Career

Our Own Worst Critic

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 3 Comments

WAKE UP YOU IDIOT!

You’re about to lose your business, your best mate and your girlfriend.

And you still don’t get it, do you?”

Gordon Ramsay was pulling out all the stops to talk some sense into the stubborn owner of the “Runaway Girl.”  The tapas bar in Sheffield was on the brink of collapse. In an effort to bring customers in, owner Justin Rowntree had sliced prices; served pre-cooked food out of plastic buckets and brought in live music. The result: runaway customers.

Instead of taking ownership, Justin refused to face the facts and dished out excuse after excuse. Unless he would start listening, his dream was doomed. But time was running out fast.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

If you’ve watched “Kitchen Nightmares” on the BBC or FOX, scenes like these are a staple ingredient of every episode. It’s very easy to think of this show as another formulaic piece of mindless entertainment. However, there might be more to it than that, especially if you are not too happy with the current state of your business. How would you react if Gordon Ramsay gave you a firm kick in the pants? Would you take his words to heart, or would you fight him tooth and nail?

“I’m always surprised at the reluctance of failing business owners to listen to Ramsay’s advice. I’m sure much of it is in the TV production, but it still seems silly,” commented one of the viewers online, after watching this season’s premiere. Well, what do you think? Is it all silliness, or are we witnessing the results of arrogance, denial and an innate inaptitude to self-evaluate?

MIRROR, MIRROR

I talked about denial  in my first installment, and today I’ll turn to our ability to look into the mirror and objectively assess our own behavior. But, is that even possible? Can we be brutally honest with ourselves? Should we even trust our own judgment?

First of all, it’s not something we can easily shut off (unless we’re masters of meditation). We’re constantly making judgment calls. Our business has developed in such a way that voice-seekers aren’t willing to pay for a director or a sound-engineer anymore. Instead, we end up directing, recording and editing ourselves. Not everyone is good at that. I’m willing to go even further: most of us stink at it because we can’t objectively listen to our own performance.

Thanks to years of conditioning, you and I suffer from selective memory, selective hearing, selective eyesight and selective reasoning. This commonly leads to ‘confirmation bias,’ a tendency to validate and reinforce our personal prejudices, regardless of the evidence.

Studies have shown that, even if these beliefs are debunked, the discredited proof is filtered out as “irrelevant,” and we keep on clinging to our distorted version or reality. And if you strongly believe that this theory is utter hogwash, I have to thank you for proving my point.

FROM MY KITCHEN

A few weeks ago, I knew for sure that I had nailed an audition. There was nothing I could have done to make it any better. I proudly submitted my flawless demo, and I thought it was just a matter of time before the voice-seeker would call me saying: “You blew me away. No need to re-record it. We’ll use your MP3 as is. It’s brilliant.” Of course I never heard back from the producer, and I was convinced that he had made the biggest mistake of his career.

After the holidays I decided to listen to my masterpiece again, this time with fresh ears and a clear mind. You guessed it: this year, my ‘perfect’ audition didn’t sound so good after all. I should have known. There is a reason why writers don’t review their own books.

A DIFFERENT ANGLE

When I first started in television, I once got a call from a very angry cameraman. He had volunteered to climb to the top of a very tall tower to get ‘the perfect shot’ for a documentary we were working on. When he came down, he was perspiring profusely and it looked like he was about to collapse. “This is pure gold,” he said, catching his breath, as he proudly handed me the rushes.

Having watched the end result on TV, my camera guy was not amused. In fact, he was livid and demanded an explanation: “I climbed over 500 *** steps to get you a picture from that angle, and you decided to cut it out! Is that your way of thanking me?!”

When he had calmed down a bit, I said to him: “I really appreciate you climbing to the top to get those shots. But when we looked at the footage in the editing room, it just didn’t work and we decided to use a close-up instead. You and I both know how much it took for you to get those shots. Ultimately, the public doesn’t care how many steps you had to climb. All they’re interested in is the big picture.”

I believe that we are our own worst critics. Usually, we’re too involved and too invested in our own efforts to see and hear what others are seeing and hearing. That’s why every translator needs a proofreader; every athlete needs a coach and every cameraman needs an editor. These professionals shouldn’t have to worry about hurting our feelings or massaging our ego. With the odd exception, I believe it’s best that these pros are outsiders with inside expertise. That’s the only way they can have any leverage at all.

ANYTHING YOU CAN DO…

Meanwhile, the days of the “Runaway Girl” seemed numbered, even though a knowledgeable outsider was brought in to save the business from going bust. Chef Gordon Ramsay had to overcome yet another obstacle that had nothing to do with the quality of the food, the location of the restaurant or the atmosphere inside. Once again, it all came back to the headstrong owner who suffered from “premature closure”.

Premature closure is a term sometimes associated with cognitive diagnostic medical errors. It’s a tendency to stop considering other possible diagnoses after a diagnosis is reached. The idea behind it is that humans solve problems by searching for an explanation that best fits, and then they stop searching. Coupled with confirmation bias, premature closure can be a fatal mix in any hospital or court room.

BLOCKING INPUT

In education, students who suffer from “premature closure” are commonly referred to as “know-it-alls”. They seem easily distracted; they rarely pay attention; their questions aren’t really questions but attempts to show-off how much they know about the subject. People who think they know better have no incentive to listen and learn. Justin Rowntree was their poster child. Ramsay appeared to be talking to a wall.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be well-informed. I am suggesting that it’s even better to keep the door open and to realize that there’s always more to discover. Albert Einstein put it this way: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” He also understood that knowledge in and of itself is useless unless applied in a sensible way.

CRISIS

There are at least two ways to break through these attitudes and patterns: the long road and a shortcut. The long road is based on the answer to the following question: “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “In very small bites”.

In other words, change is created through a gradual process of small, manageable steps. Most therapies are based on that model.

However, the fastest way to bring about change is through a Significant Emotional Event. A crisis. For years, the staff at the “Runaway Girl” had told the owner that he needed to make major changes. But it wasn’t until Ramsay came in, that the desperate situation reached a boiling point and the pressure became unbearable.

