Whether you’re new to voiceover acting or a seasoned pro, the goal is always to open up new avenues in your pursuit of career success. One way to take advantage of broader, more lucrative career opportunities is by tapping into deeper layers of your vocal repertoire in ways that better connect with today’s audiences. Consider that most people get into voice acting in part, because they believe the quality of their voice attracts instant attention and compliments. Whether you sound like Darth Vader or a quirky cartoon character, it was your raw vocal quality that got you to the doorstep of voice acting. But just as today’s singers no longer sound like the singers of the 1920s, what’s expected from voice actors has evolved dramatically. Understanding this evolving principle is your ticket to both short-term and long-term success.
Clearly, certain voices stand out because they’re incredibly unique, quirky, resonant, deep, etc. Once upon a time, TV and radio were places where unique voices (especially male) ruled the air waves. Those were the innocent days when consumers expected a TV or radio voice to sound more exciting than real life voices. They expected it to be authoritative, rousing, and even otherworldly. No one was interested in a voice that sounded like the guy next door. After all, the guy next door doesn’t know any more than you do. In the innocence of the era, the “uniqueness of the voice” was the sole proof we needed to know that the advertisement was somehow official and true. Mind you, those were the same ads that told us cigarettes were healthy and that Geritol could cure “iron poor blood.”
Uniqueness for the sake of uniqueness is no longer the way of advertising because consumers have become marketing savvy. Nowadays, it’s the person with a natural, authentic vocal quality—like the voices we hear in our everyday lives—who may be holding the winning lottery ticket to a successful voiceover career. That doesn’t mean there’s no longer a place for the more traditional style of voice acting. And it doesn’t mean that just anyone can succeed at doing voiceover. Training and tradecraft are still critical. What it means is that the criteria for what constitutes a viable voice talent have changed. The everyday, natural speaking voice is the hot commodity in the voiceover business of today and one’s ability to render that quality is an asset.
In place of the societal innocence of yesteryear, a whole new consumer cynicism has taken center stage. There’s just no fooling them anymore. Today, even if a consumer wants and needs what you’re selling, they suspect that they’ll somehow be swindled in the process of buying it. The bottom line is that consumers have learned that they must verify the advertiser’s claims for themselves. They know they’re more likely to get the truth about a product from someone who’s used it (a friend, family member, or co-worker) than from someone whose job depends on selling it.
Advertisers realized they couldn’t beat this trend so they embraced by finding voices that helped mitigate the consumer backlash. They found that though consumers listen through a veil of cynicism, they will be a little less guarded if the voiceover fits their picture of a trustworthy person in their everyday lives. Just look at the proliferation of websites that provide consumer reviews by real people and you can sense what advertisers and voiceover actors are challenged to accomplish.
Another way to understand what goes into today’s voices, is to look at the fashion business. The fashion expert is known for his or her knack for discovering a potential super model in a plain looking woman who goes mostly unnoticed by everyone else. The fashion expert recognizes the seemingly inconsequential nuances and subtleties that cause a sensation on the runway. This is the case for talent agents in search of voice actors. Talent agents zero in on vocal attributes that are not obvious to the average person. That your friends and family think you have a great voice may be reason enough to explore the possibility of doing voiceovers, but you may also be one of those people who would never be noticed, except by a professional with a trained ear for today’s marketplace. We recently spoke to a young and very successful voice actor who, while working as a janitor, caught the attention of a major talent agent. The agent told the young 19-year-old that his voice had a “cool and contemporary sound that fit today’s marketplace.” The young janitor took it to heart and launched himself into pursuing the craft. The key for the young janitor was to learn the craft without losing “himself.” Now in his middle 20s, he’s currently among the top voice actors in the country, working with a top agency on an exclusive union basis.
Does your voice have that intangible magic, beyond timbre and texture, that strikes a chord of authenticity in the listener? Can you learn to summon those intangibles when you’re performing a script for a TV commercial, documentary, or animated character? How can you know?
The only way to know is to start training and to put yourself out there in front of the professional ears. And we’re not talking about training in the way one learns a new invoicing system to keep up with changes at work. We mean training as in a life practice to compete at the highest levels in one of the most competitive fields in media. Think of something akin to training to become a black belt in the martial arts and you’ll be on the right track. Make no mistake that you’re embarking on an exciting journey of mastering a craft that is beautiful and complex and highly rewarding. Some actors raise it to the level of art.
No, you don’t have to go to Juilliard or become an expert on Shakespeare, though neither would hurt, and you don’t have to be a celebrity. You do have to embrace the most basic principle of acting, which is to “act as if”—to pretend faithfully. These concepts of craft and technique are teachable. But the teacher can’t tell you how well or quickly you will learn until they have the opportunity to work with you, to witness your diligence or lack thereof. You’ll have to jump into water if you want to learn to swim—and this includes seasoned pros looking to dive into deeper waters. If you’re asking a teacher to tell you whether you’ve got the right stuff, you’re already operating from a deficit. All you need from a teacher is for him or her to teach and guide and inspire—not judge and deter. All the teacher needs from you is that you be the best student you can be. With good training and/or an uncanny knack, possessed by a select few, your everyday, regular, undiscovered voice could be the next successful voice of the decade.
So, what’s in a voice? What is it that the talent agent heard in the voice of the janitor who had no training or exposure to the entertainment business?
- The pulse of the times
- A passion to touch, move, and inspire others
- The life you've led
- The people who have nurtured and shaped you
- Your ability to summon your unique self in service of the script
- The intangibles
In short, what’s in a voice is YOU!
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Joan Baker is the author of "Secrets of Voiceover Success," and the winner of multiple Promax and Telly awards for commercial and documentary voiceover performances. She is an actor, voice actor, and teacher. Baker trains individuals and groups in the craft of voice acting and VO career management. She has written trade articles for Backstage, Adweek, Multichannel and Broadcast & Cable.
Rudy Gaskins, is an Emmy Award-winning creative director and branding expert. He launched Push Creative Advertising in 2001, after holding executive roles at Court TV and Food Network. His accounts span American Express, Tribeca Film Festival, Lexus and BET. Rudy has written, produced and directed hundreds of commercials, promos, and marketing campaigns and has directed documentaries for PBS.
Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins are the co-founders of That’s Voiceover!, an annual career expo, and the creators of the newly formed Society of Voice Arts and Sciences and the Voice Arts Awards.