The AIs are coming. No doubt. In fact, they are already here. Expected to be a $26.B market by 2025, Voice and speech recognition are standard features on our computers, phones, devices, in our cars and kitchen appliances. (Just ask Alexa, Siri, or Google and they’ll tell you themselves, they get around). It seems just about everywhere you go, inanimate objects are now designed to speak to you. Maybe you’ve even contributed to this proliferation yourself. I’ve played an AI in a theme park, in film and video, and was one of the original office assistant voice options on the now-defunct Blackberry. Tech companies worldwide are looking for how to develop their own “voices” that can then be sold to various companies as an option for providing their voice over. Some people in the industry wonder if it might not be long before machines replace humans in everything from commercials, to narrations to promos. In fact, there is speculation amidst the current Covid-19 environment, that (along with manufacturing and other human labor intensive sectors), the entertainment industry might be propelled to replace actors with AIs. For the voice artist it may feel like the sky is falling, but there are many things a voiceover actor can do to beat an AI in getting work. Here are five tips to help you not only stay relevant but get better.
Bring the realness
More than a Ru Paul-ism, we need to serve the realness in performance – how? Study voices all around you. Not just the polished performances you hear in other commercials and narration, though knowing what those sound like is good too. Do more listening than talking in places like the grocery store, the bank, in line at Starbucks. Take note of verbal communication that isn’t technically words – sounds like “mmmm”, “mmhmm”, “uhmmm” and where pauses occur in natural conversation.
Listen back to your own performances as well. Work to find the sweet spot where someone’s else’s words (the script) fall from your mouth in fresh and convincing ways, imbued with your personality and point of view, as if these words were your own and these thoughts had just occurred to you. Paying particular attention to your performance when you are not saying anything (aka the work between the words you say) keeps it real. This is a skill I teach in one on one coaching sessions. People still want to hear real human speech and AI is still behind on replicating it – so being able to capture this realness will still win the day in most voice over work.
Scope out the competition
Beyond Alexa and Siri and the voice option on your GPS, have you checked out what the AIs are doing recently? It is always a smart business move to scope out the competition. There is an entire wing of the technology industry dedicated to the rapid advancement of voice technologies. And every conceivable industry from healthcare to manufacturing, to financial services to retail are exploring ways to incorporate AI into their business and products.
Know what companies like lyrebird.ai, animaker.com, vocalid.ai and Vixen Labs are working on in this new space. If you’re interested in taking your research to the next level, there are even conferences and summits to attend such as Voice Summit (voicesummit.ai) where many companies exploring these technologies present what they’re working on. Knowing the benefits and limitations of your “competition” can help you identify areas that lag way behind in the AI vs human voice over race and focus on them. And knowing where these technologies still need human vocal contributions is another area to find opportunities for work.
Nurture Authentic Relationships
One advantage humans will always have over machines is that humans want to interact and work with other humans. At the end of the day, sustaining a robust voice over business demands you nurture authentic business relationships. With your clients, with your agents, with the engineer at the latest studio you’ve worked in. Be the guy or gal who stays in a relationship with the person who has already hired you. Why are they not your new best friend? (Maybe not literally, but figuratively) Stay on their radar. Connect with them. Don’t pester them – but find ways to be helpful to them. What can you give? How can you be of service?
Change the way you edit
This speaks to the pauses I mentioned in the first point (above) about bringing the realness. You may have to change the way you edit your audio to leave more of the “human” in your performance. For example, in audiobooks, breaths are part of the performance and so are intentionally preserved. https://patfraley.com/pf/free/ talks about this. This may become a direction for other forms of narration as well. Traditionally in corporate & elearning narration we remove or minimize breaths, but in a recent discussion about voice over narration I had with a couple of elearning content creators we tossed around the notion of keeping breaths in. It sounds more real and reduces the risk that a well-meaning sound engineer will standardize the length of the pauses (increasing the regularity of the rhythm and contributing to the dreaded “robotic” sound that may result).
Market To The Ones Who Matter
Along with knowing your competition, it is a good idea to pay attention to who is pursuing AI as a solution for their business and why. Some content creators may opt for AI voice narration solutions as a way to cut costs (and are the ones you may not want to work with anyway because they will nickel and dime you for every word). Others may want to use a combination of human and AI narration and still others will continue to use human narrators. Make sure you market to the ones who matter, who will continue buying your services and spend less time trying to convince someone who doesn’t want your services to change their mind.
Bonus tip: Be Brand Confident
There is nothing that sells better than confidence. Know the value of your sound, your brand, what you bring to the market and how you tell your customer’s stories. Own what makes you, you and make sure your value proposition is front and center when you present yourself to potential customers. Afterall, there is only one you. And no AI is going to be able to replicate that.
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