Voice-over scripts. Whether they’re auditions or gigs, our job is to make them sound as amazing as we possibly can. In theory, this sounds easy. In reality, however, you’re going to get plenty of scripts that are just okay. All scripts—even great scripts—need a little VO magic to sound great. Scripts that are just okay (or worse) will need even more of our magic to sound amazing.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind, especially as it concerns auditions:
If you get a really great script, chances are that most people will sound decent reading it, even those with little experience or little training. That makes the competition a lot stiffer. So, you’ll thrive in voice acting if you can make an ordinary script sound great. You’re going to stand out in your VO auditions for all the right reasons. You’ll also become your clients’ go-to person because they’ll know you can turn their blah scripts into truly engaging content.
Keep in mind, the tricks I’m going to share with you work even better when combined with script analysis skills. These are skills you’ll learn in voice acting coaching, voice-over training, or a good acting class. For instance, you’ll learn to recognize what’s important in the script, what’s not important, and what type of script it is. This all helps you know where in the script you should use each of the different tools we’re going to cover. Now, if you’re just starting out, you might not have any script analysis skills yet, but don’t worry! You’ll still be able to play around with these techniques and have a lot of fun with them.
The important thing to remember is that these hacks are designed to replicate natural speech. That’s what makes scripts sound better—and it’s what most clients want. So, keep that in mind as you’re playing around with them.
Hack number one is pauses. Pauses are really, really important. I’ve talked about this before. Many people just record their voice-overs—whether for auditions or jobs—as wall-to-wall words. In real life, we don’t speak like that. We put pauses in all kinds of places. It’s important to replicate that in your performance.
Pausing also helps to draw people in. It gives them a moment to understand that something’s going on and that they need to pay attention. Here’s an example. It’s a video game script with a reply to another character. Most people will read it just like it’s written—without any pauses:
“What’s going to get harder? I just fought a walking pair of teeth in a giant battleship stuck on a mountain. I’m not Tom Cruise, you know. I act. I leave that stunt shit for the stunt people.”
Without pauses, the dialogue doesn’t breathe. We don’t have time to understand what’s going on, and we don’t talk like that in real life.
So, let’s try it this way [slashes indicate pauses]:
“What’s [slight pause] going to get harder? / I just fought a walking pair of teeth / in a giant battleship / stuck on a mountain. / I’m not Tom Cruise, you know. I act. I leave that stunt shit for the stunt people.”
You can add pauses in the middle of sentences, between sentences—all over the place. So, go ahead and play with pauses and see how it changes the script.
Hack number two is pacing. Once you decide what’s important in the script (and what’s not important) you can slow the pace down to emphasize the important parts—and speed up the rest. Let’s look at an example. Slow down on the bold words, and slow down even more by putting slight pauses in certain areas:
“Remember shopping before / Amazon? Hours of driving from store to store, fighting crowds and still getting limited options. Amazon replaced all that with a simple / effortless / experience.”
We use pacing all the time when we speak in real life. Sometimes we Talk. Very. Slowly. to emphasize a point. Sometimes we talk very, very quickly. We can replicate this as we read our script.
Hack number three is the dramatic build. This is another technique we use in regular speech—usually when recounting something that happened.
“I went to the grocery store, and then there was this guy in line, and then he lost his wallet, and then everybody was backed up, and then it caused this big kerfuffle, and…! Oh my God, it was awful!”
With each phrase, we’re building upon the last one. For instance, we may get a bit louder, or higher in pitch or intensity, as we tell the story.
We usually use the dramatic build in scripts where there are lists. Sometimes the lists are obvious. Sometimes they’re not—they’re hidden in the script, so we first need to find them. Lists are usually found in scripts like commercials, manifestos, or narrations that are promotional in nature. But they can be found in character lines too—like I said, we use builds in real life. Sometimes we use it when we recount a story to someone. Here’s a commercial with a three-item list and a sort of conclusion at the end.
“It’s a story about a woman who uses trash to power her car [building…]
An urban legend about a guy that saves another guy by airlifting him to a hospital [building…]
A myth about some kids who stole a rocket and flew to the South Pole. [end with higher pitch or volume]
[conclusion] It’s all of these things / and more.”
As you can see, this is an opportunity for a dramatic build. Now, often when we have a build, we’ll also have a conclusion. To emphasize it, we can play with the pace so that the list goes fast, and then we can put a big pause just after the list (right before the conclusion), and then say the conclusion slowly. It makes the whole section fun to perform and—more importantly—a good dramatic build is fun to listen to. It also draws people in and helps to make the content clearer for the listener. This is just one way that dramatic builds, pauses, and pacing can work together.
Hack number four is to enunciate less. I know this is a tough one for the pros out there. Announcers who record e-learning, medical narration, or perform at live events are used to enunciating strongly, because it’s important for their audiences to understand what they’re saying. There may be listeners for whom English is not their native language, and clear enunciation helps everyone understand. As such, clients in those sectors typically want good enunciation. So, of course, enunciate well for those kinds of scripts. However, when trying to replicate natural speech, we’ll enunciate a lot less. In natural speech we selectively enunciate.
For instance, (in standard American English) we don’t say “written” like its spelled, with a clear “t” in the middle. We say “wri’n,” substituting a glottal stop for the “t” sound. We don’t say “visit him” with distinct “t” and “h” sounds, we say “visidim.” So, this trick is to make the script as much like spoken language as possible. That means you’ll also be shortening words. “You are” becomes “you’re”; “they are” becomes “they’re”—things like that. Note that you’re not speaking at a faster overall pace: you’re just shortening certain words and sounds. Let’s look at a script that isn’t written in natural speech. Giving a little less enunciation makes it sound a little bit more natural.
