s an emotional vacuum.

The next quote is a bit unnerving, and calls all of us out on our most uninspired moments – the ones we have when we’re on autopilot:  “There is nothing more awful, insulting, and depressing than banality.”  Yep – when we just go through the motions rather than truly engage ourselves, this is what we risk happening.  In life, in a script, everywhere….have an opinion, a perspective, and make a point.

I love this one.  Writers everywhere know this “rule”, yet it applies to so much more:  “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on a broken glass.”  When you read that script, your job goes WAY beyond reading the words clearly, or professionally.  You are there as a force, to bring those words to life, as if in picture, as if in a surge of movement that the listener feels as a call to action, by emoting, by illustrating through tone, pace, inflection, key-words, all that is there and then some.  How else will you stand apart in casting?

Finally, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.”  Ok, this one i agree with for the most part, but in regards to voice over scripts you do really want to understand everything as best as you can.  Getting in the writer’s head and knowing what he wants is critical to delivering him just that.  Perhaps Chekhov is referencing the artist who is in charge of his domain, choosing the project and all the details from top to bottom without collaboration.  Not only that, but I imagine he is also putting value on the skill of an artist to bring up questions we the viewer may have and allowing us to form the answers form an individual perspective when viewing the work.  In voiceovers, the voice actor knows that he is there to “serve at the pleasure of…..” – and the way to do that is to answer these questions:

  • What does the writer want in terms of personality, tone, style, mood….?  How did he write the script to reflect this?
  • What are the points the writer is making in each sentence? (so that you can make those points apparent when speaking)
  • Who did the writer direct this at? Who are you speaking to?  What is your message to that person or people?
  • How do you (are you supposed to…) feel about this (message)?

Let’s now take a break from the heady and do some exercises that allow the brain to relax and re-access that truly natural way of speaking and being that we all have and can learn to bring forth in our voiceover delivery to book more voice over jobs.  It’s simple.  It’s just doing the ordinary.  Start by looking around the room that you’re in.  Notice all the objects in the room and start counting them out loud.  Stop when you can’t find any new ones.  Next, look at each individual item and call out its individual color.  You now may start getting more specific, such as “caramel, peach, buttery yellow, olive green,” or any other food-related colors you can think of.  (someone needs to eat lunch!)  Next step, list out loud the items in the room.  You can start out simple if you like – post-its, blender, pillow, couch – or you can begin to exercise your creative muscle here like so – forgetful brain papers, food mixer upper, happy head thing, lazy body friend….  The benefits to these are plenty.  First of is being able to observe ourselves in our most natural state when talking out loud.  We’re not putting on any false pretense.  This is our natural way of speaking.  Next we get to be in the flow, and to notice any natural filler words or sounds we add when we truly are speaking in an unscripted manner and don’t know what we are going to say until we say it.  Lastly, looking at items and trying to understand them from another perspective (an olive becomes a martini mascot) we are practicing our script-analysis skills and trying to see things from a different point of view.   You can record yourself doing these exercises as well, so that you don’t have to take my word for it and can actually hear the examples/evidence of your real self versus your performing self.  Granted, you will speak differently when addressing someone as opposed to just talking to yourself, however these exercises still stand as a strong way to break any over-achieving false announcery habits you might have and help you relax and correct in the other, more grounded direction of authenticity….that being your main goal in all acting endeavors 😉