Posts Tagged ‘Voice Talent’

Like a True Pro — He Makes it All Look So Easy

If you’re lucky, you have a colleague in your profession who sets the standard; one who acts as the vanguard of things untried, and who raises the bar for everyone else.

If you’re *really* lucky, this person does all that in such a way which inspires without alienating, who makes strides without gloating, and who is generous by unhesitatingly sharing what they know.

I have such a colleague in Paul Boucher.

Paul Boucher

Paul is an amazing voice talent, with a world-wide clientele and a seemingly non-stop schedule of projects for companies like NASA, Pratt & Whitney, Microsoft, Dell, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Disney Asia, among many others. Being a bilingual voice talent (acquiring French while growing up in Northern Ontario) makes him a double-threat and even more marketable. He is driven, motivated, and always seems to be several lengths ahead of the rest of us — and does all that without a hint of ego. In fact, I’ve frequently described him as one of nicest people in the business — a sentiment echoed by all who meet him.

Chance — and not a little bit of chutzpah — got him started in voiceover:

“In 1977, I was fired from my lifeguard position at 15 for insubordination”, recalls Paul, “and seeking fame and glory (and apparently desperately needing attention), I walked into the local radio station in Kapuskasing Ontario looking for a job as a DJ. Essentially the job requirements were being able to walk and talk at the same time, ’cause I got in.”

I think merely being able to say “Kapuskasing” nailed it.

Paul continues:

“Since then,  several important people and experiences helped to shape me as a voice performer. The first two jobs I had in radio – 4 years worth – we did everything on air, including assemble and read long 5 to 10 minute newscasts. I loved it! Also, we often had to write our own copy, and produce the commercials we aired on the radio station. It was a fantastic creative opportunity, and as you can imagine, some things worked, more didn’t, but every one was a learning experience.”

Not everyone would easily adapt to a job which involved so many skill sets — writing, producing, and speaking are very distinctly different disciplines. Undaunted, Paul dove in, as is his inclination when things get challenging or unfamiliar.

Paul further outlines his evolution as a voice artist:

” Norm Zanolli, (a producer in Grande Prairie, Alberta) was the first producer to ever show me how to work in a booth, surrender the mechanics and just “read” a spot in a separate voice booth. He was very patient, very kind, and very encouraging. We’ll zip ahead to Calgary and my other touchstone formative experience in voice:  working with Calgarian (now Toronto based) composer and producer, Amin Bhatia. Amin was restlessly creative, always looking for something a little “other”, a little “further”, a little “better”, and he stirred in me a desire to deliver a “performance” rather than a “read”. It was with Amin and the fabulous creative team at Lite 96 in Calgary of Janet Connerton and Chris Kennedy that I discovered what it was like to be in the moment, feel the words, and attain another plateau creatively. Importantly, like the newscasts from early in my radio career, I found I enjoyed the longer pieces, and so began a slowly evolving non-broadcast narration business.”

It must have been a solid and comprehensive training ground. Paul’s ease in front of the mic; his intelligence in assessing material; and his insistence of capturing and conveying the writer’s intention has made him a favorite among writers and producers.

But his curiosity and skills didn’t stop behind the mic.

“I was also a computer geek and not long after my introduction to Peter Temple, I was shopping my demo around studios in Calgary and came across a studio where they’d recorded a long instructional program teaching people how to use Outlook and the rest of the Microsoft Office 97 suite of applications. I heard the existing narration and suggested that they actually needed a professional to do this (arrogance can occasionally be perceived as chutzpah depending your perspective). I explained that I had the narration skill and the passion for the subject that they needed to make this come alive. ”

( I assure the readers — arrogance would be the last word used to describe Paul.)

Paul continues: “The producer (also a pretty mean narrator herself, Edie Tusor) didn’t think that a broadcaster could sustain a read beyond 30 or 60 seconds, but I surprised her and that relationship led to some eLearning programs that were favourably reviewed in the magazine Technology Quarterly. I was in geek heaven with this stuff, and I started to look for this sort of work, and the work began to find me. I put up my first web site in May of 1997, and within weeks was working for clients all over North America. The first one was a Mexican Pharmaceutical company that was heading to Germany for a trade show. They wanted an ‘American’ sounding narrator on a kiosk presentation and so, I did it.”

Ahh, Mexican pharmaceuticals — where would I be today without them? But I digress.

