nethervoice

The Worst Acting Advice Ever

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 20 Comments

Looking glass smileIn my last blog post I talked about delivery.

No, I wasn’t referring to your local pizza parlor. I was sinking my teeth into our performance as (voice) actors.

If you’ve missed it, here’s the takeaway:

Delivery is what separates the pro from the wannabe. You may have the most pleasant pipes in the world; you may be an okay reader, but if your delivery is flat,* you’ll never have a career as a voice-over.

Delivery can kill a joke, and it can bring tears of laughter to the audience. Delivery can put people to sleep, and it can make them jump for joy.

Delivery is like magic dust. It can turn a text from bland to grand. It’s one of the reasons why computer-generated voices will never be able to perform a Shakespeare play in a most moving way.

Delivery, good or bad, is never neutral. Masterful delivery is:

  • Clear and Clean
  • Convincing
  • Consistent
  • Context & content appropriate
  • Charismatic


Let’s break these factors down a bit.

CLEAR & CLEAN

In order to change and improve your delivery, you first have to be aware of the way you speak. Most people mumble and stumble through life, and they don’t even know it.

People have no idea how they come across because they don’t hear their own voice the way others do. They’re so used to it that they cannot be objective. Unless they’re an expert, they’re probably not even equipped to properly analyze the way other people sound. This is not their fault. It’s built into our biology.

Our brains are conditioned to detect meaning, and to filter out fluff. By fluff I mean irrelevant sounds such as background noises, lip smacks, breaths, and um’s and ah’s. Most of the time, we’re not even listening, but we’re interpreting what we believe the other person is saying, which is also based on their body language. Plus, every conversation takes place in a specific context which helps us determine meaning.

THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

Now, take away the context, take away someone to talk to, and replace the conversation with a script. Bring the speaker into a small dark room, and have him or her talk into a microphone. Ask your wannabe to read the words on the page without making any mistakes, and make sure they know that critical ears will be evaluating every single sound. No pressure!

If you would, imagine yourself in that hot seat. 

Unless you’ve had some training and experience, you will quickly discover that the microphone works like a cruel magnifying glass. It exposes all the sounds you didn’t even know you were making. As nerves take over, your mouth gets as dry as the Sahara desert. You start fidgeting in your chair, and on top of that, your full stomach decides to make an embarrassing guest appearance.

Then you see the people on the other side of the thick studio glass, and you realize you can’t hear a word of what they’re saying. As you begin to read the first lines of the script, they start laughing, and you wonder: Is it me they’re laughing at? Am I making a fool of myself? What am I even doing here?

It gets worse.

When you’re done reading, you’re greeted with absolute silence. You can see the team on the other side, and it’s clear that they’re discussing something. They’re not laughing anymore. In fact, you detect a couple of grim faces.

Finally, the sound engineer gets on the intercom, and says rather sternly:

“Alright, let’s do this again. Before you begin, let me play this first take back to you, so you can hear what we’re hearing, okay?”

As you’re listening to yourself, you panic. This doesn’t sound like you at all. Who is this person? What’s up with those loud breaths and shrill S-sounds? What did you do to produce this sickening symphony of mouth noises? Drink a gallon of milk? Eat super salty food? And what’s up with all the mumbling?

Before your internal dialogue sends you into a deep depression, the engineer has something to add:

“Let’s try it again. This time, I want you to drink some water first, and relax a little. There’s so much tension in your voice. Please remember to E-Nun-Ci-Ate, but don’t overdo it.

And one last thing: “Be you, and you’ll do just fine.”

THE WORST ADVICE

I’ve heard that phrase a million times: “Just be you, and you’ll do just fine.” It’s supposed to sound reassuring, but it’s as contradictory as, “Act normal.” It’s impossible to do. If you are your normal self, you don’t act. You just are.

Whether on stage, in front of a camera or in the recording studio, you’re not hired to “just be you.” You’re hired to be your best, most professional self, and to make it sound (and look) perfectly spontaneous.

(Voice) actors are paid messengers. They’re paid to get information across in a way that’s easily understood and remembered. That’s why your speech needs to be clean and clear. If it’s not, it will distract from the message. In my experience, this is something the average person -regardless of their sound- is unable to deliver.

BECOMING A PRO

The average speaker is a lazy speaker. The professional speaker is aware and articulate.

If you’re thinking of becoming a professional speaker, you have to unlearn bad habits, and learn to dramatically improve your diction to the point where it becomes second nature. This is not something you can pick up through trial and error. You won’t learn it by reading books. This needs guided practice, and lots of it. Compare it to learning how to play an instrument. It’s not something you pick up overnight.

The goal is not to make you sound like an over articulating British stage actor from the forties or fifties. The goal is simply to be understood without having to work hard to get your words out. Once this becomes almost effortless, you know you’re on the right track. At that stage, you’ve become “unconsciously competent.” You don’t even realize that you’re doing it.

But good delivery requires another skill: the ability to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t always know what you’re talking about.

It has to be convincing

How do you do that?

Let’s continue that conversation next week!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 2 in a series on performance and script delivery. Part 3 is coming next week.

*To me “flat” refers to speech without vocal variety. Variety in pitch, tempo and volume.

photo credit: helenadagmar via photopin cc


The Funniest Joke Of The Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 21 Comments
Tim Vine

Tim Vine

I love jokes.

Especially the ones that make me laugh.

Seriously!

Every year, the public at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival votes for the funniest joke of the year. Comedian Tim Vine was declared the 2014 winner with the one-liner:

“I decided to sell my Hoover…. well, it was just collecting dust.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read that joke, I had to chuckle a bit. That’s all. It wasn’t one of those tears in my eyes – I can’t stop laughing – rib-tickling moments. Why is that? If 2,000 people polled at the Festival thought this was the funniest joke, why am I barely laughing?

THE PROBLEM WITH SCRIPTS

The problem with that joke is the same a problem I encounter with many of the scripts I’m asked to voice. Well-written scripts aren’t meant to be read. They are meant to be spoken. Just like jokes.

I often compare the words in a script to musical notes. They’re dots on a piece of paper. Only when they’re played, you have the beginnings of music. And only when they’re played very well (and on a good instrument) do they have the potential to move you.

A great script can fall flat on its face due to a lackluster performance, but a great performer can still make magic out of a mediocre script. It has to do with that thing (voice) actors and comedians have in common with the Ob/Gyn’s and midwives of this world:

It’s all about the delivery.

Yeah, baby!

Now, those last two words might not make you smile, but when I hear them, I hear Mike Meyers say them as sixties-spy Austin Powers, and I have to laugh.

Delivery is the trademark of a pro. Done well, it sounds easy, but it’s not. And that’s what many hopefuls don’t yet get. 

Someone might have a resonant, pleasing voice, but as we all know, that’s not enough to have a career as a voice-over. Believing that having good pipes is all it takes, is the same thing as saying that you only need good looks to make it in Hollywood. As far as I can tell, only Tom Cruise pulled that one off.

Having the goods is one thing, but you have to know how to deliver. 

SHOW ME THE MONEY

So, the next question is: What makes a good delivery? What’s involved; can it be learned or does it come naturally?

I had to think about that when I listened back to a Terry Gross interview with Robin Williams for her show Fresh Air. At first, Williams manages to stay himself, but it doesn’t take him long to start doing all kinds of voices. The amazing thing is, Williams never sounds like someone pretending to be someone else. When he does an impression, he sounds like a completely different person. One thing was immediately clear: he’s a master of his instrument; a master of his voice.

