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Close Encounters Of The Voice Over Kind: Why Do People Find Our Industry So Alien?

I remember seeing a cartoon in a British newspaper depicting the Queen opening a new fire station. As she proceeds down a line of firefighters in uniform, she shakes one officer's hand and says to him "so what do you do?"

Of course in real life Her Majesty would know exactly what her subjects do for a living, but voice actors often find it difficult to explain their work to the uninitiated. In fact my heart sinks when I meet someone new and they ask about my occupation... and I know it is me that has the problem.

By definition we are voice only and so invisible to the general public. Who can blame a stranger being bemused by someone sitting in a soundproof room talking to themselves all day? It's hardly normal is it? But are we doing ourselves a disservice? Should we flag wave more and raise the profile of the beleaguered voice over artist and how should we respond to that question?

Someone's got to do it

Having had a bracing walk around a beguiling part of North Yorkshire and in need of liquid refreshment, I walked into a homely local pub. As I sat sipping my beer, I was joined by a couple of friendly locals and we got chatting about the usual things - the weather, best places to eat etc. Then the inevitable question came up - "what do you do for a living" asked the younger of the two in a rich, rural accent.

"I do voice overs" I said, expecting the usual follow-up questions such as 'what's that all about then?' and 'does it pay well?' Instead my new friend paused a while and replied 'I s'ppose you don't get yer 'ands mucky doin' that'. He was right; my palms were pristine and embarrassingly smooth. No hard work-induced horny pads for me.

It was a rather refreshing response, I thought, and a couple of hearty ales later we had forgotten all about my unusual occupation. However not every encounter is like that. Sometimes you are left lost for words.

You do what?

Unfortunately we tend to define people by what they do - "she works in computers" or "he's a teacher" and we build up assumptions based on our preconceived ideas about these occupations. In reality it tells us little about the person. The software engineer isn't necessarily a geek, nor is an accountant a crushing bore.

Stereotypes abound - and even in our business we get our fair share of nerds and level-headed folks along with the occasional 'luvvie'.

That said, we live in a society where vocation is important and sadly we have to live with that.
In my own case, explaining what I do to earn a buck has got worse - as a voice over coach I spend seven days a week advising students, helping them negotiate fees, critiquing their auditions etc and yet I've had people say to me "yes, but what do you do for a job?" as if I was playing at it.

You may find the same with your voiceover career - even friends and family may regard all your hard endeavours as being nothing more than a harmless pastime.

The tendency is to become angry at this, but I recommend turning the situation to your advantage.

Loud 'n proud

The key is to present yourself as a professional and help explain what you do intriguingly and with panache. "I use my voice to help businesses increase their bottom line" is a more thought-provoking way to say "I record voice overs for commercials". Similarly "I narrate audiobooks" could sound more exciting if instead you said "I tell stories for a living".

These are alternative ways to draw the interlocutor into your voice over world so you can then explain in detail what you do and how you do it.

Let's face it, at the end of the day, it is not important that someone doesn't understand what you do, but explaining your profession with clarity in an assured manner will help you be more confident about your somewhat idiosyncratic career choice.
Being a voice actor really is out of this world.

What do you say to people who don't understand your love of voice overs? 

Gary Terzza specialises in helping beginners enter the voice over industry. VoMasterClass.com

"I Don't Like The Sound Of My Own Voice" - Well Shut Up And Go Home.

Is it necessary to like the sound of your own voice to be considered for voice over work? What if listening back to yourself fills you with dread and makes you cringe? Have you really got to like that weird cacophony emanating from your throat?

As a voice over coach I am amazed at the number of people who want to get into voice overs, but say they do not like listening to the their own voice. I am never quite sure what they truly mean by this - is it:

"I am embarrassed the way my voice sounds"

"I do not recognise myself - my voice seems strange and alien when I hear it played back"

 "I can't stand the tonal quality of my voice (it sounds too shrill or deep) ... I wish I sounded more like Catherine Zeta-Jones or Jeremy Irons"
or (the least likely)

"I love my voice and I shall (using false modesty) ask listeners to affirm just how good it is by pretending not to like it"

Little voice

When I was a youngster my parents bought me a second hand portable Philips reel to reel tape recorder - it was to change my life. Along with my best friend Colin, I would record silly comedy sketches (we thought they were funny at the time) and I discovered a way to multi track by masking the erasing head. We had many years of fun creating characters and trying silly voices.

