Over the years that Marc Cashman has been teaching voiceover techniques, he has revealed a number of very specific tips, tricks and tools you can use to help make you a better voice actor.
Some of these are structural skills, like breath and cadence control, articulation, eye-brain-mouth coordination; others are aimed at acting methods, interpretation and taking direction.
But there are three things that underlay all convincing voice acting: sincerity, smile and physicality.
Find out what they are in today’s VOX Daily.
There’s an old, cynical saying that goes something like, “Always be sincere. Even if you don’t mean it.” And though that may apply to social graces, it doesn’t apply to voice acting.
Sincerity is the bedrock of successful voice acting. It’s what everything else is built upon: attitude, energy, appropriate projection, consistency, characterization and emotions. It’s the foundation that gives a voice actor the confidence to tell a story in a totally believable way.
Sincerity can actually be heard in the voice. It conveys a sense of trust, compassion, friendliness, approachability and authority. It doesn’t matter whether you’re whispering or screaming; if you’re sincere, you’ll be believable. Conversely, if you’re not sincere about what you’re saying, people can hear the lack of it a mile away. You sound false, hollow, uncaring, flippant, and cynical.
Sincerity can be heard in people who are interested, enthusiastic or passionate in what they’re talking about and who they’re talking to. And if you can’t summon authentic sincerity, people will hear you just going through the reading motions, so to speak; not connecting with what it is you’re saying or to whom you’re communicating.
Sometimes you’ll hear someone voice an ad that sounds like they don’t care about the product or service, and you might think, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I never would’ve done it that way.” Well, a few hip producers at a few renegade ad agencies call this “anti-advertising,” trying to tap into the cynical side of the youth market.
This isn’t the norm, because most advertisers want to have a positive, enthusiastic sound to their brand. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you’ll hear a voice actor totally gushing or puking about the product they’re selling, and their delivery makes you want to gag. Other times you might hear someone exhorting you to buy something, shouting like a circus barker, demanding that you take action and “Come on down!” or “Call now!” All of these approaches are completely lacking in sincerity, and boy, can you hear it.
Sincerity is usually achieved by talking to just one person. Anything you narrate can be aimed at one person–you just need to summon the picture of that person in your mind and pretend you’re talking to them. Or you can literally talk to a picture by clipping one to your music stand. You’ll want to talk to a person who fits the target audience, so if you’re reading copy for a retirement home and your parents fit that target audience, talk to your mom or dad (providing you have a good relationship with them!). If you’re performing copy for a kid’s toy and you have young kids, talk to them. If you don’t have any kids, pretend you’re talking to your friend’s kid. Bottom line: if you want to be believable, be sincere. And mean it. And that brings us to…
Smile, in voice acting, is the element that permeates everything you read. You always have to discern the proper amount of smile you need to put into a read, trying to determine how much is appropriate to what it is you’re talking about. Too much smile on a spot for a cancer center or a cemetery would be inappropriate; not enough smile for a spot for a doll for little girls or miniature racing cars for boys wouldn’t fly.
Smile permeates the known V-O universe. It’s always there–you just have to decide how much or little is right for the copy you’re reading. I look at smile in terms of degrees, from 0Âº to 360Âº. On one end of the spectrum, 0Âº of smile is total evil (though you could be sincerely evil) and 360Âº of smile would be beatific. But most copy falls in between those extremes, and it’s up to you to make the right choice. The places where you have more latitude are in the areas of voiceover that call for characterization–videogames, animation, audiobooks, interactive content. You can look at smiling on a timeline, too–younger listeners require more smile, while older ones, well, you get the picture.
And of course, your smile (or shall I say the sound of your smile) varies, depending on your audience. It’s the tone of voice that you use to speak to different people: you speak differently to younger children than older ones; you speak differently to your kids than to your spouse; to your spouse than to your parents; to your parents than to your boss, etc.
Smiling soothes and smooths out the edges. A super deep or gruff voice that initially sounds scary can be softened instantly with a smile. And conversely, we also know how effective a smile is in signaling the intent of an evil character. And what’s going to make your smile believable? Sincerity (see #1).
No one can see what your body does behind a microphone except the director and the engineer (if you have one). But they can hear what it does, because what you do with your body affects your voice.
Whether you’re sitting or standing, hunched over in a fetal position or running in place, the things you do with your body cause your voice to either sound strained or excited, concerned or tired. Waving your arms, gesturing with your hands, pointing with your fingers, tensing your muscles–these movements and countless more will be echoed in your voice.
When you’re standing, unless it’s integral to the performance, try to remember not to inhibit yourself physically, i.e., don’t cross or fold your arms, don’t clasp your hands in front or behind, or just let them hang by your side. Use them! Gesticulation is really important behind the mic, because people can’t see you! Your message (and meaning) may come out of your mouth, but you need to use your body to help add another dimension to your interpretation. If you’re talking about a number of things, count on your fingers. People can hear you! And if you’re pointing out certain things, point with your fingers.
They can hear that, too! If you’re calling to someone across a room, across the street, anywhere, wave your arms! If something calls for tension, tense up your body. You can do whatever you want with your body as long as your head stays on-mic. Believe me, It’ll come across in your voice.
Not everything calls for standing up. Many people assume that you have to stand for everything you perform–not so. A lot of things call for a warm, caring, intimate, comforting read, and sitting down is totally appropriate for those kinds of performances. They’re what I call “armchair reads”–a more intimate, storytelling style. Imagine sitting in an armchair in front of a fireplace, talking with someone. That’s a completely different dynamic than standing. Or sitting next to someone at a table or classroom, explaining something to them. You’ll still be gesticulating, but not just as much as you would when you’re standing.
Use your arms and hands to help you with action words and phrases. For instance, if you had to say, “Hey, come over here,” you should use your hand to motion that person over. If you had to say, “Stop right now,” you could easily stretch out your arm with your hand upraised. “Come over here, gimme a hug” needs you to open your arms in a welcoming motion. Get the picture? All of these physical movements will add depth to your performance, and therefore believability. And might I even say…sincerity?
One more thing about physicality: It really helps to be as physically fit behind the microphone as possible. If you smoke or do a lot of drinking, it really comes through in your voice. If you’re out of shape, you’ll run out of breath at the end of long sentences, and tire easily. For long or difficult sessions, you may not have the stamina to be as strong at the end of your performance as you were at the beginning. Plus, don’t forget that sleep affects your performance as well–from energy to eye-brain-mouth coordination to hearing and taking direction. Getting a good night’s sleep is crucial to a great performance.
So the next time you get behind the microphone, make sure your body is in sync with your voice. People will hear it!
Marc Cashman Â© 2010