How to do a voiceOMver, aka How meditation helps voice acting

There is constant evidence in voice acting that a person’s “history” is getting in the way. (These are the in-trained actors, of course). A believable voice over performance requires a clearing of sorts to happen, which can be done in many ways, but must be done. One way is therapy. Another is suspension of disbelief.  And the list goes on.  Take the person who lacks self confidence, who doesn’t speak up, who feels (and makes them-self) small, and therefore sounds that way. In commercials in particular this winds up being a huge problem given that the default direction given to the actor is usually friendly and confident. (Because what producer or writer would want the actor to sound mean and insecure?!).  Then there’s the actor, or person rather, that overcompensates for that insecurity by virtually shouting and therefore nudging out any emotional nuances or keyword emphasis that should be present. Listen to ME!  he says, while breaking your eardrums.  This is almost everyone, everywhere, in the whole world. We all have stuff. Unfortunately, if you’re doing voice acting it’ll show up as a bit more transparent than if you did accounting for a living. So, back to that clearing we all need to be for the voiceover magic to happen. There’s a great article in Mindful magazine that discusses the connection between acting and meditation (of all combinations, right?!) with Homeland actor Michael O’Keefe. He really makes the connection between meditation allowing for a person to truly understand the self and how that plays into crafting a character. He talks about the classic technique of substituting one’s personal/emotional experience for that of their character’s, and how meditation allows for a lot of those memories to come up.  On an off-topic, but still voiceover related, he also mentions how anyone who can read well can imagine how a scene should be played. This has been a topic in this blog many times over, and it’s always been from the perspective of teaching script-analysis technique. A nice reminder, however, would be that you already know how to understand a script. You do it every single time you read a book or an article.  A pamphlet. A comic book. Anything. You are digesting an emotional undertone. You are following plot. You are absorbing what’s really important – the meat of the story. O’Keefe knows that good writing sparks the imagination and that you can then imagine the characters, the setting, and the plot. He believes that to bring all this to life with acting requires one to be organized above all else. To bring passion to a scene isn’t enough. It must be rooted firmly in the arc of the story so that it doesn’t fall prey to coming across as a generalized feeling. He names specificity, fluidity, and precise calculation as the foundation to support that “spontaneity” of the actor in a scene. Interestingly, Michael also says that the mindfulness practice that can lead to self-observation and inquiry leads to understanding oneself better, and ultimately to the ability to then forget one’s self. Meditation means paying supreme attention, and then letting it go. The most enlightened part of the article comes from when O’Keefe discusses how this practice of self-engagement informs is about ourselves and the world around us, and how we can hopefully then begin to realize that nothing separates us from others, or even the entire universe, except for how we engage with ourselves. Wanna try it voiceover people?
Ok, here’s a basic practice for bringing meditation into the realm of your voice acting craft. Keep in mind there can be many techniques associated with actual meditation, and we aren’t getting into that here.  Try here for basic primer on meditation.
1.  Meditate for at least 15 minutes.
2. Check in with yourself. Who are you?  What defines that for you?  Contemplate how you feel about where you are currently in your life.
3.  Meditate for 5 minutes more.
4. Review your contemplation from earlier. Ask yourself if you ARE those things and if there’s
more. Allow for the possibility that it’s all a story, and it only weighs as much as you allow it to.
5. See past this story and really experience yourself as something more fluid and transparent, inhabiting a space that is really nowhere special and always just right here right now.
6. Let that really marinate for a while. This is what some may label as your true self. It doesn’t require maintenance of any sort. It’s nothing. It’s no thing. As an actor, to become aware of who liquid this self is means you can be anyone, anywhere, anytime. You can be in the flow of self. The possibilities are endless, really.

