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Those Silly Americans

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Personal, Promotion 12 Comments

The authorHere’s a question I get asked a lot:

“What’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over, living and working in the United States?”

Who wants to know?

Mostly European colleagues, who either think I’m totally nuts, or who secretly want to do what I did and move to this land of milk, honey, and doughnuts. Some of them have strange ideas about what my life on this side of the pond is like.

I sometimes have to explain to them that “No, I don’t live in a McMansion; there’s no giant gas guzzler parked in my garage, and I can’t call a Hollywood studio and put in a good word for you.” In fact, this American life I am leading is pretty ordinary and rather unspectacular.

I don’t know what my existence would have been like had I stayed in Holland, but in my experience, setting up shop in the States has as many advantages as disadvantages. My colleague Jamie Muffet just wrote a great piece on that very topic for Backstage, and he had me thinking. 

In this day and age where all of us are part of a huge global network, does it really matter where we do our job? It’s just as easy for me to plug into a studio in Amsterdam, as it is to reach a recording facility in New York or Johannesburg. Even agents who used to insist I make a personal appearance, don’t mind if I send them an mp3 audition. Times have changed.

Although technology has made it easy to have an international presence, there’s something I must admit. It took me a good number of years to find my way here in Pennsylvania, and at times I still struggle to make sense of my surroundings and the culture I live in. Personally, and professionally. For instance, I had a hard time trying to figure out how to position myself as a voice for hire.

CONFUSION

From a marketing perspective, it is important that clients have a clear concept of who I am, and what I bring to the table as a talent. When I first came here, people were mainly confused, and I don’t blame them. I spoke with a distinct British accent (the one I was taught in school), and most Americans thought I was from the UK. It was both a good and a bad thing.

It was good because casting directors who didn’t know any better, often hired me to play the part of a stuffy English professor. I even did a voice-over promoting a Beatles jukebox musical on Broadway. I tell you: it was fun being a fake!

There was a downside to having this posh accent. I felt that people were judging me all the time. They either thought I was highly intelligent, or a pompous ass. Of course neither is true. I can’t say it helped me define my professional identity as a native Dutch speaker. Then there was something else I stumbled upon.

IGNORANCE

Even though the United States is supposed to be this big melting pot, I’ve learned that Americans struggle with languages and accents. Many of them have never left the country, and they are rarely exposed to different tongues and twangs, the way Europeans are. Thanks to a brilliant educational system, their sense of geography tends to be off too.

A few weeks ago an agent asked me to audition for a documentary, and she was convinced my accent would be perfect. “You’re Dutch. You should nail this one,” she said. The minute I got the script I saw it was about an old ship… from Denmark. “Well, Dutch and Danish are pretty much the same, aren’t they?” the agent stated.

Not really. And Copenhagen is not the capital of the Netherlands.

Another thing I’ve had to explain over and over again, is the difference between Dutch and Flemish. Flemish is a kind of Dutch, spoken in a specific part of Belgium. It’s as different from Dutch as British English is from American English. That means you shouldn’t hire a Dutchman to voice a commercial meant for viewers in Belgium. But most people in the States don’t know that.

I used to get very annoyed with these ignorant Americans, but having lived here for over ten years, I’ve come to realize that many of them don’t know what they don’t know. Instead of holding it against them, I do my best to educate casting directors and agents, without sounding like a European know-it-all. And quite often they are very grateful for my advice.

Here’s another thing I learned the hard way.

SELF-PROMOTION

Coming from a Calvinistic country where any form of self-aggrandizement is frowned upon, I found out that in America modesty isn’t always an asset. In fact, people like talking about themselves. A lot. If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?

I had to learn to be comfortable with my accomplishments, and speak and write about them openly. In Holland I would have been accused of bragging. Here people say: “Don’t be shy. It’s okay. You have every reason to be proud.”

When talking to a potential client or an interested agent in the U.S., I make sure to sell myself as best as I can. When I’m dealing with someone in Europe, I like to tone it down considerably.

Another thing I realized was that Americans tend to be quite informal. Before you know it, you’re on a first-name basis talking about your family with someone you barely know. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people who come across as friendly, want to be your friend. Give it a few weeks, and they might not even remember your name. Don’t take it personally. 

Things are gradually shifting in Europe, but unless a new client signs his or her emails with a first name, I err on the side of caution, and I’m much more formal.

FEELING LIKE A KING

So, what’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over in the United States? 

In the Netherlands we have a saying: “In the land of the blind, the guy with one eye is king.” As one of the very few native Dutch voice-overs in North-America, that’s often how I feel. I’m a small orange fish in a huge pond. In all the years I have lived here, my English accent has changed considerably. It’s no longer British, and it’s not entirely American either. As I explained to Jamie Muffet: 

“Demand for a Dutch narrator isn’t exactly overwhelming, and thanks to the Internet, my competition in Holland is only one click away. My real niche is in ‘neutral English’ voiceovers, meaning my accent is neither British nor American. It’s more of a European twang, and businesses wanting to increase their global appeal hire me because of my international sound.”

If that’s not shameless self-promotion, I don’t know what is…

On occasion I go back to the Netherlands to see friends and family. I walk around in this tiny country, and I comment on how everything is so close, and how small things are. It’s guaranteed to make my Dutch friends laugh out loud.

“Oh, Paul,” they say…

“stop being such a silly American!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet, Please retweet!

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The Weight Of The World

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal 22 Comments

AtlasParis. Ankara. Istanbul. Brussels.

On some days this beautiful planet is so full of hatred and hardship that I feel guilty writing about such trivial things as “work.”

It sure is fun to blog about freelancing, marketing, and microphone technique, but I have to ask: “To what avail?”

