By now you may already know that this was my second year as a judge for the One Voice Awards (OVA), UK edition, and my first time as a judge for the USA Awards. That doesn’t mean that I will be back again next year, but if I am, you’ll never find out until every award has been handed out. Why is that?
Well, in order to maintain the integrity of the competition and prevent possible interference, no one knows who the judges are. As judges, we don’t even know the names of our fellow-judges. This, by the way, is one important element that distinguishes the One Voice Awards from, let’s say, the Voice Arts® Awards.
Since no one has ever written about being a voice over judge, I thought I’d share some behind-the-scenes observations with you, and give you some insight into how I approach judging my peers.
WHO AM I TO JUDGE?
First off, how does one become a judge? It’s simple. I was approached by the organizers of the OVA. What their selection criteria for being a VO judge are, I don’t know, but I suspect they were looking for people with experience in the business and folks who seem to know what they are talking about when it comes to all things VO.
I’ve been behind the microphone since I joined Dutch National Youth Radio at age seventeen. I’m fifty-nine now…. You do the math. My blog is one of the most widely read and popular blogs in our community, and I think it has established me as an opinionated expert people trust. I say that in all modesty, by the way.
But why did I say “yes” when they asked me to be a judge? Don’t I have enough on my plate?
True. Judging a competition of this caliber with so many entries is a lot of work, but that doesn’t bother me. One of my core values is that I want to be of service to the community I love and respect. I know how much a nomination or a win can mean for someone’s career, reputation, and self-esteem. What could be more rewarding than to play a small part in that? By the way, judges don’t get paid for their services. It’s a labor of love. Lots of love!
Secondly, I am proud to be associated with the One Voice Awards, and the people behind it: Peter Dickson, Hugh Edwards, and J. Michael Collins, as well as with their top-notch staff. This is a very professional organization that runs a very professional and prestigious competition. It is FREE for everyone to enter, and if you win you do not have to pay for your prize.
Lastly, it is tremendously exciting to get the opportunity to listen to so many entries from the most talented people in our industry. We are talking about the best of the best at the top of their game! I’ve never been more impressed than this year!
For how long do I listen to each submission?
When you’re at a restaurant, you probably know at the first bite that you’re in for a treat. Here’s my rule of thumb when it comes to VO competitions: I listen for as long as it takes for me to form an opinion. When something is really, really good, I can tell very quickly, but I usually listen for at least a couple of minutes to confirm my initial impression. I will often go back to entries I have already listened to, to be sure I made the right choice.
Things like audiobooks and video games tend to take a bit more time for obvious reasons. Some voice actors perform multiple characters and I often enjoy a performance so much that I can’t stop listening!
Is it possible to be one hundred percent impartial?
First off, the judges don’t know who they are judging. We only receive anonymous audio and/or video. If you’re a judge based in the UK, I’m sure you’ll recognize a few familiar voices. That can’t be avoided. However, since I live and work in the USA, I am not very acquainted with the sound of my UK colleagues. There were lots of USA voices that did surprise me too. In a good way!
Either way, no matter where a judge lives, we’re all voting for the best performance, not for the person we know or don’t know. Judges must abstain from voting in a particular category if there is a conflict of interest, or a perceived conflict of interest. They also can’t vote for themselves in case they have submitted an entry in a certain category.
Secondly, a judge is supposed to be neutral but not impartial. Being impartial means treating all equally. If we would do that, ALL nominees would win. Our job is to be partial to ONE talent, and declare him or her or they, the winner.
I’ll admit, it’s a subjective process, but if you add all the individual subjective opinions up, someone always comes out on top, unless you have a tie.
What criteria do I use to evaluate all the entries in the One Voice Competition?
This is where things get interesting because the One Voice Awards judges do not receive a list of criteria they can simply check off. The organization trusts that we come to our judgment in our own unique way.
This is what I take into consideration as a judge:
- Technical proficiency
- Artistic performance
The first element is highly objective, and the second one is quite subjective.
With technical proficiency I mean the sound quality of the recording and the microphone and vocal technique used. With so many top talents entering the final round of the competition, this is never an issue. Many entries were clearly recorded, mixed, and mastered in professional studios by professional sound engineers.
However, for talent that uses a home studio I think we should always take the quality of the recording into consideration. Without fail it separates the amateur from the pro.
THE ESSENCE OF ARTISTRY
This brings me to artistic performance. It’s one of those tricky things that means different things to different people. That’s why there are many judges and many opinions.