Trained vocalists would immediately notice his use of voice placement. It’s a way for singers and actors to focus their sound into a particular area (head, mouth, chest or nose) with a specific resonance, coloring the sound. During the interview, I actually got the feeling that some of the characters Williams pulled out of his hat were sitting at different places at the table. I’m sure this also had to do with the way he worked the microphone.

If you listen to the entire interview, you’ll understand why he must have driven the sound engineer crazy…

Moving away from voice placement, what factors influence the way we come across, vocally?

If I were a college professor, I’d say: Human speech can be broken down into several basic elements, and each of these elements makes the way we sound unique, very much like a vocal fingerprint. Here they are:

  • Pitch: the degree of highness or lowness of our tone, as well as our vocal range and inflection
  • Tempo: the relative speed or slowness of the way we speak, and the way our speech flows
  • Volume: the relative loudness or softness of our voice
  • Timbre: the color and quality of a voice, e.g.  clear, nasal, raspy, breathy


COLORING OUR SOUND

These four elements can be affected consciously, and unconsciously. For instance, our health -or lack thereof- influences the way we sound. We all know that we don’t sound the same when we have a cold or suffer from a bad allergy. Our lifestyle may color our voice too. If you’re a heavy smoker or drinker, if you’re on a junk food diet, and if you’re not physically active, it will slowly change the sound of your voice. 

The way you are built and your posture have an impact too, as well as your facial expressions. Try saying something serious with a huge grin on your face… Then there’s your emotional state. A sad person sounds very different from an angry or a happy person. Environmental factors may influence your voice too. If you live in a very dry or polluted climate, the way you sound will tell the tale.  

And finally, we should consider age. After a lifetime of talking, the vocal folds and surrounding tissue lose strength and elasticity, and our mucous membranes become thinner and drier. Over time, men’s voices become higher, and women’s voices will drop. We lose volume, endurance, and control. All of this and more will influence our delivery. 

Now, here’s the good news: even though we cannot stop the aging process, you can protect and strengthen your voice. That means investing in your health. A few tips:

  • Be critical of what you put into your body.
  • Avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Avoid screaming and whispering.
  • Breathe deeply, and from the diaphragm.
  • Use good posture.
  • Manage your stress level.
  • Take singing lessons.


When you do all that, you will start to notice a huge difference in your delivery because you gain more control over your instrument. That’s essential if you want to get to the next level: making music.

And that’s precisely what I’ll be talking about next week, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, comedian Tim Vine told The Independent that his award-winning Hoover-joke wasn’t even his favorite joke of the show. Tim tells about two hundred one-liners in sixty minutes. 

Vine also won funniest joke in 2010. Here it is:

“I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

I’ll tell you what…

Never again.”

Rimshot!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be sweet Please retweet!

PPS This is part 1 in a series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 2 “The worst acting advice ever,” and part 3 “How to be believable,” in the weeks to come. 


The Wind Beneath Our Wings

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 19 Comments

FriendsThis blog post is dedicated to my wife Pam.

 

Some fifteen years ago, I walked into the office of my very first U.S. casting agent.

I was absolutely thrilled, but I didn’t realize that I was about to make a big mistake.

The walls were filled with posters of all the blockbuster movies the agency had been involved in. Signed thank you notes from famous directors decorated the hallways. Old awards were gathering dust in the renovated warehouse-turned-office that oozed sleek, expensive minimalism.

“Our voice-over director will see you shortly. One of her sessions is running late. Would you care for some coffee?,” asked a secretary.

Ten minutes and a perfect cappuccino later, I was handed an audition script. It would take a little longer, I was told.

“No need to be nervous,” the girl said. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

It’s strange how these things work. When I walked in, I was feeling great. I knew I could nail this. But as soon as she mentioned nerves, I felt like a kid waiting outside the principal’s office, wondering what I had done wrong.

GETTING STARTED

It was my first year in the States and I was green. I even had a Green Card to prove it. I didn’t really know anybody, and nobody knew me. That’s why I had brought a friend along for the audition.

I just needed some backup, a second opinion if you will, to make sure this place was legit. Too many people were being taken for a ride by shady characters posing as casting directors, and I didn’t want to become one of them.

This friend happened to be nosy. Very nosy.

If you were to invite him to your house, he would read the back of the postcards that are hanging on your fridge. He would open up a family photo album without asking permission. I once caught him checking out a closed bedroom on his way to the smallest chamber in the house.

So, while I was learning my lines for the audition, you can imagine what my friend was doing. When the secretary was away to get the coffee, he went over to her desk and looked at some of the contracts she was working on. When she came back, he grilled her about the business, as if this was an episode of Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.

I tried to give him the Cut it out, You’re not helping me-look, but to no avail. He acted like a pit bull sniffing a hot trail.

It got even worse when we finally met the voice-over director. Initially, my friend was wise enough to let me do all the talking. But when I went into the vocal booth to record my script, I could see him distracting her with all his inappropriate questions.

When the session was over, I heard in my headphones: “Paul, we need to talk…. in private. Ask your friend to go back to the waiting area and tell him not to snoop around.”

ONE ON ONE

“Let me level with you,” the casting director said when we sat down. “You have talent. You have experience and I love your accent. I don’t think we have anybody that can bring that European sense of sophistication to a read. In short, we’d like to represent you, but on one condition.”

I knew what was coming, and I knew she was right.

“Don’t ever bring your friend to this office again. I can understand you’re new to this country and you needed some support, but seriously… I almost kicked the two of you out. He was asking all sorts of questions about how much you would be making and how many jobs we would offer you each month. It was obvious that he knew nothing about the casting process, and we hadn’t even taken you on board.

Let me be clear. Contrary to what your friend seems to believe, there are no guarantees in this business. We can send you auditions, but YOU have to book the jobs. We don’t control our clients. If they ask us to recommend five voices for a project, we give hem five voices. You might be number one on my shortlist, but that’s irrelevant. You’d be surprised how often a client picks the voice I personally find least suitable. It’s all very subjective, and you have to be okay with that. By the way, did you bring some recent headshots?”

We talked for another ten minutes, we shook hands, and I left.

“It’s up to you, but I would never do business with these people,” said my nosy friend when I came out of the meeting. “I got the weirdest vibes off that casting director. You should have seen the way she looked at me. All I did was ask some simple questions to make sure the place was kosher. What’s wrong with that?

Of course it’s up to you what you want to do, but I think you should explore other options. One day you’re going to thank me.”

He was right. I did thank him for teaching me a valuable lesson that day. I also told him that I had signed with the agency. Two months later, he went his way and I went mine. Recently, someone told me he’s now an investigative reporter at some magazine I’d never heard of.

SUPPORT SYSTEM

Our choice of friends says a lot about who we are as a person and as a professional. In order to be successful in any business, it’s important to surround yourself with people you believe in, and who believe in you.

I don’t mean people who think that every word that comes out of your mouth is pure gold. That role is reserved for proud mothers and misguided fans. You need people who look out for you in a discreet, intelligent way. Preferably, people who know the territory. There’s nothing as useless as the advice coming from the mouth of a person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

And let me tell you something else.

The most important friend you and I will ever have, is the person we choose to live our life with. First and foremost, this friend needs to be comfortable with uncertainty. Although attitudes are gradually shifting, most people still prefer the predictability of a steady job (and income) over the freedom and fluctuation of a freelance career.

