Voice Over Education Blog


What’s my inspiration? Find a more motivating VO performance.

Sooner or later in your voice acting career, you learn that it helps to “become” the character, not just play the character. But how do you do that? Well, sooner or later (probably sooner), a coach or fellow talent suggests (or you have read at EdgeStudio.com) that you choose a prototype. There are various sorts of prototypes. You might select qualities from a specific person, animal or thing. Or you might draw them from people all around you. Or you might find them within yourself.

Here are some examples, used by well-known actors ...

Sometimes you’ll use selected qualities from a person, animal or thing. For example, for Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp needed to make his character appear potentially dangerous yet sweet-tempered. So he thought of himself as ... a dog.

Other times it works if you actually imitate the prototype. Most people, even actors, are not expert mimics, so your imitation will probably be imprecise, incorporating aspects of your own voice and nature -- you’ll wind up with a new character. Or you may intentionally veer away from the model. Consider Dan Castellaneta in The Simpsons. As the voice of Homer, he created a character that is simultaneously bumbling, vulnerable, lovable, naively confident and not exactly the best-looking man in the room. His prototype: the versatile character actor Walter Matthau, although Homer is hardly an obvious imitation.

(Many or most of the continuing Simpsons characters have roots in actual actors and other personalities, but here we’re not talking so much about who inspired the writers, but what inspired the actors.)

Reality is all in the mind. Four tips that might help.

We recently wrote about ways to sound more real, but those were essentially about training and exercises. When you’re actually on the job, it’s different. By then, those exercises should have become innate. Not habits, exactly, but in the sense that the techniques feel natural to you. At that stage, there’s another step in sounding natural to your listener. It’s a matter a mindset.

Read vs. Speak

Having a script in front of you is both a curse and a blessing. The blessing is that we don’t have to memorize, and not because memorization is difficult, or a chore, or impossible with a long script. It’s all of those things, but here’s the key one: Many amateurs focus so much on what they memorized, that the words, their own manner, everything, comes out in an unnatural way. Having a script at least avoids that.

But with a script, you’re of course “reading.” Even if you’re a facile reader and can recite from the page with ease, if your mindset is that you’re “reading,” you’re still not doing what you naturally do in everyday life. In life outside the booth, you simply speak. So do that at the mic. Use the script as a reminder, and to be sure you’re getting the words correct. But if you feel as if you’re “speaking” those words, rather than reading them, you’ll be inherently closer to the goal of natural communication. It helps you sound more real.

Performance vs. Delivery

What the Director really means. Or, How to make a poor director look good.

No doubt you’ve heard jokes about a nonsensical direction, probably have some of your own. For example, “That’s it! Now, 6 months younger” or (to a 60-year-old single man) “Do it more like a teenage kid.”

These directors don’t mean to be unhelpful. So what do they mean? Here are some ways to tell. If you can sort it out, you’ll make everyone look good.

Absurdly fine distinctions.

How do you sound 6 months younger? Can you quantify “10% more energy?” Sometimes, if you read it exactly the same way, they’ll say, “That’s it!” So much of voice acting is a matter of perception. Maybe the only difference was in their head. But maybe you somehow did come across differently? Did you really sound 6 months younger? Maybe your frustration came out as a bit more energy? Who knows. But another way to approach this request is to ask a constructive question. Don’t say, “What the #$%# does that mean?” But you might say, “What do you suppose happened in that 6 months that made them sound different.” There could be something in the back-story, or the Director’s imagination, or yours that you’ve overlooked. If the answer is, “He became a father,” or “she went on the wagon,” you have your performance clue.

“Sound like So-and-so.”

Learn from other people’s auditions! Do you know all these script-reading tips?

Do you follow our “Weekly Script Recording Contest” regularly? We hold it every week. Maybe we should have called it the Script Reading contest, because although recording quality is a factor in choosing our winners, it’s usually the reads that decide who we choose for prizes. But you should also be interested in the also-rans ... because each week we explain why some people didn’t win. It’s constructive criticism, made collectively (without singling people out), and each comment includes an Edge Studio Voice Over Tip.

Which of these Tips would improve your next audition? For your convenience in getting acquainted, here are Tips from a recent contest.

The current Weekly Script Recording Contest is posted here: www.edgestudio.com/script-contests.

The following tips are excerpted from our Contest ending Friday, August 28.
To read the full commentary for context, and to hear all the recordings from that contest:

Go to the Archives at www.edgestudio.com/script-contests/past-winners and select “August 28” (2015) from the Past Contest Quicklinks list. To hear all the week’s recordings, scroll down that page to “CLICK HERE FOR ALL ENTRIES.”

The recent contest assignment was this:

Is that really a mistake in the copy? Don’t be too smart for your own good.

Nobody’s perfect. But isn’t it sometimes tempting to show the client how close to perfection you are? For example, every so often, you encounter what looks like mistake in a script, and have to decide how – or whether – to point it out to the client, director or producer.

But is it really an error? Here are some apparent mistakes that aren’t, and what to do (or not do) about them.

