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The Most Important Question Of The Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Journalism & Media, Promotion 9 Comments

freelancer at workWe’re nearing the end of December, and I want to ask you a few innocent questions, if I may. Questions that may make a few freelancers slightly uncomfortable.

Here’s the most important one:

“How was business in 2016?”

Some of you might tell me:

“2016 was great. I had so much fun!”

“I feel blessed to do what I do and even get paid for it.”

“I booked more gigs than ever, and I learned a lot this year.”

Those are interesting points, yet from a business perspective they are almost irrelevant. Let’s unpack theses statements one by one.

I’m so glad you had fun (and I don’t mean that sarcastically), but that’s not how you measure success as an entrepreneur. I know quite a few starving artists who had tons of fun while losing boatloads of money. 

You may feel incredibly blessed, but how is that reflected in your books? Did your CPA congratulate you because your numbers are up this year?

It’s great that you landed more jobs, but if you’ve been doing more for less, are you really better off? I don’t know about you, but I became a freelancer so I could do less for more. That has nothing to do with being lazy. I wanted to have time to travel, to volunteer, to write, to coach, and to enjoy being with family and friends. 

Learning a lot is cool, but clients don’t pay you to learn on the job. They expect you to know the job. I’m sure you’re familiar with certain folks (perhaps intimately) who are very good at learning how NOT to do a job. That’s not a way to determine the well-being of a business, is it?

SUSTAINED SUCCESS

Let me share something with you I learned not by guessing, but from decades of experience:

People who are prone to making the above statements may be good at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at running a for-profit business. In fact, their comments tell me they don’t seem to have their priorities straight. 

If you wish to have sustained success in any competitive field, you need to be better than 90% of your colleagues in terms of talent and skills, AND you must run your business like a business (instead of some elevated hobby). You can’t have one without the other. 

This means that when I ask you “How was business in 2016?” you should be able to answer the following (and potentially uncomfortable) questions:

“Did you break even? Did you turn a profit, or are your (still) struggling to survive?”

Be honest. Don’t give me an answer that would look good on Facebook. It’s time to face the facts. To quote Dr. Phil: “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”

The bottom line is always about the bottom line.

Now, if you’re not yet where you want to be: Welcome to the club! Trust me. Even the big names you look up to, are seldom where they want to be. It’s what drives them! They know business is unpredictable and volatile. But they also know the five factors that lead to success:

  1. Learn from the best. 
  2. Offer an outstanding product or service. 
  3. Make it easy for clients to find you.
  4. Make it easy to work with you.
  5. Make it easy to pay you.

I always tell my students not to reinvent the wheel. It’s a huge waste of time. There are no shortcuts to success, but it does help to model your business after those who are where you want to be. When you do that, you’ll notice a sixth factor that contributes to continued success:

6. Manage your money.

This is where many freelancers lose the game, because they’re not on top of their finances. I admit: it’s not a glamorous job, but it pays the bills. Literally. If this is something you’re interested in, you need to take the first step:

Get Organized!

If you’re like me, and you could use some help in that area, consider a service like Invoice2go.com. It was developed by someone like you: a small business owner. For $149.99 per year (The Enterprise Plan), you can list 100 clients, and send an unlimited number of customized invoices using your phone, tablet, or computer. Invoices will show a Pay Now button, allowing your customers to pay you online in multiple ways.

Here’s the thing:

Not only will you look much more professional, but when you make it easier for clients to pay you, they will pay you faster. 

Invoice2go also helps you keep track of your expenses. That way you’ll always know how much is coming in, and how much is going out.

Mind you, I’m not getting paid to toot their horn, but I was approached to contribute to an infographic they put together for small business owners. I think that’s a really cool thing! Invoice2go asked entrepreneurs with years of experience for their top advice for starting a small business.

Here’s the result. Let’s see if you can find my quote!

Invoice2go just launched a free invoice template generator, allowing you to create and send customized invoices in three simple steps. Here’s the link: 

http://blog.2go.com/invoice-template/

Happy invoicing!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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How To Handle Negative Comments

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Internet, Journalism & Media, Personal 10 Comments

cyberbullyingDon’t be shocked.

Sooner or later it is bound to happen, and you will ask yourself:

“Was it something I said, something I wrote, or something I did?”

It doesn’t really matter.

The truth is: you probably annoyed someone in some way, and they’re letting you have it.

Online. For the whole world to see.

You wonder: “What do I do? Do I ignore it? Should I retaliate?”

A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

Having an online presence is a blessing and a curse. It’s an opportunity to reach thousands of people instantaneously. Sane people, and insane people. Ideally, you don’t want your fans, readers, and potential clients to passively consume your content. You want people to react to what you’re posting. You want the “likes,” the retweets, the comments, and the thumbs up, don’t you? I know I do, and I’ll tell you why.

I purposely push the envelope from time to time, and stir the pot. I welcome and encourage a good discussion, because I want my readers to be moved in some way or another. I want them to be aware of the Emperors in our industry that aren’t wearing any clothes. I want people to think twice before they send their money to some demo mill, or to a casting website selling virtual cattle calls.

I know this doesn’t make me popular in some of the more established circles, but popularity has never been my goal. If anything, I want to empower my readers to become more professional, more business-savvy, and better equipped to run a profitable and ethical freelance business.

THE WIND AND THE TREES

In the Netherlands we have a saying that goes like this: “Hoge bomen vangen veel wind.” It means “Tall trees catch much wind.” In other words: if you choose to put yourself out there, things might get rough. You’re kind of asking for it. Let me give you an example.

