Tag Archives: voice over

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

Voiceover ACTING Part 1

In the next coming months I’ll be teaching you voiceover technique from the acting side. What I mean by side is that there are two major “ways” you can get to your voiceover mastery. One way is the left-brain strategy employed by many in this business. These are multiple strategies that have many different names but they’re generally categorized as such: pacing, inflection, volume, energy, projection, pitch…..the list goes on, and some of these might even be considered redundant, but either way this is not the focus right now. The focus will be on that other side….the acting side. When I refer to some of the acting strategies with my students I’ll often just use the word intention. I’ll ask them to forget about raising their inflection on the second syllable of the third word in the fifth sentence, because it’s not working. Instead – I ask them to remember what they’re intention is. In one case it may be to convey confidence, in another…warmth. Intention is what grounds you in your person. It’s what allows you to BE, instead of read. It’s acting. Let’s make it work for voice acting.

Uta Hagen has taught us so much about what it means to be an actor. She focuses on the fact that we are not actually hiding behind some façade, some character, that is not US. In fact, when we discover the many many facets to our own selves, is when we truly begin the work of acting. She has seen so many people write themselves off as “quirky” or “aggressive” or “cuddly.” I am so NOT that, she hears. But when faced with a brand-new puppy, does that person get down on their needs, raise their inflection higher, and get very, very affectionate? Yes. This person is in fact cuddly, they only needed to recall the situation that brought it out. Our own image of whom and what we are can get dangerously pigeon-holed by us, which is to our own acting detriment. Allowing ourselves to see those parts of ourselves that we have forgotten or denied will expand our acting toolbox. Everyone has these facets. What Hagen stresses here is that accepting them, analyzing them, and deeply knowing them will grow their emotional repertoire dramatically. It is when we fight those parts of ourselves that we find distasteful in “real-life” that we lose the incredible opportunities to channel them and capitalize on them in our acting life. The final key here is to understanding the feelings and emotions involved with these traits and aligning them with the actual behaviors we witness accompanying them. In Voiceover, this means at the very least noticing how fast or slow we speak, how high or low, how loud or soft, etc….when experiencing a certain feeling. This will channel the voice into conveying the proper personality trait.

To reinforce those last few points, recall a recent emotional moment. It could be anything from an argument with a family member to getting excited over some great news. We often can recall the feeling that accompanied the situation with ease, but it is the behavior that ensues during that accounts for filling our technique toolbox. Do you speak with gritted teeth and a low serious voice when angry, or do you launch into a loud and aggressive monologue? HOW are you when angry? How do you act when you are excited? Does your pitch go up? Do you talk faster? Do you pace? Do you speak positively but with a bit of whisper as if it is so exciting that you feel the need to control your response so you don’t get over-the-top? The feeling is for you, the behavior is for the audience, and you must use it. Start by paying attention to your own body language, your facial expressions, your voice. Notice how it changes based on the situation at hand. Start taking notes that detail the behaviors. Noticing is half the work, so get started.

So you want to voice cartoon characters in animation?

It’s rare that a prospective voiceover student calls me saying, “I want to use my regular old speaking voice in commercials….can i can i?” It’s not a crazy request, but when we are talking hopes and dreams here, most people want to use the craziest and most repressed parts of their personalities and channel it through a cartoon character in some sort of animation project. I don’t blame them. Who doesn’t want to “play” in some way? It’s the human condition. Our soul needs to be fully expressed or it gets itchy or moldy or something inside, right?

