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These Dozen Top Skills Are Crucial
To Voice Acting Career Success
By Marc Cashman
Voice Actor & Coach
©2010 Marc Cashman

If a buck dropped out of the sky every time someone asked me what it takes to make it in the world of voice-over, I could retire!
So now, finally, I’m going to sum up a dozen top skills that are fundamental to a successful career in voice acting. And amazingly, they all start with the letter “C”!

A voice actor’s articulation has got to be impeccable.
Each word needs to be distinctly understood, not swallowed, mumbled or garbled.

An actor needs to make sure that they’re balancing their enunciation between over-articulation and under-articulation.
  • We don’t want to over-enunciate, or we won’t sound conversational - we’ll sound like pompous asses.
  • We certainly don’t want to under-enunciate, or we’ll sound stupid or lazy or both.
We always need to perform in the “Goldilocks” area of vocal clarity.
Employers are always listening for narrators who can speak clearly, without overdoing it or underdoing it. It has to be just right.

This only partly means you have to shower before a session.
Cleanliness refers to mouth noise, and if you have a lot of it, you may have a difficult time getting work in voice-over.
Some people are blessed with minimal mouth noise - they’ve just inherited a genetic -gift that makes saliva a non-issue.
But most narrators have some level of mouth noise: those glottal stops, clicks and smacking sounds that they mitigate a number of ways:
  • hydrating (otherwise known as drinking a lot of water);
  • using throat sprays, mouthwashes or herbal teas;
  • munching tiny pieces of green apple (in between narration excerpts), chewing gum or sucking on a lozenge.
The less time an editor needs to clean up your VO tracks, the more chance you’ll be called back to do another session. Soon.

In voice-over, consistency is a highly valued skill.
If you’re consistent in your volume, energy, pacing, articulation, characterization and your eye-brain-mouth coordination, you’ll be every director’s dream, because you’ll be a voice actor they can rely on to deliver what they want every time.

Being connected to what you’re reading is vital to your performance and the believability of your interpretation.
A professional narrator always sounds like he or she is intrinsically interested in what they’re talking about, regardless of whether they are.
I always pose the question:
If you’re not enthusiastic about what you’re talking about, why should the listener be interested in what you have to say?
Being connected also means literally being physically connected to the page, with your eyes scanning ahead to make sure you’re moving through the copy or text without tripping or stumbling.
Voice actors use a number of different techniques to stay connected:
  • using their hands to make points or gestures,
  • inflecting when and where appropriate,
  • making facial expressions to convey emotion, and
  • using their body to physically interpret action into their voice.
Being conversational in voice-over isn’t as easy as it sounds.
It takes an innate ability to lift words off the page effortlessly, as if you’re speaking extemporaneously (because you’re an expert, right?).
It means reading (and speaking) at conversational speed - the typical pace that
we speak in everyday conversations.
This skill is the result of not over- or under-articulating, and is key to engaging the listener and maintaining their attention.

This skill is a must-have for long-form narration, particularly in the areas of e-Learning modules, instructional CD-Rom narration, and non-fiction audiobooks.
If you’re a busy voice actor, you don’t have time to pre-read dozens or hundreds of pages of text before you take on a project.
The ability to cold read text will save you a lot of time in the studio, not to mention a lot of editing time.
The ability to scan ahead, to make sense of run-on sentences, and to navigate incorrect punctuation is a skill that comes in very handy.
Solid cold reading is the manifestation of excellent eye-brain-mouth coordination, and can be strengthened every day by constant practice.
Reading aloud (to your kids, significant other, parent, dog, cat, bird or bunny) will help you become a great cold reader.

7) CHOP CHOP ...
Okay, this was my lame “C” phrase for being quick (I could have written “Cwick,” but that would’ve been much lamer).
Speaking fast is, in many situations, as essential skill in VO. It becomes readily apparent in a commercial, where sometimes you’re supposed to squeeze 40 seconds of copy into a 30-second time frame (I call this “shoe-horning”).
The ability to get through copy rapidly, but not at the expense of clarity, is a crucial skill that, if you haven’t mastered, you need to develop.

I referred to this under consistency and cold reading, and this is the mental muscle memory that develops when your eyes take in the words on the page, make the connections in your brain and come out of your mouth.
I call it “eye-brain-mouth coordination,” and it’s a skill that voice actors develop after voicing thousands of pages of copy or text over a number of years.
Some people are better at it than others, sometimes reading thousands of words in multiple pages of copy before making a mistake.
Developing strong E-B-M coordination is possible by cold reading copy every day.
It’s like a musician who practices their scales every day they strengthen their muscle memory; or it’s like going to the gym every day to build up your muscles and your stamina.
Great E-B-M coordination is the hallmark of a professional voice actor.