I ran some questions past Paul, to get his position on what it’s like to be a freelance voice talent like myself; I also wanted to see if his experiences were similar to mine.

A: If you were to put a finger on the five aspects of your favorite clients, what would those be?

PB: They’re prepared. They’re professional and respectful of the time it takes to deliver a quality product. They have LOTS of work. (LOL)They trust me – which then encourages me to give them more reasons to trust me and so on, and so on, and so on. and they’re good, honest people with integrity. They help to reaffirm my view that most people are good, and that the glass is half full.

A: We’ve all had less than perfect experiences with clients. What would you say are the five warning signs that a client is going to be ‘trouble’?

PB: BIG FLAG: starting the relationship with a “favor”. It usually goes something like this: “So, we’ve got this client, and they have TONS of work, but they’d like to get this small project produced at no cost first to: insert your own lie here: get a  feel for your voice and how it sounds with our product, see if it works, try to sell the stakeholders…blah blah blah. If you don’t value your talent/product, and hold a client accountable for SOME SORT of compensation, even the 1st time, then the client won’t either. Fortunately, I’ve only had to learn and re-learn that lesson a couple of times.

NOT WANTING TO HEAR THE DETAILS OF THE PROCESS BEFOREHAND: including revision fee structures etc. They typically put in an oscar-winning wounded dog performance when you tell them there’ll be a revision charge.

WANTING A HANDSHAKE AGREEMENT when, in actual fact, something written would be a good idea.

MAKING EXCUSES BEFORE STARTING about money and budgets being tight and how they’ll pay you when the client pays them, “but they can be slow”. Me to them: I’m not your bank, and your inability to collect from your clients is simply not my problem. 

LOW BUDGET CLIENTS WITH EXPECTATIONS worthy of stage riders by rock bands. I stay away from them. 

A: What do you do better than your competition?

PB: Hmm. One of my biggest advantages has been technological. I’ve been able to leverage technology to help me be proactive and consistent with communication to build relationships with clients. Once I have those relationships, I’ll move heaven and earth to make sure they’re super-served. I’m under no illusion that I’m the “best” at anything. There’s always someone who’s at least “as good” as you are at anything. My hope is that by consistently helping clients to realize their projects in a way that exceeds their expectations, then I’ll continue to enjoy privileged relationships with them. Technology has helped me to always be slightly ahead of the curve helping clients that way. I’m able to respond faster, get product to them faster, at a higher quality than many of our peers. I offer several distinct advantages, from secure permanent digital archiving of studio sessions (you’d be amazed at how often clients need to re-use something from 4-10 years back), to secure shredding and recycling, enterprise level security on my network so client files aren’t at risk, and more. I’ve helped clients evolve their own best practices at work, and also welcomed their input into my business to make it even more able to serve them.

One other important factor in my success is my peers. I proactively seek to mentor and share as many good things as possible with my peers in Calgary. I have always maintained that it’s better to share information and mentor each other forward into more successes than it is to remain “siloed” and isolated and protective of turf. I’ve learned a ton from the people around me, and hopefully, by reciprocating when I can I’ve helped them too. As an example – and I’ve said this plenty of times in conversation away from your blog, many of us have looked upon you as the queen of marketing in our business in Calgary. Your inventiveness, consistency and professionalism have been hugely influential in our small community. You still set the bar in our market. 

A: Blush! Thanks. You and I have discussed how insular it can feel being a voice talent with your own studio. We do less mingling with other talent; meet fewer clients face to face, and can pretty much keep our head down and do our work in own little inner “sanctums”. What are the positives (and negatives) of working in such a solo trajectory? Speaking for myself: sometimes I occasionally miss the hum of people around me, but for the most part, I enjoy the solitude.

