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When Sounding Too Pro Can Lose You The Job

By Stephanie Ciccarelli

November 29, 2010

Comments (12)

Authentic female smiling on the edge of a streetHave you ever thought of the potential ramifications of sounding "too" professional?

Even though you have a polished, trained voice and that usually serves as a benefit, sometimes you'll find that no matter how well you believe you did, the client would beg to differ.

Learn more in today's VOX Daily.

Pitching

A number of years ago, I took part in a competition where you had to do a :60 pitch for your company that outlined who you were, what you did and how you could help others. The pitch was crafted, memorized and timed to the second with the goal of winning or at least placing in the top 3.

Coming from a performing arts background, I thought this would be easy, and to a degree it was.

I practiced, (perhaps too much!) for this competition and took it seriously. As the last person to go, I tried my best not to forget any of my talking points and when it was my turn, took the stage.

At the end of the competition, the judges said that my pitch was the best they had heard all day! You'd think this would be a good thing...

When the winners were announced later on at a community event, you can imagine my shock and surprise at having not even placed.

What's Going On?

After pondering their decision and talking to a few people about what might have happened in the deliberation, it would have appeared that I sounded too professional and lacked a conversational approach. The pitch was too polished, too persuasive and not what they were looking for.

My performance seemed like it was being given to thousands of people from the stage and not to someone one-on-one in a more intimate speaking style.

It's nearly 4 years since this happened so I have the benefit of retrospect, and hindsight, being 20/20, can now see clearly why the judges were not prone to rewarding such gusto.

They didn't want to be sold, however, they wanted to be engaged. They also wanted to feel like they were the only ones in the room that mattered.

This Happens in Voice Acting, Too

I find that this concept and vocal delivery edges on a fine line in voice over, especially when you are recording a commercial or a piece that involves persuasion or the selling of an idea. Over the last three years, I've learned a great deal about the "real person" voice and the trend of speaking in a conversational manner.

People who come from a broadcast background in particular often struggle with sounding like a real person, that is, not falling back into their default announcer or on-air persona when interpreting a script.

Sounding like you are speaking to an audience of one, when in reality you're speaking to hundreds, thousands if not millions of people, is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.

What Do You Do?

How did you settle into your "real person" read? What do you do in advance to sound as authentic, personable and intimate as possible?

Looking forward to your response!

Best wishes,

Stephanie

©iStockphoto.com/quavondo

Related Topics: acting, authenticity, contest, pitch, read, real person, talent, voice overs


Comments


    Hi Stephanie,

    I enjoyed this thoughtful column--I gave a good deal of thought to this when writing and producing my Voices.com website demos, and ultimately decided to just be myself, right down to my greeting--when the prospective client tunes in, "what you hear is what you get." Now, this may not put me in the "Big Talent Pool" for the greater variety of VO opportunities, but it will give those discriminating, select clients the best of what I do, and who I am!

    Posted by:

      Stephanie:

      A wonderful and timely post, thanks for putting this out there.

      I'm a former 2-decade major market broadcaster myself that's transitioned over into full-time VO, who has to "undo" themselves from their previous vocation. I get that people like me sometimes have a bit of a transition to sound more "real", and depending on the copy, I'm luckily beginning to get pretty good at doing this fairly quickly, while unfortunately, many of my colleagues will try hard but won't get to such a place.

      What's extremely ironic is that in my previous life, I was well-known both in the public eye and in the those of management and consultants as being the one that was most "relatable" to the audience, mainly because I stuck to the notion that I was simply talking to one person, or 2-3 max. This isn't self-absorbed bluster or delusion - it was proven year after year with listener comments in focus groups and other audience studies, that my management was smart enough to pay big bucks for so we'd keep winning. It kept me on the air through more than several almost-total staff housecleanings, with the "relatable" factor being listed as one of the specific reasons for my survival. Then and now, I prided myself on having a real ability to connect to my audience (w/demos spanning from young kids to old timers), and the daily mutual feedback and conversations we had. Despite having an an unreal kind of job, I had a surprisingly real connection to our listeners; I was otherwise basically one of them and they knew it, and like all good air talents I capitalized on it, and repeated it successfully in multiple markets.

      Sure, at times I sounded like a "radio" person, yet my show was very phone driven and spoken in the same voice I'd use with my own family and friends, naturally resonant and loud as it might be at times - contrary to what some think, I didn't go to a school to sound like myself or try to sound like anyone else in the business....this is how I ALWAYS sounded since puberty! In fact, my teachers in school can probably be blamed, because they wanted me to "speak up!" and "don't sound so blah and monotone!" when I was reading my papers in class - the exact OPPOSITE of what's in vogue now (which begs the question: is this what today's teachers are asking kids for?).

