“Speak in the human voice.” That comment came from Nick Michaels, a great voice-over talent, as he led a seminar a couple of years ago in California. This is so right. Forget the hyped, gutteral, Super DJ sound. Or the Ultra Sexy Vamp. You might make a few bucks with that sound somewhere. But not for much longer. Speak in the human voice.
I’ve written before about the great experience Darren Eliker and I had attending the 1997 International Radio Creative and Production Summit in Los Angeles with Dick Orkin and Dan O’Day.
But, Darren’s influence on my voice-over career is much greater than that shared experience. In 1996, Darren had talked with me a few times about helping him put together a demo tape. At that point, I’d been doing voice-overs with some modest amount of success for about 13 years. He was just getting started.
On a Wednesday afternoon in May of that year, he asked me if he could borrow my demo tape. I thought he just wanted to listen to it for ideas. But, no. That was not his plan. What he was actually doing was taking my pretty crummy old demo tape to the talent agency he had just signed with. The Talent Group.
About an hour later, Stephen Black, one of the co-owners of the agency called me. He said, “Bob, I’d like to meet with you as soon as possible. I think we could get you a lot of work.” Wow! I couldn’t believe my ears. A lot of work?
So, less than 48 hours later, I meet Stephen. He gives me a contract to read through over the weekend. I do. It looks good. I stop down there after work on Monday and sign the contract. Less than a week later, he’s calling me with my first voice-over job in Pittsburgh. And 2 weeks after that, he’s booked me as the new voice for the 84 Lumber company. A gig that lasted for many months.
Ever since then, the auditions and the work keep coming. Even though I don’t live in Pittsburgh anymore. One of the very smartest things I ever did was sign with The Talent Group. I’ve had a lot of help from friends over the years, but Darren’s decision to take my tape along to play for Stephen was one of the very nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
Thank you, Stephen, Richard, Becky, and the whole team at The Talent Group. Very much. And, thank you, Darren Eliker!
That learning started with a bang, to say the least. It was August 1997. At the time I was Production Manager of WORD-FM in Pittsburgh, PA. My assistant was Darren Eliker, one of the most gifted actors and voice-over talents I’ve had the privilege to know and work with over the years. (Darren replaced me as Production Manager when I was promoted to Program Director in 1998 and he’s been winning awards, and more importantly, helping businesses grow ever since with his brilliant campaigns, voice-overs and directing.)
Back then I was a member of CompuServe, and hung out a fair amount in the Radio forum. In the late summer of 1996 one of the other members posted a note about what an excellent experience he had at the International Radio Creative and Production Summit. Back then Dan O’Day and Dick Orkin jointly presented the Summit.
Based on what I read, I determined that if I possibly could, I would attend the next one. Which leads us back to where we started, August of 1997. Our boss gave his blessing for both Darren and I to attend the Summit, so there we were in Los Angeles, CA.
On the first day, among the various presentations, was a group class on voice-over by Dick Orkin. But with 80 people there, Dick decided to limit his “hands on” work to just 8 of us.
In spite of my lesson from a few years previous, I was still paralyzed with fear about volunteering. Providentially, Dick didn’t ask for volunteers. He asked for those who do voice-overs to raise their hands. So, I did. And he picked me to be one of the 8. Which is where the three questions come from.
After giving us some dialog copy to read with one another, Dick offered these 3 questions as a way to quickly get to the point of our copy:
1. Where am I?
2. Who am I talking to?
3. What do I want from them?
Answer those three questions and you know the Setting, the Audience, and your Motivation.
You may be surprised that “Who am I?” isn’t one of the three questions. I was too. But, the answer to that question is either explicit or implicit in the copy.
When I remember to ask these three questions, I nearly always do a better job of auditioning. Which gets me more work. Because, as you already know, the key to getting work in voice-over is doing lots of auditions, and winning at least a few of them.
It was, I think, April of 1993. In the span of an hour and a half one afternoon, I learned a great deal about the voice-over craft and yet missed a wonderful opportunity at the same time. I was at the Gospel Music Association convention in Nashville, TN. Marice Tobias taught a seminar class that year. I mentioned this experience in passing previously, but in that post, I didn’t deal with the real heart of the matter.
You see the single most important thing I learned that day was the single thing. Huh?