You’re probably aware that I wrote a book called Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs. It has an average of four and a half stars on Amazon. Not long ago I noticed that I got my first (and only) one-star review from Jack Dennis, a colleague. I can use Jack’s name, because he chose to identify himself at the end of his review which I appreciate. Here’s what he wrote:

“Don’t believe what you read. Paul is not well respected in the vo biz. In fact, quite the opposite. He has successfully offended many major league elite vo actors and their representatives. He is everything you shouldn’t be to become a major league talent. He embarrasses me and shames the art of voice over. He’s an author, coach and does vo. The basic formula for success is to learn from the best in their respective fields. You can learn nothing from Paul. He is pompous, arrogant and brings nothing positive to the table. He will only take your money and discourage you from going after your dream. This sounds like a nasty review it is. I’m tired of the vo wolves preying on those with a dream. If you want to have any success in the vo world, avoid people like this.”

While I didn’t enjoy reading these words, I do want to thank Jack for inspiring me to write about handling feedback. If you feel hurt, or angry about some of the negative comments you may have received, here’s what I’d like you to keep in mind:

1. Don’t take it personally.

I strongly feel that most comments reveal much more about the commentators, than about what or whom they’re trying to critique. In three words: Perception is projection.

I also think that ALL of us are looking at the world through dirty lenses. Our vision is colored by past experience, and by our values, our beliefs, and our expectations.

Some people feel big when they can make other people feel small. Some are jealous, narrow-minded, vindictive, or simply ill-informed. Some people thrive on creating conflict. Some fall for fake news. Some have been hurt, wronged, or disappointed, and they’ve become cynical, sad, or bitter bullies.

All of this resonates in the background, and influences how people perceive the world and respond to it. Sometimes it takes one small trigger that provides the spark that lights the fire. Some days, you might be that trigger, and you get some dirt thrown your way.

Mind you: I’m not justifying bad behavior. I’m just trying to put it into context.

One more thing.

A person is much more than his or her behavior. The behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. Just as we don’t like to be judged based on one thing we said or wrote, it would be unfair to judge the commentators based on a single, not so positive comment.

2. Substantive feedback is valuable.

It is really hard for most people to have an accurate sense of how they come across, in person, and especially in writing. As you’re reading these words, you can’t hear my tone of voice, and you don’t see my body language. Yet, most communication experts agree that tonality, facial expressions, and posture are way more revealing and honest than the words we speak. That’s why the written word is easily misunderstood (and why some of us use emoticons).

Quality feedback (emphasis on “quality”) is a precious gift. It’s a mirror that teaches us something about how we’re being perceived. It can be a confrontation with a part of ourselves we’re uncomfortable with. That’s why some people become very defensive. They take critique of one small aspect of how they come across, as an attack on their entire personality.

When someone has a few harsh words for me, this what I want to know:

– Is the feedback based on actual observations and facts, or on assumptions and interpretations?
– Is it specific, or does it consist of a bunch of generalizations?
– What is it, that the commentator is missing in order to truly understand me, and what do I need to do better, in order to be understood?

You see, I cannot change my critics. If they’re intent on cutting me down because they have some chip on their shoulder I know nothing about, I cannot help them. Frankly, it’s their problem. Not mine. I can only change myself. I can choose to ignore feedback that has no basis in reality, and to learn from feedback that’s fair. This brings me to the next point:

3. Ask yourself: Is the critique consistent and recurring?

Now, here’s where I start paying attention. If the same substantive feedback is coming back again and again, that’s like an alarm bell. Action needs to be taken. Jack’s one-star review may be annoying, but it doesn’t really worry me. Apparently, he has some bone to pick with me and/or the world, but his review is overshadowed by many positive comments from other readers…. which leads me to my next suggestion.

When fellow-bloggers and writers ask me if and how they should respond to people like Jack, I tell them:

“Don’t.

Let others come to your defense.”

When others advocate on your behalf, it has a much stronger impact than when you speak up yourself. And if you’ve taken the time to develop a considerable following, people will jump in. I guarantee it.

4. How you respond to feedback, teaches you about you.

Just as most comments reveal a lot about the commentators, how you respond to those comments tells you something about yourself. If you’re a people-pleaser, you probably want to be liked, and you avoid conflict. A critical comment may feel like a slap in the face. 

A few words of advice:

– It is impossible to please everyone, all the time. It’s also unhealthy!

– You are not perfect, and you don’t have to be, to be liked and loved.

– Receiving feedback is different from being rejected. It’s information, and you decide what to do with it.

– Always consider the source of the feedback. You can’t reason with unreasonable people.

– You cannot control the comments, but you can control your response.

5. Comment carefully.

If you happen to have a sharp online tongue, bite it!

If you have something to say, don’t hide behind an anonymous online identity. Own your ideas. Be accountable. Only cowards operate in the dark.

Be aware of the incredible power of words. Using strong language to provoke a response is not a game. It is not funny. It is beyond rude, and it is dangerous. Cyberbullying has led to suicide.

Never respond when you’re angry or under the influence. Realize that what you say about others, says a lot about yourself. Do you want to be known as a considerate and kind person, or as a jackass?

Online comments have a long shelf life. Something you wrote in anger, might come up in searches years after it was written, and may even cost you a job.

If you have very strong feelings about a person’s opinion or actions, why not send him or her a private message? Be polite. Be thoughtful. Be reasonable.

As Patrick Stokes once said: “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

DEALING WITH NEGATIVITY

If you’re a fan of British television, you may have heard of Nadiya Hussain. She’s the most recent winner of The Great British Bake-Off on the BBC. Nadiya walked into the show wearing a headscarf, and became one of the most well-known Muslims in the UK. Now she stars in her own television series, she wrote a number of books, and she even baked a birthday cake for the Queen.

