The Myth of Conversational VO

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The Myth of Conversational VO

(aka. “Nobody Talks Like That”)

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A big part of the job of voice acting is auditioning. And a current trend seen in many auditions is the “Conversational” or “Non-Announcer” style. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see at least one audition request asking for that guy-next-door sound. A friend. A neighbor. BUT NO ANNOUNCERS!

Well, I’m here to tell you, friends and neighbors… there’s very little VO out there in the real world that would be mistaken for an actual conversation. Here are just a few examples:

Movie Trailers “In a world…”
“Jenny is just an average girl looking for love…”
“Don’t go in the basement!”
“Cutesey Cuddly Critters is now the number one film in America!”
TV Promos “Tonight on a very special…”
“It’s a competition where anyone can win!”
“Sunday – you’ve never seen the island like this…”
“If you think you know criminal justice…”
“Hear the tragic tale, and witness the family’s courage…”
Commercials “I just don’t know how I’m going to deal with all these doctor bills…”
“Sometimes, I just don’t feel fresh…”
“Hey, Ted! Got enough life insurance?”
Infomercials “But wait! There’s more!”
“And if you act now…”
“Take advantage of this incredible offer!”
Game Show /
Talk Show
“Heeeeeerrrre’s…”
“Show us the answer!”
“We got a good one tonight!”
“Let’s give a warm welcome for…”
Phone Systems “Your call is very important to us…”
“Have you visited our web site?”
“Someone will be with you shortly…”
Radio DJ /
News
“The Morning Zoo will pay you cash to listen!”
“Let’s go to Zeke for the traffic and weather…”
“Ya know, when I needed to lose some weight, I visited my friends at…”
Monster Truck /
Wrestling
“Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”
“Fire Breathing Maniacs in Nitro Burning Funny Cars!”
“Ladies and Gentlemen!”
“Oh, oh! He did not just hit him with that table!!!”
NPR /
PSA
“Funding for this program from…”
“Next, on trend talk…”
“We’ve only got a few hours left in our fund drive…”

You can see that none of the above would sound like an actual conversation you might have. I’ve even heard VO coaches teaching “Conversational” deliver, who still don’t sound conversational!

True conversational delivery does exist in VO, but is very rare in the commercial world. You can find it in some audio books and narration, where the performance is the focus instead of a product. Even animation and games can have true conversational style (depending on the genre).

So, why does the industry keep asking for “Conversational”, but making a final product that doesn’t sound that way? I think it’s more of a guideline than a rule. After all, you are still selling something. It’s hard to really sell a product with a true conversational delivery. If you heard an actual conversation in a commercial, you’d probably come away thinking “what the heck was that about?

Here are some of the reasons that we may keep hearing anything but “Conversational”:

Factor 1: Association

It’s much easier to sell something that already seems familiar to your potential buyers. It’s why package designs and colors for similar products have a similar look. And it’s why the VO in a particular category may have a similar sound. As consumers, when we hear “In a world”, we think drama. When we hear “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”, we think monster truck. It’s these associations that the ad industry takes advantage of as an instantly recognizable key to our brains. By the VO delivery style alone, we already have a lot of information about what it is they’re selling.

Factor 2: Mimicry

Humans are born mimics. We learn by doing. Want to be a carpenter? You learn from a master carpenter. Want to do movie trailers? You listen to trailers. (or if you’re lucky, study with a coach or industry pro). Styles persist, in part, because we as artists mimic what we’ve heard before. “That’s how it’s done, my boy!” From time-to-time styles will change. Some new delivery or idea takes root, and eventually, that segment of the VO marketplace transforms. Then the new style is the norm, and everyone mimics that.

Factor 3: Script

Every day, voice actors get directed to give a “Conversational” read, with scripts that are anything but. Phrases like “Hello, folks!” or “Introducing…” or “Act now!” are never heard in day-to-day conversation. In a way, this is related to both Association, and Mimicry. The people who write commercial copy are trying to get consumers to buy something. The style they use is based on styles they’ve heard in the past, and styles that work with the given product.

What’s a VO to do?

So, how can you handle the dreaded “Conversational” when you see it in the direction? Lean into it. Err on the side of “Less is more“. Relax. Try to talk to one person, even if the words sound a bit stiff. Talk about the product – don’t avoid it. And don’t force or push your delivery. It’s a subtle difference. Definitely walking a bit of a tightrope. But there’s a lot of work to be had if you can master it.

Let’s talk about it!
Joe

P.S. You may also enjoy reading these two articles:
The Human Copying Machine
Why Do News Anchors All Talk the Same?

 

All content written and voiced by Joe J Thomas online at: JoeActor.com

 

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26 thoughts on “The Myth of Conversational VO

    • Thank you, Bev. Really glad you enjoyed it.
      Sometimes we gotta play the cards we’re dealt.
      Always options in how to deliver copy, though.

