by Don May
Do you remember why you got into radio in the first place? It probably was a fairly similar reason for all of us. Someone told you that you have a great voice--”Hey, you could be an Announcer!” (Flashback; Summer of 1987. I had been sampling many cheap beers with a friend who, when he got tanked, liked to play the one song he knew on guitar over and over, “Smoke on the Water.” While talking into a mike that was hooked up to a boom-box, I would jokingly interview him as though he was a BIG rock star who had made a success of himself just playing this one song throughout the years. “So, Gary, how are you approaching Smoke differently now than when you played at Woodstock?” [You had to be there, be drunk and, actually, a little stoned.] Everybody kept telling me, “You sound like a real announcer.” That cinched it. The next thing I know, I’m moving forward to my destiny in Radio, quite possibly committing lifelong financial suicide faster than a lemming can find a place to swim.
And so, many difficult years later, after some of the hardest work we’ve ever done, we find we have become “that guy on the radio” full-time, and for many of us, that announcer voice has served us well in getting on-air jobs. But all of that training, all of that focusing on vocal quality and “smile” has undermined our ability to sound human when we get in front of the mike to do voice-over. Personally, I think radio people are at an even bigger disadvantage than a novice who has decided to take up voice-over. We have to unlearn so much of what we thought was important and relevant. This is ironic, considering that our success as an announcer is often what got us access to doing voice-over in the first place. So, where do you begin to undo the damage? How do you create, voice, and produce copy the likes of which you didn’t think you were capable of?
As some of you know, I’ve been to the International Radio & Creative Voiceover Summit again this year, put on by the Shamen of Radio, Dan O’Day and Dick Orkin; and just like last year, I learned much and met a lot of great people. First off, the Summit has improved dramatically since last year--not that last year’s wasn’t great, because it was, but Dan and Dick really did read the critiques they asked us all to fill out last year and have now improved on a gem. Each year the sessions will vary slightly in content I am told, but the basic theme of the Summit stays the same. This should make attending the Summit regularly an always new, valuable, and worthwhile endeavor. While there are more specific voice-over and acting classes you can take (which you should take if you have the time and bucks), this Summit is geared specifically to the Radio Dude, providing a nice overview of the bare-bones-basics you need to know when it comes to making your commercials and promos stand out. So, I’ll try to condense the already condensed Summit for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend.
I’ll start with commercials first. What is at the heart of a good commercial? There are a few key elements. Whether you write your own copy or not, good copy is most of the battle, so we’ll start there.
Find your advertiser’s main objective. What result do they want from running the commercial (aside from the obvious “Make money” or “Bring in more customers”)? You may find that this takes some clever coercing--human nature being what it is--to glean the bottom line from your client. Does the car dealership really want to push everything they offer (cars, trucks, service, parts, etc.), or are they mostly trying to attract new service customers this month by beating everyone else’s service fees to the tune of fifteen percent? If so, don’t cram the copy full of the usual filler about how “Jimmy the Bruiser Chevrolet” also has “the widest selection of cars and trucks in all of your favorite colors and styles at unbeatable low prices....” Pick the one thing that is the most important to the advertiser, and stick with it. One message, one point. Don’t test the attention span of the listener by bombarding them with every irrelevant detail about the car dealer--facts and figures, cliche lines, addresses and phone numbers, free balloons. They’ve heard it all before, so you’re guaranteed tune-out. (Believe me, there’s plenty of material to work with even when you’re just focusing on one thing.) Finally, what potential problems could the customer have, either directly with the service department at this dealership or with service departments in general, and how is this commercial going to solve or resolve this problem? This question brings us to the emotional level, where the listener lives, where their motivation comes from, and to our next phase.
I’ll use a quote from a biography I watched recently on director Samuel Fuller. Narrator asks Sam, “What makes a good movie?” “Story,” answers Sam. Narrator asks, “What makes a good story?” “A STORY,” answers Sam. And herein lies the revelation. This same philosophy holds true for the world of advertising. (I just told you a story there, by the way. Wasn’t the point made more memorable to you than if I had just stated, “The second element is a good story?” ...yawn.) You can’t think of very many good stories, you say? Change your definition of what a story is, because everything about our lives, our community, our history, has story value, no matter how dull or remote it might seem from the product/service we’re pitching. You just have to open your eyes a little to find it. I like to call this the “human interest angle,” i.e. find a common emotional relationship in your story that all of the listeners can identify with, be it funny, sad, sympathetic, informative, etc., when it comes to the particular product/service you’re selling.
