The Science of Directing Voice Talent

Why don't you just turn *up* the beige knob?

I was voicing a radio spot years ago, and the ad agency rep — kind of a kooky, older British guy, spoke to me over the studio mic and offered what I consider to be one of the strangest pieces of direction ever given: “Uh, Allison — can you make your sound more….beige?” 

Man, was I confused. 

He’s using a *color* equivalent to describe a *sound*? OK, thought I; I think I know where he’s coming from. I replied: “So, what am I currently…..brown?” 

He started to hop up and down excitedly. “YES! YES! Exactly!” he yelped, looking very pleased with himself. 

Apart from tales of weirdness (like that one), the dynamic between the client and the voice talent (actually, *any* director and virtually any creative talent)  is one which requires diplomacy, careful selection of words, and a sense of acknowledgment of the vulnerability of the talent in front of the mic/camera/audience. I wanted to write about how best to direct talent who may be voicing your project — and the best resource I could think of is my good friend and colleague, Glenn Howard. Glenn is a former engineer-turned-voice-talent — an advantage which gives him not only formidable equipment (and the knowledge to use it properly!) but he has a unique perspective about how to direct voice talent, from his massive amount of time spent behind both sides of “the glass”. 

When asked to boil down what he thinks are the best “ingredients” for a productive voice-over session, Glenn encapsulated it perfectly: “I had the great fortune of learning voice directing from people like Steve Convery (TA2 Music/Louder Music) and Terry O’Reilly (Pirate TV) — these guys had a way of directing that really respected the performer and allowed the process the be a collaborative one.” 

It *should* be looked on as a collaboration. 

Of course, it starts with the writers. Glenn offers: “Writers have a really tough job to do. The writers that make my job easy are the ones that have a great ear of how certain words flow together when read aloud.” He adds: “Often, words that look great on the page don’t necessarily translate that well when they’re spoken aloud.” (Or — spoken in a mumbled fashion at a copywriters desk with a stopwatch.) 

Communication between the talent and the writers/producers at the onset of recording is crucial. It’s important that the talent understands what the message is; who the audience is; and what the writers intentions were — and its paramount that the producers are able to articulate that clearly and succinctly to the talent. Glenn adds: “Often, before I start doing a take, I’ll ask the director to give me the background on the spot so that I can make the choices I need to make in my delivery.” 

That can also backfire, as Glenn can attest to: “I remember a copywriter dissecting his script for me for 20 minutes before I read a single word. As much as I appreciated his attention to the script, all he really needed to say was: ‘Let’s make it casual and conversational'”. 

I have called Glenn — on a few occasions — the Master of the Talkback Switch — which is a device which controls audio from the engineering booth — where the engineer and clients/writers/producers sit — and the voice talent, sequestered in the sound booth. It is a way for both “camps” to communicate with one another — and can be the cause of a lot of confusion for the talent, if they are allowed to listen to all discussion which occurs during breaks between takes — which can be confusing, contradictory, and sometimes, unflattering. Glenn is expert at filtering out the information, and only passing down to the talent what will be useful in the next or subsequent takes. Glenn mentioned: “When I was the guy with my finger on the talkback, it was my responsibility to listen to the comments being made, find a consensus in the room, and then relay that direction to the talent clearly.” Not all engineers are that prudent; I’ve had to listen three or four snippets of contradictory direction coming from a group of people on the other side of the glass, and had the engineer swivel in his chair and ask: “Got that?” 

Got *what*? I got that Ad Exec #1 wants me to do it softer and Ad Exec #2 wants me to do it more heavy sell. 

When asked what he considers to be the top traits a voice talent needs to contribute to a short, efficient,  smooth voice-over session, he answered, without hesitation: “Preparation, preparation, and preparation. Arriving at least 10 minutes early to the session, having the necessary skills at hand, having confidence, and just being a professional are all essential qualities.” 

He’s a joy to work with — those of us who have had Glenn engineer our sessions know all too well what a level-headed calming influence he can be in the session — now his rapidly growing list of clientele know it too. Glenn has voiced spots for the US Army, California Milk, Intel, Coca-Cola — he’s a formidable talent who still manages to remain his usual jovial and unflappable self. Check out his demos at

Next blog, I’ll write about an amazing not-for-profit organization called the Purple Heart Foundation, for whom I’ve voiced IVR — they employ disabled veterans in call centers, which is an extraordinary opportunity to get injured veterans back in the workforce and on the road to being self-sufficient again. 

Thanks for reading!


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