You can hear voice artists everywhere, in commercials, documentaries, e-learning courses, video games, even baseball stadiums.
There’s obviously no “one-size-fits-all”, so how do you choose a voice talent for your brand?
The list of V/O applications is long and impressively varied, but the effortless way that good voice artists do their job makes it easy to underestimate what a highly skilled job this is.
That polished delivery always sounds so effortless, whether they are trying to excite you into buying a new vacuum cleaner, or explaining how to inflate a life jacket without giving you the jitters about flying.
They are skillful influencers who make it look (or sound easy).
You can try your hand at producing voice material yourself, of course, or ask Jerry from marketing to give it his best shot, but that’s most likely going to cost you time, money, and possibly even credibility.
Some things are best left to the professionals.
So, now that you’re warming to the idea of hiring a voice artist and thinking of checking out some portfolios, what style should you be looking for?
Is one just as good as another? How do you sift through the sheer variety of accents, ages, and timbres to find one that best suits your job? Which qualities are most important? Is male or female best, young or old? How do you narrow your choices down?
And by the way, ‘timbre’ (pronounced “tamber”) has nothing to do with timber or tambourines, it’s “…the character or quality of a voice or sound as distinct from its pitch and intensity.” It’s that hard-to-put-your-finger-on “something” about a voice that might be best described as its personality.
With that in mind, perhaps the best way to start your hunt for the right voice artist is by thinking about the “personality” of your particular job.
That might sound odd, but what we’re really talking about here is branding.
That’s a word that still conjures some mystique for some people, but at its heart, a brand is just the personality of a company, product, celebrity, service … whatever.
Are you making a commercial for a truck that’s aimed at men with “hard-hat” jobs?
If so, then you’ll probably be wanting to hire someone like Sam Elliott. He’s the veteran voice artist who says “Guts, Glory, Ram” and he’s been blessed with a voice that sounds as if it’s been aged in oak barrels for 12 years like a single malt whisky. It’s deep, resonant, and full of character, perfect for helping convey the vehicle’s sturdiness, dependability, and proud heritage.
He sounds warm, wise, and tough as old boots; the kind of grandfather who still has a twinkle in his eye and will be beating you at arm wrestling even when he’s a hundred.
Sam’s voice ticks all of what we imagine are the RAM brand’s boxes.
His measured delivery causes you to pause and take note. It’s reassuring and even a little soporific. It fits the character of this job perfectly, but if you hired him to voice your company’s fire safety awareness video, he would probably not have the same success.
Over the course of twenty minutes or so, everyone watching would probably feel as sleepy as a group of kids sitting through algebra class straight after lunch.
Just like a single malt, Sam’s voice is best sampled in small doses.
Imagine his voice selling iPhones and you’d have another mismatch. With a timbre that conjures wood-smoke and campfires, he would be unlikely to convince anyone that he was the youthful and energetic voice of Apple.
You might be wondering whether or not branding matters if you aren’t selling anything. Say you are just looking for a voice actor to read an audiobook for instance.
In truth, the same principles apply. The audiobook still needs to be produced with brand awareness in mind: awareness of the author’s brand.
For instance, having a Scottish male read The Color Purple by Alice Walker would likely be a jarring experience for readers who were expecting the authentic voice of an enslaved woman.
The right voice has a musicality to it which can often conjure feelings and images, but our brains process this incoming information very quickly, so we don’t always stop to think of metaphors to describe the way someone’s voice sounds to us.
We just hear it, feel it, and know straight away whether it sounds right to us.
In that way, a voice naturally contributes to the brand personality of whatever is being talked about.
We don’t always take the time to acknowledge that we can be influenced in this way, but this is what a good voice actor does.
They engage and influence the audience without the audience necessarily understanding what is being done.
If all of that sounds far-fetched, then consider the opposite: take a moment to imagine a nine-year-old girl with a strong French accent saying, “Guts, Glory, Ram,” and voicing the entire commercial.
Even if she did it very well, you wouldn’t be convinced.
That’s a British phrase, used when you want to say that the best person for the job is the one who is best suited to it.
With so many voice talent styles available and so many voice talent jobs looking for the right match, it really is horses for courses, so let’s explore some of the voice styles and which jobs they might be right for.
