The art of sounding like human conversation


The inescapable consequence of listening to voice demos is looking stupid. I mean, there you are-two, three, four of you-sitting around gaping mutely at a player as if it might somersault, change color or begin to tango at any moment. But it, like you, just sits there looking stupid.

Sooner or later-usually sooner-someone decides to round things out by sounding stupid as well.

"Boy, has he got a good voice," Mr. Stupid evaluates, betraying his amateur standing in one great ringing combustion of platitude.

Oh, you think I'm coming down too bitterly on an ostensibly innocent remark? Nonsense! The comment, "He has a good voice," demands denunciation. It is the last desperate refuge of the discriminatively bankrupt who can't think of anything else to say. "He has a good voice" rudely overlooks those vastly challenging arenas of narrator skill, such as interpretation, character, variation, subtlety, etc.

I submit this to you. If one night you were to be introduced at a party to some of our most successful voiceovers, say Joel Cory or Harlan Hogan or Russ Reed, it would never enter your mind to gasp "What stentorian timbre! What silky intonation! What irreproachable diction!" Fact is, like a lot of other first-rate narrators, their voices are remarkably unremarkable.

So, what's their secret? They are actors and interpreters first, announcers last. They have managed the virtuosity of taking a stiff, unventilated script and through some magic force, in one cold read, resuscitating it into a breathing, moving, limbed body of language that somehow resembles human conversation. Each in his own peculiar style has mastered the seemingly simple, yet subtly demanding, art of sounding like one human being talking to another human being.

Contrast this approach to narration with the "good voices," those gray battalions of radio disc jockeys and TV newsreaders. Lest you think I am being remorselessly harsh to this molasses throated bunch, please conduct a little experiment for me. Tonight, click on the 10:00 o'clock news, close your eyes and listen, really listen!

Then ask yourself these questions. Does their delivery resemble in any fashion the manner in which any inhaling and exhaling human being has ever conversed with you face-to-face, one-on-one? Does the interpretation of the script seem to have been really processed through the brain? Do you feel barked at rather than communicated to? Welcome to Broadcast News, where the illumination of meaning is sacrificed to the "punching" of words..

Radio disc jockeys often look across the border to the TV commercial landscape, richly forested as it is with huge greenbacks, and try to smuggle in their vocal baggage. A few make it, somehow. The overwhelming majority, though, are ignominiously sent back. Even the disc jockeys who've managed to grasp the distinction between one-on-one and one on-thousands only come to the self-cognizance intellectually. They just don't seem able to negotiate the hurdle in actual practice.

I remember once getting a demo in the mail from a broadcast type who'd boasted on the label that he was "A DISC JOCKEY WHO DOESN'T SOUND LIKE A DISC JOCKEY." I listened to the tape. Much as he tried, the disc jockey simply couldn't break the bad interpretive habits his years at the radio station had irrevocably imbedded into his anesthetized communication system. He was, alas, a disc jockey who sounded like a disc jockey.

One thing, though, he sure had a good voice.

Jack Badofsky creative director of Smith, Badofsky & Raffel, merged with Keroff & Rosenberg, and "ought to know good voices" because of the tremendous amount of radio work the agency produces.


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