In a recent interview, Nadiya was asked:

Many Muslim women have to endure anti-Islamic slurs in the street – has that ever happened to you?

Here’s what she said: 

“From the moment I’ve worn my headscarf, that almost comes with the territory. I don’t feed negativity with negativity. I receive it with a smile and I say: “You know what? I don’t need to balance the scales.” For me that’s really important because my foremost and most important job is my children. I live in a lovely country. I don’t want my kids to grow up with a chip on their shoulder. Those negative people and those negative comments are the minority, and I don’t let that dictate how I live my life.”

I agree with Nadiya. Never sink to the level of the person you’re responding to. Don’t become what you despise. It’s a sure way to fan the flames, and it will stain your soul. 

Language can be used to help, heal, or hurt.

The choice is yours.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Have you ever received nasty comments? How did you handle it?

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4 Ways To Get From Good To Great

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 11 Comments
the author singing in a choir

The author singing in a choir

Being a successful voice-over.

It has a little bit to do with having pleasant pipes, and lot with other factors. Some of those factors can be influenced. Others are beyond our control.

A few days ago, one of my students had an interesting question for me. Professionally speaking (pun intended, always), she was doing okay. Clients loved working with her. Business was getting better every year. Yet, she felt that something was preventing her from reaching that proverbial “next level,” and she couldn’t figure out what to do.

“Paul,” she said, “I’ve read all the books on voice-over I could find, including yours. I follow the best bloggers. I listen to podcasts, and I watch videos on VO. What am I missing? I seem to be stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results. How do I move forward from here?”

“What you’re really asking,” I said, “is how to get from good to great. Am I right?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, the first thing you have to realize is that growth is a gradual process. You don’t expect a seed to bloom the next day, do you? We all grow in different ways at different speeds.

People can teach you new techniques, but it may take a while before those techniques become second nature. However, at your level, techniques are usually not the issue. Other things are holding you back. One of the main obstacles to growth is familiarity. You said it yourself.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“You can call it coasting, if you like. You just told me that you were stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results.

Secondly, you seem to be looking for inspiration and guidance within your field. Again: you’re focusing on the familiar. You already know how to interpret a script. I think you can handle a microphone. You don’t better yourself by doing things that are easy and predictable. That’s like working out without weights.

If you really want to grow as a person and as a professional, you’ve got to look elsewhere. That’s where the challenges will be, and challenges will help you grow. Now, here’s the amazing thing: growth in one area of your life will positively influence growth in other areas of your life.”

“Any suggestions as to what I should do?” my student asked.

“Plenty,” I said. “Here’s one:

1. Start leading a healthy life.

A year ago, one of my students was in bad shape. He was overweight, he sat in his recording booth for long periods of time, and his diet had way too much sugar, fat and salt in it. It affected his mood, his self-image, and his self-confidence. I could hear it in his voice. His breathing was very shallow, and he sounded insecure.

One day, he decided he had had enough, and he joined a gym. He exercised at least five times a week, and started shedding pounds. In the kitchen he began using fresh, organic ingredients, and he filled his plate with fruits and vegetables. Within two months, he felt more energetic and alive, and people told him he looked better.

His renewed energy and enthusiasm could be heard in the way he spoke when the mic was on, and when the mic was off. Because he felt better, he performed better, and he began booking more and more jobs. For him, leading a healthy lifestyle was the key that brought him to the next level.

Here’s another thing you can do:

2. Learn a foreign language.

Forget tongue twisters and other vocal exercises. Start studying that language you’ve always wanted to learn! A new language is a doorway to a different culture. Every language has its own rhythm and melody. You’ll even start thinking differently when speaking a foreign language.

Becoming bilingual benefits the brain. It improves cognitive skills that don’t even have to do with language. Bilinguals are better at solving puzzles, better at staying on task, and being bilingual can even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

One of my students decided to learn Italian at a later point in life. It took her a couple of years, but after a few vacations near Florence, she was almost fluent. As a bilingual voice talent, a whole new market opened up. She claims that she feels much more flexible, vocally speaking, and that it has become easier to do all sorts of accents and character voices.

But there’s more you can do to take your career to the next level:

3. Join a community theater or improv group.

Voice-overs are usually so stuck to their scripts… they have a hard time letting it go, and letting it flow. When you’re forced to memorize your words to perform on stage, you not only train your brain. You also learn how to speak your lines, instead of reading them. It’s also a very physical experience.

Rather than talking into a microphone, you get to inter-act with real people who re-act to what you’re saying. You get instant feedback on how you land your lines, not only from your fellow-actors but from the audience. You have a whole new way of getting into character.

Improv classes are a great way to learn to loosen up, and become conversational. Name one client who doesn’t ask for a “conversational read”?

I remember an audio book narrator who was stuck in his studio most of the time. Some people thought he was anti-social. When he finally joined an improv group, he made new friends who thought he was witty, funny, and charming. Two years later, the introvert has become quite extroverted, and his loyal listeners love the way his audio book characters bounce off the page like never before.”

“Those are some great suggestions,” said my student. “Is there anything else you’d recommend?”

“Well, how about you…

4. Take singing lessons, and join a choir.

Voice-overs talk for a living, yet too many of them have no clue how to use their voice. Their range is limited, their diction is off, and after half an hour, vocal fatigue sets in. Using your voice means using muscles, the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles to be exact.

