Directing Non-Pro Voice Talent

by Rick Allen

Editor's Note: Although his own voice is seldom heard in his productions, when it comes to creating effective commercials and exciting station promos, Rick Allen (HOT 97, New York) is a voice of experience. While many know him for his high tech production style and trademark techniques, there are those who also appreciate the solid foundation of copywriting and well-directed voice talent that goes into each and every production. As a result of this balanced approach, Rick has earned local, regional, and national awards for his work. This month, Rick shares his philosophy on directing less than professional voice talent.

I've always felt two heads are better than one when trying to lay down the absolute best voice track. That's why I've always enjoyed directing voice sessions. There seems to be a synergy of voice talent and producer that delivers a more compelling "read" than an announcer can capture on tape alone in the production studio. However, anyone can direct great talent; but to mold a more than passable performance from Joe Average, that's a real achievement! The greatest "direction" challenge any Production Director faces is to get award-winning work out of the car dealer who voices his own commercials or the $500 cash winner who drops by the station to pick up her check. Naturally, it requires extra effort, but the results on the air are well worth it.

The first thing you've got to do is put yourself in the place of your non-professional talent. To him or her, what you do for a living is nothing short of glamorous. It is exciting, exotic, and more than a little intimidating. (If they only knew....)

So you begin by de-mystifying your profession. Even though it may be tough on the old ego, downplay those elements that make it seem "larger than life," concentrating on those that make it just another job in the eyes of your non-pro talent. The whole idea is to make what you do appear as if it's no big deal.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to casually chat with the talent for a few minutes. To get the ball rolling, ask questions that concentrate on the talent's experiences. "Is this your first time in a radio station?" "Is it like you envisioned it?" "What's the same?" "What's different?" Gradually steer the conversation toward his or her personal life. "What do you do for a living?" Ask questions and talk in a way that makes what they do seem important.

Take a few moments to explain what is about to happen. Again, you are unraveling some of the mystery that surrounds the inner-workings of a radio station. Build confidence by explaining that even pros make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes -- what they are used to hearing on the radio are finished spots, so they might assume that everyone gets it right the first time. You might even admit that it sometimes takes fifteen or twenty takes with a professional to achieve the "right" feel. (Leave out the part about wanting to kill said professional after the tenth take for wasting your time.)

So this warm-up isn't wasted time, I might casually begin to roll tape during our chat without bringing it to their attention, then ask them to read over the copy for me a couple of times to see if they understand everything and get a feel for the overall "attitude." I might get lucky and get that perfect, relaxed, "I didn't even know you were taping" read. If not, I've only burned a little tape.

Once I've begun to record in earnest, I let the tape roll throughout the session. I keep recording after flubbed lines and even chit chat briefly so they don't feel it's a pressure situation. I know it's hard to keep the talent relaxed, let alone keeping yourself calmed down when the reality is you still have hours of work left for the day. However, keeping them at ease is critical for getting a natural read.

By this time, I've sized up the talent's ability and style. Are they comfortable in these new surroundings? If a person seems nervous, I know I'm in for a little extra work and lots of edits. This is the person I often spoon-feed. I'll have them hand me back the copy and have them repeat the lines after me. Naturally, there are drawbacks to this approach. First, it creates more work for you, selecting and splicing the "right" takes together. This line by line technique also works well with children, as they are natural mimics and always surprise me with their ability to copy my inflection and tone. I also use this method for cutting short wild lines for promos. I'll speak the line I'm after, and the talent repeats it. It works every time.

With more confident talent, I have them continue to read from the script. I continue to talk with them about the "feel" of the spot. What's the mood? While the talent dwells on this, I'm evaluating the first read through. After a few takes, if I sense the talent tensing up, I'll have them read the parts that are trouble free and get a final take of these. Then we'll go back and tackle the tougher portions. You'll be surprised how much easier it is for a non-pro talent to perform this way. By the time we get to those parts originally thought to be "trouble areas," the talent's confidence level is at a point where it only takes a couple of tries to get it right.

A quick review of the key points for working with non-professional talent would read:

* Allow yourself extra time and tape.
* De-mystify your job/radio.
* Explain the recording process.
* Build confidence.
* Read through copy a few times.
* Identify trouble spots.
* Spoon-feed lines to tense talent.
* Take easy copy "blocks" first.
* Tackle trouble spots last.

No matter how hard you try, there will always be a few who, despite your best efforts and all the techniques you try, read with the energy level just above the threshold of death, or possess accents so thick you could cut them with your razor blade. For those few I'll simply say this: The only reason some people should get close to a microphone is to lean forward and say, "Thank you. Your total is $5.82. Please drive around to the window."

Remember, it's only radio. Do the best with what you have and you'll always be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, "sooner or later, this job is going to kill me."

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