What does it take to become a successful voice-over?
It has a little bit to do with having pleasant pipes, and a whole lot with other factors. Some of those factors can be influenced. Others are beyond our control.
A few weeks ago, one of my students had an interesting question for me. Professionally speaking (pun intended, always), she was doing okay. Clients loved working with her. Business was getting better every year. Yet, she felt that something was preventing her from reaching that proverbial “next level,” and she couldn’t figure out what to do.
“Paul,” she said, “I’ve read all the books on voice-over I could find, including yours. I follow the best bloggers. I listen to podcasts, and I watch videos on VO. What am I missing? I seem to be stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results. How do I move forward from here?”
“What you’re really asking,” I said, “is how to get from good to great. Am I right?”
“Well, the first thing you have to realize is that growth is a gradual process. You don’t expect a seed to bloom the next day, do you? We all grow in different ways at different speeds.
People can teach you new techniques, but it may take a while before those techniques become second nature. However, at your level, techniques are usually not the issue. Other things are holding you back. One of the main obstacles to growth is familiarity. You said it yourself.”
“What do you mean?” my student asked.
“You can call it coasting, if you like. You just told me that you were stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results.
Secondly, you seem to be looking for inspiration and guidance within your field. Again: you’re focusing on the familiar. You already know how to interpret a script. I think you can handle a microphone. You don’t better yourself by doing things that are easy and predictable. That’s like working out without weights.
If you really want to grow as a person and as a professional, you’ve got to look elsewhere. That’s where the challenges will be, and challenges will help you grow. Now, here’s the amazing thing: growth in one area of your life will positively influence growth in other areas of your life.”
“Any suggestions as to what I should do?” my student asked.
“Plenty,” I said. “Here’s one:
1. Start leading a healthy life.
A year ago, one of my students was in bad shape. He was overweight, he sat in his recording booth for long periods of time and his diet had way too much sugar, fat and salt in it. It affected his mood, his self-image, and his self-confidence. I could hear it in his voice. His breathing was very shallow, and he sounded insecure.
One day, he decided he had had enough, and he joined a gym. He exercised at least five times a week, and started shedding pounds. In the kitchen he began using fresh, organic ingredients, and he filled his plate with fruits and vegetables. Within two months, he felt more energetic and alive, and people told him he looked better.
His renewed energy and enthusiasm could be heard in the way he spoke when the mic was on, and when the mic was off. Because he felt better, he performed better, and he began booking more and more jobs. For him, leading a healthy lifestyle was the key that brought him to the next level.
Here’s another thing you can do:
2. Learn a foreign language.
Forget tongue twisters and other vocal exercises. Start studying that language you’ve always wanted to learn! A new language is a doorway to a different culture. Every language has its own rhythm and melody. You’ll even start thinking differently when speaking a foreign language.
Becoming bilingual benefits the brain. It improves cognitive skills that don’t even have to do with language. Bilinguals are better at solving puzzles, better at staying on task, and being bilingual can even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.
One of my students decided to learn Italian at a later point in life. It took her a couple of years, but after a few vacations near Florence she was almost fluent. As a bilingual voice talent, a whole new market opened up. She claims that she feels much more flexible, vocally speaking, and that it has become easier to do all sorts of accents and character voices.
But there’s more you can do to take your career to the next level:
3. Join a community theater or improv group.
Voice-overs are usually so stuck to their scripts… they have a hard time letting it go, and letting it flow. When you’re forced to memorize your words to perform on stage, you not only train your brain. You also learn how to speak your lines, instead of reading them. It’s also a very physical experience.
Rather than talking into a microphone, you get to inter-act with real people who re-act to what you’re saying. You get instant feedback on how you land your lines, not only from your fellow-actors but from the audience. You have a whole new way of getting into character.
Improv classes are a great way to learn to loosen up, and become conversational. Name one client who doesn’t ask for a “conversational read”?
I remember an audio book narrator who was stuck in his studio most of the time. Some people thought he was anti-social. When he finally joined an improv group, he made new friends who thought he was witty, funny, and charming. Two years later, the introvert has become quite extroverted, and his loyal listeners love the way his audio book characters bounce off the page like never before.”
“Those are some great suggestions,” said my student. “Is there anything else you’d recommend?”
“Well, how about you…
4. Take singing lessons, and join a choir.
Voice-overs talk for a living, yet too many of them have no clue how to use their voice. Their range is limited, their diction is off, and after half an hour, vocal fatigue sets in. Using your voice means using muscles, the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles to be exact.
Taking singing lessons is like going to the gym for your voice. You’ll learn effective warm-ups, proper pronunciation and projection, and you’ll train the muscles needed to produce sound. After a while, your voice will become stronger, clearer, more resonant and more flexible. Your listening skills and timing will improve, and you’ll be able to infuse your scripts with musicality.
On top of that, you’ll have yet another reason to get off your behind, and rehearse with your choir. There’s nothing like the sweet sensation of voices blending, creating harmonies and melodies that soothe the soul.
The main thing to remember is that everything is connected. The change you make in one area of your life is likely to affect other areas of your life.
Whatever you decide to do, you are the goose with the golden eggs, so you had better take good care of yourself.
Step out of your comfort zone, but be patient. It might take a while before you see the payoff of your pursuits.
Eventually, things will fall into place in a most surprising and delightful way.
Take it from me, the exercising, multilingual, singing amateur stage actor!”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be sweet. Please retweet!
Spot on. The thing about VO is tenacity. Stick with it, grow, learn and keep learning and improving the craft. I do a lot of theater, and have reached the point where I’m paid to be on stage. Not a LOT, but I don’t work for free anymore!
You learn from other actors and each director.
Then jump into musical theater. Or join an A Cappella group. The more you do with your voice, the better.
Make it your instrument.
Jan Eliot says
Another great article! Thanks Paul. I started taking improv about a year ago and it has not only improved my reads but it’s so much fun to play – drop any worry about doing it right – just play and of course we laugh a lot too!
I’m also thinking I will take some courses to improve my French instead of loose my French 🙂
Joshua Alexander says
Well let’s see. I’ve already been a singer and I still sing in the shower. I took Italian and can still speak it (un po). I have been in community theatre and recently took an acting class. So what’s left? *pause for effect* OH YEAH! I’m fat! MAN do I need Step 1 in my life right now…thanks for the reminder, il mio buon amico…