Trying to be someone else?
OK, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. It’s all well and good spending all of our time talking about the business side of voice over. But what about the performance side? We’re all actors daaarling (must be said in a condescending British accent for full effect!). And it is true. To make a success of this business we call voice over, your performances must be good enough to get considered. Now, you’re never going to win them all and your strike rate will probably be a lot less than you think, but you have to be good enough to make it past the first cut if you can.
I don’t do many video games or animation. There are so many others that are much better at that than me. So, I will not be aiming any of my advice at those genres although some of it may be relevant. Also, you must remember that I am by no means an expert at all of this voice over stuff. I have just learned from the best in the business and everything is fresh in my head from my 4-year journey so far.
It is my humble opinion that before you can become a successful voice over artist, you MUST find YOUR voice. I know that sounds kind of “airy fairy”. What I mean is that you have to stop pretending to be someone else when you get in front of a microphone. I don’t mean doing impressions or anything like that. For some reason it is human nature to put on an act as soon as we know we are being recorded. I think most of us feel inadequate to start off with. I wish the microphone could sneak up without us knowing and record our true selves sometimes! Finding your voice is something that you have to work at and takes a lot of patience. My advice on this point is just to be cognizant of your behavior as soon as you walk in the booth. You need to practice enough that you get to a place where you are just comfortable in the space. I like to do breathing exercises to relax. Mouth muscle stretching to prepare. A routine that gets me to a place where I can just be me. Not me speaking into a microphone to book jobs and earn money. Just me speaking to the microphone as if it is a good friend of mine. Be warned. This took me 2 years to completely figure out! Disclaimer: Actual result may vary. My testimonials are not claimed to represent typical results. All testimonials are by me, and may not reflect the typical voice over experience, and are not intended to represent or guarantee that anyone will achieve the same or similar results. Now I hope you read that in your best medical disclaimer voice!
The only way you are going to get better at this is to be brutally honest with yourself. I like to go in and just press record and then knock out 5 or 6 reads. Then I listen carefully. Really carefully. Do I believe what I just said? Stop listening and thinking “damn my voice sounds good”. That is far more irrelevant than you think. People want to believe you.
Once you’ve got the whole “I’m comfortable with who I am” gig down, then there are some specific things that you can do to help with your reads. The first one I like to talk about is the infamous “who are you talking to” statement. Early in my career, I found that having a picture of someone next to the script who was in the same demographic of the intended audience helped. I had a selection of photos that I chose from. A business acquaintance for a more corporate read, my best friend for a guy next door read and my Mum for a caring, compassionate read. I will never disclose what kind of read I used my wife’s picture for! The aim of doing this is to focus your attention on the microphone being an extension of the ear of the person you chose. Every piece of copy you read will only be heard by ONE person. What I mean is, even if a group of people is listening to the audio, each person will hear that voice in their own head as if it were being directed at them. It’s what we do as humans. Your read should reflect that and be intimate enough to make that person feel like they are the most important person in the world at that moment in time. And when I say intimate, I’m not meaning that you should be whispering to them (although there are many times when a hushed voice works really well). I mean that when you perform your read you have the intimacy of only speaking to one person. Even if you are reading a loud, in your face local automotive spot, you are still only speaking to one person – someone who might be looking to buy a car. You have to remember that in most circumstances (audiobooks being the exception) most people are not choosing to listen to your voice. You have interrupted their listening on the radio with a commercial, they have been forced to take part in an E-Learning module, they wanted to know how to connect the flux capacitor to the thingamajiggy and ended up watching you narrate the video on YouTube! They will only truly listen to what you have to say if they believe you come from a place that they can trust.
Another great tip is gesturing. I move my hands like a crazy person in the booth. I pull faces and really try and express the feeling of what I am reading. It is rare in real life to have a conversation with someone without becoming animated in some way. Imagine how boring it would be speaking to someone who is hunched over with their hands in their pockets. See, just that picture in your head and you can tell how that person would sound! I watched a great video that a fellow voice actor, Chris McCloy posted on Facebook. Watch it here. He had a read that was comparing two products and one of them was better than the other. He uses two different colored cards in each hand. The bad option in one hand and the good option in the other. He then reads the script while gesturing the options with his hands. The difference this made was subtle but huge in my opinion. I now do this with lists. I count them out with my fingers. When I’m introducing a product, I pretend I am a magician making it appear as if my magic. If I am doing a relaxed read, I will rest my elbow on my desk as if I’m just chilling at a bar. Physical gesturing makes a huge difference to how you will sound. Just be careful with the type of clothing you wear as moving around can get picked up very easily by your microphone. As do farts – but that’s a story for another day!
My last tip for today is don’t be afraid to push boundaries. One of my coaches gave me a great exercise. Record the same script with as many different emotions as you can think of. Happy, sad. Excited, bored. Interested, disinterested. Then listen back to them very carefully. Remember, you are not listening to how great your voice sounds. You need to STOP doing that! You are listening for the nuances. Did you hear the emotion you were going for? Ask a family member to listen and guess which emotion you chose in each read. Don’t be embarrassed. They’ve probably seen you naked, drunk or in a compromising situation. For me it is all three at the same time! Could they hear the different emotions for each read and identify each one? If they can’t tell the difference, then go back and do it again until you and they can. After you have passed this test, go back and listen again. This time listen to them and find the one that was your favorite. You will probably find that your favorite read doesn’t have the emotion that you would have expected. And remember, this is supposed to be fun. Practice all the time and have fun doing this with a variety of scripts. This helps with your ability to find the emotion you want for the script and also has the benefit of training your ear to listen for the nuances.
Well, that’s enough juicy tips for this week. Back to that elephant. I can’t remember ever seeing an elephant in a room in all my years on this planet. Even a condescending British one! Maybe I wasn’t using the right kinda drugs……