Inside the Voice Actor’s Studio

This article was originally published by the Association for Talent Development.

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you now have access to affordable, high-quality recording equipment and software. The bad news is that even though your equipment may be semi-pro, your voiceover performance is still amateur. And, hey, that’s not something you should beat yourself up about. If it were just a matter of showing up and talking into a microphone, there would be no such thing as a professional voiceover actor. Unfortunately, you can’t always afford a pro, but you can learn from their craft to improve your own DIY performance.

Get Over Yourself

So let me guess…you hate the sound of your own voice, right? We’ve all had the experience of hearing our voice on a recording and wondering, “Do I really sound like that?”  Yes, you really do.

That “awful” voice you hear in the recordings? That’s what the rest of us hear when you talk, and we think it’s just fine. As a voiceover performer, your voice is your instrument, so you had better make friends with it. The more you practice and listen to your recordings, the more comfortable you’ll be.

Got a bad case of the nerves? Practice is the best medicine for that, too. You might lock up when you sit down in front of a microphone the first time, but the more you practice, the easier it will get. Remind yourself that no one listening to your performance is judging you as harshly as you are. Take a deep breath and just keep practicing.

Preparing for the Gig

Professional voiceover performers drink water like it’s their job, because it is. Hydration will have a huge effect on your performance, so be like a pro and start sipping water at least two hours before you’re scheduled to record. This prevents strained, rough-sounding recordings full of the dreaded “mouth click.” Avoid smoking and spicy foods before a performance unless you’re going for the Clint Eastwood/Batman/sandpaper sound. Also, don’t eat dairy the day of your performance—it produces mucus (a.k.a. “mouth sludge”).

While you’re drinking your water, take a look at the script and read it out loud. Are there any tongue twisters? Awkward phrases that look fine on paper but sound weird when you say them out loud? If this is your own script, you still have time to improve it. If it’s someone else’s and you’re not allowed to touch it, at least you can practice those tongue twisters so they don’t sneak up on you during the recording.

Give yourself some direction. Take a pencil and mark up the script. If you want to emphasize a particular word, underline it. If a phrase should be spoken with a rising inflection, draw an upward arrow next to it. There are some industry norms for markup notation, but use whatever works for you.

Showtime

The best way to deliver copy is standing up, but that’s usually not practical in a DIY recording situation. If you must sit, sit on the edge of your chair with your left knee pointed down at the floor. This forces you to straighten your back and allows you to breathe more easily. It also gives your diaphragm plenty of space. Also, keep your chin parallel to the floor. (When you look up, your vocal chords stretch; when you look down, they constrict. Neither is good for your performance.)

Your breath is the fuel of your performance, so take a deep in-breath before starting each new line of copy. This will prevent you from needing to take a distracting catch-up breath in the middle of a line. A deep inhalation should move your belly, not your chest. Shallow chest breathing will cause you to run out of gas in the middle of a phrase.

When you deliver, don’t try to imitate a “radio voice.” You don’thave a radio voice, and even if you did, that probably wouldn’t be the right tone for your e-learning project anyway. Instead, visualize a member of your audience and imagine you’re talking directly to him or her. A conversational voice is going to carry more credibility than the kind of smooth announcer voice that most people associate with used car ads.

Put some emotion in your voice when the script calls for it. In fact, ham it up a little. Remember that the audience will not be able to pick up on your non-visual cues. What feels like a subtle, understated performance to you will sound like a boring monotone to your audience. What feels like a slightly over-the-top emotional performance to you will usually be just enough for your audience to hear in the final product.

Deliver multiple takes for each line of copy, even if you think you’ve nailed it on the first one. Your perfect delivery might have the sound of a chair squeaking in the background. Having multiple takes to choose from is called “coverage” and you want lots of it. It will help you later in the editing process if you call the take out loud before each delivery (“Take 1…” “Take 2…” etc.).

Cut!

If your nerves get to you, take a couple of deep breaths and start a new take. If you’re really stuck on a given section, just move on to the next one and come back after you’ve built some momentum. Just keep going until your nerves cool off. Remember: you’re recording digitally, and you’re not going to run out of tape.

If your mouth is sludgy and you’re getting a lot of “mouth click” or other gross sounds in the recording, take a few sips of water. (You should be drinking it throughout the session anyway.)  If you’ve got really stubborn sludge, eat a green apple. The acid will dissolve the mucus and other gunk to give you a clean, click-free mouth.

That’s a Wrap

Even if you’ve got a good voice and a decent recording setup, you might still feel unsatisfied with the results. Keep things in perspective: you’re not recording a movie trailer or a luxury car commercial. E-learning is about learning, after all, and your audience will probably learn just as much from you as they would from James Earl Jones. Now go have some fun and don’t forget to keep your most embarrassing recordings for the outtake reel.

