The Voice, Part 3
"At one time there were voiceover artists, now there are celebrity voiceover artists. It's unfortunate because these people need the money less than the voiceover artist."
What does it take to perform a voice-over? After talking with several industry veterans, it turns out that it's not as easy as they make it sound - and that's the whole point. In Part 1, we found out how these four voice-over artists got into the profession. In Part 2, we learned about preparation and technique. In this last installment of our series, our nimble-tongued pros have advice to budding narrators and writers.
Kathie Stamps is a voice-over artist, writer, producer, sports broadcast engineer and is owner of Stamps Communications in Lexington. Her voice has been hired by such clients as Ocean Spray, Sports Illustrated, Grand Victoria Casino, and East Kentucky Power. Her background in music helped prepare her for a career in voice-overs. She describes her style as "smooth."
Tom Martin is a career journalist, reporting and anchoring on such news radio networks as ABC News, AP Radio, and RKO Radio Network, as well as being Paul Harvey's back-up host. Tom is also a lifelong pianist and keyboardist and currently plays with The Patrick McNeese Band. Tom says he inherited his deep smooth voice from his father.
Jim Jones is owner of Cherry Voiceworks in Dayton, Ohio. Jim specializes in commercials, narrations, politicals, broadcast promos, on-hold messages, and audiobooks. His voice has been hired for such clients as Arby’s, GE Jet Engines, Proctor & Gamble, Kroger, and Fasig-Tipton. Jim describes his style as "warm, buttered bread."
John Campbell is a voice-over artist and semi-retired advertising and marketing writer and producer in Lexington. His voice has been hired by such clients as Klipsh, The NCAA, Valvoline, Fazoli's, and Brown-Forman. John is also a drummer in a classic rock band and enjoys noodling on the bagpipes. John describes his style as banks and hospitals to car dealers, and everything in between.
One pitfall many inexperienced announcers fall into is trying to sound like someone else. Male announcers especially want to force their voice too deep. As John pointed out in part 1, he started out "trying to sound as low as I possibly could." You're not James Earl Jones, there's only one. However, you can emulate his style and delivery and be just as effective. Kathie reminds us that "What you think you sound like is not what you really sound like." Almost all of our pros recommend recording yourself reading a variety of styles. "Here's my happy voice, my sad voice, do all your impressions," Kathie advises. She also bluntly points out that with some people, "It doesn't matter what they have in their head, it sounds the same every single time no matter what." While recording your practice sessions, "put that expression in your voice so that it's not monotone," she says.
John suggests, "Get yourself the cheapest, most pathetic recorder you can get your hands on. If you can start sounding good on that, then you're good. Because Ian McKellan himself will not sound good on a cheap recorder." As you start to hear and correct your style, you sometimes need a little help, no matter how painful. Kathie recalls an eye-opening critiquing method from her early days in radio. Every time an announcer turned on their microphone, a recording, or "air check", was made. The production director (PD) evaluated these air checks in weekly meetings. Then one day, the PD decided to critique "every single word that comes out of your mouth," Kathie remembered with horror. After getting over the initial shock, she was eventually able to check her ego at the door during those sessions. "I just removed myself and got really into it," she admits. "Shoulda said this, shouldn't have said that." It eventually became easier for Kathie to analyze her own work and look for ways to improve the performance, instead of having the oppressing feeling that, in her words, "I suck."
Paint a Picture
I used to work with the late, great announcer Peter Thomas. Peter told the story of reading Bible passages aloud as a child to his father every Sunday. When he would blandly read the words in a monotone voice, his father would encourage him to have a picture in his head of what the words were about. He would successfully apply this technique every single time he performed in thousands of commercials, programs, and announcements. Jim agrees that having a mood painted for him helps the outcome. "This guy is in the back of a restaurant having lunch with a friend," he tells me, shifting into a hushed tone. "He's telling this friend about this new bank that he's discovered. Put me in the back talking with my friend about the bank. That's how I'm going to discuss it with him." Then there's the contrast of an announcer at a football game. "That's a world apart," he says, "I can put myself in the booth or the pressbox."
Listen To Others
If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then flatter away. John's advice is to listen to the people doing Coke and Pepsi, McDonalds, and Ford and Chevy. But be aware that the extreme fringes of voice-over work, like movie trailers, are for people "with really exceptional instruments. But anybody can do a Ford commercial if you have all the right habits and know how to make the copy sing."
Even though commercials often have too many words crammed into 30 seconds, every word is distinguishable on national spots. Experienced narrators with finely-honed diction skills make these fast-paced spots sound easy. But most scripts don't call for a speedy read, just the opposite. Tom advises to make sure everything is heard. "Nobody is going to fault you for slowing down a little bit and putting some emphasis into each word that you're speaking." Tom's music performances are a reminder of pacing. "As a keyboard player," he says, "I have a tendency to rush. I have to make myself fall back behind the beat." As I always say, "If you think you're going too slow, you're not going slow enough." The mind and mouth will play tricks on you because you're trying to think about so much at one time: words, diction, pace, inflection, feeling and mood, pitch, breath, etc. Slow down and relax.
If you're new to writing for narration, our pros have some tips for you. Kathie adroitly points out that the difference between writing for narration and all other forms of prose is body parts. "Writing for the eyes is eyeballs," she explains, "The voice is tongues and lungs." What she means is that when you read with your eyes, you're able to see groups of words together, jump back and reread a passage, and to skim ahead. Sentence structure can have the subject and verb separated by several, if not dozens, of words. On the other hand, a listener is presented the words one at a time and forced to interpret meaning using a different set of tools. Therefore, overly long sentences will lose meaning and force the narrator to do breathing and phrasing gymnastics. But they're sometimes unavoidable. As John points out, "When I make a long sentence, there will be a lot of dependent clauses and natural places to pause." Kathie adds that barring any formulas, the first sentence can be as long as it needs to be. "But the second sentence better be 'Jesus wept.' – as short as possible." From there on out, try to use short to medium-length sentences or you will cause your poor narrator to hyperventilate.
As for meaning being lost, Kathie gives the example, "The store [comma], which is located at... [comma], is having a sale. There is too much space for the audience's ears to remember the subject." Keep things simple, but "sophisticated-simple," she says. "An untrained writer would think you want everything choppy - nope. It's in the phrasing. Noun-verb-subject." Jack Petry (a renowned voice talent and writer on our talent page) calls it Voice Captioning.
For some final advice to those who want to work behind a microphone, most seasoned pros will tell you that when working with clients, just give them what they ask for. "It's pretty much as simple as that," says Jim. I often point out that the client knows the big picture, and the narrator is just a piece of the puzzle. John went down the "I know better" rabbit hole with a client one time. A documentary for the US government featured a new bridge that was more artistic than utilitarian in appearance. "I was trying to give this some juice and emotion – this was a work of art. And (the client) kept getting me back to newsy/National Geographic." Although he felt the emotive read was better, he gave her what she wanted. Sometimes producers will get the read they want, and then cut the narrator loose and try something different. If you think it needs an alternate interpretation, try a diplomatic approach that John learned by sometimes saying, "You know, if I read it this way you might like it better." But as we entrepreneurs always say, "The client is always right."
- Voice-over community discussions and advice at VO-BB.com
- "Nine tips to improve your speaking abilities" over on Voicebunny.com
- Very good guide to voice acting and narration at Backstage.com
- Voice-over guide on Gravyforthebrain.com
- Beginner's Guide to Voice Acting at Voices.com
- We partner with Voice Coaches to help aspiring voice-over professionals learn, practice, and market themselves.