Something had to give…

Paul Strikwerda © nethervoice

PS Next time, we’ll take a look at the importance of relationships. Are you a one-man band on an island, or are you part of a huge network of professionals? Could you and should you run your business all by yourself?

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Voice-Over Nightmares

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters 5 Comments

If you’re a quitter, don’t waste your time reading this article.

If you don’t want to grow your business, move on to another blog.

If you’re afraid to face the facts, by all means: keep your head buried in the sand.

And if you think you know better… good for you. Now, PROVE IT!

“Harsh words to start off the New Year, Mr. Strikwerda,” my inner voice whispered. “For a moment, you sounded like that annoying English chef from ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. Why be so confrontational? The new year has barely started. Why not write a nice poetic piece about splendid resolutions, good intentions, high hopes, big dreams and snowflakes? That should go down well at the start of the New Year. Cut your readers some slack!”

CREATURES OF HABIT

A 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman led to one conclusion: 88% of all resolutions end in failure. Why?

  1. People are stubbornly set in their old ways
  2. People lack willpower and self-control

In my experience, good intentions are just as effective as wishful thinking, and are as lame as the word ‘try’.

Hopes and dreams usually get stranded on a beach named “One day….” And if we are to believe behavioral psychologists, most of us will do more to avoid pain than to experience pleasure. In other words: you and I will put more effort into running away from the things we don’t want, than in moving toward the things we desire. Provided we even know what we want.

When asked, most people can tell you exactly what they don’t want: “I want to stop smoking. I don’t want to be overweight.” We tell our kids: “Don’t touch that!” And what’s the first thing they do?

Making changes can be a painful process. If you’ve ever watched the show “Kitchen Nightmares,” you know exactly what I mean. Even if you’re not a fan of reality TV, and even if you can’t stand Gordon Ramsay (the foul-mouthed British chef who turns failing restaurants around), I’d like you to consider the following: is there something you and I could learn from this show and apply to our own business?

ANNUS HORRIBILIS

Let’s be honest: for many of us, last year hasn’t been the best year on record. I know that some of you are seriously thinking of giving up. Others are still wondering what went wrong. But even if the past year wasn’t too bad, you want your business to grow and do even better, don’t you? So, if quitting is not an option, how can you overcome your challenges, and make this year the best one ever?

Problems are never solved at the level they were created, and that’s why I find it very helpful to look outside of my own field. Success does leave clues, and you don’t need to be a CSI-specialist to find them. That’s why I’d like to take you inside ‘Kitchen Nightmares,’, and identify some of the ingredients of failure and success that may very well help us turn our businesses around.

STRATEGY FOR CHANGE

From a therapeutic point of view, Gordon Ramsay’s show follows a classic approach for bringing about change. There are three stages in this strategy:

1.    PRESENT STATE (a.k.a. problem state)
2.    RESOURCES
3.    OUTCOME STATE (a.k.a. resolution state)

“Kitchen Nightmares” starts off by showing us why and how a restaurant is failing (present state). Then, top-chef Ramsay comes to the rescue, offering his experience and expertise (resources). Following his advice, changes are put into place and the restaurant has a successful re-launch (outcome state). A few months later, Ramsay returns to the scene of the crime to find out how the restaurant is doing.

Okay, let’s rewind. If you’ve watched “Kitchen Nightmares” a couple of times, you must have noticed a common theme:

Businesses don’t fail. People fail.

People are the biggest asset and the biggest obstacle. If you wish to turn a business around, you must turn the people around. Now, why is that easier said than done? Here are a few clues.

DENIAL

Once upon a time, all owners had a dream: to run a restaurant. Lack of culinary skills and the absence of business acumen did not stop them. Years later, their beloved business is one bill away from bankruptcy. Strangers can smell the smoke from a distance, but the owner pretends that there’s no fire. Denial is one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to transformation. Why make changes if you don’t believe something’s wrong? Ask anyone who’s ever been in therapy.

CONFRONTATION

In the next scene, Gordon Ramsay enters the restaurant. He usually orders the signature dish. Fans of the show already know the food is going to look terrible and will taste even worse. As Ramsay tries to describe his disgusting dining experience, some of his words have to be bleeped out. Leaving most of the meal on the plate, he storms into the kitchen where the chef/owner is obliviously bragging about the menu.

“Bloody Bleep! That’s probably the worst *** I’ve ever tasted,” says Ramsay. “Are you out of your mind? You could have killed me with that raw fish. How dare you serve that load of ***?”

Instead of taking this as a wake-up call, most chefs are as shocked as they are in denial. They get the food back, but can’t take the feedback. Instead, most respond by putting up a wall of DEFENSIVENESS and BLAME. They’ll say things like:

“I’ve never heard anyone complain about the fish. It’s bought in. All I do is heat it up. Besides, who do you think you are to criticize me? The ‘great’ Gordon Ramsay? Give me a break!”

As tempers flare, the camera captures close-ups of tired sous-chefs, worn-down waitstaff and desperate significant others. The same words are written on their faces: “We’ve tried to tell him many times, but he just won’t listen. He always knows best.”

TIME-OUT

Let’s leave the show for a minute or two, and talk about your business.

At one point in your life you had a dream. What happened to it? I’m sure you’ve invested a lot in professional demos; you use the right gear; you did tons of auditions; you have an online presence and we can find your innermost thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. But did it get you anywhere? Have you made any money lately? Did you break even? Do you even know how much you’d need to make in order to do that? Or do you happen to run a non-profit the IRS considers to be a hobby?

Listen, this is not rocket science. If you feel lost, the first thing you need to do is admit it. Don’t be like the typical guy who drives around in circles because he won’t concede that he has no idea where he is. Instead, you have to determine where you are and how you got there. Only then can you start thinking of where you want to be and what path to follow. Better still: step out of your box and ask for directions! Preferably, ask someone who knows the area; listen carefully and make notes.

When asking an expert, I suggest you get down to specifics. Sure, you want things to be ‘better’ but compared to what? Do you want to make more money? Who doesn’t?

