Actors have many tools at their disposal when creating a character. Some are physical, like posture, wardrobe and makeup; some are emotional, like memories and lived experience. But when you’re working in an audio-only medium, you only have one avenue of expression: your voice.
So how do voiceover artists do it? What makes a voice sound “warm” or, even more abstract, “genuine” and “authentic”?
We spoke to six voiceover pros — some actors, some not — about the tricks of the trade they use to help listeners not just hear content, but experience and retain it. (*You can also listen to a voiced version of this article with samples of each source’s VO here.)
Mike Campobasso, voice actor
Campobasso’s voice career so far includes animated work, voices for video and slot machine games, radio spots, instructional videos and more. Voicing everything from Batman’s computer in a Playstation game, to Prince Charming, to the sunglasses emoji, his speciality lies in being a chameleon.
Biggest challenge: Doing the voice of Leonidas for a Spartan warrior game for a slot machine.
“I was in this recording studio and there was a lot of yelling and giving orders since I was the leader of this army,” Campobasso says. “Around me physically, it’s just the microphone and the booth with the audio engineer behind it. So in my mind, I put myself on the battlefield in front of an army of thousands with a shield and sword.”
Tricks of the trade:
For animated work, Campobasso says seeing the artwork for the character is a huge help in informing his read, since different bodies produce very different voices. He also says constant practice, whether through roles in film and theater productions or acting classes, is essential for accumulating useful experiences you can leverage later on.
“Anything that can help exercise that muscle, not only physically with the voice, but to help generate the sometimes outlandish characters you play, helps make you a better voice artist.”
Michele Borders Henry, voiceover artist
Borders Henry’s niche is narrating virtual tours of real estate listings. That, and moms. “I get a lot of moms,” she laughs.
She came to voiceover later in life driven by a latent interest in the craft and her son’s suggestion years before when she read Harry Potter to him that she should try it. As a voice artist without an acting background, her approach is to always be a version of herself.
When working on a challenging script, Borders Henry says:
“If I’m having trouble, it helps to imagine a specific person I’m talking to. My voice coach would always ask, ‘Who are you? Who are you talking to?’ and sometimes she’d ask, ‘What happened before this?’”
Her biggest trick of the trade is finding a way to relate to the material.
“Today I got a project that’s related to cancer. It’s not a character, but it’s about a mood. They want a voice that’s smooth and comforting at the same time. I can imagine what they would need because I think, ‘What would I need to hear in that situation?’”
Colin Watts, narrator
Colin Watts’ first foray into voiceover was in a training program years ago for the BBC. “I didn’t like it at all. Everything sounded so proper. It was all the Queen’s English, every ‘T’ had to be proper.”
Today, Watts says the landscape of voiceover has shifted to a preference for a little more conversation, a little less diction.
He works on audio books, e-learning modules, automated phone menus and even a narration for BBC Earth. “Now it’s kind of cool to sound more like the everyman,” Watts says.
“You have to consider what a character looks like and how they perceive the world and try to mimic that. I’m doing an audiobook about politics in the UK and there’s lots of funny, very flamboyant characters. So I went back to the author to ask what he had in mind. He told me to consider their job at the company, where they live, and I used that to help create different types of sounds for each person.”
Tricks of the trade:
Like Borders Henry, Watts relies on the authenticity of his natural voice as a foundation for his reads. There are some areas, like video game voices, where he feels limited by not having an acting background. But in many other cases he’s found his natural sound is more valued and versatile than he’d expected.
“I heard myself once on UK TV in an ad for the post office. I literally had one line in a Yorkshire accent, which they’d paired with an actor who looked nothing like me.”
Alex Kumin, comedian and voice actor
“It’s interesting learning what kinds of voices match what kinds of content,” says Kumin. “Healthcare, alcohol, and cars seem to be my thing. A lot of times in the specs it’ll say, ‘We’re looking for warm, confident, a friend’ and my voice being lower has a reassuring quality to it.”
“Emotion is the biggest thing in voice acting. I don’t know that I could listen to an audio book dictated by Siri. That machine stuff is fine for reminding me of an appointment, but I would never listen to it for an extended period of time. And that’s what’s behind a lot of commercial spots too. What are they selling? Adventure, intrigue, getting good care at a children’s hospital. It really is the emotion that drives a voiceover performance.”
Tricks of the trade:
“The voiceover department at my talent agency gives great feedback and tips. One thing they told me that I use all the time is to imagine you’re wearing a different pair of shoes. So if it’s a fun, sassy shopping commercial, imagine you’re in high heels. If it’s a character in the Army, imagine combat boots.”
Joe Bianco, voice actor and instructor
Joe Bianco came to voice acting from theater. The ability to endow characters with naturalism through speech has been a huge advantage to him, both as a voice actor and instructor.
“I did a whole campaign for a bank client. Initially they wanted five different commercial spots with five different actors, but I ended up doing all of them. I had to use different postures, different vocal placements — throat, frontward placement, backward placement, stomach — lots of subtle techniques to create different characters.”
His biggest trick of the trade? Never record sitting down.
“Using your body is important. When you smile really big, you color the read. When you shoot your arm up in the air when you say the product name, it colors the read. It’s kind of like watching good Shakespeare: You don’t need to know what every word means to get the entire sense of the sentence. They’re all very subtle things, but they’re things that connect with the listener.”
Bob Bate, broadcaster and narrator
Finally, Bob Bate returned to broadcast journalism and narration in retirement. While some of his work is scripted narration, much of it is as a broadcaster on British radio stations, where the content is looser and has to engage listeners enough to stay tuned in.
Bate says the realism being achieved by some computer voices is beginning to pose competition in the voiceover industry. But he thinks human narrators will always offer something they don’t.
“There’s more to language than words. You need that knowledge — not just about the article [you’re narrating] — but about prior things that have happened. A computer’s never going to be able to assimilate things, I don’t think.”
To succeed, Bate says you have to be your own best critic.
“You need to judge yourself against the previous recording you did and ask is this better than what I did before. Listen to how the news readers are delivering their stories and pay attention to how they use pauses and intonation. Pauses can be just as important as the words when it comes to conveying meaning.”