Bob Souer Interview / Part 2
25 Years of VO Lessons Learned:
The Keys to Voice-Over Success
By John Florian
©2008 VoiceOverXtra LLC
Bob Souer has come a long way from his Chicago Radio Days, recalled in Part 1 of our wide-ranging interview with the voice actor who calls so many people “my friend.”
Indeed, he’s made many friends over 25 years in voice-overs, lending a helping hand to beginners and seasoned pros alike.
Here, in the second of our three-part interview, Bob examines the keys to voice-over success … peppered, of course, with stories. Imagine his rich, baritone voice in the telling ...
VOXtra: Bob, eventually you and your family settled down in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Yes, sir. I work for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as the senior producer for radio, which means I do quite a bit of writing and quite a bit of voice-over work for that organization.
I also work pretty close to full-time as an independent freelance voice-over talent.
Obviously, because of my relationship with that ministry, I avoid doing work that would be embarrassing to the association, so I will work for anybody whose project is legal, moral and ethical, and which won’t embarrass the association.
I have to turn down some work that I might personally not have a problem with.
For example, I personally consume very little in the way of alcoholic beverages. I am not opposed to somebody having a social drink or whatever. But the association has made it very clear that they would not be very happy with me if I were to take, say, an ad for a company that produced adult beverages.
So, when those opportunities come along, I just say thank you, but no, and whatever amount of money is involved, it doesn’t matter, because it’s not worth destroying what is a very good relationship otherwise.
What other kind of voice work do you do, then?
Well, I do a fair number of commercials. The kinds of things I book a lot are for banks and other financial institutions, insurance companies, and medical and health-related projects.
You have a trusting voice.
I forget who originally said, “When you learn to fake sincerity, everything else is easy.”
Hopefully, I’m not actually faking sincerity - but I guess my voice does sound like somebody you can trust, and for that I am very grateful.
Certainly, I tend not to even audition for projects where I don’t feel like I could sincerely endorse whatever it is that we are talking about in the commercial. I don’t think there would be any great benefit in pursuing work that I couldn’t really get behind fully.
Where else do we hear you?
I also do a lot of non-broadcast narration work, e-Learning projects, training films - everything from helping the guys who do the preloading of the boxes for the delivery trucks at UPS, telling them how to stack the boxes so they can reload it onto the truck properly - to encouraging the people who fly US Airways that they can use their approved portable personal electronic devices now.
My voice used to run on all the planes on US Airways and still runs on a few of them, but when US Airways came out of bankruptcy this last time, they decided they wanted a woman doing a majority of the announcing - and I couldn’t do that one very well.
Bob, over the years, what’s been the key to your success as a full-time voice talent?
Well, I think the single, most significant characteristic is: don’t quit. Once you quit, you can’t be a full-time voice-over anymore.
Another thing I regard as extremely important is to provide not just great service, but also to do everything possible to leave a super-experience in the minds of the people who hire me.
Maybe that’s why a lot of people hire me more than once - because they enjoy the experience.
And you do that … how?
Well, a better way to put it, is that my job is not to do voice-overs. My job ultimately is to solve problems.
A company has a project. They need a voice for it, and that represents a problem for that company. If I can come alongside them, provide the voice they need, or help them find a voice they need if it is not me, then I have solved their problem.
So you see, it’s not about what can I do for you, but rather, how can I come alongside you and help you solve your problems. People seem to want to work with folks who have that attitude.
Now, even voice actors who keep a lot of the same clients have to always be looking for new clients, as well, or eventually the business dries up.
But it takes the pressure off of the constant din of marketing if you do a great job of solving problems for people and keep your focus on what they need.
Over the years, what has been your biggest challenge?
Having started in radio, I had to get rid of the “radio” sound.
I vividly remember the mid-1980s, when I first learned this lesson. I had been doing spots for a clothing store chain in the Chicago area for quite a while. It wasn’t a big chain, but still, they ran television and radio pretty consistently, and the advertising agency seemed to be very happy with my work.
They kept hiring me back every few weeks to do another ad.
But one time, I came in and there was a second guy there - an actor, not a voice-over guy.
The client and the advertising agency had decided they wanted a more natural, real kind of sound - not the sort of classic announcer that was my stock and trade back then.
Quite a shock to you, I imagine.