Most motivational speakers would give you a nickel and tell you: “See, you just made more money!” You probably want to make more than you’re making right now, but how are you going to determine that, if you don’t know how much you need to earn? You have to be as detailed as you can. Vague ideas lead to vague results. The only people ever to make money off vague ideas were impressionist painters. But by the time their paintings were worth millions, they were long gone.

MORE TO COME

This was just the first course. In the next installment, we’ll continue our Kitchen Nightmare, and I will tell you about creating a wholesome crisis, as well as the devastating effect of ‘premature closure’. And no…. this has nothing to do with shutting your business down too early.

Bon apetit!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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How much $$ do you need to break even?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 5 Comments

7-7-2008

“It will look so good on your resume”
“This might lead to regular work”
“We’re a start-up business”
“It’s such a small project”
“This is an Indie film”
“It will only take a few minutes”
“You’re new and we want to give you a chance”
“Even if you don’t get the job, it’s still great practice”
“You’d be perfect for this… I wish we could afford you”

If you’ve been an active job-seeking member of the voice-over community for… about two weeks, I’m pretty sure these ‘teasers’ have been thrown out at you a few times. They’re getting old quickly, don’t you think? Or are you still falling for them? Be honest!

These days, clients are getting even more efficient by leaving these phrases out. Now it’s just:

“Manhattan-based attorney’s office in need of a male voice for their website. Budget $100.”

Are you kidding me? These attorneys won’t even pick up the phone for 100 bucks. So, why do they expect us to work for a hand-out? Is it perhaps because many of us call ourselves voice-over ARTISTS?

MISCONCEPTION ONE: Artists don’t work. They just enjoy their hobby.

My wife, a professional flutist, had just finished an exhausting wedding gig: a ninety minute Mass followed by a two-hour cocktail party. All in all she had had two breaks: one to rush from the church to the banquet hall, and a ten minute bathroom break during the reception.

When she came back to get a refreshment, some guests looked at her as if she was stealing from the buffet. One of them even walked up to her and whispered: “Aren’t you supposed to be playing?”

At the end of the engagement, the mother of the groom walked her out and said it had been “lovely”. She sighed: “I used to play the flute. It must be wonderful…. being able to play music all day long.”

When my wife discretely asked for the paycheck that should have been handed to her at the beginning of the day, the groom’s mother looked shocked. She said: “Are you telling me you’re actually getting paid for this?”

Some people just don’t get it, do they? Whether we’re musicians, writers, web designers or voice-over artists, the opportunity to do the things we’re passionate about, should be enough, don’t you think? Well, why don’t we ask Alex Rodriguez about that? Perhaps he’d be satisfied with getting the keys to the Big Apple and a fat World Series ring.

MISCONCEPTION TWO: All you need in this profession is a computer, a microphone and an Internet connection, and you’re in voice-over business. Small investment. Huge ROI (and you can even do it in your PJ’s!).

Well, well…haven’t we heard that one before? If it were that easy, tell me who is paying for your:

  • marketing
  • advertising
  • bookkeeping
  • hours spent finding work
  • taxes
  • overhead
  • continued education
  • attorney
  • sick days
  • paid holidays
  • vacation
  • union dues
  • health insurance
  • dental insurance
  • disability insurance
  • life insurance
  • business insurance
  • unemployment
  • retirement
  • invoices that never get paid
  • … and all other joys that come with running your own business?

 

BREAKING EVEN

Remember, all of the above (and more) has to come out of that job that you almost accepted for $100. Do you even know how much money you need to make in a year, just to break even? How about in a month? How much per week… per day? That’s just to cover costs. How about making a profit? How about saving a little for a rainy day or for college?

If all of this is a little overwhelming and intimidating, let me reassure you. This does not have to be your life! If you don’t have the drive now, do not waste any more time. If you’re not prepared to run your career as a for-profit business, you still have plenty of options… to name a few:

1. Stop posing as a pro and leave the market place to those who are willing to be professional. Stay an amateur instead. No pressure.
2. Get a ‘regular’ job with benefits

However, should you decide to become a professional solopreneur, start acting like one! Don’t do anything else before you take the next step: figure out what your basic minimum hourly rate must be, based on cost, billable hours, and the profit you’re comfortable with.

calculatorRUNNING THE NUMBERS

Of course it would be a little presumptuous to tell you what to do. Some people just don’t want to spoil their hopes and dreams by facing reality. These are the folks that purchased a house they can’t afford because they thought they could swing it. And now they’re paying for it.

Some people are more comfortable playing the victim or playing the blame-game. Others use excuses such as: “I was never any good with numbers”.

Sorry, but I’m not buying it!

If you’re not a numbers person, ask a friend to help you out; find a mentor, hire a pro… There are business coaches out there who’d love to have your voice on their AVR in exchange for their advice. It’s often better to have an impartial opinion from someone who is not in love with your dream. Have a business lunch with them, and bring your calculator and a note pad.

Third, make a small investment and get The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan. This was the first book about money matters that I actually enjoyed reading. It felt like I was getting advice from friends who knew exactly what situation I was in. Joe and Denise offer very practical, down-to-earth strategies in a language anyone can understand, and they’re actually very funny too!

FINE DINING

So…. next time a voice-seeker holds up one of those carrots I started this article with, imagine yourself walking into a restaurant and telling the waiter:

“I can’t really pay you full-price, but if your food is any good, I’ll be sure to spread the word.”

Please let me know how that worked out for you.

And if that did not go over so well, try going into Home Depot, hoping to get 75% off that professional pneumatic drill. 

“And why would we do that?” asks the manager.

And then you utter the magic words: 

“Well, it’s only for a small project….”

And finally, would you be willing to do me one last favor, please?

Once you’ve figured out your desired and minimum hourly rate, look at that $100 voice-over project again, that you were just considering. You know, the one that “will give you great exposure”.

Now look at your hourly rate again.

Get it?!

2-17-2008

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Many thanks to artist N.C. Winters for giving me permission to republish the comic strips. Find out more about the work of N.C. at the artist’s site and at Freelance Freedom.

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Paying the Price

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 8 Comments

Is there a hidden link between price and perception?

Do we get what we are paying for?

Are we more satisfied when we’ve paid top dollar?

On January 14th, 2008, a team a of scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, published a paper called:

“Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness.”

