When people ask me what I do for a living I’ll usually take a deep breath and after a long pause say, “Well…I talk.” They’ll often get a bit goggle-eyed with confusion and I’ll add, “On radio, TV and film.” For some reason, most folks latch onto the word ‘radio’ and get the idea that I’m some kind of deejay, so I have to explain that I’m the guy who talks between songs, but not the jock. If they still look confused, I’ll back up a step and – in my weak Ernie Anderson wannabe voice say, “From the TOP of the Empire State Building…this is the radio station that pays your bills! Z100!” At that point their eyes widen and they exclaim, “Oh, you’re THAT guy!” Yup, that’s me. It’s kind of a niche business. Not all that many people can do it for a living, or are afraid of trying to break into it.
This month’s column is in two parts. First, I’m going to share a few written tips on how to get the most out of your VO guy or gal. They’re simple and to the point. Making a video about that seems kind of pointless, actually. It’s the second part: “How To Become Your Own VO” is what gets the video treatment. The advice/tips portion is not terribly long but is entirely why I’m going to tell the story of my journey to success before we even get to the video.
Getting The Most From Your VO
The entire Creative Services gig is so interconnected, it’s hard to make sense of breaking everything into its component parts. Learning to write is one of the most important things you can do for your VO talent, but we covered that in pretty fine detail previously:
1. Use good grammar
2. Don’t use 5-dollar words when 50-cent words can do the job better
3. Make your script one side of a true dialogue with your listeners and,
4. Really really try to avoid clichés
These are all things that will make your VO talent happy. You don’t want them to interpret the words you need said. You want them to interpret the emotions you need to be heard. Following those points will go a long way to that. As always, I have to say that they are NOT rules…just strong suggestions.
To help the VO understand what is going on in your head, make sure they see the entire picture you’re trying to create. If there are other voices, that is if you have TWO VO people or even three, make sure they all see the entire script. Don’t just send them their lines. Let them see what they’re supposed to react to and help them understand where you’re going.
Format your copy in a way that’s easy to follow with the eye. Some folks like to have everything in ALL CAPS, some don’t. Ask what his or her preference is. (Mine happens to be all caps.) Double space your copy. If your VO prints the copy before reading it, the double spacing allows them room to mark up the copy with emphasis points and other notations. Even more important, it’s easier for the eye to get from one line to the next smoothly, allowing a continuity of thought that you WANT, rather than forcing him or her to think about how the letters and words are arranged on the page.
Finally, the one thing I really hope you can do is read the entire script, out loud…to somebody else. It can be anyone really, even your spouse or a co-worker not involved in the production process. You don’t have to sound like your VO, just be yourself but read it while feeling the emotion you’re trying to have your VO project. If you stumble, hit a tongue-twister, hesitate or get confused by what you’re saying, your script needs some TLC. Trust me, if you can’t get through it cleanly, neither can your VO talent…and they’re TRAINED to get through difficult stuff. Just read it out loud at the pace you want it to be when you’re finished with the entire piece. If you can roll through it smoothly, your VO will be mighty pleased.
Becoming Your Own VO Talent
Success in Voice Over can be a trial. The story is going to take a bit longer than I usually spend on my video introduction, but I think it’s one you should know.
I did a lot of commercial work way back when I was a baby deejay in Provo, Utah on KOVO-AM/KAYK-FM. If you’ve spent time as a jock, you have no doubt done quite a bit of this too. It’s just a part of the gig. When I first moved to the Washington, DC market I began to explore the possibility of doing some commercial work outside my station. By then I was also doing promo work for WPGC and I wondered if doing Promo VO for radio stations outside my market was something I could pursue as well. That’s when I first discovered the “great divide.”
Agents and casting directors were loathe to take on a deejay to do any kind of commercial or promo work, let alone narration/industrials. It’s not hard to understand why, especially back then. In those days, a LOT of deejays were trying to sound like Wolfman Jack, Uncle Brucie, Shotgun Tom Kelly, Larry Lujack and The Greaseman because they were dominating the deejay biz and jocks everywhere wanted the same kind of success. I wasn’t one of them. I always believed (and still do) that the audience can relate better to someone who sounds like their next-door neighbor or kindly uncle. All due respect to every one of those legends, it just wasn’t my bag. They all had unique presentations to be sure, mostly rapid-fire with some kind of puke effect that felt as unnatural as could be to me. Instead, I had my ears on people like Bobby Ocean, Allison Steele, Howard Stern and ‘The Rock ’n Roll Madam’ Jo Maeder, who later became a very dear friend.
