“Tell Me, Don’t Sell Me”

By Penny Abshire
Senior Producer/Director & Voice Talent - VoiceActing.com

We’ve all heard them…those ads that make the hair on your neck stand at attention!  The ones that try so hard to convince us to buy, go, do, or see something.  You know, the ones that do JUST the opposite of what they are trying to accomplish?

Unfortunately, voice actors don’t always have the luxury of writing their own copy.  In fact, they are most often at the mercy of an invisible copywriter and a producer who is often only concerned with the words on the page.  But a good voice actor does have the talent and expertise to make the words their own by the way they are delivered.

As a director, it’s my job to find new ways to help my talent reach a believable read.  By that, I mean a conversational tone that doesn’t sound too much like a “sell”.  Interestingly, it’s been proven that listeners generally tune out when they hear a voice SELLING them on something.  That can’t be advertising dollars well spent.

Different directors have vastly different techniques for getting away from this kind of a “selling” read.  It’s usually done by leading the voice actor to a place where they sound more as if they are telling someone about the product and/or service instead of trying to sell it to them – or, in other words, having a conversation.

A believable conversational tone is one of a voice actor’s greatest tools and it comes when the performer has done his homework.  By that I mean assigning the basic ABCs.

  • Audience (WHO am I talking to?) Hint:  It’s never more than ONE person!
    Back Story (WHY am I talking to them – WHAT event or question am I responding to?)
    Character (WHO am I as the speaker of the words?)
    Desires (WHAT do I want to accomplish by speaking the words?) and,
    Energy (WHAT physical energy will my character use to deliver the words)
  • After you’ve come up with solid answers to these questions, you have a better overall picture of the situation, the scene and the desired outcome.

Say you’re delivering a script that’s advertising a shoe sale and the first words of the script are, “There’s a shoe sale this weekend at Payless”.  Your audience might be your best friend, Sally.  She just confided to you that she’s in a wedding this weekend, doesn’t have a good pair of dress shoes and needs to find a pair quickly and cheap! That’s your back story.  You are a woman who gets excited about sales and therefore wants to help her friend with a problem.  That’s your character.  You want her to go to Payless because she’ll get the best deal there.  That’s your desire.  You’re excited and you’ve got the answer she needs!  That’s your energy cue…how do you feel when you’re excited …how do you hold your body…how do you breathe…how do you move?

Once you get to that place of being in the moment, knowing who you are talking to and why, and knowing what your ultimate desire, or intention is, the conversation WILL sound real because it IS – at least in your imagination!

I often say to my students and those I am directing, “Just tell me, don’t sell me!”  In other words, just talk to me like you would if we were having a conversation, and you were telling me about the product.  After all, I will ultimately make the choice as to whether or not I follow through and buy the product.  Forcing the information on me, by aggressively “pushing” or “selling” me with a hard-sell attitude or an artificial tone of voice, won’t generally help in that decision making and sometimes has the direct opposite effect.

Remember hearing ads that SCREAM at you to "COME IN TODAY FOR THE GREATEST SALE SINCE THE INVENTION OF PICKLES!!!!!"  Have those ads ever prompted you (even once) to run to the store?  Now think about the ads you’ve heard where the actors are having a believable conversation about a product or service – how purchasing it, or having it, or using it made them feel.

If you truly feel the emotion you are trying to communicate, your listener will feel it as well.  They will identify with you.  Every purchasing decision is based on an emotion, not on intellectual information.  Emotion motivates action, information motivates passive contemplation.  Your goal as a voice actor is to find a way to say the words in the script so the listener is motivated to take action in the direction of your intention and desires.

So the next time you’re in session and the director says, “I’d like a conversational tone”, remember your ABCs – have a conversation with the listener and just tell me – don’t sell me!

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