Skill 1 - The voice itself

I'm sometimes asked by people outside the business what EXTRA skills are needed by a voice over artist.  They say “Extra”, because they seem to think that you just simply need to have a “nice voice”.    On asking what they mean by “nice”, it transpires what they really mean is when it comes to, say, a British voice, someone that sounds like they're reading the news on BBC Radio 4.  Sigh….

But of course, that's not actually the case at all. I know many voice artists making a really decent income, capitalising on their original regional or ethnic accents, or they have the flexibility to be able to perform many kinds of character voices, so they're more of a “voice actor”, than a “voiceover”.  


That’s absolutely fine. And I know quite a few people who are brilliant at sounding “normal”, just like a “man or woman in the street” and for some voice artists, that’s strangely hard to do, as once you get into the groove of thinking like what a voiceover “should” sound like on many radio and TV ads, you just can’t do “normal” without really struggling!

So the first skill, isn't really a skill at all, because often you just have to be yourself, and that’s why virtually anybody can work in the voice business and be successful; you just have to find the clients who are looking for a voice like your natural voice or one that you can create, building on your natural voice.  It really is astonishing how many different voices you can find within you when you lose your inhibitions and just try some variations out.   You won’t be great at them all, nobody is.  But I bet after some hours trying things out with the techniques I go into later with character voices, that you’ll magically discover a list of new sounds, accents and characters that you never thought you could achieve before.

Skill 2 – Sightreading

Yes, you DO have to be proficient in the language you are recording in. Otherwise, you will be forever tripping up and leaving gaps, and it will take ages for you to edit after your recording. so, sightreading is an essential skill for voiceovers.   You can see how good you are by picking up a random newspaper or book, flicking it open and just starting to read anywhere at reasonable speed of 150 words per minute, and not making any mistakes.

Pretend you're being recorded, and you mustn't leave any gaps, or trip up anywhere. The trick is that while your mouth is reading a set of words, your eyes need to look ahead to find any “danger” words , maybe a name that you're not sure how it's pronounced so your brain can start thinking of this while you are still speaking.  Then your ears need to monitor what you’re saying to make sure it is accurate.  It IS very possible; more on all this later.

Skill 3 - Timing

One of my party tricks was being able to judge exactly the duration of 30 seconds without looking at a watch or clock, because I had recorded so many 30 seconds radio and TV commercials, and there seems to be a sort of an internal clock in my head. Maybe it's the voiceover equivalent of having perfect pitch in a musician!

This particular skill isn't essential, but you do need to have a sense what pace is, so for example, if you are on a directed session, and the director asks you to speed up a little for the next “take”, you will know what you had recorded before in terms of your delivery speed, and you’d be able to shave a small part off it.  

For many voiceover scripts, exact timing isn't actually that essential, but if you are recording commercials or are replacing a non-English narration of a video, then every split-second counts. In fact you may get a timed script with each paragraph or even sentence given with the exact duration required.

As time goes on, and you get more experienced, you will be able to judge exactly how long durations are, and also you’ll be able to compensate for the fact that you will be able to cut out breaths afterwards if necessary. So even though you may not have an inherent good sense of timing to begin with, after a while, with many recordings under your belt, you will no doubt develop this skill to a high level.

Skill 4 – Accurate Self-Monitoring

An essential skill when you are working on your own, is to be able to monitor yourself, and I go into this in much more detail in a later section. If it's just you who is checking how accurate you are with the words and how close the performance is to what the client has asked of you, then you need to be very strict with yourself, as if there was a producer looking over your shoulder or who is sat in an imaginary control room next door.

Yes, it can be lonely working on your own as a voiceover in your home studio, especially when you have got many self-directed scripts to do. That's why if you are not that good at self-directing, you need to try to angle your marketing to get the kinds of jobs which do have the need for a director calling the shots over your headphones.

Skill 5 – Technical skills

Technical skills are pretty essential, because unless you learn how to record and edit everything yourself, a big chunk of your wages will be going out to your engineer or audio editor. I do know a couple of people who are terribly technophobic, but great voice actors, and they’ve just have never had any yearning to learn the technical side of their job, and would rather have someone else do it all. But they’re happy in their work, and they don't mind paying an outside studio to do the technical work for them.   If the idea of grappling with software and technology fills you with dread, and you think this is an option for you, be aware that not only will you lose money you earn sharing it with someone else, but you will not optimise all the work you can possibly get, as quite often voice work has the tendency of creating urgent projects at very unsociable hours, when most commercial studios are shut.


Skill 6- Patience

Patience is a skill that you’ll need when dealing with some clients.  On a directed session, where you are in an external studio or in your home booth wearing headphones, you may be reading the same 10 second line over and over and over, as various agency people on your headphones chip in with their own thoughts of how you should say the words, and quite often, they end up selecting the very first take you recorded anyway! Grrr!! Even if you know you are right and the clients are wrong, and even if you believe there is a far better way of doing the job, unless you are specifically asked for your opinion, just button your lip and do what they ask you to do!

Sometimes, you will be directed by a production company who have had the script from the end direct client, and sometimes there's some pretty poor English in it. So, you can point this out if you like, although I have known occasions where the production company was too scared to change their client’s script, and I reluctantly had to read the bad English. But a situation like this can sometimes work in your favour, when they have to ask you that to record it again, and you get paid another fee!

Skill 7 - Flexibility

Flexibility - not in voice style, but in your time. Especially if you get clients in countries in other time zones than your own one, you will need to be prepared to get up early or go to bed late, but it's fun talking to people from other countries in different parts of the planet, and you really feel that you are literally a man or woman of the world.

So these are the main skills I think a voice over should have, but there are also loads of different techniques that you will need to use for various projects in the future, and to be honest, you never stop learning. That's what makes this job so challenging and rewarding at the same time.

Skill 8 – Life experience in communication

If you’ve ever done business presentations or “tool talks” to colleagues at work, done any teaching work or are a parent where you communicate regularly with your kids and teach them things, all these basic human communication skills are needed to be a great voice artist.  In fact, why not replace the term “voice artist” with the word “communicator”.  That is a far more accurate description of what your job entails.

To prove this point, go to YouTube and watch a Ted Talk or TedX Talk.  Often you will be totally enthralled and sucked in to the presentations even on subjects you may not have an interest in.  But often these great communicators haven’t a traditionally “good” voice for voiceover work, yet the passion and nuances of their presentation, the pauses and emphasis words that all come naturally to them, add up to a very strong form of communication.