      So having said this, it's a bit frustrating - sometimes to the point of being VERY annoying - to do an audition with a casting director who's barely old enough to be one of my kids (and mind you, I'm really not that old), who says I'm not sounding "real" enough, particularly when they want me to pitch a product that's obviously being geared to a demographic older than theirs. It's even more irritating to find myself into a competing audition scenario with other talents who either are or intentionally perform closer to their age and gives them the more current, young, and "hip" sound - a/k/a blah and monotone - which is of course commonplace but many times totally doesn't serve the product justice, or catch the attention of the target demo. Or they go with another older voice that's even more completely off the mark, yet still inexplicably gets the gig solely because it "wasn't too pro or polished".

      Best yet is the one I hear a lot of lately:

      "Hey, how you sounded when we talked on the phone earlier today was totally natural and we loved it - can you do it like that?"

      (argh!)

      While it probably sounds like I'm some old fart venting their spleen, believe me, I'm not. I've happily done very well in VO, often performing voice styles that are a couple decades below and above my own normal range. I'm well aware that there are many, many other voices out there that are much better for a job than mine, and I'm very happy that others are getting work - we have to for everyone to survive, and I'm really cool with that, and some really unique voices are breaking through both young and old. I love this side of the business far more than I ever did in broadcasting, and although the scope is a lot more focused and in some ways more competitive, the work is infinitely more satisfying at the end of the day.

      What I guess I'm getting at here is this:

      What I and many others would LOVE to see is something that quantitatively proves some of the trends that "natural voices are better" or "deep/resonant/louder/announcery voices like "so-and-so broadcaster/actor" turn people off" or.....well, you get the idea.

      I mean hard numbers.

      Photocopies of ratings, scores, paperwork.

      Actual studies from universities, or agencies, whomever.

      Old Powerpoints from marketing presentations from when the trend started 7.36 years ago...something!

      (Yes, I know some of this is sacred info they'd never intentionally release, but hey, look at how well WikiLeaks has done in recent days....)

      Back in the broadcast days, some of us lived and died off of something known as a "Q" score, and while some would question the methodologies/sample sizes/rating services behind them, these at least gave an idea of how well a talent or group of talents was trending that had a bit of math and science to back it up.

      It's well known that focus groups are still in use today on most major ad campaigns; I for one would like to see you guys dig into this in a future post with someone from a major agency or three and pull up some concrete numbers or other info that shows whether or not this is really factual, or a fallacy created by the latest generation of "young turks" entering the ad business who want simply to be iconoclasts, which is hardly a new thing (Tom Hanks starred in a whole movie about it called "Nothing In Common", albeit in a different medium).

      I'm going to sign this with a pseudonym, because unfortunately, a stigma has very wrongfully been attached to former "pros" like myself. I don't even mention that I was a broadcaster in my marketing for this very reason. It's really shameful we get scarlet lettered like this, because some jobs really need the experiences (and voices) that we have to offer...and if the casting directors opened their minds and their search net a bit, they might find they'd cast a lot faster and better, and we can often hash the job out a lot quicker and more..."professionally". Considering that speed seems to trump voice quality and ability a lot these days, you'd think they'd be more open to this, but then there's that budget thing, and that's a whole 'nother blog response.

      So what do ya say, Stephanie....how about a future post on this? For years, I've seen many comments online about the phenomenon, but nothing that specifically offers constructive advice on how to "solve" the "problem" of being "too professional". It's always derisive, "broadcast voices = "yuck, I hate them, they suck", but never anything that articulates the pros and cons of why being "too pro" is a bad thing....

      - Alan

      Posted by:
      • Alan Smithee
      • November 29, 2010 7:16 PM

        This happened to me once too. I tried out for a job narrating an instructional video. The production company loved it, but the client thought it sounded too "salesy." I had never heard that before...I had been a radio dj and done some infomercial work, where "salesy" was a good thing. So, now I practice sounding "real" and also go for "salesy" jobs, since that's what I'm best at.

        Posted by:

          It's so hard! Maybe it is the theater background.... maybe it's mic-ophobia! But what has worked for me is bringing in sounds that are not on the page-- um's/mm's/and all other non word utterances that people really do make (and VOs on the TV do as well!)

          Posted by:

            I see what you mean, but I come at the issue a little differently.

            Perhaps it's just semantics, but IMHO, one can never be too "Professional".

            Instead, I see these deliveries as "Radio" or "Announcer" or "Presentational"

            There are many ways to deliver any page of copy.

