Voice-over is Not the Same as Talking

Advice for those interested in improving voice-over performance and casting
By Vicki Amorose

Voice-over is not the same as talking. This statement may strike you as obvious, or something you never before considered. When my ears are punished by mediocre voice-overs on commercials and narration pieces, I feel the need to clarify the distinction between the art of voice-over and merely talking.

Voice-over is a performance in front of a microphone. Take the simple part first, there must be a microphone involved. The voice-over artist knows how to "work the mic" to make their voice sound great. Now for the performance part of the equation, this is what truly separates the talkers from the actors. If someone says to me, "I have a nice voice and I read well, do you think I can do voice-over?" it is very similar to asking, "I am fit and flexible, do you think I can dance?" The element that must be developed is the ability to perform.

In animation, it becomes crystal clear that voice-over is voice acting. Yet similar voice acting abilities apply to commercial and narration voice-over of all types. The best commercial voice-overs reach right out of the TV or radio and engage the listener immediately. The voice talent takes a simple (sometimes dull) script and brings it to life. Their job is to capture and maintain the listeners' attention. They do not simply read the script, they perform the script.

Reading a script out loud, making no mistakes, and hitting the allotted time is the elementary school of voice-over. That might make a fine news broadcast, but it leaves out the connection with the audience. It leaves out the art. The question must always be, "How can I deliver this script so that the listener pays attention to what they are hearing and remembers it?" or "How do I connect with my audience?"

Narration has further demands, accentuated by the length of the performance. Think of your favorite narrator of a film or video. If that narrator sounded as if they were reading to you rather than speaking directly to you, you would quickly lose interest in the story. No producer wants that to happen. Producers want the voice to carry the viewer along in the storytelling, yet they do not want the voice to intrude on the story. In a sense, that means the voice needs to step back and blend as just one element of the entire production. If the listener is suddenly made aware of the voice-over, the flow of the piece is interrupted and the attention goes to the voice-over rather than to the narrative.

There are several ways the voice can disrupt the flow of the story, as obvious to the listener as hearing a burp. The voice talent can start to sound disconnected, lose energy, fail to enunciate a critical word, lapse into reading rather than performing, pronounce a word with a regional dialect or, most annoying, deliver lines as if they were in love with the sound of their own voice. When a voice talent focuses more attention on how they sound than how they are connecting, the audience can hear the difference. (I call that "talking to the mirror".) All of these mistakes distract from the quality of the overall production.

How important is casting a voice-over project? The human voice has been called the most versatile instrument on earth, so find good players. Remember that the influence of the human voice is so strong, we respond to it before we are born. We can all recognize and identify the subtleties of hundreds of different voices. Just like music, the sound of a voice affects our mood. Voices convey complex emotions and communicate so much more than mere words.

Sure, anyone can talk. But can anyone convince, entertain, amuse, soothe, persuade, engage and sustain the listeners' attention? Can anyone do voice-over? Of course not, because as we all know: voice-over is not the same as talking.

Copyright 2009 www.voiceofvicki.com