What's in a word? Or the absence of one?

The script, talking about doors, said, "They lead different places." Shouldn’t that be "lead to different places"? Well, yes it could, but it’s also okay without the proposition. Before citing an error, consider other possible meanings of a word. One way to test that is by substitution. One sense of the word “lead” means “go.” And although the doors themselves don’t “go,” the paths from them do, and “they go different places” would surely be decent vernacular speech, so the script as written seems okay. Another test would be to search with the core phrase enclosed in quotes (so the search engine will find examples with that exact construction). In this case, “lead different places” turns up lots of cases, many of them in professionally edited publications. For that matter, “lead different directions” produces yet more.

Furthermore, if you include the word “to,” your listeners might think you meant “two.” The statement that “they lead two different places” has a very different meaning!

How much can you say in 6 words? A tool for practice.

Have you ever read a 6-word story? This literary genre, which has gained popularity in the past few years, is attributed to Ernest Hemingway for having written:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

It’s unlikely he actually invented the genre (a form of “flash fiction”), or even those words, supposedly jotted on a restaurant napkin; similar examples predate Papa’s nanotome, and recent authority suggests his agent wrote it. It’s also unlikely that you’ll earn much by narrating such stories, should they catch on as standalone audiobooks. But nevertheless, in addition to being an intriguing literary challenge, the genre is also an interesting voice over challenge -- it’s a fun way to enrich your practice sessions.

Here are some other examples, published by NarrativeMagazine.com in their call for submissions:

Without thinking, I made two cups. — Alistair Daniel
Revenge is living well, without you. — Joyce Carol Oates
Longed for him. Got him. Shit. — Margaret Atwood
All those pages in the fire. — Janet Burroway

(By the way, Narrative pays for accepted stories, but charges a fee for each submission.)

Here’s the challenge for practice: How many ways can you read each story?

Jon Stewart has left The Daily Show ... and these lessons in voice over

In the past week, the worlds of comedy, politics and journalism said not so much “Goodbye” to The Daily Show host Jon Stewart as probably “See you later.” Retiring from the program at or near the top of his game, over the years he has displayed a wide range of comedic and acting skills (despite his self-professed lack of the latter). His personal resume includes some voice over work -- as animated characters in films, and not-so-off-camera voices for puppets (such as Gitmo), inanimate objects, etc. on The Daily Show. But we’re not writing here about his voice work. This is larger than that.

This is a list of voice over lessons gleaned from his statements and life experiences. If we have applied these examples in a contrived, gratuitous or even tortuous way, so be it. In any case, they’re grounded in truth.

Jon Stewart: Although Stewart tried his hand at standup soon after college, his early employment history was extremely varied. He was a bartender, soccer coach, a puppeteer for children with disabilities; he even collected mosquitoes (for testing) in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Apparently in homage to those years, or perhaps in characteristic humility, his production company is named Busboy Productions.

Applied to Voice Over: A varied background and broad world view sooner or later comes in handy.

Jon Stewart: “I finally found the plug for my socket. My brain always felt like the rhythm of it didn’t make sense to me in general work situations and school situations in conversation. But comedy, it was like oh, that’s what this thing is for.”

Applied to Voice Over: Never stop learning about voice performance and the VO industry, or about the world in general. That’s how you find your socket.

Practice and the Unconscious: What have you practiced today?

We all know the answer to the question, “How do you get to the announce booth at Carnegie Hall?”

Just as with getting to the stage, the answer is, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Edge Studio students are taught not only the importance of vocal practice, but also how to go about it. Yet, it’s still so, so, so easy to overlook your morning practice session, or to give it only lip service (pun sort of intended), or to put it off till tomorrow ... except that tomorrow should already have its own practice session.

It’s important. Really. Without practice, you would be a total mess.

Think back, wayyyy back ... As an infant and toddler, you practiced virtually every waking moment. Without having practiced, you’d still be trying to grasp a cup. You’d step forward and fall flat on your face. And speaking wouldn’t have been in the cards for you, let alone doing VO.

To coordinate movements, the brain needs to have rehearsed them, again and again. Eventually they become automatic, and the brain can focus on other things. Research shows that (whatever Millenials might think), the brain is lousy at multitasking. Maybe it can “multiplex” – focus on various things intermittently – but it’s not so hot at doing different things simultaneously. That’s why, when a task is complex (involving various simultaneous actions), it’s essential that some of those actions be “automated.”

We were recently reminded of this by, of all things, a short article in Road & Track magazine (September 2015, pg 96), about how racing drivers accomplish their role, which is undeniably complex. It involves proprioception: an awareness of where parts of your body are, in relation to other parts and space in general.

As babies, we reach for a toy, learn to gauge the distance, how tightly to grasp it, how and where to lift it, push it, bring it to our mouths, whatever.

How to breathe well, Part Two.

NOTE: This is the second post in a two-part article. Click here to read part one!