Does it lead to a deeper understanding of the human psyche?

Does it tell us why young, radicalized men stuff their luggage with glass and nails, before they blow themselves and innocent others to bits and pieces?

Does it explain why so many people still believe that violence is the only way forward to further a cause?

As a blogger, shouldn’t I be writing about those issues, instead of talking about home studios, auditions, and online casting companies? 

Whenever I ask myself these questions, I have to remind myself of where I came from.

Before leaving the Netherlands, I worked as one of those stone-faced newscasters informing the world of yet another tragedy. On air, I asked countless experts about the roots of evil, and I grilled politicians about their ideas on how to fix a broken world.

Day after day I reported on endless suffering and strife, and I was part of the sensationalist “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” gang, that determines what is newsworthy and what isn’t. On sunnier days I would be searching for that snippet of positive news we could end our program with, to remind the listeners that not all people are perverts, rapists, or suicidal religious radicals. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the excitement and the adrenaline of the newsroom. It gave me a steady income, a certain status, and a sense of purpose. A democracy can only function when people are able to make smart decisions based on hard facts, and I was in the business of providing those facts. My radio station also gave me a unique opportunity to hold the feet of the famous to the fire.

Yet, one day, it all fell apart when I noticed myself caring less and less about the horror stories I was covering. In the beginning I would blame my lack of response on the need to “stay professional,” meaning detached from the raw emotions that are part and parcel of every human tragedy. I was supposed to stay as neutral as our network professed to be, and not get emotionally involved. But it came at a price. 

I gradually developed a tendency to disassociate myself from all kinds of feelings. Positive and negative. That invisible screen I was using to shield myself from sadness in the newsroom, had become like a second skin. It protected me, and it numbed me at the same time.

Over time, I came to a frightening realization:

I had lost one of the very few things that separates humans from animals: the ability to empathize.

I’d seen this happen to veteran journalists who were trying to cope with the crazy demands of their job. Some became chain smokers, heavy drinkers, and lifelong cynics. Others filed for divorce. It was not a road I wanted to travel.

One day, after covering yet another disaster, I just knew I had reached my limit. Years of reporting had done nothing to change the world. If anything, the world had gotten worse. All I wanted was to get out of broadcasting, and do something useful with my life. Something exhilarating. Something inspiring. Something uplifting.

When I finally left the poisonous bubble that was the newsroom, it took me a while to adjust to a new reality. A reality that wasn’t nearly as violent as I had thought it would be. Slowly but surely I discovered a world filled with kindness and good people. It was as if someone had opened the dark blinds that had been filtering the light from the windows for such a long time.

I came to realize that the news I had covered for all those years focused on the exceptions; on the grotesque and the extraordinary. The thousands of planes that land safely every day will never be on CNN. It’s the plane that crashes that ends up making headlines. And if you add all those headlines up, it’s easy to get the impression that this world is rotten to the core. But it’s a deliberate distortion of reality, contrived to kick up the ratings. 

Reality is so much better and less sensational than the networks want you to believe. For most of us it is reassuringly unspectacular and ordinary. It revolves around friends, family…. and work. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to blog about work, even when evil forces are trying to fill this world with fear.

The question remains: how do we respond to those who want to scare us by causing panic, pain, and suffering?

How do we deal with the fact that -to quote Harold Kushner- bad stuff happens to good people?

All of us have to come to terms with this in our own time and in our own way. Life and death are mysterious teachers.

Let me leave you with what I think.

The only way we can learn to live with darkness, is to focus on the light, and to become a reflection of that light.

Whether we realize it or not, all of us were born with the ability to shine. 

Once we start taking that to heart, perhaps we can begin making this place a better world.

In Paris. In Ankara. In Istanbul. In Brussels.

Everywhere.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.  

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Call Me Oscar

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 19 Comments

Oscar the GrouchCurmudgeon.

I just love the sound of that word, don’t you?

Curmudgeon.

Linguists believe it dates back to the 1570s, but no one can tell for certain where it came from.

If you’re like me, and English is your second or third language, you might not even know that curmudgeon is used to describe a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. It’s the archetypal grouch: unpleasant, argumentative, stubborn, and unsociable.

A while ago I made a surprising discovery. I was talking to a colleague whom I had never met before, and near the end of our conversation she said to me:

“I can’t believe how nice you are. You’re not at all what I expected.”

“What did you expect?” I asked.

“Well, based on your blog I always thought you were this grumpy, super-serious, sourpuss kind of a guy. I mean, you’re always so critical of newbies, clients, and colleagues, and you don’t exactly mince words.”

“You thought I was a curmudgeon,” I interjected.

“Your words, not mine,” she said, “but to be honest, I had expected some cranky complainer. You’re not like that at all.”

Normally I don’t fall for flattery, but her comment made me smile. A little bit.

“In a previous life I used to teach self-help seminars,” I said, “and your observation reminds me of one of the main messages I impressed upon my students:

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

It’s the idea that it doesn’t really matter what people write or say. The meaning comes from how listeners interpret and respond to what was written or said. Intentions -good or bad- are irrelevant.

My colleague looked puzzled.

“Let me give you an example,” I continued.

“Bono, the U2 frontman, was on a fact-finding mission in Africa. One of his hosts gave this long-winded, academic spiel on the origins of urban poverty and the rise of AIDS. At one point Bono had had enough. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘But I just explained it to you,’ said his host annoyed. ‘I was as clear as I could be. Perhaps this is going over your head. After all, you’re not an expert.’

‘Perhaps you should explain it better,’ answered Bono.

I looked at my colleague and said:

“The meaning of our communication is the response we get. This academic thought he was making himself perfectly clear, yet Bono’s response told him otherwise. Who was at fault here?

