Your Instructions: The Breakdown and Spec
It’s important to be aware of ALL the information provided with a script whether you are auditioning, getting paid, negotiating, or doing a needs assessment with a buyer.
Scripts often include information about the client, industry, category (TV/radio/internet/etc) language and accent, word count, pay rate and union affiliation, etc.
All the information about the script is usually called the “breakdown”. Some parts may be more relevant for casting rather than guiding your performance, such as voice age and gender. The sections most relevant to guiding your performance may go by different names, such as:
- Job Description (goal of script)
- Art Direction (feel and tone)
- Voice Style (i.e. warn and neighborly)
Sometimes the parts of the breakdown most relevant to the voice over performer are referred to as “the spec”. Advertising agencies will sometimes write a long spec as a way of showing the client how well they are working towards the client’s goals. Long specs can be challenging, as they often can be summed up as “be all things to all people”.
If you are auditioning without anyone producing you, it’s important to be aware of which parts of the script you are supposed to read
If there is only one voice over in the spot, it may be specified as “VO:” or “Anncr:”. If the script uses two or more performers, one may be labeled VO, and the other Anncr. Be sure you know which you are auditioning for!
Watch out for words labelled “SUPER” or “SUPERS”—these are words or phrases that will appears as text in the video, and are NOT for you to read.
At its most basic, performing a script — even a :30 commercial spot — means taking us on an emotional and informational journey that tells a story. For each section of the script, you must decide what your point is (information), how you feel about it (emotion), and how you will convey the information and emotion to us (acting). In this introduction to script analysis we’ll cover the basics of how to connect information and emotions to vocal and acting technique.
1. Find Emotional Transitions
First, concentrate more on emotion, less on information.
Let’s say you have a commercial script in the 15-45 second range. The first step is to look for 2-5 places in the script you notice a shift in information or emotion happening. These are the script’s main transitions. In between each transition are the main sections or main stages of the script. For example, if you find two transitions, you have defined three sections in this ultra-short script example:
Don’t stress about overlooking anything at first. The most important thing after identifying some transitions is to quickly find emotions that you will make acting decisions about.
2. Label Each Section
Once you’ve identified likely main sections, describe the “flavor” of each one in 1-4 words. Your goal is to notice how each section is different from the one before and after it. The sections in the short example script above could be labeled as:
- Amazed surprise
- Introspective realization
- Enthusiastic decision
In this example, the bold words are the feeling you’ve noticed in the section. The underlined words are the cause of each feeling. It’s okay when you are first starting to only list 1-2 emotional words for each section. Don’t worry about causes at first. We’re trying to get beyond the text (words to be spoken), into the emotional subtext. What makes this feel like a story is the sequence of causes and feelings—the subtext, not the text.
3. Use Your Brand Voice to Be Approachable
You have to make us WANT to listen. You’re not here to present, lecture, argue, sell or read. Don’t make us feel sold, lectured or lied to. You are a real person!
While this is a detailed study of its own, we are all some combination of three flavors that makes people want to listen to us: (1) relaxed and sensitive (Connection), (2) loose and playful (Mischief) or (3) resolute and well-informed (Conviction).
Whichever one describes you best, let it out! Unashamedly being your authentic self is the first step to making you more approachable. Let us feel your main “flavor” wherever possible—usually this is what takes the least effort. Then determine which of the other two flavors should be added (if any) to different sections.
4. Decide the Actor’s Focus
Decide what you will focus on in order to make us feel the different flavor of each section, to help us feel the subtext, not just the sound of the words. Each section requires a different focus. We’re looking for feeling not faking. Bold choices not bold voices.
