Steve's finding a voice in the market

IT’S often said that your face can be your path to fortune. But Steve Hamilton warns you shouldn’t underrate the voice’s ability to reap rich rewards.

He should know, having earned plenty of money over the years as one of Scottish broadcasting’s most famous voices.

Now, with a 30-year career behind him, which included a spell as "the voice" on the globally successful gameshow Wheel of Fortune, he’s moved into the business of helping others learn the craft of the voice-over.

While the income for successful voices may be less than that which the world’s most famous faces pull in, it still offers a very decent income.

"I once made three grand for 40 minutes’ work . . . another 1500 for a six-minute shift for the Coal Board," recalls Mr Hamilton, who was the first disc jockey ever to host a slot on Radio Forth.

Indicative earnings suggest a voice-over for a TV commercial can command a fee of between 200 and 3000 - with ads used on UK national television commanding bigger fees, a documentary narration between 100 and 200 per hour and talking books up to 1000 a day. Then there’s fees for repeat ads.

Training films churned out by an increasing number of PR-conscious companies are another lucrative source of income for people looking to work in the industry.

"The most successful voice-overs are constantly re-employed because a trained voice sells products," offers Mr Hamilton.

"Turn on the TV and you hear voice-overs on every station. Turn on the radio and there are often more ads than there is music. Add to that the number of new stations opening up all the time and there are literally thousands of opportunities. But you have to be able to find it and target it."

On top of TV and radio work there is a host of additional opportunities for wannabe voice-overs working on projects such as documentaries, continuity announcements and promotional videos for companies, tourism bodies and other training organisations.

"The market for such work is massive - and getting bigger," insists Mr Hamilton.

But while predominantly aimed at preparing people to hunt down commercial work, the workshops also attract a fair amount of people from the Scottish business community who are looking to brush up on their presentation techniques - or learn how to calm their nerves.

Many ordinary people signing up are also just looking to add a touch of authoritative delivery to a speech they have to make at a wedding or Burns supper.

"These workshops are not about teaching elocution or smoothing out regional accents - although understanding these are both paramount in successful communication - but about how to maximise the individual’s own natural asset," explains Mr Hamilton.

After London, Scotland is the area of the UK with the biggest advertising spend.

Mr Hamilton, together with wife Jilly, launched the Newtongrange-based Hamilton Agency at the end of 2002, at a time when ad spending was in the doldrums as it contracted on the back of the global economic downturn that was sparked by terrorism, war and disease outbreaks. While timing the recovery by getting in at the low end is vital in any industry, the Hamilton Agency believes it is truly in a unique business.

"I’m 99 per cent sure we’re the only ones in Scotland doing this," says Mr Hamilton.

The business was born after a scan of the broadcast industry magazines revealed a host of voice-training workshops in London and the south, but none in Scotland.

"The courses in London were also expensive, plus there were extra costs for travel and accommodation," Mr Hamilton says.

By comparison, Mr Hamilton’s Vocalpoint workshops, which are conducted in Radio Forth’s Edinburgh studios, cost less than half what you might pay in London, coming in at 195. While that may seem a sturdy sum for six hours of tuition and a CD showreel of your polished efforts, it’s not been putting people off.

"It’s a seasonal business - for instance we don’t do much over Christmas, but business is growing," explains Mr Hamilton. "Overall though, I’ve had a cracking reaction to this." A key ability of the successful voice-over is whether listeners believe what is being said - meaning that people have to buy into the person before they’ll buy the product they’re promoting.

"It’s also to do with being relaxed and having fun. You have to enjoy your voice.

"Virtually 100 per cent of the message is retained by the listener when it is delivered by a well-trained voice. That’s what advertisers want."

That view is backed by the research of Professor Albert Mehrabian, an American academic whose "communications model" has served as the guide for broadcasters the world over for more than 30 years.

Prof Mehrabian’s studies saw him develop a formula that showed the effectiveness of what was said - and ultimately what was remembered by a listener - was only seven per cent dependent on the actual words spoken.

Thirty eight per cent hinged on the way that words were expressed and delivered. And 55 per cent was down to the facial expression adopted by the speaker. "That’s why you have to say it with a smile," Mr Hamilton beams, "even though no-one can see you.

"The secret is that when someone is listening to a voice-over, it must come over as if they are speaking to only you, the listener. And it’ll only work if you believe that your voice is believable. Smiling makes you believable."

Between the folk looking to make a bit of pin money all the way up to those seeking a career change, there are many just looking to boost their self-confidence by gaining a better control of their voice.

"What’s intrigued me most is the diversity of the people who’ve turned up," says Mr Hamilton - who can humorously point to the "voice" of a rutting stag on Muriel Gray’s "Golden Kagoul" (BBC early 90s) as a component of his voice-over CV.

At one recent workshop, a nine-year-old girl and a retired sheep farmer from Northumberland found out what it felt like to sit in a recording studio with a set of headphones on.

In fact, sheep farmers are flocking to the workshops. One, from Perthshire, has just jetted off to Sweden to audition for a role in an ad for chainsaws. That person has also scooped a prestigious acting scholarship with entertainment giant MGM. Regional accents are proving popular choices with commissioning agents, proving that possessing the crisp tones of BBC-style received pronunciation is no longer a guarantee of successful career in broadcasting.

"The oldest person we’ve had was 79 and the types of people are as varied as accountants to professional actors," Mr Hamilton explains.

"But we warn those looking to do voice-overs commercially not to expect to make a fortune and that we’re not in the business of finding work for them," he adds.

Even at the lower end, however, the rewards are there to be won by those willing to hunt opportunity, says Mr Hamilton.

"One young guy, three weeks after completing the workshop, landed a contract from the Scottish Executive’s health wing, giving him a 675 fee plus his expenses," he says.

Hardly any wonder then that those who succeed commercially in the voice-over business become so adept at smiling.

Spreading the word

STEVE HAMILTON moved into broadcasting after graduating from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where he studied speech and drama.

He also DJs across Scotland and became the first presenter on Radio Forth in 1975. Other notable milestones he oversaw at the Capital-based station include taking Radio Forth to Canada’s Radio CJOB station on a cultural exchange, at which time he was presented with the Freedom of the City of Winnipeg.

He was voted Scottish Radio Entertainer of the Year by readers of the Daily Record in 1983 and went on to become a newsreader and continuity announcer with Scottish Television.

Gaining in experience on television, he went on to present a number of light entertainment shows for both STV and Channel Four. After leaving STV in 1988, Mr Hamilton took on what is arguably his greatest role as "the voice" on Wheel of Fortune, where he worked for 13 years.

As well as his work on Wheel of Fortune, Mr Hamilton has also presented on Talk Radio, Scot FM and Radio Clyde, and guested on BBC Radio Scotland.

He has also voiced numerous radio advertising campaigns and appeared in several television shows, including Monarch of the Glen, Taggart, High Road and various commercials.

In addition to his TV and radio work, he has hosted award ceremonies, political party conferences and has conducted a number of presentations to European audiences on behalf of British companies.