Taking singing lessons is like going to the gym for your voice. You’ll learn effective warm-ups, proper pronunciation and projection, and you’ll train the muscles needed to produce sound. After a while, your voice will become stronger, clearer, more resonant and more flexible. Your listening skills and timing will improve, and you’ll be able to infuse your scripts with musicality.

On top of that, you’ll have yet another reason to get off your behind, and rehearse with your choir. There’s nothing like the sweet sensation of voices blending, creating harmonies and melodies that soothe the soul.

The main thing to remember is that everything is connected. The change you make in one area of your life is likely to affect other areas of your life.

Whatever you decide to do, you are the goose with the golden eggs, so you had better take good care of yourself.

Step out of your comfort zone, but be patient. It might take a while before you see the payoff of your pursuits.

Eventually, things will fall into place in a most surprising and delightful way. 

Take it from me, the exercising, multilingual, singing amateur stage actor!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Are Those Black Friday Deals Really Worth It?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Freelancing, Gear, Money Matters, Studio, Widgets 5 Comments

Black Friday at Best BuyAt this very moment, the retail powers that be, are working you left and right.

They’re preying on you, like a lion lures a lamb.

Unlike the lion (who will do his best to stay undetected until he makes his deadly move), retailers come at you in plain sight. They have no desire to rip you to pieces. They want you alive, so they can bleed you year after year.

Retailers won’t jump you either. Instead, they play a game of not so subtle seduction, with one or two pieces of masterful bait, the first one being (drum roll):

Low Prices.

Yes, Black Friday and Cyber Monday will soon be upon us, and credit card companies are already drooling over your looming debt increase.

We may all believe that we’re independent thinkers that cannot be manipulated, but psychologists know better. They know that one of the strongest human fears is the fear of missing out.

That’s why the time ticker at QVC and the Home Shopping Network is such an effective sales tool. It tells you how much time is left to get this incredible gadget you suddenly cannot live without. That’s why they throw in all these “but wait, there’s more” extras to sweeten the deal, but only if you BUY NOW.

Limited time offers and low prices are classic incentives to get weak and impressionable people to buy stuff. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the ultimate examples of these incentives, because they only come once a year, and some of the deals are truly incredible.

Supposedly.

You and I know that those heavily discounted doorbusters are meant to give you a shopping high, so you’ll buy more once you’re in the door. Besides, these deals will often come back in slower seasons.

If you’re still tempted to empty your wallet around Thanksgiving, I can’t stop you. But allow me to give you a few pointers, if I may. 

1. Distinguish between a WANT and a NEED

Every time you’re tempted to make a major purchase, ask yourself:

“Do I really need it right now, or is it just something I want?” “Is it a necessity, or a luxury?”

If you wish to experience sustained success as a for-profit freelancer, there’s one simple formula you must stick to:

Keep your revenue stream high, and your expenses low.

So, if you really, really want to buy this nice, new, shiny piece of equipment, ask yourself:

– Will it make me more professional, productive, and profitable?

– Will my clients experience an undeniable difference as a result of this purchase?

– Will this investment pay for itself within a reasonable period of time?

For instance, a few of my voice-over colleagues are already salivating over a new microphone this season. But a recording will only sound as good as the space it’s recorded in. So, rather than spending cash on a new mic, it’s often much wiser to invest in creating a better acoustic environment.

Most clients won’t hear the difference between a $300 microphone and a $1000 mic. They will hire you because you’re able to deliver clean and crisp audio, without the sound of the neighbor’s leaf blower in the background.

2. Choose High Quality over Low Price

If you must make an investment, do your research before you make that impulse buy. This means you have to overcome one of humanity’s eternal weaknesses: the need for immediate gratification when buying something that’s on sale. 

As a freelancer, competing on price is a losing strategy. You want people to pick you because of your added value, and that value is worth something. If you truly subscribe to this idea, you can’t just apply it to your own business. You have to “live it” in all areas of your life. So, stop buying things just because they’re cheap.

Only yesterday, I threw out all the heavy catalogues of the major pro audio retailers without even looking at them. Apart from being a waste of tropical rain forest, I have everything I need to run my business. I’ve carefully collected my equipment over time. I gave myself an opportunity to save up, to gather info, and to invest some of my profits in quality gear that will last for many years.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Buying cheap can be expensive. Buying quality saves you money in the long run, and a whole lot more.

3. Choose the Planet over Price

I already mentioned the catalogues I had to throw away. But that’s not the only thing that concerns me.

In the past few decades, there’s a growing tendency among manufacturers to make things that only last a few years, and cannot be fixed. As a result, we end up with landfills of trash, gradually leaking toxins into the environment. Nature’s resources are depleted, and people in low-wage countries are exploited as they make the shiny trinkets we end up throwing away.

This process will go on for two reasons. One: because the environmental and societal impact of a product is hardly ever a part of the price. Two: because people like you and me keep buying them.

I’m a strong believer in creating change through spending. If I want local businesses to grow; local farmers to go organic, and make a decent living, that’s where I’ll have to spend my money. If I want manufacturers to create products that are environmentally-friendly, that last, and can be repaired, I have to show them there’s a market for those products.

Now, if you believe that you alone can’t make a difference, talk to Tara Button. Tara is Founder and CEO of BuyMeOnce.com. She was so frustrated with our throw-away culture, that she went on a global quest to find things that are built to last, and that are made in an ethical, green way. Her website features kitchenware, furniture, clothes, shoes, beauty products, and other things. Yes, you’ll pay more upfront, but you’ll save money over time.

