Accents — They’re Magically Delicious!

She’s my competition on a sound studio’s talent database, and for every job I land through them, Jane gets hired for about three. It used to aggravate me slightly, but I always reminded myself that Jane’s paychecks end up in my bank account.

“Jane” is actually me — the British-accented version of me, and it was the studio’s sound engineer’s idea — in addition to creating my profile on his website for when clients are shopping for a voice — to also create this mythical “Jane” character for clients who are looking for a British accent. In the US, the perception seems to be that a British accent connotes wealth, sophistication, and can make even a non-highbrow product somewhat tonier. (I’ve left behind my exposure of years of watching Coronation Street and try for a higher-class RP British accent with a splash of playful English MTV Vee Jay thrown in).

Although not common (with the internet providing accessibility to talent worldwide who can voice projects in their own natural, native accents) the need for accents does crop up occasionally — I did some prompts for Eircom and introduced a bit of a Belfast lilt, and it’s not uncommon to be asked to bring in a bit of a Southern “sensibility” into projects geared at the US South — most often they’re looking for more a Paula Deen “warmth” than a full-out drawl.

The biggest danger when voice talent is prevailed upon to venture into accents is to overdo it, delve into cliche, or make the accent the focus of the project. I would caution never to agree to do an accent (or even have it on your demo) unless you are already fairly accomplished at it (I am regularly approached by Asterisk developers in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to voice prompts in their native accents — those are partcularly difficult accents to get right, and fall into the category of those I wouldn’t even attempt. Welsh is another one.)

If asked to voice copy in an accent, try not to go into cliche (I’m still recovering from the rash of St. Patrick’s Day commercials with DJ’s doing their overblown “Lucky Charms” Irish accents), and always ensure that the accent doesn’t “become” the project — it shouldn’t be the focus of the spot, it shouldn’t distract the listener, and it most definitely shouldn’t overshadow the message of the project.

There are times when my natural speaking voice is considered to be “the accent” — I do a fair bit of work for sound studios in the UK, Germany and other parts of Europe, who keep a roster of North American talent when they need the product to sound “international” to *their* customer base — a small telco in Britain hired me recently with the sole intent to sound like a major US Telco (I was flattered!) — but there are times when it’s worked against me: I once bid on a project in Australia, and was told  by their less-than-diplomatic creative director that their customer base would revolt from my “jarring, offensive American accent”. (For the record, I hail from Western Canada where accents  — like our political leanings and our cuisine — are painfully neutral. Most clients can’t place my regionality from my cadence, and I’m glad about that.)

There are times where it just doesn’t “work” — I recently watched a documentary about the Hillside Strangler, narrated by a male British voice talent — who, while undisputably talented, seemed incongrous voicing a show about a series of crimes committed in America in his elegant British timbre. Just days ago, “Jane” was hired to voice the IVR for a Karate studio — it seemed an odd fit, and I felt a little like Julie Andrews setting down her Wedgwood teacup and giving the “Fight Club” speech to moppets in sailor suits gathered around her: “Now remember children: the first rule about Fight Club: Nobody Talks About Fight Club! Now, shoo!”

When they work well — in the appropriate project — accents add auditory “interest” to a project and really enable the voice talent to use that acting instrument. Writers/producers need to ensure that the content fits the accent, and the voice talent should always endeavor to deliver realistic, understated performances.

Join me here next week, where I’ll talk about projects I’ve voiced which might very well make me — if not a *hated* voice — certainly unpopular. Hint: did your kid skip class this week? You might have gotten a call from me….

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