Why the key to getting a great voice over is knowing what you want.

3 min read

Product voice overs have been part and parcel of our lives since the advent of commercial radio. The processes involved in getting them physically recorded may have changed over time, but the fundamental principles involved in selling stuff haven’t — or have these changed too? Some advertising practitioners are adamant they’re changing constantly!

What certainly hasn’t changed is how to get a great voice over from a voice actor. Still, crossing the divide between theory and practice isn’t always simple because there are so many variables in the sales equation.

It would probably be safe to argue that there’s one absolute non-negotiable, however: knowing what you want. If you don’t, there’s not much chance your voice actor will. Even the most talented professionals aren’t mind-readers.

If you aren’t confident in your ability to direct, if you don’t seem to have a clear vision of what your ultimate goal is, and if you can’t impart this information to the actor so s/he can infuse your message with the kind of emotion you need to secure the success of your project, the session will be in trouble from the get-go.

Here are two questions to ask yourself before you even make first contact with your chosen voice actor:

Have you clearly defined the actual purpose of the recording?

This may seem obvious at first but it’s not, insists voice actor Jason Pollard. “I’ve had clients who honestly don’t know what the ultimate purpose of the recording is. I’ll fire questions at them about placement on Internet radio shows, podcasts, social media platforms or YouTube and the answers are vague and stuttering. Purpose is so important to me as a voice actor because it directly affects my pace, tone, and style of presentation.”

“Sometimes a client won’t know what they want until you’ve given them several takes of what they don’t want,” laughs Gillian Thomas, another voice actor. “I once recorded a ten-minute narration for a client and she came back the next day saying I’d completely misread her brief; it sounded nowhere near what she had imagined. I hadn’t misread her brief at all; I’d followed it to the letter. We ended up wasting a lot of time and both getting frustrated with one another. The job went back and forth for a week. In the end the client admitted she’d never been certain about what she wanted and could only make a final decision once she’d heard the actual recording. Apparently, she’d been through the whole rigmarole with other actors as well. Sometimes it’s virtually impossible to capture what clients hear in their heads.”

The distance between expectation and result can be substantial, so a lack of clarity here is very unlikely to aid the creative process and get client and voice actor on the same page.

While there may be nothing wrong with the I-know-what-I-don’t-want methodology as a point of departure, it’ll certainly take you a lot longer than necessary to reach your goal. If your voice actor has you on the clock (and most of them do because they either charge a studio rate per hour or half-hour for short commercial work), frustration can devolve into annoyance quite quickly and the initially-agreed budget can become a serious bone of contention afterwards.

Have you clearly defined your target audience and chosen the right voice?

Casting agent, Kelly Grayston, claims that more than 50% of clients who come knocking on her door haven’t decided what kind of voice they want or whether they want the actor to be male or female. 

“It complicates everything,” she says. “You’re forced to try break what they think they want down to the lowest common denominator so you at least have somewhere to start putting the project together. It all depends on buyer-profile; target audience. For any kind of advertisement to work these days, you have to cut through the clutter instantly and with the precision of a laser.”

Sales strategist, Gordon McDonald, agrees. “Globally, the advertising industry has upended itself. Archetypes are being demolished daily. There was a time when deep male voices were regarded as positively authoritarian and go-to voices because of it. The perception was one of ‘substance’ and ‘gravitas’, so those voices would work for hard-sell, strong call-to-actions. Nurturing female voices were always used in a more domestic environment. That’s completely changed. Nowadays, you need to be hip, cool, and pretty-much millennial in your approach; consumers don’t want to listen to ‘announcery’ voices of either sex and it’s more about message than gender.”

“Identifying your target audience and choosing a voice that speaks the kind of emotional language consumers relate to is the only way to make a voice recording gain traction and improve your sales,” account executive, Gwen Talbot, adds. “In my experience, most consumers practically live online and you’ve got five seconds to grab their attention — especially Millennials. There’s just so much content out there! Get your messaging wrong and you can easily flush thousands of dollars down the drain — if not tens or hundreds of thousands. A mistake like that can bankrupt you. Advertising always used to be about hyperbole; bigger-better-faster-more. Not today. Consumers demand integrity, transparency, boy- or girl-next-door vibes. Things need to be anchored and real. There’s no tolerance for ‘fake-it-till-you-make it’ in the circles I move in.”

Never get conned into thinking that one-size-fits-all either,” producer Peter Dickson warns. “It may work for socks, underpants, and cheap baseball caps, but it won’t work for voice overs. One has to be very specific. The shotgun approach is bound to fail. You really do have to know what you want today.”