PB: You’ve hit on something very important there. I wouldn’t trade the autonomy and independence of working from home anymore, but I know I’m vulnerable to “hunkering down”, being a homebody and what not, and I think that process can lead to a sort of sameness to thinking that’s applied to the business and even relationships and conversations. I have an external business manager who is a huge influence. She brings her wealth of experience and outside input into my life every day. We can confidentially discuss almost anything to do with the business and life. I sought out a business coach for a few years for very similar reasons and can recommend that experience almost unconditionally. You may be king/queen of your castle, but it’s good to have someone challenge your thinking from time to time just to remind you that you don’t have all the answers. 🙂 This isolation is a seismic shift in how the industry works, especially away from the big 3 markets in both the US and Canada. L.A., New York, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver all have much more structured industries with casting directors, ad agencies and thriving segments of the industry that require talent to go to studios to audition and record paying gigs. In Calgary, if we’re working full time in our business, we typically have quite a bit of work from out of the market, and we develop decades long relationships with people we’re probably never going to meet. We typically have evolved our home studios to serve a couple of original clients and it’s grown in sophistication pretty organically from there as the business has grown. We’re pretty much able to work from anywhere with a broadband connection. Alone. Disconnected. It can all be pretty isolating, and even demoralizing if you’re the sort of person that thrives on social contact. I know that sensing the possible negative aspect you mentioned, I enthusiastically accepted an invitation to be part of a business breakfast club in town several years ago (Early Birds – oldest business breakfast club in Calgary). We meet face to face once weekly. The variety of business experience, perspectives and accumulated wisdom of some of these people honestly blows me away from week to week. That experience taught me to make a point of meeting up with people on a rotating basis a couple of times a month. I’m now very conscious of my lack of contact with the industry, and face time is important. Finally, I think (although I’ve found this harder to put into practice), that it’s important to “touch the industry” in as many ways as possible:  attend as many local industry functions as possible to let people know you exist. Show up for those things, flex your “schmooze” muscles and let people see you in/out of a strict work context. With all our skill at virtual contact, there is still no real substitute as powerful as “face time” with someone. Join associations, travel to get coaching, whatever works for you, but get out of the bubble. Secure and lovely as it is, it’s a bit of an illusion, and getting out there can do nothing but make your relationships richer, more interesting, and ultimately from a business standpoint, more productive.

As you can see: Mr. Boucher is self-effacing, without pretense, and simply matter-of-fact about his considerable  success. His velvet voice is something any voice talent would kill for; but in addition to that considerable gift, his business sense is acute, his groundedness is enviable, and his accessibility and openness in assisting others in the industry is something we should all study and emulate.

And like a true pro: he makes it all look so easy.

Visit him at www.paulboucher.com.

In two week’s time, I’ll explore another aspect of telephony which is slowly falling by the wayside: obscene phone calls. Call them another casualty of the internet!

Thanks for reading…

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

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Choosing The Right Voice Talent

It sets the tone for your entire phone system; it identifies what your company is all about — it can even be a deciding factor as to whether or not someone wishes to do business with you.

Your choice of voice talent is crucial in creating the perception of your company, as the front-end of your phone system establishes who you are and in many cases, how serious you are about what you do.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about your selection of voice talent to voice your IVR — existing preferences with regards to male versus female; the deliberate decision to go with an older voice as opposed to a younger sound (or vice-versa) — all are negotiable and not set in stone. What was once the preferred and valued convention in a vocal style can suddenly fall out of favor and the converse can now be the “norm”.

I have been asked to voice the IVR prompts for many companies and industries which were, before, considered to be the domain of men: I recently voiced an online training module for welders (their thinking being that a woman’s voice would be calming to candidates writing their exam); car markets — from sales to accessories and customization of vehicles — once the turf of male announcers, are rapidly leaning in favor of a female voice. It could be a matter of “sex sells”; I like to think that it has more to do with the psychology of how a voice hits your ears. You know how some voices just irritate? And you don’t know why? A voice can “agree” with your ears, without you even really knowing why.

A young, energetic sound — with the gravelly, almost sleepy cadence of a Jersey Shore girl, will most definitely fit with a young upstart alternative clothing company and likely wouldn’t fit with an upscale high-end clothier targeting a 35-55 market. A straightforward conservative male voice might sound stodgy and not dovetail well with a hip, urban record label, in much the same way that callers to an importer of high-end housewares might find it incongruous to encounter a telephone voice who sounds too hip or “street” — or even a “young” sound, which could create doubts of competence for callers phoning gem dealers or art auction houses, where a seasoned, experienced sound would inspire confidence.

Define The Sensation You’re Attempting to Create

It is important to have it worked out in your head — and to able to express to your voice talent — what “vision” you have of the company’s image, and how the talent can help to create that. Articulate what you are; and articulate what you *aren’t* all about. Provide examples from other ad campaigns or phone systems you’ve heard, or even examples of what’s worked well for you in the past or what *hasn’t* worked well — but only as a rough guide and not as a template which you expect the talent to replicate exactly.

