The Language of Direction

Session Notes squareOne of the keys to good talent direction is the language we choose to direct with. There’s no common language for Voiceover direction like there is in Stage or Music. Choosing the right words for talent direction requires knowing that there are three types of people who stand behind the mic to do your voicework: Announcers, Actors, and Musicians. They each have a lexicon of words that are meaningful to them, and that’s the key to giving clear direction.

Announcers are the most common. They understand things like emphasis, inflection, pacing and tone. Directing an announcer often includes direction like “can you up inflect there at the end of the sentence?” Or, “When you get to this phrase can you spread it out a bit?” Ask an announcer to sell a certain part of a paragraph, and watch their hand gestures get bigger. (If they’re not using hand gestures, ask them to. Gestures and posture make a world of difference in voiceover delivery.) Announcers understand the mechanics of delivery.

If you’re directing an actor, then rely on feelings or motivation. A hospital spot could be directed by asking your talent to be warm and embracing, or asking them to address this to their mother. If the script is written from the perspective of a company spokesperson, suggest they deliver it with the confidence or pride of the business owner. Some scripts move from dark to light—listen to most political spots. Give them an emotional target for each section (angry, disappointed—>proud, hopeful) and tell them where in the script to turn the corner. Actors are trained to use motivation to convey emotion to a listener. Use that.

Musicians are a different group altogether. They already have a lexicon of words to describe what they’re doing: legato, crescendo, mezzo piano, meno mosso. This is a rich vein of directorial terms to tap from, because if you think about it, voiceover is actually music. When doing voiceover, we work with pitch, tempo, rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing—just like music. So if you’re a musician, and you discover your voice talent is too, use your common, established language to talk them through their performance.

To get the best performance from your voice actor, remember that direction should be a conversation—a give-and-take. Allow your voice talent to bring something unexpected to the table, then work with that. Soundscapes engineers are well-versed in all forms of talent direction, and can help translate what you want into what your voiceover person should do.

Clear direction always makes a session go more smoothly, and makes the final product so much better. Know who you’re talking to, and speak to them in their language.

—Brent Walker