Marice taught us that every good piece of broadcast ad copy has a single point at its heart. If we’re going to do an excellent job of reading a given piece of copy, we have to be able to understand what the heart of the spot is, and build our read around that. To put it another way, to tell the story, we have to know what the point of the story is.
When I’m reading over a piece of copy for an audition, I’ll ask myself, “What’s the point?” Even sarcastically sometimes. Because, the copy has to make one point, and only one point, if it’s going to work well.
So, what do I do if the copy isn’t written well? Maybe makes two or three points? Even more?
A couple of things. Try to synthesize the multiple points into a single “heart-of-the-dog” message, if at all possible. And, commit myself to do the most excellent job possible, no matter what.
Several years ago I heard an interview with the Concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on WFMT in Chicago. The discussion turned to the matter of guest conductors, and how some of them were not quite a good as others. Which led to a question about whether a bad conductor could make the orchestra play poorly. The answer? “No, there’s a level below which we will not play. We’re the Chicago Symphony Orchestra!”
I may not be the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but I know that I have to have that attitude about my work.
So, what was the missed opportunity? Marice asked for 5 volunteers from the audience to read copy. My heart burned within me to raise my hand, but I didn’t. I chickened out. Because I felt too shy, too fearful that I would make a fool of myself in front of everyone. The only good thing that came out of that experience was the internal commitment that when I’m part of such a learning opportunity in the future, I would never allow my fears to keep me from getting into the thick of things again. A commitment I’ve kept. And that has made such a difference.
In 1980, my first full year working at a radio station, there were two announcers doing commercials that I especially admired and wanted to emulate.
One was Jim Kelly, who had worked for a while at that same suburban Chicago radio station where I got my start. He then went on to work at the old FM 100, (4th bullet point) a Beautiful Music station. And to do a lot of radio commercials.
The other was John Doremus. One memory of John Doremus that is especially precious to me, was a series of announcements he voiced for the Union 76 service stations during the Bicentennial in 1976. Wonderful patriotic messages, delivered in that classic Doremus style.
Both of these men were examples of the archetypical big-voice announcer guy. And back then, that’s what I wanted to be too. To some extent I guess I succeeded. Or at least, I’ve made a fair amount of money doing the big-voice announcer guy for lots of different people since 1979.
However, since 1997, I’ve been working very hard to get as far away from that style as I can. Because, more and more, the only people who want that kind of sound are people who are stuck in the past. And the advertising that’s using that kind of voice on television or radio is losing effectiveness. Every day, a little at a time. But, it’s happening. And the pace is starting to accelerate.
The natural human voice is the sound. Authentic. Raw and unpolished. That’s the sound that’s coming. That’s already here. And I’m working hard to stay as close to my natural voice as I can. To unpolish what I worked so hard for so many years to polish. Because, I want to keep working. And not just on little jobs. And not just on things that are losing ground and losing effectiveness.
As strange as it may seem, my greatest weakness as a voice-over talent today, is the very thing that has been my bread and butter for the last 20 years. My “announcer” voice.
Every year since 1997, I’ve spent a weekend in Los Angeles, getting better at voice-overs and at writing. The event is called The Interional Radio Creative and Production Summit. It’s two long days, filled with good, indeed often great, information.
Last year, for example, one of the seminars was led by Cindy Akers. I was very grateful that I got to be one of her volunteers. From her time coaching me, and from watching and listening to her coach a number of other talented voice performers in the room, I learned enough about auditioning that a few weeks after I returned home, I auditioned for and was cast as the narrator for a national Canadian History Channel program. All because I started to put into practice what I learned in one 2 hour seminar on the second day of last year’s Summit.
By the way, Dan O’Day (the host of the Summit) sells complete recordings of the last several years of the Summit in his on-line catalog. (Search on Summit in the catalog for a complete list of recordings available.)
They are well worth the investment. (And, no, I don’t get a commission from Dan.) If you buy one of the packages, you’ll probably hear me a few times, because I learned at my first Summit, how valuable it is to volunteer.
As much as possible, I avoid wearing headphones. The main reason is because wearing headphones gives me (and you, no matter what you think) an unnatural perspective on my voice. The more I think about my voice and what it sounds like, the less effective I am at delivering the message of the piece I’m reading. This is just as true for a long, highly technical training narration as it is for intimate dialog copy.
