Demo Production Guide: The What, Why, When and How Of Creating Your Voice Over Demo
One of the foundational tools for any voice over business is the Demo. Key to establishing yourself in the industry is a high-quality presentation of what you bring to the microphone as a voice over actor. But what exactly is a demo? Why do you need one? When do you know you’re ready to record one? How is a Demo made? We’ll explore all of that in this demo production guide. As a result, empower you to make the very best product and strengthen your ability to get heard and get hired as a voice over business.
But before we dive in, let’s explore that “business” notion for a moment. Perhaps you’re an actor, or have always been told you have a great voice, or really just love animation or games or audiobooks and want to be a part of this industry of voice over. Isn’t it just a matter of getting a microphone, plugging it into your computer, firing up garageband and talking? Short answer? No.
To truly thrive as a voice actor, you must decide you are actually a voice over business owner. Part of your job is to perfect your performance so that when you do voice something, you are at the top of your game. But the vast majority of your job is to hone your opportunities to sell your product (which is your voice and performance skills). And you cannot do that without a demo, something a buyer can “sample” to understand what hiring you will mean for their project. VO businesses don’t just sell the audio of their voice reading words. They sell their uniqueness – not just in voice, but in personality, perspective, sense of humor and level of empathy.
A voice over demo is literally an audio demonstration, geared towards buyers, of your ability as an actor to perform scripts that tell the story of brands, organizations, political candidates, medical devices or educational offerings, or take listeners to far off worlds in audiobooks, games, animation and other entertainment. And as mentioned at the outset, it is meant to showcase your strengths and establish your voice over brand.
So let’s break down what a demo is and isn’t, why you might need one, when you’re ready to record one, and how a demo is put together.
What A Voice Over Demo Is, and What It Isn’t
A voiceover demo is an audition reel, headshot, resume and business card wrapped up in one audio file. A demo is often your initial introduction to prospective buyers of voicing services, even before they ask for a bespoke audition. And as with all good introductions, a demo should put your best foot forward as a voice actor. This means it should be professionally produced – clean audio, well-edited, mixed and mastered – with appropriate samples (snippets) of genre specific work.
What it isn’t is one long audio jaunt through every genre and mood imaginable, captured as proof of your unlimited voicing skills. In this day and age with attention spans being what they are, a demo should be a short (1-2 minutes long depending on genre) highlight reel of you at your best. It should be single-genre focused (no combinations of animation and commercial, for example). It can sometimes include snippets of actual jobs booked (if the client provides you the finished product), but is commonly understood to be an example of your performances in a set of mock professional bookings. It should give voice buyers a clear example of what to expect when they hire you.
Why You Need a Voice Over Demo
In order for voice buyers to understand what talents you bring to the microphone, you need to provide a demonstration, which is why you need a voice over demo. More and more these days clients have a limited amount of time to find a voice that meets their needs. This is why you need to have a sample of your voice online, either on your own website or an online casting site, so that buyers will have ways to easily find you.
As a first impression, your demo is a crucial marketing tool and needs to convince a buyer to give you more than the first 5-10 seconds they generally allot to listening to any voice talent submission. With the barrier to entry lower thanks to advancements in technology, there are more and more voice actors auditioning and submitting for bookings. A strong demo is a great way to stand out in the crowd and showcase to buyers how you can help elevate their brands.
While a Commercial demo is generally where actors new to voice over start, it is also a good idea to consider having demos for the genres in which you’d like to work beyond commercials. Dying to work in animation or video games? Love promos? These genres are highly competitive and need high quality produced demos. Likewise, if a genre like medical narration is where you shine, recording a medical narration demo will be additionally beneficial to your business.
Bottom line, your voice performance plus your unique personality is your product. In order for buyers to understand your product, an audio demonstration is necessary. Your demo(s) should also be an example of the qualities that make you a unique human being. More and more the trend in voice over is to be able to be conversational, to sound like a regular person telling a story. If snark is a second language, find a way to employ that wit. If your warm empathy is what people notice when they meet you, bring that compassionate read to a spot on your demo and so on. Often standing out in a crowd is a direct result of being authentically yourself and no one else.
When Should You Record A Voice Over Demo
Unless you are one of a very small subset of talented and lucky actors who land an agent by a path other than submitting a demo for consideration (perhaps through recommendation or from other performance work they’ve seen you do and appreciated), at some point, you will need at least one demo for every genre in which you hope to work. So it is important to know when you should record a voice over demo.