If you’re living with a voice actor, you know some months are slow and others are crazy busy. You probably know how much money goes out every month, but you never know how much money will be coming in. That makes it hard to plan ahead. The perfect partner for a voice actor has a steady job with benefits. This is especially important in the beginning of a career.

Because of the ongoing uncertainty, this partner also has to be incredibly patient, flexible, and understanding. Ask any established talent, and they’ll tell you that a voice-over career is not a sprint but a marathon. If you’re still in business after the first three years, you’re either a fool or you’re beginning to get somewhere.

Not everybody can and will hang in there while you’re trying to make it in a field that’s becoming increasingly competitive. You need to sow a lot of seeds, and the harvest might be years away.

BENDING OVER BACKWARDS

Talking about flexibility… I can’t tell you how many times we have had to change our family’s plans at the last minute, because some client needed me to record a script pronto. At times I wish I had the audacity to tell that customer:

“You can’t do this to me. I have a life, you know! When you called this Sunday morning, we were all wearing our bike shorts, ready for a ride.”

Instead I keep quiet, go down to my studio, close the soundproof door and start recording that darn, poorly written script about the importance of family time. When the client says “Dance,” I dance. Meanwhile, the family goes on a bike ride without me.

If you’re not ready to roll with the punches and take life one day at a time, you’re not ready to start a serious relationship with a voice actor. And if you are, you must be a saint!

People with a steady job often have a hard time wrapping their brains around what it means to be self-employed. I’m lucky to be married to a professional musician. She understands that if someone offers you a good gig, you take it. If you don’t, someone else will, and they’ll start calling that person next time.

EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER

On paper it sounds great. Today’s voice actor stays home all day, recording short commercials and promos that bring in more money than most people will make in a month. It’s easy to forget that getting the work takes up far more time than doing the work.

Every audition brings new hope. “What if I get picked to be the next voice of ….?” (name a big brand name). “I’d finally have some income I can count on, and the recognition I’ve been secretly longing for.”

Of course you’ll never hear back about the role you thought was made for you, and when you turn on the radio three months later, you hear a complete idiot mess up the lines you auditioned for because they chose him over you. That morning, you will hear that stupid commercial over and over and over again. This will make your day. I guarantee it!

But you’re never going to take your frustration out on the one you love most, right? You always manage to stay calm, composed, and positive. You never take things personally. It’s only your voice they’re evaluating.

Instead, you send a quick email to congratulate the lucky bastard who landed the job, and you put on a fake Facebook smile because it’s so wonderful to be able to do what you love and get paid for it. Meanwhile, you don’t know how you’re going to pay this month’s health insurance premium, or how to fix the fridge that just broke down.

At that point you need a soft place to land. You need someone who has your back. Someone who doesn’t think you’re a failure. Someone who says:

“I love you. Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day.”

SWEET SUCCESS

Other times you do get lucky and you hit the jackpot. You get tons of work and you need the house to be quiet so you can finish your recordings. Who’s there to make sure you can work in peace? Who’s taking over your household chores so you can finish editing that never-ending audio book?

When things go really, really well, and your voice is heard all over the nation; when hotshot agents who always ignored you all of a sudden know who you are; when you yourself start believing that you’re the Big Kahuna now… Who’s there to celebrate your success, and keep you grounded?

When you’re too big for your boots, who will gently put you in your place? Who will tell you that there’s more to life than talking into a microphone, or being adored by countless fans? Who’s going to be there for you when the applause fades away? With whom will you share and develop other interests?

I guess it boils down to this:

WHY are you doing what you’re doing?

Does it make any sense if you can’t share your setbacks or successes with someone?

Mind you, even though I am happily married, I’m not advocating the advantages of matrimony per se. I am simply in favor of surrounding yourself with a couple of close friends who can keep you sane in a weird and complicated world. People with whom you can let your guard down, be vulnerable, and be yourself.

It’s about time we give those friends the credit they deserve.

They truly are the wind beneath our wings.

Paul Strikwerda @nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Daadi via photopin cc


Can You Control Your Career?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 52 Comments

the author

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s the dreaded question that can make a child quiver.

“What do you mean, be?

Am I not good enough? Do I need to be something or someone else?

Who says I want to grow up? Grown-ups are boring…”

Some kids know exactly how to answer that question, though.

They have dreams of becoming an astronaut, a fireman, or a movie star.

At the age of eight, I knew what I wanted.

I wanted to be Uri Geller. Remember him?

In the seventies, this spoon-bending Israeli mentalist first appeared on television, performing mind over matter tricks. I was fascinated by his psychokinetic powers. Geller claimed he could fix household appliances through the strength of his mind. How useful!

Like thousands of other viewers, I took my broken watch and placed it in front of our television set, waiting for Geller to work his magic. This man was a miracle!

Inspired by Uri, I spent countless hours staring at a pencil, trying to make it move with my mind. I don’t think I ever grew up, because I still find myself waiting for a red traffic light, trying to make it turn green by using the power of my brain. 

Sometimes it works, and I take all the credit. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I blame technology.

In all seriousness, these are not just mind games. This type of behavior raises a few fundamental questions:

• Can we manipulate our environment, and even the people around us by using our mental powers?

• Can we make objects and people succumb to our will?

Traditional advertising seems to believe so. Well, at least as far as the people part is concerned. The mad men of Madison Avenue spend millions and millions of dollars trying to manipulate our minds into buying stuff we don’t need and don’t want.

As a voice-over professional, I’m part of the plan. If you go to a Dutch toy store, there’s a great chance you’ll hear my voice blasting out of the speakers, selling U.S. made skateboards.

I’ll try to make you buy Turtle Wax® at the local Auto World, or futuristic fluid to super grease the chain of your mountain bike. “Now on sale in aisle 4. Must hurry. Supply is limited.”

Do these campaigns actually work? Are people really that susceptible (or dare I say: that stupid)?

As a freelancer, my mailbox is filled with offers for seminars like:

“Learn how to Dominate your Market in two hours”

“Making Money with your Voice, guaranteed”

“Success Secrets to Winning Auditions”

“7 Easy Ways to turn Prospects into Buyers”

My efforts to move pencils, the ad agency’s efforts to move product, and the seminar’s promise to turn me into a dominator have one thing in common: they feed our natural need for control.

Somehow, in some way, we believe that with the right ingredients, training, and campaign, we can part the waters of the Red Sea and walk across to the Promised Land.

A mistake of biblical proportions…

Can we really move the minds of the masses by slogans, websites, billboards, and -dare I say- blogs?

Haven’t we become immune to the endless avalanche of marketing messages, sales pitches, and empty promises?

I have a confession to make.

During the first half of my life, I honestly believed I could change people. It gets worse. I even believed I could change G-d. I used to pray:

“Dear G-d, if you help me get a good grade, I promise to go to church every Sunday and not embarrass my parents. Amen.”

Later in life I learned that if I don’t do my part and learn my lessons, G-d isn’t going to bail me out. That would defeat the purpose of being on this planet in the first place.

As an investigative reporter, I thought that if I would publicly expose some grave injustice, people would rise up and do something about it.

Then I learned that, if it’s not in their back yard or has any impact on their lives, people care more about their favorite sports team, game show, or pet rabbit, than about the hungry, the sick, and the homeless.

In intimate relationships, I tried to influence significant others by withholding love and affection if they didn’t change into the people I wanted them to be. Guess what? In the process I ended up ruining relationships instead of rescuing them.

As a voice talent, I think I’m still trying to make people hire me: “Just listen to my demo. Go to my website. Read my blog. I’m brilliant. Isn’t that obvious?”