To summarize what we said last week, good breath control is an important skill in voice acting, one that comes more naturally to some people than it does to others. Expert breath control takes an understanding of your body and all the physiology involved, along with observation and practice. Basically the point is to relax, stand correctly, and understand how to use your torso. But (we suppose this is the good news), there is no one “right” approach that is correct for everyone. Ultimately, do what is consistent with actual physiology and produces desired results for you.

Did you miss last week's article? Click here to read last week's article — How to breathe well. It’s easy, and it isn’t.

How to catch a quick breath almost silently

Now that you’re relaxed, and have the most basic understanding of the basics, let’s turn to practical matters – taking a quick, quiet breath during a script.

First, forget the thought of “inhaling.” Instead, we’re just going to let the air “enter” your airways. And for that to happen, the airways must be open. Don’t lower the tongue fully. That opens the front of your mouth, but closes it at back. Instead, keep the tongue loose, letting the air flow around it.

However, don’t even think of air “flow.” Simply “accept” the air. If you open the passages, and lower your jaw (don’t thrust it forward), you’ll acquire a breath without even trying – enough at least to sustain a phrase of moderate length.

How to breathe well. It’s easy, and it isn’t.

NOTE: This is the first post in a two-part article. Click here to read part two!

Everybody has to breathe. But some voice actors breathe better than others. Sometimes breaths should be heard, sometimes not. Some clients, in many genres, want breaths removed. For example, an audio book with the breaths removed sounds unreal, even spooky – it’s generally okay to breathe as you normally do. But in a commercial (and many other situations), it’s generally optimal to silence breaths and shorten the resulting pause by half. Software can be used to silence or reduce the loudness of breaths, but unless set properly, the result will sound artificial. How much easier it would be if you could breathe without making a sound in the first place! Can you learn to breathe totally silently?

As trained actors and singers know, proper breathing is a major part of one’s skill. Just as there are coaches for voice over, and voice, and acting, and singing, you can find coaches skilled at teaching breathing. The learning process involves demonstration, and physical conditioning, and awareness, and observation, and practice, and it can go on for many lessons. Many lessons. You won’t learn much in a single article (nor very well just from online videos). But you can learn what the factors are that you'll need to understand. So here goes ...

How to breathe, quick and easy

As we’ve said, breath control isn’t necessarily learned quickly or easily. And in the face of a sensitive VO microphone, a totally silent breath may be impossible. But it is possible to easily take a quick breath, and to breathe more effectively and quietly -- and to manage your breathing -- once you understand the factors involved.

The Alexander Technique: Sound relaxed by being relaxed.

Have you heard of Frederick M. Alexander? No, he was never a guest on our TalkTime! series. He was an early 20th-century Shakesperean actor who temporarily lost his voice due to throat strain. Doctors advised him to rest, which he did, and it worked. But he also sought an ongoing alternative, devising a technique for releasing unnecessary tension through better awareness of one's physical self.

Alexander found a solution. It worked well for him, to the point that he wrote several books on the coordination of mind and muscle. His approach pays particular attention to carriage of the head, neck and back. These principles, and many other related tenets, comprise what came to be called The Alexander Technique.

Many voice performers find it very helpful in relaxing the voice, improving breath control, and understanding their own body language -- all things that help voice talent sound more professional.

Another way to describe it is as sort of a mix of meditation, orthopedics, yoga, Pilates and other disciplines, aimed at undoing the bad physical habits you acquired on the way to adulthood. (Yes, regardless of what your mother may have told you, it is possible to stand TOO straight!)

Is Alexander Technique for you?

Maybe. Maybe not. We’re not saying you should become a disciple of AT. And, too, there are other approaches that reach the same end. But it's good to know about any mental tool available for relaxing your body and voice. You might find that elements of Alexander's advice will be helpful to your work in the booth.

A small example

Considering that Alexander applied his technique to a wide range of physical endeavors, there is far too much for us to go into deeply here. Serious pursuit requires guidance from a proper coach.

But, with apologies to Alexander purists, here is a practical application you can try:

Do you listen to Radiolab? Or, How to get out of a rut.

The Voice Over industry involves virtually every aspect of modern society, from poetic expression to scientific analysis, from sheer commercialism, to pure education. So it’s no wonder that the voice over community abounds with curious people who like to explore – explore themselves, or the world around them, or both. (Did we hear someone mutter “actors”?)

If that’s you, you may already be a regular follower of Radiolab, the Peabody Award-winning program on NPR. It can expand your awareness, and thus your genre capabilities, in a variety of ways.

Hosted by its creators, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab describes itself thusly:
“Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”

Each week for an hour, there’s a different theme, with various segments exploring that theme from sometimes very different (even seemingly unrelated angles). For example, here’s their synopsis of just one episode. (Some episodes have fewer, longer segments.) The theme is ”Translation”.

6 Easy ways to blow a recorded audition

Use to be, you could fail an in-person audition by talking too much, wasting the audition team’s time. Or by signing in before you’ve read the script and are ready to be called. Or by making too many flubs (and saying “sorry” after each), or even inadvertently insulting the copywriter. Now that the vast majority of your auditions are probably online or sent in as recordings, a lot of those errors don’t apply.