The way I see it, Bono was right. Now, let’s bring this back to you and me. I believe it is our responsibility to communicate a message in such a way that the other person will understand its true meaning. If that’s not the case, we need to explain ourselves in a different way until understanding is reached. 

Unfortunately, most of my teachers -whether in elementary or in high school- never got that concept. If a pupil didn’t comprehend something that was explained to them, they always blamed the “dumb” student.”

“And how is all of this connected to your blog?” asked my colleague.

“Perfect example,” I said. “Here I am… attempting to make a connection between my blog and your expectations of me as a person, and I fail miserably. So, let me try again.

Based on my blog, you thought I would be a certain way, correct? And as you admitted, I wasn’t like that at all. Is that your fault? Not really. Your initial impression was based on my writings. Your response was the meaning of my communication. So, I thank you for your feedback.”

I paused for a moment before I opened up.

“You know, I don’t really want to come across as the curmudgeon of the voice-over world. That’s not who I am. As you have noticed, I don’t take myself too seriously. I love most of my clients and colleagues, and I love what I do for a living. I also want to warn newbies before someone takes advantage of them. That’s one of the reasons why I started blogging.

I blog to provide an antidote to all those manipulative marketing messages telling gullible people what they want to hear. At least, that’s my intention.”

“Well, that comes across loud and clear,” said my colleague. “But perhaps you could sprinkle it with a bit of humor every now and then. Lighten up, and don’t be so preachy. I know your dad was a minister, but a blog is not a pulpit.”

“Amen to that,” I said. “Thank you again.” A few moments later, we parted ways.

Later that day I got a phone call.

“Hi, remember me?” asked my colleague. “I’ve been thinking about that conversation we had this morning, and I need to know something. Were you talking about yourself, or were you talking about me when you told that Bono story?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, earlier on I had told you about the difficulties I had communicating with a client. I didn’t feel he understood me, and I blamed him for purposely missing the points I was trying to make. After you and I talked I did my best to see things from his perspective. I modified my approach and my tone in the last message I sent him. He just emailed me back, and I think we’re finally getting somewhere. Am I on the right track?”

“I don’t think I have to answer that question,” I said. “You changed your communication, and you got a different response. Congratulations. You’re a fast learner!”

“And you’re a pretty good teacher,” she responded. Then she laughed.

“For a curmudgeon, that is…”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Oscar the Grouch via photopin (license)

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Do Nice People Always Finish Last?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 6 Comments

smiling girl in a princess dress“Why do clients always think they can play me?” said one of my students. Let’s call her Ella.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, first they try to nickel and dime me, and then they expect me to record a major revision of a script for free. After going above and beyond to keep them happy, they wait months and months to pay me. I’m sick of it! Who do they think I am? Some kind of doormat?”

“If anything, you’re a goody two-shoes,” I said, “and that might be part of your problem.”

“How so?” my student wanted to know.

“I’ll get to that in a moment,” I responded. “First you have to acknowledge something I had to learn the hard way.”

“And what is that?”

“It’s the fact that it’s virtually impossible to change other people. You can only change yourself. So, if you want a different response from a client, you have to change the way you respond to them. That’s the way it works in any type of relationship. And when you act differently, your environment might start to treat you differently.”

“Can you give me an example?” Ella asked intrigued.

“Sure. Here’s one thing I noticed when we started working together,” I said. “You’re a very friendly person who will go out of her way to please people. You also have a tendency to become very informal very quickly.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a kind and open person. However, you can be friendly and business-like at the same time. There’s no need to share all kinds of personal details with someone you know professionally. You work together to get a job done. You don’t have to become best buddies. In fact, I think it’s often best to keep your personal life out of it.

Because you tend to be so informal with everybody, some clients might get the impression that you’re not very professional. It’s a lot easier to push people around who don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Do you know what I mean?”

“I totally get it,” Ella said. “I probably come across as someone who is very naive and inexperienced.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, Ella, and part of this business is all about perceptions. If people perceive you to be weak in one area, they’ll take advantage of it.”

“So what do I do?” Ella asked.

“Use your secret weapon,” I said. “Use your voice!

I have noticed that your voice has a tendency to go up at the end of most sentences. You might not even be aware of it, but it sounds like you’re not very certain of yourself. Everything ends in a question. It makes you sound insecure. And if you seem insecure, clients won’t trust you. We’ve got to work on that.”

“Perhaps I am insecure,” said Ella. “I don’t have a lot of experience, and I don’t want to lose a client because he doesn’t like me.”

“Thanks for bringing that up,” I said. “Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that you are rather inclined to take things personally. Is that true?”

Ella nodded.

“That’s going to be tough in this business. Very tough. In any given week you’ll hear a lot of no’s, and very few yeses. If you take every single no as a personal rejection, you’ll be absolutely miserable. And I don’t want that to happen. You’re too talented.

Unless you completely messed up, or the quality of your recording was abysmal, it is never about you. It is all about the subjective opinion of the person casting the job. Emphasis on subjective.

Now, back to using your voice.

If you end your sentences with a period instead of with a question mark, you’ll sound a lot more confident. Period. You might not feel entirely confident, but the client doesn’t know that. You also have to work on your breathing, but that’s for another day.

Secondly, keep things strictly business. Remember, you are the expert. That’s why they’re thinking of hiring you. They’re not looking for a new friend. 

Take charge of the conversation, and -if it is a new client- explain how you usually work. Let the client know they’re in good hands. And one more thing: stop apologizing all the time. You came in seven minutes ago, and you’ve already apologized ten times for things that weren’t even your fault. Why?

“I’m sorry,” said Ella…

And then she realized what she was doing. She blushed, and said: “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“I know you’re not doing it on purpose, but it’s not doing you any favors. Did you have a Catholic upbringing?”

