Voice Talents often struggle with how free they should get with an audition. On the other hand, clients want their copy to come alive, but they are cautious about how far to let the talent stray, and rightly so. Where and how do you draw the line?
I have a client who will send me copy and some explanation of what they are trying to accomplish with the spot they want me to voice. Occasionally this client will suggest the style that they were thinking about when they wrote it. But each time she ends her instructions with, “Please play with it.”
Very early when I started working for them, I asked if they wanted me to submit a take where I played a bit with the copy. There was a long pause then she answered, “Well, no one’s ever asked that before. Sure, go ahead. We probably won’t use it but knock yourself out.”
Well, you know how the story ends. The client went with the delivery I played with.
It doesn’t happen every time, but a huge part of the time the client will hear that more casual read with a slight ad-lib or fresh interpretation thrown in and love it.
I’m convinced that one of the main reasons is that they’ve heard the submitted copy so many times, and debated it so many times, and heard so many people read it the same way over and over that when something comes across that breaks the mold or the rhythm, their ears perk up and they hear their copy in a fresh and invigorating way. And that is exactly what they want their customers to hear!
I have a new approach to submitting VO takes to clients whether as projects or as auditions: to get my clients to expect something they don’t expect.
It’s not always possible. Sometimes the copy just doesn't lend itself to that. Sometimes the directions are very clear otherwise. But when the opportunity is there, take that shot. Surprise your client. Surprise yourself!
Here are some ways to do that:
1. Focus on the words of contrast, and let them do what they are supposed to do. By contrast, I mean the words that make the copy come to life. Not by volume but by interpretation (although occasionally that may require a change in volume). Show some love to descriptive words, such as verbs and adjectives, without selling or distracting.
2. Watch the rhythm and musicality of your delivery. It’s real easy to get into a pattern of “rhythmic phrasing,” especially when reading out loud.
Here’s a great little experiment. While listening to something that you’ve read and recorded, draw your voice pattern on a sheet of paper. If you see the same or similar pattern repeating itself, you need to work on your delivery!
The most common pattern is one that starts high and ends low. If you were to draw it, it would look a bit like the side of a ragged mountain.
3. Be careful of “news reads.” You’ll notice that most newscasters on TV and radio have a very specific lilt and volume to their delivery. It’s a very precise, mechanical, and consistent pattern that comes from reading news story after news story after news story. It works fine for news, but it is almost never what the creative agency wants. They want a more natural and conversational delivery. It includes less projection and a greater connection with the copy and the targeted audience.
4. When it comes to the audition copy, forget about the time. Seriously. Now, sometimes the client will want to see if the copy fits the time. Fine, give them that, but make your money audition one that generally disregards time and focuses on the story. If you get the job, then you can focus on the timing.
5. If you’re stuck trying to find a creative interpretation, here are a few suggestions to get the juices flowing:
a. If it is for a commercial, read it backwards, sentence by sentence. Why? Usually the ending of the commercial is extremely important. That is where the slogan or tag is. Often, that is where you find the final urgent call to action. Many times that is the resolution of the copy. Reading the spot backwards, sentence by sentence, will help you understand the structure of the whole spot. Record it and listen back to each sentence. I’ll bet you will have found one of the best ways to deliver that particular sentence in the correct order of the spot.
b. Go through and highlight the words you should show a little love to. Not necessarily the action or power words. Try the adjectives and adverbs and see what happens.
c. Study each sentence and then say it without looking at the copy, pretending you are saying it to a listener that you visualize. Then edit those sentences together.
d. Try a different awkward posture. Perhaps standing on one foot, or arms straight up over your head. Be inventive. What that helps do is cause a slight distraction that gets you out of your way.
e. Whether the project is for video or not, visualize what it should or could look like. Study the copy to see if there is any unusual way that it can be interpreted.
f. Become a character or alter-ego that delivers the copy.
g. Read each line as fast as possible, then as slow as possible, and then finally, at the speed you feel to be natural. Make sure you’re recording. You might discover a very fresh, compelling delivery.
6. After you’ve recorded the audition, listen to it a few times with a very critical ear, and ask yourself the following questions:
a. Is this a different delivery than what everyone else is submitting?
b. Am I bringing anything fresh to this interpretation?
c. Do I really understand what the copywriter intended?
d. Am I believable and connected with the listener?
It’s real easy for voice talents to fall into a “default mode” and sound like every one else. It’s safe. It’s convenient. It’s lazy. And it won’t get you hired. Why even waste your time? Why waste the client’s time?
Playing with the copy (unless the client doesn’t want that) will do a number of things if done right. It will get you out of a rut. It will brand you as creative; a risk taker. It will get the producer’s attention, which is especially important if there are a lot of people auditioning for the project. And most importantly, it will help you connect with the copy and the listener.
One of my favorite lessons I learned about this was from one of several opportunities I had to work with the late T. Max Graham. A recording session with him was a crazy lesson in creativity and humor. T. Max had a knack for finding and interpreting little nuances in copy that made it come alive in a way none of the rest of us had seen. In this one particular VO session, he played a customer looking for something at a hardware store. I was the store manager.
His first line was “Uh…I need a nail.” As the store manager, it was my job to find out what kind of nail, what he was going to use it for, etc. But T.Max never got past that first line. He just kept repeating it different ways as an answer to each question that I asked. By the time we got to the AVO line at the end, we were howling!
The client, who had tears from laughing so hard said, “We gotta go with that!”
I have a client who will often ask me to submit an audition for a new project. Sometimes he’ll close the conversation with, “If it’ll make me smile, it’ll be worth your while.” I love that! It’s an invitation to play!