Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stop Talking to One Person

No really. Stop it.

I know I spend a lot of time on this blog talking tech. Honestly it’s easier to discuss than the art of performance. At the end of the day mics, mixers, preamps, compressors, booths, software, and MP3 delivery can all come be boiled down to some kind of math. We’re comfortable with that. We understand it.

However, this lopsided discussion is leading us to train voice actors who are less actors and more editors. They sound great! After a little software...

Open a discussion online about mics, and you’ll get a ton of varied responses from people trying out all kinds of gear. Open a discussion about the performance they’re trying to capture, and you’ll mostly get:
“I try to talk to one person.”
I hate this trick.

There. I said it. This is probably the most bullshit piece of advice we give new voice actors. It’s a lazy, overly simplistic, one size fits all nugget, and it’s a coin flip whether or not it’ll work in an actual casting or booked session.

On it’s face it sounds like good advice, but the main problem I have with it is we rarely equip voice actors to understand the “why” of it.

Why do we want you to speak to one person?

I’ll tell you, it’s because we want you to create an emotional response or relationship with the person listening to the performance. That’s why, but you’ll rarely hear anyone articulate that. To sell soap, you have to get someone to care (primary reason I hate the direction “throw it away” and NEVER use it). From a performance perspective, it’s a feel-good, method-y way to get newbie performers to think about their performance. Great.

It is not in and of itself a performance foundation. It is a trick. We’re trying to distract voice actors away from the words on the commercial copy page, and trick them into delivering an emotionally connected read. In my opinion this approach (free of experience and a background in other methods of performance) will fail more often than it succeeds.

First off, I often find that the actor’s audience selection is usually wrong.

During a recent one on one coaching, I was working with an actress on a piece of health care copy, about getting preemptive screenings. Each read was more antagonistic than the last, and all were at odds with the copy’s direction of “caring”, “concern”, and “empathy”. When I asked what was motivating her reads, she said she was talking to her sister. On playing back her takes, she was shocked to hear how nagging-ly she had delivered the copy, when in her mind (and heart) she genuinely cared about the audience she had selected. I think it was also a telling psychological peek into the nature of their relationship...

The idea that we each honestly have a unique person in our lives that we can pick as an audience for every piece of copy we read is unrealistic at best, and self-destructive at worst. The idea that we have to walk into every audition carrying THAT level of personal emotional baggage is exhausting.

The other problem suffered is the copy.

We don’t speak to each other “commercially”. If you’ve ever had to audition a wall-to-wall 60 second radio spot, we just don’t relate to each other that way as humans (and I’m ALREADY writing the follow up to this piece on “monologuing”).

Face it, you’ve never been motivated to share a brand’s message in an energetic and entertaining way (without sounding announcer-y) while using language like “introducing” or “presenting”, so why do we still hide behind the conceit that an audience of one is going to help?

I get it. It’s a way to shut up a question on performance, without the person feeling like their concerns were disregarded, and leaves the actor feeling like they’ve received some kind of sage advice.

But the truth of the matter, the peek behind the curtain, most of the successful commercial voice actors I work with don’t do this. They simply don’t consciously pick one person they know in real life to talk to during a commercial read. It. Just. Doesn’t. Happen.

So what advice do I have for informing a commercial read?

You’re probably not going to like it.

It takes time. Seriously. Use the trick as a starting point if you must, then over a period of time abandon it. Inform your own technique with experience, but run away from the audience trick as soon as you’re capable.

I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, and I genuinely do believe in his 10,000 hours to mastery hypothesis posed in his book Outliers.

The master voice actors I’ve worked with, those seasoned by time, effort, and experience, have all adopted a far more intuitive approach to their individual reads. Often it seems they’re developing an idea of their delivery before they’ve finished reading the copy, before they’ve even bothered to read the producer’s direction, and before they’re rationally analysing the copy.

They’ve been exposed to so much copy that the script analysis and performance sections of their brains can function almost autonomously. It’s a “feeling” based approach to VO we rarely discuss with up and coming VA’s.

