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VOICE ACTING
Who Do You Think You're Talking To?
Drop 'Industry Speak' And Talk To ME


By Matt Forrest

Voice Actor

Whether you write or voice advertising copy or novels, video scripts or poetry, I'm talking to you. 

Forgive me for indulging in a cathartic rant, but I felt compelled to write a few words about a scourge upon our advertising landscape. It's something that is not only one of my personal pet peeves when it comes to copy writing. It's a sure-fire way to get potential customers and clients to immediately tune out your message. 

It's an evil villain, but one that is easily thwarted if writers just take a little extra time. 

It's - industry speak. 

But hold on, poets, fiction writers, and voice artists. I'm not just talking about writing and advertising here. Industry speak is more than just words; it's also tone. 

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE 

I read scripts and marketing materials all the time. I know when someone is speaking to me about my concerns, and when someone is speaking at me about their product. 

Using terms and phrases that only others within your industry use - or worse, using terms and phrases that no one ever uses in real life - are copy killers. 

I hear colleges using the word "dynamic" to describe their courses. I've heard businesses offering "robust solutions." Just recently, I came across a script for a landscape company selling paving stones, brick pavers, and stepstones. I honestly don't know if there's a difference. 

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

When you use words that normal, everyday folks don't, you're saying, "Let me speak to you in a language you don't understand, about things you don't comprehend, so I can then wonder why you don't care." 

What are pavers, and why should I care about them? Do I need them? Why should I get them from you? 

As a consumer, I have a flurry of questions when I hear something like that - and more often than not, I don't want to be bothered with questions. I have enough questions in my life I'm trying to answer already without you throwing more at me. 

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION

On the other hand, if you ask, "Wouldn't it be great if you could have an outdoor patio area that's easy to clean, never needs staining, and can allow you to grill outdoors all year round?" 

Well, now you have my interest. And you didn't even use the word "paver." 

Don't get me wrong, if pavers are what you're selling, you obviously need to use the word "pavers" at some point. What I'm saying is, don't act like I already know what you're talking about. 

Also notice I said "easy to clean" instead of "virtually maintenance free." You know you've heard "virtually maintenance free" in plenty of commercials before - but who actually talks like that? 

TAKE TRIP BACK IN TIME

Before you write the copy, take a trip back in time and think about what life was like before you knew all this stuff. Think back to when you couldn't tell a flagstone from a fieldstone. When you didn't care about the difference between clay and concrete. Back when you didn't even know college courses could be "dynamic" (Personally, I think colleges just make up that phrase to sound flashy.)  

Get rid of the industry speak. Get rid of the advertising-industry speak, as well: crutch phrases like "knowledgeable staff," "no-pressure sales," and - oh yeah, "virtually maintenance free." 

Think about your listener or reader. Use the language that is used by the people to whom you're talking.

The same goes for you, too, storytellers. OK, well, technically, radio and TV commercial copy writers are supposed to be storytellers - and if they're not, they should be.

CONVERSING WITH YOUR AUDIENCE

It pays to read and reread. If you're a voice artist or speaker, look over the script and try to understand:
  • who you are representing while speaking, and 
  • who is receiving the information. 
Understanding who you are, who your audience is, and why any of you should care about the message is of utmost importance.

There are plenty of tips out there about voice acting but, to me, they all come down to one truism: everything you speak is a conversation. 

Again, it all boils down to knowing to whom, or for whom, you're writing or speaking, and targeting your language to reflect that.

As they say in the advertising biz: Know your demographic! Wait, sorry - Was that industry speak?      
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ABOUT MATT

A voice over artist and commercial copy writer, Matt Forrest spent 25-plus years in radio, writing, and producing numerous award-winning commercials, before stepping into the realm of professional voice overs in 2003. He has also had several poems published in various independent collections around the country, and one of them, "Apple-Picking, was nominated last year by the Young Adult Review Network (YARN) for a Pushcart Prize. Matt is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).       

Web: www.mattforrest.com
Email: matt@mattforrest.com

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Comments (8)
Matt Forrest
3/18/2013 at 11:02 PM
Thank you all for your comments - I really appreciate it! In response to a few of them:

- Rick, "Sustainable" is the new "Carbon-neutral!"

- Daryl, you tell your clients pretty much what I tell mine. I compare a commercial that talks about the business - without speaking to the customer - to a guy who walks up to a woman at a cocktail party and starts peppering her with pickup lines: "Hi, I'm Matt Forrest. I'm a voice actor and copy writer. I work with clients all over the country. Maybe you've heard my voice on this spot or this other spot or that spot? I've been doing this for many years..."

At this point, the woman is either desperately searching for her girlfriends to save her, or is about to start gnawing at her own leg in order to escape. Yet that's what most businesses - and sales reps - who write their own copy do. Talk, talk, talk and never listen. In a radio spot, you need to get the listener to understand that you do listen, that you understand their concerns, and that you can help.

- Jim, you're right, I'd never considered the fact that we voice actors are ENABLERS! If we could somehow do a crappy job of reading crappy copy - and really make it stink as badly it's written - we'd show them!

And then they'd hire someone else to read it.

To your question, I tell clients & sales reps a lot of the things Daryl does. Possibly the singlemost important thing I ask them is, "what are you selling?" They invariably say, 'trucks,' or 'food,' or 'our brand' or some such thing. I always tell them they're wrong. You're selling the BENEFIT of the truck, of the food, of the brand. That's the USP - and it needs to be the cornerstone of the spot. Whether you're a car dealer or a cleaning service or a strip club...you need to tell the listener WHY you can solve their problem or make their life easier or offer them something better than what they've got.

