That’s one of the first commandments of Faffcon, the voice-over unconference, starting in San Antonio on October 4th.
In a world filled with helpful, humble and caring colleagues, why would such a warning even be necessary, you might ask?
I’ll tell you why.
Because no matter where you go, you’ll always find a contingent of pompous, pretentious, big-headed individuals, ready to put you in your place. Even in voice-over circles.
These people will never come to you. They want you to come to them. They love to talk and hate to listen. They’ll interrupt you to change the subject because they’re easily bored. Dropping names is one of their favorite games. They’re eager to criticize and hard-pressed to praise. They specialize in being condescending and cocky because they’ve figured it all out. For them, there’s nothing more to learn.
You’ll find them at universities, hospitals, conservatories, in politics, in business and in places of worship. You’ll find them on Facebook, LinkedIn, on Twitter and in the blogosphere. No matter where you look, you’ll probably spot an emperor wearing very few clothes.
When I was seventeen, I first entered the world of broadcasting. It’s a world that seems to attract inflated egos and awful attitudes. Fame can turn reasonable men and women into narcissistic fools. Just because their smooth voices were heard on the radio or their plastic faces were on TV, some of them became utterly unbearable.
I’ve never been impressed with self-proclaimed authorities. I have to thank my upbringing for that. As a minister, my Dad was supposed to be one of those authorities. To me, he was just my Dad who put his teeth in a glass on the nightstand before he went to bed. One of his best friends ran a multi-million dollar corporation. I only knew him as uncle Joe who liked to break wind after a good meal. Nothing like a flatulent captain of industry to put things in perspective.
“Money doesn’t buy you manners,” my mother used to say. And she said something else that always stuck with me:
“If you’re full of yourself, there’s little room for others.”
I guess that’s why people say it’s lonely at the top.
Then, one day, I got to meet one of those people at the top. Not only that. I was asked to work with her. Together, we would present a radio program that already had a huge following.
MY BIG BREAK
A nationwide audience adored her, but colleagues called her the “Ice Princess” due to her standoffish demeanor. People warned me that she would likely give me the cold shoulder. After all, I was young, ambitious and very inexperienced. To the network, I was cheap labor who -one day- might replace this expensive, icy icon.
“Now, in order to work with her,” one of the executives told me, “you have to do as you are told. Never question her decisions. Always act interested -even when you’re not- and treat her like royalty. She is the star of the show and you are the sidekick. Remember your place. Then and only then you will stand a chance. Good luck. You’ll need it!”
I still remember the first day I went to work. Friends and family thought it was a dream come true. They were right. It was a tremendous opportunity. It could be the official launch of my career. Yet, part of me was very apprehensive.
On the way to the studio I forced myself to think of uncle Joe and his digestive system. He particularly enjoyed leaving silent surprises in crowded elevators. It worked, because I immediately felt less anxious.
When I entered the hallway, a familiar voice was telling a producer off, while smoking a cigarette. It was her!
“Oh boy,” I said to myself. “Here we go.”
Then the strangest thing happened.
SEEING A GHOST
While the argument with the producer was heating up, my soon-to-be mentor spotted me. As soon as she did, all color disappeared from her face. Undaunted, I began to introduce myself the way I had practiced many times in the mirror. After my first few words she interrupted me and then she disappeared into the studio, slamming the heavy door shut.
Five long minutes later she reemerged with a tissue in hand. Her eyes were red and teary.
“I can’t do this right now,” she said to me. “I really can’t. You have to go now.”
Was this some kind of bizarre test, I wondered? Should I leave or should I stay? Then I remembered the words from the network executive:
“Do as you are told. Never question her decisions.”
That afternoon the phone rang. It was the producer of the radio show.
“Paul,” he said, “I owe you an explanation. It was the weirdest thing. I have known this woman for many, many years, and not once have I seen her like that. She’s usually as tough as nails and distant, but when she saw you, she became overwhelmed with emotion.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Did I do something wrong?”
“I’ll tell you what she told me,” said the producer. “She said you looked like her son.”
“Well, is that a bad thing? I asked.
“She loved her son more than anything in the world,” said the producer, “but there’s something you should know. Ten years ago he was killed by a drunk driver. He was seventeen. Your age. She showed me one of his pictures and the resemblance is striking.”
I was stunned.
A SECOND CHANCE
“Now, here’s the good news,” he said. “She wants you to come back next week.”
“Are you sure that’s such a great idea?” I asked. “How are we going to work together if I all I do is open up a wound?”
The producer thought about it for a moment and said: “I think this might actually be good for her. She wants this. Let’s just see how it goes.”
A week later I came back to the studio and I introduced myself again. This time, she held it together. It was the beginning of something I will never forget. The person some people called the “Ice Princess,” turned out to be one of the warmest and most wonderful people I’d ever met. She took me under her wing, and the many things I learned from her I still use today.
One time after work, we got to talk about her son. She said:
“The day my son died, part of me died, and I became bitter and angry at the world. People who didn’t know me must have thought that I was a self-involved, stuck-up b*tch because I didn’t let anyone in. There still are people who believe I’m rather pretentious and cold. I know I can come across that way. I now realize that this is a mask I wear to protect myself. I need to be strong in order to survive. Ten years after my son’s death there’s still a huge hole in my heart.”
Although I knew I could never replace the son she had lost, I slowly realized that my presence might have a positive effect on her. Other people started noticing it as well.
Two years later, the network executive who had teamed me up with her, wanted to see me in his office.
“Ah, there’s the man who made the Ice Princess melt,” he said when I came in. “I knew it would work.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, haven’t you seen the changes in the star of our show?” answered the executive.
“Ever since you began working with her, she gradually opened up and has become more of the person I used to know. She started smiling again. The transformation is pretty amazing, don’t you think? I want to thank you for that.”
“I don’t think I did much,” I said. “I mainly listened and tried to be there. But I’m curious. How did you know it would work? For one, did you have any idea I looked like her son?”
“Of course,” the executive responded. “How could I not?
I’m her husband!”
COVERING UP THE PAIN
This wondrous world of ours is filled with all sorts of people. We all have stories to tell. Stories of courage, stories of despair, of jubilation and of grief. Those stories have shaped us into who we are and determine how we respond. We know the chapters that make up our lives intimately. But those who do not know us, often judge us by the cover and not by the book.
I still don’t feel drawn to pretentious people, but over time I’ve learned to get along. For most of them, their attitude is a mask, supposedly protecting them from pain and insecurity. Deep down, they long for recognition, companionship and validation. That’s my theory. And if you take the time to find out what really goes on behind that mask, you may find someone who’s vulnerable, alone and afraid.
Someone with a story.
And then there are people who are just like my uncle Joe.
Eccentric, and full of hot air.