They’ve also taken the time to calibrate their instruments. Again, an intuitive sense of:
“When I feel like THIS, people listening will feel like THAT.” 
They are never guessing as to the emotional impact they’re creating. They aren’t having to reference their reads after the fact to see if they’ve achieved the proper tone. They feel it when it works, and they know when they’ve missed it.

Rather than perfecting a trick, we should want to get to this emotional short hand. We want to cut out the middle man, and that can only be achieved with time and practice. Give it 10,000 hours of intense study (give or take a year or so).

For all the people I’ve taught, coached, and worked with, especially those only a couple of years into their voice over journey, this is almost always the leading issue I find with people who feel like they’ve plateaued.

Techniques, methods, and tricks are just the beginning. They are training wheels. Use them to find your balance, but eventually you must forge your own path.


  1. Very good read. I'm bookmarking this so I can come back to it as needed while I'm working to improve myself (which is continuously!)

  2. Greetings, Juan Carlos! Until I read this most insightful article, I didn't know why the instruction to speak to one person always bothered me. The example of the girl mentally thinking of her sister and sounding nagging really brought the point home.

    I haven't completed my 10,000 hours of mastery in commercial reads, but I actually will feel a little chill, or the hairs prickling on my neck, when I'm totally in the zone and emotionally connected to the copy. It doesn't always happen. Still, it's an excellent guidepost for me that I am creating the emotional shorthand you wrote about.

    When it does happen, I can tell you that I am not thinking of anyone in particular as the audience for the copy. If I'm conscious of my thoughts, I'm thinking more about the meaning of the actual words and how I might best convey that meaning.

    Thanks for writing such a clear and compelling article! This post is truly one of the best bits of writing I've seen that will aid my performance, and I intend to share it with other voice talent.

    Karen Commins

    1. Absolutely!

      To be fair, it's a difficult concept to get across to someone with zero performance experience. How we experience, how we feel our performances, how we give them life, it's challenging. VO is such an alien method of acting for most people that having a frank discussion about character and intention often takes a back seat to short cuts.

    2. I definitely understand how you feel. I was given the 'One Audience' trick more than once during some of my earlier training and it always came off as a bit unnatural, akin to juggling the proverbial balls of keeping my chosen person in mind and focusing on the copy in front of me... or, trying to at least.

      Really, what surprises me the most though is that this may only be the second or third time I've seen someone advocating what, IMHO, sounds like quite a basic, yet essential part of being a professional VA.

      With respect to SAG's original response though, I have to agree. More often than not, people like a defined and clear route to what they want rather than some age-old Star Wars wisdom like "trust your instincts".

      In hindsight though, is doing VO really that much different from talking to people? And when was the last time you ever consciously thought about how you were talking to anyone? Friends? Family? Acquaintances? Your dog even?

      Hrm... I really sort of doubt it. It's always been something that's come near as naturally as breathing air, and there's no secret trick or mindset behind it.

  3. REALLY interesting insight. I've always been taught that commercial copy had to relate to an audience of one, and that advice tends to diffuse the "announcery"/hard sell approach that many people give on their first take. I tell folks who take my Skype sessions that today's commercial copy is trying to relate to the audience and lure them in with a sense of familiarity.

    That innate sense of knowing when its right/wrong after a lot of experience is awesome, and its certainly what I hone in on in my reads. Beginners obviously can't rely on that since they don't have it yet. Here's hoping this will encourage practice/training. Kudos on this post!

    1. Thanks Kyle!

      It's fascinating looking at the difference between the end result, and what it takes to achieve it.
      Specifically, let's take a quick look at a car commercial. Often they'll discuss several different models of car in one spot. Every other sentence of the spot is a change of direction as the producers are trying to reach a broad audience with varying needs.
      So what ONE person would you use to discuss this car brand? Abstractly it doesn't make sense to stick solely to one person while you pitch a variety of products at them. That's actually what people hate about announcers, no emotional connection or relationship, not taking their needs into consideration, and blindly pushing products at them.
      It's impractical imo, to try and keep multiple people in mind during the performance (my aunt needs the sedan, my cousin the SUV, and my sister the compact), so instead our performance must be guided by something more abstract.

