That is the Question


How do we get inside a text? How do we find the best way to communicate its message? Just as listening is half of communicating, questioning can be the better half of finding answers. Here are only a few questions voice over artists might want to ask themselves when analyzing copy.

Who is your audience?

I’m sure you have heard this question repeatedly in your voice over training and career. Every piece of copy that you are asked to do, whether commercial, animation, audiobook, narration or beyond, asks this essential question. Of course, our job is not merely to identify the audience, but to deliver our message directly to him or her. I use singular pronouns here because in the context of VO, the defined audience is best considered to be one person. This brings a level of specificity, intimacy and focus to our work. The audience is our “customer,” and the audience is always right. The audience wants a certain something in his/her life: a product, a service, an escape into a story, a better understanding of a particular topic, etc.

Producers, advertisers, writers, publishers and casting directors look to us to bring that certain something to that certain person. This process requires imagination, the distillation of facts and, often, research into the target market.

When working on your script, ask yourself, “Who is the single perfect audience member whom this piece will effectively relate to, engage, inspire and compel?” Begin to answer this question by looking at the direction you’ve been given, the subject of the piece, and its writing style. If the direction calls for an “urban edge,” you can probably rule out a Midwest farmer as your audience. If the piece is a commercial for enhancing one’s investment portfolio, you can fairly confidently dismiss the under-18 demographic. If a text contains the word, “dude,” it’s likely you’ll not be speaking to a senior citizen.

Your investigation should have scope, starting with the broad and leading to the specific. Is this a man or a woman? What is his age, profession, relationship status? What is her level of income, education? Does he live in a city or a suburb (or on a Midwestern farm)? Does she drive a car, ride a bicycle or use public transportation? How does this person dress, walk, eat and even laugh? The more detailed the questions you ask, the more you will get to ‘know’ this person. Where exactly is this farmer located? Does he live in a largely Democratic, Republican or Independent state/county? Is this a vegetable or dairy farmer, or perhaps a cattle rancher? Is she doing well, or has there been a recent flood that drowned her crops? If you can actually see your audience, say, in overalls, wearing glasses and work boots, you will speak to that person more directly and effectively than if you simply see ‘some Midwest farmer’.

What is the text telling me?

The process of deducing your audience is not unlike looking at a script for meaning and then probing for further layers of meaning: It is important to identify the beginning, middle and end of your copy, but you also want to look at the infrastructure. Where does the message go, and how does it get there? Are there short, syncopated phrases or long, languorous passages? What kinds of words does it use, and what clues can you glean from those word choices? What is its ultimate point? How does it want to leave the audience feeling, thinking? When you have delved into and analyzed the copy, you connect to the text more fully and with greater facility, just as getting to 'know' your audience allows you to embark on a conversation in an authentic and human way, rather than reading words on a page to an amorphous group of strangers."

Say again?

There are many “ways in” to finding depth of meaning in a given piece of copy. One great technique and valuable tool is the paraphrase.

Summarizing is the big sister of paraphrasing, and it’s always helpful to look at a piece of copy and be able to articulate its overall message. In fact, if you summarize first, it will almost invariably be easier to paraphrase. But in paraphrasing -- taking nearly every word of your script and finding a different word for it -- you become much more involved in, aware of, and uniquely connected to the message you’re called to deliver.

We have all heard examples of a successful paraphrase, such as the change of “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” into “There were at once superlative and terrible periods.” Still, witnessing a failed paraphrase also illustrates the importance of an effective one. For example, a student in a writing class was asked to paraphrase Hamlet’s monologue that begins, “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” The student turned that line into, “Geez, what a rogue and peasant slave I turned out to be!” One can see that although this rewording is very funny, it subverts its task. Getting underneath the words is the goal of paraphrasing.

One of the by-products of this parallel wordplay can be found in a greater appreciation for the ways people communicate, observably, through speech, writing, reading and listening. It’s inspiring and freeing to remember how many ways there are to say one thing. The unpacking, unveiling, and unraveling of the words allows these words a greater meaning and a more sumptuous message. And isn’t the meaning the message?

That is the question. And there are so many more.

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