Long before I decided I wanted to go into professional broadcasting, I was well aware of what my voice sounded like and hearing it played back did not phase me at all.

It was not that I liked or disliked my voice, but that I knew exactly what to expect from it. Apart from the first time I heard myself recorded, listening to myself never come as a shock.

But why do our voices sound SO different when we hear them on a video or voicemail?

Oops inside your head

The listening parts of our ears, the eardrum and cochlea, are buried deep inside our heads. As a result we hear ourselves inside out.  The noise resonates around our skull and chest cavity resulting in a distortion of the inherent frequency creating a false impression. However 99.9% of the world hears us as we really are, unencumbered by this filter of bone and cartilage.

Of course mother nature did not intend us to hear our own voices played back through external electronic equipment and this is why, on first hearing our voices, we do not even recognise ourselves.

But once we get used to this strange other person who speaks as we do, then we can begin to appreciate the qualities of our voice.


I recall reading an interview with Tom Cruise in which he said he did not believe other Hollywood stars when they said they did not like being famous or the way they looked.

Tom's reasoning went something like this: how can you do a job where your face is going to be plastered across a giant silver screen in high definition in every major city in the world, if you don't like the way you look? He felt such comments were disingenuous.

Good point. If you are a film star, having your face projected close up to billions of people IS your job. Likewise in our business, how can you possibly be a voice actor if you do not like the instrument you are selling?

If you don't like your voice, how can anyone else?

Make friends with your voice

How do we solve this dilemma? 

My recommendation is learn to accept your voice for what it is.  I don't mean love your voice in a narcissistic way, but learn to appreciate its good and bad points. The more you record and playback your voice (even if it is just on your phone or laptop) the more familiar the two of you will become. 

Ask yourself a few questions - what is your voice like when you become excited? How does it differ in tone when you are downbeat or being authoritative? They certainly won't be the same.

You will need to be intimate with every nuance of your vocal range, because clients will expect you to respond to their direction on command.

I cannot emphasise this enough - accept your voice for what it is and acknowledge that this is the way it sounds.

Sorry to be brutal, but if you are still saying "I don't like the way I sound" then voice overs are not for you. 

Gary Terzza is a UK voice over coach. Professional consultations are available.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Fiendish Words That Make Us Speechless

Once upon a time there was a word. It wasn't a big word and it was used by a lot of people every day. This word seemed harmless, but below the surface it had an evil power that could make grown voice actors cry and have the capability to destroy careers. 

But this word was a shape-shifter, it presented itself differently to different people. For the majority of the population, these villainous terms (for in reality there was more than one) remained innocuous, but to voice over artists they were deadly traps waiting to be sprung. 

The demon in question is of course any word that we have difficulty in saying, especially when reading a script.

What's your poison?

I have spent the last couple of hours reading and responding to some entertaining comments on a Linkedin voice over forum (if you haven't done so already, I highly recommend you join one)  about tricky words that are difficult to say. The initial question asked by US voice coach +Tommy Griffiths was 

"Is there ONE WORD that you consistently have trouble saying?"

At the time of writing, there have been 127 comments citing bothersome words from 'tradition' to (surprisingly) 'opportunity'.

What will strike the casual reader/non-voice actor is how these are often everyday words that would not seem to present a problem in normal, conversational speech. In voice overs, though, they can be nothing short of nightmarish. 

My own personal one is shared by a number of people, including award winning British voice talent Kara Noble - it is 'DIGITAL'.

The problem with these rogue words is that they creep up on you unawares. About 20 years ago I was booked to record a voiceover session for the (now defunct) company Digital Equipment Corporation. As you might suspect, 'digital' appeared liberally in the script, but back in those days it was a term just beginning to come into common parlance and so still had a slightly 'scientific/technical' feel to it.

On my first read through I made a slight trip around the 'G', pronouncing it too much like a 'J'. I realised that I needed to correct this, so tried again. This time, the 'T' got lost, so I gave it another shot. And another. By the fourth or fifth try the word had become a slurred version of its former self. Panic was about to set in.