Example: I once wrote a story for my college paper about the closing of the machine shop classes. Seems dull, right? Sure, I could have just stated the facts: “Machine shops are closing due to lack of interest. The end.” But what about the larger picture? What about the “human interest angle?” Many students lacked the math background of these classes, so what happened to the educational system in our state? Southern California in large part depends on its aerospace industry for a good economy, and the industry requires skilled machinists. What would be the long-term effects of a lack of machinists on the industry? And on, and on. Do you see? Not so dull anymore. Lots of common interest for all of the readers, not just the few who might miss out on their dream of becoming a machinist.
Could you use this story to relate an emotional connection to a current product/service your station is advertising? Absolutely. It is, at the very least, a starting point. Let the story wander a little if need be. Incorporate parts of other stories and embellish the stories a little if necessary to give them universal appeal (unless, of course, you’re addressing real-life, factual issues that you obviously can’t change). And while you’re at it, get some other people in on this game and incorporate some of their life experiences, i.e. stories (two minds are always better than one). And don’t think that a story has to be a narrative or a dialogue situation. What we’re talking about here is you, the voice-over artist, relating how the product/service makes you, the listener feel. It’s all about emotion, about finding the common ground on which we can all relate. Look at the first paragraph of this article. Did it get your attention? Why? Because it was a story, one in which all of us can somehow relate on an emotional (in this case nostalgic) level.
Writing the copy. It’s time to “Most effectively dramatize the consumer problem” (Dan O’Day) with the solution being the most important point that the advertiser wants to relate about their product/service. Use common language, write at the emotional level, and remember your main point and sell the results of the product/service, not the product/service itself.
Let’s assume that our car dealer has learned that their patrons’ number one concern about service is having it done right the first time so they don’t want to have to worry about their car giving them trouble when they’re far from a service center. The dealership, like many dealerships, has provided specific additional training for their mechanics so that they are particularly skilled at fixing Chevys. You can probably safely assume that a fifteen percent discount isn’t going to mean squat to the listener if they think the quality of the work is going to be questionable. “Their service probably isn’t any better than the other place I go to (which is closer), so why bother for fifteen percent?” Remember to anticipate resistance and skepticism from the consumer, and more importantly, remember to address it. However, if they believe the quality of the work will not only be superior, but that they can even expect a discount for a limited time, they might just check out the dealership.
Example: (Announcer: friendly, older sounding, almost a Donald Sutherland/down-home read. Sounds of a family loading up a car and leaving on a trip under and rising at the copy break points, talking, driving off, singing, etc.) (Family SFX starting and under) (Announcer) “Good Mechanics are in short supply // A few years ago, Mudpack City College closed its doors to the machine shops forever // and as the old-timers retired or moved on, there were fewer and fewer trained mechanics around who could perform the really tough jobs on cars for the people of Mudpack // But good service is still here // At Jimmy the Bruiser Chevrolet, they’ve taken the time to give their mechanics additional training // so you can still get service like it used to be, done once and done right // and peace of mind on those long drives...”(SFX and family up; child’s voice:) “Look Dad...Wwwooowww!!! (2nd Announcer) “Receive fifteen percent off your next service visit at Jimmy the Bruiser Chevrolet from now through September 1st.” (The End)
That wasn’t a commercial, it was a story (okay, it was also a commercial). If performed and produced properly, it should have an emotional relation to the listener, quelling fears about shoddy auto repair work with some historical facts as well as a tug at the heart strings by insinuating that you and the family will always have a carefree time on the road once your car has been serviced at this dealership. And what did the copy sell? It really wasn’t the fifteen percent discount. Although the discount may very well have some effect on drawing patrons, it will only be after the main consumer problem is solved, that being faith in service. By the way, Dan and Dick feel that service, even in product sales, benefits, and features, is the current advertising goal, and that’s why this commercial didn’t read, “Hurry in to Jimmy the Bruiser Chevrolet for our huge fifteen percent off service sale! Fifteen percent off brake jobs! Fifteen Percent off airbag servicing! Fifteen percent off all critical safety checks (etc.)! Our mechanics are working overtime to get your car back to you fast! And don’t forget to check out our w---i---d---e selection of cars and trucks while you’re here...,” etc..