It was the result of research I would have loved to be part of. The hypothesis was that…

Read the rest of this story in my new book. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.

Making Money In Your PJs cover

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Breaking Down an Audio Book Rate

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 28 Comments

Books and headphones

 “Attention Voice-Mart shoppers… in aisle seven you’ll find a fresh selection of promising audio book narrators, ready to read your epic three hundred-page novel for only $499.99. But hurry! Only today, they’ll throw in free editing. That’s right, a $299.99 value could be yours, absolutely FREE.”

The shrill sound of my phone woke me up out of a bad dream. So much for power naps!

Ever since I had helped my friend Fernanda with her website, she regularly calls me because she wants to pick my brain about the voice-over business. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and sometimes I feel almost guilty to be the one who has to bring her down to earth again.

The thing is, Fernanda is incredibly talented. I could listen to her voice for hours, and as it turns out, I’m not the only one. Not only is she blessed with amazing vocal cords; Fernanda has the uncanny ability to take you on a journey to a place where time and space no longer exist.

Her unique talent is only matched by her naiveté about the less artistic aspects of our work; minor details such as contracts, rates, self-promotion… you know, the boring stuff. In other words: she’s the ideal candidate to be taken for a ride. The other day it almost happened again…

Read the rest of this story in my new book. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.

Making Money In Your PJs cover

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Piracy in voice-over land

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International 7 Comments

On June 5th 1995, John Baur and Mark Summers were playing a friendly game of racquetball. For some mysterious reason, they started encouraging each other in pirate slang. I’ll let them tell the story:

“…whoever let out the first “Arrr!” started something. One thing led to another. “That be a fine cannonade,” one said, to be followed by “Now watch as I fire a broadside straight into your yardarm!” and other such helpful phrases.

By the time our hour on the court was over, we realized that lapsing into pirate lingo had made the game more fun and the time pass more quickly. We decided then and there that what the world really needed was a new national holiday.”

With Halloween upon us, our streets will soon be filled with young Jack Sparrow lookalikes, some of them more Arrr-ticulate than others.

HALLOWEEN

As a voice-over arrr-tist, I absolutely love October 31st.  What other holiday gives me the perfect excuse to revisit my crypt of creepy vowels and consonants, and resurrect them for the promotion of a local thrill ride or a scary costume emporium?

At this magical time, I usually take out my secret weapon: the alveolar trill, also known as “rolling R”. Doesn’t everything sound more sinister and spooky with a rolling R? Just think of the prince of darkness himself: Count Drrrracula from Trrrrransylvania.

You should be warned: the Dutch have a distinct advantage in the rolling R department. We roll ’em out all the time. Words like Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Strikwerda… they wouldn’t be the same without a tongue-twisting alveolar trill. Netherlanders really appreciate their R’s.

The English on the other hand, consistently snub this consonant. What’s even worse, they leave half of them unspoken. Ask any Englishman to properly pronounce the following sentence:

“Not a word about the bird was ever heard until it occurred.”

Tell me, where did the R’s go? Now, if you did hear any rolling R’s in there, you were probably listening to a Scotsman.

PETER PAN

However, there’s one important exception. If a classically trained English speaking actor wishes to add a dash of extra creepiness to his delivery, he will bring back the rolling R. My favorite example: the inimitable Cyril Ritchard in his role of Captain Hook.

Even though most of us will never be asked to play Captain Hook, I believe the alveolar trill should be on the tip of the tongue of every professional voice-over actor. Many of our clients are paying us for our ability to correctly reproduce the names of people and places, foreign and domestic, no matter what our mother tongue may be.

Just as opera singers are expected to master Italian, French and German pronunciation, students in my fictitious voice-over academy would have to take languages classes as part of their verbal acrobatics curriculum. As one of my imaginary students, you’d only be allowed to graduate if you could say the following Spanish sentences correctly, three times in a row:

“Erre con erre cigarro. Erre con erre barril.

Rápido corren los carros sobre los rieles del ferrocarril”

THE MISSING LINK

There are other strange things going on with the R in the English language. As we’ve seen, the R is often written out but not pronounced, as in the sentence “Never say never” (spoken in the Queen’s English, of course). But if that same word precedes a word that begins with a vowel, the same R is pronounced, as in “Never say never again”. This is called a linking R.

On top of that, some English speakers add an R that doesn’t even appear on the page, as in the word “idea-r” or the sentence “President Obama-r-and his Danish counterpart”. Linguists call this phenomenon an “intrusive R”.

And then, there is this famous R…

Peter Cook as the “Impwessive Clewgyman” in Wob Weiners “The Pwincess Bwide”.

As non-native English speakers (such as myself), what-R-we to make of all this? Is there any logic to your language? Is there any welation between your spelling and your pwonunciation?

AMERICA

So far, I have only touched upon the rolling-R and the Bwitish R. What  about it’s American counterpart? Well, as you know, the ever so silent British R is often clearly pronounced in the States. Just as the rolling R might be a challenge for Americans, some Europeans have a hard time pronouncing a simple word like ‘hamburger’. See for yourself.

AHOY ME HARTEYS

There’s only day in the year that’s absolutely ideal for practicing your R’s. It’s September 19th, the International Talk Like A Pirate Day! And if you don’t believe me, ask John Baur and Mark Summers. With the help of some friends, they turned a goofy idea  into a global phenomenon, with a newsletter called The Poopdeck. It’s arrrguably one of the silliest idears I’ve heard in a long time, and that’s exactly why I love it.

Now, if you will excuse me… I have to get back to my ship.  Arrrrr!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS voice-over talents will love this short pirate video, written by & starring Jonathan Kydd. It’s called “Aharrr”.

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Should amateurs be ousted from voice-over sites?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Internet, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 19 Comments

Which orchestra was voted the best symphony orchestra in the world?

Eminent music critics asked themselves that same question at the end of 2008. They narrowed the list down to twenty. A year later, the renowned British music magazine “the Gramophone” published the results.

The famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ended up in second place, but who came first? The New York Philharmonic? The Wiener Philharmoniker? The Chicago Symphony?

