Say What? Working with Voiceover Talent

By:  Tom Morse, Principal Multimedia Project Manager, SAS

Your hard work and effort has paid off. The client loves the script. Production is underway: shoot plans and graphics, check – music selects, check – awards speech drafted, check. Now it’s time to hire a narrator and record some voice tracks. What’s the secret to getting the best performance? What does the talent need to know to effectively deliver your creative concept?

Seeking answers, I asked the people who should know, voiceover professionals who were very gracious and shared their thoughts and ideas.

Writing for the Ear – Your video script should not regurgitate existing boilerplate print material that could really be about anything, and which doesn’t make any personal connection with the audience. This post isn’t about the art of scripting, but an effective narrative script is essential if your project is to connect and communicate.

Selecting Talent – Start with what the program is about and the program visuals. If the program is aimed at an ethnic, 20-something youth market, the voice talent needs to build on that tone. When casting, keep this in mind and don’t waste the time of those who are clearly not right to serve as the narrator. Match the style of the narrator to the tone of the project.

Negotiating Rates – Don’t guess or leave this up in the air; after all, this is a business.

  • Does the talent work through an agency or work independently? If an agency is involved, take the ethical high ground and honor the arrangement.
  • Be up-front about the budget available for voice narration. Most talent will work with a producer on price as long as they don’t feel they are the line item on the budget that can be done “on the cheap.” Don’t promise “more work down the road if you’ll do this one for XX dollars.” That’s a red flag for talent.
  • If you plan to use the same talent on multiple projects, negotiate that in advance. Also, if others from your organization intend to use the same talent, the producers should come together on a rate. Don’t leave it to the voice talent to negotiate separate rates with different producers on the same team.

Preparing for the Session – When possible, provide the voice talent in advance with as much detail as possible about the project, the audience, and the content.

  • Be clear about the project objectives and how it will be used. This can help determine pricing, and also help the talent avoid any conflict of interest (already being the voice of a similar company or product type in the same market).
  • If the project requires exclusivity or non-disclosure, discuss this up-front with the talent.
  • Establish a clear understanding of the audience. Is the audience the CEO and a corporate Board? Does the audience understand the subject or will the presentation be new information? What reaction do you want the intended audience to have? This can influence the tone and pace of the read.
  • Provide ample pronunciation guides of brand names, personal names, acronyms, technical/legal/medical terms…even if they’re second-nature to you and your colleagues. Your voice talent needs to sound like they are part of your world…not an outsider reading a script. For example, is it $5.99 five ninety-nine, or five dollars and 99 cents?
  • Provide links to other projects that have a tone/read similar to what’s needed. But expecting talent to sound “just like” someone else is not realistic.
  • If a rough cut of the program is available, share it with the talent in advance.
  • If music selects have already been made, share them. Music often drives the edited pace of visuals and can influence the pace of the narrative.

Keeping the Narrative Flow – If the voice narrative will be intercut with other sound bites, include a transcript of the words the narrator will be leading into and coming out of. Include a short synopsis of the other sound bites so the narrator understands the relationship between the different elements.

Preparing the Script – Leave the split page script with your videographer and editors. Reformat the narrator script for (wait for it…) the narrator.

  • Print scripts on single-sided paper, without staples.
  • Use 12- to 14-point type, double-spaced, in Times Roman.
  • Leave wide margins to allow talent to make notes on the script copy.
  • Limit words per line to 6-8 across; no margin-to-margin printing.
  • Use upper- and lower-case letter, ALL CAPS IS DIFFICULT TO READ.
  • Do not break sentences (even paragraphs) between pages.
  • Numbers take longer to say than to read (try saying 11,273,433,802.47), so if length is an issue be careful about when and how you use numbers.

Creating the Recording Environment – Where will the recording be made? Some voice talent work from their own studios. Sometimes we bring talent into a studio. When producers bring talent into a studio make the environment as comfortable as possible. Voiceover sessions are sometimes quick, but for some programs a recording session can last hours.

  • Ask the talent in advance if they prefer to sit or stand.
  • Provide a soft padded mat to reduce leg and back fatigue for talent who prefer standing.
  • Good lighting, water, and an adjustable copy stand are vital.

Preparing for the Session – Everything is set. The narrator has had your script for a couple of days, enough time to become comfortable with your project. It’s time to record.

  • Let the talent warm up, listen, then adjust. It takes time for the talent to find a rhythm. As a producer you needs time to offer helpful direction. So take a breath before making changes.
  • If you are unsure how to talk with the talent about the tone you are looking for, try this:

Casual (1) ……or…… Formal (10)
Friendly (1) ……or….. Pure business (10)
Matter of fact/neutral (1) … to…… More animated (10)

  • Praise when merited. Constructively redirect.
  • Don’t tell talent to sound like someone else, maybe a celebrity. (If you need Morgan Freeman, hire him!) Instead, describe moods and feelings you want the talent to convey, and how you want the audience to react to the material.
  • You’ve hired professional talent. Let them do their job. Don’t say, “deliver it like this.” If you want it “like this,” get in the booth yourself. Don’t provide the meaningless instruction, “just have fun with it.” That tells the voice talent nothing and wastes time.
  • Be open to an alternative read if the talent asks to try something else. Granted, it’s the talent’s job to deliver the copy as directed first. But, you may cheat yourself out of an enhancement you hadn’t thought of if you disregard your talent’s ideas in the session.

Setting Realistic Deadlines – Media producers are constantly being pushed to deliver faster. In some cases it’s necessary. But not always. Plan in advance and give voice talent the time to deliver the quality your project deserves. Some tracks are recorded in-studio with a director present. But often we hire talent to record and send edited tracks to the producer. This can be efficient all the way around, but remember, everyone is busy and being asked to deliver more, faster. So give your talent time to do it right.

Your project is complete. All the bills have been paid, everyone is happy, and you are on to your next project. But, before closing this post, two final things to keep in mind. First, if you liked working with the talent, hire them again. Second, if the presentation is publicly available, consider sharing the link with the talent so they can use it for their own promotional activity.

Thanks to my panel of experts who offered this great advice. Next time you have a narrative project, consider one of these great voices: Melanie Raskin, Rowell Gormon, Katie McCall, Peter O’Connell, Connie Terwilliger, Kevin Silva, and Debra Stamp. They are all true professionals and it is my honor to call them friends.

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