One of the first things I tell my new voiceover students is that being a successful voice talent can be boiled down to our ability to do just two jobs. A sustainable career comes from being able to do both of them reliably and confidently, on short notice.
Without the first, we don’t get the chance to do the second. And once we are given the opportunity to do the second job, not pulling it off means missing out on building repeat business. Relying on new work for every dollar we earn is like pushing a boulder uphill. When clients book you again and again, that at least levels the terrain.
So what are those two critical jobs?
The first is to put together a solid audition given what we know. When an audition comes into our inbox, there’s typically at least two bits of information included: the script and the specs. These two things give us a starting point and represent what we know.
When we consider the script we’re looking at things like what industry the client operates in, what intangible thing we’re selling, and we cast someone from our real life who might be receptive to the message. We pick up on the context and subtext of the script, acknowledge any joke or comedy that might be there (even if we don’t think it’s particularly funny), and generally figure out the best way to tell the client’s story. I go into all this in my book Commercial Voice Over Strategies: Tell A Story, Land The Job.
The specs sometimes don’t reveal much. Other times, there’s quite a lot there, and they can keep us from doing things that might eliminate us from getting the job. We pay close attention to any celebrity names mentioned, because that’s probably going to carry more weight with the creative team than anything else. We never want to do a celebrity impression, but we do want to figure out what that person brings to their reads, and do our best to include some of that in our audition.
The script and the specs are things we know because they come directly from the client. But we can add to what we know. If the brand is recognizable, we can look at their past work. The larger the brand, the narrower the lane they’re going to stay in because they’ve found what works for them. Go watch spots from SC Johnson products. You’ll see a lot of smiling faces and hear upbeat, pleasant voices talking about everything from killing bugs (Raid) to cleaning windows (Windex). They have a formula that works, so if we stray from that, we’ll eliminate ourselves from consideration.
Taking the script, specs, and past work into consideration, we can start building an audition that accurately tells the story the client wants to tell. At the very least, we won’t do anything that makes them skip ahead to the next audition. This is the first critical job we have. If we can’t put together an audition that makes sense for what’s on the page, then we’ll never have the chance to do our second critical job, which is…
Making changes to our read when we’re asked to do so, otherwise known as taking direction. We land a job because whatever we did in our audition lined up with what the client is looking for. But there are always tweaks, adjustments, and revisions.
Once we’re in the session, we’ll start out more or less in the same zone we were in for our audition. Then the experimentation will begin.
“Let’s emphasize this word.”
“How about a pause there?”
“Can you bring some more swagger to this read?”
“I don’t feel the love here, can you amp it up a bit?”
“Sounding a little sleepy in this phrase, bring up the energy.”
“Need more smile here.”
And on and on. The can be the toughest part of the job for newcomers. We can get locked into one way of reading a script. But it’s important to remember that there are many ways to tell a story, and ours is not necessarily the best, even if it got us the job.
Not only that, but sometimes producers don’t really know how to communicate their thoughts effectively. What some might think of as swagger, others might think of as arrogance or pride. What does that sound like when applied to a commercial script? It’s subjective, and the key is for talent to be willing to try alternate reads.
We can only do that when our ears are attuned to differences in copy delivery, which is a key point made in The Voice Over Startup Guide. The first step to becoming a voice talent is to listen critically to the type of VO you want to do. Listening helps us get familiar with script types and patterns, but it also develops our ear so we can take direction.
Clients are all different but if there’s one thing they all love, it’s options. Faster, slower, friendlier, too upbeat, more thoughtful, less so, happier but not too happy, etc. The reason they want variations on the script is because VO is a team effort. They’ll put together the spot that sounds best to their ears, but most likely there’s someone up the chain who will also have an opinion, and they don’t want to have to bring us back for a second session unless absolutely necessary. If they leave the session with alternate reads they can drop in when the feedback comes in, that’ll save the agency from doing additional work on that spot.
Voice talent who are able to pull off both these jobs book more work than those who don’t. How can new talent practice these skills? Both the VO Startup Guide and Commercial VO Strategies come with practice scripts and audio files so you can hear what’s being taught.