Ask for a Custom Demo…but not too many

It’s completely acceptable (and highly recommended) to request a custom demo of your material, to make sure the talent’s on the right track — with a few caveats. Make sure the material is short (two or three lines or prompts should be sufficient to establish the direction they’re heading in). Be aware that most talent will not read an entire spot or a full script for audition purposes; we are vigilant about making sure the clip isn’t actually used without remuneration and rather than embed a low-grade tone under the sample (a watermark which effectively makes it unusable) we will deliberately change prices or transpose phone numbers to make sure it won’t be used. If the talent doesn’t hit the mark the first time, feel free to suggest a retry on the demo — but if, after that second attempt yields results which still aren’t sounding right, move on and audition someone else. Most often, understanding the material and being able to convey the vision is an instant “get” — when it’s not there, it’s probably best to farm other avenues.

 Know Your Demographic — And Have a Clear Idea What They Respond To

Knowing what works and what doesn’t work for your customers is as important for your IVR persona as it is to have a website which you know your customers will find intuitive, or knowing what type of radio commercial draws your customers in. And sometimes, it’s all about context. No surveys or testing would be required to know that callers to a Women’s Health Clinic will likely *not* respond well to a male voice greeting them on the telephone system, but callers to a grocery chain (where women are still the principal consumers) might find a reassuring, “let’s-cook-dinner-together” male voice to be just the right tone. 

The More People You Ask — The More Messy the Process Will Be

We know that many aspects of the corporate environment need to be done by committee, taking many, many people’s opinions into consideration. If it were just up to the person who contacted the talent, it would be a simpler, more direct process. It is rarely up to one single decision-maker. It is important that the vision be agreed upon and solidified corporately before even approaching the talent; it is essential to narrow the parameters of what you’re looking for early in the process, and it will be a valuable nugget of information to articulate to the talent that *many* people will be reviewing not just their demo but all of them (and that this may cause more of a delay in obtaining feedback). For bonus points, decide to set a limit on the amount of demoing which will be required of the talent.

 It’s an amazingly creative process to hunt for and obtain just the right sound, which closely mirrors your company’s persona, and provides the best, most accurate impression of your company at the outset. It’s the indefinable moment when the voice hits your ear “just right”.

 Next week, I’ll be exploring a staple in the world of telephony which refuses to become an anachronism: The Yellow Pages.

Thanks for reading!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

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 www.ghvo.net

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!

The Myth of Competition

There's Enough Pie for Everyone!

 

When I was an acting major at the University of Calgary, I remember a librarian on the Fine Arts Floor and I trying to solve a mystery: despite the card catalogues proclaiming that several compendiums of monologues were catalogued as having a specific monologue I was looking for, (I was an after a unique audition piece for upcoming general auditions which would be one that the panel hadn’t seen before or hadn’t tired of — I wanted to avoid being the fifteenth “Saint Joan” they’d seen that day…) —  none of the compilations seemed to have the audition piece despite a careful scan of each page…until the librarian pointed out a razor cut near the spine — and the specific page containing the monologue was missing. Someone had taken out an X-Acto knife and had removed the monologue from the book — not due to a shortage of photocopying change. The librarian had seen it before in the law library: so fierce was the competition among law students to be the only ones familiar with obscure law cases, (and the perceived importance of no one else being privy to that case) that they meticulously removed them from law texts to give them that extra edge. 

Not long ago, I was in the roster of an online voice talent agency which had a web interface where talent could upload their auditions — but any approved talent, after logging in, accessed a page which displayed *all* the talent’s full names, e-mail addresses, and audition files — which could be listened to by other talent; but more importantly — and more sinister — could be easily corrupted, deleted, or replaced by anyone who chose to. After numerous problems with just that kind of thing happening, the interface was changed to be more insular, compartmentalized, and private — and the agent being more aware of the sometimes cutthroat nature of competition among artists. 