Here is an example of what voice artist Jim McCarthy calls a “stylized casual” commercial voice-over.
It’s interesting to watch as he shares his thoughts about the process as he is doing it, and it’s interesting to hear the difference between his everyday conversational voice as he addresses the camera and the kind of commercial voice that he adopts for the client.
Warm, sincere, earthy, and by that, I mean there is a slight “grain” or breathiness to his voice which he brings out more for the readthrough.
He keeps the volume under tight control and leans into the mic for a feel that seems instantly more intimate.
His voice sounds entirely appropriate for the eco-awareness website that he’s promoting, but it would work just as well for cars, cinema trailers and the segments that fill the gaps between radio programs.
Here, voice actor Jay B. injects just enough enthusiasm into an 888 Poker commercial.
It’s a lively delivery, but it avoids sounding as if he’s had too much coffee.
Sometimes, there can be a very fine line between right and wrong and Jay stays just the right side of overdoing it. He comes across as youthful and energetic, maintaining clear intonation and cadence—no speeding up and slowing down.
It’s quick and bright, but it’s also clear. His voice sounds young, which will no doubt help the message connect with target audiences in his age group.
This expert village presenter does a great job of explaining the components of a hard sell type of delivery.
She explains that it’s typically used on the radio to advertise car dealerships.
The speech is loud and fast, which helps to create a sense of urgency. It’s as if the store is burning down and you absolutely must buy something before everything is gone!
With limited-time offers, that’s exactly what is needed, and it also works well with infomercials, closing-down sales, boys’ action toys and more.
If this sounds like what you need for your commercial, you’ll be looking for a voice actor who can deliver the words accurately in a loud, fast, and edgy manner.
He will stress almost every word because every word is important in the hard sell.
It’s a controlled explosion of perfectly enunciated consonants that punch the most message into the least amount of expensive-to-buy air-time, and it will generally be a man as this type of selling is mainly pitched at men.
Nicola B’s intimate delivery for this facial sheet mask is perfect for promoting a skin care product while providing the viewer with necessary information about its features and benefits.
It’s easy to become bored with informative content, but Nicola’s voice in this video is warm and inviting. She goes on to explain how to apply the mask while introducing its unique benefits and advantages.
The soft chill-out music background also helps stage the right ambiance for this product.
Finally, she closes the pitch by softly upselling a moisturizer that is to be used following the mask. Her delivery is a perfect example of providing more value than a voice which serves only to deliver the information.
Narratives can be very long, going on for page after page, and with so much information being conveyed over such a long period of time, the listener is bound to feel fatigue at some point.
So, one of the key things that the voice-over artist can do to reduce listener burnout is to simply sound interested.
Once again, the person doing the narration is not just someone delivering information, they are (or they need to be) an ambassador for it too. They need to sound as if it matters to them, as if they care, because then the audience is more likely to care too.
The second thing to bear in mind for the narrator is credibility.
If you need a great narrator to read your particle physics thesis, it’s likely that they are not going to know as much about the subject as you do.
That’s okay though, because as Bill DeWees explains if they can sound relaxed about it they are more likely to sound knowledgeable.
He explains that when people understand a subject, they don’t sound nervous because it’s something that they do every day, or think about all the time so they never choke or stumble.
If the audience hears a relaxed narrator, it’s easier for them to believe that the person is an expert.
E-learning courses need a long-form narrative style, and if you’re auditioning voice talents for this type of project, pay extra attention to conversational voice dynamics and listen out for believable tones.
When they finish the readthrough, ask yourself whether you’re bored, or whether you want them to go on. A good actor can bring a sparkle to almost any material that keeps learners listening.
Morgan Freeman is a good example of a “raspy” style performer, a performer in the mold of the prolific Don Lafontaine.
His voice is immediately appealing because it is deep, but why should that be so?
Well, a study conducted at Pennsylvania State University found that males perceive deeper voices as being more dominant, so for at least half of a given audience, or for all of a given audience if it’s primarily targeted at males, there may be some benefit in hiring a performer who sounds like Morgan Freeman if you want his recommendations to come across with authority.
RAM probably thought of this when they hired Sam Elliott.