No, it is not.

They just hire someone cheaper, younger, older, sexier, or John Hamm.

But don’t worry. When things don’t work out, you and I can always go to our social media friends, cry out loud that life’s unfair, and ask ourselves: “Why is it so hard to get hired? Why don’t people do what we want them to do?” Life would be so much easier!

Now listen up, and listen carefully.

This desire for control has nothing to do with others.

It’s all about You and it’s mostly based on fear.

The fear of losing something you never had in the first place.

The thing is: people rarely do things for your reasons.

They do things for their reasons.

Altruism has left the building a long time ago.

Most people have a hard time controlling themselves, let alone others.

If self-control were that easy, very few people would smoke, all of us would maintain the perfect weight, and prisons would be empty.

The idea that you can control all aspects of your career is based on the myth of magical thinking. It’s not some silver spoon you can bend at will. You don’t hold all the cards. Perhaps you only hold the Joker.

Yes, you can set the stage, learn your lines and lessons, and strive to be the best you can be. But you can’t force feed your target markets, especially if you don’t know what they’re hungry for.

You can be the most succulent steak ever, but if your client’s a vegetarian, s/he won’t bite. Of course you didn’t know that, because you never cared to be curious. All you did was give this client reasons why he should pick you.

YOUR reasons.

Oops! 

If you really want to move your career forward, you need to give up your need for control and your urge to make it about you. Especially when your product happens to be…. you.

Stop pushing, and start listening.

Don’t offer a solution before you know what the problem is.

Don’t try to brainwash your prospects with an email blast, or by singing your own praises again and again and again. You worked on that nice looking newsletter for hours, and within a matter of seconds it ends up in the trash.

Unread.

Here’s my advice:

Turn your monologue into a dialogue.

Invest in building a relationship first. People ain’t buying if they don’t trust you. And they won’t trust you if they don’t know you.

The best way to show them what you’re all about, is by putting them first. Believe me, once they get that, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to tell your story.

So, is traditional marketing as dead as a Dodo?

Brains on Fire” is a book and a blog about word of mouth marketing. It’s narrated by a Dutch voice-over and blogger. The authors quote a revealing study by Copernicus Marketing Consulting and Research. According to Copernicus, the average ROI of TV advertising campaigns is 1 to 4 percent.

The Brains on Fire team also cites a 2009 Yankelovich Study. 76 percent of people believe that companies lie in ads, and people’s trust that businesses will do the right thing has dropped from 58 percent in 2008 to a dismal 38 percent in 2009 (2009 Edelman Trust Barometer).

Be honest. Would you become a buyer from a liar?

Meanwhile, Uri Geller no longer seems to tell the world his mind triumphs over matter. In the November 2007 issue of the magazine Magische Welt (Magic World) Geller said:

“I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed.”

His critics have replicated some of his tricks by creating the illusion of spoon bending by using misdirection. That’s another term for distracting the audience.

And in case you’re wondering, my old watch never started ticking during Geller’s television appearance. It just needed a new battery. Not a psychic.

As I grew older, I realized a few things.

Living is learning.

I can’t change others. I can only change myself.

If I don’t like the way the wind is blowing, I can always adjust my sails.

It’s okay to be out of control. Control is an illusion. I can plan. I can practice. I can participate, and I can even ignite a spark.

Whatever happens next is one of life’s delightful and mind bending mysteries.

It’s not linear, it’s not logical, and it’s certainly not playing by our rules.

It just is.

People still ask me:

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

These days I answer:

“I want to be a good person.

A helper. A tour guide.

Someone who is caring, kind, and a bit silly.”

How mental is that?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please Retweet!


The Terrible Truth About The News

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media 6 Comments
Wereldomroeper

The author, reading the news

It was one of the most cynical cartoons I’d ever seen.

A colleague had just put it up on the wall of the newsroom at Radio Netherlands International where I was working at that time. The frenzy of fanatic reporters filing their stories disappeared into the background as I read the headline:

“WHAT IS NEWS?”

The question couldn’t be simpler. The answer couldn’t be more complicated. And yet, everything around me was buzzing with deadline-driven activity, as if all of us actually knew what we were doing. After all, we were the news makers. 

NEWS” is one of those words that you and I hear and use many times a day. In fact, we hear it and use it so frequently, that we rarely question what it means. 

There are many words like that; words such as crisis, control, communityand support. These words are so common, it’s pretty obvious what they stand for, isn’t it? There’s no need to define them. 

SEMANTICS

Scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, would strongly disagree. He coined the phrase: “The map is not the territory.” By that he meant that an abstraction derived from something, is not the thing itself. In plain language: you can’t get wet from the word water.

The word water (the map) is only a representation of something that’s much more fluid (the territory). But when we use the word water, it is generally assumed that we know what it means. Well, let’s ask the people of Flint, Michigan, about that.

That very human ability to make assumptions is the basis of many conflicts, big and small. People confuse maps with territories all the time. Here’s what I mean.

BUMPER TO BUMPER

“Support our troops” it said on the bumper sticker. Most Americans couldn’t agree more. Especially these days, it is important to support our troops, don’t you think? But on a deeper level, what does ‘support’ really mean?

Remember: the word ‘support’ is just a map. But of what? How exactly, should we support our troops? By increasing the defense budget? By sending those stationed abroad care packages for Christmas? Or should we support them by pulling them out of trouble spots, and bringing them back home?

As long as we’re talking on the level of abstractions, it’s easy to agree. For instance, who isn’t in favor of world peace? Who doesn’t want to see employment increased? Who doesn’t agree that we need to improve our system of education?

But how all these things should be achieved, is a different matter, and that’s where the bickering begins. Need I bring up the presidential race?

WHAT DO WE REALLY MEAN?

Bumper StickerThere’s a vital element through which we consciously (but most of the time unconsciously) determine meaning. Here’s a quick example.

Imagine seeing the “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on a pickup truck with a veteran license plate. There’s also a “Semper Fi” sign on the F-150, and a third sticker saying: “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism.” With that information in hand, how do you think the owner feels we can best support our troops?

Here’s a different scenario. You’re on the highway and you spot that same “Support Our Troops” sticker. But this time it’s stuck to the back of a beat up Volvo station wagon. Next to it is a “Bring them Home” sticker, and another one that reads: “Against the War. Not the Warrior.” Knowing what you know now, what assumptions would you make this time, about the owners’ views on how to best support our troops?

Even though we’re talking about the same sticker, the meaning of the words is contextdependent. And without knowing the context, we’re all in danger of mistaking the map for the territory. Our territory.

As a result, we carry on entire conversations based on mind reads and interpretations that have very little to do with the reality of the person we’re talking to. That person can be a (Facebook) friend, a foe, a politician, or our life partner.

Our lips might whisper the words: “I know exactly what you mean,” but truthfully, our perception is greatly based on distorted personal projections. 

Army MapTHE REAL WOR(L)D

I’m not just talking semantics here. Every soldier knows that the reality on the ground is most likely to be very different from the map that was used during the briefing. Confusing the map for the territory has led to deadly mistakes.

It has killed many relationships and numerous attempts to build bridges between people, cultures, faiths, and political systems. And because it is so ingrained in human nature, it won’t hit the headlines any day soon. The familiar might be deadly, but it’s also boring.

So, WHAT IS NEWS?

The cartoon at my radio station showed this very simple and sad formula for determining the newsworthiness of an event:

“The number of people killed, divided by how many miles away from home it happened.”