AN EARFUL

I just spent a few hours on-line listening to YOU… my colleagues, my competition, my inspiration. It was both frightening and enlightening. As I was clicking away part of my day, I was amazed by a number of things, going from Pay-to-Play to Pay-to-Play. This is what I found:

1. Anyone can sign up for a voice-over site these days, on three conditions:

a. you have to have a voice
b. you have to have a credit card
c. you have to have a computer and a microphone

2. Fifty percent of the advertised ‘talent’ can’t interpret a simple script;

3. The same people don’t seem to know the first thing about recording either;

4. Amateurs who put themselves out there as voice-over pros, have a lot of guts, coupled with a deadly mix of unrealistic expectations, a lack of experience and the funds to invest in a pipe dream;

5. As I wrote in another article, foreign voices are often not as advertised. We still have Flemish speakers posing as Dutch talents, German speakers who are really from Austria, and Australians pretending to be Americans. Whatever happened to quality control?

6. Don LaFontaine is still very much alive, but he goes by many different names these days. Or is just every other American male voice-over talent riding on his coattails as they are trying to emulate the master?

PAYING THE PRICE

I must say that I don’t envy the voice-seekers who have to sift through over one hundred auditions to find the perfect voice for their low- or no-budget project.

Then again: they asked for it, so we shouldn’t feel too sorry for them. It’s the price you pay when you’re asking every Tom, Dick or Harry to tape a custom demo for that cheap frying pan you’re trying to sell on late-night cable television. You often get what you pay for… frying pan, voice-over talent, it doesn’t make a difference.

What do I make of all this, you may ask? Well, here’s what I think.

Having a microphone, a MasterCard, a laptop and a fantasy doesn’t mean one should be allowed to join a professional site, no questions asked. We have websites for amateur dog breeders, amateur sports people, amateur musicians… why not design a site dedicated to amateur voice-over artists? I bet you’ll make a lot of money in the Odesk-market segment. It could be a kind of Bargain-Bodalgo.

Don’t get me wrong. Hobbies are wonderful things. My neighbor takes great pictures, but he wouldn’t dare to advertise himself as a professional photographer, nor should he. National Geographic would immediately show him the door.

A friend of mine is not a bad trumpet player, but if he were to audition for a real job in the music industry, he would never make the first cut (and he knows it). Apparently, those stringent standards don’t seem to be in place in certain segments of the voice-over industry. Why not?

THE PROBLEM BEHIND THE PROBLEM

As long as some sites make most of their money through subscriptions, more members means more money. It’s a business model, not a charity. It’s a model that essentially values quantity over quality. The only way to go, is to grow.

Let’s be honest. The voice-over market is pretty much saturated at this moment. You don’t need a degree in economics to realize that a greater supply in a weakened market can only mean one thing: tumbling prices.

The best way to speed this process up, is to have suppliers engage in a furious bidding war. Darwin would have named it: “Survival of the Cheapest”. Isn’t that exactly what is happening? And if you don’t believe me, why is it so hard to buy products that are not “made in China”? Before we know it, all of us will be replaced by IVONA speech synthesis technology. It’s almost as good as the real thing and I bet it’s a lot cheaper.

NO CURE NO P(L)AY

If it were up to me, I’d rather have a performance-based No Cure No Pay-system in place. Out with the premium, platinum and titanium memberships. From now on, voice-over sites should get paid when I get paid. And the only way I get paid, is when voice-over sites do their job and connect me to reputable voice-seekers that are ready to pay reasonable rates.

Perhaps that will make the Pay-to-Play’s more accountable and selective in terms of whom they’re willing to represent. Perhaps that’s the way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Let the dabblers do their thing. As long as they stay in their own league and stop messing with my market.

PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS

Secondly, I’d like to see these websites publish and uphold certain professional standards. Accreditation comes from the word ‘credo’, which means “I believe“. Although related, ‘credo’ is not the same as ‘credit’.

Our belief in someone’s talent should be based on professional principles, instead of on the spending limit on their credit card. So, let me ask you this:

1.In your experience, are you aware of any professional standards that are promoted and actively upheld by Pay-to-Play sites?

2. If the answer is “yes”, are you happy with these standards, and are they well-advertised and implemented?

3. If the answer to the 1st question is “no”, do you think that voice-over sites should adopt, publish, promote and maintain certain standards?

4. Should talents be denied membership, if they don’t meet certain basic criteria of professionalism?

5. Would it make sense to create a special category for amateur voice actors, or even a dedicated website? Or do dilettantes have no business being in our business?

6. What’s the best and most fair way to compensate P2P’s for their services? A subscription fee? A percentage of  what you’re making for a particular job?  A combination of both?

AND THE WINNER IS…

One question remains.  For that, we return to the quest for the best symphony orchestra in the world. The votes have been counted. The sealed envelope is opened as the audience collectively holds their breath. And the winner is….

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra from Amsterdam

Why? Because their standards are higher. After a grueling audition process, the Concertgebouw only hires the cream of the crop; well-trained people playing the very best instruments. No amateur fiddlers. The Gramophone’s editor James Inverne, put it this way:

“It is hardly possible any more to recognize particular orchestras by their individual sound. I think that with some orchestras, and the Berlin Philharmonic amongst them, that’s a bit of a worry. Whereas with the Concertgebouw you always know it’s the Concertgebouw. And I think that’s what has given them the edge amongst our critics.

Maybe it’s occasionally very slightly rougher than what the Berliner Philharmonic can produce, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re like a great actor bringing their own charisma and their own personality to every work, and always giving you the sense of the spirit of the work.”

Now, that’s what I call music to my ears! I’ll gladly pay to hear them play any day!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

My next blog is a little more lighthearted, and I’ve invited Steve Martin, Peter Cook and Cyril Ritchard to add some  fun to the pirate party!

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How to become a celebrity

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Promotion 1 Comment

She was a world famous news anchor.

In Holland, that is.

With a population of only 16 million, it’s easy to be a celeb in the lowlands. In fact, one in five individuals is probably (in)famous for something.

You might have heard of André Rieu, Famke Janssen, Rutger Hauer and Paul Verhoeven. Big fish who eventually escaped the small Dutch pond.