Advertising, documentary, movie trailer and industrial narration people didn’t need or want someone who could hit the vocal on a Donna Summer or Bachman-Turner Overdrive song. They want someone who can sound sincere, sad, happy, angry, funny…they need actors. People like Hal Holbrook, Angie Harmon, Peter Coyote, or Susan Sarandon are exactly what they want. Michael Ironside, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Elliot can generally name their own price to do a narration or national radio or television commercial.
Within that bunch, you’ll find a smaller group that is even further divided from the deejays. Announcers. Don LaFontaine, Ernie Anderson, Valerie Geller, Joe Kelly, Ann DeWig, John Leader, Nick Tate, Mark Elliott and Al Chalk pop into my head right away. There are others in this group that the industry refers to as VOG. (Please don’t confuse this VOG with ‘volcanic smog,’ a term in meteorology that has to do with Sulphur-Dioxide and other gases emitted by volcanoes.) VOG means Voice Of God. When Don LaFontaine would say “NOW!” There was never a doubt that he meant right F**KING now!
At that time, I didn’t fit into any of these categories except deejay. I was a lowly jock, working over a hot console in Bladensburg, Maryland and there wasn’t a single agency that would even return my calls. A few years later, there was an AFTRA strike shutting down the entire ad industry and one enterprising agency flew me up to New York to audition for a spot that they needed to be cast, as Don LaFontaine would say, “NOW.” I didn’t get the gig. BUT the lady told me that once the strike was over, I should join AFTRA and try again. There’s another, much longer story about why that didn’t happen, but it didn’t and it wasn’t until several years later, long after I had started working at Z100/New York, that I finally got a call from an agent who was anxious to sign me up.
From the time I started trying to become an announcer to the day I officially had representation it took 17 years. Trust me when I tell you that it’s not an uncommon amount of time to spend trying to get in the door. Daunting? Sure. But I don’t want to blow smoke up your skirt by telling you that it’s something anyone can do. While that is mostly true, you’d better take a long hard look at your reservoir of fortitude before you start. It’s not an easy road.
BUT! You’re in exactly the right spot to at least think about doing it for your own station. Of course, you’ll still have to convince your bosses that it’s a smart move for them to have you do it.
Finally! The Video!
Before you watch, I want to say that I know that I gave female voices the short shrift in the advice department this month. As I pondered how to fix this, I realized that I don’t have much in the way of advice for women announcers. It’s not any kind of chauvinistic bent on my part; it’s just that women are (in general) better equipped to become voice over artists. My singular piece of advice to everyone is learn to relax. Don’t force your voice. The real power in the human voice comes from the diaphragm. Good posture, good hydration (and lots OF it) and most of all, a chill attitude will work wonders. Like my mother the actress used to say, “A screeching voice won’t convince anyone to do anything.” Your real power comes with a steady, intense voice. Learn to yell quietly. When you do this, you’ll have ALL of the power.
I purposely included a smidgen of my VO Demo on the Atlas Talent site. Sorry, not sorry. Please don’t think I’m trying to hold myself up as some sort of VO perfection. Far from it, I mostly feel like a VO midget compared to some of the voices you’ll hear/see in this piece.
One other note: This month, at the end of the main video I’m presenting a short film you might’ve seen before: 5 Guys In A Limo, just for fun. You’ll have to pardon the quality on this piece. It was produced years and years ago by a company called Aspect Ratio and has been out of circulation for a long time. It stars several of the legendary VOG people I mentioned earlier. Sadly, Don LaFontaine, Mark Elliott and Hal Douglas (the guy on the phone) are no longer with us, but I’d be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that they are all voices everyone has heard more than once, even today in 2022. Oh, if you haven’t seen it, be sure you watch to the closing credits. I smile every time I see it.