The moment you decide to pursue a career in voice over is generally not the moment you are ready to record your demo. Voice over is an ever-increasingly competitive marketplace and you’re going to want to make sure your demo is able to stand out in the field and make a memorable impression. This generally doesn’t happen the first moment you step in front of a microphone. And while it is certainly possible to find your own scripts and record them yourself, it will be exceedingly difficult for you to compete with actors who have trained with coaches who understand what reads are booking, have copywriters who know how real commercials and narrations are written and the production mastery to make your spots stand up against the real thing.
Which is why you need to make sure you work with at least one coach, but maybe more, to perfect your performance skills before making the leap into recording a demo. To learn more you can read more about How To Work With a Voice Over Coach. Get an experienced, successful set of ears (or two or three) to help you find the reads that will book and the scripts that suit your personality and voice type. Work with them to hone your performance so that your demo is an actual representation of your abilities when in the booth with real clients and real directors. Once you’ve done that work, a good coach will let you know when you’re ready to make a competitive demo that will help get you agents, auditions and bookings. And any demo producer worth the investment will not make a demo with you before you’re ready.
How To Create Your Ideal Voice Over Demo
Finding A Producer
Once you’re ready to record your demo, you’ll want to consider the elements that contribute to creating your ideal voice over demo. First, be sure to do your research to find a producer. A good demo producer will have a roster of successful clients, access to professional copy (preferably written specifically for you), first-class engineering and production skills, and will work with you to make sure that you are completely satisfied with the finished product. Voice over demos are an investment you make in your business, and you need to be sure to work with a producer who will respect that investment and make sure that the finished demo product is exactly what you wanted.
Unfortunately, there will be snakes and charlatans who try to use your inexperience against you and take advantage of you, but on the whole, good demo producers care about their clients and work to make sure that your demo meets a high standard of excellence. Knowledge is power, so do your research, ask your peers who they’ve worked with, look at the demo producer’s roster, get recommendations, and very importantly, listen to demos! When you find a style that resonates with you, be sure to ask any questions you may have in advance of hiring the producer. Remember, a demo is a collaborative process to create an audio representation of you and your business, so be sure to approach it with a business owner mindset.
A word of caution, there’s no room for bullying behavior among demo producers. If a producer is emotionally manipulative or makes you feel inferior, they are likely setting the scene to sell you additional services or products. Pay attention to whether the producer is more focused on making money for themselves, or providing you with a quality demo that will help you book work and bring in income that will cover the outlay. Move away quickly from any producer that is abusive, yells, or belittles you during the process of working with them.
After you’ve selected a producer, you’ll work together to get the best finished product for your brand. While it is important to have an understanding of what comprises an ideal demo, a hallmark of an excellent demo producer is the ability to guide you to decisions about genre, copy, length, and styles of content, and provide you with sufficient time that is unhurried and isn’t over until both you and the producer are happy with your reads. A first-class producer is as committed to the final product as you are and guarantees your satisfaction with policies that back up their commitment.
Demo Production Guide to Choosing Your Genres
Thanks to the exponential growth of digital platforms and the lowering of barriers to entry in voice over, it is much easier for voice buyers to find voice actors directly and cast for their specific voice over needs. Gone are the days of buyers restricted to agent rosters and actors needing to cover more areas of their ability with longer demos that combine genres. Buyers are under more and more pressure to find talent quickly so they are laser-focused on hearing demos that demonstrate what their similar project will sound like. Demos today need to be genre-specific and show buyers how they will benefit from hiring you to be competitive. So how do you choose your genres?
The easy answer to this question is “voice actor know thyself”. In the varied, multibillion-dollar voice acting industry, you’ll find that your voice and your enthusiasm are more suited to one genre than another. What interests you as a voice actor? Is it your dream to read books aloud every day? Have you always wanted to promo radio and TV shows? Does teaching and delivering information light you up? Do you envision yourself as the voice of your favorite brand? Are you very interested in political campaigns and messaging? Knowing the target clients for your voice over business can help you design a plan to get the skills required and create demos to compete in those genres. And a good producer is going to know how to advise you during your decision-making process.
Now, to be clear, unless you have unlimited resources, a collection of demos can be a substantial investment, so you have to start somewhere. Often voice actors begin with a commercial demo. This is in part because short-form copy is generally where students start as they learn performance skills, how to deliver copy, and what reads will book work. It is also because there is a very large market in advertising and opportunities for work. And additionally, agents will largely expect a voice actor to have a commercial demo to be considered for their roster. But as you’re planning your business expenses, allocating resources to demos in the genres where you want to focus your marketing efforts is extremely smart business.
How Long Should A Voice Over Demo Be?
