Q It Up: What things do you do to improve the read you get from inexperienced voice talent such as children, interns, salespeople that happen to be handy, and those wonderful clients who want to be on their commercials?
Bumper Morgan, 95.1 WXTK/106.1 WCOD/101.1 WTWV, Cape Cod, MA: This is one of the reasons I love this gig. Out here on Cape Cod, it’s a slice of Americana, a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. I’ve never felt so connected to the community than through this production experience.
We have a healthy number of great voice talent at this facility, but many times the clients want to voice their own commercials, which we welcome. We love the variety of voices on the stations and we work with them to sound wonderful.
Sure, there are times when reads aren’t perfect, but that’s the beauty of digital editing. Our goal is to give them the best possible commercial for their money spent. Copy points may have to change, inflections re-read, but overall they are enthusiastic about the finished product. It’s very gratifying, especially when they get results.
From the jeweler on Main Street to the owner of the local Firestone, I have learned to work my magic on each of these projects, in different ways. I do not like dry-voiced commercials. So I will suggest an audio logo at the front and end of their spots, which plays very well on our news/talk station.
I had a great time during the political season this past fall, with a goal not to make every spot sound the same. I worked with many of the local candidates and it was a real thrill. Some even sent me cookies, thank you notes and movie tickets. Typical politicians.
Salespeople will be salespeople, but you have to admire their ability to keep trying. Some voice their own spots, which I produce. Kids are always fun to work with and are willing to please. Having a studio at home makes it even easier, since my wife is also a voice talent, she can work with our kids and post the mp3 on our server. Technology is awesome!
Just to know that we are a stones throw to the fishy Atlantic Ocean makes this job very bearable. My “ugly stick” is always waiting in the trunk of my car.
Troy Duran: I think everyone has the ability to effectively deliver a message if it’s written well and is appropriate to the person voicing the spot. If that’s the case, here are my feelings on coaching:
Clients: My number one job is to make the client feel comfortable in my room, and to assure that person that I have LOTS of hard drive and they can start and stop as many times as they want. Making someone feel rushed will do absolutely nothing to help your novice perform faster or better. I preface sessions by saying, “Hey, don’t worry about time — I’ve set aside a full half hour for us to get this sixty-second script recorded. If it takes longer than that, we can always reschedule!” Then I just tell the client to take those words on the page and say them like he/she is talking to a friend. After they finish, I might say, “Hey, do you think we should emphasize this word, or that phrase?” Then I just get them to give me that sentence or phrase making sure the cadence, volume, etc. match up.
Kids: I try to make friends and don’t speak to them like they’re idiots. I’ll let them play or ask them to tell me a joke while surreptitiously recording them. Then I play it back so they can hear what they sound like when they’re just talking. I also avoid giving them line readings. They’re probably more talented than me, in that they haven’t learned all the crap I need to unlearn.
This all assumes you have good copy appropriate to the person reading it. If someone wrote bad copy, I ask the client if they’re open to some modifications that may sound more natural. Just as bad as bad copy though, is well-written copy that is not appropriate to the client’s persona. If he/she is not gregarious and outgoing, what makes you think they’re going to do a bang up job on your wacky diatribe copy? Remember when Bruce Willis hosted Dave Letterman’s show? Regarding kids, I think the worst thing you can do is make them read a full :60 or :30. Let them provide the character. Don’t make them sell product! If your client insists on ignoring your advice, so be it. Your client is stuck with the results they get. You can’t polish a turd.
That said, here is my opinion: just as you are the last line of defense against errors in run dates, copy, phone numbers, etc., you are also possibly the ONE person at that radio station that not only cares about results, but also possesses the skill-set to do something about it. There’s a good reason for many clients to voice their own spots. Chances are, though, that’s not why your salesperson suggested it. They just want an easy sale by stroking the client’s ego. It’s your job to at least give the client the opportunity to do a good spot. If you fail at this because you’re too lazy to care, then you should work for the Government.
Justin Taylor, VoiceImage Productions, Orlando, Florida: One thing to keep in mind when writing creative for inexperienced people is to keep their parts short and simple. Try not to have them perform the entire commercial by themselves. That’s a really tough thing to do if you’re really after results and expect the listener to commit their undivided attention to this :59 masterpiece.
For me, I prefer to go to the person instead of them coming to me (this also adds to the realism of on-location audio). I pack my road gear into my aluminum case and off I go. A high quality tiny clip-on cordless Lavaliere mic, pocket sized portable digital recorder (DAT, MiniDisc, and mp3), and a comfortable familiar setting for the performer always works best. Some folks freak when they enter a studio or get a giant mic shoved in their face. By doing it this way, they sometimes forget that they’re even being recorded.
Once they’re all hooked up to audio, I talk with them about things that they are interested in. This gets them to relax and get used to talking with me. When they’re loosened up a bit, I start to explain what I’m trying to achieve so they understand how the end result should be. I show them the script, and go through it start to finish. Within my sight is a running timer so I can make notes of great clips that can be used in post-production.