Eventually, with the help of a patient director, I managed to salvage my reputation with a 'nearly but not quite' delivery. However the 'D'' word had now become my bĂȘte noire

So how do I cope with 'digital' nowadays?

Slaying the Word Dragon

If you have been researching speech improvement on the internet, you will no doubt have come across the cork method.  There are numerous versions of this, but basically the principle is the same - you stick a cork in your mouth to improve word formation and diction.

One of the advocates of this technique is +Marc Cashman. He says 

"The clearer you are [speaking] with the cork, the better you will be without it."

 Does it work? 

My philosophy is, give it a go and see if it is effective for you, but without wanting to sound too much like 'Mr Health & Safety', be careful with that cork!

My own prescription (and how I helped myself conquer 'digital') is to break the negative feedback loop. By that I mean that the issue of mispronunciation is all in the mind. We can see this quite clearly with my own experience: a small accidental slip was magnified out of all proportion as I tried to correct the mistake under pressure.

My brain had effectively sabotaged my performance and 'punished' me for my small error.

As +Tara Tyler says, it is all about stopping that negative voice in your head and taking control of your mind. I would add that you need to forgive yourself for fails and use these as a lesson on how to improve.

At the risk of sounding like psychobabble, I am convinced you should turn bloopers into a learning experience. Also (and it's easier said than done) try and forget about the fiendish word in question. This is what happened... suddenly I said 'digital' easily without realising it.

Being gentle with yourself but strong with the negative side of your brain will really help. 

Gary has a moderately unpronounceable surname, Terzza, which is a derivation of the Italian Terza, meaning 'third' or 'third class'! He does run a first rate voice over coaching course, though.

Whoops! There Goes My Voice Over Reputation

How would you handle this dilemma? 

A student of mine was a bit stuck the other day. She had just completed a voice over job and for all intents and purposes it had been signed off. Then a few days later, the client asked her to add an extra paragraph - not a huge amount admittedly, but she would have to fire up the studio again and try and remember how she had delivered the lines in the first place.

Getting an extra piece of script to match the original in tone, pace and recording quality requires skill and judgement. 

I suggested she ask for a small supplementary fee to reflect the additional work involved, which I didn't feel was unreasonable. After all this was not a retake or correction; this was at the client's request. Tentatively she agreed and then... the bombshell landed

The client sent back a stinging email saying he found the request 'unprofessional'. For goodness sake, he opined, it was only a few lines and he would have expected her to do this for free as part of the original quote.

Quite rightly my student was hurt by the comment and, to be honest, I think she was a little angry with me too. Who can blame her? She was in the early stages of her voice over career and here was her coach dispensing duff advice. 

She was worried this incident would tarnish her with a bad reputation.

I couldn't blame her. I wondered whether I had misjudged the situation, scuppering her chances of future work with this client. Not wanting to leave bad feeling between us, I asked her to give me some more background about the job. 

What she said surprised me.

The client had approached her directly through a well known pay to play site. He liked her voice and was offering a modest fee for 2,000 words. It was on the low side, but not too bad she thought. However when the script arrived she was alarmed to see that the word count was actually 4,000 words - double the number specified.

Not wanting to upset the client, she decided to go ahead without mentioning the extra work involved. In my opinion this was a mistake and on learning this information, I felt my advice had been vindicated. 

So what did she do?

She said she ate humble pie and recorded the additional paragraph for free. Personally, I'm not convinced that was the correct response.

What we can we learn from the incident

The above scenario is not uncommon and voice over artists come across situations like this all the time. You can't stop them arising, but you can learn to deal with them effectively and retain your professional integrity in the process.

For me the biggest mistake my student made was right at the very beginning - she didn't flag up the fact the job was not what the client had quoted. The word count was twice what she had been expecting. That greatly increases the workload.  

Of course it is feasible the client simply miscalculated and wasn't intentionally trying to get a bigger bang for his buck, or he may have just been unaware that words are our business and that we can't price a job accurately without knowing how many we are going to have to read. To him there may not be a huge difference between 2,000 and 4,000. Let's be generous and assume this was the case.

Had my student mentioned this from the outset she could have, quite reasonably, negotiated a higher fee.