On this particular morning, our beloved news anchor showed up to make some money on the side. A local charity thought that the appearance of a TV-personality would please the crowds and bring in some much needed cash for a homeless shelter. I was there to see the limo arrive thirty minutes late.

Strangely enough, I didn’t recognize the person stepping out of the town car. Dark glasses covered her sleepy eyes. Then I remembered that she had presented the late night news the day before. And without any make-up, she had suddenly aged about 25 years in 2.5 seconds.

As she was escorted onto the stage, the audience, made up in part of homeless people, got a good look at her pink Chanel outfit, Fendi handbag and high-end jewelry. Yes, it was clear that this woman was in desperate need of the extra cash she was about to make. Then again, I shouldn’t be so judgmental. Her vacation home had just been featured in one of the lifestyle magazines, and I’m sure the monthly mortgage payment was weighing heavily on her haute-coutured shoulders.

HERE IS YOUR HOST

All of this went through my mind, as I stepped up to the podium at a local synagogue to host a special concert. It was more than a concert, actually. It was an emotional reunion of two musical sisters. One of them had made her way to the United States and the other had chosen to stay behind in Russia. And now, for the first time in many years, the two performed together on one stage.

Paul Strikwerda emcee

the author hosting an event

Hosting is different. It’s a perfect opportunity to connect with a crowd and get immediate feedback. Let me tell you this: nothing is more frightening than the sound of a joke falling flat on its face. Nothing is more exciting than the sound of roaring laughter, after you’ve delivered a great punch line.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Now, before you conclude that being an emcee is all about me, let me stop you in your tracks. It’s not. Rule number one in the book of hosting is this: 

Never take the focus away from the event and the performers.

Be warm and welcoming; keep your remarks to the point and make them short and sweet. Find a happy medium between being entertaining and informative. If you manage to do that, you’re well on your way to making hundreds of new friends.

For those of you who’d like to give it a try, here are a few other pointers:

Do your homework.

Find out what group of people you’ll be addressing. Don’t make references to “Gilligan’s Island” if your audience is under 25. And don’t mention Zac Efron, unless your audience is made up of yelling teenage girls. Stay away from politics. Get your facts right. Know the names of the performers and/or speakers, and know how to pronounce them correctly. Find out what they will be performing and dig up some short anecdotes or little known details. Have enough material in case you need fillers.

Arrive early. Dress for the occasion. Don’t wear a tux to a folk concert. Familiarize yourself with the location. Know where the emergency exits are. Introduce yourself to the staff, the sound technicians and the stage manager. Test the sound equipment. It usually does not work. Check the order of the program and find out about last-minute changes.

During the show:

Be the glue that holds the event together and the oil that keeps things moving. Briefly introduce yourself and engage your audience from the start. Set some ground rules (e.g. switch off cell phones). Be animated and avoid clichés such as “without further ado” or “give it up for…” Don’t play favorites. Introduce each performer with the same level of enthusiasm. Never, ever make fun of them.

Don’t be on stage during the performance, and please pay attention to the act or the speaker. You never know what you can use to build a bridge to the next performance. It also shows that you’re not just a talking head, but that you’re interested in what’s going on. Keep track of the time as well. It’s your job to make things start on time and end on time.

Be sure to publicly thank everybody at the end, and make some brief, final announcements. After the audience is on their way, thank everyone involved personally: the performers, the staff, anyone who made this happen.

THE BIG LET-DOWN

Let’s go back to the charity event for the homeless for a moment.

I have to be honest with you. Without sleep and without teleprompter, the celebrity news anchor was absolutely hopeless. The fact that she arrived in a limo and was dressed in designer clothes had not earned her much credit with the homeless.

She might have been good working the camera, but she certainly wasn’t working the audience. Her intros were taken straight from the program. Anyone could have done that. And as speaker after speaker tried to move the masses, she was sitting in the front row, sending text message after text message, looking utterly out of place.

When the event was finally over, she left through the back door, running away from the fans who had hoped to take a picture with her.

HAPPY ENDING

Luckily, my concert ended on a happier note. I think it was a C-sharp.

At the reception following the performance, I discovered another benefit of event hosting. My pro-bono appearance turned out to be tremendous free publicity for my services. All of a sudden I was on the local map! Some people even told me: “You should do this for a living!” But wait, it gets even better.

The videographer, who had been recording the entire performance, hired me on the spot for a movie he was shooting. You’ve heard me… a motion picture! Yes my friends, I am now world famous.

That is, in Easton, Pennsylvania.

My home town.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice.

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Sorry, you’re not “it”.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 1 Comment

If I were to make a top-ten of the hardest words in any language, this word would be my number one pick. It’s also one of the shortest. This simple sound has destroyed countless careers; it has propelled people into the depths of depression, and it has broken many hopeful hearts.

It is the horrible, ugly word “NO”.

“No” is every salesperson’s nightmare. “No” has turned rejected lovers into vindictive maniacs. And -as any parent will tell you- “No” can turn the sweetest kid into a manipulative monster. In fact, this two-letter word is so destructive, one could make a case for it to be banned from our vocabulary because of the damage it has done over the ages. But I can predict what our linguists would say to that: “No”.

Here in the States, the nation is watching another season of “America’s got talent.” I pity the three judges who have to sit through a never-ending parade of geriatric belly-dancers, tone-deaf Whitney Houston wannabees, drag queen contortionists and hip hoppers with egos bigger than their beefed up physiques.

They all believe that they’re the next big act to hit the Vegas strip, worthy of a million dollars. All I can think of is: Who opened this loony bin and who is going to close it? I have to admit: in this crazy context, the word “No” can actually be a blessing!

We might watch these voluntary victims of reality TV with amazement, but voice-over talents actually have something in common with these strange folks. We too, audition. We might not do it on national TV, but time and again we have to face the final verdict that could shatter our dreams into a million pieces. Or not. This is what I learned about rejection dejection.

Lesson number one: The greatest disappointments are always well-planned.

Yes, you’ve heard me: we are setting ourselves up for disaster. Expectation and disillusion are twins. Evil twins. The more we expect, the bigger the disappointment.