“This video outlines biosecurity measures to implement on your site when you suspect you have a foreign animal disease.”
You can make some of those t’s (the ones in bold) more silent. And you don’t have to say each word exactly as its spelled. In “suspect you have a foreign animal disease,” blend the words together naturally, like “suspec-chuh-ava-fori-nanimal disease.” Skip over those little sounds and spaces the same way you would in real-life speaking. It comes easily enough when we’re talking casually with friends, but it’s something we have to work on when recording a script.
Grab a script, record it the way you’d normally enunciate, and listen. Pay attention to the areas where you could enunciate even less. It takes practice, but it’s a wonderful tool to help you sound more natural and conversational.
Number five is attitude & point of view. Some people think these are one and the same. I like to think of them as two sides of the same coin.
Here’s an example. A director might ask you to read a script with a playful attitude. Or, if they come at it from point of view, they might ask you to read a script as if what you’re talking about is really, really fun for you. Like, from your point of view, you just love it and are entertained by it.
As far as performing, use whatever elicits a bigger response from you. I personally like to get more specific, so I respond to “point of view” more than to general “attitudes” but then again, it depends on the script. In the next one, for example, the clients required a playful attitude because the voice actor is personifying a hotel, a Vegas hotel. So, obviously, this direction made sense, right?
“So, I want to be transparent. I like to have fun. I’m what you’d call a live-it-up kind of hotel. I’m looking for someone who enjoys bright lights and wild parties because I host a lot of them. I mean, I’m in Vegas—go big or go home! I’m not looking for anything serious, just some late-night fun and very lazy mornings. Think you can keep up?”
Try to use attitude & point of view in everything you read, because it’s what makes the difference between someone just reading and someone injecting a little bit of themselves into the script.
In the same vein, you could take it a little further and have a different attitude / point of view (or intention, as we call it in acting) for almost every line. This would make every line a little bit different from the rest.
For instance, here we have three lines, and they can all be said somewhat the same. For context, the character is lying—what they’re saying is not the truth.
“We watched TV. Modern Family probably. We love the reruns.”
You can say this with a single attitude and get away with it.
But you could also carve it up so there’s a different intention for each line, and now it becomes even more interesting. For instance, in the first line you might be coming up with your lie. In the second, you’re trying to sell it to me. In the third, you’re trying to get me off your back.
The slight differences in the three intentions make the script come alive.
The last hack for today (there are others too) is improv. I’ve talked about improv before. It’s critical because we’re not rehearsed when we speak in real life. We often don’t know what we’re going to say next. So, it’s great if we can bring that sort of energy to a script.
It’s very helpful to improvise in auditions. Sometimes, the client is even hoping you’ll improvise with their script—either because they’re not completely happy with it or because they appreciate your skills and want to leave you room to play, to see what you’ll do with it. If you’ve ever been interested in improv, go and get that training. You won’t regret it! It’s one of the most valuable skills for voice acting and voice-overs.
Here’s an example of how you can improvise without changing the script. It’s a TV commercial—and it’s rare that we can improv for TV, but this one is conducive to it. Basically, it’s an announcer who’s describing a scene on an airplane when they get distracted by food. So, the commercial is selling a food delivery service.
Remember, the copywriter spent a lot of time writing the script, and you don’t want to offend them by changing it completely. The goal is to add a little bit of your own energy and your own twist to it.
(Note: Gyro is pronounced the Greek way: YEERRO, with a roll of the R.)
VO: Up here, the sky’s the limit. [Improv: use your big announcer voice]
(We cut to a man in his economy class seat unwrapping a gyro.)
VO: We believe in the miracle of gyros. [Improv: here, put a pause after “of” and a big refreshing “Aaaaah!” before “gyro” to underline the fact that you just saw that gyro. At that point, stop using the announcer voice because you’re now just too excited about gyros and you have trouble keeping your professional announcer demeanor.]
(VO repeats themselves a little faster realizing they’re hungry, as we stay on the man, now eating the delicious looking gyro.)
VO: We believe in gyros. [Improv: pause here before “gyros,” and say “gyros” as if you’re just realizing you believe in gyros.]
(We now cut back to the earlier typical Airline commercial imagery, the VO completely breaks character and protests.)
VO: No……NO, NO! Go back to the gyro! [Improv: add many more no’s and some stuttering on “Go” as if you’re so excited about it, you can barely speak.]
(We cut to a shot of the captain of the plane standing in the aisle smiling and waving in slow motion. The VO, still breaking character, starts mocking the shot of the captain.)
VO: Boooooo, this guy isn’t a gyro. Boooooooooo! [Improv: add “Boo boo boo all over you!!” at the end of the line.]
(The VO is now yelling, completely unhinged.)
VO: Give me the gyro! [Improv: elongate that “o” in gyro at the end, like a child having a tantrum.]
(We now start seeing gyros everywhere. The VO is now chanting.)
[Improv: yell GIMME THE FRIKKIN GYROOOOOOOOOOOOOOO after the chanting and move away from the microphone as you do. (We’ll go over mic technique in another article).]
Obviously, you could do something different, but the point is not to alter the script till it’s unrecognizable, but rather to add to it, so that it has more of your natural energy in it. In real life we’re unique, unrehearsed, unscripted, and any time we can bring that same energy to our performances, it’ll make the script sound so much better than the plain written text.
I hope you enjoyed these six VO performing hacks to elevate any script you receive and make it sound better. Stay tuned for my next article about microphone techniques and how those can help you improve your performance even more. In the meantime, check out my article about ways to vary the second take of your auditions (you are recording two takes, right?)
Whatever you do, remember that the goal is always to sound as natural as possible. Clients just love it when you breathe life into a script.
Tell me about your favorite hack in the comments—I love interacting with you and getting to know you. On that note, I’ll see you next time!