I did tell you it was one of the most cynical cartoons I had ever seen, didn’t I? It criticized the “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” type of journalism that is so pervasive these days. A plane crash in some far away land won’t make the six o’clock news, unless Americans are involved (if you live in the States, that is). Had it happened closer to home, it would have made the headlines.

That’s an example of the proximity effect. People tend to care more about what happens in their own backyard, especially if it’s grotesque, gruesome, and controversial.

MALFUNCTION

Now, let me ask you this: How many people experience a wardrobe malfunction on any given day? When it happens to you or me, it’s no big deal, but when a famous actress steps out of a limo, unintentionally showing some extra skin, the tabloids are having a field day.

It’s an example of the prominence effect. Whenever a celebrity is involved, the media will jump on it. The proximity effect and the prominence effect are just two of the filters journalists use to determine what news is. To a certain extent, these two filters are based on silly, but semi-objective criteria.

Here’s my question:

Is it possible to be utterly impartial, and leave personal values, opinions and ratings at the door when evaluating the newsworthiness of a story?

In 1996, the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists dropped the word “objectivity” from its code of ethics. Deborah Potter writes in The Handbook of Independent Journalism (a U.S. Department of State publication):

“Journalists are human beings, after all. They care about their work and they do have opinions. Claiming that they are completely objective suggests that they have no values.”

Twitter BadgeNEW SOURCES

Twitter has become one of the world’s fastest growing news sources. How objective do you think most of those microblogs (a.k.a. tweets) are? By definition, blogs usually reflect opinion instead of fact, and most Twitter-users don’t subscribe to a code of fair and balanced news-gathering, based on checking and double-checking sources to provide a complete picture. Twitter-chatter is highly subjective. That’s one of the reasons for its popularity.

But let’s bring it a bit closer to home. You’re a reasonable person, aren’t you? When push comes to shove, can you set your own prejudices aside, and open your mind to whatever information comes your way?

THE MIRROR

Well, let’s see how objective you are. When you see a “map,” do you think you really know the “territory”?

Remember that F-150 pick-up truck with the “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism” sticker, the veteran license plate, and the “Semper Fi” sign?

That redneck driver is surely a right-wing republican Fox-News watching ex-marine in favor of killing our way out of any conflict, with an NRA endorsed semi-automatic rifle, yes? If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

Well, as you get off the highway to pump some gas, you end up parking your car right next to the F-150. A young guy in a “Life is Good” t-shirt, steps out of the truck and starts filling it up. A woman at the next pump is clearly upset about the provocative bumper stickers, and she says to the young man:

“Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism… that’s a terrible message you have on your car, young man. I’m against any type of war, but that doesn’t make me a supporter of terrorism, does it? Do you call yourself an American? Shame on you!”

The young man looks at her in shock. His face turns completely red. Then he takes a deep breath, and says:

“Ma’am, I’m on my way to the hardware store to pick up some stuff. I’m working on a house for Habitat for Humanity. This truck belongs to a friend of a friend who was kind enough to help us out. I didn’t even notice the stickers.”

On hearing that, the woman turned bright red, and apologized profusely.

At that moment she realized:

Things are never what they seem to be. The map is not the territory.

Think of that, when you watch or listen to tonight’s news.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice


Everything is perception. Perception is everything.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 13 Comments

mirror, mirrorSome people believe that auditioning is nothing but a numbers game.

Let me tell you a story.

Two groups of kids were playing outside. Someone had written a big number 6 on the street, and a fight had broken out because of it.

One group claimed that the number was actually a 9. The other group insisted it was a 6. Before the debate got totally out of hand, a little girl shouted:

“You’re all wrong. Can’t you see it’s just a circle with a line?”

The kids decided that she was right and they went on to do some cloud spotting. But as they were lying in the grass, another fight broke out.

“That cloud looks just like a giant elf,” said one of them.

“No way,” said another kid. “It’s a fairy. Anyone can see that!”

SOME PERSPECTIVE

How on earth is it possible to come to very different conclusions, based on the same input? Well, the simple answer is that most of us tend to select information based on what resonates with our model of the world. The rest is conveniently filtered out. In other words:

We see what we want to see, and we hear what we want to hear.

A young psychologist decided to test this principle. During a road trip to promote his first book, he had breakfast in a different diner every morning. And every morning he ordered “scramberred eggs.” Not once did a waitress ask: “Excuse me sir, what did you just say?” He always got a plate of scrambled eggs, because that’s what the waitress believed he said.

As a trained journalist I happen to be a professional skeptic. I was taught to always check my sources, and in the absence of empirical evidence, do my own fact-finding. So, when I read the “scramberred eggs” anecdote, I decided to put it to the test, but with a slight twist.

NAPKIN COLE

One of my favorite sound engineers was a huge fan of a crooner known for songs like “Stardust,” “Mona Lisa,” and “When I Fall in Love.” During a break I innocently asked:

“Hey Mike, did you know that they just discovered an unknown recording by Napkin Cole?”

He said: “Really? Where did you hear that?”

For the next half hour, all we talked about was Napkin Cole. I must have pronounced the name at least 40 times that way, and not once did Mike raise an eyebrow. It was unforgettable… Next week I will ask him about his favorite female jazz singer: Elephant Gerald.

Having strong preconceptions is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, taking things for granted means that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s the principle of generalization upon which all learning is based. On the other hand, it closes us off to valuable new information. Worst of all, it seems to happen beyond our control.

For us voice-over pros this can be frightening. Whenever we record a demo, we’re basing our approach on our take on the text. We put that info through our filters and come up with a unique interpretation of the script. That part we can control. But once this demo reaches the ears of the client, everything depends on what unknown filters are operating in his or her brain. Sometimes, the effect can be unexpected and surprising.

MY BIG BREAK

A few years ago, I auditioned for an amazing job. It was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities, and I just knew that it was going to be my big break. Needless to say, I pulled out all the stops to make sure my demo was spot-on. Only after I was completely satisfied that I had absolutely nailed it, did I send my demo on its way.

An hour later I received a generic rejection. It was a huge slap in the face, and I felt like a complete failure. I listened to my demo over and over again, and I couldn’t figure out what had gone so horribly wrong.

A year later I finally got the answer.

By chance I ran into a colleague of the voice-seeker who had so cruelly crushed my dreams. He recognized my voice, and we started talking about that fateful project I had auditioned for.

I said to him: “I have to ask… I know I would have been perfect for this project. Tell me: Why didn’t I get the job?”

He paused for a moment and replied:

“I know exactly why.

You sounded too much like the producer’s ex-boyfriend.”

When I heard those words, two very conflicting emotions boiled up to the surface. I was both livid and relieved. My angry ego shouted: How could this woman have been so unprofessional?

At the same time I was glad to know that there was nothing I could have done to change her mind.

Ancient wisdom tells us that the world we see is a mirror of who we are.

Everything is perception.

Perception is everything.

It is written in the clouds.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.


How To Hire The Right Voice Over

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 8 Comments

man with microphoneMike’s corporate video looked like a million bucks.

The camerawork was first-rate. The captions were loud and clear. The whole package was a winner.

As long as the sound remained muted.

Why?

Because the voice-over brought everything down.

“Where did you find this guy?” I asked. “He sounds like he has no idea what he is saying. There are certain words I cannot understand, and there’s a weird echo that is very distracting.”

“That’s our Dave,” said Mike with a proud smile. “Dave works in Delivery, and everybody kept on telling me that he has a nice voice. I thought I’d give him a break. Why search for outside talent when the answer is under our own roof?”

