The Conversational Complex
Reality Vs Voice Over Reality
It’s getting to the point where the popular conversational style of voiceover that we all love and know so well, is being perceived as too “announcer-y.” Maybe it’s that the voice seekers in general are getting too comfortable with this style of delivery or are running out of ideas on how to give both creative and effective direction. Perhaps us talents are just taking it for granted, thinking no effort is required because the direction is straight-forward enough, thus easily missing the connection and the important questions behind each script.
I feared this for while but it was only a matter of time before it would catch on. It's no one’s fault really. Call it boredom on the part of casting professionals and producers to really listen intently during auditions instead of rushing. Or blame it on industry trends. Bad copywriting. Indecisive clients. Over-abundance of the same type of voice.
It could be a number of things. And at the end of the day, it’s part of the job.
At the rare in-person audition recently there have been moments where it took me multiple takes to actually become more conversational. Well, the conversational that they wanted. I'm not bad at taking direction and I certainly don’t have a problem with hearing someone else’s perspective, as it is one of my strengths as a voice talent. Also I understand the tendency to go to that not so pretty announcer place as I have many times in the past. But I’m pretty adept at understanding a client’s needs and vision. I watch Netflix, Hulu and YouTube aka TV. I listen to the radio still. I do my homework and pay attention to the market trends. I even enjoy hearing other talents on the radio. It keeps me sharp.
Anyways, this said audition was for a household cleaning product and the script called for a tone that was light, genuine and, yes, conversational. “Like you’re talking to a friend” which is the default direction if a voice talent actually asks “What do you mean by ‘conversational’?” While Mr. Stanislavsky or Mr. Strasberg probably wouldn’t approve of my somewhat sugar-coated way of preparing for the role of ‘Narrator’, I do it anyway. It doesn’t take long before I’m working from within, emptying my soul onto the page and using my own dark past to fuel the material.
Actually it’s more like identifying the Who, What, When, Where and Why. Not rocket science. But also not something anyone can do.
Let’s take this example.
Christian: Take 1. (Talking to mom in the kitchen on a Summer day one afternoon. She’s being pretty vigorous with cleaning. She complains that Seventh Generation brand is, while better for the environment, not pleasant smelling enough. So I assure her using Brand B might be better. It might just save her sanity.)
Casting Director: "Ok even more conversational"
Christian: Take 2. (Again talking to my mom in the kitchen on a Summer day. She prefers using Seventh Generation brand but I really want her to try this new kind of bathroom cleaner because it smells nicer and is still good for the environment. She’s hard to please. I know this. Mom, kindly get with the program.)
Casting Director: "Ok even more conversational than that. Just throw it away"
Christian: Take 3 (Once again talking to my mom in the kitchen on a Summer day. She prefers using Seventh Generation brand but I really want her to try this new kind of bathroom cleaner because it smells nicer. She’s hard to please. I know this. So I try to be a little more emphatic with her. Hey, Mom, I’m being nice to you now.)
Casting Director: "Good. Better. But really, like, no effort at all. It’s not that you’re sounding too forced it’s just that we want to make sure we’re covered in case they think so.” The late Mr. Fontaine would have replied, “I’ll decide that.” But I’m not the Don.
Christian: Take 4 (Once again, the same internal thought process aka point of view from above. This is actually how I talk to my mom when we’re having a conversation- hence the term)
Casting Director: "Beautiful. That's where we'll start. Now one with a little more smile."
You get my point.
Who Talks This Way?
For the record, I don’t talk to anyone, let alone my mom, with a bright smile on my face, teeth glaring like the Joker in Arkham Asylum. And I’m assuming you don’t either, fellow talent or fellow human being, unless of course you have some serious personality disorder! Nor do I talk to most people the way some finished spots end up sounding. They’re not all like this but in present day, tangible real life situations, it would come off as extremely creepy. And Stepford Husband-like.
Nevertheless I began to wonder.
Is conversational being taken for granted?
Is the sound losing its luster like its “announcer” predecessor was a few years back?
Maybe it’s causing many to fall into a comfort zone or, it's that we know, as talent, this is just the set-up to them settling on the hard sell in the recording session.
Ah, good old voice over deception! We forget: everything is subjective.
We know we can’t not have a conversation with someone without placing emphasis on certain words over others. In reality, let’s say at a bar or coffee shop, we’re emphasizing the correct words so the other person can actually hear us over the commotion. That may not include such a strong projection of the product name in the way the client wants to hear it or wants their audience to perceive it.
But in voiceover reality, the producer is hearing a sound in their mind. At auditions and bookings, it can be challenging to start off genuine and approachable, but then add in the seemingly disingenuous “cheese factor” on a product name and the read goes belly-up. Just so viewership and consumer buying power can increase revenue? What if we said the product name with less of a smile? From a talent’s perspective, we can’t just “throw it away” and you still want the Joker or Stepford Wife somewhere in there. Be clearer. Pick a direction. Or go with someone else.
A Balancing Act
For us talents, it is most certainly a balancing act. Come off as friendly and approachable enough and still show the same unparalleled exuberance for a product.
To further illustrate my point, here’s an example of one of several national radio spots I recently booked for GEICO. The way I recorded it at the session was almost exactly the same as my audition read. Which is not always the case. Obviously I’m emphasizing the product name more, yet this was one of those fun reads where the product objectives are clear, the copywriting is solid, the directors/client knew what they wanted the whole time. (Oh and, thank you, John Lano!)
However, other times it’s not so clear. And this can be an on-going frustration that many voice actors, myself included, presently feel when either hired or auditioning. Indeed it’s worth improving on. And it certainly helps that a director knows how to actually direct or, rather, adjust you. It is also assumed that 9 times out of 10 we're going to fall into some announcer trap at some point or another. And when they don’t direct us more than once- does that mean we don’t have enough range or versatility? That they’re already not interested?
That’s beyond our control and we have a job to do.
We’re the ones doing the talking. And we know who we’re talking to. But then again, we're not doing the listening.
When we audition now we take risks within the framework of what is being asked. We don’t stray too far but far enough to show range and put us in a favorable light.
We “go for it” instead of abiding by the now lengthier than normal specs which show indecision rather than certainty. Some of us avoid the specs altogether for this very reason. “I’m not a mind reader” as a fellow voice talent once said to me.
So whenever I see conversational I think “Conversational-ish” because we all know that the final recording, if booked, will be different. And the reality is in this business, no one knows what they really want.
Thank you for reading! Comments? Questions?