  1. Very true! It is a tight rope balance to try to deliver a truly conversational read. I find I speak too fast when trying to do one, but I think most people speak fast when in a normal conversation and when you slow down your read, it sounds less conversational and more forced. The best thing to do I find, is like you said, just relax and try to deliver it like I’m talking to someone one on one. And if they feel it sounds too flat, then I just bring it up a little and add a little more of an announcer style to it and that usually works. Good article! I’ve often thought about the same stuff you’ve pointed out!

  2. …great article explaining the ultimate conundrum. There are absolutely NO commercials done in my style of conversation (and that’s a good thing), but it (conversational) usually means take the drama and bass outta your voice and deliver with inflection and personality. But then, REAL people have deep voices, too. As you say, Joe–‘it’s a subtle difference’…

  3. Really good article Joe. Over 12 years ago when I was casting VO for e-learning I was looking for a conversational delivery but it was hard to find. I decided to do a sample of what I was talking about so and created a very simple demo of what I thought was conversational delivery. Turned out that everyone loved it and they talked me into doing a ton of VO work for all kinds of narration projects. In time I started to slow my delivery down and I became self conscious about every phrase and word and guess what, yep, it started to sound terrible. I was no longer sounding conversational or natural. Now I’m getting back to just talking into the mic as though I’m talking to a friend. Sometimes I’ll even say someone’s name like, “Hey Steve did you know …”. It helps me start out with a more natural delivery. Sometimes we get so caught up in a technically correct delivery pronouncing every word and phrase with just the right inflection and tone that we lose the conversational quality.

    • Hi Robert – I use that same trick with the lead-in phrase. Get’s me warmed up to the copy. Kudos on finding a good way to get in the zone!

  4. Incredibly interesting analysis, Joe! I’ve wondered if one should develop that ‘generic’ tone that tends to land gigs. It’s persuasive, friendly, skilfully modulated and evidently shifts product – but to my ears it never quite sounds sincere. Maybe it is to do with that self-conscious thing Robert points out. Maybe the customer would disbelieve a speaker who professed to be utterly sold on a product.

    Talking of natural acting, Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner is in a category all its own. Total immersion of performers, minimised script – you get bound up in the creative reality of each individual. A must-see for every actor.

  5. Joe, this was a great lead in to my Monday for sure. I love your depiction of how they ask for a conversational read, but then write something that has no conversational feel at all. My 13 year old daughter gets on me the same way, when I ask her to read something more conversationally, and then complains that it’s not written in a way she would talk. Fine line to walk for sure. But that’s part of the challenge!

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  7. Joe,

    You know I’ve written about this several times, so it’s good to have a brother-in-arms, so to speak. LOVE the way you think!

    So funny, too, that all my news broadcast consultants say the same thing: “be conversational”…when in truth, that’s not at all what the audience expects, or the copy demands.

    Dave Courvoisier

    • Hey Dave… We’ve always been on the same page on this one!
      It’s pretty pervasive, but totally possible to bring some humanity to even the coldest copy 😉

  8. Hey buddy,

    So glad you wrote this. I was beginning to think that I was going crazy & that the copy must surely be written in a conversational manner if they want a conversational read. I kept thinking that I just didn’t get it. Now I don’t feel like I’m nuts or stupid. Whew!

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  10. Aye, there me hearty, Master Joe! (sometimes I address people like that in REAL life). Great stuff. Although this “conversational” thing has been around for a while, just take a listen to any VO from the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s and you’ll know how the “market” changes along with the generations. Kathy Kalmenson once said in a class that the next time you hear a friend talking about how much they love their kitchen/car/dog, stop and listen, because THAT is testimony, i.e. the real thing. And of course, as a VO it would be boring and you’d never get the gig. (unless it’s ether YOU or ME talking, Joe, ’cause we’re just so dynamic….). Bottom line for me….and as you mention….this stuff is part of the bizz and OUR job as actors is not to question it, but learn how to handle it. Playing a REAL person calls for REAL acting (especially for me, tell you what). Thanks, my friend.

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  12. I am having a challenge with people asking for “attractive” that could mean anything from the boy next door to a porno actor. Of course I am the boy next door porno actor, and I have convertible virginity. Virg on, Virg off! No Clapper!

    Its your best guess I suppose, but what about this? Attractive? What do you do with vague when your auditioning through the duck blind that some sites are.

    • Hi Gord – that’s a good one.

      I take “Attractive” to mean a pleasing voice and mannerism. Perhaps it would be better to think “nice” or “easy going”. Someone you’d enjoy talking to.

      My 2 cents,
      Joe

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