Watch “America’s got talent” for a few minutes, and you’ll see the following tragic story unfold:

A camera zooms in on a middle-aged librarian who’s showing all the obvious signs of a sedentary lifestyle. The talent tells the interviewer: “I’ve been blessed with a unique gift. Since the moment I took my first breath, I knew I was destined for greatness. I am definitely going to blow the judges away. This is the moment I have been waiting for all my life.”

He steps up to the microphone; introduces himself to the world, and starts rubbing his hands together. This better be good!

The next thing we hear is a sound that can only be described as someone breaking wind to the tune of “America the beautiful”. Yes, we’re blown away alright!

The audience starts yelling; the judges hammer on their red buttons and moments later, our handy hero is crushed and crumbled under the weight of humiliation that will haunt him for the rest of his librarian life.

Lesson number two: know your strengths!

Small fish wanting to play in the big pond better bring something extraordinary to the table, otherwise the big fish will have you for lunch.

One AGT-episode featured a self-professed ‘celebrity impersonator’. He was so bad that -even though he spelled out which impression he was going to do- no one got it. I know voice-over artists who make a decent living pretending to be someone else. Some of them are so good, it’s frightening… they sound even better than the original! But unless and until your impersonation is spot-on, don’t tell the world you’re the next big thing. People might get the wrong impression…

Lesson three: get a reality check.

In other words: go for a second opinion. Get as many second opinions as you can. And please, don’t run to your mother for feedback. She’ll love you no matter what. That’s her job. What you need is an honest opinion. Go to a pro. Not one of those people who get paid to chat you up so you’ll enroll into some vague voice-over academy.

A good coach will analyze every ounce of your talent (or lack thereof), and expose you for what you are. A great coach will also tell you what you need to do to improve. A superb coach will teach you the tricks of the trade.

Back to the show for lesson four: have a recovery strategy.

I am still floored by how ungraceful some of the untalented are in defeat. They become defensive, they come up with excuses, they blame the judges… it’s always something or someone else, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for positive reinforcement. But America’s upbeat culture of programmed positive praise has led to a distinct lack of self-awareness and humility. Thus, smiling small town heroes turn into angry big town, big time losers when they hear the dreaded word “No.”

This begs the question: how should one prepare for possible rejection? Should we simply expect not to expect anything? That way, we won’t ever be disappointed. If you don’t strive to win, you’ll never lose. Could that be the answer? But what about our hopes, our dreams and aspirations? Isn’t life about taking risks, shooting for the stars and about being the best one can be? Had we been playing it safe, we’d still be staring at the moon, instead of landing on it.

Here’s the good news. There is an effective way of dealing with denial. It’s no magic bullet, but it will certainly keep you grounded. It is part of what I call my ‘Ultimate Auditioning Strategy’. I have refined it over many years, and I’d be happy to share it with you.

Here’s the thing: this strategy works for any type of audition. I have taught it to musicians, stage actors, public speakers, job seekers, sports people and yes… to voice-over artists.

The Ultimate Auditioning Strategy

 

Whether you’re applying for a job or for a part in a commercial, there comes a time when some of us have to face our greatest fear: the fear of rejection. Especially the people-pleasers, the doormats and the perfectionists of this world, have a particularly hard time in the hot seat. If you happen to be intimately acquainted with one of those people, this is for you.

MINDSET

Having been in the voice-over business for over 25 years, I am absolutely convinced that a successful try-out is only in part based on vocal cords, experience and skills. Most of it has to do with being in the right mindset. Let me give you an example.

GuitarOne of my cousins is an amazingly talented guitar player. His technique is truly breathtaking, only paralleled by the likes of Tommy Emmanuel and John Williams. Every time he plays for me in the comfort of his own room, he sets his six strings on fire. If he wanted to, he could be up there with the Paco Pena’s and the Yngwie Malmsteens.

Unfortunately, no one has ever heard of him. Why? Because he never thought he was good enough, and somehow, he wasn’t able to summon the courage to get on stage and share his gift with the world. He was and is his own biggest stumbling block.

Do yourself a favor: don’t be like my cousin! If you have talent, there’s no failure in “going for it.” However, if you don’t, the game’s already lost before it even started.

VITAL COMPONENTS

The way I see it,  a successful audition is the result of three vital ingredients: competence , confidence and being at the right place at the right time. Some call the last component luck, but as Samuel Goldwyn once said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Now, let me share a few things that have helped me tremendously. Even though some of the fundamentals I am about to describe apply to cattle-call situations, most steps are relevant to those who audition on-line as well.

The first ‘secret ingredient’ is the fact that my Ultimate Audition Strategy starts long before I step up to the mic. It’s made up of a number of “empowering beliefs” that have become part of my DNA (Dutch Natural Attitude):

1. Treasure your talents and know your limitations.

2. Build on your strengths and work on your weaknesses.

3. Hone your craft, while learning from the best.

BEING THERE

4. When it’s time to audition: come prepared and always arrive early.

5. Dress professionally. Don’t make a beginner’s mistake by thinking that it’s only about the way you sound. Plus: you won’t be the first voice-over actor being offered an on-camera job as the result of an off-camera audition.

6. Before you’re called in, find a space to center yourself and mentally rehearse what you’re about to do, picturing a positive outcome. Don’t allow others to distract you.

7. Be confident, not cocky. Your attitude should be an asset and not a turn-off.

8. Leave your troubles at the door. If you can’t do that for an audition, how are you going to handle personal problems during a recording session?

9. Realize that the client needs you as much as you need the client. Connect with them from the very first moment you walk in. Remember: a smile is the shortest way between two people.

10. Make it easy to work with you: be open to suggestions; follow directions, relax and have some fun.

11. Once you’re in the hotspot…give it all you got, and then some. If you know that you gave it your all, there is no such thing as failure. Only feedback.

12. Make your first read a good one, but never make it your best. Give the director something to work with. It’s her opportunity to show the client what a genius she is…

13. Do not criticize the hand that might be feeding you. Generally speaking, badmouthing others (including your colleagues) doesn’t make you any better either. On the contrary.