Oh yes. So they had the actor go first, and I think there were maybe six spots in the session. They wanted him to do three, and me to do three.
After he was done and said good-bye and thank you very much, they had me go in the booth and said, “We want you to sound like that.”
Well, I remembered listening to this guy and thinking that he is just terrible. He doesn’t sound smooth, he doesn’t sound confident.
But the reality is that if I were able to go back then with the ears that I have now, I would have realized he’s nailing it. He’s doing exactly what they want.
So you learned …
Anybody who has a fairly strong, masculine voice is going to get comments from time to time about what a nice voice you have, and so forth. But that’s not a great thing anymore.
The kind of voice-over performance that works now is much more honest and real. In fact, when a potential client occasionally wants that kind of old-fashioned announcer sound, I often turn down the work because I don’t want to risk falling back into those old habits!
It’s taken me a long time to learn and, hopefully, at least at some level I’ve managed to achieve a more natural, honest kind of sound.
What is in your mind to get that natural sound when you read a script? It probably comes automatically to you now, but how did you make that transition?
After my session with that actor, I began to realize that the voices I heard in ads - particularly in the national television ads - were much more the way that actor sounded, and not the way I sounded.
Also, I noticed that a lot of the guys who had been in radio a long time had a kind of “radio sound” in their voice that they didn’t drop - even when they were just in a regular conversation.
They always said, “Hi, I’m really happy to see you,” with a slightly fake, polished, stentorian tone to their voice.
I would notice, for instance, at a radio convention when several of us were standing around, it was like one guy would talk and he would have this really great voice and then everybody else felt like they had to push their voice a little lower - a kind of one upsmanship - or one downsmanship.
Everybody had to try and sound a little bit more manly, or whatever, and I realized this is not the way people are sounding anymore.
What did you do about it?
I began concentrating on speaking as in normal conversation - like as I’m talking with you now over the phone, or just sitting and chatting with my kids or my wife or with people I meet in whatever circumstance.
I try to just talk like a regular person. And so to me, a successful day is a day when nobody says to me, “Oh, you have such a marvelous voice.”
I can’t do anything about the way my voice sounds. Before I got into voice-over and real estate, I was studying to be an opera singer, so I had 10-and-a-half years of training my voice - singing professionally. So there is nothing I can do about the pitch and resonance of my voice. It’s simply part of my human instrument.
But if I can speak in a way that’s just normal and every day, then the sound of my voice doesn’t get in people’s way, and I simply get to tell the story.
If I practice that all day long, every day, then when I get into the studio and I’m called on to read copy and tell that story, hopefully that practice makes it possible for me to do an effective job of communicating that message.
So you are saying that you practice talking normally?
Yes sir, I do.
How do you do that? I mean, do you have exercises to go through?
I just listen to other people and try to sound normal.
I try very hard to not allow myself to push my voice in any direction, and, for the example of being at a radio convention with a bunch of other guys, I try to be the least impressive guy in that group.
You know, I’m deliberately trying to dial it back all the time.
You mentioned the opera training, and from your blogs and what I know about you, training is very important.
I actually came to training – I mean, private coaching and serious, intensive workshops - somewhat late in my voice-over career.
I’ve only been doing this for a little over a year.
I studied most of 2007 with Nancy Wolfson, and starting in October of 2007, I began studying with Marice Tobias.
These ladies are very different in their personalities, but they are both extraordinarily gifted, and I hope neither will complain about my saying that. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both of them.
Prior to that, my voice-over training consisted of a couple of workshops that I attended with Pat Fraley, which were very insightful and specifically focused.
His Audiobook Master Class opened the doors of opportunity for me to do audiobooks like crazy, and so the past few years, I’ve been doing more and more audiobooks. It’s something that I really enjoy because I love telling stories, and when you’re reading a book for people, it’s a long and intense experience.
Other than that, my training consisted of attending the annual Dan O’Day International Radio Creative and Production Summit. There is always an element of voice-over work there.
At the Summits, I would just listen, I would ask questions, I’d ask a million questions of people who are far more talented and more successful and more intelligent than I am. And, thankfully, people have been kind enough to answer along the way.
Just as you've been so helpful to your voice-over friends. Thanks, Bob.
Part 3: Voicing the Bible. Learn how Bob tackled the biggest project of his life, a recently finished year-long narration.
To contact Bob Souer: