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Forget character voices. Forget deep, grovelly sounds. Forget accents. The number one skill I have is cold reading.
I recently attended a convention in San Francisco called BABScon, where they had a very special event: a voice acting competition. The judges of this event were three amazingly talented folks: Tara Strong, Nicole Oliver, and Brian Drummond. The finalists of the competition were given several challenges to undertake–one from each of the three judges.
Tara’s challenge was arguably one of the toughest: cold reading. Each of the contestants were given bits of magazine ads and asked to read them in various voices. It’s hard to do!
The reason behind this challenge is simple, though: It’s one of the most expected skills of a voice actor. “You never know if you’re going to audition for a part, and the director might give you a completely different part to try out,” Nicole Oliver explained during the vocal competition. Cold readings are HARD. It’s one thing to act, put on a voice, and read from a script. It’s an entirely different animal if you act, put on a voice, and read from a script for the first time. Oh, and you’re of course expected to knock it out of the park.
So how do you improve your cold reading skills as a voice actor? I have a few suggestions.
- Expand your vocabulary. Get a Word-a-day calendar. Learn how obscure words are pronounced. I love learning word etymologies because it helps me pronounce new words I come across.
- Practice natural speech patterns. Sentences are structured with innate pitches corresponding to the part of a sentence. You can pick up on this by studying grammar, and just practicing speaking.
- Read things out loud. Newspapers, magazines, internet articles, shampoo bottles—anything. Don’t stop reading out loud because, over time, you’ll get into a habit of expecting certain cadences of your voice while reading voiceover copy.
As always, a voice actor should be prepared to practice! That way, if a producer hands you a script, you can look at it and rock out with little more than a glance at the words. It will leave you free to focus on your acting.
Last week I talked about my experiences offering voiceover with Fiverr, and the response I got got me thinking quite a bit about how some prospective voice actors can get ahead of the cut. Some voice actors think the only way to do it is by having unbeatable prices. Yeah, maybe you’ll get tons of work, but how does that affect how you market yourself?
One of my site’s commenters, Paul Boucher, commented on it very wisely: “Unless you have the scale of a Walmart or a Costco, racing to the bottom is a loser’s game.” How true this is in a world of home voiceover studios. In theory, someone with a blanket and a laptop microphone could, perhaps, get voiceover work. but what is that work worth?
That’s where some good reinforced branding comes in. See, the biggest thing to remember when branding yourself is how people will view your skills and making sure that those skills have value. Some voiceover artists swear by the Union Rates card, but even this can be deceptive; a person doesn’t want to over-value themselves and lose work, but at the same time undervaluing themselves means that they can be detrimental to their personal brand.
I believe that personal branding is about investing in the things that make you valuable, memorable, and knowledgable. My business cards, for example, are personally designed with an original design, distinctive red edges, and a classy supergloss texture.
Meanwhile, on the studio side, I put my energy into creating a space with equipment and software to deliver a quality result. I have a home studio that I tweak to have a great sound. And most importantly, I practice and take lessons because the old adage of “practice makes perfect” ain’t just bunk. The best actors I know practice voiceover daily because, like any other skill, it diminishes over time if you don’t stay sharp.
All of this together, with a clean, navigable web site and a little charm, becomes a branding you can be proud to call your own. I believe a personal brand—which is not an option in today’s fast-paced, internet-stuffed, web-wide-world—should reflect not just who you are, but what you do well. If you don’t brand yourself well, people will asume that you don’t do good work.
Back to Fiverr: If you don’t offer work for a price commensurate to your quality, people will assume your quality is sub-par, even if it’s not. This is why people pay brand-name prices despite store brands, which are sometimes the exact same quality, being cheaper: not only is it recognizable, but it also becomes the ‘standard’ in quality and price. cheaper items clearly must be lesser quality.
The lessons to be learned here are this: brand yourself according to your quality, and price yourself according to your brand. A little good marketing goes really far.
