Voicing a Commercial… How Hard Can It BE!!

The client has a great voice.
It’s true. Deep, rich and resonant.
But in the studio, and faced with a $3,000 microphone he turns into a quivering wreck.
He’s discovered that being a great voice over is not just about a great voice.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing voice artists and they are worth what they get paid. (although many will complain they don’t get paid enough by local radio stations)

The fact is, it’s not easy.

They have to read a script and make it sound like it’s not read.
They have to squish 34 seconds of verbage into 29.5 seconds.
They have to do take after take for the agency “producer” who wouldn’t know a great read from a jar of strawberry jam.
They have to deliver the same read, time and time again, with small adjustments, and remember what the producer didn’t like from the last take.
One moment they’re the voice of God, the next moment a talking dolphin.
And, they have to market themselves to writers and producers who already think they have enough talent on their books.
All with a smile.

So when a friend tells you you have a great voice and should be a voice over, by all means give it a try. But just because you can play chopsticks doesn’t mean you should give up your day job and become a concert pianist.

This month I will be attending VOX 2012 in the UK. It’s a change to meet the people whose mouths I am lucky enough to put words into.

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So you want to be a Voice Over?

The way I was trained to present radio commercials to clients was to voice them down the phone…. Or in a meeting face to face. I normally tell them, “Look, I’ve not a voice over artist, we will use a professional, this is just to give you an idea of how it will sound. This particular client was down the phone. It was a Tommy Vance style read. I had the particular VO (Voice Over) in mind and he would do an amazing job. After presenting the client said “I want YOU to voice my ad.” I spluttered, excused myself, told him about the voice I wanted to do the ad… but still he insisted. I still have copies of the two ads I voiced and it reminds me of the nightmare.

Many people think it’s easy. You just speak into the microphone…. Surely!?

The reason I was so reluctant to voice the ad is that I know how amazingly talented the VOs are. It’s not JUST about having a great voice. This is from MY point of view as a writer and producer, not as a VO, maybe some VO readers of this can add their advice. To be a great and well used voice over you have to demonstrate the following qualities.

Be able to read

You need to be able to take in the words from the page and interpret them quickly in your mind. You need to be able to understand and believe what you’re saying. And you need to make it sound like it’s not being read, especially if you are the character voice in a script. Read the script and comprehend what you will be saying.

Be able to read out loud.

You need to project without it sounding like an effort. It needs to sound clear and crisp. But It’s not stage acting. It’s closer and more intimate. Some famous stage actors make terrible voice overs or radio actors because they try to project to the back of the theatre. Radio is a different voice skill. Especially for announcer reads, every word must be clear… especially the client’s name.

Be versatile.

One day you may be a talking eyeball, the next moment a child’s voice, the very next script you will be the voice of the company in your suit and tie (not actually in a suit and tie, but you know what I mean). For this you need acting skills and versatility. I remember a VO friend of mine doing an agency session in London was asked if he could do a ladies voice. He gave his best Mrs Doubtfire effort. The sushi ordering, pims pickled agency director said “I’m sorry, you sound like a man, trying to sound like a woman.” He replied… “But I AM a man, trying to sound like a woman.” Lesson to agency, if you want a woman voice over, book one!

Be able to interpret a script.

The first read give your script the life you think it should have after being briefed by the producer or writer. If they want changes they will tell you!

Be able to take directions

I may want a word said differently, or emphasis on a sentence, or the client’s name given more prominence. You need to be able to remember these changes for your next take on the script. (you can make notes or marks on your copy of the script)

Be able to deliver take after take

In a session at a radio station in Leeds where I used to work the poor voice did 32 takes of a script. The agency producer gave very little direction so the VO was not clear on what he needed to do different or better. The VO kept delivering, time after time. It was like seeing a marathon runner going through the pain barrier and keeping going. Then the agency producer said… “That’s fine… I think we’ll go with the second take…” which leads on to my next point..

Have the patience of a saint.

The VO smiled, put the script down and went home to prepare his invoice. Years later he can laugh about it. (but not at the time). Giving your best and getting messed around is parr for the course. You will suffer endless retakes, re reads… and the other pain in the neck… clients that take months to pay you. Be prepared for it and try to keep a smile on your face. I know of a voice over artist who doesn’t get work from a company I used to work for. Not because he’s not talented, but because he is a constant complainer… and the poor producers have no control over what he’s complaining about. They would rather work with friendly people!

Be helpful but not pedantic

Not all writers are as good at English as what I am. We all make spelling mistakes. We all become word blind on scripts. Sometimes these errors are picked up by the VO. That’s great, if you point them out we can correct. But there are small things which don’t need pointing out. Just grin and bear. (I hate the misuse of their, there and they’re… as a manager I will point it out to staff who misuse, but if I have to voice something I will just make my own correction and carry on). And remember that scripts are for the spoken word, not always for correct grammar.

If you still want to be a VO, remember that like being a musician you CAN make a living from it, but only a handful make a good living out of it. With modern technology it’s becoming very competitive. If you want to have a try contact your local station and ask them if they do Voice tests. You can also find some good Voice Over classes around, from some of the world’s top VO Artists like Peter Dickson and Emma Clarke. Keep an eye out for details!
Happy Voicing!

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Mike Hurley

Mike Hurley

Three years ago, one of the UK’s top voice artists died suddenly. It wasn’t just a sad loss for his family and the Voice Over world, but Mike was also an amazingly talented writer and evangelist for good radio advertising. Somewhere in the vaults of Capital Radio Nottingham/ Trent FM is a splendid video of a presentation Mike did for clients of the station. His eyes sparkle with passion as he talks about how to make radio advertising WORK.

In the voice over booth we got some of the best out takes. His sharp wit taking over when his voice tripped on some over-written agency sows ear. Or an explosion when he got a take wrong. Some Voices will give you a glance when they finish a read and you KNOW that they think they’ve not done it as well as they could.. but they hope it’s good enough for the producer. Mike wouldn’t do that. He’d immediately volunteer to give a better take. He wanted to give his best…. Even for the voice fee of a £14.90 local radio script.

I remember spending time with Mike at Radio Aire in Leeds. He used to visit Yorkshire TV next door and then pop in to a) see if there was anything we needed voicing b) wait to pick his son Mikey up from school and c) just pass the time chatting animatedly about radio, what was good, what was bad and what needed putting right. I considered Mike as a good friend.

There’s some more about Mike here…

And a video of a TV documentary about his work…. “Voiceover Man – Voice Over Artiste Documentary, Confessions of a Vocal Prostitute”


See if you can spot the duvet in the studio! When Mike was doing sessions down the ISDN Line he would put the duvet over his head to create the sound proofing.

I can’t believe it’s nearly 3 and a half years since he passed away. I can still hear his voice.

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How to say road numbers in commercials

There’s a fascinating debate going on about how to say road numbers in Radio Commercials. Did I say fascinating? What some people may not realise is there is thought put into these things. How do you say a road number or a phone number to help it stick in the mind?

Have a look at Emma Clarke’s blog for more insights 🙂


The A1236 somewhere near a phone box... remember them?

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