Directing Voice Actors and Narrators

by Edge Studio

Directing voice actors skillfully will make your project shine!

A common direction given to voice actors is pretty vague: “That’s great. Do it again, just pick up the pace a bit” and “uh… try it more conversational?”

That could mean nothing. Most acting and narration is already “conversational” in tone when performed by professionals. And mere conversationality won’t add anything unique to your project.

What will? Knowing how to communicate with your voice actor more clearly.

It’s a neglected skill. Because video is a visual medium, voicing is often a second thought. And most videographers hope the voice actor can figure it out themselves. Occasionally that happens where the voice actor is excellent at self-directing.

Usually, though, the voice actor may have the perfect voice but isn’t able to read minds, predict your musical choices, or know who will watch your video. The voice actor still needs some direction. So, how do you make the voice performance perfectly accompany the images you created? Here are some tips:

1) Show or describe the video. If at all possible, let the voice actor SEE what they are voicing over. If you’re unable to show video or stills, then describe what’s happening on screen. This will give the voice actor a greater understanding of the project, the subject matter, and the script. For example, suppose the script says “The red boat is about to explode.” If the red boat is next to blue and yellow boats, the actor should read “the red boat.” If it’s next to a red car and an airplane, it should be “the red boat.” Even absent such specific situations as this, when the voice actor has a good sense of the visual, you’ll usually hear an automatic improvement in their delivery.

2) Summarize the message. The video’s overall “message” isn’t necessarily discernible from the images alone, or even the script. And actor can’t convey a particular message in their inflection, manner, tone of voice, etc. if you yourself don’t know what it is. Before the recording session, consider what your video means to say. Express it to the voice actor using descriptive words that they can translate into a delivery.

For example: If you want your corporate video to portray the company as confident and excited about their advanced technology, tell the voice actor to sound confident in their delivery.

But that example may be too easy. Just telling the voice actor to be energetic could be misleading. While it’s a descriptive word, the actor may give you an energetic hard-sell delivery when what you really want is an energetic conversational delivery. So be specific in your description.

3) Explain your direction. If you want the voice actor to speak softer, explain why. Is it because you want a sense of intimacy? Or because the visual is paramount at that point, and the voice should not overwhelm it? Or maybe a loud voice won’t mix well with the music and sound effects you are going to add.


If this is an on-line virtual museum tour, is it for adults, or kids? If for kids, how old? We speak to 6-8 year-olds differently that we do to 10-12 year-olds.

Another example: If you want the actor to pick up the pace, is it because their delivery is just too slow, or is it that, however perfect, it won’t fit the allotted time, or is it that the actor needs more energy?

4) Don’t overdo the performance. If the voice-over is narration, most likely you want the visual to be the star. Sometimes the voice-over actor loses sight of that. If the actor’s vocal mannerisms or tone, etc. will overpower the visual, it’s okay to remind the actor. As a professional, they’ll know what you mean. Similarly, if the project involves character lines, and if they’re overacting, ask them to “pull it back.” But here, too, be specific.

5) Be realistic in your direction and expectations. The voice-over industry has a classic joke, about the director who says, “That was perfect. Now do the same thing but sound 6 months younger.” A trained voice-over professional can adapt and do many things.

It’s even possible to over-direct. One micromanagement mistake some directors make is to read the line for the actor. Try to avoid that if possible, and instead describe what you want, as we’ve discussed above. Often, the actor will find a fresh way to do it, one that you hadn’t even thought of. And it’s not realistic for them to catch nuances in your head that didn’t quite make it into your voice. On the other hand, if the actor just doesn’t hear what you’re trying to convey, reading the phrase or sentence to them sometimes helps. They might even ask you for a reading.

6) Cast in the ballpark. While there may be good reasons for giving someone a shot at something they haven’t done much of before, a well trained professional adapts quickly and can deliver impressive results. But most voice actor focus on certain genres, and everyone has physical limitations. Robin Williams and some others being exceptions. A tenor probably sound like James Earl Jones, a great radio DJ may or may not have acting ability, and a mature-sounding voice might not be able to sound like Sweet Sixteen.

A mature sound doesn’t necessarily mean the actor is of mature age, and vice versa. Many actors can jump generations any day of the week. The same is true of that tenor’s vocal range, and many other voice capabilities. But at some point, there are limits.

7) Think about post production. Be sure you come away with a performance that will minimize your audio post time, and that will work well when mixed with the other audio elements. Will the word endings be heard over the music? Do various takes mic positions match? Does the room tone match? Will it be more efficient to combine bits of several takes, or will another straight-through take be worth a try?

Work with the actor. Remember that a relaxed actor is a happy, malleable, easily directed actor.

Clear, specific direction will make the voice actor’ day. Their performance will, in turn, make your day. And you’ll make your client’s day.


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