The Difference Between “voice-over” and “voice-acting
In our workshops, we define "voice-over" as anything where you hear the voice but do not see the speaker. Technically, this is accurate and the definition covers the wide range of work that is typically considered to be "voice-over". In the strictest sense, anyone who can speak can do voice-over, but that doesn't mean that anyone who can speak has the ability or skill to effectively deliver a message. Every month I receive demos from "voice-over artists" who have recently completed a class and rushed into the production of a demo in an attempt to break into the business. Many of these individuals have some talent, but unfortunately, most have not polished their skills or honed their craft to a point where they can effectively compete. Occasionally, we'll receive a demo that demonstrates skill, versatility, variety and a level of professionalism that tells me the individual has made the transition from doing "voice-over" to performing as a "voice actor." "So," we hear you ask, "what's the difference?"
The difference can be summed up in a single word: "believability."
You can listen to the radio or watch TV any hour of any day and hear commercials that literally make you cringe. If you analyze the performance, most of these "bad" commercials have several things in common: they sound flat and lifeless, with every sentence ending on the same inflection; they sound like the script is being read; the performers sound like they are shouting or there is no clear focus as to who they are speaking to; the performer is talking "at" and not "to" the listener, or they are trying to talk to everyone listening at the same time; there is absolutely nothing interesting or compelling about the delivery of the message. In short, the performance lacks "believability."
Here's a simple way to determine if a performance is "voice-over" or "voice acting":
A "Voice-over" performance has one or more of the following characteristics:
1. Often "read-y" or "Announcer-y"
2. Content is information-heavy (primarily intellectual, often with many featured items) with little or no emotional content
3. The goal of the message is to "sell" the listener on something, and this attitude of "selling" comes through in the performance
4. The overall effect of the message is to create "audience tune-out" or in some way damages credibility of the advertiser
A "Voice Acting" performance has ALL of the following characteristics:
1. The performer creates a believable and real character in conversation with the listener
2. The message content is primarily emotional, with a single clearly defined focus
3. The goal of the message is to "tell a story" that the listener can relate to on an emotional level
4. The overall effect of the message is one of keeping the listener's attention and creating a memorable moment
There is certainly a place for "voice-over", and if done properly it can be quite effective. But good "voice-over" is usually done within the context of a larger performance or is designed for a very specific purpose, presented by a very specific character. The best "voice-over" is performed from a foundation of "voice acting."
Voice Acting is about creating real and believable characters in real and believable situations that listeners can relate to and be motivated by. To achieve this, the performer must be able to reach the audience on an emotional level. And as a performer, the best way for you to communicate emotion is to present the message (or the words in a script) from your own personal emotional experience. We all do this every day, but usually only in the experience of our own life. When we work from a script, we suddenly flounder: the words are not ours and the life behind those words is not ours. It's not as easy as it may appear to get "off the page" and speak from a written script in a manner that is natural, real and conversational. In order for us to speak those words from the point of view of a real and believable character, we must momentarily forget who we are and become that character. That's why it is vitally important to master certain basic acting techniques.
Learning the basic "voice-over" techniques for reading and interpreting a script are a good start. But don't stop there. Unless you already have some acting experience, simply taking a short workshop in "voice-over" will probably not give you the training you need to effectively compete and break into this business. If this is what you love to do, keep studying: take acting and improvisation classes; study commercials and analyze what the professionals are doing to create character and make their scripted words sound real; learn how to take direction; read every book on voice-over you can get your hands on; visit every talent website you can find and listen to the demos to discover what works and what doesn't; watch television programs about acting and theater (like Bravo's "Inside the Actor's Studio" on cable), and finally . . . take a few more classes.
Even if you are an experienced actor, you need to realize that the disciplines of "voice acting" are different from stage, film or TV. In all other forms of acting, your lines are committed to memory and you have time to understand and develop your character. In voice acting, you have only a few minutes to create a believable character, find the voice, and perfect your delivery as you read from a script. Someone doing "voice-over" will simply "read" the copy.
Voice acting is creative, fun and potentially lucrative - if you know what you are doing! Some professionals refer to voice acting as "voice-over work done for animation". If you look closely at what animation voice actors are doing, you will discover that they are creating real and believable characters. And isn't that what we need to be doing as we voice a radio commercial or corporate narration?
To be a successful voice actor, learn how to be natural, confident, real, and most of . . . believable.
James Alburger & Penny Abshire