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What is voice over? Definitions and genres.

If somebody had asked me this question before I entered the world of VO, I wouldn’t have had a clue how to answer. Looking back, I’m not sure I’d ever thought about it until I saw the ad for a voiceover course that really opened my eyes to this intriguing industry. It’s just something that existed and I had no reason to focus on it or analyse it – if a commercial came on the TV, I would just watch the commercial. Now though, I have the dreaded curse – when I see a commercial, documentary, hear a radio promo, or anything else with a voice, I get out my abacus and start computing how I would do it.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash


I don’t think I need to go into the history of voice work here, so I’m going to dive straight into the Oxford Dictionary definition (otherwise you might think this is one of those blogs with 80,000 words that never actually tells you anything).


Voice over is ​“information or comments in a film, television programme, etc. that are given by a person who is not seen on the screen”


Now of course this is correct, but it doesn’t really do VO any justice.

And here's my rather long winded version of the above: (Take a deep breath here) The meaning of voice over is "a spoken piece of broadcast quality audio recorded either in a home or professional studio for a wide variety of applications such as commercials, promos, video games, e-learning and apps which can be set to visuals, music and sound effects or left as a standalone piece." (Take another deep breath, QUICKLY!)


Even that doesn’t do it justice. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a lot more to it than just “comments by a person who you don’t see”. From my perspective there's getting the work, interpreting the scripts, recording the voice, editing the audio, vocal health, running a business, creating characters, daily practice, etc etc ETC!


But here I'll be looking at types of voice-over.


There are different types of voice overs?!

You probably hear a lot of voiceovers in your day to day life without really realising or acknowledging them. Obviously, there’s commercials and documentaries but what about things like train platform announcements; a lorry saying “vehicle reversing”; the character in that mobile game who says “hwuuur” when he fights; the phone message when you call your bank and JUST WANT TO SPEAK TO A REAL PERSON. The list goes on and on and each one requires it’s own set of skills to voice it effectively.


I’m going to break down some of the main voice over genres and where you’ll hear them.


Commercial voice over This is perhaps the most obvious and it's certainly one that a lot of VOs are drawn to. It's big business. The UK had a spend of nearly £5,000,000,000 (yes, that's BILLIONS) on TV advertising in 2019 and FIFTEEN BILLION was spent by advertisers on the web. DANG!


Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash


Commercials highlight products or services and can be on TV, Radio, Internet or in the Cinema.


Ads can be for a new product or service; an improved product; special offers; to show the particular services of a brand; to build the awareness of the brand. This last one might not even show a certain product but will connect with the viewer on an emotional level that helps them relate with the brand in some way.


The styles and tones used in commercial voice over work are extremely varied. There’s natural voices that just chat to us, shouty voices that… shout at us, over the top voices that amuse us, character voices that tell us stories – next time you watch TV or listen to the radio pay attention to all the different types of ads and the voices within. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, it can be pretty amazing to hear.


Narrative voice over

I’d wager a few quid and say that this genre is where most voice over work happens. In 2019, statistics showed that over 500 hours of video content were being uploaded to Youtube EVERY SINGLE MINUTE. That’s a lot of video and a lot of it would have had a voice over narration included. Crazily, that’s a small piece of the narrative pie because it’s not just Youtube that has videos and it’s not just videos that use narration. I’m quite happy with that sentence, it made me feel VERY clever.


A sub-section of this genre that’s doing very well at the moment is Audiobooks. In fact, they're the fastest growing segment of publishing. They can be novels, kids stories, books about algebra – literally any book could go digital and the beauty is, you can consume these anywhere during times when you might not be able to hold and read a book. (Reading Lord of The Rings while driving is VERY difficult).

This is what books look like now. Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


Another that’s gaining more exposure is E-learning, especially in these times of lockdown. Of course you’ll have videos within this but there will also be audio clips. An e-learning voiceover could be used to train staff in a new computer system, to teach free online courses or for on boarding. Any time you’re learning digitally with electronic resources, it’s E-learning.


Industrial narration always conjures up an image for me – a dark and looming factory with thick smoke billowing out of tall chimneys - but that would be a pretty limited area for VOs to get work. It actually involves explainers and corporate films or videos, both internal and external. It can be either B2B or B2C and although some may be talking about a product or service, they’re not commercials, they’re more informative.