In every industry, one must realize that no matter how specific your skills; regardless of how much experience and acclaim you may have earned doing your job — there’s someone else out there doing it too. Maybe no so well or with not so much flair — or perhaps more, who knows? Especially with what I do — the voicing of telephony systems — I tend to feel, well, *rare*. I work alone; I transact with my clients, and generally keep my head down. It’s an unusual and oddball profession — an instant hit in every “what do you do for a living?” conversation — and along with its uniqueness comes with the feeling that I’m on an island. Nobody does what I do. And certainly: nobody shares my “niche”.  And then, just this week, I stumble across a website of a colleague of mine — another well-known telephone voice whose name I’ve seen on talent rosters we’ve both occupied — and her client list (while different) is as vast as mine. Her testimonials crow of her talent, professionalism, and reliability, much as mine do. Her demos are strong; as are mine. In short, we’re both doing the same thing, at approximately similar levels of skill, and enjoying roughly the same amount of success in pursuing our careers. 

Nothing wrong with that, is there? 

Actually, there’s *precious little* wrong with that. That she has a bounty and I have a bounty simply reinforces the notion that there’s enough to go around. (And we’re not the only two telephone ladies out there.) We’re both able to cultivate and retain clientele — and invite new ones in weekly. Her successes don’t detract from mine, or the converse — and there’s probably room for twenty more just like us, and we’d all be able to make our way.  For the same reason that there’s a gas station adorning all four corners of every intersection of a typical large city, and why there is an unexplainable cabal of *seven* Starbucks all within a three-block radius in the city where I live — and they all thrive — there’s room for everybody. 

I tend to err on the side of minding my own business (literally) and not spending too much time keeping track of what my “competition” does. The corporate mentality is quite counter to this: companies monitor very closely the activities of competitors — to analyze what they do and improve on it. To make sure that their company’s information, procedures, and practices are proprietary and guarded and to make the best use of all of those key aspects which your rivals have left unguarded. 

While I’m not recommending a free and unlimited interchange of secrets — and fully acknowledging that I, myself, am a little miserly with sharing contacts and lucrative leads with other voice talent (especially female) — I do fully realise that there’s enough pie for everyone. And it may not involve literally handing over leads or sharing information — it might be as simple as working honorably alongside each other respectfully, in an open-hearted way. There’s room for everyone to prosper, and a monologue which was spared the knife and stayed attached in the book; and was memorized and expertly performed by a wide range of actors will be different in each performer’s treatment of the material. Even the sixteenth Saint Joan they’ve seen that day. 

Thanks for reading, and next week, I’ll explore the considerable uses of voice-over in the arena of Real Estate — I’ve described more “adorable split level bungalows on a quiet cul-de-sac” than I’ll ever occupy!

Dream Jobs

Nancy Cartwright — the legendary voice of Bart Simpson — used to conduct voice-over workshops on a regular basis (she is focusing more on charitable fundraising and other causes now) — the people who would flock to the workshops (which were expensive and had massive waiting lists) were those who saw the performing of animation voices as the penultimate genre in voiceover in which to work — and being the voice actor behind a well-known and beloved character (such as Bart Simpson) is the fantasy of many. The income that the Simpsons actors must be amassing…..not to mention the unheard of job security and the unusual fame of being able to walk the streets and not be recognized — until you open your mouth — is amazingly alluring.

I, myself, realise that I am not a treasure-trove of character voices. I have my thing that I do well — and the voicing of professional telephone prompts doesn’t require dropping into dozens of different character voices on a dime, the way someone like the amazingly talented Hank Azaria (from the Simpsons) can, or even Seth MacFarlane (from Family Guy, who — I was surprized to find out — does the voices for Peter, Stewie, Brian and Glenn Quagmire– as well as many other ancillary characters on the show.)

As indisputably great as it would be to voice a major character on a long-running animated feature, my “Dream Jobs” — those elusive voice-over jobs I’d give my eye teeth to do (providing it didn’t interfere with my diction) — are slightly different than most aspire to…and are likely more offbeat.

I’d really love voice:

1. Movie Trailers

…but think about the last time you heard a female voicing a movie promo trailer. I think maybe once…at an art-house style theatre, I believe I heard a promo for an indie movie voiced by a female. That’s a rarity. When Don La Fontaine, “The Movie Trailer Guy” passed away in September 2008, he left behind him a firm reputation as the quintessential and unmistakable Movie Trailer Promo Voice — and even though a colleague and close friend of his — Joe Cipriani — seems to have taken up the reins in voicing trailers, La Fontaine’s tones will always be identified as the voice  who “owned” that genre.

