Voice Over Skills: How to Determine Your Commercial Strengths

 

mic-money-and-stats425x300“There will come a time when passion will leave you. Curiosity will sustain you!”

– Heywood Hale-Broun 

The single most valuable and unexpected attribute you can develop from doing commercial work, aside from gaining the knowledge that you can feasibly earn a healthy living in this field, is the fact that you can hone your aesthetic skills as a professional actor by transferring your performance skills from one medium (such as stage) to another (television). 

From landing commercial work, not only can you earn union status (SAG and/or AFTRA) but also you learn you must be ready for anything and on very short notice as a talent.  With some tenacity you’re bound to discover you can subsidize your entire career very nicely with commercial work rather than relying on the food-service industry to pay your bills. 

Commercial work can raise your game as a talent in a variety of ways. This means you need to study the commercial styles from the ground up. If commercial work is relatively foreign to you, then employing the following process will help make studying the medium as a whole easier and more affordable.

To begin, you need to concentrate on your own demographic. 

A demographic is a term used by marketing guys to establish who buys what, who does what, who likes what and when. Are you a 30-year-old white guy who is single and plays poker every Saturday night with other guys just like yourself? Fine. You’re honing in on your demographic. Do you eat fast food five times a week and work out once a month? You’re getting warmer. That’s also part of your demographic. 

Too often, we’re taught we’re supposed to be someone else. We’re asking you to abandon that concept for a while.  We’re not saying stop trying new things, but perhaps this entire notion we’re suggesting might contradict the approach you’ve been taking. 

Why is it that every ingénue wants to be a character actor, every character actor wants to be the lead and every lead wants to be seen as a comic when he’s, in fact, a natural straight man? (Do you have any idea how tough it is to cast a really good straight man?)

Yet just as there are stage and film styles, there are commercial styles you need to become familiar with. Studying the medium will define what sort of work you’re best suited to book, whether that be commercial voice-over work, commercial on-camera, or television.

You may have heard the familiar business adage: “Do what you know.” 

This applies to performance to a great extent as well.  

As your auditions increase you’ll discover the people auditioning you will consistently refer to specific commercials and TV shows as a point of reference. If you’re the right type but have no idea what they are referring to, you will be at a considerable disadvantage.  But if you employ this form of study on a weekly basis for a minimum of 2 to 4 hours a week you will greatly increase your knowledge of popular culture and offer you a greater fighting chance to deliver what’s needed and wanted at the audition and on the job. 

Pop culture is the common language of producers, copywriters, and directors. They are most likely to describe what they’re looking for by using the most current references they can think of that are closest to the collective artistic vision of the project. This is a grand opportunity for you as a talent—IF you’ve done your homework.  You’ll be thrown these pop-culture bones and you’re expected to catch them, rather than let them sail right over your head. If you apply yourself to the following form of study you will have a greater chance to pick them up and run with them.

If you expect to be “directed” at the audition or even on the job, you’re likely to be very disappointed.  The truth is you’re not likely to get much direction at all.  In fact, the bigger the production, the bigger the director, the less direction you’re likely to get.

This would explain why you’ll most likely hear actors complain, “They didn’t give me any direction beyond, ‘It’s warm and friendly—go.’”

The truth is it’s OUR responsibility as talent to offer insight and options. We must self-direct to a great extent. We’re expected to offer performance options within the parameters of what’s being asked of us. They expect you to be decisive in your delivery as you are expected to be a vital part of the creative process. 

By the same token, if we are given direction we’re always expected to apply that direction in the very next take.  This requires agility, which is what you glean from training and why as a working talent you never cease sharpening your skills.  The knife cuts both ways.

Nevertheless, in any performance, they’re looking for you to bring a pulse to the text, which may seem flat and ordinary upon your first few read-throughs.  It’s your job as a talent to bring life to the words.  Casting sources typically assume you have something to bring to the table without their input and will often leave you to your own devices. 

You’re paid to have a pulse, so start pumping some life into that dead fish. A script can look pretty flat on the page until you start fleshing it out with some real spirit of play! So, play!

Commit yourself to studying popular television and commercial styles by asking the following questions for no less than 2 to 4 hours a week.  The more you do it, the easier this work will become because you realize a great deal about mass media you probably never considered before and you’ll understand it on an entirely different level.

A word of caution: Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can simply watch a whole lot of television without recording it and get the same results. 

The more you study, the greater the realizations about the medium you are preparing to service as a talent. You’ll discover observing the film and television that appeals to you most you will very quickly and positively impact your performance and imagination at auditions and on the job alike.  Your performance will become more grounded, more genuine, and offer greater depth.  Without it you’ll be fishing around in the dark for the most part.  The idea here is to give you a more purposeful performance backed by a greater, more specific imagination.  

Besides, it’s FUN!

For even more detail and a specific list of what to observe and study in film, television and commercial, pick up our recently updated edition of “The SOUND ADVICE Encyclopedia of Voice-over & The Business of Being a Working Talent” on . 

Copyright © 2012 by Kate McClanaghan, Inc. All Rights Reserved