Getting Started in Voiceovers: My Take
The more people I meet, both online and in person, the more I talk about my VO business. (Always be networking!) A natural result is that I’m increasingly presented with the question: “How can I get into doing voiceovers?” or “what’s your advice on getting started?”
I’ll do my best to sum up my answers to these questions here. Before I do, let me acknowledge that there are already dozens of excellent articles on this topic to be found online, many written by voice talents and producers with more experience and wisdom than yours truly. Still, I’ve found much of their sage advice to be true from direct experience, and hopefully my own take on this subject will be of value to anyone asking the question(s). So, off we go...
It's Not About Your Voice*.
Usually accompanying the "how do I start" inquiry is the qualifier "People tell me I have a great voice!" The good news? If you're being told this, odds are that those people are correct. The bad news? The reason they're probably correct is that most people have a "nice voice", that is to say, a voice of reasonably pleasant tonal quality that doesn't send the listener into crippling spasms. The worse news? Having a "good voice" means virtually nothing with regard to having a successful VO career. I've received countless compliments on the quality of my voice; while I accept them as sincere, I know full well that the reason I have a voiceover career is that I've learned how to use that voice. If you don't have any acting experience or training, get some. Whether it's a ketchup commercial, an instructional tech video, or an animated Pixar blockbuster, the skills you need to bring to the mic are those of an actor.
This is Serious Stuff.
Another aspect of the Big Question is that it's often asked earnestly but wistfully; you can practically see the questioner's gauzy vision of getting up in the morning, sitting behind the mic for an hour or so, collecting a fat paycheck for the session, and taking off the rest of the day...or even the week. Just to be sure, there are voice talents for whom that's a normal day; that list is pretty short, though, and getting on that last requires lots of time + lots of work + a bit of luck. (Not to mention that those guys stay quite busy.)
How much time? How much work? How much luck? The answer, as with so many things, is different for everyone; in pretty much every case, however, it means focusing on developing your skills. It means spending time marketing your services. In other words, even if you only want to work in VO part time or "on the side", you still have to take it seriously, develop your craft, and pursue the gigs; and to get those gigs, you'll need to convince the (potential) buyers of your services that you're a dedicated professional. (That's getting ahead of the game a bit, however. Moving on...)
This is Fun Stuff!
Lest you think at this point that I'm a curmudgeon about this stuff, think again! This is one of the most fun jobs imaginable, and even the little annoyances are far outweighed by the rewards. By "rewards", I'm not even referring to money; as I mentioned in my previous post, most VO talents will never earn millions upon millions of dollars. This is all the more reason to love what you do. (If the odds against earning vast riches are putting you off of this whole VO thing, or if you've only considered VO because it seems like an easy way to rake in big bucks, you might as well stop reading now.) I mention the hard work involved because it's true, but hard work doesn't have to mean drudgery. Enjoy yourself! Listeners (that is to say, potential clients) can tell, and are more likely to look your way.
Having worked at a number of radio stations, I can confirm that there are times when non-professional voice talents are asked to read copy for commercials and/or PSAs. It happens, especially when deadlines are looming, or when an advertiser chooses to voice their own copy. What often happens is that an otherwise literate and intelligent person delivers a reading that suggests they're still learning the English language. Flat, monotone, devoid of rhythm or pace. This isn't to put down people for not having instant pro voiceover skills; in fact, most people aren't used to reading text aloud on a regular basis, and even though the words may leap off the page and tell a vivid story when they read it with their eyes, they have trouble getting their mouths to perform that same translation.
As a voice artist, your job is to take words from a page and give them life. This brings us back to the need for...acting skills! Words are not mere conveyances of data, they're (potentially) living things that need your help to be fully realized. Even if you don't have formal training, take a chance when you read! Use your vocal range; it's probably wider than you think. Exaggerate, overemphasize, even yell! If the read doesn't seem right, try something else! It's always easier to tone it down from "exciting" than to build it up from "dull". (As VO coach Nancy Wolfson says, "You can rope 'em in, but you can't rope 'em out.")
Do Your Homework
No matter from where you're starting out, be it absolute beginner or somewhat-experienced, you have an advantage going in: the research has pretty much been done; all you have to do is look it up!
Okay, that's perhaps not quite as easy as I've made it sound; it still takes time and focus, but you can find a great deal of information online regarding the VO world. Do a Google or Yahoo! search for "voiceovers", "voice talent", "voice acting", and look through the results. I should recommend a few resources which have been invaluable to me, and will be for you as well: The Yahoo! Voiceovers group, and the VO-BB discussion boards. Both are forums populated with several bona fide professional VO artists; the archives for each group are a treasure trove of information on every aspect of this business. Be polite, and try not to bump into the furniture.
That's all for now. This is but the merest tip of the iceberg when it comes to "getting started" advice for voiceovers. Do some research, keep the right attitude, hone your skills; You'll be on the right track. Best of luck!
UPDATE: Here are a few links to some of the articles referenced previously. These should help fill in some of the gaps left by my piece.
Getting Started - James Alburger
Starting Your At-Home Voice-Over Business - Peter Drew
Cartoon Voices - Mark Evanier
Producing your First Demo
Breaking In to the Business of VO
Tips for Voice-Over Talent