      Just as we have discussions like this in every other form of performance, so too should we expose new VA's to the same concepts.

      I LOVE throwing my coaching clients on the spot with stuff like this heh-heh...

    2. I agree, Juan Carlos, that there's no substitute for investing the time, effort, energy, concentration, and determination to become proficient in voice acting, or writing, or any other field.

      That said, I'm less inclined to discard the "audience of one" mindset as a helpful starting point. There is no need to assume that in starting here, one has parked his brain at the door.

      Most voice acting jobs do involve speaking to individuals. The act of listening, whether to a radio commercial, an audiobook, online instruction, a telephone message, or whatever, is highly personal. Intimate, even. If one finds it helpful to his performance to think of the microphone as the intended recipient's ear, or to imagine himself talking to a person, terrific!

      As with any tried-and-true technique, there are always exceptions. But these neither disprove nor diminish the value of the rule.

      Thanks for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read! Glad to have found your blog, thanks to the inimitable Bob Souer.

  4. Saludos Juan Carlos!
    I first encountered the, "Just talk to one person", approach in broadcasting school many years ago. The instructor described an FM personality who had this technique down, to the point that each person in a room full of people would feel as though he/she was being personally addressed. How did he do it? With a picture in front of the mic that looked not unlike your avatar! Commercials are, of course, an entirely different "story".
    Many thanks for this posting; I shall also pass it on to my colleagues - and especially to the prospective VA's who come to me for advice!

    Reuven Miller

  5. YES! I'm so glad I'm not alone anymore! I've always hated this rule because it's never worked for me. It's so frustrating. It's kind of like the "one size fits all" approach to teaching how to sound and act believable. Sadly, it's the most common but extremely ineffective for me. Thank you for posting this as it's only given me more motivation to use my own techniques for sounding real and believable.


  6. Agreed, 100%

    Outliers is a good read. The 10,000 hours rule of thumb is one a lot of actors just don't want to face. They'd rather be "discovered", or have "natural talent" Don't get me wrong - talent is a part of the equation. But you're not gonna make it without a lot of hard work. Period.

    Thanks for another winning post,

  7. Nicely put, and thoughtfully conceived. Thanks for posting. Personally, I've said to many wannabe voice-actors over the years that being good at VO is like playing an instrument - it's about phrasing, timing, mood, presence and the ability to listen to what else is going on. I mean, think about it - any player piano or a midi program can simply hit the notes in the right order. But is that... music?

    And, with VO, just like any instrument, you need to spend time developing your facility with it. Simply "having a great voice", does not necessarily make you good at VO - just as owning a Stradivarius, doesn't make you a virtuoso.

    André Bergeron
    Babble-On Recording

  8. Great advice!

    Like Karen I find that I just know when it I get it right... trying to analyse why or how too much puts me off.

    I would add ... Always prepare properly - exercise you voice, tongue, cheeks and lips, diaphragm, rib cage and keep your vocal chords in top condition. Practise sight reading aloud... record something every day.... and listen back with an unbiased ear. Get to know your limitations and be honest with yourself and learn to listen to your recordings honestly - try different ways of recording the same script to see what effect the changes have. Never settle for second best from yourself and never take your problems outside the recording space.

    Relax, learn to breathe. We can't all be good at everything... hard sell, soft sell, corporate, commercial, narration, long form, etc. know what you are best at and play to your strengths... but always look for ways to increase your flexibility and knowledge... listen to other people, listen to yourself and listen to your client. Don't rely on the technology to make you sound good... just learn how to sound good.

    Thank you audio guy.... for encouraging people to think more talking.

    Helen - posting from the UK.

  9. I'm so glad you are talking about this. In my first VO class that "IS" what I was told. Thanks for writing this :)

  10. You explained your point well. One person can give just, well, one perspective. I am no professional but I learned in a radio production class in college that voice acting requires versatility and one of the best ways to do this is to talk to more than one person/source.

  11. Brilliant. Fucking brilliant. The choosing of the sister make me laugh out loud. Thanks Juan!