2. National Geographic Documentaries

The creative department at NatGeo can be considered to be the Fort Knox of documentary production — if there’s a way to get your demo in there, I have run out of ideas about how to do that. It’s a very protected, insular division; the powers that be who would give demos a listen are closely guarded and anything but transparent, and on those occasions that I have hunkered down and decided to make a big pot of coffee and make a day of researching the right contact to approach, (and it is a full *day*) I have come up empty-handed. I believe I have just the right tones to describe the Coral Reefs; the life-cycle of the Giant Sea Turtle; the Greater Kudu of the Ocavango. Why don’t they let me?

3. On-Board Warning Messages in Aircraft

Ok, this one is a little offbeat — but I have to confess to a morbid curiosity in watching documentaries which feature air disasters and plane crashes. “Mayday!” on Discovery Channel is one of my favs. Many of the crash re-enactments feature automated messages which come from the on-board warning systems — for example, a crew will hear a stern yet emotionless voice say: “PULL UP” when they’re about to hit terrain or “WINDSHEAR” when they’re encountering dangerous wind conditions. In every re-enactment I’ve seen, it’s almost always a male voice who’s done the voiceover. I made contact with Honeywell — the manufacturer of many of the automated warning systems installed in commercial jets — and happened to track down not only the right person, but someone with a great deal of recording experience of his own. His theory as to why female voices aren’t utilized for such a purpose was that in some countries — more patriarchal Middle-Eastern countries to be exact — a female voice barking commands — even those designed to avert disaster — may not be all that well received. Point taken — but that just makes me want to add additional “novelty” prompts to the usual warning prompts should I ever eventually get the job…..something along the lines of: “Look — we’re lost. Would you stop and just ask for directions? And slow down, Mr. Leadfoot — you’re going to get us all killed.”

4. Those Big, Juicy, Recurring, National TV V/o’s

This has still alluded me despite my best attempts at signing on with the best agents, whose sole purpose is to position me correctly and place me directly in line with the Coca-Colas and BMW’s of world, looking for a long-term and identifiable voice for their product. (Agents are whole other blog I’ll tackle soon…). Most voice talent dreams of such a contact — a colleague of mine was the voice of Toyota for a few years, and put him on the map as a major hitter. I was the national voice of Canada Safeway for a number of years — a great contract to have, and one which demanded a lot (virtually no vacation time was allotted; one had to be available for re-records at a moment’s notice; grocery prices vacillating much like commodities). I’d love to have big, knock-it-out-of-the-park national contract again, and feel fairly confident it’s within my grasp.

5. Awards Shows

I would never wish to whisk this job away from esteemed colleague Randy Thomas — who has voiced both the Academy Awards *and* the Tony Awards for years — these juicy contracts are her claim to fame, and she never ceases to amaze me with her calm and fluid pronunciations of (sometimes) the world’s trickiest names (think “Best Foreign Film” category) — and in a pressure-cooker of an environment. However, if she were ever to abdicate her throne…I’d gladly take over. Rubbing elbows with the famous, and the most widespread exposure any voice talent could hope for. An amazing contract which she does expertly.

None of the above musings should be taken as discontentment in the least: I am blessed with rewarding, steady, and fulfilling work for a wide variety of exceptional clients…it’s just always good to dream, to speculate, and to covet that irresistable contract which is just outside of your grasp.

Next blog: I’ll delve deeper into the genre of the On-Hold System……we hear them almost every day, and being in the position of voicing several a week, I can contribute my two cents about what I thinks makes a *great* on-hold system, and why many are simply a trial to listen to.

As always, thanks for reading!

The Challenges — And Joys — of Working From Home, Part2

Edie Tusor is a colleague of mine; an extremely talented lady, and someone I’m definitely honored to call my friend.

Where my niche is telephony voicing, Edie excels at a wide variety of voice-over genres (including telephony), but the domain of E-Learning modules (seamlessly narrated courses people take online for degrees, training, certification or accreditation) is definitely her area of expertise — and it’s easy to see why. Edie has a wonderfully calm tone, perfect for facilitating a safe, relaxed learning environment, and hers is a timbre that is professional and affable all at the same time — we in the V/o biz all strive for that perfect mix of capable/friendly, and Edie — like all good pros — makes it look easy.

