What do Voice Actors Actually “Do”?

A stereotype agents have about new actors is “As soon as they get their first agent, their acting gets worse.” When you’re new to voice acting, you may arrive with assumptions that it’s about vocal tone, or character style. A coach will help you with the acting part, but if you don’t internalize the “how” of acting, when your coach isn’t there anymore, you’ll revert to a tone or style approach.

This is because acting is like “conversation as a sport”: continually processing and reacting to ever-changing situations. But new actors think it’s like driving a car: unconsciously going through familiar motions once they are “trained”.

Part of the problem is that the “acting” part of “voice acting” is buried. To create believable voice acting means digging down to the acting level, and get at the “why” that creates tone and style:

If you’re brand new to acting or voice acting, this article will probably seem a bit advanced. If you’ve been a paid, working voice actor for many years much of this information should be old hat to you.

So if skilled, well-trained actors can’t just “go through the motions” once they’re trained, what do they DO?

How Does An Actor “Act”?

The “doing” of voice acting means working on one or more of the four core voice acting skills:

  1. Loosen up: Be loose as an actor; have a wide emotional and energy range;
  2. Look ’em in the eye: Connect; make us believe you are talking with someone;
  3. Tell the truth: Have conviction that problem and solution are important facts, not merely opinions or knowledge.
  4. Vocal delivery and brand voice preparation: Clear articulation, neutral accent, brand voice techniques (being authentically yourself), correct pronunciations.

Of course, first, you must know your own psychology—strengths and weaknesses—and what works best to “wake up” your acting.

“The first step to a better [performance] is to give up character and use yourself.” –Michael Shurtleff

You should generally put your attention on only ONE of these four areas at any one time. However, most of what you “do” in order to act will be concentrating on connection (make us believe you’re in a conversation) or conviction (understanding and believing what you are saying, i.e., “tell the truth”).

A core challenge of voice acting is that there is no one there for you to listen and react to, no one to “connect” to, yet you must make us feel like there is someone there…even though for the moment, only you are talking. You have to have ways to recommit to the imaginary conversation or your performance will begin to sound theatrical, or like an announcement, lecture or presentation instead of a conversation.

Other quotes from Shurtleff.

Process and React. Do not just talk-talk-talk-talk.

You must convey the sense that you are feeling, processing, reacting and NOT just reading or presenting when you perform voiceover. Here’s what I mean by that:

In the quote from Michael Shurtleff above, he says “listening is letting it land before you react”. Linguists point out a phenomenon in speech related to this, called “pause fillers”, like saying “umm…”. What Shurtleff and linguists point out can be called processing, what I call process-react-speak, or listen-feel-talk. Other coaches have said “feel first” or “taste before you talk.”

The human brain in a conversation produces speech in a pattern of process-feel-speak. Even right in the middle of a thought you get pause fillers (processing time) like “umm…” or “y’know…”. Even if there is no listening involved, we still occasionally need processing time. So for voice actors, “process-react-speak” is a more useful way to look at it than “listen-feel-respond”. At a minimum, a performance could be diagrammed as process-react-talk-react-talk-talk-react-talk and NOT just talk-talk-talk-talk-talk!

To incorporate this into your voice acting, you must incorporate the feeling of processing and/or reacting into the emotional journey you convey in your performance, particularly at key transitions in the script. How?

Patterns of natural speech often incorporate the process-respond pattern in their cadence. A common natural speech cadence that does this is “pause and tumble”, which sounds like “Sooooo…whadyathink?” Here, a syllable is stretched while the mind is processing before a group of words “tumble” out in a clump. This could be diagrammed as “process…react-talk”.

Other times, you can hear the processing happening at the end of a sentence, as words “trail off” a bit while a reaction builds, which turns into an emotional response expressed as the beginning of the next sentence.

You don’t always have to process, but you frequently have to convey a sense of reaction or response. One technique to incorporate a sense of emotional reaction into your speech is to sound like you are interrupting one thought with another, as if you are interrupting your current sentence with the next sentence. An example of a common phrase that acts like an interruption is “And another thing…”. There are many other techniques as well, not all of them rely on cadence, but these are some of the most accessible techniques. In practice, simply adding in thoughtful or reaction moments at periods, such as by saying “Y’know”, “look”, “hey”, “soo”, “listen” can help you get in the habit of reacting with feelings as the emotional journey from sentence to sentence takes place.

Of course, the wrong way to perform is to simply create an “emotionally-toned speech pattern” and just keep repeating this speech pattern over and over and over until there are no more words to speak. Your performance must take us on an emotional journey, full of emotional transitions you draw from the words of script, not just from a repeating speech pattern, so we can feel you processing and/or reacting.

“Wake Up” Each Ability In Stages:

Work in stages so that by “acting time” key abilities are ready to go. This is called your “acting process”. Stages in a process might include:

  1. Before leaving the house;
  2. Warmup in your car before going into the studio;
  3. Pre-recording focus;
  4. Script analysis on site;
  5. Recording focus (what you do when you are acting)
  6. Direction-taking, troubleshooting and session skills focus.