“Because this is a professional production,” I answered. “Whoever is going to see this, doesn’t care that Dave is your delivery guy. His voice is now associated with your company. If people are perceiving him as unprofessional (and they will), what will they think of your business?”

“But I saved a ton of money,” tried Mike. “I gave Dave fifty bucks, and he was happy with that.”

“No Mike,” I said. “You just lost a ton of money by working with an amateur. Think of a voice as your auditory logo. What does it tell potential customers about the kind of company you are? Dave’s delivery is undermining your message. He just doesn’t sound trustworthy, and that is damaging your corporate image.”

There was an awkward silence as I heard a few pennies drop.

“So, if Dave’s not doing it for you, how do I find the right voice?” asked Mike. “There are thousands of people online who all pretend to be voice-over pros. How do I separate the wheat from the chaff, and how long is that going to take?”

”It all starts with you, Mike,” I said. “You have to…

1. Know what you want.

Let me ask you a question: How will you find your way to a specific destination if you don’t know where it is and what it looks like? The same is true in voice-over land. Ask yourself:

“If my product or company had a voice, what would it sound like?”

Is it male or female? Would it be a young, hip voice, or the voice of wisdom and experience? Would it be a booming voice, a gravelly voice, a sultry voice, or a motivating voice? Does this voice speak with a particular accent or intonation? Does it sound like someone I know from radio, TV, or from the movies?

Also ask yourself:

What audience am I trying to reach?

Is it an educated audience? If so, what’s their level of education? Do they fall in a particular age group? Is it an international audience, or are they local?

Once you have a voice profile, put it in the audition information you want the talent to see. If you don’t do that, every Tom, Dick, or Harriet will submit an MP3, and you’ll have the hardest time sorting through hundreds of entries.

Tip: Know what you want, but keep an open mind (and ear). Sometimes you think you have the right idea until you see or hear something that is even better!

2. Does the talent sound authentic and trustworthy?

This is crucial.

People are seldom fooled by a fake. Once they perceive that a voice-over lacks sincerity and natural authority, they lose trust. People who lose trust won’t be sold on your message or your product. Take Dave the delivery guy. He does not sound like he believes in what he is saying. At times he is unintelligible.”

“Are you sure?” asked Mike, “’cause I didn’t hear it.”

“Mike, you wrote the script, so you know what Dave’s supposed to say. That’s why you didn’t pick up on it.

The number one test for any professional communicator is not tone of voice but intelligibility.

Here’s the next question you should ask yourself when you listen to a demo:

3. Is the audio of professional quality?

Imagine shooting a fifteen thousand dollar video with a third-rate camera. You would never do that, would you? So, why would you accept audio that was recorded with sub-standard equipment, recorded on the kitchen table?

Professional audio sounds clean, clear, and without flutter echoes or ambient noise. Trust me. If you can hear the neighbor’s weed whacker or pickup truck in the background, move on to the next talent.

You also have to listen for microphone technique. Amateur audio may have pops… plosives that cause a nasty burst of air that’s picked up by the mic and your ears. You’ll also hear all kinds of mouth noises such as lip smacks, and very audible, distracting breaths.

Here’s an important tip: A voice talent may sound fantastic on the demo they sent you. Remember that those demos are usually heavily doctored in a professional studio. Unless the talent records your script in that same studio with the same equipment and engineer, they’ll never be able to replicate it in their home studio.

Always ask for a custom demo, recorded with the same set-up that will be used for your project.

On to the next question:

4. Did the talent respond in a professional way?

Did s/he get back to you in a timely fashion? Did you get a standard answer, or did the talent put some thought into his/her response? Was the email grammatically correct? Were there spelling errors? Was the tone of the message respectful?

Did you get a sense that the voice-over tried to understand your specific needs? Did the voice talent come across as desperate, or as confident?

Was the voice-over clear about the cost? Remember: you pay for professionalism. Cheap rates often expose inexperienced or amateur talent.”

Mike took a deep breath, and said:

“Those tips are great, but that still doesn’t answer one of my questions.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, there are thousands of people online who all pretend to be voice-over pros. I have no time to listen to hundreds of auditions from a voice casting site. I’ve done that in the past, and a lot of what I got was crap. You’ve got to help me here!”

“You could go two ways,” I said. “I could either give you the names of a few reputable agents, or I could send you to a trusted pool of online talent. If you describe what you’re looking for to any of my agents, they’ll select a few voice actors for you that could all do the job. Guaranteed. You may pay a bit more, but you’ll save a lot of time, and you avoid having to listen to a tragic lineup of wannabes.

The website I want to direct you to is http://www.voiceover.biz. It’s a non-profit voice casting site that’s run by the World Voices Organization. On it you will only find vetted members of this professional, international voice-over association.

No amateurs. No wannabes. No delivery guys.

You will only find the cream of the crop.

It’s as simple as that.

And that’s how you hire the right voice-over!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Be sweet. Please retweet!


If Only I had Known

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 16 Comments

Crystal Ball“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

This question (and many of its variations), is really popular among those interviewing the rich and famous. It’s meant to elicit golden nuggets of priceless information, acquired over a long and illustrious career. It’s an old trick, and it still works.

As an interviewer I’ve probably used it dozens of times, and I could only get away with my lack of originality by editing myself out. I usually kept the answer until the end of the conversation. After a short musical interlude, the celebrity I was speaking with would “spontaneously” get philosophical, and come up with this profound life lesson that resonated long after the interview was over.

Mission accomplished!

Last week, the tables were turned when a young colleague asked me same question: “Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

At that moment one realizes that it’s much easier to ask than to answer, but I knew pretty quickly what I was going to say. It brought me back to the beginning of my American career, some sixteen years ago. Here’s what I came up with:

“I wish I would have listened to my heart, instead of to my mind, when I thought of becoming a voice-over.”

I realize that this is not an eye-opening, Zen-like insight, but I know I’m not the only one struggling with the battle between warm feelings and cold logic. 

At that time my analytical, practical mind came up with all these brilliant rationalizations as to why a VO-career would never work for me. This was at the beginning of a new millennium, and I had just arrived in the United States.

I had very little money, no contacts in the industry, and I didn’t know where to begin. How would I promote myself in a country with over 300 million people? Who would hire this nobody from Holland with his funny accent?

I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and insecure.

Of course there was no Facebook or LinkedIn group where aspiring voice-overs could ask questions. There were no books about the business, and the concept of home studios did not exist. It was much easier to find a job waiting tables, and as someone who needed to make money, that’s exactly what I did.

My first job was at The Fish House in Lambertville, NJ, and even though I was a vegetarian, I knew how to sell sardines, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass. Because I didn’t know anybody, the so-called celebs who frequented this restaurant didn’t impress me.

One day, a colleague took me aside and said: “Do you know who you just served?”

I had no idea.

“The coach of the Eagles!” he replied enthusiastically. “You know… THE EAGLES!!”

I looked at him with a straight face, and said: “What Eagles?”

In hindsight I think coach Andy Reid appreciated that I treated him like a regular customer. He even laughed at one of my wine jokes. His wife Tammy wanted to know why the Jersey Chard she was drinking had such a distinctive yellow glow. I told her the vineyard was next to a nuclear power plant.

Fortunately she though it was funny. 

Meanwhile, I didn’t know that I had just taken the first step in becoming a real actor: I was waiting tables!