Finding an eLearning Internship in the Blue Ocean

This article was originally published by eLearning Industry.

A friend of a friend reached out to me recently on LinkedIn. She’s nearing the end of her graduate program in Instructional Design and looking to land a summer internship here in Pittsburgh. In a small-to-medium sized city, though, this will be one hell of a battle. Dozens of qualified students will be fighting over a handful of eLearning internships. This is what W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne call a “red ocean strategy”. The water is filled with sharks turning the water bloody as they compete for an ever-shrinking supply of fish. If you don’t want to be another body churning up these waters, you’ll have to do something even more bold and daring than fighting the other sharks. You’ll have to swim away toward…

The Blue Ocean

The blue ocean is the new, unexplored market, completely untouched by competition. There’s plenty of room in these waters for growth, and no other sharks to fight. Of course, there is a reason those other sharks aren’t swimming here. The fighting may be ferocious back in the red ocean, but at least there are rules, boundaries, and a conventional path to success. Out here in the blue, though, you’re on your own.

Rather than fighting with other sharks over a limited supply of advertised jobs, you’ll have to create demand for your services. You’ll do this by reaching out to people and organizations that are not advertising for eLearning internships and convincing them that you’re worth talking to. Once you have your foot in the door, you’ll have to demonstrate so much value that they’ll create a position just for you.

Feeding Grounds

  • Linda is a successful executive coach who just finished writing her first book. She wants to share her ideas with a larger audience to drum up business for her coaching practice and to create interest in her book, but she’s not sure how.
  • Jordan’s been working with his pastor to develop a parenting skills training program for low-income workers in his neighborhood. Due to the unpredictable work schedules of the parents, though, he’s found it impossible to schedule live classes at a time when everyone can attend.
  • After a few years of struggling, Justin and Kyle’s startup is growing faster than they could imagine. In a matter of months, they’ve gone from having three employees working at their office downtown to having twenty three employees working from home offices in different parts of the country. They know they need to get their new hires up to speed on company policies, but the teleconferences they’ve been hosting haven’t been effective.
  • Alyssa is the sole full-time employee at a tiny community library. Lately she’s been spending most of her time showing borrowers how to use a new website to request books from other libraries. Repeating this one-on-one tutorial for everyone who comes in is eating into the time she needs for other work.
  • Nathan inherited a small chain of diners from his father last year and he’s struggling to keep the family businesses afloat. Due to the high staff turnover, Nathan is spending most of his time travelling from location to location training new employees on basic sanitation, food preparation, and customer service skills.

All of these people have two things in common:

  1. None of them are even thinking about eLearning, much less about hiring an eLearning intern.
  2. They could all benefit tremendously if they did.

The blue ocean strategy involves finding these people and helping them solve their problems. Here’s how.

  1. First, Cast Your Net.
    Instructional Design firms, universities, and large corporations are the red ocean of eLearning. Everything else is blue ocean. Small businesses, family firms, non-profit organizations, consultants, religious ministries, dentist’s offices, artist co-ops, local government agencies, organic farms… you get the idea. Don’t just send your resume out scatter-shot, though. Do some research first. Read websites and learn what these organizations do. If you see an opening where you might be able to add value, then send a resume and a personalized letter explaining how you can help them. An even more effective approach is to ask around among friends and family to see who they know or work with who might be in need of your help. People are much more likely to take a chance on someone they know -even just a friend of a friend- than someone they have no connection with.
  2. Now, Offer The Bait.
    Let’s say you get a call-back and someone from the organization wants to meet with you. Get busy and create a work sample before you even walk in the door. Go to the organization’s website and pull down their logo, colors, and other branding elements. Use this information to create a short, simple eLearning on a topic that might be important for them. Bring along a laptop to demonstrate the course at the end of the interview. (Even if you don’t get the job, you’ll have another asset that you can re-brand and place in your portfolio. You do have a portfolio, right?)
  3. Finally, Set The Hook.
    Assuming you’ve impressed them with your interview and work sample, make it easy for them to hire you. Remember, many of these folks have never hired interns before. (That’s why they’re in blue water!) The more hoops they have to jump through and the more intimidated they feel, the less likely they are to do it. Offer to do some of the legal or regulatory legwork, if you can. Keep your expectations reasonable. No one gets rich at an internship – the point is to gain experience. Your experiences in blue water will probably be more valuable than your friends’ experience churning things up in the red ocean.

Sailor, Be Warned

If you think the blue ocean strategy sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. If you think it’s going to involve chasing down a bunch of leads that go nowhere before finding the right one, you’re probably right about that, too. You’ll also have to face puzzled looks, being blown off and ignored, and a good deal of flat-out rejection.

If you have the guts, however, you may find treasure in these blue waters.