I was reading a Voices.com blog featuring voice over experts which put the focus on this as they interviewed voice coach Sunday Muse. Sunday had some great points about teaching kids (or anyone, really) how to bring a character to life. She makes a point about “becoming the character” which is really the essence of success here. If you are just “doing” a voice it is empty, no different from “reading” any script. To truly bring it to life means to start imagining yourself AS this character, not “voicing” it. Sunday refers to an expression the character has on its face at some point. She asks the student what it feels like on their own face, telling them to imitate it. As we all know, your physical expressions always manifest into the sounds your voice makes. It is all connected. Sunday acknowledges this by bringing it into the body as well. She asks the student directly, “what is the character doing right now?” They are shoveling? Do it then, she requests of them. This “active” talking brings them into the moment in a concrete way and instantly gives energy and authenticity to the actual voice over. Think about it, if you are going for an energetic read, your hands in your pockets is not really going to let that energy out very well. Simultaneously, if you are going for a warm and sincere read, your arms flailing around in front of you will distract from the soothing tone. It all connects. Your voice lives inside your body and they can’t really tell two different stories at once. One last thing I’d like to point out about Sunday’s perspective is regarding script analysis. This is something I talk about till I’m blue in the face. If you don’t know what you’re talking about you are reading lines and nothing more. The way Sunday poses it is similar, but it’s always nice to hear someone else beat the same dead horse with different words from your own! She notices kids reading, just reading, going line by line by line. She hears it as flat, like a song with one note. No one likes a song with one note, as they are pretty boring. For a character voice over who is telling a story, or for any story at all to be of interest, it needs variation, all kinds of notes, crescendos, and emotional weight.

This next article I reviewed on voiceover animation discusses character voice strategy from two perspectives, a casting director at Nickelodeon, and a cartoon voice actor. The casting director, Sarah Noonan, points out that being truly aware of the voice style the project is asking for is crucial. Many people refer to the generic cartoon voice when they think of doing a voice for animation, but it’s not the case every time. Some projects these days look to natural voices to create an interesting complement and/or “relatability” to these characters on screen. Listening is a HUGE part of booking any job. Listen to exactly what the writer, producer, or director is telling you she wants, or be the one who misses out. You are a voiceover puppet initially, there to do exactly what they want. Don’t take this personally. This is the same skill that makes that same Casting Director you are auditioning for good at her job. She listens to exactly what the client wants and strives for exactly that during her casting session. The number one key to winning over almost any client in any industry is doing what THEY want, and listening will get you there. Bob Bergen is a voice actor who has some good ideas about staying in the game in a different way. He suggests covering your bases in an audition. Maybe you listened to that director carefully but he didn’t have much to say, and you’re left unsure of how to perform. Submit two takes in these cases – one more natural and one in your best cartoon voice that fits for the job. Another suggestion he makes is to take risks when you’re going for a character voice. I have heard this many times in many ways and it is great to hear it constantly reinforced. Being “halfway there” won’t book the job. Be all the way there and then some. Bring some magic to the performance. Bergen’s expression of the rule is wonderful – “They need you to bring creativity to the character, bring it to life. The script’s a skeleton and you need to give it body.”

In this last article on Creating a Character in Voice Acting, the people at Raise Your Voice Acting make some other really important points about the craft. The thing most people forget is that creating a character voice is much much more than saying your lines in order, or in an interesting way. Building a character means creating an entire universe for this character to live in. Your imagination is key to character development. As I’ve said before, sketching your character on paper or in your mind can help, as can writing down adjectives to describe your character or even creating a background story of some sort. RYVA also talks about the classic improve strategy of “Yes, and.” This philosophy means you are living in a world of possibility. You are also priming yourself to accept fully the words and/or world ideas that the writer has already built for your character to live inside of. As with any voiceover in any genre, you must say YES and ACCEPT the world they have presented you to work inside of. Anything less than this is you rejecting a part of your own audition. Suspending your disbelief means you are now at the very least in AGREEMENT with the production team and can now COLLABORATE with them. A quote from RYVA illustrates this concept perfectly – “Who’s to say that a talking sponge can’t have friends under the sea and wear geometrically formed pants?” They go on to betting that many people here did NOT embrace the “yes, and” theory here, but that the show is a success because someone DID. Be the next one to say “yes, and,” and see how much further that takes you than a NO. As a matter of fact, we could all use a little more YES in our life. I say YES to taking a break from typing and going to eat some ice cream.