How long your voice over demo should be can vary somewhat by genre, but in general, your voice over demo should be long enough to feature your talent and short enough to value your listener’s time. In these days of on-demand, home-studio, digital immediacy, the alchemy of shorter attention spans combined with more voice over talent able to submit auditions means clients are skimming through hundreds of demos in search of the right voice for their project. Your demo should instantly get your prospective client’s attention and then make a connection that will keep them listening for a reasonable (1-2 minute) duration.
To a degree, the length of your demo is determined by the genre itself – commercial demos should be about a minute long, while narration, promo, radio imaging, animation, and gaming demos (among others) can be anything under 2 minutes and audiobook demos are generally much longer at around 5 to 8 minutes in length. Demos are generally not shorter than 30 seconds unless they are a single-sample demo for a specific genre. Of course, there can be exceptions, but these are industry standards.
In addition to length, the number of samples included in the demo also vary by genre. For example, commercial demos generally should include 5 to 7 spots, while narration demos might have fewer samples in number, but be longer in duration and showcase more storytelling. We’ll get into this in more detail in a moment.
No matter the genre, any demo needs to capture interest from the very beginning. You won’t have time to “warm up” your audience, so your strongest spot should be first. If you’re working with a first-class demo producer, you will have strong spots throughout and multiple choices for what to lead with to keep them listening so endeavor to keep the length short enough to leave the buyer intrigued and wanting to hear more.
Demo Production Guide for Genre-Specific Structures
Let’s review some genre-specific structures for demos. (The following is not a comprehensive list of every genre in voice over, but it is a fair representation of those genres where voice over talent specialize and record voice over demos).
Commercial Demo Production
Billions of dollars a year are spent on TV, Radio, and now Internet/Web commercials. Advertisement spending at the national, regional, and local level numbers in the billions of dollars from hundreds of thousands of businesses and campaigns regularly.
Campaigns truly run the gamut from humorous, to inspirational, informative, and everything in between. Often the voice over is the final piece of a puzzle that includes incredible visuals, music beds, and copy that has been poured over by writers and advertising teams. Buyers look for voice over talent that are able to be that final element to make their commercial great. So be sure to demonstrate how you are able to tell a brand’s story in various styles in your demo.
In general, a standard commercial demo will clock in under 1:30 and have 5-7 spots – 1 serious conversational, 1 amusing conversational, 1 luxury, 1 warm/intimate, 1 flatter/deadpan, 1 snarky, 1 high-energy – for example.
In direct response to shortened pre-roll advertising and shortened attention spans for commercials, the 6-second commercial demo is 10 spots in just 60 seconds and should show as much range as possible.
Another common specialized commercial demo is for the pharmaceutical industry. A pharma demo is structured much like a general commercial demo, with 5-7 spots, under 1:30, and should show range, including the ability to deliver complex medical or chemical information.
Corporate Narration Demo Production Guide
Do you dream of being “the” voice for your favorite brands? The genre of corporate narration encompasses being the professional sound of the company both internally for employees and externally for shareholders and buyers, without necessarily voicing commercials. This can include explainer videos for new product rollout information, employee onboarding, recruiting presentations, HR & benefits information, video content for suppliers and business partners, celebrations of corporate achievements, conferences, fundraiser events, and many other purposes.
Because you may be speaking to customers, current and potential employees, investors, and other corporate stakeholders, your demo needs to show your facility in addressing the proper audience and what tone to set. Usually a direct reflection of how the company presents itself and its products or services, a voiceover spot discussing employee benefits, or corporate core values will have a different delivery from an award announcement or explainer video.
In general, a corporate narration demo contains 4-5 spots that show as much range as possible and clock in around 1:30.
Explainer videos are ideally a bit “looser” with the same 4-5 spot count and 1:30 length but with at least 2 playful spots and 2 more serious ones.
Another area of corporate voice over is the automated voice that greets you when you call a business, thanks you for calling, and provides a directory of navigation options to direct you to your desired party. That’s called telephony voiceover, and because approximately 67% of callers hang up within the first two minutes of being put on hold, an authentic, professional voice over talent can mean the difference between the caller staying on hold or bailing. And if you are bilingual, IVR/telephony is an excellent genre in which you can employ those skills as many companies provide phone services in multiple languages.