4. Don’t spend all your money on objects

If you’re still itching to spend (or borrow) Black Friday money, do you really have to spend it on “stuff”? How fulfilling is that, ultimately? Once the rush of owning something shiny is over, there’ll be a new void, waiting to be filled. And what void are you filling anyway, and for what reason? Do you want to impress your colleagues?

To borrow a phrase from a weight-loss coach:

“Until you know what you’re truly hungry for, you’ll never be satisfied.”

We’ve been shoving waste under the carpet for decades. Is that a legacy you can be proud of? You don’t have to agree with me, but I think mother earth would be better off if we’d shift from an economy of “more and more,” to an economy of “enough is enough.” 

As Thanksgiving is coming up, can we just stop for a moment, and be grateful for what we already have? Can we also spend some time giving, instead of getting? For so many charities, your (tax-deductible) donation is not a want, but a need.

If you insist on giving yourself a gift, why not buy a gym membership (and actually use it)? Why not enroll in a cooking class that teaches you to make healthy meals?

Treat your family to a trip abroad, allowing everyone to broaden their horizons, and to recharge those batteries that have been going non-stop.

Gift yourself to your community by volunteering! Science has proven that it is better to give than to receive. So, be selfish, and share your time and talent with those who need it. It will truly transform your life!

I’ll tell you one thing:

It will beat leaving Thanksgiving dinner early, so you can stand in line for Best Buy.

And if that’s a family tradition you want to break with, you know there’s only one way to do it:

Go cold turkey!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Should We Shoot The Messenger?

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

Hillary and DonaldA painful, and often embarrassing war of words is finally over.

America has voted. The people have spoken. 

We have a president-elect, and his name is Donald J. Trump. 

Some of us are elated.

Some of us are scared. 

Some of us are asking ourselves: “How the heck did this happen?”

Now, before you think this is yet another analysis of the election, let me stop you. This is primarily a blog about people’s voices and their meaning, and that’s why you and I need to talk. 

How so? 

Because some of us were foot soldiers in this war of words. Soldiers of fortune. 

I’m referring to the voice actors who used their talent to spread the message of a particular party. Masterful manipulators, hand-picked and hired to move hearts and minds. 

That’s not some dark, political point of view. It’s the ultimate purpose of our profession. Clients hire voice actors when they have something to sell, someone to entertain, something to teach, or something to preach. 

If we do our jobs well, we lift dead words off the page, and bring them to life in the most impactful way possible. Sometimes that way is a seductive whisper. Sometimes it is a battle cry about making a nation great again, or stronger together. As long as that cry is believable, people are buying it in droves. 

It’s all about influence. 

A masterful audio book narrator can create wonderful worlds and characters that become an intimate part of the listener’s experience. Well-delivered catch phrases from commercials become engrained in our culture. 

As the French say: “It’s the tone that makes the music,” and in my mind, it’s the voice-over who sets the tone, whether it’s someone like Sir David Attenborough, Gilbert Godfrey, or Morgan Freeman.   

Who can forget the way Ed McMahon delivered his “Here’s Johnny,” for almost thirty years? Who doesn’t remember Don LaFontaine’s booming “In a world…”  or Don Pardo announcing Saturday Night Live? 

As you’re reading these words, you probably heard their voices inside your head, and hearing these voices put you in a certain state of mind, if only for a moment. 

Don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal. 

Voice-overs infuse scripts with meaning and emotion. A talented voice actor can “play” the words, the way a musician turns notes into music, and music into art. 

Now, at this point I can hear some of you say: 

“Slow down a little. What’s the big deal? Words are just words! You can’t get wet from the word water. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Well, you’re wrong.

Words are powerful weapons. Depending on who delivers them, and how they are delivered, words can act as a placebo, or as a poison.  

The word Kristallnacht isn’t “just” a word. Kristallnacht opens up a burning world of meaning; a world of anti-Semitism and intolerance that lead to the killing of six million innocent people. 

Words are loaded. They can be used to divide, to incite, to help, and to heal. Words drive teenagers to suicide, and words inspire religious fanatics to murder and maim. 

Words are never “just” words. 

Now, subscribing to the idea that words have power, has implications for all of us, and especially for professional communicators.

Whether you’re a copywriter, a speech writer, a politician, or a voice-over, as a paid manipulator of language, you have the responsibility to ask yourself: 

“To what aim am I doing my job?”

“What are the potential consequences?” 

“Would this project I’m involved in make me proud?”

Under what circumstances would I refuse to work on something?”

“Is this job an opportunity to make money, to make a difference, or both?” 

Some of my fellow voice-overs answer those questions in a very pragmatic way. They tell me:

“Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only an actor. I’ll say whatever they pay me to say.” 

To be perfectly honest with you: I struggle with that attitude. Especially when it’s about causes I strongly believe in, I find it hard to separate personal from professional ethics. For instance, as a lifelong vegetarian, I would never butcher my beliefs to promote the consumption of meat, no matter how much they’d pay me.

At the same time, I’m not going to make the mistake of confusing an actor with his or her character. If someone portrays a member of the KKK in a movie, I know it doesn’t mean he supports the KKK. Perhaps that actor wanted to play this role to warn the world about the dangers of the Klan. 

So, to help myself deal with some professional, moral dilemmas, I find it useful to make a distinction between fiction, and fantasy. As a voice actor I give myself permission to play a despicable person if it’s non-fiction (and with certain limitations). But I would never record a promo video for the KKK. 

And what about political ads? Would I be willing to help a political party influence the voters?

It depends.

