Let’s start with the basics…
First, look at the specs (if there are any) and get a general idea of what they are going for; then give it your unique interpretation. Don’t say to yourself “I must give them exactly what they are looking for,” because most of the time the client doesn’t know exactly what that is until they hear it. So make that script come to you; read it the way you would like to hear it done, not the way you think the client would like to hear it done. This is a huge difference in the way one can audition. It gives you a freedom and a creative license that many other voiceover actors are afraid to own. A client is often depending on you to tell them how this script should sound. Let your confidence and creativity lead the way. Do not compromise on this issue and it will help you get work.
Now, look at the commercial in front of you. Does it have a time code at the top of the page? It’s usually on the top left-hand side, in the initial email, or in the specs. This tells you the timing for the commercial. It may say :15, :30, :60 , or maybe :50/:10. That means that the body of the commercial should be :50 with a :10 tag. What a great piece of information that is. This will help you with the proper pacing for your read. Are you reading a :15 spot but coming in at :28. Well, we know there’s something wrong with that. Or how about :15 for a :30-second spot? Hey, what’s your rush? The right pacing creates the right energy. Another huge clue for giving a script the right feel.
The next step is to read through the script for comprehension so you know what the spot is about. What is the specific attitude or feeling that is being expressed in the script? It’s going to be up to you to analyze the copy as if you are a pop psychologist, determining what the essential truth of the commercial is, and what the best way will be to communicate this truth. Doing this well depends on you listening astutely enough to know what that copy is asking of you. Is it a call to action? Is it a humorous anecdote? And how is this being communicated? With wry sarcasm, or with a warm, generous spirit? These are the decisions that will help you get a job. Delving deep enough into a script, knowing what you need to do to make that script come alive through your spirit, your energy, your mind, and your heart, is paramount to being seriously considered for a job.
I also look for misspellings and awkward line breaks (you’ve got to make sure the copy flows conversationally!), and natural places to breathe. (Sometimes I wonder whether there aren’t a bunch of little ad executive gnomes out there going, “Hehehehe, let’s make this really hard for them. We’re going to put in all sorts of odd line breaks that create these weird little half sentences all in a row, while at the same time having all these run-on sentences with no punctuation!) Seriously, what were they thinking!
Do you know the proper pronunciation for every word in the script? If you are in any doubt, please, do a little research. The last thing you want to do is mispronounce a product name, or for that matter, any word that a director will presume you should know. It can be a real deal killer. Does this actually happen? Unfortunately, way too often. People get scared to ask anything because they think it’ll make them look dumb, but what’s dumber than not asking and making a fool of yourself by getting a simple pronunciation wrong.
One of my favorite sites for hearing word pronunciation, both technical and otherwise, is howjsay.com. These days, any online dictionary site should give audio pronunciations along with word definitions, but at howjsay.com, typing in one word also brings up many words similar to it. You can learn a whole lot in a short amount of time.
The next step is to understand as specifically and completely as possible who your demographic is. Who are you talking to? Are they wealthy, middle class, young, middle aged, male, female, from the east coast or west? The more specific you are in understanding this (and there are always clues in the script) the better chance you have of booking the job. Take on as many of the particular demographic’s qualities as you can, so as to mirror the person you are ostensibly talking to.
Once I have completed these initial steps, I start reading the script out loud because it’s very important that you make the copy become a part of your own experience. You never want to go into an audition where you’re simply a voice that happens to be reading their script. They’ll hear that right away; that you don’t have any relationship to their product, their vision, or idea. Spend long enough with a script that it literally becomes a part of your own experience.
Sometimes you may get a script that has video panels on the right and audio panels on the left. A lot of auditioners don’t even bother looking at the video panels because they don’t think it concerns them. They are, after all, the audio portion of the script, right? Come on, you are a piece of the whole, and as such you should be familiarizing yourself with every part of the script. For instance, you should be saying to yourself, what image is appearing when I’m saying this particular line? And how can I help support this image with my voice without getting in the way?
Here’s another one on the checklist. Sometimes you will only be auditioning for a tag. The rest of the spot has already been cast. So do you only focus on the tag and forget the rest? No, although a lot of people do. You need to know the feel of the whole spot so that you can give the tag an appropriate attitude. Often, the first line of a tag is even referring, maybe not directly but definitely in tone, to what has just preceded it. How are you going to read that first line in the tag with, let’s say, a bit of sarcasm if you didn’t read the main body of the script to know that’s what it needs?
Look at the adjectives in the copy. They can be a huge clue to what the piece should sound like. If you see the words “clean and refreshing” in the script, and you know them to be important aspects of that particular product, then become the audio version of clean and refreshing. When I see the words “crazy” and “odd” in a script, I know that I can bring some of my own quirkiness to the read, or maybe go in the opposite direction and refer to these adjectives with a deadpan kind of humor that still gets the point across. Do you see what I’m getting at? I’m always looking for adjectives because those are important qualifiers. The copywriter has thought long and hard about using very specific adjectives to define their product. It’s up to you to bring these descriptors to life through onomatopoeia. (You should look that word up if you don’t know it already!)
Another thing I’m always looking out for are lists. Whenever you have a list as a part of a commercial, there are certain things that you want to do. You want to give each piece of that list its own little unique moment, so it doesn’t sound like any other part of that list. You also, at the same time, want to do what’s called a “build.” In other words, you’re creating more interest by “building” slightly in your voice as you’re giving each of these things it’s independent moment. So instead of reading it as a list which sounds boring and like you don’t care, you want to single out each wonderful part of that list and build the items in that list to create a sense of there being “more” with each successive piece in that list.
Look for the structure in a commercial. Is it a simple problem/solution type, does it use reverse psychology, or is it in a funny stand-up comedy style? Make sure you understand the flow of the script. Every script goes from Point A to Point B. How you get to Point B means everything, and will either put you in the running to get the gig, or leave you with the rest of the pack. When you’re telling a story to friends, maybe at a party or at dinner, you instinctively emphasize certain words to make sure your friends are following the point of your story, Emphasizing the wrong word sends your friends down the wrong road, and they’re going to be none too happy when you end up in one place and they’re in another.
Watch out for helping or auxiliary verbs like will, shall, may, might, can, could, must, and so on. They often look like perfect emphasis words (I mean, they are commanding words after all,) but more often they can be big traps that take you and your listener away from the flow of the story.
All right, the last item on this list isn’t actually in the script. It’s on your face. Almost every script whether it be commercial, narration, on-hold, or voice recognition needs some sort of a smile: a happy smile, a coy smile, a knowing smile, a sarcastic smile, a smile of authority and pride, a sensual, smoldering smile, or a simple honest smile. Unless, the script is asking for a slacker, deadpan read or a sarcasm bordering on Dennis Miller condescension, it always helps to smile.
Why? It creates natural energy and alertness; it creates an awareness of the moment, and, most importantly, allows play to happen. It puts you and the listener at ease. As fun and as easy as smiling is, this is the single thing I have to remind my students of the most. So put that on your checklist. Even if it’s not written in as a direct part of the script, it should arise directly from the script.
By the way, all of this stuff, if you practice a lot, will become second nature to you. I promise. Yeah, it’ll take a little while, but when you get all of this, you get it for good. And everything on this list will be doable in just a few minutes. And that’s exactly where I want all of you to get to. Happy analyzing!
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