In general IVR/Telephony demos stay under the 1:30 mark and contain 4-5 spots with various formats including phone greetings, on-hold messages, voicemail, and IVR (interactive voice response) and styles (1 playful, 1 serious, 1 retail, 1 high energy, 1 outbound IVR for example).
eLearning Demo Production
Is teaching in your blood? Is helping others learn new information your jam? eLearning may be your sweet spot. As we rush ever faster down the path of technology-driven access to education for students and employees, the demand for eLearning narration only grows. While the future is unpredictable, recent events surrounding COVID-19 have seen businesses move to work-from-home arrangements for their employees, and schools and universities move to educate students in various formats of online and hybrid programs, and the expectation is that eLearning will exceed its already rapidly growing numbers, with a 100% year-over-year increase a real possibility.
In general, eLearning demos are also around 1:30 in length and contain 5 varied educational spots choosing from a variety of genres ranging from early childhood education, K12 and university courses, medical & healthcare instructional content, internal company compliance videos, corporate training, industrial safety videos, government education, and many others and styles including 1 classic & formal, 1 highly technical, 1 playful, 1 kids, 1 conversational.
Medical narration is a much more complex genre than standard narration. Rife with complex terminology that is difficult to pronounce, and complex subject matter that needs to be delivered so as not to terrify the listener, medical narration is not for those suffering from “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia*” (but can pronounce it trippingly from the tongue). If you have a medical background or have loved ones in the healthcare industry, this may be an area of narration to which you are naturally drawn. *meaning fear of long words
As this area of narration is not for everyone, and that warm, compassionate, yet clinical and precise read isn’t in everyone’s wheelhouse without some practice, be sure to do some work with a coach in this genre before jumping in the deep end with a demo.
In general, medical narration demos are around 1:30 in length and have at least 5 spots – 1 formal corporate-style, 1 promotional corporate-style, 1 e-learning, 1 highly technical, 1 conversational.
Political Demo Production Guide
Political commercials are so popular as to have their own genre separate from general commercials these days (though they live on all the same mediums of television, radio, the internet, and are common on the local, regional, or national level). Buyers in this arena want voices that sound like the constituents they are targeting, so the reads need to be compelling, authentic, and trustworthy and give the message credibility. And if your producer has an educational background in political science and makes a study of campaigns, debates, and election processes, then your demo script is sure to be up to date and relevant.
Political campaigning often is a combination of two tracks of messaging. The positive track highlights significant plans and beliefs the candidate may have that will be of relevance to the people they will be serving. Whereas the negative track consists of attack ads that highlight the reasons not to vote for an opposing candidate. Your demo should be a combination of both tracks. Note, as the political environment gets more polarized, it is common for voice actors to make a demo geared for a political party or ideology – an all left-leaning demo with spots for Democratic candidates and issues or an all right-leaning demo where the spots are Republican or conservative in nature. And some voice actors who are agnostic about which party they work for, have both to court more buyers. It is best to keep in mind what your target buyers want to hear and include it in your demo.
In general, political demos can run about 1:30 in length and contain 5-6 spots – 2 issue spots (positive & negative), 2 candidate spots (positive & negative) & 1 playful.
Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality
So are the machines really coming for your voice over jobs? Why not get ahead of the trend and instead of worrying about what will replace you, show buyers in this space how much better their projects will be with your voice providing the voice over instead of a synthesized, computer voice. Humans will always connect faster and deeper with the human voice, so getting out ahead of the competition in this space is smart business.
Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality demos should aim for 1:30 in length and contain 5 spots ranging from virtually human to practically robotic.
Animation and Gaming
Have a number of zany voices who all live in your head and tend to come out when you’re entertaining children or amusing friends and co-workers? Do you have a facility for accents or dialects and want to use them on a daily basis? Are you an animation or gaming aficionado? Often the love of these two genres is a major reason many people are drawn to voice over in the first place.
Though there is a broad range of entertainment involving animated characters – TV cartoons and animated movies (appealing to all ages), dubbed foreign language cartoons, video and computer games, mobile apps, talking toys, and the list goes on – they all need one thing to stand out on your demo. Your acting skills. These demos are the place to unleash your creativity and show as much range as you can summon.
As with most demos, both animation and gaming demos should stay under or around 1:30 with 7-9 spots that encompass all those voices living inside your head.
Producing Promo Demos
Promo is one of the more competitive genres in voice over. So a demo for this market needs to include a large amount of production (sfx, soundtracks, station music, etc.) done by a first-class producer to be competitive. There are many styles of promos, from the mature and serious reads for a news channel to a cute, bubbly voice letting kids know what time their favorite show starts on a family channel, a dramatic voice of intrigue for a crime drama, or an announcer every fan will love for a 24/7 sports channel and knowing what reads are in your wheelhouse will help you refine your promo demo.
