The Myth Of 'Conversational VO'
- Hey, Nobody Talks Like That
November 14, 2014
By Joe Thomas
A big part of the job of voice acting is auditioning. And a current trend seen in many auditions is the "Conversational” or "Non-Announcer” style.
Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see at least one audition request asking for that guy-next-door sound. A friend. A neighbor. BUT NO ANNOUNCERS!
Well, I’m here to tell you, friends and neighbors … there’s very little VO out there in the real world that would be mistaken for an actual conversation. Here are just a few examples:
"In a world…”
"Jenny is just an average girl looking for love…”
"Don’t go in the basement!”
"Cutesey Cuddly Critters is now the number one film in America!”
"Tonight on a very special…”
"It’s a competition where anyone can win!”
"Sunday – you’ve never seen the island like this…”
"If you think you know criminal justice…”
"Hear the tragic tale, and witness the family’s courage…”
"I just don’t know how I’m going to deal with all these doctor bills…”
"Sometimes, I just don’t feel fresh…”
"Hey, Ted! Got enough life insurance?”
"But wait! There’s more!”
"And if you act now…”
"Take advantage of this incredible offer!”
Game Show / Talk Show
"Show us the answer!”
We got a good one tonight!”
"Let’s give a warm welcome for…”
"Your call is very important to us…”
"Have you visited our website?”
"Someone will be with you shortly…”
Radio DJ / News
"The Morning Zoo will pay you cash to listen!”
"Let’s go to Zeke for the traffic and weather…”
"Ya know, when I needed to lose some weight, I visited my friends at…”
Monster Truck / Wrestling
"Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”
"Fire Breathing Maniacs in Nitro Burning Funny Cars!”
"Ladies and Gentlemen!”
"Oh, oh! He did not just hit him with that table!!!”
NPR / PSA
"Funding for this program from…”
"Next, on trend talk…”
We’ve only got a few hours left in our fund drive…”
TRUE 'CONVERSATIONAL' IS RARE
You can see that none of the above would sound like an actual conversation you might have. I’ve even heard VO coaches teaching "Conversational” deliver, who still don’t sound conversational!
True conversational delivery does exist in VO, but is very rare in the commercial world. You can find it in some audiobooks and narration, where the performance is the focus instead of a product. Even animation and games can have true conversational style (depending on the genre).
So, why does the industry keep asking for "Conversational” but make a final product that doesn’t sound that way?
I think it’s more of a guideline than a rule. After all, you are still selling something. It’s hard to really sell a product with a true conversational delivery. If you heard an actual conversation in a commercial, you’d probably come away thinking "what the heck was that about?”
WHAT THEY REALLY WANT ...
Here are some of the reasons why we may keep hearing anything but "conversational”:
Factor 1: Association
It’s much easier to sell something that already seems familiar to your potential buyers. It’s why package designs and colors for similar products have a similar look. And it’s why the VO in a particular category may have a similar sound.
As consumers, when we hear "In a world,” we think drama. When we hear "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” we think monster truck.
It’s these associations that the ad industry takes advantage of as an instantly recognizable key to our brains. By the VO delivery style alone, we already have a lot of information about what it is they’re selling.
Factor 2: Mimicry
Humans are born mimics. We learn by doing. Want to be a carpenter? You learn from a master carpenter. Want to do movie trailers? You listen to trailers (or if you’re lucky, study with a coach or industry pro).
Styles persist, in part, because we as artists mimic what we’ve heard before. "That’s how it’s done, my boy!”
From time-to-time styles will change. Some new delivery or idea takes root, and eventually, that segment of the VO marketplace transforms. Then the new style is the norm, and everyone mimics that.
Factor 3: Script
Every day, voice actors get directed to give a "Conversational” read, with scripts that are anything but. Phrases like "Hello, folks!” or "Introducing…” or "Act now!” are never heard in day-to-day conversation.
In a way, this is related to both Association, and Mimicry. The people who write commercial copy are trying to get consumers to buy something. The style they use is based on styles they’ve heard in the past, and styles that work with the given product.
WHAT'S A VO TO DO?
So, how can you handle the dreaded "Conversational” when you see it in the direction?
Lean into it. Err on the side of "Less is more."
Relax. Try to talk to one person, even if the words sound a bit stiff.
Talk about the product – don’t avoid it.
And don’t force or push your delivery. It’s a subtle difference. Definitely walking a bit of a tightrope. But there’s a lot of work to be had if you can master it.
Joe J Thomas is a voice actor in Los Angeles specializing in characters, accents and impressions for animation, video games, ADR, commercials and promos. In his spare time he dabbles with graphics and animation, and uses his prior skills as a programmer to devour new tools and applications and bend them until they break in funny ways. His weekly blog, Joe's Dump, gives mental health professionals free research material on a regular basis.
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