But there are still some simple ways to blow it. The good news is that, once aware, it’s pretty easy to recognize and avoid these pitfalls, so you can concentrate on putting your best foot forward. Not in your mouth.

1. Poor volume level.

Opinions and situations vary as to what optimal volume is. But there’s a point where everyone would agree it’s too soft, when compared with the other auditions you’re competing with.

Your approach to setting volume levels matters. You probably learned in your first recording lesson that your volume should not go above (louder) than 0 dB. We won’t try to give a full technical how-to in the space of this paragraph.

Suffice it to say that here we’re not talking here about your recording volume. You might keep that fairly low, and then bring it up to a “normal” level later. We’re talking now about your finished volume, in the file you submit for the audition. We sometimes get auditions (and Weekly Script Reading Contest submissions) that are barely audible ... quieter than -10 or even -20 dB.

You know what some audition screeners (although not necessarily ours) do in that case? Adjusting their volume might be inconvenient. If they then forget to change it back, the next recording booms out. And do they want to hire someone who can’t send them a recording at the proper volume? So instead, they might just click the “Next” button.

2. Slating incorrectly.

Yes, and ... How an improv attitude helps in many ways

If you’ve had any improv training at all, you recognize the title, “Yes, and ...” as improvisational theater’s primary principle. That is, when one actor improvises a line, the other actor cannot reject that premise and switch to one of their own. The other actor must accept the thought, and build on it. In that way an improv routine progresses and grows. It’s also a great way to approach many other situations we encounter in Voice Over.

Many voice actors think only of situations where improv is used overtly. However, “improv” isn’t itself a VO genre. In voice over, improv skills are often behind the scene, making it a part of virtually all VO genres, to some extent or another.

The most obvious application of improvisation experience is when you and a voice acting partner are, in fact, improvising. It can be a big factor in Animation. It’s sometimes acceptable in Commercials. But there’s no time for it in most Video Games production, it can be embarrassing or problematic in copy approved by a committee or legal department, and it’s understandably verboten in Audiobooks and Medical Narration.

As the great and influential voice talent Pat Fraley has pointed out, “improvisation is the most misused, and at the same time underused, voice over skill of them all.” You’re misusing improvisation if you change a script on a whim, or if the only reason you “improvise” non-verbal utterances (such as, “hmmmm” or “uh”) when reading a script (whether it’s for one actor or more) is to compensate for not sounding “natural” as you speak the actual words. Most scripts have often gone through an elaborate and strict approval process, and since you are not the script-writing team that signed off on it, neither you nor the director may have the liberty to change it.

Do you make these 13 common mistakes in voice over? These tips will help you correct them.

Have you been following Edge Studio’s Weekly Script Recording Contest over the years? It’s a great way to get feedback on a simulated audition, and each week Edge Studio picks three winners who receive free educational opportunities. In the process, we summarize “why some people didn’t win” – some of those reasons are mistakes made by even long-experienced working pros. It’s all in a positive vibe, with Edge Studio Voice Over Tips to help put the kybosh on each of those all-too-common errors. Here are some Tips from contests past...

Note: We’ve done some light editing to make these tips clear out of context.

GENRE: Educational Narration (history)

Although most narrations don’t need dramatics, there are times in many scripts where there’s a bit of humor, or irony, or some other type of line that calls for a bit of “comment” in your voice. This was one of them, as indicated by the use of the informal interjection, “well.” Some people missed this opportunity – they just weren’t quite entertaining enough. Edge Studio Voice Over Tip: If you value every word, you’ll more easily spot such situations and easily handle them. We don’t mean to ham it up. Just say the words – each of them – as if each is there for a reason. Because in good writing, each is. (And if it’s not-so-good writing, your job is to make it better ... not by changing the words, but by how you read them.)

GENRE: Fiction Audiobook

Know your lines. And don’t bump into the microphone.

Among the stage-acting factors that don’t apply in most voice acting are:

  • The need to project - In VO, you need only reach the microphone, not the back of a theater.
  • Listening to your acting partner - In VO, you’re usually the only person at the mic.

Last week, we addressed the second of these, by noting that the you do in fact have an acting partner, if only in your imagination. But the question remains, how do you address that imaginary listener/speaker while you are focused on the script? Or, to adapt Spencer Tracy’s immortal advice, how do you “know your lines, and don’t bump into the copy stand”?

The clue is in the choice of verb. It’s not just “remember” your lines, but “know” them. Talent should know the lines so well that they just emerge naturally. Even with a script in front of you, that’s not always easy. The script is an aid, but also a potential distraction. What goes into knowing one’s lines as a voice actor?

In last week’s article, we discussed how to incorporate emotions truthfully -- by truthfully reacting to the words, demeanor and conditions of the imagined partners and situation around you.