Because stations tend to be extremely loyal to their promo voices, there is less opportunity to break in and ever-increasing competition, so be sure to work with a producer who understands this genre in-depth and can help you rise above the crowd.
Promo demos are generally about 1:30 in length and contain 5-7 spots – 2 more serious, 2 more modern, 1 playful.
No matter the format – Country, Hot AC (adult contemporary), CHR/Top 40 (contemporary hits rock), Sports or even News or Talk Radio – radio imaging is the character, the personality, the very heart and soul of any radio station. As the voice of a radio station, you are the most-heard voice on that station, voicing call signs, slogans, bumpers, sweepers, promos, etc. and it is your job to get audiences to keep tuning in from home, from work, from their cars, while commuting, working out, or just hanging out.
Radio imaging demos need to display the individuality you can bring to a radio station. And knowing the station’s target audience, you’ll be able to embody the personality and style to connect with them. Radio imaging demos often are a combination of formats, so if you don’t listen to all of them, it might be a good idea to tune in and listen to get a feel for how various stations sound.
Radio imaging demos can be a bit longer – from 1:30 to 2 minutes and they regularly include formats like Hot AC, CHR/Top 40, Country, R&B/Hip Hop, Classic Rock, Active Rock, and sometimes news or sports. They are generally a mix of bumpers, sweepers, promos, call signs, and top of the hours with funny/clever spots included.
TV narration/documentary is an expansive genre of voiceover as there are many different types of television programs and documentaries that use narration. Your demo will want to focus on those formats where your narration can shine. Are you drawn to dramas or crime shows? They will sound different from your favorite children’s shows, nature and history documentaries, cooking shows or reality shows that you might find on TLC or HGTV. And as with other genres, understanding the styles will make your demo much easier to create.
Be a casual fan of the Discovery or History Channel, or crime shows on TNT. Whatever your interest, acquaint yourself with the voices that narrate your favorite shows and study what reads are booking. Or go straight to the top and watch documentaries featuring celebrity narrators including Sir David Attenborough, Christopher Plummer, James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, and Sigourney Weaver.
In general TV/Documentary/In-show narration demos are 1:30 in length and contain at least 5 spots featuring your narrative storytelling voice over – 2 more serious, 2 more modern and 1 playful.
Movie or Video Game Trailer
When film studios, motion picture advertising vendors, and advertising agencies create campaigns for and national and global marketing of their films, they make a trailer. Those “In a world…” moments that capture the excitement, drama, comedy or adventure of their project. You’ll be marketing your movie or video game trailer to voice coordinators, post production professionals, and trailer and promo producers so it needs to be highly competitive to capture their attention.
As with TV Promos, it’s a very good idea to know your audience and the current trends in movie trailers. Gone are the days of Don LaFontane and the gravelly, male-dominated announcer voice. Knowing what voices and styles are being used on trailers for current movies will be key for your producer, but also for you as you work to craft your demo.
In general, movie or video game trailer demos are around 1:30, have about 5-6 spots and show as much range as possible.
The Demo Production Guide for Other Genres
As mentioned previously, we’ve not reviewed every type of demo imaginable. There are arguments to be made that you could have a demo for every target client, though that does become a substantial outlay of funds.
Other genres also include:
- Live announce/VOG (voice of God)
- Bilingual English/Spanish or demos entirely in the different languages you speak
- Museums/local attractions Tour Guide
- Subsets of eLearning such as K-12 or ESL
- Celebrity impressions (voice matching, soundalikes, dubbing)
Subject oriented demos such as Finance or Manufacturing (but be careful not to combine too many genres in one demo i.e. Financial commercials and Financial eLearning)
No matter what genre demo you are working on, keep these key points in mind.
A demo is a representation of your voice over business. Be sure to work with a first-class producer who understands how to create a demo that will attract buyer, but remember this is a collaborative endeavor and a tool for your business, so make sure you are satisfied with the finished product.
Lead with you. Be authentic in your demos. No matter the style of the read, show buyers your uniqueness in order to stand out in the crowd. This doesn’t mean be quirky and strange unless you are naturally quirky and strange. It means don’t be afraid to bring your personality to the microphone. Work with a coach to find those reads where you shine and perfect them for your demos.
Give buyers a preview of how working with you will benefit them. Because after all, a demo is for buyers. And there are a lot of them out there, right now, looking for you.
Are you looking for a professionally produced voiceover demo that will get the attention of agents, casting directors, and other buyers? As an award-winning copywriter and demo producer, J. Michael Collins and JMC Demos is recognized throughout the industry as a leader in the field of voiceover demo production