You have surely heard it before : it takes more than a pleasant sounding voice to become a voice talent. You need many hours practicing voice acting technique.
When I started back in the early 80s as an aspiring radio journalist, most stations in Europe had decided to cut off « superfluous » spending. One of the ways to do this was just getting rid of those in-house announcers whose job consisted in reading the news in a professional and convincing way while broadcasting live. But someone, somewhere had the still controversial idea that journalists could also do the job of announcers, so the news writer could actually read the news and the feature stories, after all they produced them; of course, there was much collateral damage in the process : the authoritative, credible voice was silenced and the audience had to listen to a dull lackluster voice instead.
It was during that process of change that I was hired as a producer for the Latin American service at Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, the Dutch International Radio Station, broadcasting worldwide through short wave in 10 languages, one of them being Spanish.
What a breakthrough it was for me. Before becoming one of their producers, I used to be a listener of that international station back home in Spain. Now as a « programma maker » I had to read what I wrote and sometimes it was news « live » on air. But at just 23 years old, I was much scared since I wasn’t trained to do that and I couldn’t afford to sound phoney to an international audience. Besides I had to keep that perfect job.
But I was a lucky guy, most of my colleagues were professional announcers with a background in presenting music and entertainment programs. They were in their late 40s and 50s and knew all the tricks on how to speak to the mic. I had not one but several dedicated voice coaches for free. If their colleagues were made redundant elsewhere, they could keep their jobs at the Latin American department of Radio Netherlands. It was a public service, and the saving policies of national, commercial stations didn’t apply to this international broadcaster.
My older colleagues from Colombia and Chile had quite some tolerance and patience with this Spaniard, who had a decidedly sober Castillian accent, sounded dull and couldn’t breathe properly on the mic.
So for several years I benefited from their immensely valuable experience, which they earned during the 50s and 60s, the golden years of radio and TV in Latin America.
Here, some gold tips from my maestros :
- Read the text beforehand, make yourself familiar with the content. See it, understand it. Highlight the key words and underline the verbs, because the verbs are the core of each sentence.
- Check that the punctuation is correct so that you can read fluently and naturally. Pauses can be marked with two stripes // The stripes express an eloquent silence and are more easy to spot that just points.
- Learn how to breathe. Before reading a sentence fill your lungs with air, like a bagpipe, then release the air while you pronounce the words. Punctuation is essential for you to renew the air and not hyperventilate.
- You have to read ahead with your mind, anticipating in your head the next word or two. This allows you to provide a smooth, fluent delivery, and will avoid that you get stuck.
- Don’t just pronounce the words, the text, you have to understand truly what you are saying and feel the message you try to get across with your voice. Some beautiful voices can’t make it, simply because they can’t read in a meaningful way.
- Don’t rush when reading. Speed is the enemy of quality. You have to be aware that many people would listen to your recording, so better use a normal, natural pace for your audience to follow you.
- Highlight the keywords of your message with a marker, so that when you read them you can put some emphasis. If you are voicing a commercial, stress the brand name, billboard the product name, your producer will be happy then.
- Use your emotional arsenal to give life to your texts. When you want to sound positive, smile to the mic. It’s a kind of effort to smile to an object, so you might smile to the sound engineer or to a portrait, but actually smile, you can hear
- Draw your listener’s attention with a distinctive high pitch beginning. So put some stress in the first words, be expressive but don’t overdo it or you would not sound credible.
- The mic is like an ear, a particularly sensitive one. So don’t shout, speak gently and softly to it, unless instructed otherwise by your producer. Your audience will listen to you more if you express yourself with a mysterious voice.
- Avoid sounding as if you were reading, even though you are. You should sound as if you are talking to a friend, to someone you know. Always talking to one person, not a crowd. So again no need to raise your voice unless it’s a hard selling commercial.
- You can get inspiration from your favorite voice talents or actors, but develop your own voicing style around your own, distinctive personality.
These were the golden tips hammered on my head for many years.
They were not just meant for me to « sound nice » on the mic, they undoubtedly helped bring my stories to a wider audience, namely the 26 countries that speak Spanish, because I had to speak a clear and convincingly in Universal Spanish.
You probably have another probably more fascinating story to tell. Please go ahead and share your tips wit the VO community below. We are eager to enrich this debate.