Although many political ads sound too good to be true, I put them in the category of non-fiction. They’re a tool in a battle to influence the masses. They’re instruments of propaganda. Based on my personal morals, and knowing what I know about the power of words, I would never lend my voice to a message I don’t believe in, regardless of the paycheck. 

My voice is for hire, but my integrity is not for sale.

I understand that you may draw the line differently, because your values and beliefs are different from mine. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss ethics in our profession. Our voice is a powerful instrument of influence, that can be used for many purposes, good, or bad. 

One last thing.

Let’s not confuse doing a great job with doing what is right. 

It is very much possible to do great work for a terrible cause. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens, is a cinematic masterpiece of propaganda about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Her documentary Olympia about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, was groundbreaking.

Sometimes it’s not the work itself that’s being criticized. It’s the purpose it serves, that matters.

With that being said, it’s time to adjust to a new reality. 

Our election is over.

To many observers, this wasn’t an election about issues. This was an election about emotions; about who was best at selling a message to the masses. 

A painful, and often embarrassing war of words has finally come to an end.

Or is it just beginning?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Secrets From Successful Voice-Overs

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 11 Comments

Road to SuccessLast week, I shared the story of Rick, a voice actor and producer with over 30 years of experience. In spite of his talent and time in the business, Rick isn’t doing so well. What’s even worse: he has pretty much given up hope that things will change for the better.

His story struck a chord. Colleagues reacted privately and publicly, telling me that the voice-over Boulevard of Broken Dreams is a crowded place. Is it possible to get stuck there? Of course it is, but with the right mindset, skill set, and marketing strategy, your chances at success will improve dramatically.

I asked my commentators what kind of advice they had for Rick. Here’s what they had to say.

1. DON’T DWELL ON THE PAST

“The bottom line is this: get rid of all the negativity in your life, believe in yourself, and thank the powers that be for all the good fortune in your life. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow doesn’t exist, so that leaves today! Working on today is what I do very well!”

Shane Morris

“Be in the right mindset. We can often be our own worst enemy with what we unconsciously BELIEVE to be “true,” and can sabotage our own best efforts, because deep down, we really think we don’t deserve success, or some other faulty belief that we keep living out and finding evidence to support.”

Debbie Grattan

2. CHOOSE HAPPINESS OVER MONEY

“After working as a Part-time VO for 20 years, I only just went full time 3 years ago, and I am in the midst of my best year ever. I am tracking to make 30K this year. Still only a third of what I used to make as a multimedia developer. But I am much happier.

I realize I may not ever hit the “Big-Time,” but it doesn’t deter me from continuing in this industry because I am happy. I know the pitfalls, and in my opinion, they are less stressful and more rewarding than any company I worked for all my life. It’s not all peaches and cream. It’s perspective, and I appreciate honesty above all. Less surprises that way.”

John N. Gully

3. FIND YOUR NICHE

“If you can find a mid-sized market where you can be the “only” at something, I think you can have a real shot. I entered a mid-sized market when there was no one else who sounded like me. This mattered because there were tons of women with deep, sexy voices in the Philly market.

I was a recent college grad with a high-pitched, very young sounding voice. I even had engineers say to me “We finally have someone to call to play a high school or college student!” At that time, there was a lot of character parts in radio VO, and I played the daughter, the valley girl (that was a “thing” at the time), the high school or college student, etc. I wasn’t the best voice talent, but I did have acting skills and I was essentially the “only.”

Jeannie Stith

4. BE CLOSE & BE READY

“People will tell you that because of the internet, Source-Connect, ISDN, etc. you can do this from “wherever.” Don’t believe it. I mean, you can…sort of… but with limited success. I have had the success I’ve had because I can be at studios in Burbank/Los Angeles/Hollywood at the drop of a hat. It’s not because I’m better than anyone else – I’m sure I’m not.

I have a dear friend in Des Moines who works at a car dealership. He has an amazing home studio with everything you could ever need or want, and he’s a lot better than I am. He would beat me at every read. But, I book 200% more work than he does because of WHERE he is, and because opportunities come when he’s working his other job. I get auditions that need to be done in the next 4 hours and so does he. You can’t do those if you’re working another job. I get work, not because I beat guys on the read, but because I beat them to the punch.

Treat VO like a part-time job or a sideline, and that’s all it will ever be.”

Jon Armond

5. BE OPEN & EXPAND YOUR HORIZONS

“Stay up with the times. Just because you’ve been doing something for 30 years, if you’re working from an old paradigm, then perhaps you need to expand into a new way of thinking… not only with copywriting, but vocal delivery, music mix, and message.

Diversify. Don’t only focus on commercial work. How about being open to niches in narration, explainers, phone messaging, audio books, video games? The VO world has expanded so much from 30 years ago, with niches opening up that didn’t even exist before.”

6. OUTSOURCE

“Hire other professionals to help you in areas where you’re not an expert (website building, branding, marketing, SEO, social media management, blog writing, etc.) and also coaches, to keep fresh in your vocal delivery. Hire demo producers to cut new and cutting edge demos – they seem to constantly need to be refreshed.

Get copies of your work to upload onto many different playlists on YouTube, and then keyword those to attract potential clients. These are just a few practices that can make a big difference. Outsource, where you can, and this includes housekeeping, yard maintenance, etc.”

Debbie Grattan

I want to thank my colleagues for chiming in with these words of wisdom. They illustrate the final point I’d like to make:

7. DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL: LEARN FROM THE BEST

As they say: “Experience is the slowest teacher,” particularly bad experience. Cut your learning curve by working with pros who are where you want to be. That way, you don’t have to make the mistakes they had to make.

Remember that even the best athletes work with coaches on a regular basis. The success of a single player is a team effort.

