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When should VO actors act? And when not?

Edge Studio

Is every voice-over artist an actor? No. Acting is of course part of voice-over work, but is also a profession unto itself. Or let’s call it an art form, a skill, or a calling. It’s all of those. And just as not all acting skills translate directly to voice-over, there are some voice-over skills that would not ordinarily be called “voice acting.”

As we (and others) have said many times here, acting skills can be applied in the vast majority of voice-over work — in most genres – but there are times when a voice artist, even the voice actor should not act. When do you suppose those are?

Let’s answer that by first asking, how can acting skill help you in a voice-over?

Acting smarts can be helpful just about anytime. Even genres as seemingly cut-and-dried as telephony and announcements sometimes are (“For sales, press 1 …”), or as stylized as promotion (“… that’s Thursday on this channel”), there are plenty of situations when empathy or imagination come into play.

But most of the time, when we talk about acting in voice-over, we mean genres such as audiobooks, animation, characters in commercials, videogames, and such – situations where you’re clearly called upon to play a character or express emotion.

Another such situation is narration. Sometimes the narrator (in a book, a video or whatever the story) is a character, either literally (as when Ismael narrates Moby Dick) or stylistically (as when Charles Dance sets the mood in Nat Geo Wild’s “Savage Kingdom”). In fact, even when the narrator of a video, book or other tale is not a character, it can help to think of yourself as a character, if you can do so consistently and credibly. By adopting the mindset of a credible character, you’re able to present the story more credibly. It also expands the range of tones you can choose from in conveying the story.

Similarly, if you’re voicing a commercial, even if you’re not playing a character, you are playing someone who is sold on the product or service. Thinking of yourself as a character in that sense will help you deliver the message credibly.

That’s the key in this issue overall: credibility.

If it’s not credible … and not a parody or intentionally artificial … it’s not acting. Or rather, it’s bad acting. If you can’t pull it off well, it may be best not to try. Maybe you’ve heard: “Never let them see you acting.”

Oh, if you have the leeway to experiment, give it a go. Who knows, you might hit on something (or someone) you didn’t know you had in you. And by all means, if you’re not an actor and have the opportunity to get some acting or improv experience, do so. It can’t hurt.

But characters are usually drawn from preparation, either through development and practice (if it’s a character you’ve developed, waiting for a role) or rehearsal (if given a role and asked to bring it to life). If you haven’t the benefit of such preparation, your only option is to “wing it.” You might succeed, or might not. You might even be a natural. As we said, give it a shot, but don’t bet your career on the outcome. If you want to act, learn how to act.

Meanwhile, there’s at least one character you can always do, convincingly and well:


Are you voicing an explainer, or a commercial tag, a political message, a podcast, a self-guided tour (to name just a few of the 30 or so VO genres overall)? The important thing is to know what you’re talking about and say it with energy, clarity and sincerity. When you talk with your own business associates and friends, you do that every day, without thinking! You’re not acting then – rather, you’re you.

Remember, there is no other character in the world exactly like you.

Yet, when someone is at the mic, at least early in one’s career, many people lapse into being someone else. That “someone” might be more subdued, or more exaggerated. They might sound like a radio DJ. In expressing emotion, they might bury it. Or they might overdo it and sound downright corny. They come across as anyone but themselves.

Here’s a popular tip: To get into a natural flow, “pre-talk.” Or you might call it “pre-voicing, or pre-sentencing” or a “lead in.” Whatever you call it, it’s simple: Just talk, to the director, or the client, or an imaginary someone, as you normally do every day. No need to get elaborate – after just a sentence or two, pause a beat (a clean break for editing), and read the script. If a slate is required, record it after and move it in editing if necessary.

That’s not “acting.” That’s being yourself, combined with sound voice-over skills.

So, as helpful as acting skills are in voice-over work, don’t feel they are essential. Instead, learn voice-over skills. Many are the same skill. For example:

  • Both the camera and the mic impose certain technical restrictions (such as the camera frame or microphone sweet spot).
  • The speaking manner in VO is essentially the same as speaking on-camera.
  • Both require you to ignore the recording device; instead, you should be speaking to a person.
  • Yet another skill these fields have in common is that they typically require multiple takes, sometimes very much alike, sometimes very different.

And in both fields, being yourself is sometimes the hardest skill to learn.

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].