Commercial Demos: The Rules

Here are the secrets to how a commercial demo is constructed…and the most common errors. But first, learn where to get sounds and how to add them to voiceover to create a demo. ►Your initial goal is to create three short commercial clips that contrast with one another, using your main voice. Consider 3-4 clips to be a short (vs full) demo that you can use instead of a full demo in many situations.

Also, make sure you read the key tricks of sound design (how to add music to voice) before choosing music. Although not everyone agrees exactly on what the basics of a good commercial demo are, here the things you MUST know:

1. Do a Commercial Demo First

Other demos (narrative, IVR, promo, etc) come later, and don’t matter as much.

Your commercial demo is a collection of actual commercials you have done, OR (more commonly) a simulation of actual commercials. It is NOT a clever production in itself. Please, please, please don’t be clever or over-produce! Don’t have characters talk to one another. Don’t have music or effects without voice. Don’t change the VO to match the music. Don’t put very short clips next to one another, etc, etc. Mainly: Don’t make the production noticeable. ►If it couldn’t have been made from a collection of actual commercials, you have made a mistake. The voice MUST be the star, not the production. (If you can’t help yourself, only do something clever on the very last clip only.)

2. Avoid Variety for Variety’s Sake

The #1 mistake beginners make is intentionally including bad acting “for variety.” Bad acting is bad acting! It doesn’t belong on your demo. Use only the most authentic of your recordings. If there isn’t enough variety, try different choices or take more voice acting classes. When someone says “What I’m going to record is…” it’s almost always a mistake. You can’t plan what will be good. If you could you would already be one of the top pros. ►Do your best and only use the best of what you get.

The #1 mistake to avoid if you are a radio DJ: ►Do not include include anything related to a radio station, e.g. avoid anything with call letters, imaging, sweepers, intros, promos, liners, station identification, etc.

Some agents (more than you might expect) will listen to as little as three clips despite saying they only accept full demos, because they generally make a pass/fail decision about a talent in the first three clips anyway. So three clips IS a demo (albeit not a “full” one) that you can share online, or with agents in many cases. ►Do NOT try to create a full demo until you can put together three clips that meet most of the requirements in this post.

3. LENGTH and Music

A demo clip is 6-11 seconds long. A FULL commercial demo contains 60 seconds worth of clips. The total length can be a couple seconds longer or shorter, but not much. Each clip sounds like a portion of an actual commercial.

  1. You should not have more than two long (10-11 second) clips, and preferably one or none. Only use long clips if the show range/transitions/variety of ability, for example, switching from a problem to a solution and then highlighting the brand name (i.e. showing three skills in one clip). If it’s all the same, cut it shorter, or at least have a musical transition and more than one sound effect. And if you do have two long clips, do not have them both in the first three clips. Optional: You may include 1-3 very short clips, 1/2-3 seconds each, but they should be in between longer clips. A short clip is where you can “cheat” in some variety. Go too far and see what you can get.
  2. A track ends when the voice stops, and starts when the voice starts. There are no music or sound effects before or after the voice, they stop before or at the same time that voice stops, or within 1/5 second or so. There is no space between tracks, or less than 1/5 second of space. Music can start AFTER voice, or end BEFORE voice, but don’t have music without voice.
  3. You should avoid long pauses in your read, i.e shorten the space between phrases on your voiceover track.

4. Acting Styles and Variety

  1. Don’t include clips “for variety” that are simply bad acting! It doesn’t matter what you think “would be good to include”: include ONLY what you are able to do authentically.
  2. Avoid most character voices, particularly in the first three clips. You can be quirky on 1-3 clips (if that is your specialty), but a REAL person—you!—being quirky. Sometimes a stock character—the “Saturday Night Live” version of a real person is okay. But avoid characters that sound like they belong only in an animated movie.
  3. Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity. 95% of demos are rejected in 3 seconds or less, according to one survey of agents. ►Make CERTAIN your first clip has a real person speech pattern in the first three seconds: no punching, bending or artificial pauses, just smooth natural groups of sound.

5. Contrast and Sound

  1. ►Each track MUST contrast with the previous one. When you have narrowed down your top takes to five or so, start looking for the portions of each read that contrast with the reads from other scripts you have chosen. This is easier if your clips are not too long.
  2. Music, script topic, and vocal style MUST all be different from one track to the next. (If it’s not clear what the topic is, that’s fine.)
  3. A new talent will almost always NOT have enough vocal variety. You can cheat by changing up the music more, and putting the most vocally different clips back-to-back early on. But again, don’t try to create a FULL demo until you can put together three clips that meet most of these requirements.

ACTING TIP

The best takes sound like first takes. Like you just “tossed off” some comments on something that interests you, excites you, something you know really well. They are also likely to be the ones with the most variety.

A demo follows the same rule as all other kinds of acting: You have to make them want to listen.

The harder you try for variety, the less you get. ►Overworking doesn’t create the off-the-cuff conversational sound. Record yourself talking to a friend about something that interests you for at least ten minutes to hear your more natural sound.

Key Points Summary

►Create three short commercial clips that contrast with one another before solving other problems or trying a full demo.

► It must sound like it could have come from a collection of actual commercials.

► Each track MUST contrast with the previous one.

► Don’t plan “variety”—do your best and only use the best, most authentic of what you get.

►Do NOT try to create a full demo until you can have three great clips that are authentic and different from one another.

► Make CERTAIN your first clip has a real person speech pattern in the first three seconds.

► Radio folks: Do NOT include include anything related to a radio station!

Of course, if you haven’t yet, learn where to get sounds and how to add them to make your own demo.