The Two Critical Elements for Voice Over Success
By Harlan Hogan
Why do some people thrive in voice over while others just get by?
There are a myriad of elements that contribute to a successful or unsuccessful career professionalism or lack of it, a pleasing personality or lack thereof, experience, luck, timing, training are all important but over the last 32 years making my living as a voice performer I've come to believe there are two CRITICAL elements for success. One a skill-set, the other a mind-set.
When I was ready to cobble together my first demo tape (Yep that was - indeed - a reel-to-reel tape....!) I figured I'd better size up the competition so I listened to all of the voice-over demos of all the top voice over pros I could get my hands on.
Despite being intimidated by the wealth of talent on those tapes, I listened over and over trying to figure out what made these performers so employable. I knew they were experienced and reliable of course; but then again, there were plenty of unsuccessful voice-overs I'd encountered just as reliable, and many just as experienced.
Finally it struck me, an epiphany of sorts.
Interpretation of copy was the secret ingredient they all shared. Every successful voice over pro somehow made the copy they read sound just right sound real. Eureka! It wasn't their vocal quality that made them successful, but their acting and interpreting skills.
The most exciting part of this realization for me personally was that it meant I just might make it as a voice actor even though I didn't have a vocal instrument, you'd call unusual or even mellifluous.
But how to develop that skill-set?
There wasn't then and there isn't now a magic bullet: a book, a class, a coach who can instantly teach you copy interpretation they can help, cajole and encourage of course, but honing this skill-set is much more of a process than a codified set of rules and principles. In fact, the best interpreters of scripts I know seem to break all the rules while somehow delivering all the words, as written, in the allotted time! The same holds true for the greatest of singers. Yes, 'formal' training will help - BUT it's equally important that we simply shut-up, close our eyes and listen.
Listen to the voices on TV - turn off the picture. Listen to the radio voices, (the commercial ones, not the DJs). Listen to audio books and podcasts, listen don't play interactive computer based games (there are plenty to sample on YouTube). Invest time each day logging on to talent agency and voice over performers' Web sites and listen. Click on corporate websites and listen to great technical narrations filled with corporate-eese and technical mumbo-jumbo. Visit www.VoiceBank.net and spend days listening to performers from across the country, union and non-union, really good to well, not so good. Go to www.voice.com and www.voices123.com for still more listening and learning. You'll hear the interpreters vs. the readers in every instance and you'll also discover who your competition is and what their styles, strengths and weaknesses are. It'll be pretty obvious where you fit in the talent pool right now and whether you are ready to compete. If the answer to that is no, then plot a course to get the training and experience you now know you need.
One thing for sure, the top voices and your toughest competition will be the performers you hear deliver even the most mundane copy so believably you'll swear they just made up the words or wrote the script themselves.
Producers and writers often speak of talent that, bring something to the party. What they mean is that some performers contribute to the overall success of the commercial more than others. What those performers bring to the party is their unique interpretation.
You may find yourself copying the approach, style, and interpretation of other talents you hear and that's fine at first. But, eventually with experience to guide you, you'll begin to develop your own unique style and interpretation of scripts. When you do that, you'll posses a marketable, game-changing skill.
Unique, personal interpretation is part of all performance art forms, separating the pedestrian from the brilliant. In my book; VO: Tales and Techniques of a Voice Over Actor, I recounted an unexpected but magnificent performance I witnessed one Saturday afternoon. I was standing in line to purchase the latest edition of Genii magazine at Magic, Inc. on Chicago's near north side. Nearby, demonstrating the latest miracles available for sale was Vic Torsberg, a veteran vaudeville magician. His audience was two teen-agers with unmistakable 'know-it-all' smirks on their faces. Vic reached under the counter and brought out a pack of cards. I knew Vic having spent way too much time and money at Magic Inc. over the years and he nodded to me and ever-so-subtly grinned - knowing he was about to blow them away. The deck of cards was gimmicked and in fact is, 'One of the oldest tricks in the book.' But even knowing the secrets of the deck, I was transfixed by his mastery.
His unique approach to the timeworn "Svengali Deck" (AKA 'TV Magic Cards') was nothing short of amazing. After years of experimentation and experience, and after countless performances, Vic had perfected his own interpretation and handling of this trick. Vic had taken a common prop and made it his personal masterpiece of magic. I was fascinated, as were the kids. When he finished his final miracle, one of teens said, "Man... that was great...how much?"
Vic smiled at them with a twinkle in his veteran performer's eye and said, "Boys, the deck will cost you a buck fifty, the routine twenty five years."
Even with your interpretation chops in place, there is the nagging question; "Now what?" Talent of course doesn't matter much without a place to use it and so we come to the difficult - oftentimes too painful to accept - fact of voice over work.
The work of voice over work is getting the work.
This is a mind-set and one most of us would rather not hear about - let alone believe in - but it is the unvarnished truth. A tiny fraction of a voice performers' time is spent in front of a microphone interpreting copy for pay. Just like stage actors we spend most of our time auditioning or seeking out auditions and the odds are that we book only a few of the jobs we seek. Simply put, we need to build our voice over business and that requires actively selling ourselves and our services. Most voice actors become quite skilled at excuses, what I call the "yeah buts...."
- 'I have an agent it's their job to get me work...'
- 'I'm on all the Internet casting sites...'
- 'I have my own website and rank high in Google searches...'
- 'I'm an actor not a salesperson...'
- 'I have really loyal clients they'll always use me...'
- 'I don't have time to market myself...'
- 'I'm connected to all the heavy-hitters on all the social media sites...'
- 'I set up a great home studio...'
- 'I spent a small fortune on a killer demo...'
The list of "yeah but" excuses is endless but they are still just excuses for not accepting the responsibility of (big gulp) selling, there's no show business without business and even voice actors have to accept that mind set. Your agent's primary job is to sell their agency and themselves, the same is true for the on line casting sites and the friendly advice-dispensing competitors (!) you meet on Facebook and voice over bulletin boards.
No matter how well established, connected or represented you are the work of voice over work will always be - getting the work.
No one can do it for you - or do it better than you.
* * *
Harlan Hogan is a veteran voice over who has voiced many famous slogans from Raid's 'kills bugs fast, kills bugs dead' and Head & Shoulders' 'That little itch should be telling you something' to the iconic, 'it's the cereal even Mikey likes'. Today, his memorable slogans include, 'how's that for trendy?' for Ford 150 Trucks, 'it's not home - but it's close' for Cracker Barrel and 'this program was made possible by viewers like you' for PBS.
Harlan has written two best-selling books about voice over 'Tales & Techniques of a Voice Over Actor' and 'The Voice Actor's Guide to Recording at Home and on the Road' with Jeffrey P. Fisher, and operates an Amazon web store which features Harlan's acclaimed Porta-Booth© and signature edition voice-over microphone the VO: 1-A.
Explore Harlan's career at www.HarlanHogan.com and visit the web store at www.VoiceOverEssentials.com.
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