Surround yourself with people who support your goals, and who have the expertise to get you there.

Be patient. Be persistent. Be a Pro. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: ota_photos Road to Success via photopin (license)

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Voice-Overs: the Untold, Unsexy Story

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Pay-to-Play 20 Comments

Standing at the gates of hellSomething strange is going on.

Whenever I try to warn people about the intricacies and pitfalls of the voice-over business, I get two types of reactions.

More experienced colleagues thank me for painting a realistic picture of a complicated industry.

Beginners criticize me for spitefully dashing their dreams.

To some, I am a hero for speaking my mind. To others I’m a villain who wants to curb his competition. There seems to be no middle ground. Just look at the reactions to my YouTube videoThe Troublesome Truth About A Voice-Over Career.” Even though I made it a few years ago, I still stand behind every word of it. One of the commentators said:

“Why would anyone seek out this negative party pooper? Don’t just offer the problems, offer the solutions, or at least direct people to where they can find the solutions. That might be on your website, but most people will never go there as all you’ve done with this post is attempt to suck the life out of their dreams.”

Another one said: 

“Why is this guy such a douche bag? Haha. This is a video about a VO actor that sadly didn’t “catch the big break” and made a rant video.”

Here’s a third response:

“Tough love. I appreciate it. Thank you for this, but it has me more determined than ever!”

And one more:

“A very honest and accurate summary of the voiceover business. As I tell folks, my job is not doing voiceovers. My job is finding voiceover clients.”

THE POWER OF PREJUDICE

Positive or not so positive, every response teaches us something about confirmation bias. It’s this very human flaw that makes us see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and believe what we want to believe. It’s a way of filtering information that confirms our preconceptions. Quite often, it makes people immune to facts.

Advertisers create entire campaigns to play into people’s biases by offering simple solutions to complicated problems. Here’s a familiar example from a new website, using the persistent myth (bias) that every ignorant fool with vocal folds has a good chance of becoming a professional voice-over!

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-8-57-13-am

Yes folks: anyone with a camera can make money as a photographer. Anyone with a hammer can become a carpenter, and anyone with a piano can be a concert pianist. You just have to believe in yourself, and sign up for whatever training program they’re trying to sell you. Clients worldwide are waiting for you!

CUTTING THE CRAP

Well, let’s do a reality check, shall we? If you believe I have a hidden agenda and can’t be trusted, perhaps you’re willing to listen to an accomplished colleague of mine. He’s a writer, producer, and voice talent. A while ago he responded to one of my blog posts entitled What Clients Hate The Most.” His story is a tale I have heard many times since I started writing this blog.

It is honest. It is raw. It is painful.

Minutes after he posted his remarks, he asked me to delete them because of possible repercussions. Sharing setbacks could be bad for business, he said. I think he has a point. 

Most of us do our best to look successful in the eyes of colleagues and clients. That’s why we share our latest and greatest accomplishments with our peeps. Colleagues refer colleagues with an impressive track record. Clients want to hire winners, not whiners. 

So, I shelved his message for months, but in some way it continued to haunt me. Here was a story from the trenches that deserved to be heard. I’m not saying it is representative of what every single voice talent goes through, but it tells a story you have to hear. This week he gave me permission to share it with you.

RICK’S RESPONSE

Hi Paul:

I’ve written and produced for thirty years. One of my pieces is used by Dan O’Day in one of his courses, specifically the use of music in a commercial. I am quite good at nuance and communicating just what the client wants in the way he wants it. I have top-shelf recording gear with a couple of the world’s finest mics and preamps, and my stuff sounds very, very good.

I’m a good editor with an instinct for timing, layering, choosing the right music when required, and knowing where to put it. My demo is as good as anything you’ll hear. I’m a nice person with good people skills, and an ability to empathize.

I was mentored by a writer who did “Where’s the Beef,” and “Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut.” He told me 25 years ago, after working with him for many months, that I had reached a level where I should be making $75K. This was in 1981. I have read the books, gone to the seminars and webinars, written and produced 2000 commercials plus audio and video pieces for corporations and government agencies.

This year I will perhaps make $30K, only because I’m now on social security, and have a couple of new clients. All my clients are local. The average amount they spend per month on advertising is $700-$1000. I have sent out very well-designed and well-written post cards. I made hundreds of phone calls. My average income 15-20 years ago was $20-25K. For the last five it’s $15-18K.

I used to believe that if I learned my craft, had natural ability, never stopped learning, and worked diligently in making contacts and handling them well, I would succeed. I no longer believe that. 

I have lost clients to people who don’t write any better than radio stations, and don’t know how to schedule for effectiveness. 

I went with the two large pay-to-plays, and after 200 auditions and getting one inquiry that didn’t go, and after seeing people make it who sound like every dj you ever heard, I believe that success comes only when you (luckily) land that One Big VO gig or (luckily) get that One Big Client, and it all flows from there. 

For the people I know, that’s how it happened for all of them. I’m sure for many it’s different, but I haven’t seen or talked to anyone like that. I know there are more than enough people out there whom I could greatly help, whose messages are off-point and blandly produced, and who believe a commercial should “sound like a commercial” because that’s mostly what they hear.  They’re tossing their money in the street and don’t know it, and don’t know they don’t know. But I’ve never been able to find them. 

It’s an understatement to say I’m crushed. I know several talented people who just can’t make it, who will probably never make it. I am one of them, apparently. It’s a horror, Paul. I mean that quite seriously.