The actual voice-over. As Dick Orkin says, “Make the copy your own.” In other words, don’t play the character (or “characterization” in a straight read), have the character become you in the moment. By being yourself, you’ll sound more human and genuine. The following principles apply in all copy reading, whether straight reads or dialogue. How would you respond--your emotions, your mannerisms, your personality--if the things that were written in the copy were affecting you in your life? Ask yourself questions about your character (i.e. you): Who am I (me at dinner, me as a drunk, etc.)? Who am I talking to? What do I want from the person I’m talking to? How badly do I want it? Where are we? What time is it? Why am I here? And, how does Juan Valdez manage to pick all of those beans by himself? I mean, that’s not physically possible, right? (Just kidding.) Keep asking as many questions as you need to until you reach the point where you have a particular emotion to relate.
Another useful tool is to create a “back story,” a sort of behind the scenes emotional tension resulting from a feeling of addressing someone or something in your life that really does make you feel relaxed, angry, sad, sexy, whatever. This personal identity helps to put you in the right frame of mind. This technique can also be applied to coaching others involved in the commercial. Have you ever tried to coach a certain read from a jock, but all you kept getting was the same read (i.e. Mr. Announcer)? Identify their character’s main emotion for them. Ask them to relate that emotion to someone in their life, and then you become that person (Dick Orkin did this to great effect at the Summit). If the copy calls for them to be annoyed, find out the main source of their annoyance with that person (for example, your jock is annoyed with his brother because he’s always late and he never apologies for it) and then create random dialogue with the jock with you pretending to be his brother, making excuses for being late and engaging the jock until he has reached that level of annoyance that the copy requires. And then, move right into the read. This works! Believe me, I’ve heard it, and the results can be dramatic.
Also, while you’re speaking, remember to listen to yourself. Do you sound genuine and natural, or do you sound phony and contrived? Remember to listen to the other person when it comes to dialogue copy. Are you responding to their personality, their emotions, or are you so focused on your next line that when you go to speak it, your emotional response to them is completely inappropriate? The realm you will find yourself moving into is that of voice-acting, which is really what this is all about--a full mind and body experience, an emotion that the listener will visualize and hear as “The Real McCoy.”
Did you ever notice that radio never lies? We may not be seen behind that mike, but our emotions are visualized. Have you ever listened back to an aircheck or to a commercial or promo that you voiced on a day when you really weren’t into it at all? I’ll bet you really sucked, and the whole time you thought you were getting away with it because, “Hey, this is radio. No one can really see how disinterested I am.”
Production quality. Don’t skimp on the little tricks that will make all of your hard work come together for real “Theater of the Mind” believability. Is someone coming through a door in your commercial saying something like, “Honey, I’m home”? Then let’s hear them in the distance a bit, complete with door knob sounds and door opening/closing sounds. And how about footsteps as they approach the loved one? If they’re just coming home, they’re probably carrying keys. All of these little items lend heavily to the realism of your spot. You’ve taken the time to create a story and have it voiced well, so complete the circle.
As far as promos go, many of these same elements apply, especially the second element. Story telling can be very effective in a promo, as John Frost (all bow in unison and pay homage) at K-ROQ in L.A. demonstrated at the Summit. One example was a promo for a chance to see the group Oasis. Rather than focus on the obvious (“K-ROQ is giving you the chance to see Oasis LIVE (echo)...”), the whole promo was a story about the fact that the two brothers in the band have a reputation for getting drunk and fighting each other. It was very funny and memorable. And again, the stories don’t even have to be based on a real person or situation. They can be about that average listener and their lifestyle, or better yet, the lifestyle that they’d like to be perceived as having. This relates to the image they have of the station (rebellious, good party music, relaxing music, etc.) and of your air personalities, your station events and prizes, and how by choosing your station, that image becomes a reflection on them or how they feel at the moment. Promos, of course, are all about imaging, so know your image first and foremost. Be sure to anticipate and address listener grievances. For example, some radio stations will play a quick promo in between commercials saying something like, “Sixty seconds to more Star music” anticipating that a listener might very well be thinking to himself “I would like to see what they’re going to play next, but these commercials are going on forever.”
Don’t kid yourself anymore my friends. It’s time to elevate yourself and your profession to the level of respect that you both deserve. Stop thinking that your halfhearted attempts and same old reads are acceptable, or are fooling anyone. Dump the “Well, everyone else does it that way so it must be okay” philosophy. Put an end to advertisers who say, “I tried radio but it doesn’t work.” Don’t give them a reason for radio to let them down. Don’t stop questioning and learning and, consequently, growing. As soon as we think that we know all that there is to know on any given subject, not only do we stop learning, but we actually start to get stupid.
I hope that this review can help you to stay fresh and challenged. If you get a chance, check out Dick Orkin’s separate Web site at http:\\www.radio-ranch.com. As for Dan, I understand that he’s working on a site at this time; however, you can e-mail him at