Well… some of them,” said one of my colleagues, known for her strong opinions.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because they ask for the impossible, especially when it comes to accents.” Her argument went like this…
Take your typical voice-over job listing:
Project: Short Video
Age: Middle Aged
Budget: Embarrassingly low (but it’s great experience!)
Here’s the 64,000 dollar question: based on this description:
Should you take a few moments of your valuable time to record a demo?
If the answer is YES, what’s going to be your approach? How do you know what the client will be listening for? What exactly does she need to hear to hire you?
Here’s the honest answer: YOU HAVE NO CLUE!
It’s the story of a man walking into a bar asking for “a drink.” The bartender randomly selects a bottle and pours a trendy macaroon-infused vodka. After one disgusting sip the man turns to the barman and says: “That’s not what I wanted!” The bartender responds: “How was I supposed to know? You could have been a bit more specific!”
The barman has a point. So, let’s see if we can be more precise in our imaginary job description by adding one word:
Language: English (British)
That’s a big help, isn’t it? The voice-seeker simply wants a UK-accent.
But not too fast…is there such a thing as a “British accent“?
As you know, the United Kingdom consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even though there’s a great degree of uniformity when it comes to written British English within the UK, when a Scotsman from Aberdeen and a Cockney from London open their mouths, they sound like they’re from a different planet. Some might argue they actually are. Bottom line: a uniform “British accent” is as real as the Loch Ness Monster.
To get a better idea of the variety of British inflections, the BBC captured 1,200 voices of the United Kingdom, Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man, and made them available online.
All you had to do is click on a dot on the map, and it would take you to an audio clip of a regional speaker. Get this: some of the clips had to be subtitled! Even seasoned BBC listeners couldn’t always understand some of their fellow countrymen and women.
Unfortunately, this resource is no longer available.
But what about RP, you might ask. RP or Received Pronunciation is sometimes called “The Queen’s English” or BBC English. It is estimated that only 2 percent of UK citizens speak a pure form of RP.
Recordings show that even Queen Elizabeth has changed her accent over the past 50 years, and the BBC has long abandoned the policy of only hiring people for their posh pronunciation. Instead, you’ll find a wide range of accents at the Beeb, and these days, a mock 1950’s BBC accent is only used in comedy.
Voice-seekers wake up!
BBC English died a long time ago. You probably aren’t even looking for a British accent, but for a stereotype. A cliché. And if that’s not what you want, you need to be much more specific. John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, Russel Brand and Sir Ian McKellen all have UK accents. But do they sound the same? To quote Monty Python: “Say no more!”
THE NEW WORLD
An estimated two thirds of all native English speakers live in the United States. The English spoken on the streets of Miami is remarkably different from the accents you’ll hear in the Deep South or in Vancouver.
Many of the nation’s newscasters tend to speak GA (General American) or ABE (American Broadcast English). Television journalist Linda Ellerbee, who worked hard to eliminate a Texas accent, said: “in television you are not supposed to sound like you’re from anywhere”.
So, is that what voice-seekers want when they ask for a North American accent? Shall we pretend that we came out of nowhere and sound as neutral as the taste of tap water?
Should we, like Linda Ellerbee, lose our Southern twang and work hard to sound just like the Cronkites, the Lauers, and the Courics? Will that land us the job? Or should we look at our accent as an asset; something that distinguishes us from the rest of the pack?
Here’s the thing: why sound like everyone else? Why not bring some color to the grey masses? Geico’s gecko doesn’t speak ABE. And what about that “fabulous” Orbit chewing gum girl? These actors didn’t get the gig because they went for “neutral.”
Voice-seekers, please listen to me: you don’t want to have to weed through hours of auditions. But you have to help us out here: tell us what you want in as much detail as possible. If you want me to sing it, you need to bring it. If you don’t give us a clear idea of the destination, how are we supposed to get there?
Here’s by far the worst thing you could ever throw at us:
Language: English (neutral)
Who came up with that brilliant idea? What does “neutral” sound like? It’s like asking Bobby Flay to cook a flavorless meal. Can you imagine a casting director asking Kevin Spacey who is auditioning for a role, to play the part without personality? Would snowboarder Shaun White enjoy such worldwide appeal, had he chosen to stay Mr. Plain and boring?
It boils down to this.
An accent is a way of pronouncing a language. It is therefore impossible to speak without an accent. No one is neutral. And I’ll tell you something else: voice seekers are starting to realize that their voice of choice could have a dramatic impact on the conversion rate of their website. Here’s where it gets really interesting for people like you and me…
Ginger software makes a contextual grammar and spelling checker that enables writers to produce error-free texts. It’s geared toward people for whom English is a second language. Ginger asked video optimization firm EyeView to develop an introductory video for their homepage to increase the conversion of this page for visitors.
The conversion goal for the page was for visitors to click the Free Download button. EyeView had a choice to make. Would they go with a British narrator, or with an American talent? Would it even make a difference? What do you think?
EyeView decided to run a test: 50% of the global audience saw the video with a British voice-over, and 50% saw it with the voice-over performed with an American accent. The result: globally, the British voice-over was 4% more effective at converting visitors into downloaders. The Catholic Church would be thrilled with this rate of conversion! But wait… there’s more! EyeView:
“For US audiences, the conversion rate for the British accent was 5.5% higher than the American one – above the global average. In Canada, the British accent still outperformed the American, but by a mere 1.5%.
Irish viewers watching the British version converted 12% more often than those hearing an American voice while the response of the Australians was even more extreme. Viewers “down under” converted 32% more often when pitched with Pommy tones than with an American twang.”
Only in the UK and India, the American voice-over outperformed her British counterpart. So much for “neutral”. And so far, Ginger has seen a 15% increase in the number of people downloading their software.
The next time you wonder whether or not you should do that voice-over job for $125, think of the tremendous impact your voice can have on the sales of a business. In these times of economic woes, an increase of 15% is a CEO’s dream. That’s surely worth more than a symbolic fee.
THE EISENBERG PRINCIPLE
NYTimes bestselling author Bryan Eisenberg is an authority and pioneer in online marketing and improving online conversion rates. He was the key note speaker at the Search Engine Strategies Expo in London, a few years ago. His talk was called: “21 Secrets of Top Converting Websites.“ In his speech, the EyeView experiment was on the top of his list.
When people ask me about my personal voice-over ‘secret,’ this is what I tell them:
Even though it’s fun to do all kinds of accents and characters, nine out of ten times clients hire me because I sound like me, and not like someone else.
That signature sound is a combination of my upbringing, my education, my travels, and my love for music and languages. My accent is the result of time spent living and working in the Netherlands, England, Israel, and the United States. It’s a blend of my biology and my biography. I can honestly say that I do my best work as soon as I stop pretending to be someone I’m not.
Allow me to accentuate one last thing.
Being me has one big advantage:
I have very little competition!
PS The more auditions you do, the greater your chances of landing a job, right? Or not? Read Bursting the Audition Bubble!