Here’s my take on it.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that every winning argument had three components: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos refers to authority and credibility. Pathos refers to an emotional reaction. Logos means that things make sense; they sound reasonable and compelling.
For me as a judge, winning performances need to be totally credible, persuasive, and have heart.
Picking the best artistic performance has to be based on more than a gut feeling, although that often comes into play as well. That feeling has to be based on something I should be able to explain and defend.
Just as in music competitions, the talent has to show more than technical mastery. You may play all the right notes, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually making music that moves people on an emotional level. Translated to voice overs one could argue that one may recite all the right lines, without making a meaningful impact.
Ideally, it has to be both. The talent has to say the right words (ethos) in the right way (logos) AND touch the listener with the message he/she/they is hired to convey (pathos).
Now, what we know from persuasive communication theory is that feelings tend to have a greater impact than facts.
So, the one thing I was constantly asking myself as I was listening to all the entries was:
What am I feeling? To what extent am I moved, and what exactly is it about the performance that is moving me?
THE IMPORTANCE OF PURPOSE
By “moved” I don’t mean that I have to be in tears after a performance. This is what I mean:
Every script, every performance has a purpose. To what extent did the talent succeed in communicating that purpose?
Sometimes the purpose is to seduce the listener, to make someone laugh, to make someone angry, to scare someone, or to make someone want to take a certain action (e.g. buy a product, or sign up for a service).
As an award-worthy talent you need to change something inside of me that is the opposite of indifference. Having listened to your message, I want to experience an internal transformation of some sort. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter.
Someone once told me that after having read a very good book, they feel like a different person. I realize that’s a very high bar, but at the One Voice Awards the bar is extremely high!
So, I listen for purpose, and emotional impact. But there’s more. The opposite of indifference is something called interestingness. It’s the power of attracting or holding one’s attention because it is unusual, exciting, or memorable (in a good way). That’s what I am listening for as a judge.
If you don’t sound interesting, I am not interested.
Practically speaking this means that you don’t have to have the most glorious, resonant, beautiful voice to win an award. It’s what you do with your voice that matters so much more.
THE VOICE OVER AS SERVANT
Let me add another element to the mix: being a conduit. In essence, voice overs are servants, not masters. For musicians it’s about the music, not the applause. They are paid to serve the wishes of the composer to the best of their abilities.
What a musical score is to a musician, is a script to a voice over. Judging all these entries I constantly asked myself:
Does the voice over serve the content without obscuring or overpowering it?
In other words: is the VO content-serving or self-serving?
There is a reason we are called voice OVERS. It’s rarely ever about us. We are supportive. We deliver ADDED value. If someone is clearly on an ego trip, they’re not getting my vote.
THE FINAL QUESTION
Before I agreed to become a judge, I had to ask myself one more question:
What makes an exceptional voice over?
Before you move on to read my thoughts, why not take a moment to come up with your own answer? You’ll probably find that it’s easier to ask the question than to answer it.
Yet, as a judge, this is the one thing it all boils down to!
I’ll be honest, it was a question I could only answer after having listened to hundreds of submissions. It gave me an opportunity to compare. After all, that’s what judging is about: to separate the “truly brilliant” from the “very good.”
This is the answer I finally came up with:
Just as the best home studios don’t sound like one, the very best voice overs don’t sound like a voice over.
They sound like real people I can relate to who are exceptional at delivering a message in a naturally convincing and often moving way. This is even true for character work that may sound over the top. Even a caricature has to be convincing. I mean: Aladdin’s genie still was Robin Williams, right?
The performances that don’t make it to my selection are often the ones where the talent is trying too hard to sound like what they think a voice over should sound like.
THIS IS ME
Bear in mind that this is still MY TAKE on being a voice over judge. I’m not speaking on behalf of the One Voice Awards, or any of my fellow-judges. I don’t pretend that I am the ultimate authority on voice over competitions and judging my peers. Some of the winners I picked didn’t go home with an award because the majority of judges did not agree with me.
Now, if you didn’t win, please keep this in mind:
Just because someone else did well doesn’t mean you did poorly.
The fact that you didn’t win doesn’t make you a loser.
In my experience, there were many, many close calls. The difference between my number one, two, and three was often a matter of splitting very thin hairs.
If you did win an award, I am so happy for you! I hope that the impact of winning will exceed even your most daring expectations. Enjoy the limelight, and never take your achievement for granted.
Take in the applause, and then bring your focus back to the music.
As they say: “You’re only as good as your last performance!”