What can you do to improve your voice over performances?
Voice over instructor and performer Marc Cashman identifies and describes 12 voice over skill sets that will help you to refine your current skills and develop new ones!
From clarity to consistency to cold reading and more, you’ll find new ways that you can leverage your talent and make it shine brightly for all to hear.
Learn more about what successful voice over artists master and the skills that matter in today’s VOX Daily.
A Dozen VO Skill Sets
Submitted by Marc Cashman
If a buck dropped out of the sky every time someone asked me what it takes to make it in the world of voiceover, I could retire! So now, finally, I’m going to sum up a dozen top skills that are fundamental to a successful career in voice acting. And amazingly, they all start with the letter “C”!
A voice actor’s articulation has got to be impeccable. Each word needs to be distinctly understood, not swallowed, mumbled or garbled. An actor needs to make sure that they’re balancing their enunciation between over-articulation and under-articulation. We don’t want to over- enunciate, or we won’t sound conversational–we’ll sound like pompous asses. We certainly don’t want to under-enunciate, or we’ll sound stupid or lazy or both. We always need to perform in the “Goldilocks” area of vocal clarity. Employers are always listening for narrators who can speak clearly, without overdoing it or underdoing it. It has to be just right.
This only partly means you have to shower before a session. Cleanliness refers to mouth noise, and if you have a lot of it, you may have a difficult time getting work in voiceover. Some people are blessed with minimal mouth noise–they’ve just inherited a genetic gift that makes saliva a non-issue. But most narrators have some level of mouth noise: those glottal stops, clicks and smacking sounds — that they mitigate a number of ways: hydrating (otherwise known as drinking a lot of water); using throat sprays, mouthwashes or herbal teas; munching tiny pieces of green apple (in between narration excerpts), chewing gum or sucking on a lozenge. The less time an editor needs to clean up your V-O tracks, the more chance you’ll be called back to do another session. Soon.
In voiceover, consistency is a highly valued skill. If you’re consistent in your volume, energy, pacing, articulation, characterization and your eye-brain-mouth coordination, you’ll be every director’s dream, because you’ll be a voice actor they can rely on to deliver what they want every time.
Being connected to what you’re reading is vital to your performance and the believability of your interpretation. A professional narrator always sounds like they’re intrinsically interested in what they’re talking about, regardless of whether they are. I always pose the question: if you’re not enthusiastic about what you’re talking about, why should the listener be interested in what you have to say? Being connected also means literally being physically connected to the page, with your eyes scanning ahead to make sure you’re moving through the copy or text without tripping or stumbling. Voice actors use a numbers of different techniques to stay connected: using their hands to make points or gestures; inflecting when and where appropriate; making facial expressions to convey emotion and using their body to physically interpret action into their voice.
Being conversational in voiceover isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes an innate ability to lift words off the page effortlessly, as if you’re speaking extemporaneously (because you’re an expert, right?). It means reading (and speaking) at conversational speed–the typical pace that we speak in everyday conversations. This skill is the result of not over- or under-articulating, and is key to engaging the listener and maintaining their attention.
6) Cold Reading
This skill is a must-have for long-form narration, particularly in the areas of e-Learning modules, instructional CD-Rom narration, and non-fiction audiobooks. If you’re a busy voice actor, you don’t have time to pre-read dozens or hundreds of pages of text before you take on a project. The ability to cold read text will save you a lot of time in the studio, not to mention a lot of editing time. The ability to scan ahead, to make sense of run-on sentences, and to navigate incorrect punctuation is a skill that comes in very handy. Solid cold reading is the manifestation of excellent eye-brain-mouth coordination, and can be strengthened every day by constant practice. Reading aloud (to your kids, significant other, parent, dog, cat, bird or bunny) will help you become a great cold reader.
7) Chop Chop
Okay, this was my lame “C” phrase for being quick (I could have written “Cwick”, but that would’ve been much lamer). Speaking fast is, in many situations, as essential skill in V-O. It becomes readily apparent in a commercial, where sometimes you’re supposed to squeeze 40- seconds of copy into a 30-second time frame (I call this “shoe-horning”). The ability to get through copy rapidly, but not at the expense of clarity, is a crucial skill that, if you haven’t mastered, you need to develop.
I referred to this under consistency and cold reading, and this is the mental muscle memory that develops when your eyes take in the words on the page, make the connections in your brain and come out of your mouth. I call it “eye-brain-mouth coordination,” and it’s a skill that voice actors develop after voicing thousands of pages of copy or text over a number of years. Some people are better at it than others, sometimes reading thousands of words in multiple pages of copy before making a mistake. Developing strong E-B-M coordination is possible by cold reading copy every day. It’s like a musician who practices their scales every day– they strengthen their muscle memory; or it’s like going to the gym every day to build up your muscles and your stamina. Great E-B-M coordination is the hallmark of a professional voice actor.
Any kind of voice acting that requires characterization requires acting, and actors understand what goes into giving a solid performance. Many of the skills I mentioned–consistency, conversationality, being connected–in addition to the acting skills of believability, authenticity, emotionality and interpretation–are immensely important in telling a compelling story. The ability to perform solid characters is another arrow in your quiver of voice acting skills.
I’ve heard it said, “Always sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.” This could be the mantra for narration. No matter what subject you’re talking about, the ability to sound convincing encompasses skills of coherent explanation, a measured, neutral (or sometimes friendly) tone, an appropriate amount of conversationality and energy, and an authoritativeness that’s believable and approachable. The most convincing narrators are those who, in Penny Abshire’s term, “tell, don’t sell.”
Successful voice actors are always in control–of their voice, that is. They can control their pitch, their volume and their breath. They control their pitch by understanding intonation–realizing that there are many musical applications to the spoken word. They control their volume by understanding that volume, for the most part, has to be consistent–it’s their intensity that varies throughout a read. And they maintain excellent breath control by constantly replenishing the amount of air they need in order to get through words and phrases competently. And they put all of these skills to use when they need to do any pickup phrases or insertions, so they can match what they’ve recorded before.
The best thing you can bring to any V-O session is confidence–true confidence, not a false sense of bravado. Confidence comes from being prepared; understanding the subject, and anticipating the dynamics of the studio session between the actor, director and engineer (and many times, the presence of the client, either in person or on the phone); You can hear confidence in an actor’s voice–in their phrasing, presence, and overall performance. Confidence gives you stamina and believability, and makes it easier to work with a director, who may sometimes be giving you a lot of conflicting direction. Confidence also gives you patience, which can really come in handy in many a recording session. I can add three additional “C’s” under the heading of confidence: being calm, cool and collected.
There are so many more skills that we bring to a session that makes for a successful performance, and so many more attributes that you need to make it in the world of voiceover. But if we can infuse these skills into every V-O session, then you’ll be well on your way to a satisfying and lucrative career. And fun!