Good Ads, Bad Ads

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The art and craft of great voiceover technique

Let’s face it, not all ads are memorable. Not all ads are well written.

As a voice over artist you will have been faced with your share of both the good and the bad. If you’re just starting out in voice over, you need to know that it just comes with the territory. Understanding the process the script goes through before you see it can help you turn a bad ad into a good ad and a good ad into a great ad?

It’s true, not all ads are great ads. In fact, many of the commercials that are cast every day are pretty average. They’re often written in ‘announcer’ style, heavy on information and light on creative content, designed just to get the information and the message out there. There are usually a couple of reasons for this. One reason is time. The other is budget.

These days a great deal of short-shelf-life advertising is done direct from radio stations. They are incredibly busy producers of commercials. Often running two production studios in-house, the top rating radio station in any city, usually a talk station, can produce over 100 ads per week and even music stations, targeting a particular age and gender demographic, keep churning them out day after day. It’s how they survive. Without advertising revenue, it’s goodbye radio station.

There are many excellent copywriters working in radio. I do a lot of work, and some of my most enjoyable, at radio stations. However, copywriters and radio station sound engineers are often hamstrung by the enemy of good creative process, both ‘time’ and ‘budget’. Let’s have a look at a typical radio station scenario and the issue of ‘time’.

The client, Bob’s Tyres, has just called the station because Fred’s Tyres down the road is having a sale this weekend and now, they want one as well. It’s Thursday lunchtime and they want their sale to begin on Saturday. Scripts must be on air Friday morning, which means they need to be recorded that very afternoon…and the client has sent through a 30 second script that he has written himself. Eeeeeeeeek!

Unfortunately the script is overwritten by about 5 seconds, the grammar is bad, there’s no punctuation and absolutely no creative content. There’s not much time to do anything about that and anyway, the client likes it just the way it is. Double eeeeeeek! The copywriter calls the studio to see how they can fit the recording in. They can. It’ll be a squeeze but it’s all in a day’s work for the engineer.

It’s is all in a day’s work for a copywriter as well, with little or no time to be creative and a deadline that has to be met. Now let’s look at the other problem, ‘budget’. Because there’s very little budget for this commercial and the copywriter already has a full day… and so does the studio, all he or she can do is to polish the script without removing the words that carry the message. Some small changes are made, and the client has approved it. It’s now just after lunch and the script must be recorded very soon.

Just as well there’s a voice artist coming in, who would be able to ‘save’ it, that is a voice who can look at the script, size up the message, adopt a positive attitude, create an engaging read and solve the time problem, all in less than five minutes . Phewwwww!!

So, as a voiceover artist, if you’re ever in a radio station and you’re suddenly thrown a script that is all of the above, there’s no point wasting time decrying its lack of creative content, it’s your job to quickly work out what the important message is, get out of the way of the average writing and deliver it with as much love as you would the best script you’ve seen all year.

This is probably not the kind of work that ill end up on your voiceover demo, but it’s the kind of work that just might pay the mortgage every month.

Then there are some ads that are pure gold, great concept, classy writing and great characters. In fact character and character driven commercials are often the ads that get talked about for years. Not only that, lines and phrases from these ads become part of our language and advertisers know that when this happens, their advertising has worked. It’s often the stuff awards are made of.

Here’s a typical scenario for recording a commercial where there is both the budget to create a great ad and the time to do it in. When you’re booked by a mainstream studio to do an ad or a series of ads for a campaign, it’s almost always from an advertising agency. And you can bet that the words you see on the page are all there for a reason, that each piece of punctuation is designed to help you understand the rhythm and meaning in the words and it’s written to run to time. You can also bet that this copy has been back and forward from the agency to the client several times and absolutely reflects the advertisers branding and positioning, and the market they wish to reach.

To have been booked for this job, you may have been through a casting process that you didn’t even know about. Your voice may have been submitted for this job a couple of weeks ago, along with a selection of other voices who fitted what the agency was looking for. The studio may have sent the agency a snippet from your demo, a read that reflected a style or type of voice they were looking for. Then the casting options would have been discussed. Some voices may have been eliminated. You and some others may have even been asked to go down to the studio to record a submission track, so all involved, agency people and advertiser, can hear your version of it, hear what it sounds like ‘off-the-page’ and, once again, what their casting options are.

This is often a common scenario in mainstream advertising. Advertisers and agencies alike are looking for a stand-out performance to match the time, effort and budget that goes into producing high standard, quality advertising.

Doing a submission, an audition basically, is your chance to show what you can do. The producer or copywriter from the agency will give you a ‘brief’, that is an outline of the story in the script, and what they are looking for or think they’re looking for.

You need to be confident enough to ask to spend some time with the script to really understanding its meaning for yourself and you need to feel free to ask any questions of the script that you need to. You need to be relaxed enough to hear and take direction. You also need to be playful and spontaneous enough to offer performance suggestions.

Never offer to make changes to the script by the way. Given what I’ve just told you about the writing process that would be considered very poor form indeed. If something sounds wrong, once the words are being heard, someone will notice soon enough. Until that time, it’s up to you to find a way to make the words work.

When you are working in a studio with a beautifully crafted script, you need never feel that there are time constraints. There aren’t. I am often asked the question, “How many takes are you supposed to do?” Well in a session like this, it’s simply your job to enjoy the process of creating a great read for that script, no matter how long it takes.

So, in your life as a voiceover artist, you may find yourself in either of these positions. They each have their own set of challenges but they are both reflective of the kind of situation a voice over artist needs to understand when they’re out there in studio land. Don’t forget, if you want to do some practice and get the goods on techniques for making sure you know what to do in any studio situation, sign up for one of my monthly ‘One Day Studio Intensives’. Happy Voiceovering!!!