The restaurant was also where people began commenting on my voice, my accent, and my ability to speak several languages. To me it was kind of a party trick to help my tip jar, but kind customers asked: “No offense, but why are you a waiter? You should really do something with that voice of yours!”

Encouraged, I signed up for an open casting call at Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My heart told me that’s where I should go, but my mind was skeptical. Once again it came up with a million reasons as to why I wouldn’t make the cut. All those reasons made perfect sense, but they were all wrong. 

That day, voice casting director Joanne Joella signed me on the spot, and my American adventure in voice-overs officially began.

Well, not quite.

Even though I was booking some decent jobs here and there, my mind told me this wasn’t going to last, and that I really needed a serious position doing serious work. I was doing well on tips as a waiter, but recommending Jersey wine and pan-seared scallops did not make a career.

That’s how I ended up in a call center, surveying European hard- and software specialists by telephone. Of course these overworked, stressed out professionals had nothing better to do than talk to me, and they all loved telling me about their satisfaction with the latest network servers.

NOT.

This job had two amazing perks. One: Because we called businesses in Germany and in the Netherlands, I lived on European time, getting up at 2:00 AM, making my first call at 3:00 AM (9:00 AM in Amsterdam and Munich). Two: I had to use a script from which I was not allowed to deviate.

That was my second step in becoming a real actor: I got to use scripts!

A year or two into that pathetic call center job, something wonderful happened. All the interviewers were mercifully replaced by an automated voice response system that was much better at taking verbal abuse from German software specialists who were sick of revealing their satisfaction with product X on a scale of zero to ten, zero meaning completely dissatisfied, and ten meaning completely satisfied.

It was time for me to move up the ladder!

Did I listen to my heart this time, and would I be pursuing a full-time voice-over career?

No, my friends. My mind talked me into accepting a job as a customer service trainer at Wachovia Bank. As we all know, banks are a secure place to work. Some of them even offer benefits.

Yea for me!

Luckily, I knew nothing about the financial industry or balancing books, and I suffer from dyscalculia. That’s like being dyslexic but with numbers instead of words. It’s particularly useful when you have to stare at bank accounts all day long, and figure out why this infuriated client got slammed with five overdraft fees after buying a burger with money he didn’t have.

Here’s what I loved about this job. Since I was the lead trainer, I was in front of a class of sleepy, unmotivated students all day long. 

Looking back, Wachovia was my third step in becoming a real actor: I got to perform in front of a live audience!

By the way, if you can’t remember the name Wachovia, that’s perfectly understandable. Wachovia was eventually overrun by the Wells Fargo wagon, and they brought in their own training team to cultivate a new corporate culture.

Good for them. Great for me!

After three pointless, mind numbing, soul crushing, dream dashing jobs, I finally got the message:

“Follow Your Heart, you idiot! Become a full-time voice talent, and conquer the world.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

I strongly believe that living is learning, and that every job helped prepare me for the future I created for myself. Yet, when I look back at all those years of doing things for money while my heart wasn’t in it… When I think of how miserable I used to be, and how happy I am now… I often wonder:

If only I had known…

If only I would have taken the risk, and had followed my dreams from the get-go. Where would I be now?

Would I be a household name? Would obnoxious fans ask for my autograph at crazy comicons and conventions? Would agents fight to represent me? Would I be rich and famous?

Well, if that were me, I’m pretty sure that one day, a young reporter would knock on my door. After an in-depth, hour-long interview, he would pause and get ready for that very last killer-question:

“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: you probably don’t wanna know via photopin (license)


How Not To Be Like Jeremy Clarkson

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Journalism & Media, Social Media 26 Comments

Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May with Tony Harrison's Lancia Beta Coupe Stanford Hall 2008 Last Sunday, the BBC premiered the 23rd season of Top Gear with a new team of presenters. The program drew disappointing ratings in the UK and abroad. This had a lot to do with the absence of star presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who was forced to leave the show. More about that later.

Because Clarkson was such a dominating presence on Top Gear, he might have thought that the program wouldn’t stand a chance without him. Perhaps the critics and viewers proved him right. After all, there’s only one Jeremy Clarkson. This had me wondering…

Do you ever think you’re indispensable?

Do you believe your clients, your readers, or your viewers can’t live without you?

Unfortunately, the reality for most independent contractors is that they can be tossed out any time. The price of freelance freedom is often paid in uncertainty and stress.

In theory, this uncertainty should at least be partially compensated by a higher paycheck. But you know as well as I do that we have to fight for decent rates. 

Small fish in a big ocean don’t have a lot of leverage in the labor market, unless they operate as a school. But what about the big fish? How far are they allowed to go?

INFLATED EGOS

Some people, especially in the entertainment industry, seem to think they are untouchable, and they behave accordingly.

Like spoiled children.

Over the years they have gathered a loyal following, and have amassed a considerable fortune. Whenever they enter a room, people ooh and aah, and ask for autographs and selfies.

When these celebs say something that isn’t even remotely funny, people laugh hysterically. Some are suddenly seen as “thought leaders,” “trend setters,” or as the sexiest men/women alive.

Photographers will pray or pay for a pose and a smile. Companies fight for the opportunity to stuff backstage gift bags, hoping for a tweet of acknowledgment or better still: a product endorsement.

And so, the people who have everything they could possibly wish for, get even more without paying a dime. Those who aren’t as fortunate, can only hope, dream, and drool.

But fame is fickle, and recognition can be a double-edged sword.

The higher you climb, the lower you can fall. But if your cushion is elastic enough, you may be able to bounce back. Comfortably.

TOP GEAR

On March 25th, 2015, the BBC fired Jeremy Clarkson, one of the presenters of Top Gear. Top Gear is one of the most successful programs in the history of the Beeb, bringing in millions of pounds every year. The car show is one of the biggest factual TV shows in the world with an estimated audience of 350 million in 200 countries. People who don’t even care for cars (myself included) watch Top Gear religiously.

Clarkson’s sacking was self-induced. He was fired for physically and verbally attacking one of the producers because no hot food was provided after a day’s filming. Prior to that, he had been given a final warning because of earlier controversies. “This time,” said the BBC, “a line was crossed.” Clarkson was dismissed, in spite of the million+ people who had signed an online petition to reinstate him.

Yes, we’re all unique, but no one is irreplaceable, or above the law.

As Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, said: “There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.”

The question is: Who will have the last laugh?

Clarkson’s contract was up for renewal anyway, and as soon as he left, other networks in Great Britain started fighting over who could offer the man the most lucrative deal. In the end, Amazon Video won out. Like the Terminator, Clarkson (and fellow-presenters Richard Hammond & James May) will be back, making more money than ever.

THE TAKEAWAY

As much as I deplore what Clarkson did, I wondered if we could learn anything from what happened. Like Clarkson, you and I work with producers and directors all the time. Some of them are very nice people. Others are not. Some make unreasonable demands, crazy requests, and give you a hard time when asked if the check is finally in the mail.

There are some big egos in our business, and I’ve seen colleagues suck up to the people with power, and kick those who are lower on the ladder. Here’s something that happened to me while I was working at a radio station.

One day, a fellow-presenter lashed out at an assistant because he had given her a glass of water with what looked like a hair in it. The woman exploded, and left the assistant heavily hyperventilating in the hallway. But when the director of the station paid us a surprise visit right after the incident, my angry colleague was suddenly all smiles.

After we had taped our show, I took a good look at the infamous glass of water. A curly, red hair was indeed floating on the surface.

My explosive colleague happened to have curly, red hair.

