The magic decoder ring for scripts. What the heck does the voice seeker want?

If you've been in the voiceover business any amount of time, you're going to come up against a script where it looks like you need a psychic to figure out what the voiceseeker wants in the read. The spec calls for something completely different from what the script is. So, how do you resolve this type of scenario? Simple. Read the script.

It's a jewelry store selling high end rings for young couples getting engaged on Valentine's Day. What can we discern from that?

Let's see. Young couples? To me, there needs to be energy and happiness with the voice age leaning towards 23 to 25 years old. High end rings? To me, this suggests a slight snobby quality to the read. The best bet is to hit the jewelry store's website or hit YouTube and see if any of their spots are up there and check out what's been done in the past. One last clue. Valentine's Day. This is where you want to remember what some of the old school voice coaches teach about smiling when you read. A Valentine's Day engagement is a happy and romantic moment. We don't want to ruin it and not get hired by making the read "announcery" or flat.

As any X-Files fan will tell you. The truth is out there. You just have to know what you're looking for and what to do with the information when you find it.

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Comment by Carol Rathe on October 4, 2010 at 1:58pm
I once worked with a great talent named Jerry Bertram - a legend in Chicago. He read the script exactly as it should be read and exactly the opposite of the producer's direction. And the producer knew it. But the read was so good that the producer just shrugged and went with it. I learned a lesson - give them what they need, not what they want. And if they still insist, give them what they want. It's their nickel. (used to be a dime, but times have changed)
Comment by Reuven Dovid Miller on October 1, 2010 at 9:26am
Many times I find that the director does know what (s)he wants ... but doesn't know which words to use to coax that read from the VO talent. Then it's sort of like playing "charades".

Needless to say (to those who have experienced it), it's almost always a mistake for the director to bring the client to the session; it complicates the whole situation exponentially (the old "Everybody's a Producer" syndrome).

Then, there's the descriptive "terminology" sometimes employed, ie. "Could you make it sound more 'classic'? (:-O

Most frustrating are the commercial sessions, where the producer brings in a whole crew of friends - who also submit opinions! Then we have to get final approval from the Creative Director back at the office. How is this done? By holding the phone receiver up to the studio monitor (just imagine how clear that sounds at the other end!). (S)he is obliged - by virtue of title and commensurate paycheck - to comment as well, and those who lack self-confidence will always ask for another take, "Just to be sure." I kid you not, there have been occasions when the engineer played back the exact same take, asking, "Do you like this one better?", and the Creative Director has answered, "Ah, THAT'S the way I wanted it!". With great effort do we stifle our laughter in the studio.

Such a business,... but it sure beats slinging coleslaw in the deli!
Comment by Gary Pearce on September 30, 2010 at 5:30pm
I spend more time as recording engineer than as talent, working with a wide variety of clients from local DIY to national agency spots (I freelance at their studios). The agency producers have a better handle on what they want than the DIY clients, but nobody is really good at giving directions to get just what they want/need.

The small, local clients have one advantage - they only have to please themselves. The agency producers are always trying to second guess what creative directors and clients will like. We often end up covering ourselves with a variety of energy, style and speed takes. We make you work for it, but since these are SAG/AFTRA rates, you're getting paid pretty well!

We're always happy to have the VO talent try it their own way. Once in a while that's the golden take, or at least it gives us an idea for a few more. More often it's good, but not where we end up going.

On ISDN sessions, the producers are pretty much oblivious to the fact that they've left you hanging after a take. We engineers could help. I've learned to say "stand by, we're gonna do a conference" at the end of a take. When I'm the talent for an agency spot, I've learned to accept the long pause. Sometimes they're talking performance. Just as often it's something else (change the script a little), or totally unrelated (another job, lunch order). Closing the key allows everyone in the committee (yes, it always is) to speak freely. I know most of us aren't "fragile," and we might benefit from hearing the full discussion of our performance. If the producer is good, they'll get the committee to come to a conclusion and provide a concise summary of what they want us to try next. More often, we get direction that's vague and sometimes contradictory. Like I said, nobody is good at this.

But as an engineer and a VO talent, I'm in the business to make my clients very happy. It is what it is, and I've left the frustration behind long ago. Well, most of it.
Comment by Bill Pryce on September 30, 2010 at 5:14pm
I know of at least one prominent VO coach who offers this advice on specs: DON'T READ THEM. Just do YOUR thing with the script. Or in today's parlance, imprint your brand on the words. For me, it's really hard not to at least peek at the specs as part of the process of informing the read. But like Jon said, how many times have you auditioned according to the specs, only to hear something completely different on the air.

Maybe Willy S. had it right "To thine own self be true."
Comment by John Tambascio on September 30, 2010 at 4:47pm
OK Everyone. Notepad and pencil ready? Here's the reason why. A lot of people who book voiceover talent are assistants or secretaries. The actual selection and direction in many cases is done by committee. I never realized this until I did an ISDN session for a fast food chain. They had me read each line 3 to five times and then would close the mike on their side for two or three minutes. Drove me nuts! I thought I'd dropped the the connection. Then they left the mike open. He he he he. Three people talking. WHAT A CLUSTER. "I thought he did OK" "Get him to do it again" "I'm hungry".

Yeah, It gets convoluted. Don't take it personally. Smile all the way to the bank.

Comment by Jon Bailey on September 30, 2010 at 3:53pm
This is the one that plagues me more than any other. I KNEW I needed a magic decoder for the clients! :D It is very frustrating when I feel like I follow the voice description as close to the letter as possible and then hear the finished spot on radio or tv and it sounds NOTHING like they described it in the audition.
Comment by John Tambascio on September 30, 2010 at 2:32pm
Well said, Cindy. Then there is the guy who owns the mega car lot and has deep deep pockets and THINKS he knows what the read should be. Even though he has no marketing or advertising experience. That personality type drives me nuts. Dealing with clients in this business is part art and part science. There's no one good way. All I can tell you is don't get in a hurry. Listen to what the guy hiring is saying and just hope he say's "Just read it how you think it should be".
Did I mention I believe in the Easter Bunny too?
Comment by Cindy Clifford on September 30, 2010 at 1:13pm
If I asked for a show of hands of everyone who feels that they instinctually know the most fitting read, betcha there'd be a lot of arms raised right about now.
The problem pops up when a client is directing me against what my v/o instinct is... (fast when it should be slow- serious when it would be better casual) and then, when I get to do my gut read, like John said, it winds up being the one they go with instead.
It's like there's a recipe- certain words and phrases tend to define the spot and demand a certain read. Still, I find it fascinating and kinda magical. Unless the client is fighting it and then it's just hell.
Comment by John Tambascio on September 30, 2010 at 12:19pm
I agree. What I do sometimes, is to give them an extra read. My "take" if you will. If I'm doing an ISDN session, I sometimes ask them if I can do one more take. In my personal experience, in a lot of cases, they use most or all of what I do. As you said, Bill. A lot of times, they're clueless. I guess that's why we're actors?

Comment by Bill Fike on September 30, 2010 at 12:12pm
What drives me crazy is when the client gives direction for the audition, and when you hear the spot air, it's 180 degrees from the original direction. Proof that many clients have absolutely no clue what they really want. They hear something different, and they say, "Yeah! THAT'S what I wanted!" Your advice is good. Sometimes I'll either do two reads in the audition or just do what I think makes more sense.


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