In order to concentrate fully on the story I’ve been hired to tell, I have to be able to ignore how my voice sounds and attend only to what I’m reading. And the same is true for you, even if you don’t think it is. And no matter how long you’ve been wearing headphones.
If I have to wear headphones during a session (e.g.: a phone patch or ISDN job), I wear the phones over only one ear. Again, so I can hear my voice the way it sounds in real life; and concentrate on telling the story.
The secondary reason I don’t wear headphones is because at a voice-over training session with Dick Orkin in 1997, he said, “Take off your headphones and leave them off.” And I’ve learned more about doing excellent voice-over work from Dick Orkin, than from anyone else on the planet.
This life doing voice work, whether as a talent on the air, or doing voice-overs; this life is, for most of us, not filled stability or predictability. So, I’m very grateful to my family for being so patient with me. Even though I certainly haven’t always deserved their patience.
What follows are the thoughts of my daughter, as she remembers them, from back when she was quite young. I think she was 6 or 7 at the time this took place. (She is 22 now.)
“I was in a recording studio with my father. This was long enough ago that soundproofing was still done with egg crate foam on the walls, which I enjoyed running my hands over. My dad was talking with and doing an interview with another man, I don’t remember who it was. The table was dark wood, and I remember looking down at it and seeing my bag of skittles, bright against the table. I remember thinking how good the skittles would taste, but that I was concerned that the crinkling bag would make too much noise, because my dad was recording an interview with this man. I had had it impressed on me very thouroughly that I had to be very very quiet when daddy was working, and I did not want him to be unhappy with the noise I was making. When they came to a stopping point, I very quietly asked my dad if I could eat my skittles, and was allowed to do so. I just find this story funny, because even at that very young age, I had a sense of what I was or wasn’t allowed to do in the sound studio.”
It can be kind of painful to realize that we get so obsessed with our work that we ignore our children and spouses. But, painful or not, it’s worth remembering…and worth leaning from.
From February 1986 to February 1996, I had the remarkable privilege of hosting a national contemporary Christian music radio program called Christian Countdown USA for most of those years, and The CCM Countdown with Bob Souer at the end.
The founder and owner of the program for the first several years was Chuck Wagner. Chuck, who worked for Moody in Chicago for 20 years, was the guy who taught me the value of good direction.
You see, at the time he hired me as his new host for Christian Countdown USA, I had been doing voice over work in the Chicago market for about 3 years. All of it at suburban production houses. But, I thought I knew quite a bit about how to use my voice in a profession manner.
Of course, the truth was, I didn’t know jack. But, I guess Chuck must have heard some promise in my audition, because he picked me out of the pool of about 5 candidates who applied. And we started working together. For a few weeks we recorded at Domain. Then, after it became obvious we couldn’t afford to keep working there, we scrounged studio time when and when we could, relying on the kindness of strangers and fellow broadcasters. Not a recomended way to meet a weekly production deadline!
Eventually, Chuck bought a home in Wheaton, not too far from where I lived at the time in Warrenville. We pooled our equipment. I bought a couple of new pieces of gear, including a custom “plate reverb” unit, a multi-track (4-track) Tascam reel-to-reel recorder and so forth. Eventually we were able to combine all of these random pieces into a pretty fair home production studio. Most of the equipment was mine, but I had no room in my little townhouse for a studio; so we set it up in Chuck’s house.
During the preceding several months, Chuck had been listening, guiding and directing; but because of all of the uncertainty of where and when we would record, and so forth, he was always at least a bit distracted. Now two things converged. First, we had the studio built, so we had a consistent place to work. And, second, Chuck had learned pretty well what my strengths and weaknesses were.
So it was in Chuck’s house in Wheaton where my education really began, into how valuable a good director really is. Chuck understood that the best direction never tells “how to say the line.” But, always, what are we trying to accomplish with this line. Now, there are times (especially when working under tight deadlines) when a line reading is the most effecient way to get something done. But, most of the really satisfying and excellent work stems from the synergy of the director’s guidance and the voice-over artist’s talent for reading and acting.
An authentic performace can’t be faked. (Once you learn to fake sincerity, everything else is easy!) It must come from the honest emotions and thoughts of the performer. Line readings, no matter how well given, are inherently fake; because they can’t come from the guts of the person actually doing the read. And, as is probably more and more obvious to anyone paying attention to the winds blowing through our culture, authenticity is critically important.