Any kind of voice acting that requires characterization requires acting, and actors understand what goes into giving a solid performance.
Many of the skills I mentioned - consistency, conversationality, being connected - in addition to the acting skills of believability, authenticity, emotionality and interpretation - are immensely important in telling a compelling story.
The ability to perform solid characters is another arrow in your quiver of voice acting skills.

I’ve heard it said,
“Always sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.”
This could be the mantra for narration. No matter what subject you’re talking about, the ability to sound convincing encompasses skills of:
  • coherent explanation,
  • a measured, neutral (or sometimes friendly) tone,
  • an appropriate amount of conversationality and energy, and
  • an authoritativeness that’s believable and approachable.
The most convincing narrators are those who, in Penny Abshire’s term, “tell, don’t sell.”

Successful voice actors are always in control - of their voice, that is. They can control their:
  • pitch,
  • volume, and
  • breath.
They control their pitch by understanding intonation - realizing that there are many musical applications to the spoken word.
They control their volume by understanding that volume, for the most part, has to be consistent - it’s their intensity that varies throughout a read.
And they maintain excellent breath control by constantly replenishing the amount of air they need in order to get through words and phrases competently.
They put all of these skills to use when they need to do any pickup phrases or insertions, so they can match what they’ve recorded before.

The best thing you can bring to any VO session is confidence - true confidence, not a false sense of bravado.
Confidence comes from being prepared; understanding the subject, and anticipating the dynamics of the studio session between the actor, director and engineer (and many times, the presence of the client, either in person or on the phone).
You can hear confidence in an actor’s voice - in their phrasing, presence, and overall performance.
Confidence gives you stamina and believability, and makes it easier to work with a director, who may sometimes be giving you a lot of conflicting direction.
Confidence also gives you patience, which can really come in handy in many a recording session.
I can add three additional “C’s” under the heading of confidence - being:
  • calm,
  • cool, and
  • collected.

There are so many more skills that we bring to a session that makes for a successful performance, and so many more attributes that you need to make it in the world of voice-over.
But if we can infuse these skills into every VO session, then you’ll be well on your way to a satisfying and lucrative career.

And fun!

Marc Cashman creates and produces copy and music advertising for radio and television. Winner of over 150 advertising awards, and named one of the Best Voices of the Year by AudioFile Magazine, he also instructs voice acting of all levels through his classes, The Cashman Cache of Voice-Acting Techniques in Los Angeles, and One-on-One V-O coaching. He was the Master Class instructor and keynote speaker at the VOICE 2008 conference in Los Angeles, and a popular instructor at VOICE 2010.
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Comments (9)
Ernie Douglas
8/22/2010 at 7:39 PM
I just read your article, and while I've flirted with making a career change for some time, this information is priceless. You highlight so many basics that it would be a dis-service to not study this and always look to improve yourself. I thank you and hope to one day put it all together and make it happen ....
Cliff Zellman
6/26/2010 at 12:31 AM
Right on! Your "Dozen" article made my Top 10! Bravo.
Anthony McCollough
6/23/2010 at 11:34 PM
You said a mouthfull here. I know a lot of people paid a lot of money to learn what you covered in this article. I'm taking it all in - this is real study and practice material.
Anthony McCollough, Voice One Communication
Marc Cashman
6/22/2010 at 2:49 PM
Thank you for your kind words. Feel free to contact me anytime with any questions, or write into VoiceoverXtra with your questions, and John Florian will forward them to me.
Donna Summers
6/21/2010 at 8:40 PM
Really?????! :) Brilliant!
BP Smyth, Narrator
6/20/2010 at 6:14 PM
Thank you Marc for outlining the skills necessary for obtaining success in the profession of voice-over. They are excellent. I would like to add number 13. That is: while doing all of the twelve, don't give up your day job.:)

BP Smyth, Narrator -
Bob Jordan
6/20/2010 at 9:42 AM

Thank you for sharing this valuable information with all of us. I have printed it and have it hanging next to my microphone. You are a real pro to share :)
6/20/2010 at 7:55 AM
Great article
Thanks for posting Marc!
Kira gurnee
6/20/2010 at 12:44 AM
Great collection of tips and perfect way to sum it up, Marc! Well done, as always.
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