Then, I have them go through it line by line, take by take, and capture everything they say including comments, laughs, and casual conversation. It usually takes a while for them to warm up, but I can usually get really good results.
After all that, I coach them line by line. I say the line, then they repeat it exactly the way I said it — a sort of “mimic” game. Everyone can do that, and do it pretty good at times. At the end, I have more than enough material to make it work, and sometimes some real “personal” bites that can work to make the spot more realistic and less rehearsed.
It’s always a challenge, but it always works well for this Creative. Somewhere between the “I feel silly” and “was that too much,” there’s a great clip ready for air!
Cate Crowley, Susquehanna Radio, Dallas, TX: The phone rings. It’s your least favorite salesperson — the one to who deadlines do not apply — and their client has a wonderful idea. They’ve cast their little darling as the star of their new radio commercial. It’s a horrid piece of copy they wrote themselves, and you get the honor of producing the spot featuring the rising child star. At that moment in time, you come to a few basic conclusions. You don’t like salespeople, clients, or children. Then the next afternoon at 1:15 — the appointment was for 12:30 — you sit in the company of all three. So what to do? Have her read it three times while daddy directs and then mumble, “That’s fine,” and move on to the rest of your stack, or do you really make an effort?
I make the effort. But how do I change monotone, lifeless drivel into something air worthy? I’ll do whatever it takes, whether it’s a client, child, or an ambitious part-timer. It’s amazing how the most animated people become lifeless corpses the second the mike is opened, how many children lose the ability to speak when they think they are being recorded, and how many people no longer can form the simplest of words because something is moving on a computer screen. How can I make it better? There are ways.
Open deceit is one of my basic tricks, and it usually will work… once. I begin recording and then minimize the screen. The client typically has no idea they are being recorded. I’ll have them rehearse or talk about their product. I ask the same questions phrased a little differently, and then use the second answer. People are much more relaxed when they don’t know they are being recorded. While this is probably a felony in some states, I’ve never faced charges — just happy clients who realize they were recorded, the session is over, and it was relatively painless. The only problem is the next time they’re on to me.
So when they come in the next time, I emphasize how radio is really a one-to-one medium — the basic theory we all learned during your first aircheck. Then I encourage them to pretend they are telling me a story from the script. I try to nudge them out of the reading mode and into really communicating — something that took me years to learn as a voiceover talent. If I can just get them headed in the right direction to sound natural and not staged, I feel like I’ve got a good starting point.
Then to fill in the weak gaps, we take it line-by-line. Literally. I say a line. They repeat it, trying to copy my inflections. I find many adults are intimidated by the recording process, and this technique makes them more comfortable. It seems to take some of the pressure off. Kids love it too because it’s the one time they can repeat everything someone says without getting in trouble. If something is really flat and not improving, I’ll record myself with inflection and play both their read and mine back for the client so they can hear the difference. Also, as we go through, I also might have them repeat a line four or five times back to back. Typically, by the fourth time, the line will come across more naturally.
When kids come into my studio, it’s all about having fun. That’s crucial. I keep a supply of noiseless toys around. Koosh balls, sumo wrestler shaped stress balls, stuffed animals, even Legos. If kids have something in their hands, they’ll do better. It works for adults too, myself included. I’ll also use audio plug-ins to turn a child’s voice around backwards or make them sound like they’re underwater. I make it a game. Kids love it, and I end up with a better product because the child was happy.
So much of the recording process is about helping people relax and have fun. Then they hopefully leave the studio feeling good about the ad, and the station it’s on. Always remember to have them smile. Oh, and most importantly, make the salesperson wait in the hall!
Jason Ryll, CFFM The Max, Williams Lake, Quesnel, BC, Canada: When it comes to coaching new inexperienced voice talent I usually give them the same story. As much as possible I get them to relax, maybe a little humor, tell them that the production room is the place where they can make mistakes. The mistakes can be fixed there. The place to be more worried is the control room. If they’ve ever done any acting, it’s JUST like that.
Be excited. If they feel like they’re overdoing it, that’s probably just where I want them for delivery. Sell me your product. Sound like you know what you’re talking about. Take a big breath when you start, and take the time to breath during the spot.
If they make a mistake, laugh about it, get it out of your system, then start over. Sometimes from the top, other times from where they screwed up. It’s not a big deal if they screw up. Often I have to remind them of that.
If a person/client/voice talent can’t make it through the script after a dozen takes (or whatever) they’ll realize it. They’ll get through the script they have and then won’t come back to voice their spots. Not everybody can do it. Not everybody realizes this until it’s staring them in the face. They kind of weed themselves out of doing it, and leave it up to the pros.
More often than not, I enjoy working with clients and others who come in to voice their spots. The good ones have practiced and don’t kill too much of my time. The others... get weeded out.
People usually leave the station with a better understanding of what it takes to do what we do, and realize the job’s not just hanging out drinking coffee and playing or listening to music.
That’s how we work it here in the “Puddle.”