While each of these stages will be customized to each actor, here are some common approaches to each step:

  1. Working on your personalized, key vocal delivery techniques;
  2. Loosen and open up energy and emotional range with playful exercises;
  3. Reminders of techniques to make your acting feel like a real conversation, such as ways to process and/or react to avoid sounding just like talk-talk-talk.
  4. Find emotional transitions in the script, notice general sense of problem, solution and gratitude;
  5. While recording, concentrate on techniques for believability and conviction; possibly including printed reminders, “totem” objects.
  6. Use mental reset and “moment before” techniques when troubleshooting or picking up after errors, prepare note-taking techniques in advance.

Each stage builds to the next (e.g. loosen up or you’ll be troubleshooting tension problems later). Connection and/or conviction are what you should get most of your focus when you are actually doing the acting.

Connection and Conviction

At its simplest, connection means conversational, approachable, authentic, and conviction means drawing emotions from the words and meanings in the script, and getting beyond merely expressing belief, opinion or knowledge to making us feel you have the facts.

Note that just acting in a “style” (warm, serious, playful, etc.) isn’t enough. The REASON you sound warm, serious or playful has to be drawn from your connection with the listener, and the words and emotional sequence created by the script writer.

The Moment Before

You can troubleshoot connection and conviction by concentrating on creating the moment before you begin speaking. This can be a few words you use as a read-in, or simply how to think about the conversation you were in before the first words of the script.

Four common approaches to connection in the moment before are to think of your friend, the listener and then:

  1. Agree with them (e.g. read in: “Right, right!”);
  2. Disagree with them (e.g. read in: “No no no…”);
  3. Feel so comfortable with them that you think out loud to yourself (e.g. read in: “Huh…y’know…”);
  4. Unload emotionally about something important to you, not to convince anyone, but because you trust them to understand.

Only a Real Problem Makes Your Solution Essential

Remember that you’re providing a solution, and only a factual and important problem can make the solution essential. The three most common problems are:

  1. Whatever the script states is the problem;
  2. The solution from the “other guys” is bad, so you need this one;
  3. Your world would be an unpleasant place without the solution.

To “Raise The Stakes” Think of it This Way:

The actor will often need to care more by making the problem seem stronger (“raising the stakes”) so one technique is to move it closer or farther away in time or space. Examples of “closer” things you could think, or could be written in the script:

  1. “Today, right in your hometown people are starving…”.
  2. “This morning they didn’t have anything in my size. I don’t want to go through that again…”
  3. “I just waited an hour on hold just to talk to a real person!”

Examples of things “farther” away:

  • “20 years ago people were dying in [other country], but thanks to your donations…”
  • “That job killed my father. I don’t want that for my kids”
  • “In some countries a couple of years ago, they couldn’t get clean water…”

But when raising the stakes to make problems seem more important, you can’t begin lecturing, selling or arguing. You have to demonstrate empathy with people who care about the problem/solution. Empathy is to feel as someone else does, to have experienced it yourself, sympathy is merely to feel for them. Good commercial acting is ALWAYS about empathy, never merely sympathy.

Acting Techniques for Connection and Conviction

So a useful trick to feel you have FACTS to share (instead of merely belief, opinion or knowledge) is to imagine someone who doesn’t understand what a big deal the problem is, and feel judgmental towards them. In this way you are personifying the problem in a person who doesn’t understand it. We all increase our conviction when faced with someone who “doesn’t get it”. Politicians use this trick to make people feel more conviction about abstract issues, e.g. “The other guys are ruining this country!”

By inventing someone who “doesn’t get it” (whether it’s the problem or the solution that they don’t “get”), you can work on both conviction (e.g. “Hey, there’s a real problem here!” or “That’s not a problem because there’s a solution!”) and connection (talk to the real person personifying the problem) in one step.

Release your Inner Fanatic

Clients want to find actors who can seem like “friendly fanatics” about their product or brand, so the first step is to release your inner fanatic and care a LOT.

So create conviction with a touch of fanaticism, then use some turns of phrase in your imaginary conversation with the listener, to turn fanatic to friendly, such as:

  • “You really don’t get it. But don’t worry, I can help…”
  • “It is tough, but fortunately, there’s this wonderful solution..”
  • “You and me—we get it! But what’s wrong with other people?!”

Since the whole point of the problem is to make the solution feel valuable, every spot ends with some version of gratitude for the solution. So one way to work on that “gratitude sound” at the end of commercials, is to practice some version of this statement:

“Everything used to suck. But now, everything’s great. Thanks, Big Brand.”

We won’t believe that you’re grateful if you can’t make us believe you’ve experienced a real problem.

Working Voice Actors Need Four Skill Sets

Of course, voice acting skills are just the first of four skill sets working voice actors must master:

  1. Authenticity, clarity and brand voice: This is acting itself, plus knowing yourself.
  2. Troubleshooting and practice: Isolate and solve problems in performance, consistency, and growth (getting better).
  3. Direction taking and session skills: Translate directions into acting results; understand session skills.
  4. Business, Technology and Marketing skills.

Eventually, to be a real pro, you need skills in all four of these areas.

So, every three or four months, it’s a good idea to take stock and ask yourself this question: Which of these four areas am I worst in? What’s a short step I can take today to start to improve in that area? Something you can do easily is to do a web search and read articles about the area you need to improve the most in. If you work with a coach, ask them for tips.

Get on it: Others have done it—you can too!