14. Be gracious and grateful. Thank the casting crew for the opportunity, and make sure that your last impression is a lasting one. Hand out your cards and demos before you leave, if you haven’t done so already.

15. When you’re out of the limelight, find a quiet place and imagine stepping outside of your body; put yourself into the voice-seekers shoes as you evaluate your own performance. What went well? What could have gone better? What can you do next time to “kick it up a notch”? What do you need to do to get there?

What you do next is absolutely crucial:

16. Let go of the outcome. Forgedaboudit! Put your performance in a balloon and release it. If it comes back to you, celebrate! If it doesn’t, know that someone else in this universe is jumping for joy.

17. If you don’t hear anything back, realize two things: delays are not denials. Even though we live in a world of instant gratification, patience is still a virtue. If it’s a “No”, understand that auditioning is a process of selection, not rejection. Just because they didn’t pick you, doesn’t mean your audition was crap. Just because you didn’t get the part, doesn’t mean you have failed in life. Even the best chefs can’t please every single diner.

18. Embrace the fact that living is learning, and that we often learn more from the things that don’t go as planned, than from the things we’ve already mastered.

19. Move on! This industry rewards the go-getters, not the whiners and the finger-pointers. As long as you know that you did your best, and that you took something useful away from the audition experience, your time was well-spent.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Getting the edge in voiceovers

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career Comments Off on Getting the edge in voiceovers

What’s the link between a rice beverage and voice-over work?

In a “Taste the dream” contest, Rice Dream offered prize winners the chance to experience their dream job for 3 days. The ad agency that came up with this campaign thought that our line of work qualified as a ‘dream job,’ because they put a picture of a voice-over person on the milk carton.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love what I do for a living, but since launching my business  nethervoice, I have received several emails, asking me for a reality check. Most of them go like this:

Dear Mr. Nethervoice:I am James Kumbatani, the grandson of the late Mr. Oshia Bumbayashi, grand chief of the Olali tribe. Mr. Bumbayashi left me in charge of his personal fortune valued at seven million….

 

Sorry, wrong email. Here’s the one I was looking for:

Dear Mr. Strikwerda:

I am an aspiring voice over artist and my dream is to break into the business. People have told me that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you agree? What did you bring to the table that -in your opinion- gave you an edge over other voice-over professionals? Thank you for your time.

Penny Whistle

This is what I wrote back:

Dear Penny:

Great voice-over talents make what they do sound so natural and easy, no wonder why so many people believe anyone could pull that off in a heartbeat. In reality, voice-over artists are no different from other performers or athletes. When people hear a great pianist play or watch a well-know sports star at the top of her game, they usually don’t think of all the years these pros had to put in, in order to get where they are now. Long before I became a full-time voice over pro, I learned some things that -as you put it- gave me an edge.

1. Sight Reading

Thanks to the never-ending encouragement of my mother, I’ve always been an avid reader. During my days as a news anchor for Dutch International Radio, I got used to reading last-minute news flashes and intros without skipping a beat. Today, I can print out a script, glance it over and take it into my sound booth and press ‘record.’ A few minutes later, my demo is on its way to the client. If I’m working on an actual job, however, I apply a different strategy (see 3 & 4).

2. Foreign languages

Growing up in Holland, I was exposed to many different languages and accents. I speak Dutch, English, German and some French & Portuguese. I also know some Latin and Hebrew. Unlike many Europeans, Americans usually aren’t polyglots, and I do my very best to take full advantage of that. Knowing how to pronounce unfamiliar names of people and places has been a great help in my career. Some clients like working with me, because I’m able to record the same commercial in four different languages.

3. Translating & Proofreading

I also work as a proofreader/translator, and I’m a professional nitpicker when it comes to scripts. Last-minute submissions often contain slips of the pen, and my clients are always grateful when I spot those mistakes and correct them. It shows them that I’m not just reading anything people put in front of me. It’s a great opportunity to show my clients that I care as much about their reputation as they do.

The other day, I was recording a Dutch commercial and the director asked me to translate some last-minute additions right there and then. No problem! I regularly receive international copy that was translated with the help of translation software. That’s usually a BIG red flag! I often end up correcting the work of a robot before I start recording a script that was supposedly ‘translated’.

4. Journalism

As a former newscaster, checking my sources has become second nature. Sloppy copywriters have handed me scripts with incorrect website addresses, wrong phone numbers and even company names that were misspelled. I always verify the information provided, no matter how reliable the source. Another thing I do is research the company I’m dealing with. Not only does it give me a feel for the corporate culture, I also check in with the Better Business Bureau and research the reputation of a particular business.

A word of warning: even though a company might have a good BBB rating, things could still be fishy.

A few months ago, I was approached by “European Immigration and Translation Consultants” in Florida. This company asked me to translate a birth and a marriage certificate. They received my work the very same day and they thanked me by writing out a bad check. Of course I ended up paying a fee to my bank. I asked for a money order instead, with the penalty added to the bill, but the agency refused.

After some more research, I found out that the con-sulting company was run by a con artist who was wanted by the Canadian authorities. Of course I filed a complaint with the BBB, but the company never responded. All the bureau could do was giving them an “F” rating and close the case.

5. Love of music

As an amateur musician, I developed a sense of rhythm, diction and melodic lines that is very helpful when it comes to getting into the groove of the music in a commercial or a narration. As a cornet-player and  singer, I’m blessed with increased lung capacity and breathing support. Singing is great gymnastics for your voice. It’s a fun vocal cord workout that not only gives you the stamina to complete a long recording session; it also enhances voice projection, diction and flexibility.

Penny, if you’d like to learn more about this business, I suggest you read Harlan Hogan’s “Tales and Techniques of a Voice-Over Actor.” In it, Harlan quotes Dick Moore of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, AFTRA (now SAGAFTRA).

Moore says that of the eighty thousand AFTRA members the union represents, no more than a hundred people do most of the voice work.

So, in order to stand out, not only do you need to be outstanding at what you do; you also need to bring something special to the table. There are thousands of hopefuls out there, and all of them believe they have a fantastic voice.

Ultimately, it’s what you can do with that voice that makes all the difference.

Best of luck to you.

Now I’m off to have a cold rice beverage.

Cheers!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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