Human beings are inherently social creatures. Which is really just a sugar-coated way of saying that we like to talk. A lot.
The spoken word has been a deep-rooted part of our daily lives for so long, it’s practically become a reflex. With all the daily talking practice we get, you’d think voiceover skills would come naturally, right? How complicated could it be to say a bunch of words you already know into a microphone?
In fact, our familiarity with interpersonal speech is part of what makes voiceover so tricky. Speech itself comes second nature to most of us, but reciting and recording speech can add all sorts of new elements to a deeply embedded behavior. Your words may flow naturally during regular day-to-day conversation, but there's nothing regular or natural about sitting alone in the quietest room in the building, passionately dramatizing someone else's marketing copy into a lone microphone.
As the resident voice actor here at Flight Creative Media, I was recently inspired to reflect on the largely unguided, haphazard learning process I underwent in order to blossom into the star talent that famously voiced this ad for Tennant Recon surface cleaning equipment last year. Among other things.
Throughout my process, I've stumbled on some valuable insights – mostly by trial and error. Allow me to highlight a few of the basic lessons that helped me the most.
FIRST, A CHARMING ANECDOTE
When I was a kid, my mom used to volunteer me to do scripture readings at church. For all you heathens out there, that's where you approach the pulpit between hymns and read a Bible passage aloud, and the crowd goes silent so they can listen for mistakes, and everyone stares at me, and nobody laughs at my opening joke. Seriously atheists, you don't know what you're missing.
I used to dread any form of public speaking back then, but my mom kept volunteering me anyway. She explained that I had a natural talent for reading aloud, made all the more noticeable by how mechanical and uninterested the other volunteers sounded when they did it. I explained that she appeared to be the only one who felt strongly about any of this. We were both right. Still, I did eventually see her point. Which brings me to my first lesson...
LESSON #1: LEARN TO SPEAK WITH CONFIDENCE
As soon as my mom pointed it out, I started to notice it everywhere – this mechanical monotone delivery that people adopt when prompted to read something aloud. It's a speech phenomenon that seems to surface when we say words that aren't our own. When we don't have to generate the words ourselves like we're used to, we don't even process their meaning. We just sort of read them at face value.
It can take lots of practice to say scripted words convincingly, because you're forced to rediscover what makes your speech sound like it came from a human, as opposed to a wind-up toy robot from the 1960s.
There's no quick fix for this, but simply paying more attention to other people's speech patterns can do wonders. Listen for the differences in speech and intonation between a teacher giving a lecture off the cuff, and a student reading aloud from a text book. The more you notice what natural delivery and confidence sound like, the better you'll get at fooling people into believing you're not a robot.
LESSON #2: LEARN TO 'BUFFER' YOUR SPEECH
Maintaining a steady rhythm is crucial when recording voiceover. In the interest of making as few edits as possible, a client will often prompt you to repeat a sentence, or even a paragraph, if your rhythm is even slightly interrupted. Training yourself to read ahead while you're speaking is a great way to improve your cadence and cut down on mistakes.
When you're streaming a video online, buffering allows the video to play continuously, even when there's a brief interruption in your internet connection. Your video plugin automatically 'reads ahead' a few seconds beyond the playhead, so if a connection hiccup does occur, it won't affect playback.
Learning to look a few words ahead as you speak has the same effect. It creates a sort of safety net, making it less likely for a tricky word or a simple distraction to derail your train of speech. It takes some practice, but once you've mastered this, it will become completely automatic, and you'll likely never have to think about it again.
Taking it a step further, it's also extremely helpful to run through the whole script before you start recording. This ensures you won't be blindsided by tricky words or phrases, allowing you to work out the kinks with the client in advance. Better to clarify things like tone and pronunciation before your recording session, rather than during.
LESSON #3: DON'T SKIP THE COMMERCIALS
When in doubt, look to the professionals.
To most folks, TV commercials and web ads are nothing more than an inconvenience. But to an aspiring voice actor, they can be a boundless source of research and insight. Next time you're on YouTube or binging your DVR recordings, let the ads play.
When I was in high school, back before TV was on the internet, commercial breaks were basically mandatory (Millennials, you don't know what you're missing). I still got a kick out of watching commercials though, because the more I watched, the more they painted a picture of how the ad world perceives different people, and how they choose to market to those demographics. It's perfect for learning how to tune your voice to the frequencies of different markets. If you don't know what I mean by that, go ahead and watch this H&R Block Superbowl ad, and then watch this ad for several Arby's sandwiches. Hear any subtle differences in the voiceover?
Paying closer attention to commercials can also help you appreciate the vast array of opportunity that exists in voiceover today. The sheer amount of products and services that employ some type of vocal talent is already staggering, and the industry continues to grow rapidly. As marketing gets more and more segmented, companies will need voices of all types to cater to customers of all types. So find your niche, hone your voice, and put yourself out there!