“No, said Ella. “I’m Jewish.”

I laughed.

“Now, let’s get back to what we were talking about. I was giving you some advice, so here’s another thing I want you to consider: only take on a job you know you can handle. Be clear about your policies and procedures, and be firm about your rates. Never negotiate a rate after the fact. Get to an agreement before you go into the studio, and confirm things in writing ahead of time. Are you following me?”

“I’m listening,” said Ella, “and it all makes sense. I just don’t know if I can come across as someone who has been doing this for years. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not. That’s not who I am.”

“I understand that” I said, “but here’s the good news:

In this business you get paid to pretend.

I just recorded a voice-over for a pharmaceutical company, and I played the part of a neurologist. The day before I worked on a guided tour for a museum, and I was cast as a historian. Who knows what they want me to be tomorrow? A mad scientist? A cartoon character? A Flying Dutchman? That’s the fun of this job! You can pretend to be anyone you want, and make some money too! The better you are at pretending, the more in-demand you’ll be as a voice-over.

If you can convince the client you mean business, you are in business.”

Ella looked at me, and I could see that my words had ignited a spark. 

“Ella, listen to me. You know that as soon as you get a script that reads like it’s been written for you, you’ll knock it out of the park, right? In other words: it’s not even a matter of being qualified or not. It’s a matter of you believing in yourself. Don’t you agree?

A wise teacher once said: You can pretend anything, and master it.

So, let’s start this coaching session by “pretending” you know the ropes, okay? We’ll do a mock conversation with a potential customer. I’ll be the obnoxious client, and you’ll be the brilliant voice talent. It is your job to convince me that you are the right person for the job. 

Are you game?”

Ella smiled.

“As in voice acting, you might need a few takes before you hit the nail on the head, but by the time we’re done, you’ll know how to respond like a pro, and you’ll never be played again.

How does that sound?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Wanderin’ free | Part of your world via photopin (license)

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Turning Resistance Into Results

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 9 Comments

push upEvery January I see them walk in.

The men and women who told themselves: “I can do this!”

They’re sporting brand new workout clothes, and are wearing fancy gym sneakers that have yet to be broken in. Water bottles in hand, they flock to the eight o’ clock spinning class lead by Helga, a platinum blonde transplant from Germany. Her voice is as muscular as her thighs.

As the newbies adjust their exercise bikes, the regulars look at each other knowingly. We’ve seen this sad ritual many times. Give it a few weeks, and it will all be over. 

BAILING OUT

February has barely begun, and half of the new recruits have already given up. “It wasn’t really my thing” they tell their friends with a faint smile. “But at least I tried, and that’s worth something, right?”

Luckily for them, they only paid for a trial membership. It’s the ultimate cop-out for those who can’t or won’t commit. How do I know?

A few years ago, I belonged to this group of dropouts, and I’m not proud of it. But last year I made a courageous comeback, and today I feel like I’m part of the LA Fitness furniture. To me, a gym workout is the ultimate stress-busting, fat-burning, energy-boosting experience. Here’s something else I discovered along the way.

The microcosm of the gym is a powerful metaphor for the real world. In fact, there are lots of parallels between my professional life as a voice-over, and what’s happening on the gym floor. Do you think this is a stretch? Let’s talk about machines!

1. The best equipment does not guarantee results. It’s how you use it that matters.

People hurt themselves on the gym floor all the time, because they don’t know how to use the equipment. They start lifting, pushing or pulling, without adjusting the machines first.

Willful ignorance leads to lack of results and could be damaging.

This is true in so many contexts. Whether you’re a professional photographer, a graphic designer, or a musician, you need good tools to get the job done. But owning a million-dollar violin means nothing if you don’t know how to play it well. 

In our tiny voice-over bubble, we love to talk gear. Some colleagues seem to be forever searching for the Holy Grail of microphones or preamps. What they’re currently using is perfectly fine, but somehow they think that getting that shiny new mic will give them a tremendous leg up over the competition. 

In my opinion, it’s much wiser to spend your money on a coach who can help you get the most out of your equipment and your performance. But how do you know which coach is right for you? 

2. Effective coaches are role models who practice what they preach.

Let me ask you a question. While you’re at the gym, would you want to be guided by an overweight, uninterested, uninspiring coach? 

Of course not!

I’m sorry to say that many “personal trainers” at my gym just seem to phone their sessions in. There’s no enthusiasm. No encouragement. No pride in the work they do. They’re merely going through the motions, counting the hours until their shift is over. Some seem way too young and inexperienced. That’s probably because they are.

The word “mentor” means “wise advisor.” It comes from the Greek noun “mentos” meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, and passion.” A great coach or mentor embodies all these notions. Wise people are much more than an experienced source of information. They know how to apply that information with purpose and with passion. And they’re not afraid to give you a hard time and hold you accountable for your progress, or lack thereof! Here’s why:

3. Resistance makes you stronger.

Fans of the diving board know that they need the resistance it offers to jump to the right height. In the gym, resistance training increases muscle strength by making the muscles work against a weight or force.  

If you’ve ever tried to get into shape, you know that you sometimes get to a point where you run up against the limits of what you believe is possible. Your body cries out: “no more,” and your mind tells you to quit. Those moments are critical. During those times you need to push through what feels uncomfortable in order to gain strength and grow. Otherwise you’ll always remain in your comfort zone and coast.

Success doesn’t come naturally to those who are always playing it safe. 

Now, as you’re reading these words, something in your personal or professional life may seem to work against you. This leaves you with a choice. You can see these moments as threats, or as opportunities. Obstacles can become stepping stones, although you might not directly see it that way. Here’s some good news.

