The 12 Critical Skills of Voice Over Acting
All voice actors must have impeccable articulation. Each word needs to be distinctly understood, never swallowed, mumbled or garbled. It’s a balancing act of enunciation between over-articulation and under-articulation. Over-enunciation never sounds conversational – it’s artificial, at best forced and at worst condescending. Under-enunciation is undesirable for almost opposite reasons – rambling, sounding lazy, stupid even intoxicated. There’s a “Goldilocks” zone for vocal clarity that employers know to look for- not overdoing it, or underdoing it, but just right.
Remember being told as a child you had a filthy mouth when you cursed? This is completely unrelated. We’re literally talking about how clean your mouth noise is saliva production, glottal stops, clicks and smacking sounds, Genetics blesses some people with minimal mouth noise, for them saliva isn’t an issue. But most of us have to mitigate those saliva sounds with techniques: hydration (drinking a lot of water); throat spray, mouthwash, herbal teas; some even munch tiny pieces of green apple (between reading excerpts), chew gum or suck on a lozenge. The less clean-up your voice-over track needs, the faster the editor finishes their job and the greater chance you’ll be called back for a return session.
In voiceover, consistency is a highly valued skill. If you’re consistent in volume, energy, pacing, articulation, characterization, your eye-brain-mouth coordination, you’ll be every director’s dream, because you’ll be a voice actor that always delivers what they want.
Your performance and believability depends on your connection to what you read. A professional narrator always sounds like they’re intrinsically interested in what they’re talking about, regardless of whether they are. Ask yourself: if you’re not into what you’re talking about, why should the listener be? It’s important to be literally connected as well – physically connected to the page, eyes scanning ahead to ensure you move through copy or text gracefully, without tripping or stumbling. There are some common techniques here: using hands to make points or gestures; inflecting at appropriate times; making facial expressions to convey emotion, and voicing physical interpretation using body movement or posture.
Being conversational in voiceover isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes an innate ability to lift words off the page effortlessly, as if you’re speaking extemporaneously (because you’re an expert, right?). It means reading (and speaking) at the typical pace of everyday conversations. This skill is the result of not over- or under-articulating, and is key to engaging the listener and maintaining their attention.
6) Cold Reading
Online Learning modules, instructional YouTube video narration, and non-fiction audiobooks – anything with prolific or voluminous content – demands this skill. You won’t always have time to pre-read all of a project’s text. Your ability to cold read text saves both studio time and editing time. This skill includes scanning ahead, making sense of run-on sentences, and deftly navigate incorrect punctuation and even grammar. Solid cold reading is the result excellent eye-brain-mouth coordination, and strengthens easily if you practice daily. Read aloud to your friends, neighbours, pets, or even plants – this will help you become a great cold reader.
7) Chop, Chop!
Chop chop – that is, quicken your pace! Speaking fast is often essential in voice over work. A commercial is a great example, where 40 seconds of copy are expected to be delivered in 30 seconds time frame. Turning up the pace, but not at the expense of clarity, is a crucial skill that you should develop until you’ve mastered it.
I referred to this under consistency and cold reading, and this is the mental muscle memory that develops when your eyes take in the words on the page, make the connections in your brain and come out of your mouth. I call it “eye-brain-mouth coordination,” and it’s a skill that voice actors develop across years of experience, thousands of pages. Some people are better than others, and can read thousands of words across multiple pages without a mistake. Developing strong E-B-M coordination is possible by cold reading copy every day. It’s like a musician who practices their scales daily, slowly strengthening their muscle memory; or like a daily fitness routine build up your muscles and your stamina. Great E-B-M coordination is the signature of a professional voice actor.
Characterization requires acting, and actors understand what goes into giving a solid performance. Beyond the aforementioned consistency, conversationality, and connected are the acting craft of believability, authenticity, emotionality and interpretation. All these are important in telling a compelling story. The ability to perform solid characters is a sharp tool for any voice actor’s tool belt.
I’ve heard it said, “Always sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.” This could be the mantra for narration. No matter what subject you’re talking about, the ability to sound convincing encompasses skills of coherent explanation, a measured, neutral (or sometimes friendly) tone, an appropriate amount of conversationality and energy, and an authoritativeness that’s believable and approachable. The most convincing narrators are those who, in Penny Abshire’s term, “tell, don’t sell.”
Successful voice actors are always in vocal control. They have fine tuned control of their pitch, volume and breath. Pitch control is understanding intonation–realizing the many musical applications to the spoken word. Volume control is achieved by realizing that what really is varied throughout a read isn’t volume at all, but intensity. Finally, excellent breath control depends on replenishing the amount of air needed to get through words and phrases competently. All these skills come into use when matching insertions, or “pickup” phrases to prior recordings the voice over actor has done.
The best thing you can bring to any V-O session is true confidence. Important: NOT arrogance. Confidence is by product of preparation, subject matter understanding, and anticipating the dynamics between actor, director and engineer (and often, the client); You can hear confidence in an actor’s voice: in their phrasing, presence, and overall performance.
From confidence come stamina and believability, and makes it easier to work under pressure or when given conflicting direction. When you’re confident, you’re patient, which is always useful. There’s even 3 C’s to confidence: being calm, cool and collected.
Lots more skills than these come together for a successful performance, and more attributes you’ll need to survive in the world of voice overs. But these are a great set of critically important ones to start with, master them and you’ll be well on your way. Remember to have fun!