Speak your Voiceover truth

I’ve been trying to find the best way to incorporate (into voiceover training) what I recently learned in an incredible communication course I just took. What started as me thinking I was going to learn how to make myself more clear to people quickly turned into an incredible journey of emotional self discovery and how our human struggle translates to people when we talk with them about . . . anything. The beginning concept has us realize that we feel small and powerless in this big big world, and how in conversation we subconsciously try to work through that (feel bigger, more powerful, etc) in conversation. The teachings illuminated how we take someone else down because their actions lead us to feel or think a certain way, instead of speaking from OUR own truth.  It’s too long a “story” to translate here but the connection to voiceover is that – speaking from our truth.  It’s a tricky thing to do in voice acting, to speak from your own truth, when you’re reading a script that someone else wrote. I get the struggle completely. But hey, if you’ve decided you want to win big in the voiceover audition game, there are a few things that will help you make peace with and even embrace the script.

Start with acceptance when you are faced with a voiceover script. Yes, there’s a lot of bad writing out there. I. Get. It. Is acknowledging that bad writing, dwelling on that, whining about that, going to get the best performance?  Nope. So you might as well embrace those words which will soon be coming out of your own mouth, yes?  Yes. If you have a bitter taste in your mouth from the script you’re certainly reducing your chances of winning that job. Forgive the writer. Better yet, just try to understand the tone and message that the writer was trying to convey, regardless of how skillfully you think it was done.  This will keep you on target for your goal. Ask yourself WHAT the message is.  Ask yourself HOW the message should be conveyed. These are two completely different things, and you need to understand both. More on this in the Voiceover Script Analysis blog from a few years ago.  Let’s take this advertisement by Alamo car rental and then break it down:

If you’re ever near Durango, Colorado, you’ll find a road to the sky…where a hundred years ago, men searched for the silver and gold they saw there. There are over one million miles of roads in Alamo territory, all over America. And every day, with every car nationwide, only ALAMO gives you all those miles for free, including a seventy mile stretch along route 550 in Colorado, which takes you to the sky.

So- first-  what’s the message?  The message is that by renting from Alamo you get real America, you get history, you get wide open big sky country, and you get all those miles that you put on the car while seeing it all . . . for free. By understanding this “WHAT”, you can now put your keyword strategy into effect on each sentence. To illustrate this let’s look at the second sentence as an example. Keeping in mind that the fewer words you magnify in a sentence the better (the more power they have to stand out and specify a point), we arrive at a benefit – ONE MILLION MILES. We don’t magnify the word roads because we already established that in the first sentence. We may not magnify Alamo territory either because perhaps Durango, CO already insinuates that. OVER may be keyword as well, because it speaks to the endless possibilities for places to go.  I think America is assumed by the fact that the first sentence speaks of American history in a very American place. So there you go, by highlighting the words that speak to the message, you now sound like you’re making a point, speaking a truth. Not reading a script.

The next step is the HOW. How are you saying this message?  Are you warm and caring, sarcastic, confident….?  Again, you must look to the writing and really try to
understand the writer’s intention. What do I see?  Classic storytelling. Following a dream. A road to the sky?  Come on.  Dreamy.  Men searching for gold?  They’re not selling pickles here.  They’re selling the great American adventure. Hopeful.  Positive. Perhaps introspective – or rather – conveying a quiet intensity.  The HOW is so important. The how is your truth. Speaking from your truth. Yes, I’m doing a callback to my communication course now people!  Enjoy!  I know I’ve strayed!  So, speaking from your truth looks like this: When have YOU followed a dream, gone on an adventure, went after something big beautiful great?  Speak the writer’s words and intention from YOUR truth and now you have authenticity.  Now you have booked voice over work.

Voiceover – the act of observation

I had an interesting conversation with a relative the other day whom I didn’t know was an artist. She was a photographer, painter, and sketch artist, and although these skills are seemingly very different from voice acting techniques we both found there to be some interesting concepts that tie them together. The biggest one being the act of observing.

Shayna doesn’t know a thing about voice over but she can draw things so “well.”  In the layman’s mind this means so accurately, so life-like, so real.  She talked about how – take an apple for example – when you want to draw something you first have to look at it. Then look some more.  And then look some more. Look at its shape. Look at its color. Look at where there may be light bouncing off one little part of it, and look at where there may be a shadow under it where it blocks the light from hitting the table it’s resting on. Look at how close or far away it appears to you. Keep looking until you run out of new observation, new perspectives that can only be revealed by studying something carefully.  Only then can it truly reveal all aspects of itself. Wow.  Not that different from really getting o know someone. We can have a first impression but to truly know someone means to spend time with them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Know them in different places, dealing with different situations, etc. Actually, not that different from acting either…..

