Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 1

Yuja Wang performing with the National Youth Orchestra of China at Carnegie Hall on July 22, 2017

Yuja Wang

A new year, a new career?

It’s almost 2019, and if you’re one of the many people who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, this is for you. Before you leave your day job, you need to hear from someone on the inside what life is like when you depend on your voice for a living.

I can tell you one thing right now: in spite of what you may have heard, it’s not what you think it is. Far from it. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, so please trust that I know what I am talking about.

I have to warn you, though. You may hear me say a few things you don’t want to hear. Please keep an open mind. It’s not my job to either encourage or discourage you from following your dream. If there’s a fire burning inside of you, don’t let me put it out. Use this information to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

So, why is doing voice-overs so hard?

Anything that seems easy, usually isn’t.

It sounds like no big deal, doesn’t it? Talking for a living. We all do it, incessantly. Human beings need to communicate, so, why not get paid for it? Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer J. Simpson is said to be worth over $60 million, just like Nancy Cartwright who voices Bart Simpson. All they do is blabber into a microphone.

Seeing them at work in the studio, voice acting looks like so much effortless fun, and that’s where you make your first mistake. What you see is the result of unique talent, and many, many years of training, hard work, and experience.

In a way it’s like watching Yuja Wang perform a Rachmaninov piano concerto. Her playing is so fast and fluent that it’s easy to forget that even at the peak of her career, she has to practice many hours a day to get to a point where it becomes seamless and second nature.

In our society, we tend to fixate on the end result, and ignore the long and arduous journey to success. Please keep in mind that those who do well as voice-overs are in it for the long haul, and they realize that instant gratification is an illusion sold to you by people who want your money.

Back to the musical metaphor.

The relationship of a musician to a score is like the relationship of an actor to a script. You’ve got to make the words your own, finding the right tone, melody, and rhythm.

Here’s a question for you: There’s a difference between playing the notes and making music.

Anyone can read, but can you actually make music?

Let me take that back. Not everyone can read. Most people think they can, but when you give them a few lines, their volume drops, they start stammering and become very self-conscious. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. You put emphasis on the wrong words. You mumble as your tongue dries up. What comes out of your mouth sounds stilted instead of spontaneous. And when I point that out, you tell me:

“Here’s the problem, Paul. This script… those are not my words. I would never say it that way. That’s why I’m having so much trouble.”

Well, there’s your challenge! At one point, Nancy Cartwright had to find her Bart Simpson, and Dan Castellaneta his Homer (as well as the many other characters they play). They were asked to say things they would never say in real life, and convince the rest of the world they meant every word of it.

That’s part of why voice acting is so difficult. You’re paid to sound authentic and sincere, even when you’re faking it and the script sucks. And take it from me that more than half of the scripts you’ll be asked to voice are written to be read, not spoken, with too many words and too little time.

Meanwhile, you and I are still working on that text I just gave you. Now let’s put you in front of a microphone, and we’ll add an audience to the mix. Let’s assume you’re in a recording studio and the client is listening to your session, together with the director and the sound engineer.

Are you ready for that? After all, people have told you that you have “such a great voice.” How would you handle your nerves? How would you deal with last-minute script changes? How would you respond to feedback that isn’t necessarily positive? Are you patient enough to work for two hours on a thirty-second script, laying down take after take? Will your voice hold up, even when asked to scream enthusiastically over and over again?

All of the above assumes that you have passed the first hurdle: the microphone. Most people become very self-conscious when someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they don’t know where to put their hands or how to hold their head. The same thing happens with a microphone.

Once you’re aware that every sound you make is being recorded, the pressure is on. And when I say every sound, I mean every sound. Even the sounds you’re not aware of. Every breath, every lip smack, every pop, every click, every snap, bone crackle, and stomach rumble.

The microphone is like a merciless magnifying glass exposing all your imperfections.

These are just some of the things you have to confront as a voice-over professional. You have to…

Sound natural in an unnatural situation, and act as if you’re not acting.

To be honest, most people can’t do it, and they don’t need to because they have other talents and ambitions. Not every piano student wants to have a career like Yuja Wang, but those who do, better prepare themselves!

Next week I’ll talk about another aspect of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult:

It’s a freakin’ business!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio

7 Responses to Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 1

  1. Joe Van Riper

    There are clichés for that… “Took me years to become an overnight success!” (My favorite.) Thanks for your always spot-on observations.

    [Reply]

  2. Fred North

    The article is on the money…the video is a classic! Thanks for posting.

    [Reply]

  3. Leesha S

    Love the video. It’s always good to know that it’s not just me.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Did you notice that the director and the voice actor were one and the same person?

    [Reply]

    Michael Baer Reply:

    For myself, not until the credits rolled. I did a double-take and went back to check. Marvellous and enjoyable performances.

    [Reply]

  4. Paul Stefano

    Exactly on point Paul, as always. The question is, how do you get the folks hiring voices to understand this as well?

    I’m not talking about LA or NY casting directors, or even the creative directors at large companies. There’s not a week that goes by, however, where I don’t have to argue with someone who is hiring a voice talent for the first time and inadvertently insults my profession. The conversation usually goes something like this. “Our budget is $50 for 60 seconds of audio. What? its easy for you, just couple of minutes of your time right?”

    Of course, as you mentioned even if I do nail the job in one take, the ability and talent to do that job in 60 seconds, took years of time and thousands of dollars to develop!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    The trouble is: you can’t get anyone to do something they don’t want to do, unless you use force. It took me years to learn that lesson. The best way to change behavior is to not give them what they want, and to reward them when they come over to your side and pay proper fee.

    Unfortunately, we’re not being screwed by low-budget clients. We’re screwed by so-called colleagues willing to work for peanuts, thus teaching these cheapskate clients that they can get something for practically nothing. So, how do we influence our low-budget “friends”? My way is to write blogs like the one you’e commenting on. You do it via your awesome podcast, the VO-meter.

    [Reply]

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