You must first work on yourself, the actor, to get yourself into a place where most of your attention is on your choice of focus, and NOT on the words or how they sound. If a section is “sensuous”, things you could choose to focus on could include:
- Concentrate on the feeling of rubbing a piece of fabric between your fingers (you can use actual fabric if it not too noisy);
- Imagine an enjoyably sensuous scene, e.g. getting and appreciating a much-needed massage, or being tired and cold and wrapping up in a warm blanket with a cup of hot cocoa;
- Close your eyes and hold your fingers to the side of your neck, and concentrate on the warmth behind your eyelids. Keep your attention on the warmth in your fingertips as you open your eyes and begin to perform;
- Imagine you are narrating someone doing something sensuous, such as enjoying the flavor and texture of a chocolate dessert, e.g. imagining you are saying “Isn’t that just heavenly?” as you say lines such as “heavenly, rich chocolate flavor…
- Using posture and body language to express sensuality;
- Imagine an intimate moment with a specific friend, e.g. watching the sunset from a boat as you finish a bottle of wine together;
- Thinking any of these or similar and saying a few words about them as a read-in (addition not in the script that will be cut out later) to whatever the script has you say.
These are just some of the possibilities. You must NOT try to “seem or sound” anything. It helps if you are literally distracted from the words by whatever your choice of focus is.
5. Connect the Sections into a Story
By labeling each section, we now see the structure of the story emerge. Yes, every script you will ever see tells a story!
Every story has at least three sections, which we call its stages: a beginning, middle, and end. Because each stage is different than what comes before and after it, there is a transition between each.
So the process is: Look for transitions so that you notice what is different between sections, then use acting and vocal technique to make the listener feel the difference between each section (or stage).
Most stories have five stages:
- Event (something happens).
- New Reality.
Many writers use a story formula/structure/spine of something such as:
- Once upon a time every day was…
- But one day…
- Because of that…
- Until finally…
- …ever after.
In a broadcast commercial, the five stages are commonly something like: Problem > Event > Solution > New, Better Reality > Gratitude for New Reality.
6. Take the Journey, Don’t Just Tell it.
Make us feel you are the character in an interesting story more than just the storyteller. At this preliminary point, we could say the structure of the story in subtext is:
(1) I experienced an amazing surprise (2) which led me to an introspective realization (3) that caused me to make an enthusiastic decision.
So instead of a series of fake emotional demonstrations, help us feel the flow of the story to its conclusion. You could also summarize this as “A surprise led me to internalize a new idea, which led to me to do something new.” It doesn’t matter how you explain it exactly, but help us feel the flow, for example how the problem led to change led to relief led to gratitude (a typical commercial structure).
So, as you shift from whatever you have chosen to focus on in one section to whatever you choose to focus on in the next, note how they flow together to tell a story. Each stage is a reaction/connection/shift/conclusion from the previous one. Sometimes the reaction is surprise. Sometimes the connection is emotion, not logic. A conclusion may be a summary, or a final addition that proves the point.
If you’re interested in what the parts of a great story can be, read the famous Pixar Story Rules.
7. Use Highlighting Technique
In higher-paying voiceover you rarely emphasize, but you frequently highlight. Emphasis is the sound someone makes in a lecture, presentation, sales pitch or argument. It often uses a punch of volume. Highlighting conveys meaning or emotion, and doesn’t punch volume. The two most common voice over vocal techniques to create a highlight are the linger, and the hit.
Brand names should generally be lingered over, with a sense of love (a subtext could be “this make me feel good”) and/or conviction (a subtext could be “you wouldn’t want to make a mistake in this situation”).
Words that change the flavor of other words should generally be said with a slightly short, sharp up pitch (the hit) as if the subtext is “no, not the other thing, this thing”, e.g. if the line is “we offer a complete solution”, how should you say the word “complete”?
Imagine saying the sentence “No, no, no: not the incomplete solution…we offer a complete solution”. Notice how complete makes a sound that refers back to incomplete in the beginning of the sentence. Or imagine saying “We offer a complete solution, not an incomplete one”. In each case the only words from the script are “we offer a complete solution” but you, the actor, imagine the other words. This is your trick to give the sense that the word “complete” has a subtext such as: complete is good, and is being compared to something that is bad and is not complete.
You don’t have to be overly-specific in your mind as to what you are comparing something to, to create the feeling of a hit.
Here’s another couple of examples: Bold words are the actual script, italics are your imagined next sentence (not actually in the script), and the underlined word is the one to hit:
We are an American company, not an un-american company
A franchise with unlimited potential, not limited potential
The best technology from the brightest minds, not the worst technology from the dimmest minds