But if you prefer, you can still approach it more mechanically. (As an analog to George Whittam’s technology advice that “if it sounds good, it is good,” we might say, “good acting technique is whatever works with you.” )

The key is in realizing that an entire paragraph of speech doesn’t embody just one emotion. A person’s emotion changes at least subtly with each sentence. You are always thinking and speaking a progression of thoughts, as if conversing. One sentence elaborates on what came before. Or changes he subject. If a sentence doesn’t add or change something in the course of the “conversation,” why utter that sentence at all?

Bad acting, defined. Sorta.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has a specific definition for the term “bad actor,” but it has nothing to do with voice acting or stagecraft. In our field, bad acting is harder to define. It’s important because virtually every voice over genre involves acting to some extent. How do you know bad acting – or lack of acting altogether --- when you hear it?

First, let’s review some traditional definitions of acting ... that is, beyond the general dictionary definitions, one of which is:

“To do something for a particular purpose or in a particular way.” - Cambridge Dictionary

Actually, that’s not half bad, because it includes the ideas of “doing” and “focus.”

But how have acting masters defined it?

Appearing to be real in an artificial situation. Or, to get closer to Sanford Meisner’s (or was it Stanislavsky's?) description, it’s “Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”

Lee Strassberg said, “Reacting to imaginary stimuli.”

Suppose, for now, we combine those, as: “Truthfully reacting in imaginary circumstances.” How do you apply that in a solo voiceover genre? How do you listen when no one else is speaking? How do you react when you’re often the only person there?

That’s where the imaginary circumstances come in. Common advice is to imagine who you’re speaking to. Specifically. Not “I’m speaking to people who like dogs,” but rather “I’m speaking to my (actual) friend Sara, who loves the most mischievous mutt.” Also imagine where you’re speaking. In a living room, you’ll speak a bit differently than in a veterinarian’s exam room, in a waiting room or outdoors. And again, be specific. Not just “outdoors,” but “at the dog park.”

But that’s just a start.

Discerning minds. How to read to preschoolers

Magicians know: children are a tough audience. Despite their inherent naiveté and typically short attention spans, they don’t miss a trick. They follow every move and assume nothing – unlike adults, who are full of assumptions and can be relatively easily misdirected. In a sense, kids are a whole lot more perceptive than some people give them credit for.

To an extent, it’s that way when reading to them, too. Except for the very, very young, don’t talk down to them, don’t use babytalk, and do anticipate that kids these days can follow some fairly complex plot lines.

If you’re interested in voice over jobs aimed at children as an audience (as opposed to jobs that use child voice actors), there are a number of genre options.

  • Audiobooks
  • Video games
  • Apps (especially for tablets and smartphones)
  • Talking toys

Although the last three of these tend to be more financially attractive for talent, Audiobooks tends to be the genre most people immediately think of. What people don’t think of is how short most young children’s books are. Since payment for narrating an audiobook is typically calculated Per Finished Hour, this market tends to be relatively low paying. It doesn’t take long to read a 32-page book. According to Writer’s Digest, that’s the typical length for a young children’s picture book, roughly a target of one sentence per page, or about 600 words at most.

Some people work for a song, and love it. Should you add singing to your voice-over repertoire?

We know a voice over artist who says, “I’m not a singer, but I play one in the shower.” If that describes you, consider putting singing ability on your resume.

Not that you should do that this instant. Professional casting people will easily see through resume-padding, and even more important, it’s counterproductive to promise something you can’t deliver. But not every song is scripted to be sung by a golden-throated warbler, let alone operatically intoned. If your spoken-voice talent is saleable, there may be additional singing-voice work for you, even if you can only carry a tune. In any case, as with spoken VO, experience through training and practice is makes the difference between padding and true capability.

If you truly have what it takes to be a professional session singer, this article isn’t meant for you. (But welcome, anyway!) You should develop either a Jingles demo (a variety of singing styles within the Commercials genre), or a Singing Vocal demo (a variety of singing genres). Learn more about that in these articles:

Jingles and Singing - How do I get into this?

How do you make your Jingle Jangle? by Carolee Goodgold

For the confirmed Shower Singer with solid spoken-VO experience, you might yourself develop a demo that spans multiple genres, as well as including a singing snippet in your spoken demo(s) for the respective genre(s).

What genres might those be? Glad you asked...

The Ultimate Animal Dub The addicting works of Andrew Grantham, voice of the “Talking Animals Channel”

Just about anyone can talk. But it takes special skill to get folks to listen. If you’ve haunted YouTube at all, among the zillions of animal videos you’ve seen some critters that speak. They’re cute, but even puppies and kittens get stale after awhile, and the talking variety are usually not so entrancing as their creators probably intended.

Then, there is the work of Andrew Grantham. For good reason, his “Ultimate Dog Tease” was YouTube’s #1 Video of the Year in 2011, and he has produced a steady stream of animal dubs that are hilarious, touching, and addictive.

What has made his work so special?

As the magazine Fast Company observed in 2013,

“Grantham has taken the art to a new level—his particular brand of comedic writing, voice characterizations and clever editing combine in a way that seemingly reveals a dog or cat's innermost self.”