Again, many thanks for reading and posting your thoughts!
Lance Blair
3/15/2013 at 12:14 PM
A wonderful (and well written) post! Like the comments a lot too, everyone! They're dynamic! And virtually spam-free! Ok. Seriously...the clients and sales people kill radio copy all the time. Also, it's the lawyers that kill corporate copy. I have an ongoing training program where I have to refer to 'the person of authority' the whole way through. Where was this written? North Korea? One of the biggest challenges in being a voice over talent is making insulting, aloof copy sound likeable.
Rick Lance
3/10/2013 at 12:54 PM
Good point, Matt! I see, hear or read this flaw written into copy all the time.
Of course, this is one of many things wrong with copy these days.
Since much of it is not being written by real copywriters.
Btw, my favorite buzz word now is..."sustainable."
Everything now is sustainable!
Philip Banks
3/10/2013 at 9:13 AM
I think we are confusing radio copy writing with good verbal communication. I do the same with Canaries and cheese. Probably around 80%+ of typing for radio ads is simply that, typing.

Ignorance is at the root
Clients who don't understand the business of selling their business.
Sales execs who just want to hit target and get another ad on air.
Producers who believe compression and SFX will make a difference.
Voice Overs who are simply delighted to get another $40 so keep their mouths shut ...Irony not wasted on me.

It is and will remain same as it ever was ... Most local radio ads in the UK aproduced for next to nothing and I'm told that in the US for exactly nothing. Value for money? Very probably.

The upside of bad scripts is that if you read enough of them when a good one comes along you can really make it kick butt!

Voice over's job is to make a pile of old sh*te sound good.
JAY LLOYD
3/8/2013 at 4:03 PM
Mr. Conlan has zeroed-in on the biggest problem in this world of communication: Poor Writing. Alas, we can do little more than delicately suggest other wording; but even taking that step is risky. Teaching an "Advertising Copywriting" course, I preached that words like "fresh, sweet creamery butter" was a lot better than just "butter." But those are just "enhancers"...not something that actually sounds foreign. I do agree completely with you, Matt. When someone talks to me about "pavers" I just say, "I love it when you talk dirty to me!" =)
Daryl Smith
3/8/2013 at 2:45 PM
Matt...Great article! As a trained copywriter AND a voiceover artist, it sometimes pains me to listen to the radio which is my primary focus. Somebody other than myself once said, "If you want to learn how NOT to write radio commercials, listen to the radio!" I totally agree. A large portion of what I hear every day is ineffective at best. It's a waste of money and does the client no good whatsoever.

Most radio sales people are unfortunately required to write copy, even though they've never been trained. Many make the mistake of letting the client have too much input as to how the copy is written. Doing so generally results in nothing more than the client verbally patting himself and his company on the back. Then they wonder why their ads don't get results. Writing effective copy is not rocket science, but it does require some logic.

The first thing I tell the client is that the spot is not about you or your company, it's about what you or your company can do for the person hearing the message...How can you improve their lifestyle or solve their particular problem.

I gather as much information about the client and his product or service as possible, and begin the copy with an emotionally charged headline which is designed to grab the listener's attention. Pick an emotion out of the hat...fear, happiness, satisfaction, whatever, and write the spot from that angle.

Figure out what the client's USP (unique selling proposition) is. This is sometimes known as an "identifiable difference". In other words, why should someone spend their hard earned cash at your client's store as opposed to spending it with someone down the street who sells the same or similar product? Every business has a USP. Figure out what that is and write it into the copy.

The next thing I consider is to LEAVE OUT CLICHES and other unimportant filler copy, fluff or adspeak! For Example: The best service in town, Building better furniture for over 35 years, Our ribs are legendary...etc. That's all nice information that NOBODY CARES ABOUT!

Next: To get results, you need to make some kind of an offer in the commercial. It doesn't have to be something free, (although free is good, even if it's a free estimate or advice) but it has to be something worthwhile.

Finally: Make the call to action crystal clear! Tell the listener how or where to get what is being offered. Usually this is accomplished by repeating a phone number several times, a web address several times or even the physical address, depending on whether you want hits on your website, the door to swing or the phone to ring.

Keep in mind, if you're writing a radio or TV spot, you generally only have 15, 30, or 60 seconds to make your point, so you need to make every word count.

More often than not, I write two or even three spots, all different of course, and present them all to the client. If they like them all, I sometimes use them all.

As a copywriter, you need to take pride in YOUR product so that you can get the result your client expects. If you just crank out the same boilerplate copy as every other wanna-be out there, larded up with cliche garbage at the client's insistence, be prepared at some point to hear the words "I tried radio and it didn't work."

Like somebody once said "Garbage in - garbage out." Sad but true.
Jim Conlan
3/8/2013 at 10:45 AM
Matt, you have uncovered a real conundrum in the voice-over business. As voice talent we're hired to interpret the writer's words into something the listener will want to hear. The side effect of succeeding is that we make the writer look good. Often we do such a good job that the writer actually thinks their awful copy was good! So they continue writing the crap they write.

Although it would surprise me to know that many writers subscribe to VOXtra, I still (dumbly) long for opportunities to actually affect how my clients write. Regrettably, that's not why we're hired. So my question to you is - in what ways do you, Matt, affect the writers you work with to write conversationally?
Thierry Laflamme
3/8/2013 at 7:05 AM
Brilliant! I wish this would be seen by more advertisers. Thanks, Matt, for the insight.

Thierry Laflamme
Toronto, Ontario
Canada
www.thierrylaflamme.com
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