At certain times you don’t necessarily need to feel discomfort to know it’s time to up your game and go to a higher level. Here’s my rule of thumb (and I use this in the gym as well):

If it becomes too easy, it’s time for a new challenge, and time to raise the bar.

There’s one last thing I learned from going to the gym:

4. Use others as your inspiration, but never as the measure of your success.

It’s human nature to contrast and compare. When I first entered the gym, I was a bit intimidated by all these lean bodies pumping iron. I wondered how long it would take me to get into shape. I had no desire to look like a bodybuilder, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more muscular definition, and a lower number on the scale.

Then I realized that these guys and gals were once just like me. Over time they developed a routine that worked for them, to get into the shape they wanted to be in. They made changes in their diet and lifestyle, and they had trainers who held them accountable.

Above all, they consistently kept coming, rain or shine. They used persistence and resistance in combination with the right equipment and the best mentors.

If they could do it, I could do it.

And I’ll tell you what:

If I can do it, you can do it!

There’s only one question:

How soon are you going to start?

Or will you be walking out the door within a month?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Interested in working out? My colleague Rick Lance has published a series of “Fitness Tips from a 32 Year Fitness Novice.”
photo credit: Zac Aynsley Natural Fitness Models 1 via photopin (license)

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Voice-Over’s Seven Deadly Sins

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 26 Comments

I never knew this, but if you ask a bartender for The Seven Deadly Sins, he’ll give you a shot comprised of equal parts of the seven cheapest liquors available at the bar.

It’s like hiring a team of third-rate voice-overs from a lowball website to narrate a piece of pulp fiction. It’s guaranteed to turn your stomach. 

If you’re an old-school Catholic, The Seven Deadly Sins have a very different meaning. Dating back to the 4th century AD, it’s a classification of capital vices, also known as cardinal sins. They are: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.

In one way or another, these sins are as old as mankind, and you’ll see manifestations of them in our professional community. So, let’s talk about them for a moment, starting with…

Lust

Originally, lust was equated to desire, as in the desire for fame, power or money. If that’s what you’re secretly after, I strongly advise you to choose a different career path. With a few exceptions, voice actors are the unknown, unseen, unsung heroes of video games, documentaries, audio books, and more. We’re not in the picture. Literally.

If you’ve been around the block for a few years you might disagree, because you happen to know lots of voice-overs. To the rest of the world this is totally irrelevant. Just stop a stranger in the street. Ask her to name one voice actor. Just one, and watch what happens. If you’re lucky she’ll call out the name of an A-list Hollywood celebrity, but that’s it. 

Big names make the big bucks, and you’ll see their names on billboards all over the world. The average VO Pro will forever be the anonymous disembodied voice, running from gig to gig, as unremarkable as can be.

There is a bright side. One of the best perks of this job is that we can keep our privacy!

Gluttony

This is a delicate one, because I know I’ll probably step on a few sensitive toes here. If we’d have a room full of on-screen actors and voice-overs, how would one tell the two apart? It’s easy. The voice-overs are more likely to be overweight.

I’ve written about this before, but weight gain is often the result of a sedentary life spent in a small space behind a microphone. Combine lack of movement with the overeating of unhealthy foods, and you have a recipe for disaster. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an occupational hazard. Lifestyle and diet are based on choices, and choices can be changed. Consider this:

You’ll never be satisfied until you know what you’re truly hungry for.

Greed

If you believe that voice acting is a shortcut to making lots of money in a short amount of time, think again. To an outsider, being paid $250 for a 60-second narration might seem good money. What people don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between what voice-overs make and what they actually get to keep.

Some colleagues are lucky to have a steady stream of well-paying projects. Many others know that these two hundred and fifty dollars also have to pay for the time in between gigs. It also pays for all the expenses that come with being self-employed, for the rent, for utilities, and for all the other bills that never stop coming.

There’s one more thing I want to say about greed, and it has to do with the quality of our service:

People will never do their best work if money is their main motivator.

Sloth

I have seen quite a few people fail at VO, not because they’re untalented, but because they’re downright lazy. Technology has made it so easy to sign up for a voice casting site, and watch the auditions come in. And when  -after a month or two- the booking rate is still zero, guess who gets the blame?

Laziness is also about expecting others to give you the answers on a silver platter, and milking their network to get ahead. It’s a failure to do all the hard, boring, and unglamorous work that comes with running your own business. It’s about taking things for granted, and not being grateful.

Those who have made the move from a corporate job to being self-employed, know that you often have to work twice as hard and twice as long. When you’re the boss, you run all the risk, there are no paid benefits, and results are never guaranteed. Isn’t that fun?

Wrath

In the eyes of some, the multifarious VO-community is made up of a very helpful and altruistic group of people. However, if you’ve spent some time online, you know that we’re not all saints and angels. There are some very bitter, frustrated, and angry individuals who are trolling various groups. 

They will gladly put a newbie in his or her place. These people always know better, and if you don’t bow to their eternal wisdom and status, they will publicly slap you on the wrist. But wrath takes on other forms as well. 

People get angry when they feel ripped off, either by cheapskate clients or by lowballing colleagues. They get upset when an (in their opinion) mediocre talent “steals” a job they’re not worthy of. Angry people tend to take things very personally, and that’s tricky in an industry where rejection is commonplace. Anger is often the basis for the next deadly sin:

Envy

I wish all of us could be happy for one another all the time. But some people aren’t wired that way. Another person’s success becomes a source for their misery. I remember losing a friend after I landed a job both of us were in the running for. I had no idea why he suddenly disappeared from my life. Years later he told me his jealousy got the better of him. 

Some psychologists believe that there are two kinds of envy: benign envy and malicious envy. Benign envy can be a driving force, motivating people to achieve something great. Malicious envy doesn’t only destroy relationships, it’s self-destructive as well.