It’s all in the personality

That is the key point. It’s not just a matter of dubbing. It starts with the personality, the acting. Although he has six cats and a dog of his own, Grantham begins his process by reviewing a thousand or so videos of other people’s pets. Pet owners have sent him innumerable candidates, not all of which meet his production criteria, and it can take more than a week to review a couple thousand. He tries to find one that “speaks” to him. Says Grantham: “When you sit down and really pay attention, especially with the sound off, to the expressions of an animal in a video, it’s almost like a story emerges without even trying. If not, it’s the wrong video.”

Should you write your own demo copy? Avoid the pitfalls of using copyrighted material

In our newsletter a dozen years ago, we wrote a few lines on the subject of using copyrighted material in demos. But it’s a multifaceted issue that deserves more than a few lines. Stay tuned for an update. For now, suffice it to say:

  • For recordings you’ve been paid to voice, it’s okay to put them on your demo, but get prior written permission from the client or their agent.
  • For auditions you didn’t land, it is even more important to get the client’s prior written permission, and even then it might not be advisable, for a variety of reasons.
  • For text cribbed from existing ads or commercials and other copyrighted works, we believe the legal doctrine of Fair Use allows you to use it on your demo, but it is better to use custom-written copy that doesn’t even include brand names. This, too, is for various reasons.

But if you’re not a professional audio copywriter, how do you go about developing unique copy appropriate for your demo?

Writing your own demo copy helps you avoid various potential legal issues and embarrassments. Not the least of these is the possibility that the client hasn’t even run the spot or released the recorded product yet!

Even mentioning a brand name could cause confusion or embarrassment. Suppose Product Y wants to hire you? Thinking you’ve already voiced Product X, they may pass you by. And that’s just one example.

Here are some tips for skirting those and other issues altogether, by writing your own copy:

1. Work with an experienced demo coach who is knowledgeable in your genre. He or she can advise you as to your content options and how best to choose among them. Your coach might even present you with custom copy they’ve developed for you. This has the advantage of freshness and performing under realistic conditions ... you’ve never seen it before, and your coach will have chosen it to demonstrate your strengths.

Are you ready for online casting? Some tips for spending your audition time wisely

One of the great things about the voice over world is that it constantly evolves. If you’re a working VO pro with a flourishing business, that might not seem like the happiest reminder of the day, because it means that your business must also evolve. But ultimately the continual emergence of new genres, easier (and less expensive) technology, and more efficient communication mean additional opportunities for everyone. Everyone who works smart, that is.

Today’s online-casting venues have resulted from all three of those types of change. The two major online casting sites, Voice123.com and Voices.com, were founded in 2003 and 2004 respectively. They came to be known as “pay to play” (P2P) sites, reflecting a focus where even novice talent can submit auditions. We now call them “online casting,” because that term is much more representative of today’s perspective: these services have garnered respect at all levels of our industry.

That’s not to say that everyone is glad to have such an open and competitive marketplace, but producers using the venue nevertheless range from Fortune 500 marketers to sole proprietors, and the talent ranges from wannabes to highly experienced voice actors. A lot of audition submissions are from relatively inexperienced talent. But more than a handful of knowledgeable talent apply their efforts efficiently, and a few even pull in six-figure incomes from online casting alone.

To help more talent work smarter, Edge Studio offers a four-part webinar on the Secrets of Online Casting. It begins this Tuesday.

Where do you stand amid this swirl? Is online casting right for you?

Before proceeding, we should disclose that Edge Studio has good relationships with both Voices.com and Voice123.com, and we recommend both.

How to come up with audition ideas on the “spur of the moment”

There’s a major difference between auditioning for most theater roles and auditioning for a voice over job. In the theater, you may deliver a monolog you’ve researched and chosen for its ability to show the best of your abilities. Or you’ve read the play, or studied the sides you were given. You’ve rehearsed and rehearsed, worked with a coach, and you have it down cold. In voice over, it’s typically exactly opposite – although sometimes you’re emailed the script beforehand, often you’re given a script just minutes before you have to deliver. Even if you’re auditioning from you home studio – where you have more time flexibility – your chances of winning the role often depend on how quickly you can turn the audition around.

In so little time, how do you come up with something fresh, something that shows the best of your abilities?

As we’ve noted several times over the past year (particularly in in 18 Steps To Improve your Audition Batting Average last May) a key factor in winning more auditions is in not doing it the way everyone else is likely to. That means coming up with an idea – fast. And fresh ideas being sometimes reclusive critters, an audition session is not the time to start that process.

How do you come up with ideas? That is, the sort of ideas that will help you succeed and progress as a voice actor?

The first step is to recognize that, as a voice artist, you are as much a part of the creative process as the team that wrote the script. Copywriters hear their words in their heads, but many are not trained to voice them as effectively as you. As much as you rely on a good copywriter to give you meaty thoughts and words, that copywriter is expecting you to give those words energy, to bring those thoughts to life.