Today I got an email. It was simple, short, and sweet:
I like your radio show, I think it’s really funny. I want to host a radio show, too, because it seems like so much fun.
Yes, writer. It’s fun. it has its moments. There are times when I get bouts of laughter in my studio so hard I can’t breathe, and times when I sit with other voice actors (Like my roommate Chris) and go back and forth with crazy voices in little improvised skits over dinner while my girlfriend rolls her eyes from across the room.
But like any other job, it has its not-so-good moments, too. Like any other job which you love and cherish, it has its highs and its lows. Louis CK had been quoted several times before on the value of patience and hard work:
Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.
A fantastic piece of advice for anyone at any stage, really. Some folks talk about the point at which they “made it”, but the reality is that it takes patience and constant hard work to get anywhere. Sometimes you have bursts of momentum, and sometimes it’s uphill.
For me, the decision to be a voice actor was a hard one and I can certainly say that at this point in my career I have not yet put by a penny. But if I might be so hipster as to quote A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, perhaps I’ve “put by more than money.” And yeah, I really do live for the moments when I have someone write me a letter, or ask me for a moment, because they appreciate something I do.
I know this probably seems a bit like a jumbled rant. The point, though, is that at this moment in my career I know that I’m gaining traction. I’m getting jobs that help upgrade my equipment. I get training from voice actors and I practice heavily. These are things anyone should do at any point in their career, to be honest. You have to, if you want to be competitive in a market where the microphone on a laptop and a blanket can get someone a Voice123 gig. But I sometimes get reminded about why I go through this, deal with the pain and hard work, spend my money on things, and sometimes exhaust myself in trying to reach out. I do it because sometimes, I can make an impression on someone. Sometimes I can bring a smile to a face.
One day I might end up a bigshot actor. Until then, I’m perfectly fine just giving it a minute.
Today is World Autism Awareness Day.
This is my brother, Daniel. Daniel was diagnosed with severe autism at a young age, and living with his has been exceptionally difficult. Up until the point where my family moved to Tennessee, where he currently lives, I have been a close to my brother, because as a special needs child he requires a lot of care.
Daniel does not speak much. He often communicates in broken english, mixes up words, and throws tantrums. The easiest way to explain it is that Daniel is a 3-year-old mentality inside the body of a middle-aged man.
Daniel does have some talents. One of his favorite things to do is draw; he has a very special talent for shape recognition and he often expresses himself by drawing logos, especially logos with high contrast and bright colors. He draws on manilla file folders, prompting my family to buy them for him by the box. He often draws a lot of logos, in the same way, in the same order, with minor changes. We can’t really explain why, exactly. as an example:
I love my brother with all of my heart. This, for example, is the reason why the proceeds from True Equestria Radio are always donated to the Autism Society of America, a group which helped provide Daniel with tools and give our family lots of support over the years.
If you have the opportunity, please take a moment and donate to the ASA to help people like my brother live fulfilling lives.
I often get told by prestigious voice actors that they absolutely cannot afford to get sick. I can understand that, given the fact that a sick voice actor out of commission could weak havoc on finding a gig.
This week I got a nasty cold. I also had my wallet stolen, but this blog isn’t about how terrible my week was–it’s about how I got over the cold. Simple: I practically OD’d on vitamin C. My go-to for a rush of immune boost if white grapefruit juice because, despite its bitterness, it has less sugar than orange juice and often has more vitamin C per serving.
Wash that baby down with water. You do drink enough water, right? Anyways, what could have knocked my voice out for a week was instead rather manageable. I hope, as the winter weather disappears around here I won’t be getting as sick as often.
I love conventions. It’s a great way to meet folks, eat expensive food, see people in costumes, network with professionals, and all that jazz. Plus, I often get invited to host panels, which is really just a blast. If you haven’t had the chance to go to any cons this year, I implore you to give it a try.
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