The idea that we are always in competition with one another, and that the world is divided into winners and losers, can lead to envy. I always encourage my students to cultivate the lost art of admiration. Rather than being jealous of someone’s accomplishments, ask yourself:

“What has this person done to get to where he/she is now, and what can I learn from him or her?”

Pride

I think there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in what you do, and being proud of what you’ve accomplished. Pride turns poisonous as soon as you start believing that you’re better than others, or when you can’t appreciate other people’s achievements.

Pride often manifests itself as arrogance. The sad thing is that arrogance stunts growth and it creates distance. It’s tough to teach someone who thinks he knows better. Arrogant people tend to have little patience for those who are (supposedly) not at their level. They’re great at making other people feel inadequate and inferior.

Someone once said: “Pride leads to contempt; gratitude leads to compassion.”

Redemption

Let’s remember that as voice-overs, we’re in the service industry. Our success relies on the extent to which we understand the needs of our clients, and our ability to meet those needs. Professional pride can give us the confidence needed to get the job done. But we can’t allow pride to feed our ego, causing us to focus on ourselves, instead of on our customers. 

We can only grow as professionals once we realize that we don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to be perfect. We need to stay open, appreciative, show some humility, and be eternally grateful for the talents we were born with.

Are you following me?

Good, and if -for some reason- you don’t agree with me, there’s only one thing I can do.

I’ll drag you to the nearest pub, and make you drink The Seven Deadly Sins.

That will teach you.

Cheers!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Nate and Megan via photopin (license)

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Giving Up

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal, Social Media 46 Comments

Letting GoThis year…

I stopped running after every audition,

Or hoping for that big break.

I gave up my relentless quest for clients,

and allowed clients to come to me.

I quit writing long emails to people asking me for the secret formula to overnight success;

I relinquished my desire to have a constant social media presence;

I said “no” to most requests for interviews, guest posts, and twitter chats;

I even took a few weeks off from blogging, just because I felt like it.

I stayed away from most voice-over gatherings, online and offline;

I did not drool over the latest and greatest gear (well, just a little bit);

I gave myself permission to not be available all the time.

Instead of in the studio, I began most of my days in the gym, gaining strength, and losing weight.

I separated my personal from my professional life,

and decided that who I am, is more than what I do.

This year, I gave up the control

I never had in the first place,

and I replaced most of my “shoulds” and “musts” 

with “I choose to,” and “I’m going for it.”

And you know what?

Things turned out pretty okay.

My business survived.

I survived.

I feel less taxed, and more relaxed.

Here’s what I have learned:

Giving up is not so bad. 

Sometimes the old has to go, in order to make room for the new.

The junk we leave in the attic, and the trinkets we hang on to in the basement,

It can all go. Really.

Life is lighter without it. 

You see…

Many of us walk around with old stuff that isn’t necessarily our stuff.

It’s stuff other people left behind. Baggage. 

Thoughts. Habits. Beliefs. Even objects.

Things that no longer serve a purpose.

It weighs us down.

And when all of it is gone, we can move on.

Because we have reclaimed a space in our lives that is waiting to be filled with excitement and anticipation.

Take it from me:

We sometimes need to lose part of who we were, in order to discover who we are. 

There is much to gain from giving up.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: ‘Letting Go’, United States, New York, Montauk via photopin (license)

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Please don’t let me be misunderstood

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 7 Comments

ReflectionA few days ago, something happened to me that had never happened before.

At the end of Uncle Roy’s 10th annual VO-BBQ, a young colleague walked up to me and said:

“I wanted to thank you.

You are the reason why I am a voice-over today.”

“How so?” I asked, pleasantly surprised.

He said: “When I watched your video The Troublesome Truth about a Voice-Over Career, I just knew I had to become a voice actor. Since then I have worked very hard to launch my career, and I couldn’t be happier doing what I love to do. So, thank you!”

“I’m so glad to hear that,” I said, “but really… all the credit goes to you. You made this happen. Not me. I just put a video on YouTube.”

When I thought about this encounter the next day, it made me smile. So many people have seen the video, and quite a few commentators accused me of trying to kill their dreams by listing all the reasons why a voice-over career might not be for them. How dare I?

Now, here’s a guy who had the opposite response. After watching my video, he became more determined than ever to make it as a professional voice talent! It just goes to show that the same information can elicit an entirely different reaction, depending on the person who’s processing it.

This confirms one of my favorite sayings:

The world we see is a mirror of who we are.

If you are a glass-is-half-empty kind of person, you will always find evidence to support that idea. If you believe that the glass is always half full, you’ll find example after example to underpin that view. Our perception is mostly projection.

I also had to smile because I do love it when open-minded, talented people take advice to heart, and run with it.

You see, it’s so easy to look at a video, listen to a podcast or quickly scan a blog post, and immediately move on to something else. That’s today’s society. We go from one stimulus to the next. There’s no percolation time, allowing info to sink in. That’s a shame, because processing more information faster doesn’t make us any wiser. I believe it makes us more shallow and stressed. 

When we listen to someone making a point, we hardly ask ourselves the basic questions:

1. What is the speaker really saying? How much of it do I understand, and what is it that I don’t yet get?
2. What does this information mean to me? How is it relevant?
3. What should I do with it?

Why do we skip these questions?

For one, because many of us have lost the ability to be in the moment and truly listen. We’re so busy trying to come up with a response, that we don’t even hear what’s being said. Or, we assume we already know what the other person is going to say, and we respond to that. The better we know the person we’re talking to, the more frequently this happens.

It’s a relationship killer, and I’m not only talking about intimate relationships.

