What does your voice say, about what you say with it?

Edge Studio

Has the demise of the “goldenthroat” been premature? For decades now, clients in the voice-over industry have trended away from seeking “great voices,” instead favoring “real” voices from people who know how speak conversationally. In short, casting pros want actors, not announcers. Where the VO world once relied on a deep male voice to convey authority (a form of credibility), now the industry wants talent with the acting chops to produce credibility of a different, more personal sort.

But research has shown that, even today, in everyday situations a deep voice is more credible than a higher voice. How does that square with “reality”?

The simple answer is this: Some people have naturally have a deep voice, and so, for them, a deep voice is natural. If you happen to be one of them, lucky you. But you still need to be able to use it well.

And for those tenors and sopranos among us, we should look at this more meaningfully.

First, let’s look at some findings. (And we remind our reader that these are general findings; there are many exceptions.)

  • Various studies published in in the past decade suggest that a low voice connotes greater authority, competence and credibility than a higher one – and that this is the case for both men and women’s voices, as heard by men and women.
  • In men, a low voice is also perceived by women as attractive. Women tend to think the owner of a lower voice is more masculine, hunkier and older. But here the gender perceptions diverge. Although both sexes perceive a lower voice in a woman as connoting leadership ability, a higher voice in a woman is heard by men as more attractive (the stereotypical sultry s*x-symbol foghorn apparently notwithstanding.) And men aren’t necessarily as influenced by a man’s vocal pitch as women are.

Let’s again stress that these are general findings. Since all sorts of voices are heard these days in the very wide range of VO genres, there is no one formula for voice-over success, nor for effectiveness. In fact, the same study that found women prefer deep voices also found it depends on the size of the woman – to smaller women, a larger-sounding man is not so important. (That, too, is a generalization. These findings are in human beings, but we suspect the preference tendencies are more consistent among frogs and crickets.)

From our vantage point in seeing all sorts of activity in all voice-over genres, we’re tempted to say this is academically interesting, but of little practical value, if any.

Except it’s not. It is sometimes relevant. Who wouldn’t envy James Earl Jones’s voice? And although James Earl Jones and Gilbert Gottfried are both successful voice actors, we doubt Jones would want to trade voices with Gottfried. (We haven’t asked either of them.)

In some genres, a deep, authoritative voice can be an advantage. In promos and imaging, for example. (But even there, we see plenty of exceptions; it’s as impossible to generalize across all VO genres as it is to generalize across an entire population.)

Furthermore, vocal development — whether it comes naturally through regular practice, or is achieved through voice lessons, or develops with age – can benefit a person outside the VO realm. Someone on our staff recounts how, after taking voice lessons years ago, he held a business meeting with a prospective client, someone he’d never met before. Suddenly in the middle of their conversation, he realized he was hearing an adult’s voice coming out of his mouth. That is, a mature adult, speaking with a greater sense of authority than he’d ever felt before. There were, of course, other factors, including the fact that the vocal training had also improved his posture and carriage, and maybe his confidence. But voice was definitely a factor, if only in his own mind.

What factors underlie the general preference for a lower voice? That’s not certain. It could just be that it connotes greater age, and thus greater experience. Also unknown is whether the authority thing carries consistently across a range of occupations. For example, does a lower voice benefit a teacher or caregiver as much as it might a businessperson or political candidate?

The practical takeaway: Voice artistry still takes more than a great voice, whatever its pitch. If you’re already a working VO pro, you know this from your experience every day. If you’re starting out, or considering the profession, take heart. In many ways, a higher voice can also be an advantage. And part of becoming a VO pro is in learning how to extend your capabilities – learn how to make the most of your natural range.

If you’re blessed with a full natural voice, there will be times when it helps to turn it off. And if the fullness of your voice comes from stage training, you may even have to unlearn it.

The fundamental truth is that your natural voice is yours. Sounding growly, or like somebody famous, is sometimes helpful. But even more important in conveying a sense of authority is having a genuine, truthful quality, and the ability to convey real emotion. It’s the sincerity in “saying” rather than “reading.” The average person off the street, when faced with a script, is not able to bring that off reliably.

It’s also a matter of standing out from the crowd. A VO talent enjoys a tremendous advantage when they sound unique. As important as it is to sound real, it’s also good to sound interesting (and interested) and fresh. That adds to everyone’s potential – because nobody sounds and acts exactly like you.

So, although a low voice may be helpful, there are other ways to enhance credibility, capabilities that emerge from personality and training. Rather than rely on having a golden throat, the goal should be that — with time, practice, exploration and perseverance – casting pros will come to know your capabilities and say, “We need a voice like that.”

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