When I was delving into this set of articles about recording from home, I knew Edie would provide some refreshing insight — she was one of the first people I ever heard of having a home setup to record, and (even though she’s barely in her early 20’s*) Edie is a pioneer of home recording. No matter where she’s lived, she has managed to create a state-of-the-art studio in which to work which is as separate as possible from the main living areas — not only for acoustical reasons, but also to create a healthy, dedicated space separation from home and work.

She definitely commiserated with my ordeal of the furnace-cleaning truck in my last entry: she regaled me with tales of her neighbor getting a new roof and how this impacted her recording career. “Do you have any idea how many NAILS are pounded into a single roof?” she asked, when I interviewed her for this article.

“The hammering went on for several days, during which we recorded most of our projects in the evening. But one day, we had a phone patch booked right in the middle of the day — so I baked a batch of muffins and asked the roofing crew if they could schedule their coffee break to coincide with our session. They were happy to oblige!” She’s a fierce cook. These were no ordinary muffins, I can promise you.

Edie also touched on another aspect of home recording which other voice talent I’ve talked to have mentioned as problematic — and this can plague anyone who works alone: a feeling of isolation. Aside from e-mail and sporadic telephone contact, recording from home can be lighthouse-keeper solitary. Which — at first — may sound appealing, but can take a toll after awhile. Edie further elaborates: “I have a friend who could easily work from home but has chosen not to do so, specifically because he is not a very social person. At first, I thought this was odd, as working alone seemed a perfect fit for someone like him. As it turns out, he was worried that if he wasn’t *forced* to interact with people every day, he might literally never see anyone at all”. 

When one records from home, you also have only yourself to judge the quality of takes; it takes an objective ear to self-edit, to motivate oneself without external prodding, tuning out distractions, and to be the lone performer; the sole producer of the work. No water-cooler gossip, no lunch with co-workers; but on the positive side, no boss reprimands, and our staff meetings are pleasantly short and refreshingly to-the-point.

Edie and I both agree: the advantages to recording from home are incalculable and are a constant source of joy for us: no morning commute, massive control over our own schedules (and rates!), the ability of take care of household tasks in-between recording, and the freedom to come and go as we please.

Check out Edie’s website at www.etvoiceworks.com to see her incredible list of clients, and to access her demos, which showcase a huge versatility.

Next blog, I’ll update the category of “Weirdest Jobs I’ve Been Asked to Voice” — when I wrote about odd contracts I’ve had at the start of this blog last Fall, I thought that article was a one-off — luckily I have a steady influx of strange and wonderful projects I’ve voiced which never fail to shock and amaze me.

Thanks for reading!

(*Happy Birthday, E!)

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….

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!

Traits of My Favorite Clients — Part 2

Last blog, I discussed tangible measures that IVR writers can do with their scripts to greatly facilitate the recording of their prompts — and it can be as simple as the program and format you use.

This post, I’ll delve into other ways which can forge a strong and easy relationship with your voice talent — and ensure that you get the prompts you need, delievered in the format your system requires.

1. You allow enough time

I’m known for very fast turnaround — even as busy as I am (and it continues to grow) I can still almost always return prompts back to a client the same day if I get the order by noon, MST. Pretty darn great, yes? Some people seem to think that *even that* is an intolerable lag time. My favorite clients e-mail even a few days ahead of their deadline to enquire about my availability — instead of presuming that I’ll be around to record at the 11th hour just before they want to go live with their IVR.  It’s a good idea to allow not only enough time for the talent to deliver the files, but also that they’ll be around for those inevitable redo’s or re-writes.

2. You Write Your Own Script

Lots of people presume that I will write their script for them. I am so focused on (and my time is so completely consumed by) standing in front of the mic, that I can’t get sidelined into writing. Also, I always maintain that clients know their own company the best; they have more knowledge about their business, and they are the best qualified to write about it. I’m more than happy to offer suggestions (if solicited) if something isn’t reading naturally, or something is worded in a confusing way. Apart from that, sending me a finalized script is necessary for me to do my job.

3. You Have Researched The Rates at Which Voice Talent Work

Some clients who are new to hiring voice talent have a little bit of sticker shock when I quote the rates to voice their project. I had someone exclaim recently: “You make as much as a lawyer!” Be that as it may, a quick search of other voice talent’s rates will likely convince you that I’m actually a bargain. I have endeavored to keep my rates as competitive as possible; I offer a half-hour prorate (and even a per-prompt rate) — which many voice talents do *not* do — and my rate increases are infrequent. With my turnaround being so rapid — and a quality product being delivered — good, regular clients acknowledge that mine is a reasonable rate; they pre-pay me without balking, or submit payment after the fact in a timely manner.