Don’t let bad copy eat you alive: What to do if the copy is less than perfect

You know the old joke about the lion who’s not a man-eater: “You know that, I know that ... but does the lion know that?” Among the many archived articles at EdgeStudio.com, from time to time we’ve talked about how to interpret copy, right down to the seemingly most inconsequential punctuation mark. Copy has gobs of clues as to how the copywriter “heard” it while writing, if you know what to look for.

But what if the copywriter doesn’t know it?

Not every copywriter formats or even words copy in the most intelligible way. There are many possible reasons. Maybe the commercial was written by an agency that does most of its work in online or print media. They probably realize that you need to take a breath now and then, but may not realize how easy it is to give you a nasty tongue twister.

But you can handle that; the real problem is when tangled words or homonyms confuse the listener. For example, “Win money and/or prizes!” Part of your job is to spot traps like that. Your phrasing and enunciation will determine whether the listener hears the words as written, or rather, “Win money and door prizes!”

Or, maybe the commercial wasn’t written by an experienced copywriter at all. Scripts are often written by someone wearing two hats – a producer, business owner or account executive, for example. The reasons for not using an experienced voice-script writer range from budgetary, deadline pressures, other priorities, naiveté, and -- sometimes -- ego.

Clients often come up with great scripts – nobody knows their business and their customers better than they do. But not every businessperson is creative, a fluid wordsmith, a whiz at grammar and spelling, and hip to voice acting, all rolled into one. Sometimes they may not know that they need to be. Or that they aren’t.

One thing about doing an accent

Once upon a time, a young American tourist in England marveled at how many accents are native to such a compact country. After a week of absorbing them, he loafed into a London pub to chat with some locals over a pint. He figured by now he sounded pretty much like an Englishman, of some sort. One of the regulars said, “I know where you’re from!” The tourist could barely endure the next seconds of anticipation – what accent had he managed to acquire? Where did the guy think he was from??

“Boston!” hailed the Englishman. “I know, because I was docked there once in the Navy.”

And there was no telling that particular Englishman any different. The American was actually from Milwaukee, but the Englishman was certain he heard Boston.

This illustrates several important points about accents:

  1. The tourist was not VO professional. But no matter how good you are at it as an amateur, sooner or later you’re likely to be found out by native speakers.
  2. Most ordinary people don’t have an ear for accents. Or rather, they’re not trained in (or experienced at) listening for them, and they don’t pay that much attention to the details of the accent they’re hearing.
  3. With an accent, accuracy standards are relative. Our tourist just wanted to be heard as any sort of Englishman. Our Englishman could only tell that he was hearing an American.

To those we hasten to add...

4. Professionals are experienced and will pay attention to details. This applies to performers, and to the people who hire them. If an agent says they need an Irish accent, an Irish-accent pro is likely to say, “What county?”

But if you don’t hail from central Upper Overtheria, you might still pursue a gig that requires its accent. Because, as we’ve said, the needs of clients and genres are relative.

The election is over, long live the election!

If you live in a non-swing state or a “safe” political district, you might not have heard nearly as many political commercials as some Americans do. On radio, TV and the Internet, political ads run millions of times each year. In fact there are so many ads, and so much money behind them, that political strategists sometimes worry that there will not be enough airtime available.

You should have such worries, right?

The trend in bigtime spending began in 2004, and accelerated as even more money flooded into the political arena after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.

Who’s spending it? That’s not always known. But as you probably do know, political advertising began changing decades ago. Even advertising for local public positions has become pretty sophisticated. While radio and TV commercials still might be written and produced by the candidate’s own local campaign (for better or worse), local ads are also coordinated and even researched by national campaigns and consultants. Those campaigns are often very sophisticated, at least in their planning and testing.

They’re ready to change course on a moment’s notice. Which means talent must be ready, too.

Some voice actors say they would never do political spots. Others say yes, but only for candidates and causes they agree with. Yet others, including some major players in the genre, say (as Scott Sanders told NPR in 2006), “We’re hired guns. This is a job like anything else.” Often it’s the client who decides.

The producer of a political spot is unlikely to ask outright about how you’ve voted, but they are likely to want to know what positions you’ve voiced in the past. If you’ve been identified with one party or issue, the other side may not want you. You may have to agree beforehand not to work in the future for the opposition.

Video Games: Are you up to the torture?

Picture this scene: Our hero is secluded in a padded cell, forced to stand in a fixed position. He may move his arms, but is ordered not to move his head from the metal post. He has only one other person to communicate with -- his “Handler.” Deprived of information, our intrepid Hero has only a vague notion of his situation or what he is doing there. His handler has the full picture, but only issues instructions, one at a time. Nevertheless, Hero has come to rely on this relationship, constantly seeking his Handler’s approval. Is this the Stockholm Syndrome? Hero and Handler spend long sessions together, and the hours become torture. It seems he can barely speak. Does anyone know what he’s been going through? Does anyone even care that he is here?

And then there is the shouting. Always the screams and shouting. Heard by no one.

