What’s the Special Sauce That Makes Your Project Stand Out?
“Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.” Who else out there has that old McDonald’s jingle burned into their brain? It’s OK, you’re among friends here. We couldn’t get it out of our heads, we could recite it perfectly with our friends, and it gave the McDonald’s hamburger a certain je ne sais quoi. It didn’t hurt McDonald’s sales either.
Everyone for decades wanted to know what that special sauce was. Pre-internet, no one seemed to really know, and no one was talking. McDonald’s convinced us that it was the special sauce that made their burgers far superior than those served by any other restaurant chain. Actually, I think it was their marketing that did it. Plus Ronald McDonald the clown, free toys, and Happy Meals. (Later, it was also the store playgrounds, but this is not an article on McDonald’s marketing techniques, so I’ll leave it there.)
In the computer industry, when I was selling IBM’s hardware, software, and services, the special sauce had a much fancier name: the Value Add Proposition. In other words, the extra something that customers benefitted from that they may not be able to get anywhere else. It could be incredibly high and responsive customer service, an in-house systems engineer at your beck and call, or a very attractive long-term financing deal. Sometimes, the Value Add Proposition was what the supplier company built its reputation on and was known for to its loyal customer base. Other times, it changed over the years as products and services evolved with the industry and reflected what the company thought its customers needed most.
There’s a special sauce in the voiceover industry, too. Something that can elevate your copy with the right actor voicing the spot. I’m not talking about the basics, which any professional voice actor should possess: training, experience, or, if a home studio is required, recording and editing equipment and the editing skills to use them.
The voiceover special sauce is what enables a voice actor to really connect to the copy and bring it to life, so that we really believe the message and the sincerity of the speaker. Unlike McDonald’s special sauce, it’s not just one thing that an actor does that makes the connection. There are plenty of methods that talented and experienced voice actors use to understand and clearly and authentically communicate the client’s message to its audience. And the client often uses the auditioning process, plus the voice actor’s demo reels, to discover which of the voices they like best truly connect with their script.
When all else is equal, however – when the client just can’t decide between so many great voice options - there may be one additional factor that should be considered. And this special sauce is the real-life situation, background, or work experience of the voice actor.
Oftentimes, voice actors naturally gravitate to a genre that is familiar from other experience. Current or former business men and women, like myself, can be quite comfortable with the message and tone of corporate narration or explainer videos. Teachers discover that their in-classroom skills give them an extra authoritative boost in virtual classrooms, a.k.a. eLearning projects. Healthcare professionals, especially doctors, have a much easier time wrapping their tongues around medical terminology that could cross another voice talent’s eyes. This does not mean that others without this direct experience couldn’t do as terrific a job, but it may lend an edge in the auditions submitted by those that do. A greater understanding, fluidity, or conviction may come through that the client recognizes and believes that their audience would, too.
When given the opportunity, voice actors can note this relevant background information with their audition or on their website. There have been numerous times when I’ve auditioned for a project that just seems to scream my name. It ties in with my experience as a mom, my love of a particular store or brand, a place that I’ve actually spent time in, or is full of complex IT terminology and concepts that my background helps me to understand and relate to.
So what should a client consider when trying to pick the right voice for a particular job? Narrowing down the selection often follows these steps:
1. Has the voice actor followed directions? If they haven’t followed the audio file naming conventions, slated (or not) as instructed, provided the proper number of takes (if requested), or even met the deadline, they may not prove reliable in a recording session.
2. Is the audio portion of the audition itself of professional quality? Thanks to the pandemic, voice actors are expected, more than ever, to have home studios. The audition should be clear, voiced at a reasonable volume, without background noise or extraneous audio intrusions.
3. Did the voice actor follow the specs and deliver the type of read requested? Or at least provide one read that did, while allowing a second to demonstrate range? This shows that the actor understands the purpose of the spot, as well as the willingness to follow directions, either on their own or in a client-directed session. And the ability to show range is a pretty good indication that they can deliver plenty of great options for you during the recording session.
4. Does the voice match what you envision for this spot? Or perhaps gives you a different or better idea of how the script can sound? This is what most clients are listening for and is the most important. It takes a while to get through what could be hundreds of auditions, but you’ll recognize those that seem to hit the mark.
5. Now comes the tough part. You may have eliminated 90% or more auditions and the remaining 10% all sound great and could easily do the job. So, here are a few more considerations, including that voiceover special sauce:
Check out their websites, demos, and other work. Is there something else in their voice that you really like or that could lend an extra boost to the finished piece? Perhaps there is something in their personality that comes through from their audition, website, and demos that really seems to resonate with your project.
Have you had prior experience with the voice actor, either from prior bookings or auditions? Sometimes, it’s easier to turn to someone you already know and trust can get the job done for you. But if you’re looking for a new voice or one that’s less used, read on:
What’s their brand or persona? Does it fit with your company and this particular message? If a project stands to gain national exposure or if the actor will be the voice of the company, clients will scour social media to make sure that actor aligns more or less with their values, or at the least will not be an embarrassment to them.
Does the voice actor appear to be ethical, reliable, easy to work with and direct, and interested in pleasing YOU, their client, with their performance?
With all else being equal, is there something in the actor’s background or life story that resonates with you? A real police officer talking about public safety. An engineer describing the mechanics of an autotrain system. The real-life grandpa talking about the good ol’ days when he had to walk 10 miles to school, in the snow, uphill both ways … you get the picture. Real experience may be enough to tilt the scales in an actor’s favor.
Realistically, at this point, if you’ve been specific about describing the type of voice you are looking for and have priced the job fairly, you’re left with some pretty amazing choices. In the end, go with your gut. Or collective gut, if you’re voting by committee. There are so many wonderful people who have worked and trained hard in voice over, and can do a bang-up job for you. But keep a file of those who were not selected in the final analysis. Chances are that they could be perfect for a future job. Next time, you may decide to reach out to them directly to ask them to audition, knowing you’ve already vetted them once.