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How do you read for Commercials? (Part Two)

Randall Rensch

NOTE: This is the second post in a two-part article. To read Part One, click here.

In Part One, I observed that there is no one way to read a commercial, because there is no one type of commercial. And if there were a “standard way,” that would make commercials pretty boring, wouldn’t it?

But there are some standards that talent in this genre should understand, and generally adhere to. Among them is the recognition that a commercial’s ultimate goal is to sell something. Add to that the probability that the listener doesn’t want to be sold; in fact, the listener probably doesn’t even want to hear the commercial and may be listening with half an ear at best.

As we continue our list from last week, that’s where your special skills come in.

Clients know what they want. And they don’t. When casting a commercial, there will usually have been some discussion of what sort of voice to use. Male, female, younger, older, gruff, sweet, resemblance to a celebrity, English accent, whatever. Despite the now long established trend to casting “real person” voices, sometimes the client will expect a goldenthroat. Everybody involved in the casting decision will have an sound in their head. Thing is, they haven’t yet heard you. Often the talent who gets the job is the one who shows them a quality they hadn’t anticipated, one that will enhance the message, flatter the product, and help make the commercial stand out. Good producers and successful talent recognize this fact.

You were chosen because you’re good at your role as a voice artist. Fundamentally, your role as a voice actor is to act, contributing whatever acting qualities might benefit the creative and communication process. But under your voice-artist hat is a brain. If you have a recommendation regarding a technical aspect of the script, that cannot be resolved by adjusting your performance, you are allowed — even expected — to voice your professional opinion. Tactfully. See the next point.

Don’t disparage the copy. Never say something like, “Who thought up this strategy,” or “This copy is unreadable.” The strategist and/or the copywriter is probably there in the room, or might be listening unbeknownst to you. (And, anyway, such extreme judgments are unbecoming to you.) Your thought probably won’t be so extreme (e.g., “That’s a bad word choice”), but still keep it to yourself. Even if you say it humorously, it might not be taken that way. Often it’s best to keep such thoughts to yourself, or wait and maybe the issue will become moot. If you must say or correct something, instead of disparaging, find a way to “make them think of it,” or phrase your thought as a question that embarrasses neither you nor the client.

Sometimes the goal is not to sell the product, but the client. Hopefully you won’t be doing a lot of local radio spots (the budget is miniscule and the script quality is often dubious), but it might be instructive to know that that sometimes the client is selling — himself. If, for example, he’s a car dealer, sure, he’d like to move new cars, but maybe he mainly wants his friends and business contacts to hear his name on the radio. Case in point: Once upon a car-advertising season, when I’d written every possible car dealer angle I could think of, the radio salesman said, “He just wants to hear his name!” So I worked the owner’s name into the script as many times as I could. It was an unusual name, repeated ad nauseam. The spot said virtually nothing about why to buy a car from his dealership. No matter; the advertiser loved it. (I’ll say this much: it did break through the advertising clutter.) The upshot for you as talent: Know your client, understand the marketplace, and meet the needs of both.

Speaking of clutter, find a way to surmount it. Copywriting jobs are won and lost depending on a copywriter’s ability to create “breakthrough advertising.” The same is true with voice talent. Use your skills to help the commercial stand out and be memorable. Make the first words strong and clear, not letting them sound like they’re part of the previous commercial. Employ appropriate changes in emotion as the thoughts in the copy progress. And use other forms of vocal variety to hold listener attention. Remember, the listener probably considers you an annoyance, at least until you’ve made them realize that you’re here to inform or entertain.

Entertain. Although the client’s goal is ultimately to sell, your assignment might be more (much more) to entertain the listener. But do it in a way that enhances the selling message, don’t bury the message or detract from it. And remember, in humor sometimes less is more.

Do your homework, and learn, learn, learn. The Commercials genre is almost by definition the province of generalists. In this environment, you might be selling deodorant one day, burgers the next, and rat poison the next. (Although you might want to consider and disclose the potential conflict in that.) The vocabulary changes, as does the audience. Often you won’t have much time to review the final script, but luckily, in this genre scripts are short. Understand every thought in it, and if there are any words or concepts in them, look them up. Sometimes the placement of a pause or grouping of a phrase can change the meaning — or indicate whether you know the product’s industry, or not.

Commercials sometimes involve some crazy direction. Because there is no “standard template” for most commercial situations (if there were, they’d be “me-too” spots, and thus b-o-r-i-n-g), the creative field is often wide open. Trying to be different, sometimes the client or director will grab at an ill-defined straw. The classic joke is when talent is told, “That take was great! Now do the same way, but sound 2 years younger.” Sometimes that thing to do is just to repeat the performance and maybe they’ll hear what they wanted. Often, though, the solution is to understand what the director or client really means. Maybe they mean “sound TEN years younger.” (That you can do.) Or maybe they mean “their kid in this script was just born.”

Another classic, from a speech Mel Blanc gave to the Radio Advertising Bureau. It was a mock commercial for a toothpaste named “S-C**P” (pronounced “Scrape”). The director had the talent do repeated takes, each time adding another word to the “hit list.” By the final take, the talent was shouting the entire thing. Happily, that is not why TV commercials all seem to be too loud. But sometimes in Commercials it can seem that way.

Hit the product name. But don’t just say it louder (changes in volume are generally not good VO technique anyway). Employ the several other ways to emphasize a word, such as speed, pitch, pausing (without making the overall effect choppy), tone of voice.

Smile. Of all the VO techniques you might use to make the spot distinctive and persuasive, this is perhaps the best. Make it a genuine smile, not a phony one. Believe in what you’re saying. Speak with vocal freedom (avoiding affectation and constraint), as you probably do among friends. You may not need to do anything more than that.

With so many variables, does it make sense to pursue this genre? If you’re well matched for it, absolutely! It’s only about 5% of the overall voice over marketplace, but it’s a very visible arena, and Commercials is often the first thing that comes to someone’s mind when you tell them what you do. Sometimes it pays well, sometimes it pays almost nothing. But even then, it can be fun, and give you good tracks for your demo.

Just remember: Sell the product with confidence. And the same for yourself.


To learn more about the Commercial genre or to schedule with one of our voice over coaches, call our studio at 888-321-3343 or email [email protected].

About Randall Rensch: Randy once aspired to be a personality DJ … but that radio genre had gone out of style. So he became a radio copywriter, acting in many of the spots he wrote and produced. That led to his becoming a marketing copywriter in the full range of media, and over the years Randy has worked at many of New York ad agencies, large and small. Randy has served marketers ranging from Fortune 500 companies to home-based businesses, including IBM, Sony, Raymond James, SiteSell, Inc., United Technologies, Coca-Cola, Anso nylon, IHOP, and hundreds of other consumer and B2B companies. Now a freelancer, Randy also enjoys time to return to his roots as a voice actor and narrator. His advice, samples and insights into the nature of advertising are found at