Narration in films can be at the beginning or dotted throughout the production. They’re sometimes by one of the actors and sometimes by a VO who isn’t part of the on screen cast. It can be done in quite a few different ways - first person where the character is thinking or talking to the audience; second person which is directed to a character on screen; third person which is an observer or story teller type role.


Gaming is a whole genre by itself but it’s also a sub-section of narration due to walk throughs, tutorials and scene setting monologues. If you’re a gamer, you’ll know the sort of thing. Like films, it’s sometimes by one of the cast, sometimes not and can be a character voice over.


I briefly mentioned documentary voice over narration above and I think we all know what it is. Put simply, they’re stories of places, times and things. It could be about a war, it could be about a tiger or a steam train.


But as with all genres and sub-genres, voiceover for narrations must be “sympathetic” to the piece. It would be absolutely fine to get involved in the drama of a story for an audiobook, but if you’re narrating a war documentary it’s probably not the best idea.


There's other types of voice over narration that you may have come across but they’re less common. As an example, there’s quite a few tourist attractions where you can have an ear-piece to listen along to a “tour guide” as you walk round. That’s a voice-over that is.


Video game voiceover

This is another growth area. Video games aren’t limited to consoles and computers now – they’re also online and on our phones and tablets. Within gaming you can have different types of voiceover. You might have a narration during the opening scenes and there will obviously be character roles (the player, secondary characters, computer-controlled characters) driving the story forward with dialogue.

He doesn't need all those screens. Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash


Not all games have dialogue though and those that don’t will sometimes have what’s called NSV or non-scripted vocals. Think of your character being hit with a sword – AAAGH! Not a word, but a noise. These are also in games that do have dialogue as they make the characters extremely realistic and human. Imagine Nathan Drake from Uncharted climbing up the side of a mountain in absolute silence, no grunts, no exertion noises. It would be a bit weird.


Promo voice over

Promo is a bit like commercial in that it’s advertising something, but this time it’s not a product or service, it’s TV and Radio shows. The BBC might have a promo for their latest (millionth) period drama that’s coming in the autumn (why is it always in the autumn?) and they want to build interest in it. ITV might have a promo during the ads of Emmerdale for a new farming show that starts straight after. I don’t know why I settled on that example, but you get the idea. Radio uses this a lot to cross promote shows on their station throughout the day.


Voice styles here can be quite varied as TV, by it’s very nature, is variety.


IVR voice over (including on hold and voicemails)

I found a statistic from a few years ago that says 70% of all calls to businesses are put on hold. So this genre deserves a mention because there’s a lot of work in it. Of all the voiceover genres mentioned here, it's probably the one that's most under the radar.


Every business has a telephone and most, if not all of them have some sort of answer message – be it a menu system (IVR), a voicemail or on hold. Many will record them in house but there’s a lot of companies who prefer a professionally recorded message. Have a listen next time you phone your doctors or dentist – that’s probably been done by a member of staff. But call an ISP or insurance company and you’ll start to hear the difference.


Others

I said near the start of this post that the list of types of voice over is very long. Some genres are large, some are small and some you would never even consider. Trailers. Podcasts. Toys & Games. Equipment. EQUIPMENT? WHAT THE?!

Photo by Derrick Treadwell on Unsplash


What's the difference between a voice over artist and a voice actor?

Actually, you could just use "voice talent" and not ask this question and bunch everyone together.


But to put it simply: a voice actor acts. You'll hear them in things like radio dramas, animations, games and cartoons.


A voice over artist is a flexible being, slipping seamlessly between lots of different genres. That's not to say voice actors aren't flexible of course, I once saw one do the splits in the middle of a recording session.


There will be no more jokes, I promise.


Why should I use voice over?

This question really needs a blog all by itself but if I had to summarise it in 12 words, I'd say:


If you want to connect effectively with your audience, use a voiceover.


A good voice over artist will take your words and give them life and give the piece context. They will use the right tone, emotion, pace and prosody in order to communicate your message in the best way possible to whoever is going to hear it - whether that's a customer, a viewer, a listener or a player.


More

Hopefully this article has opened some eyes to what and where voiceover is. It's one of those professions that unless you're connected to it somehow, you've probably never thought about it. I never knew "professional pusher" was a thing until I googled "weird jobs" just for this closing sentence.


If you have questions about anything included here, I'd love to hear from you.

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© 2020 Martin Whiskin