Whether you’re a voice actor or you do some other kind of freelance work, your level of success is deeply linked to the level in which you understand and respond to your client’s needs. That’s why I find it very challenging to work with clients who give little or no instructions.

It’s impossible to live up to unknown expectations. This is true in our professional, as well as in our personal lives. And because we make assumptions instead of asking questions, we get in trouble. 

The other day I was convinced I knew what a client wanted me to do. My job was to dub a Dutch actor in English, and the director had sent me a video clip of the guy I was supposed to emulate. So, I sent the director a recording of me mimicking the Dutchman to the best of my abilities.

The next day I got a request to redo the dub. “I only sent you the video so you could get a sense of the tempo,” the director said. “I don’t want you to imitate the man. I want you to sound like yourself.” So, once again I had been mind reading someone else’s intentions, and had missed the mark.

Because of experiences like these, I can’t blame those who leave strange and unusual comments on my Troublesome Truth video, or on this blog for that matter. I have to accept that once I release words and images into cyberspace, they will take on a life of their own, and people will interpret them any way they want.

Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Like the time this young colleague thanked me for my video.

And I realize that what he did with my message says a lot about him, and very little about me.

Enough said.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

photo credit: reflection via photopin (license)

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The Most Embarrassing Moment of my Voice-Over Career

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Gear, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Studio 8 Comments

Crazy MinionThis week I decided to do something different.

Instead of telling you a story, or giving you some kind of Top Ten, I will answer three seemingly simple questions I get asked a lot.

I’ll start off with some career advice, then I’ll talk about gear, and I will finish with my most embarrassing moment in this business.

Why not save the best for last?

As a voice-over coach, I work with experienced people and absolute beginners. This is what many want to know:

How do I become a top-earning voice talent?

This is actually easy to answer:

By not becoming a full-time voice actor.

Just look at the evidence. I’m sure you’ve seen a few lists of the best paid voice-overs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are usually on those lists. They are the creators of South Park, and they wrote The Book of Mormon musical. Matt and Trey are screenwriters, producers. directors…. and they do voices for the cartoons they created.

Seth MacFarlane, Harry Shearer, and Hank Azaria are also on that list. All three are multi-talented multimillionaires. Hank is a stage actor, director and comedian. Seth created Family Guy and co-created American Dad. He’s a writer, a producer, actor, and singer. Shearer hosts his own weekly radio show, and stars in many movies.

On July 10th, 2015, Minions hit American movie theaters. The voices of these cute yellow fellows don’t come from a professional voice actor, but from French animator Pierre-Louis Padang Coffi. In the Despicable Me movies, fellow director Chris Renaud voiced a few minions too. 

So, if your goal is to make a ton of money doing voice-overs, the sure-fire road to success does not lead to the VO studio, but to a film set, a Broadway stage, or to a comedy club. There are exceptions, but the people for whom voice acting is just something they do on the side (among many other things), tend to be the highest earners.

My advice: Get famous doing something else first, and before you know it, the voice-over offers will start pouring in!

What Equipment do you recommend for the voice-over studio?

First off, even the best gear sounds crappy in a bad environment. I strongly urge you to spend most of your money on creating a semi-soundproof and acoustically treated recording space before you blow it all on a Neumann mic.

When it comes to selecting equipment, I find that a lot of people go for familiar brand names without looking any further, and they spend way too much money.

When in 2012 I introduced the voice-over community to one of my favorite microphones, many colleagues said: “Conneaut Audio Devices, what kind of brand name is that?” Yet, I still believe that their E100S model is one of the best values for money. Click here to find out why. 

It is probably time for me to change the headline of this review, because the CAD E100S (retailing for about $350) has earned quite a reputation. Whenever someone asks for microphone advice, you’ll always find a happy CAD convert chiming in on social media, and for very good reasons.

Now, it takes a good preamp to make a microphone shine. Audient might not be the first brand you think of when it comes to voice-over gear. Yet, this British company is known throughout the recording industry for their pristine preamps. If you’re looking for a pre with top-of-the-line AD/DA converters, a monitor controller, and lots of connectivity, the iD22 ($599) is an excellent choice. I use it in my voice-over studio, and you can click here to read my review.

Audient iD14

click to enlarge

A few months ago, the iD22 got a little brother: the iD14. It’s a compact, robust, portable plug and play solution. At $299, this stylish all-metal powerhouse is hard to beat in the studio and on the road.

What was the most embarrassing moment of your voice-over career?

Let me preframe my answer by saying that I firmly believe that people make decisions based on the information that is available at the deciding moment. This information is always insufficient, and it is colored by many factors such as our emotions. Looking back, some of the decisions you and I have made may seem silly or stupid now, but had we known better, we would have made better choices.

Here’s one decision I later came to regret.

Back in 2009 I was launching my voice-over career in the United States, and I signed up for voices.com. That turned out to be a pretty good move, because straight away I started booking a handful of lucrative jobs.

A few months later, Voices held a contest called “The Ultimate Success Story,” asking their members to write a few words about how well they did using the online voice casting service. The grand prize was a $500 gift certificate to pro audio retailer Sweetwater.

I think you can guess what happened next: my glowing testimonial turned out to be the top pick. Last time I checked, it is still used for promotional purposes.

Why was winning the grand prize so embarrassing?

Well, right after claiming my reward, my luck on Voices ran out, and after a few years I started to dislike the whole Pay-to-Play model. As I wrote in my book Making Money In Your PJs:

“In 2013 I had a five-star rating, 5445 listens on voices.com (more than any other Dutch talent), and I landed a total of… (are you ready?) TEN jobs, earning me a whopping $2,740.89. God only knows how many auditions I have had to submit before being selected.

