Ian McMillan: Putting my ‘fruity tones’ to creative use

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Here I am in the voiceover booth at the recording studio. I’m sitting on a hard chair and there’s a microphone about a foot from my mouth. On the table in front of me there’s a sort of lectern with a script on it. Next to the lectern there’s a light. At the moment it’s not lit, but when it goes red I have to speak.

I’ve been engaged to do the voiceover because of what the people at the advertising agency called my ‘fruity Yorkshire tones’; I wanted to ask them what kind of fruit they meant, and perhaps I should have. Was I an apple or a banana or something more exotic like a kumquat or a star fruit? I’ll never know.

I once did a voiceover about sausages and they asked me to be “a tad more passionate about the sizzle”

I’ll not reveal the name of the product I’m doing the voiceover for but let’s pretend it’s called Trevor’s Tasty Teacakes. The advert is a TV one and I’ll have to watch it on a big screen and when the actor pulls the teacakes out of the bag and winks at the camera the light will flash and I’ll have to say “Trevor’s Tasty Teacakes…I’ll tell you what: they’re tasty!” The advert is 20 seconds long and I have to squeeze my words as hard as they can to get them to fit around the music. Oddly, 20 seconds is plenty of time on the voiceover clock. An eternity.

It’s a funny thing, doing voiceovers. I always think it’s a bit like writing a poem: you have to choose each word carefully, you have to weigh it for rhythm and euphony and try to find meaning in sound. You have to try and find the music in the word ‘teacakes’.

The ‘creatives’, as the people who wrote the advert are called, are sitting in another room. The sound engineer says, “Let’s have a go at one” and the film starts and the light flashes and I say my line about the tasty teacakes and how tasty they are. There’s a moment of silence then, down my headphones, the Boss Creative says “That’s really good, Ian, very good indeed” and because I’ve done lots of voiceovers I know that he means it’s not very good at all. He says: “That pause after teacakes, could you make it hang a little and try a put a chuckle in, Trevor? Well, I’ll tell you what, not quite a chuckle, more a chuckle-ette, or a mini chuckle-ette.” This would feel like gobbledegook to most people but I know exactly what he means, and I say the line again, and again. Each time I do it they tell me how good it is and then they ask me to do it again. Suddenly the word ‘teacake’ is the problem. “Could you maybe feather that word ‘teacake’ away halfway through and then return it just before the cusp?”

I once did a voiceover about sausages and they asked me to be “a tad more passionate about the sizzle”; I once did a voiceover about rescue voice and they asked for “more weeping in the vowels of the voice” and I once did one for a taxi firm and they asked me imagine that I was the engine, so all this teacake stuff is child’s play to me, with a mini chuckle-ette in the voice.

Back to the teacakes. Now the 
problem is the colon after “I’ll tell you what”. Can I make the pause a little longer? And can I make the pause expectant, somehow? Of course I can.

It’s going to be a long, long morning in the voiceover booth.

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