The year was 1974. I was deeply in love, and to be blunt, poorer than the proverbial church mouse. I was putting myself through school at a private college in the Chicago suburbs. Every penny I had, and quite a few I was borrowing, were paying for my education, so I had no money for an engagement ring. You see, I wanted to marry Kathy. She wanted to marry me. Like I said, I was deeply in love.
She confided in her mother about our situation. Mom suggested that a family heirloom diamond was available, one that had belonged to Kathy’s great-grandmother. But, if I was serious about marrying Kathy, I would have to provide the engagement ring and the wedding band to go with it. One of Kathy’s very best friends was the daughter of a jeweler in Madison, Wisconsin; who had just decided to move his business to the Chicago suburbs and merge with an existing jewelry store.
So there we were, going through Mr. Johnson’s jewelry inventory, finding just the right setting for the diamond, and a matching wedding band. All for only $75, including the cost of mounting the diamond. But, as my Dad used to say, I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Where was I going to get $75?
At the time, Kathy worked for David C. Cook Publishing Company, as an associate curriculum editor. (This was back when they were still located in Elgin, IL.) And one afternoon, a few days after our shopping expedition, Kathy attended a meeting about an upcoming convention. It was decided that the company should prepare a kiosk display that would include a pre-recorded narration about their new releases. But, who could they get to record? There was no narration budget.
At this point, Kathy spoke up and said that her fiance had a “nice voice” and would be willing to work pretty cheap. Whomever was in charge of this project agreed to this suggestion, asked her to call me, and eventually met me at the Domain Communications studio in Wheaton, IL. The agreed upon price was $50 an hour and when we were done recording, the session took one and a half hours.
It was an answer to prayer! And exactly the $75 I needed to get Kathy her engagement ring and wedding band. Thus did I get my first paying voice-over job, the very humble start to my life as a professional voice-over artist. How humble? It would be 9 years before I got another paying voice-over job.
Nearly everyone who does voiceover work professionally these days understands the value of training as an actor. Even straight single-voice copy often requires the ability to act in order to deliver the message effectively. Any acting classes, and especially improv, are beneficial.
But, I suspect not nearly enough people understand the value of musical training for voiceover work. I first learned this from Marice Tobias a number of years ago. I attended a master class she gave in Nashville, TN. During the class she made an off-hand comment about her experience that often the best voiceover people had some kind of musical training. As an illustration, she told us about an orchestra conductor from Canada who was at that time one of the hottest voiceover talents working.
In the years since then, I’ve often thought about that comment and about how valuable musical training is. For one thing, I’ve long believed that the most basic unit of spoken communication is the phrase. Not the sentence. Not the word. The phrase. Each phrase (typically) contains a single coherent thought or concept, which is connected with the other thoughts and concepts of a given sentence. How we shape and connect these phrases makes a huge difference in our ability to communicate clearly. (On the other hand, my friend Roy Williams breaks this idea down even further into thought particles. But, that’s another story for another time.)
And it is in this matter of phrasing where musical training is so beneficial. Because in order to play or sing well, we have to be able to shape and connect the musical phrases in a coherent manner or else our music doesn’t hold together the way we want it to.
Intimately bound up with phrasing (both musical and in voiceover) is the matter of timing and pace. Again, musical training helps us understand the value of timing. On the one hand, accurate…on time. On the other, not too rigid or we run the risk of seeming robotic rather than alive.
In my first post, I linked to a few of the people who have helped provide some polish to my voiceover craft. Without a doubt, the greatest influence on my work has been Dick Orkin.
Not that I can hold a candle or even a damp, unlit match, to Dick’s great talent. But, he has been kind enough to teach me a few things at various seminars over the last 8 years. Mainly at this one run by Dan O’Day, (though sadly Dick doesn’t seem to be actively taking part in these annual events any more).
Another powerful influence has been Dick Orkin’s creative and business partner, Christine Coyle (second item). Christine is one of the most gifted directors on the planet, at least when it comes to voice actors, and at these International Radio Creative and Production Summits each year, she has provided much valuable direction and encouragement.
Two other guys have influenced me a great deal, more as a writer than anything else; but writing, like music is extremely useful in the voiceover business. They are (the already mentioned) Dan O’Day and The Wizard of Ads, Roy Williams.