by Terry Grant

I am not a professional voice coach. I am but a humble radio commercial producer.

True, I direct people who read commercials. But the word “coach” suggests something loftier like an instructor, motivator or even cheerleader… none of which I profess to be.

But part of the juggling act of coaching voice talent is that fine, exasperating line between getting performances that you believe stand out and doing what the client wants – which are not always the same thing (that’s a whole ‘nother topic). Depending on the voicing resources available to you, there are varying degrees of talent. Here at my stations, I have pros, semi-pros and what I like to call “occasionals & peculiars”. So how does one extract optimum performance no matter the degree of talent?

Trust. To get the best out of whoever you’re voicing with, I find that if they trust you, they’re more apt to give what you need from them. Make them feel at ease, crack a joke, keep it light, etc. Because, let’s face it, we sometimes have to go down some silly paths to achieve the desired outcome. “Bark like a dog!”, “Can you do a Christopher Walken impression?”, “Ok, I’m going to need you to cry here…”. It’s all acting. Not all of it is fun accents and foley farts. But you need the trust of the talent to get the best performance to make that script come alive and satisfy the client… at least I do. If they’re not comfortable with you, they may be more hesitant to give that little extra something to bring the character or emotion to life. This is especially true for voice talent that I’ve recruited from “non-professional” sources.

Paint a picture. It behooves the producer to help prepare the voicer with what they’re about to record. Talk about what the client is looking for and what the writer had in mind. Put those pictures in their mind and it’ll come out a little more genuine. Those little things really do help. And use your hands when you voice, kids! It doesn’t hurt to get into it. Plus, it entertains me.

Inflection. For me, this can mean the difference between hitting a home run with the thought that needs to be conveyed or striking out with misdirected meaning. When we speak, we naturally use inflection all the time. So now, unnaturally, we must voice something with manufactured inflection.

Speech inflections are really just musical notes. I kind of see it that way in my mind’s eye -- a musical staff is the script and the song is just every inflected syllable uttered. So if my voice talent isn’t getting the inflection I’m hearing in my head, I encourage them to “swoop up there at the end” or, “punch that word a little harder” or, “try buh-buh-BUH-buh” and so on. If the talent has a good ear, I’ll have them mimic me line-by-line. Then they don’t necessarily have to “feel it”… just do what you do. And if they’re tone deaf… well, I’m sure they’re nice folks but, sorry, there’s no hope. That is a make work project you don’t want if time is tight.

Louder isn’t necessarily better. Your not-so-seasoned types might have to be reminded of the following: removing jangly jewelry or noisy shoes, proper mic technique, etc. But a neat trick I’ve found with budding, young Hal Douglases is something as simple as headphone volume. If I can’t get my voicers to project with some authority, I try to get them to turn it down a bit so they’re not as intimidated by the unnatural sound of their own voice being blasted back into their brain. A turned up headset tends to make some shy away from really giving it their all. That is then reflected in their read – a track lacking in sufficient energy thereby rendering the whole delivery flat. (By the way, we have to use headphones with talent because the sound booth is in another part of the building, and talkback is our only communication.)

Positive Reinforcement. Again, no matter the caliber of talent you’re working with, pointing out the good and accentuating the positive creates a good working vibe. It also shows the less experienced talent what their strengths are and that they, indeed, do have them. I’ve had to bring some fledgling, self-Doubting Thomases along in this manner to get them to a point of usable self-confidence. A few of those “fixer uppers” are now some of my most dependable voicers.

It appears that pulling the best performances from your people incorporates a little more than: <click> “try that line a different way…” <click>. It’s practically an art! Throw in a smidgeon of psychology, a modicum of musicality and the odd sports metaphor, and that kind of sums up this important but underrated aspect of commercial production.  

Voice coach: instructor, motivator or even cheerleader?

Huh… maybe it’s not that far-fetched.