Morgan’s voice is great because it’s raspy but not too raspy. It’s easy to listen to, so even if you’re sitting in a cinema for ninety minutes listening to him narrate March of the Penguins, it isn’t fatiguing, it’s engaging.
The raspy voice suits all manner of masculine products and pursuits and those deep-voiced adverts for ‘coming attractions’ at the cinema.
Here’s Jessica W. with a delivery that is smooth and sexy.
When she talks it’s as if there is a smile in her voice, and you can imagine buying lingerie, Belgian chocolates, Bentleys, and pretty much anything else that’s luxurious on her recommendation.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a prime representative for the other half of humanity with his equally sexy voice, probably put to its most hypnotic use as the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit.
It’s going to be hard to pull off a hard sell type of commercial using a sexy voice, but selling expensive ice cream, watches, after shave lotions, etc. would be the perfect fit.
A smooth voice-over sounds silky and effortless. The stereotypical naturally smooth delivery is something that you might hear from a late-night radio presenter on a jazz show.
Where novice actors will sometimes feel tempted to pause over certain words to add drama and will try too hard to be clear, to the point where their over-enunciating sounds unnatural, the seasoned actor’s voice just skates over every word and nothing jars.
A natural, smooth sounding voice comes with confidence and experience, but confidence and experience come from knowing you can read with a smooth sounding voice (I think we have a chicken and egg thing going on here).
Smooth delivery suits many different applications, such as soft selling commercials, “book at bedtime” type storytelling, airline safety messages, public information announcements and so on.
If you’re selling travel destinations, sewing patterns or flowers, you’re not going to hire the kind of voice that beats people over the head with urgency and volume.
Much better to lead your customers by the hand, so to speak, with persuasive tones and fewer words per minute.
Educated or older people are less impressed with hard-sell tactics, and will warm more to a conversational speaker who doesn’t push the urgency button all the time but who suggests and persuades.
Appealing to the intellect and the emotions is at the heart of soft selling. The voice can be male or female, smooth or gruff, but the approach will be more emphatic than others.
That is, it will need to relate to the audience and their world so that it can convince them that the product will meet their needs.
Kelly’s voice is naturally soft, but a voice over doesn’t have to be soft for the style to be considered “soft-sell”. As long as the actor voices her lines with conviction but doesn’t convey an immediate and urgent call to action, it falls under this category.
In a sense, a voice actor for an audiobook becomes a translator, taking the author’s original work, and pushing it through the filter of their own interpretation.
A performer on an audiobook needs to be able to hold the listener’s attention for the long haul; for hours if necessary.
They become the director of a film which plays in the listener’s head, and to pull that off they need to be in control of everything.
The ambience, the pace of the story, the setting, and the voices of the characters are all coming from the same mouth, so the performer needs to be versatile enough in their delivery to create each element, make it distinctive, and sustain that style.
Narration should sound different from dialogue, and dialogue must make the characters sound believable and engaging.
It’s a juggling act, and it’s also acting.
The voice must be easy to listen to, not so soothing that you fall asleep, and not so grating that you leave the room.
Most professionals will be happy to read a sample of your script in a style or styles that you specify. This is your best chance of finding out whether a voice actor is the right fit for your project, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Testimonials and demos of previous work can also help you narrow down choices, but don’t worry too much if someone you like hasn’t done exactly the kind of job that you need doing.
Trust your instincts.
If you feel that someone is the perfect fit for your e-learning project but only has previous experience of doing car commercials, go with your gut. Everyone is a first timer sometime, and if they’ve shown professionalism in their previous projects then you can be sure that they will show it for something new.
An experienced agent who knows the talents they are working with can easily narrow down choices so you don’t have to sift through hundreds of demos…
You can minimize headaches by specifying exactly how you want the finished product to be labelled, the due date, even what file type you need.
References like a draft of a video you’re working on, a YouTube video with the kind of delivery you’re looking for, or even directing the attention to a snippet in a voice actor’s demo which you liked – all of these can really help understand the direction you’re looking for and minimize errors and re-recordings.
The more specific you are about your requirements, the better.
Great article and proves that our job is just not about simply reading from the script!
Thanks so much for your feedback Moira!