Voiceover Scripts Broken Down by Brain Type

There’s a creative side and an informational side to all voiceover scripts. Starting with the informational side, you have the hard facts about the product: zero calories, 100% organic, all natural, 4 out of 5 dentists recommend…..You can’t argue with the facts. They are what they are. They can be selling points for sure, but they’re still just facts. On the flip side, there’s nuance, suggestion, romance, story…..this is what the writer has done AROUND the facts, to create a commercial that transcends the information and gives us something human to connect to. The writer gives the information MEANING. He does so by using his creativity. We have discussed how these parts of the script are so important because they not only allow us to be a human storyteller and not an informational robot, but also because the writer usually picks the voice for the spot, and these are the parts he will most be hoping the voice will illuminate.

In this article on your “Voiceover Brain”, we talked in detail about the different ways that the left and right brains operate. There was even a link to a test. Regardless of whether you take the test or not, most people have a general sense of how they operate and which side of the brain they might prefer to lean on. This is great to know about yourself when approaching your voiceover training as it might influence which coaching style you can lean towards (the artistic/acting side or the technical/mechanical side.) I am constantly amazed at what unique creatures we are. One student of mine cannot grasp a natural delivery if I ask him to make a specific choice on one word’s inflection. On the flip side, it does wonders when I ask him to visualize greeting his favorite friend at the door (the one he can most be himself with), invite him into the living room and to “look into his eyes” when he then reads the script. There are others that are perhaps repressing certain emotions and can “fake it” really well with the proper instruction on pacing, inflection choices, pausing, and script analysis. There is more than one path to a destination, and voiceover delivery is no exception.

When you feel you know which side of the brain you operate best inside of, you can experiment with this in your voiceover strategy. Your first task is to approach the script from either left brain or right brain in terms of the “big picture.” This is where you left-brainers would need to focus. The big picture is usually something about the message, or the selling point, of this product. It does things faster. It is the purest of its kind. It is the most affordable one on the market. You get the “big” picture. The other side to the big picture could be what the tone is. Excited. Warm. Smart. Etc. Left-brainers like to focus on the details, something concrete. The big picture is more of a general idea. But, there are “technical” ways of implementing it, such as going back to inflection. An excited tone uses more high inflections, and a sincere tone uses more down inflections as they can come off as warmer. Pace as well can play a part. A faster pace conveys energy. A slower pace connects more in a one-on-one way, and can also sound more thoughtful or contemplative. Knowing your tools and which to use can be critical for the left-brainer to make their first approach to the script properly. On the other hand, the right-brainer will “get” the big picture pretty quickly based on a feeling they have after reading the script a few times and focusing on what the writer is suggesting. They will use their kinesthetic and visualizing traits to emote and to avoid “reading.”

The second task is to approach the details of the script, once the general style and/or message of the script has been established. This is where the left-brain student will relish in going line by line to assess the keywords. Here, the keywords will usually speak to the payoff of the product, to its positive properties. Take this sentence for the Kindle 2: “Amazon introduces the next Chapter in wireless reading.” We know that the point of this sentence is to allude to the product, which is the Kindle 2. Therefore, we want to focus on the word “next.” This word speaks to the message, that there’s a new Kindle on the market. The latest greatest best “next” thing. Sure the word Amazon is important, because they make the Kindle. Sure the “wireless reading” is important because that’s what the Kindle does. But – we already know Amazon makes Kindle, because of the first Kindle that was on the market. And so, we already know that the Kindle is a wireless reading device. NEXT homes in on the whole reason for this commercial – to introduce the newest product in the line. Take that and run with it left-brainers. As for you on the “right” side, keep focused on your big picture, and let each sentence support whatever that message is. Perhaps here you’ve established that this script is to be delivered a bit witty. Find the wit. Connect to it. Be it.

There’s a (voiceover) brain for everybody. Use yours wisely.

Oh, and before I leave, I would like to give credit where credit is due, as always. Every few months I come across a perspective on succeeding at voice over that refreshes my own knowledge. This time it is a perspective on how to write a great voiceover script. Now although you are reading this most likely because you are a voice actor looking to improve your performance, you might be scratching your head. This is actually great material, though, as it invites you into the head of the writer, or at least the effective ones. Knowing the thought process and motivation for the writer in constructing a voiceover script tells you a big part of where your focus and understanding needs to be when you look to bring that script to life out loud. Getting in the head of the writer is one of the most important things you can do in terms of truly respecting the authenticity and integrity of the spot. So get in their (head.)