Voice over at work

episode 3

Moving on with our series dedicated to beginners, today we will discuss part 2 of our presentation about the main styles of texts you will encounter as a voice over. They are generically referred to as narrations and I can assure you that some of these texts you will find in a casting situation. I have listed below some of the most common types of narrations:

Documentaries, audio guides, audio books, tutorials, e-learning, corporate presentations and IVR.

In my previous article, I had promised to explain why I’ve chosen to list IVR messages – “hello, you have reached…”- as falling under the category of long texts. The answer lies with a new type of project that we are dealing with: virtual assistant.

The guidelines make them very similar to traditional IVR type texts: “a neutral and polite, moderately warm, clear, friendly, genuine, and always with a moderate attitude. What makes these types of texts special is the length of the project, which goes way beyond traditional narrations.

That is why I think that IVR‘s are to be taken very seriously and you should always take into account that they have a bigger, stronger sibling. I will touch on that subject down the line.

They are not called narrations for nothing. There is one thing that I cannot hide from you when it comes to long texts: only experienced voices can handle them. This is because they are not mass produced, they always imply new twists and adaptability and the expectations are completely different. Before you complain about it, here is what a voice has to go through when facing a narration:

Endurance (especially for audio books, e-learning and virtual assistant). Working on such a project may take between three to four hours and tens or hundreds of hours. What makes this even tougher is the fact that your performance will be quantized on a line per line basis. There is no story line naturally evolving as you read the text. When your work implies only a random series of elements that will only take form after post-production is finished, it’s very easy to lose site of the bigger picture and that will be visible in the listening or the viewing stages later on.

The quality of the performance as well your voice has to remain consistent throughout the entire project, no matter what. It’s easy to stay fresh for the first couple of hours but later down the line your experience and training will have to kick in.

This would be a good time for me to point out another difficult aspect you will have to face during IVR type projects. Any type of virtual assistance project has a certain level of difficulty for the voice. It implies a certain type of breathing and a specific work flow. Sometimes you will have to stay neutral and helpful longer than you are used to. You will also be required to not add too much “color” to the text.  There are numerous internal battles to be won when you have a full time job behind the microphone.

Knowing your subject

This is especially important for audio guides, audio books and documentaries. The voice has to become a narrator, a true story teller. Can you read a chemistry course and make it sound like a story? How about one about raising lamas in Peru or one about the iron industry? How about a text illustrating instructions for cleaning services?

Here is a funny example. “Strontium has 38 protons with a positive electrical charge.”

It amuses me when I see beginners put a certain cheerful emphasis on the word “positive”. Inappropriate accenting in this case makes protons seem like particles with a positive attitude. Can you imagine the effect it has on the listener? What makes it even more interesting is the fact that I also see this mistake with people who know that we’re talking about a physical characteristic of particles. But because they want to embellish it, they get overly zealous and they target the first adjective they can find so that the text won’t seem “dull”.

Exercise your ability sight read a text.

This is particularly important in the case of audio books and e-learning.

Let’s face it. Who expects you to have already read, multiple times even, a book that is about to become an audio book?  The harder you adjust to the lecturing of the text in terms of rhythm, tonality, articulation and deciphering, the more you will delay the delivery of the project and editing the material will take longer, much to everyone’s despair.

When you have got little to no experience, training has to become second nature.  I never understood why having no previous experience in the recording studio is an excuse to show up completely unprepared. Keep in mind that once you got the job, you will be paid and treated as a professional speaker.

Dosing your delivery

It shows maturity and skill. It means that you are in control of your performance and you are able to remain interesting to the listener and “tie” the listener to the story.

You also have to sound…tolerable…in lack of a better term. Even the most uptight performance can get away within a 20 second promo but one hour of harsh or dark rambling can get pretty annoying. It’s very important that the project still sounds relevant ten years down the line.

A good example could be the commentary in the televised programs during the communist era. I’m sure you know about them and are able to replicate that style of performance but who has the patience nowadays to believe that plastic cheerfulness and the song like cadency of the voices?

Controlling your tone

I repeat: we are talking about long texts here. This means that the voice has to blend in with other elements like music or video or rare images. These elements might not be available to us during the recording process. Besides, it has been established that the texts require an entirely different approach. Try taking your favorite passage from a documentary you’ve seen and read it like you would a TV commercial. Annoying, right? Now try reading it like it’s a news segment on the radio. Sounds kind of flat and common, right?

Finding the “inner voice” of the project is very difficult and it implies working with a larger team (the bigger the project, the larger the team will be). This means staying constantly open and having the resources to deliver various relevant approaches to the text. In the studio, I’ve seen how 5 minutes of a 45 minute documentary were recorded in 3 hours and then the other remaining 40 minutes took another 3 hours including a 10 minute break.

Having a distinct personality

Do you feel the presence of the “heavyweights” in those famous documentaries? I could sit here and list a huge number of qualities that would make up the perfect voice. Things like clarity, warmth and a certain authority but I would be lying if I were to tell you that those are the things that make a difference. In the end these are all tools of the personality behind a voice and they only add to that je ne sais quoi that takes you on a journey through the world created by a certain voice. It makes you want to meet that person and hear more stories.

I have witnessed true magic in the studio when people involved in the project were truly mesmerized by the voice chosen for the project.

The good news is that if you are talented and passionate about doing voice over projects, the work you have put into it will help you get through your first projects. Also it’s a really good idea to practice on your own. It often happens that a voice with little to no experience to be chosen for one of the upper mentioned styles of projects. It’s important not to lose your voice and even if you have our full support, it’s good to show up prepared. During the casting we will focus on the ease whit which you read the text, your endurance and the character of your voice.

In the penultimate chapter of this series we will try to illustrate the processes a project undergoes, from beginning to end.

Good luck to you all!


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