Until the game is published that is. Because what we’ve just very unfairly described is a common video game recording session. And, yes, once the game is released, the vocalizations of our Hero (or Heroine) may be heard very widely. Video games are played daily in 65 percent of American households.

A hit video game these days can cost as much as a live-action Hollywood blockbuster, $100 million and up, way up. But whereas Hollywood proudly touts their big budgets, game publishers play this part of the gaming game very close to the vest.

Production of a major game can take years, involving some 200 designers, programmers and other people. The 100 characters in a large story project might require 30 or 40 actors. And in most cases, each actor works alone with the Director, delivering one line at a time.

Voice actors typically consider games to be not only fun, but a serious professional challenge. It is long, hard work, requiring a level of stamina, efficiency and acting expertise that pretty much rules out rank novices.

Telephony: Are you listening to the caller?

Sometimes telephony specialists seem the most unsung heroes in acting. As many well-known actors have famously observed, the art of acting includes the art of listening. Acting requires reacting to lines as realistically as you deliver them. An actor can greatly help his or her partner by truly listening to them, in character, and responding authentically through facial expression, body language, etc. A generous movie actor might even stand next to the camera during the other actor’s close-up, in order to do them this favor.

We once observed a young hopeful in his first acting class. The assignment was to deliver a monolog. Delivering it to a point on the far wall, he was doing just terribly – repeatedly pausing to remember the next line (even though otherwise he could rattle it off in machine gun fashion) and totally not in the moment. After a few starts, the teacher had another student sit in front of him.

“Now try it,” the teacher said.

Suddenly, the lines just flowed out, as naturally as if the thoughts came straight from his soul.

Different things work for different folks.

What does this have to do with Telephony? Telephony is acting?

First, let us grant that most voice-over acting situations resemble that student’s monolog performance. You’re alone in a booth, and if it’s in your home studio, you probably don’t even have a director to give you feedback. Surmounting this limitation is part of what goes into being a voice over professional.

But telephony pros have it especially tough. In telephony, you’re actually in a conversation with the caller, yet it’s a caller you will never, ever hear.

What a voice artist can learn from a PowerPoint artist

Like all industries, the world of Voice Over constantly evolves. New genres emerge, others fade, styles go in and out of ... uh, style.

Yet some practices and advice in voice over remain unchanged. They’re based on virtually universal truths, not just in our industry, but in the nature of effective communication.

Like all industries, the world of Voice Over constantly evolves. New genres emerge, others fade, styles go in and out of ... uh, style.

For example, Microsoft has produced a very entertaining set of videos about how to create effective PowerPoint presentations. The lessons are aimed at graphic designers. But with a bit of translation, they also provide sound principles for a voice artist to follow. Since the videos are related to e-learning, we’ll apply them to the e-learning voice over genre.

Here’s where to see the videos:
(If you’re not able to view the videos at this time, no worries -- the rest of this will be meaningful whether you’ve seen them or not.)

In essence, Microsoft’s overall message is this:

  • With the great power of today’s presentation technology, its users often tend to get carried away – they let “creativity” and overused options get in the way of effective communication. For example, amateurs tend to use too many typefaces in too many sizes.

Here’s how every one of these videos’ key points also applies to voice over in an e-learning situation, as well as most other VO genres.

Advice to the designer: Don’t have too many charts, and don’t make them complex.

Lesson for VO: Don’t embellish your read unnaturally. Use your natural voice, in a natural manner. As in most other genres, “natural” is what works. And is what’s in demand.

Podcasting: PART TWO 17 Podcast Programming Pointers

NOTE: This is the second post in a two-part article. Click here to read part one.

Last week, we talked about how the podcasting field has grown and changed. We said that we like the idea of thinking of a podcast as “plain, clear talk.”

This week, we’ll present some tips to help reach that goal, so that your podcast content will be plain and clear to listeners, as clear as its audio quality should be.

First things first ... “Content is King.” That’s been said forever about websites. It’s should also be your first concern in podcasting. So what’s the most important thing in podcasting content?

1. Have a goal.
On any sort of project, a clear objective makes it easier to be productive. It’s especially important in podcasting. Unlike some projects, on a podcast you could just open your mouth and start talking. About anything. But unless you’re a fabulous raconteur, you it’s too easy to wander verbally all over the place. You’ll appeal to no particular audience, and probably won’t communicate your point very efficiently. That is, if you have a point. So rule number one is, have a point.

2. Be unique.
If you can’t be unique, at least be special. In short, give your listeners a reason for listening. If they’re heard it before, why hear it again? (Our apologies if you’ve heard this before.)

3. Be meaningful.
Meaningful to your listeners, that is. If your goal is to discuss the life of an obscure Namib Desert beetle, it may be specific and unique, but how many people care? How do you know if it’s relevant? Easy – identify the benefits it provides to others. You’ll soon be marketing your podcast, and in marketing, “customer benefit” is what it’s all about. If the subject is beneficial to people, it will almost automatically be interesting ... if you also follow the rest of these principles.

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