There is another omission; she didn't include any terms and conditions in her initial quote. I know voice actors are not mortgage companies, but you need to set out your stall clearly from the start so clients don't receive any nasty surprises. You can't charge for retakes where it was your error, but you can stipulate that additional words, not in the original job spec, will be charged for. If the client does not agree they can always question this before you begin work.

There was a third mistake too. My student didn't take control of the situation.

I know we need to be respectful of clients, but an honest relationship is what is needed not a lopsided contract where you might be pushed about. She was suddenly at a loss when the client challenged her revised fee. Explain why you are charging more and do it with confidence and pride. 

You are a professional, offering a high quality service and treat your clients with respect and expect this to be reciprocated.

Oh and one final thought -  the lowest payers make the worst clients.

What would you have done? Please let me know.

Your Voice Over Showreel Is Not As Important As You Think

Are you placing too much emphasis on your demos? Do you regard your reel as the key to booking voice over work? Perhaps it is time for a rethink. 

What? Have I taken leave of my senses? Surely someone like me who makes a living out of recording showreels for beginners ought to be promoting their importance. After all a demo is like an audio CV; it provides your potential listeners (in other words, clients) with a guide to how you might sound recording their voiceover job.

But in reality, how effective are voice reels? 

When I was at school back in the 1970s, we were told the options we selected at 14 were crucial; choose the wrong subjects to study and you would scupper your chances of going on to further education. In other words the enormous decision we youngsters were about to make would determine our vocation and ultimately shape our future. You could not afford to make a mistake.

However, I got it very wrong.

I had a stupid idea I wanted to be a doctor (probably a result of watching too many TV hospital soaps) so I chose chemistry, physics and biology, three subjects I was frankly useless at, instead of humanities and social sciences. Following consistently poor marks and dire results in exams I assumed I was doomed. I was in no-way medic material and so had a bleak future ahead of me.

Yet, as the years rolled by I was pleasantly surprised to find life throws up new unexpected opportunities. It actually didn't matter that as a naive adolescent I had chosen the wrong subjects. Something different and exciting would always be waiting around the corner.

So it is with voice reels

The showreel you make today won't be the one you will be using in 2 or 3 year's time. It will change, evolve and improve as your voice over career progresses. 

Ah, but you are probably thinking 

'Ok, but I have to start somewhere and that very first demo is going to be extremely important'
Not necessarily.

I am pretty unorthodox compared to other voice over coaches in that I begin by making a showreel for the VO student and then provide more training afterwards. Most courses do the opposite. 

My reasoning is a kind of reverse engineering. I want the trainee to really appreciate recording in a professional studio, talking into the mic and taking direction. Then I want them to learn how to do this at home where, let's be honest, they will be doing the vast majority of their auditions and work. 

The result is that the showreel we record at the beginning is certainly good enough to get them on the first rung of the ladder, but won't sustain them throughout their career. 

Voice reels need to be constantly updated and improved. Just like a resume.

Then there are auditions

In the days before the pay to play sites (p2p), your demo was the only way a casting agent could hear your range of material. They would then sell your talent to the client who hopefully would book you for the job. 

Fast forward to the present day and things are very different.

Prospective clients want to hear what you can do with their script. They want a level playing field where all the applicants are reading exactly the same words.

Your carefully crafted, expensively produced voice over demo is unlikely to be of much use in this case.

You may, quite rightly, retort that agents appreciate a good demo. That may be true, but they also want it to show off your best bits of work. Ain't got any work yet? Well tough, because an agent probably isn't interested in your 'pretend' tracks no matter how well they are recorded and spliced together.

Also how many voice over artists have agents these days? Ok some do, but unless you are at the top of your game, the chances are the vast majority of your bookings will come through your own endeavours.

The showreel refresh dilemma

Say you have been doing voice overs for a little while and you want to invest some of your earnings into promoting your business. Should you splash out on a new updated reel?

Hiring a studio and an audio engineer will mean a polished, slick demo with high production values, but will this work of art actually get you any more work? I would urge you to think seriously before forking out.

Could your money be better spent?

Let's face it, a decent showreel is going to set you back a few hundred quid, but in many cases I believe this money would be better spent on marketing such as a new website, or upgrading at a reputable pay to play site.

So by all means make the best demo you can, but don't worry too much if it is not as good as you would like it be.

The best is yet to come.