4. You Let Me “Do My Thing”

I used to be on the roster of a now-defunct voice talent agency, and I loved how the only direction they frequently put on their spec sheet was the simple phrase: “Do Your Thing.” What greater compliment can you give to an artistic professional, but “Do That Intangible Thing You Do.”

This would apply to any creative professional you hire — be it the web designer who builds your website, the graphic designer who comes up with your logo, or even the interior designer who whips up the design scheme for your office: give us a clear idea of the message you wish to convey; tell us examples of what you like; even tell us what you *don’t* want……then step back and let us do our thing. Presumably, when someone finds my website or is referred to me by someone they know whom I worked for, they have an idea what I’m best known for. They’re hiring me for qualities they like; it would make sense for them to step back and allow me to do what I do. Like a good theatrical director who tries to keep as much natural movement, mannerisms, and speech patterns as the actor cast in the role brings into it, it doesn’t serve you to micro-direct your voice talent. You hired them for a reason — let them “do their thing.”

Next blog: I will explore the question: “What Flavor Is Your Company?” It’s a good question to explore, in order to convey exactly the right image of your company through telephone prompts.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment!

The Schmooze of The Voicegal

When I first started out as a voice talent, (OK, I’ll admit it: pre-internet) the extent of “savvy” marketing was mining the Yellow Pages, searching for local sound studios, talent agents, audio production houses and film production companies  to which to send your demo. Once those leads were pursued, that was pretty much the extent of your opportunities. When the idea of a home studio became a reality, I spend many hours at the library, researching similar leads in other markets — with emphasis on the US Market — and the “sell” of convincing audio engineers to accept a demo from an out-of-town talent was a considerable challenge back then.

Things, happily, have changed. The opportunities are limitless; connectivity means there is less resistance overall to the idea of remote recording, there is less insistence on the part of clients have the talent on-site and “behind the glass” and there are literally no boundaries limiting a well-set-up voice talent from working anywhere and with anyone they desire.

Yes, there are exhaustive leads to be obtained by generally surfing the net and approaching prospective clients via “cold e-mail” — but I have found that nothing beats the face-to-face connection with a concentrated gathering of industry professionals quite like strolling a convention hall floor. It seems like such an underutilized method to drum up work — especially in IVR voicing (my area of specialty) — I can’t recall ever seeing any other voice talent at any of the Telephony conventions I attend, and aside from the occasional IVR production agency leasing booth space to promote their own talent, I’m kind of a wild card; I’m not there to buy equipment from exhibitors; I’m not there to colocate my system with theirs — I’m there to promote my voice services as an *adjunct* to what they do.

And apparently a *necessary* one.

I can tell you from experiences today at IT Expo in Miami, that my efforts were not in vain. It would appear that I definitely seem to fill a niche; I lost count of how many exhibitors – when I proposed the idea that I could handle the requests they inevitably get from their clients about “Who Do We Get to record These Prompts?”, that they were greatly relieved to have a source to refer their clients to — many were relieved at the idea of *them* not having to voice the prompts themselves! (A great many of them confessed to having to do just that.) My association with being the Voice of Asterisk doesn’t hurt my street cred — a majority of attendees already knew who I was, many of them already run Asterisk, and the appeal of having a consistent voice doing their client’s customized prompts was not lost on them.I even posed for a couple of photos with one exhibitor who was oddly star-struck.

Feet are swollen, I’m hoarse, and my luggage will be dozens of demos lighter; nothing takes the place of in-person introductions in a venue where like-minded people gather in an opportunity-rich environment. I urge all voice talent who have refined their practice to a subset of expertise to do some research into which conventions the heavy-hitters in your area of expertise attend (interested in being a gaming voice, for example? A quick search reveals that the E3 Convention might be a great venue at which to promote your skills to those who develop and create video games). The cost of travel and hotel can easily be negated by one or two good contracts; and especially in a industry like ours, where the decision-makers are inundated with demos, a face-to-face intro can go a long way to setting you apart from the other talent.

Next week’s blog will focus in on a very bad habit I had which amounted to the single-most prevalent reason for having to re-do sound files: unbridled (and very unintentional) sultriness!

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