            Knowing what is required by the client is what makes one a "Professional".

            It can be conversational, character, guy-next-door, or even Captain Radio Announcer.

            Knowing the job requirements and how well you can adapt to them is the key...

            Posted by:

              Well, I still have a newbie's perspective and it could be relevant. First read - always straight from page: no read through, no marking up - just a discovery of this new material I've been given. Second read, always better for having developed the role, including background research. Third go is generally 'the one'. Fourth... no, by now it's sounding rehearsed, unspontaneous, too facile. Maybe on the long timescale a similar progression can occur, from rough to too smooth. I'm prepared to go on working and find out!

              Posted by:
              • Howard Ellison
              • November 30, 2010 10:59 AM

                Hi Alan et al,

                Thank you very much for your comments. You've all raised interesting topics and concerns as well as some excellent ideas!

                @Alan That is a topic I'd be interested in exploring further. Hard statistics would certainly be helpful.

                Any other thoughts or ideas?

                Best wishes,

                Stephanie

                Posted by:

                  Ever since I started doing VO, producers have told me they want the read to sound like a real person - they want an actor. OK, they're paying the bills, but then they hand you a script written for an announcer. *LOL*

                  Narrators/announcers and actors are like oil and water when next to each other in the studio. There are a number of YouTubes with well-known, big-time VOs working with actors and usually you don't even need a good ear to hear the difference.

                  That said, 80%+ of the media I hear uses announcers - not actors; perhaps they are actors portraying announcers(?).

                  I speak formally and professionally in my sleep. So I do what I do; my clients understand that.

                  Posted by:
                  • steve hammill
                  • November 30, 2010 2:42 PM

                    Great subject Stephanie.

                    This particular matter places me smack dab in the middle! Sometimes I think I’ve been cursed!

                    I’ve spent 30 years on-air in radio and knocking out production for both radio and TV. The biggest obstacle I couldn’t shake for a long time was not be able to sound like ”a regular guy” in commercials or other similar projects. People have always approached me saying I had a voice like an “announcer”, or, “you sounded like you were in the business.” What does that even mean? I wasn’t trying to sound that way! I thought I was just being articulate.

                    So, I really have to focus on thinking one-on-one, but more importantly how I wished, I would sound, as a regular sounding guy. Take comedian Norm McDonald, he sounds like a regular guy, and he not even trying. Although, I bet he could do a boss radio jock impression, and knock it out of the park. There lies my dilemma. I have to go to a different place in my head in order to to achieve a particular or typical style of delivery.

                    So,I guess you’d say I settle into my “real person” read thinking of Norm McDonald?!

                    Well, thanks again Stephanie, I’m looking forward to hearing from others whom have had similar experiences.

                    Best wishes,

                    Dorien Jaye

                    Posted by:
                    • Dorien Jaye
                    • November 30, 2010 2:57 PM

                      I'm just catching up on some of these blog posts and find myself a week+ behind here, but wanted to share on this one.

                      I'm frequently cast as the "real" person, the testimonial, and everyone's favorite: the conversational announcer. When the director or producer's notes say "conversational" I feel like that really means "bring it down a notch." You're not reading a spot into a mic, you're telling a friend about this cool new thing or idea, over the phone or with them sitting across from you.

                      When the copy is real announcer-y yet they're looking for the real person read, it helps to read into the script with a little throw-away line, like "hey you know that thing I was telling you about?" and then go directly into the spot. I also spent the first part of my VO journey on-air, but even then I always felt like I was just really excited to talk to one person about whatever it was I was saying. I think where ex-radio jocks go wrong starts with volume - drop your speaking volume a few levels lower than you're used to and see what happens when you tackle that "conversational" script!

                      Posted by:

                        Arielle, thanks for your comments, I'm going to try some of your tips!

                        Posted by:
                        • Holly Landau
                        • December 13, 2010 2:37 PM

                          Many years ago I did a job for a major product in their national T.V. campaign. When I got to the session, the script they handed me had absolutely nothing to do with the audition copy - by way of character or content. I was very puzzled by this. There were three spots. We knocked them off in short order. When I left, I stopped and asked the producer why he chose me to do those particular spots, noting that they were far afield from the copy I read at the audition. His response was succinct. He said, "I liked the way you slated your name."

                          Lesson: Don't sprain your brain too much over all these "tips" and "secrets" and "methods." You never know what will grab their attention. If nothing else, just spout out the copy as if you are saying your name.

                          Remember, the client wants to hear their copy as if you really care about, and know something about, what you are talking about.

                          I hope you feel that way about your own name.

                          Posted by:

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