Why Can’t I Sound Like a Human?

Any voice talent reading this post will probably agree with me: there is no other more commonly heard direction — either from engineers directing a voice-over session or the clients and ad agency writers looking up from the cheese platter and offering their suggestions on how the spot should be read — than the following:

“Just sound like a real person!”

Doesn’t sound too labor-intensive, does it? After all, I *happen to be* a real person, who on a daily basis tells the barrista how I want my coffee; who pleads with the grocery clerk not to pack all the heavy groceries in one bin (they don’t listen) — and yes — I have real, natural conversations with friends and loved ones on a regular basis.

When we step in front of the mic — whether it be for a broadcast spot, an industrial film voice-over, and yes, even IVR prompts — something clicks in our brains and we default into the thinking: “I’m working. I’m a professional voice. Therefore, I must speak professionally.” The ad execs can’t really mean it when they say they want you to sound like their receptionist — otherwise they could have just dragged her here in the front of the mic — and for a lot less money, right?

The trend — especially if you listen to TV voice-overs — is candid, natural, “everyman”.  Almost gone are the days of a slick, bass-y male voice tantalizing you with talk of V-8 engines and Anti-Lock Brake Systems — many car ads now feature voices which sound so completely accessible, and for lack of a better word…..ordinary, that you don’t feel like you’re actively being sold a car (it’s a trick), but rather, the announcer just sounds like your neighbor, responding to your question shouted from the next driveway over: “So, how do you like your new Mazda?” The voice for Wendy’s sounds not unlike the voice you’d hear thanking you, as she hands you your burger at the take-out window. About the same age-range, and roughly the same amount of “polish”.

We almost have to consciously let go of some of our experience and training, and approach the material as through we’re seeing it for the first time, *saying* it for the first time — and — this is key — that we don’t have the nicely modulated voices or clear diction on which we built our careers.

And that’s not a problem — if the *material* itself is *written* in a conversational tone. There’s nothing more pleasant than being cast in a quaint two-hander radio spot that’s written with how real people talk in mind — and still manage to sell the product. The writer has been mindful to write sentences which might realistically be said between two humans. However, all too often we run into danger areas when “Marge” says to “Celeste”, for example: “Well, Celeste, Effexor isn’t for everyone. Oh, no. People who are prone to Tachycardia, Hepatitis, Chrone’s Disease, COPD, Osteoporosis, or if you have any of the following; changes in mucous color, increased cough, blurred vision. Certain people shouldn’t take Effexor: people with high blood pressure or lower bone mineral density. Do not take Effexor if you suspect you may be pregnant.” (They coyly cover their mouths and giggle.) If the material is at least written with a conversational “ear”, we, as voice talent, might have a reasonable chance in translating that into candid, natural conversation. I was assigned an on-hold script about a year ago — with the direction: “Sound Like a Real Person!” — and the material dealt with marine-grade sealants, industrial lubricants, and all manner of sewage interceptor and collection lines. Horrifically dry and technical content. “Just imagine you’re saying this to your best friend!” came the direction over the phone patch. You know, whenever I gather the girls together, and the good martini glasses come out, talk will invariably turn to the debate between LPS1 Industrial Lubricant and it’s rival, Mobil SHC. We’re still fairly divided about that issue. Don’t get us started.

In the voicing of IVR prompts, the challenge to sound natural becomes even more important — and arduous. Given the automated nature of telephony prompts, the “sameness” required in order to make the prompts flow effortlessly together requires a steadiness in inflection — and doesn’t exactly invite creativity in the voicing of the prompts. Even if you have a wonderful, relaxed, conversational opening prompt: “I can help you find what you’re looking for. Why not tell me more about what you need? ” you are still at the mercy of robotic-sounding numbers, months, and other “set” landmarks built into your IVR system. I try my best to sound as “real” as possible — and material that is written in a relaxed, conversational tone helps your voice talent to also express that naturalness audibly.

Almost like a model who is hired for a print ad in which great time and resources are used to “uglify” her with mud and dirt, so should voice talent realise that there are times when you’re hired for your melodic tones and crystal-clear enunciation — and other times where all the polish and refinement needs to be stripped down and to access that “everyperson” voice. You know the one. You use it each and every day.

Next blog: I”ll write about the challenges of accommodating clients who require accents…..great and fun work, if it’s done well!

Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment!



  1. Glenno Said:

    Yup – “be natural” is the most popular bit of direction there is right now. Gone are the days of the stylized announcer (thank heaven). Too many tedious, forced deliveries putting a shellac’d face on their products. The trick is in knowing what tone sounds natural to the audience – not just ourselves.

    Feedback from professionals – especially those at arm’s length is crucial. I’d never ask anyone in my family what they thought of a read I did. They’re too nice to say “it sounds like crap”. Working with my current voice coach has done wonders for me this past year.

    BTW – Great blog, Allison. I always love reading your insights on the world of VO.

    Love & Hugs

    • voicegal Said:

      Ahhh, you were one of the great engineers (now turned voice talent!) I’ve worked with…you were expert on getting a truly natural performance out of us…which is why your own V/o stuff is so straightforward and honest. You have “candid” and “human” down to a science. Hmmm….future blog idea: “How Best To Direct Voice Talent” — I may prevail upon your vast experience for that article!

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