SEVEN SIGNS

Most people I’ve worked with seem to have it together. Perhaps this is because invisible voices have a low profile. We don’t have millions of fans, or millions of dollars. 

Those I admire in my industry have certain things in common. They often thrive against the odds. They are loved by colleagues and clients alike. And if you wish to follow in their footsteps, I have a few recommendations for you.

My first suggestion is simple: Treat everyone around you with respect; not only the people in power. Even if some co-workers do their very best to push your buttons, you’re not a robot. You can’t control their behavior, but you can choose your response.

Secondly: Celebrate your achievements, and remember where you came from. You are where you are because people who probably didn’t know you, believed in you, and were kind to you.

You made tons of mistakes. We all do, but were they met with punishment or patience? And even if your teachers weren’t always tolerant, don’t use that as an excuse to give others the same treatment you so hated.

Third: Don’t ever take success for granted. It entitles you to nothing. It has to be earned, and treasured. Over and over again. And what good does it do you, if you make the people around you miserable? They’ll feed you what you want to hear, while spitting out the truth behind your back.

Fourth: Don’t mistake fame for importance, and money for value. Who gives a damn how many followers you have on social media, and how much you have stashed away in your Swiss bank account. Why should we even care about your credentials? All these things do not make you a good person.

You should take your work and your fans seriously, but please take yourself with a few grains of salt.

Fifth: If you end up -willingly or unwillingly- being a role model, know that it comes with responsibilities. You are in a privileged position to influence a great number of people who look up to you. Are you going to use that position, or abuse it?

Sixth: Don’t ever ask: “What’s in it for me?” The better question is: “What can I do today to improve the lives of others without getting anything in return?” It’s the result that matters. Not the reward.

Seven: Be humble, and be grateful. Every single day.

Success is hard to sustain. One moment you’re the flavor of the month. The next you’re yesterday’s news. Clients may seem ungrateful, but that doesn’t mean you should be. 

Appreciate what you have right now, and realize that you couldn’t have done it without the help of others. No matter how hard you’ve worked for it, and how much you think you deserve it, feel confident without being cocky. Big egos don’t make amigos.

One last thought.

No one is irreplaceable, but at least for one project, one gig, or for one show, you were chosen. That means something. 

If you’re lucky, you can make it last.

If it doesn’t, enjoy the ride, but hopefully not in a Jeremy Clarkson sort of way.

Paul Strikwerda ©Nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Jeremy Clarkson and James May Top Gear presenters with my Lancia Beta Coupe Stanford Hall 2008 IMG_6342 via photopin (license)


Don’t Ever Do This To A Client

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 9 Comments

mooningSometimes I think I’m in the wrong business.

Has that ever happened to you? 

Especially during a dry spell, I start looking around, and I see people with a different skill set and a different level of education making tons of money.

All the time.

How fair is that?

Take Tom, for instance. Tom runs a small construction company. A few years ago, Tom and his team did a great job renovating part of our house. His business was still young, and he went above and beyond to make our home more modern. Tom was everything an average contractor isn’t. He was polite, communicative, affordable, he showed up on time, and he delivered on his promises. 

After weeks and weeks of hard work in the scorching July sun, the job was done. Before Tom gave us the keys to our brand new front door, his crew did something surprising. They carefully cleaned up the mess they had made during the renovation. Even our front and back yards received a make-over. How about that!

Needless to say, we sang Tom’s praises to anyone in need of a contractor, and it worked. For the next few months I saw Tom’s truck everywhere, and his business was booming.

He deserved every bit of success, and I was happy for him and his family. If only I could emulate his accomplishments… But, I was in the wrong business. Tom built walls, replaced windows, and renovated kitchens. It was tangible, visible work. All I did was talk for a living. 

Fast forward a couple of years.

Recently we were ready for the second phase of home improvement, and in our mind only one guy had proven himself worthy of the job. So, I called Tom again, and asked him to come over to take a look at what needed to be done.

I didn’t hear back from him for weeks. He did not respond to my messages, and I was worried that he might have left our Borough. However, his truck was parked next to his house, and he was still in business. When he finally answered his phone there was no explanation or apology. He almost sounded like I was inconveniencing him. I didn’t like that.

It took a few more weeks before Tom finally came over, and luckily he brought his old, cheery self. He assessed the work that we wanted done, and promised to give us an estimate within a matter of days. You can probably guess what happened next -or rather- what didn’t happen.

I lost count of how many times I called his business to remind him that we needed that estimate. I tried to sound upbeat and hopeful as I “talked” to Tom after the beep, but some of my messages might have revealed my increased frustration. Weeks and weeks passed, and Tom never returned any of my calls. It was as if I didn’t exist. 

I wondered what would happen if I would run my business like that. It would probably be “game over” in no time. You know what it’s like when an agent sends you a voice-over job that is making the rounds everywhere. You know what you need to do when you’ve spotted the perfect opportunity on a voice casting site. You’ve got to record that audition straight away, or else your voice will be lost in a whirlpool of other talent.

That’s one thing I imagine Tom doesn’t have to worry about. There are only a handful of reputable contractors in my area. Apparently Tom’s so busy, he doesn’t need more work. He can afford to ignore me.

And that’s where Tom and I differ.

At times I am pretty swamped, and job offers keep coming in. When it rains, it usually pours. But no matter how busy I am, I always get back to every client in a matter of hours. Some of them want me to start as soon as possible, and that’s not always an option. In that case I refer them to a reputable colleague. But quite often things are not as urgent as they seem, and I can fit the client in at a later point during the week.

To me this is not an earth-shattering approach, but I might be wrong. Just today, two clients thanked me for quickly getting back to them, as if it was something unusual. Isn’t that weird? I tend to think that the way I conduct business is the way everyone does it. I put in long hours. Others put in long hours. I have high standards. Others have high standards. But here’s what I have noticed.

Some colleagues just don’t seem to care as much, or they stopped caring, for whatever reason. And that’s the thing clients hate the most. They don’t want to be treated as a routine client with a routine job. They don’t want to be ignored or taken for granted. 

Clients are just like real people. People want to be acknowledged. Respected. Appreciated. They want to be treated as if they’re the only client in the world at that moment in time. And if you can give them that feeling, you do more than just a job. You are in the business of building long-lasting relationships.

So Tom… if you are reading this blog, I don’t know what happened to you since you started your company, but I don’t like it one bit. No matter how good you are at what you do, I will no longer recommend you. I will not hire you. I will find someone else to do the job.

Perhaps I will finally hear from you after you have read this, and you’ll give me some kind of lame excuse like: “I’ve been too busy, but it’s just business. Nothing personal.”

Well, you’re wrong about that.

It is always personal.

As a contractor, you come into people’s homes and invade their privacy. You tear up their walls, and you demolish their bathrooms. You fix what’s broken, and you make people feel safe under their own roof again.

I’m a contractor too. A so-called independent contractor. My voice gets in between people’s ears. Sometimes I tell them what to do or what to buy. Other times I read them a good book. It’s safe to say that we have a rather intimate relationship.

I will never take that relationship for granted, not just because it is the lifeblood of my business. I honor that relationship because it is the right thing to do. It’s how I was raised.

Let me end by saying this:

I vow to never let my success prevent me from treating my clients with professionalism, respect, and gratitude.

Even if all I do is talk for a living, I do my very best to walk my talk.

I’ve been doing this for over three decades.

Clients keep on coming, and I thoroughly enjoy what I am doing.

So… perhaps I’m in the right business after all!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.


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