The art of any acting, voice over or otherwise, truly comes from the art of observation. To watch a person, or people, in everyday situations comes with it a knowledge of human nature. The more you watch the more you collect impressions of how people behave, react, relate, express, etc… You can see this on many levels – facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, general tics and mannerisms. Each one of these facets tells you part of this person’s story, personality, or at the very least about humankind in general. These become the essential tools for your voice acting toolbox. Yes, converting someone’s body language responses into your voiceover repertoire will have an impact on your sound. Does it make sense to speak aggressively with your hands in your pockets?  Nope. Everything connects ultimately. This can work in your favor.

Start observing. Since voice over is often called voice acting for a reason, observe every aspect of human behavior beyond just the voice. Watch the way people are when they’re listening. Do they look interested?  Do they look like they’re thinking of their own thoughts while you’re speaking?  Are they leaning forward?  Leaning back?  Are they “uh huh”ing you in an interested way or a robotic way?  Listen to how people speak TO you.  Listen for the differences when they’re excited, scared, disappointed, encouraging, confident, etc….notice whether during each of the emotional expressions people use whether they are speaking faster or slower, higher or lower in tone, louder or softer in volume.  Notice what they do to the specific words in the sentence that are most important to what they’re communicating.  This is literally what I do as a casting director and a coach, and this is the work you can do too.  When you observe, you learn all the secrets to sounding believable, because you now can see how people really do talk. We have trended way out of the classic robotic announcer and into the REAL.  Real is based on real life, of course. So observe it.

Your tight and loose voice over

A highly talented actor friend recently shared with me some new concepts related to the physicality of the voice, and how to use your body to conspire in your voice over success. I have always been aware of the body/voice connection and have often instructed students to pay careful attention to it. A guy reading with his hands in his pockets is going to a be a bit more challenged than the arm-waver in terms of expressiveness. The woman concentrating so hard on saying everything “perfectly” is going to forget to smile, and the absence of this most basic of human expressions is going to lose her the job. Our voice is part of the manifestation of the story our bodies are telling, and if we are careful to tell the story properly in our bodies, then our voice will follow…. to some degree. Yes, our minds must cooperate as well to balance out the proper understanding of emotional motivation and context of message from the writing. But one thing at a time, and today that thing is the body, and how to use it to your advantage in your next voiceover audition.

When you’re reading your next script, try an experiment. First, read it while sitting down in a straight chair, with your arms still at your sides or on your lap. Keep your face non-animated as you read. Try to not bob your head around and just allow your eyes to follow the words on the page. Make sure you are recording this take. This is your tight read. For your second recording you will stand up. Find a place to rest your script (a script stand or other creative solution) and allow for your hands to do some of the talking. Maybe walk in place a little bit or shift hips from side to side. Let there be a smile on your face and let your head be gently moving as you talk, tilting it from side to side at times as you speak. You can even pay close attention to whether your eyes are opening wide, or crinkling a bit, or otherwise, based on whatever it is you are feeling in each moment that you are communicating something. Most importantly, just let it happen. Let yourself, your body, your mind, your voice, be uncensored. This is your loose read. Your “free voice.” Unless you’re Siri, this is the voice you will use for almost everything, and it will book you jobs.

When you think about it, we are all attracted to “loose” personalities as opposed to (up)”tight” ones. The looser and more freely someone is speaking, the more interesting and animated and authentic they feel to us, which in turn makes us free to be our own truest selves. The “tight” person leaves us wanting, wondering what’s behind the wall, but also too intimidated to want to try and break it down. We just walk away.

If you feel yourself needing to access your “loose” voice, try sounding out your vowels one at a time while walking around the house, jumping up and down, shaking your shoulders, or doing any mundane activity such as putting away the dishes. When we speak to each other, we are never standing in front of a microphone. We are engaged. So until you can “fake it” – trying engaging yourself in life activities. Let the body be first, and the voice be second. If it works for real life, it can work for the voice over.