** If you’d like to listen to the audio version of this blog post, please scroll down the page a little!**
The year was 2013. I had been booked for a voiceover session in a studio here in Brisbane through my agent. A commercial campaign for a very well-known brand. I’d been slugging away at VO for quite some time by now. I didn’t have my home studio yet, so all the jobs I had were at other studios in Brisbane and attended by clients and other people. Sometimes that audience was only one other person and the sound engineer, or sometimes it was seven other people and the sound engineer. From a voice talent’s perspective, it’s super important to remain open to feedback and be able to incorporate it into the performance. This scene is typical for a commercial voiceover session.
I’m in the booth, and there are several people in the control room with the sound engineer. There’s a full three seater couch, someone in an armchair and another in a swivel chair closer to the engineer. So six people were observing me while I was working. There’s a glass window between them and me, so we can see each other, which allows for smoother communication.
Say “Ham” in Australian
At this point, if you’re able to do this without feeling awkward, can I please ask you to say the word ‘ham’ out loud. I’m going to assume you’re Australian and that you are familiar with the word ‘ham’ and how it’s pronounced. I should also reassure you that the recording session I’m talking about was most definitely an Australian campaign destined to air only in Australia. Okay, back to the story.
I no longer have the scripts, and I can no longer remember the names of most of the people involved in the session, except for the sound engineer and one of the people sitting on the couch. But I’m not going to use her real name; I’m going to call her Jane. Now I could see Jane, and Jane could see me, and we could all see each other.
Right. So. We were about halfway through the session, and things went well. Until Jane’s ears got snagged on a word I was saying that appeared throughout the scripts. Not a big word or one that was difficult to pronounce. The word only had one syllable, and until this particular moment in my life, I was under the impression that there was only one possible pronunciation of said word here in Australia. The word was ‘ham,’ and Jane felt very strongly that I wasn’t saying it the right way. According to Jane’s ears, I was saying ‘harm’ instead of ‘ham.’
The Commercial Voiceover Session Direction
Now here’s the bit that got me and why I feel justified in turning this into a blog post. It wasn’t a remote, live-directed session, and we were all in the same building. Usually, when the booth and the control room share a glass window, the people offering direction spoke and looked directly TO ME.
Not Jane. Jane had offered very little in the way of feedback or direction the whole way through. This arrangement didn’t stick out because many VO sessions had many people who would attend only to spend the majority of their time sitting on a couch in the control room. They either looked at their phones or typed on their laptops occasionally nodding to what someone else had said. It was pretty standard with an audience of this size that only one or two would interact with the sound engineer or me.
You Can’t Please Everyone
So we were about halfway through the session when Jane suddenly looked up from her phone and asked the sound engineer to playback my previous read. That’s when it started. Whenever I said ‘ham,’ all Jane could hear was ‘harm.’ No one else in the control room was hearing this, just Jane. No matter how hard I tried to change the way I was saying the word ‘ham’ (and let’s be honest – there aren’t many options with a one-syllable word that has one vowel in it), I couldn’t seem to make her 100% happy. She was just not chuffed with my work. I could feel it, and so could everyone else. It was a little awkward, to be honest.
Not the fact that I couldn’t please Jane, that part I’m okay with. Not everyone in the world is going to love my work. I’m sorry, Jane. I wanted to make you happy, and I’m sorry that your ears got snagged on my pronunciation of the word ‘ham’ like a fishing hook on a piece of coral. But please, can we talk about you not looking at me that day for the entire session?
Beyond Awkward Voiceover Session
Even though everything that Jane was saying or offering in terms of feedback had to do with me, she wouldn’t look at me. She would look only at the sound engineer and speak about my performance. She was using ‘she’ and ‘her’ pronouns like I wasn’t right there in front of her. It was WEIRD. I was looking right at her. She was looking right at the sound engineer, who had to relay what she had said about me to make sure I understood. This went on, and throughout the whole ordeal, she didn’t look at me, say my name, or acknowledge my presence even once.
Now I’ve checked my records, and that particular session went for 2.5 hours. Granted, it was an extensive campaign, and there were several scripts. But a good portion of that time was taken up by Jane and her obsession with my pronunciation of the word ham. It was honestly the weirdest professional experience of my career. It was a long time ago, but I still remember how it felt for this person to be locked on to this one thing that was an element of my performance and not speaking to me directly. Everyone else was assuring her that they didn’t think there was anything strange about my pronunciation. Eventually, the session came to an end, and I left.
Hearing the Voiceover Session is Believing
Maybe I do say ‘ham’ weird. I don’t know. I’m open to trying new things. And I tried that day to say ham in a way that would make Jane happy. I really did. I’ve recorded this blog as a piece of audio, so you can hear how I say the word ham and be your own judge on that matter. However, that is not the point. The point is that Jane couldn’t or wouldn’t acknowledge me, even though her notes were all about me.
I remember telling my agent what had happened, and she immediately responded with, “Was her name Jane by any chance?”. It turns out Jane had a bit of reputation that made me feel MUCH better about our no-eye contact, not acknowledging my presence, and no actual interaction. In my agent’s words, Jane was known as someone who was really difficult to please. Now Jane may or may not have been a difficult person, and I may or may not have been saying ‘ham’ weirdly, but what happened that day is still, to this day, the weirdest commercial VO session I’ve ever had.
Shout out to Jane. I hope you’re happy wherever you are and have become more comfortable working with voice artists. We’re totally fine with getting a bit of feedback right to our faces. No ham done 😉