Observation and experience. Think of them as twin muses.
When someone learns that I do voice overs, their first questions is if they’ve heard me anywhere. Good question. Have they? I have no idea what they listen to, though I usually answer that they probably haven’t. Most of my work is non-broadcast, so I’d be a little surprised if they were familiar with it.
The second question is about what characters or funny voices I’ve lent to projects, because most people identify voice overs with animation. Well, there I have something to answer.
I have yet to take part in a famous cartoon or animated show, but I HAVE voiced a talking goldfish in a pretty funny short film. Not your run-of-the-mill talking goldfish, either. Nope, this goldfish was the reincarnation of the owner’s overprotective, loudly critical mother who began nagging her son again right from where she had previously left off. Before she kicked the bucket as a human, that is.
It was a fun project. And creative. I mean, what does a goldfish say as it’s being flushed down a toilet? Spoiler: lots of gurgling and some rather foul goldfish language.
The follow-up question is how I come up with these character voices. It’s actually pretty straightforward: I look to real life. Though, in all fairness and honesty, my mother sounds nothing like that goldfish. She doesn’t have to. As a former teacher, she long ago got that “teacher look” that brooks no objection down pat.
Real life. It just makes sense to draw inspiration from it. After all, most stories are about human experience and are meant to reflect our own foibles back to us. Non-human characters like aliens, animals, and even inanimate objects are given real people personalities, often based on some of the unique folks around us. Goldfish too.
Draw on real life experiences to add color and depth to your story.
You don’t have to look far from home to find your characters
Great characters are hiding in plain sight. They’re everywhere!
Remember great-aunt Mabel with the throaty, husky voice sneaking around with you kids to indulge in her secret cookies stash? The stash the other grown-ups don’t know about because she’s supposed to be on a strict diet?
Or the guy you remember as your strict high school history teacher moonlighting as a bartender at a strip joint?
Not to mention the glad-handing neighbor who knows everyone and everything going on in your community and likes nothing better than to loudly express his opinions. Especially those that outrage the more staid types.
A treasure trove.
Inspiration for those personal, emotional reads
Our own experience helps us find the right characters to tell commercial and corporate stories, too. As a mom, even though my two kids are grown and mostly gone, I remember every parenting stage. From sleepless nights comforting a newborn to tearfully waving goodbye as my youngest goes off to college, these memories and emotions are right there with me. I feel right at home talking about caring for a sick child, finding a great time-saving device, or an easy way to get dinner on the table after a long crazy day at the office.
Even exasperating experiences can be used, like when I recently missed a flight due to ridiculously long security lines. Especially for voice overs needing a guttural cry of angst. I’ve got that one down pretty well.
It doesn’t have to be the exact same situation as a project’s subject matter. Just close enough to genuinely channel the emotion and perspective of “hey, I know what that’s like, I’ve been there, too.” We relate to people who talk to us from a real shared experience.
Fodder for work-related foibles
My previous career was in Information Technology. IT. High tech. Fortune 500 companies and rogue start-ups.
In other words, crazy new stuff happening all the time. Exciting ground-breaking technology. Mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies, clashing corporate cultures, the works. Whoever said business is dull hasn’t really lived it.
All that and more can and has been used in my corporate voiceover work. These projects combine lived experience with emotion. Like anticipation voiced in a new product announcement. Or the worry about shrinking financial margins – followed by a sigh of relief that help is on its way.
I have an affinity for videos focusing on technology, finance, and medical topics because that was my background and experience for many years. Especially for anything requiring some degree of mastery handling difficult terminology or the ability to clearly explain complex concepts to a lay audience. I know those corporate environments from having lived them, as well as the feelings and moods that you’ll often find there. It helps me more authentically narrate these business stories, because I better understand where the clients are coming from and what they’re trying to achieve in their videos.
It’s the same for anyone coming from a particular background. Who better to talk about services for veterans than someone who used to be in the military? Or a former mechanic narrating a documentary on the automotive industry?
Real life. It just makes sense to draw inspiration from it. After all, most stories are about human experience and are meant to reflect our own foibles back to us.
Relevance to current social issues
Our personal experience can also bring intensity to a topic that is meant to inspire people to action. Especially on social issues, whether that’s being a victim of prejudice, sexual harassment or senseless crime.
Nothing brings a story to life like the quiet intensity and emotion of someone who has lived it themselves.
As a young, rather naïve girl in her early 20s, I ran into more than my share of uncomfortable and sometimes downright scary encounters with sexual harassment. While at the time I wasn’t sure how to best handle the situation, I certainly do now, and that’s the energy and intention I bring to those kinds of reads. Anyone hearing those spots will certainly come away with the impression that it’s being voiced by someone who has experienced that problem.
Or by an expert who’s advising exactly how the problem should be handled.
Laura's Quick Tips
Find inspiration in the everyday world you live in.
Observe and borrow the quirks, habits, and expressiveness of interesting people you come across to use in your own work.
Bring your observations and your own experience to the work – make it your own! It’ll be that much more powerful when it comes from a place of authenticity.
Actors reflect back to society the world we live in, complete with all its joy, pain, and contradictions. Acting is truly about reacting: to the people, events, and happenings all around us, filtered through our own personal experience. This is what makes each individual performance unique – because we are all unique individuals, with unique filters and powers of expression. Want to give an inspired performance or voiceover read? Call on your twin muses of observation and experience and live your character’s life through all that brought you to the role.
Or in a pinch, ask a goldfish. I know one who’d be more than happy to tell you exactly how you should go about it.