Voiceover Student Blog #2

Week 2: “Commercials capture your attention, that’s all.” ~ Calvin Klein

The previous week, Lesley and I discussed the many and various ways in which voice actors can apply their voice acting skill professionally. This week, she suggested that I narrow my focus down to one.

Despite the fact that my passion lies in voicing audio books, I have decided to focus on commercials as they can be more lucrative in the short-term. I still intend to pursue audiobook production as a long-term goal.

So this week we took a look at some previously used commercial Scripts. While reading the scripts, Lesley encouraged me to focus on two things: the “what” and the “how” of each ad.

WHAT is being sold here? We’re not just looking for a one-word answer like “a car.”  We need to know what makes this car different. Also, what is the target demographic for this product?

HOW is it being sold? How do you think this ad is intended to appeal to the target demographic?

Here is just one example of an ad we discussed:

“When everything’s in the right place, you can’t go wrong. Which makes the Buick Enclave such an easy choice. It’s full of features like the IntelliLink voice-activated sound system, the industry’s first front center air bag and available seating for up to 8. Finally, a perfect way to get comfortable with technology. The redesigned 2013 Buick Enclave. It’s your kind of luxury. Discover more at buick.com

What is being sold? The simple answer is “a car”, but if we look a little deeper we see that what’s really being sold here is the concept of automotive luxury mixed with cutting edge technology. That will definitely affect the tone that you will use when voicing the ad. Obviously, you want to sound self-assured. Confident without being smug. You want the listener to identify you as someone who knows what they’re talking about and, as such, believe what you’re telling them about this car.

How is it being sold? Technology can be daunting for some people. Especially the target demographic for this ad. I mean, Let’s face it, we’re probably not selling big Buicks to some tech-savvy 20-somethings. No, this car is being marketed to a slightly older crowd. That must also be reflected in the tone. One example of this is to pay attention to when contractions are being used (versus when they aren’t.) Less formal speech implies an easy familiarity. And easy familiarity is how we want the customer to think of using the technology in this car.

Lesley often says that voice work is two-thirds mental and one-third physical. Meaning that most of the work you will be doing is reading, thinking, re-reading, and making notes before you ever step in front of a microphone. “What is the What and How of this ad?” “What is the tone of this ad?” “What words should I hit a little harder than others?”

We reviewed this exercise several times, with a varied list of products from fast food, to bars of soap. The most important thing to remember about the service that Lesley provides is that being coached is something you need to experience. Your coach is a mirror. Impartial and there to show you what looks good, and what needs to be improved. “Slow down a little.” “That was the right place to pause, but let’s make that pause a little shorter.” “Let’s try it again, but this time, I want you to pretend you’re talking to your grandparents.” It’s amazing how something as simple as visualizing your audience as a specific person will completely change your tone and inflection.

Throughout our session, Lesley encouraged me to read in as natural a voice as possible. While attempting to read a commercial script there is a propensity to try and make your voice sound the way you’ve heard other voice actors sound in similar commercials. Think “Chevy truck month” or that guy who does most of the movie trailers.

But what you might not realize is that the audience hears the inherent lack of authenticity in your voice, and that will not be good for business. So the takeaway here is “Be Yourself. And do the best job that you can do with the voice you have.”

Voiceover Student Blog #1

So you want to be a voiceover professional?

Me too! Hi I’m Jason. I’m a client of Lesley’s, and I’m going to be filling in for a while writing this blog. I’m here to tell you all about my experience working with Lesley, and what it’s like to get into the voice over industry from day one.

Since I was a kid, I’ve always done funny voices. Usually when telling jokes or goofing around with my friends. I also love listening to audio books. So when I started reading chapter books aloud to my kids (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.) I tried to read them the way they would sound as audio books. After a few years of doing that nearly every night, I started to think that maybe I could do it professionally.

When I truly decided to get into voiceover, the first thing I did was what we all do now when we need info, I Googled it. All of the results had three pieces of advice in common:

  1. Listen to the professionals.
  2. Practice and develop your ability.
  3. Find a good voice over coach.

After another Google Search, I found Lesley . She works with clients from across the country  (via Skype) but luckily for me, we live in the same city so I scheduled an appointment with her via email.

My first session with her was a real eye-opener. I really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and friendly approach that Lesley brings as a part of her coaching style. We started by getting to know each other.

We talked about the different areas where people can do voicework professionally such as animation, video games, commercials, audio books, and more. Then specifically the areas in which I would be interested working.

After discussing career options, we went through some exercises. Obviously each client is different in their experience, skill level, and in the areas where they need improvement. Lesley’s abilities as a coach are grounded in her professional experience as a casting director. She knows what to listen for in a successful audition, so she can help you sound your best.

We started as many voice coaches do, with breathing exercises. Its amazing how little we think about something we literally do every second of our lives. I was surprised by how much of good voice work is physical. Controlling your diaphragm, and making the most of the fuel you’re taking in to power your instrument.

Then we moved on to articulation, think of your lips, your jaw, and your tongue as the parts of a machine. They all have to work in harmony to produce the desired sound. As is the case with any physical activity, its always best to stretch before you begin. So to wrap things up, we did some tongue twisters.

After warming up, we moved on to inflectional changes. Many people don’t realize just how much of “voice acting” is actual “acting.” This was the exercise I found the most interesting: Try saying the word “Yes” 3 times each to indicate certainty, indecision, and sarcasm. Try saying the word “No” 3 times to each to indicate certainty, indecision, surprise, annoyance, and delight. Say the sentence “I’ll be there” 3 times each to indicate determination, pleased agreement, surprised, and annoyance. We did more, but you get the idea.

Then I asked her about about demos. I was relieved when Lesley told me that her advice was to wait, work on improving your abilities, and then make a few short recordings targeted specifically at the kind of jobs you’re hoping to get. One of the things I read when researching Voice coaches was that if a potential voice coach wants you to spend money right away making a demo with them, you should treat it as a red flag.

The average casting director makes their decision within 10 seconds of listening to your voice. So you don’t need to do one long recording showcasing all of your different abilities. Just do a quick example of a car commercial. Do a short political ad, etc. Lesley shared some great resources with me, like websites that have a library of scripts from previous advertising campaigns.

Finally, I was given homework. Lesley gave me a guide for how to create character voices. It begins with a voice… Any voice. The next step is to put that Voice through a series of filters. Make it go as high or as low, as loud or soft as you can. Use your teeth nose lips and tongue to change the voice.

I scheduled my next appointment with her and went home to download some scripts and start practicing!

I’ll be back next week to tell you about what I’ve learned, and what comes next

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.