This can only mean one of two things. Either, I stink at playing the Pay-to-Play game, or I’m a talentless, misguided soul who should be doing something useful with his life.”

That year I left voices.com, and I never looked back. I no longer believe that a site like Voices benefits my career or my community. As I wrote in my article Leaving Voices.com:

“Today, I’d rather work for agents who have an incentive to send me quality leads with decent rates. There are no upfront fees. When I get paid, they get paid. When they negotiate a better deal, they make more money too. That’s only fair. I only pay when I actually get to play.”

Every now and then I still run into people who have read my prize-winning endorsement. They also know of my overall disenchantment with online casting mills. And when they bring up my old testimonial, I get very uncomfortable.

It is the unfortunate price I pay for my Sweetwater shopping spree!

But don’t feel sorry for me.

I may not make as much as Trey, Matt, Hank or Harry, but I’m doing quite alright. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Happy Meal Minion Toys via photopin (license)

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The Ministry of Silly Voice-Overs

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Pay-to-Play, Personal 19 Comments

Lumberjack SongLast week it happened again.

In my dreams.

I got a phone call from a potential student who wanted to know how long it would take to break into the voice-over business.

He had no training, no equipment, no experience, and no patience. When I asked him how much he was willing to invest, it turned out he had no money either.

What a brilliant start!

“But I have a profile on voices.com,” he said proudly.

“How did you pull that off?” I wondered.

“I just recorded a few things on my friend’s computer so I would have some demos, and they accepted me straight away. They must think I have potential, right?”

“Listen carefully,” I said, “these people would accept a talking parrot for a new member as long as it presented a credit card that wasn’t expired. In fact, I believe I’ve heard a few of our feathered friends on that site, and they all sound very much like Gilbert Gottfried.”

“Oh, I can do a Gilbert Gottfried for you,” said my aspiring voice-over enthusiastically. “Just give me a few seconds to get into character.”

“Please don’t,” I begged, but it was too late. I had to hold the phone a mile away from my ear in order to avoid permanent hearing loss.

After one of the most painful minutes of my life listening to the sound of an Aflac duck being strangled, I had had enough, and shouted:

GILBERT, YOU’RE FIRED!”

“That’s so funny,” giggled the voice on the other end of the line. “Gottfried lost his job after making a tsunami joke. I must have sounded pretty convincing.”

“To tell you the truth, you sounded more like a dead parrot to me, my friend. Had you gone on for much longer, my neighbors would have reported me to the police for cruelty to animals. I’m sure they could hear every wretched noise you just made.”

“Speaking of dead parrots,” the aspiring student continued unabashed, “I can also do a mean John Cleese impression. And without skipping a beat he yelled:

‘Ello, Miss, I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.’

“Before you go any further, Mr. Cleese,” I interrupted, “I have an admission to make.”

‘ELLO POLLY!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing!’ the guy continued, but the moment he took a breath I seized the opportunity and said:

“You are extremely talented…”

The blissful silence that followed these glorious words lasted precisely two seconds.

“Do you really think so?” the impersonator whispered.

“Extremely talented…

at pissing people off, Pet Shop man,” I continued. “Let me give it to you plain and simple: 

If you go on like this, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression. Right now, your voice-over career is as dead in the water as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue. It’s stone dead. It has ceased to be. It’s expired, and gone to meet its maker. Bereft of life. It’s kicked the bucket, and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible…”

“Alright, alright… I get it,” said the voice-over wannabe. “But you have to help me out here. I came to you for some coaching. Not to have an argument. I told you that at the beginning.”

“No you didn’t” I said.

“Yes I did,” he said.

“You did not!”

“I’m telling you I did!”

“You did not!”

“Oh this is futile,” he said.”

“At last we agree on something,” I replied. “From what I’ve heard so far, you’re as good at doing voice-overs as Basil Fawlty was at running a hotel.”

“Coming from you, that means a lot,” the guy said. “I appreciate your honesty. Will you be my coach?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I exclaimed. “I just insulted you, and you want to be my student? What are you? A masochist? I don’t think you’re cut out for this sort of work.”

“But for the past few months this has been my dream,” he stammered. “Right now I work at Holiday Hair, and I hate it. I have this terrible un-un-uncontrollable fear whenever I see hair. When I was a kid I used to hate the sight of hair being cut. My mother said I was a fool. She said the only way to cure it was to become a hairdresser. Guess what? It didn’t work.”

He let out a deep, sad sigh.

“Mr. Strikwerda, If I can’t do voice-overs, what else am I to do?”

I knew I couldn’t leave the guy hanging. He had a good sense of humor, and I wanted him to get something out of our conversation. What was I to do? All of a sudden I knew the perfect answer.

“Listen, I said… why don’t you…  why don’t you become a… LUMBERJACK!” 

“Leaping from tree to tree as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia,” he continued.

“The giant redwood, the larch, the fir, the mighty scots pine…”

“If I ever want to get rid of this lad, I have to stop feeding him lines,” I said to myself. After taking a sip of water I got back into the conversation.

“You know my name. What’s yours?” I asked.

“Michael,” he said. “I was named after Michael Palin.” 

“How surprising,” I thought. 

“Well, Michael, I tell you what. Why don’t you take one of your demos, and send it to the Voice Arts™ Awards. If you win, I’ll give you five free coaching sessions. How does that sound?”

“Are you serious?” he asked. “That’s amazing! Thank you. Now I feel much more optimistic.”

“That’s the spirit!” I said. “You know what they say: ‘Always look on the bright side of life.'”

Michael laughed, and replied on cue:

“Nudge, nudge. Say no more!”

Paul Strikwerda (and Monty Pyton) ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Photo 02-07-14 11 21 31 via photopin (license)

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