I am 66, sound like I’m 40, am still firing on all 8, and am writing and editing better than ever. But after three decades of not making enough to keep my family above the poverty line, I feel I am condemned to having small clients forever: Moms and Pops who, God bless them, believe they know more about advertising than I do, because people think “anybody can do advertising” and “all you need to do is get your name out there” and advertising is an afterthought; something they can give to Mikey the office assistant. You know what I mean. My few clients think I’m a genius, and I’m always naturally ‘up’ when talking with them or talking to a possible new client.

Because I love doing this, I have offered my services free to several organizations including charities. I have yet to get one callback.

VO guys and people who write and produce, have told me they spun their wheels for five years before getting the break that opened the Horn of Plenty to them, and they complain about “all that time” it took before it happened.

Really? Try starting in 1981 and still be nowhere.

Dante posted a sign outside the Gates of Hades saying “Abandon hope, you who enter here.”

Well, I know how that feels.

Rick*

THE TAKEAWAY

So, here’s a guy who is a triple threat. He was trained by the best. He has tons of experience, and he owns the right equipment. Yet, he’s struggling. I don’t know enough about Rick’s situation to tell you where and why things went wrong, and how they can be improved. I do know that Rick is not alone.

If sharing Rick’s story makes me a party pooper, or a douche bag, so be it. Frankly, I don’t care what you think, because throughout history people have always blamed the messenger. The question is:

What do YOU take away from Rick’s story?

Does it upset you? Does it make you more persistent to pursue your dreams? What does it tell you about breaking into voice-overs? 

I’ve had some time to think about Rick’s story, and here are my two cents.

If there’s a lesson in his narrative, it is this: The advertising/voice-over industry is not fair. In fact, life itself isn’t fair.

Studying hard, working hard, having the right chops, and owning the right equipment does not guarantee anything. Putting out nice brochures or postcards entitles you to… nothing. Being a nice guy doesn’t mean you’ll make enough to pay the bills.  

Uncertainty is the name of the game. There is no promise of work. There’s just potential, talent, and subjective selection. 

This is not a message many want to hear. It is a message most Pay-to-Plays, training companies, and demo mills want to suppress because it’s not sexy, and it doesn’t sell.

YOUR TURN

Now, Rick was brave enough to stick his neck out, and I would like him to walk away with something positive. That’s where you come in!

Ideally, I’d love it if you would use the comment section to answer some or all of the following questions:

• Is Rick’s experience unique, or do you recognize what he is going through?

• If you’ve been in a similar situation, what have you done to get out of it?

• What needs to happen in our industry to make it more likely that people like Rick can make a decent living?

The floor is yours.

Your input is much appreciated!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

*As you can imagine, Rick is not his real name. 

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Lessons From Bridezilla and Buffet

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Money Matters, Personal 3 Comments

BridezillaAt the bank I once worked for as a trainer, they had a saying:

“If it’s about money, it’s never funny.”

Ain’t that the truth!

To that I added my own adage:

“Show me your bank account, and I’ll tell you how you lead your life.”

Bankers and accountants probably know more about you than your therapist. By analyzing the way you spend your money, they can tell whether or not you lead a healthy lifestyle, if you’re a good planner, and if you can resist instant gratification.

On blogs and networking sites, money is a popular theme. People want to know how much to charge, whether or not they should spend $399 on a membership of a particular casting site, and if it’s OK to discount services… the list is endless.

A while ago, I found myself caught up in a discussion about online freelance job sites like Upwork and Freelancer.com. These sites can connect you with prospective clients from all over the world, and help you find projects that are not listed on the familiar voice-over casting sites.

However, when I looked at the average bids some of our colleagues put in to get voice-over work, I was stunned. If you think that doing a job for $100 is stretching it, wait until you check out sites like guru.com. Your jaw will drop to your knees, and that’s not a good thing if you’re in the voice-over business.   

HARD TIMES

Some of the people I was debating were justifying these low rates by pointing at the current economic climate:

“Times are tough. We all have to tighten our belts and do more with less. The only way to still get work, is to put in a bid a client can’t refuse.”

Well, I wasn’t buying it. 

Are you? 

As I was paying a stack of medical bills, I had a realization. Did my doctors lower their rates because the economy still isn’t doing that great? Would a nurse take care of me at half price? Is a baker going to charge less for a loaf of bread, or would a plumber be willing to take a 40% pay cut? No way! If anything, their fees increase every year, if only to keep up with the rate of inflation. 

Then why do some of my colleagues feel the need to put themselves up for grabs in the bargain basement?

Remember: once you’re in there, it’s so hard to climb out. Forget how the economy is doing at a moment. If you subscribe to the notion that you often get what you pay for, why are you selling yourself and your colleagues short? What are you afraid of? Rejection by means of a certain two-letter word? 

THE HARDEST WORD

Top negotiator William Ury wrote a book called “The power of a positive No”. For some of us, that word is one of the hardest in the language, but it can also be very powerful. When we’re saying “No,” we’re asserting ourselves, and we’re affirming our boundaries, whether it’s in an intimate relationship, or in a business relationship.

Being an independent contractor means that we have to have a good sense of what we’re worth. We have to have the guts to stand up for ourselves (and each other), and say “No” when faced with a bad deal. If we don’t, people will inevitably take advantage of us.

Let me rephrase that: If we don’t dare to say “No,” we are allowing others to take advantage of us. Or, as Dr. Phil puts it: “We teach people how to treat us.” Here’s an example.

BRIDEZILLA

You may know that I used to be a non-denominational wedding officiant. I could set my own fees, and every now and then a newly engaged couple would tell me that they were on a shoestring budget. Before I knew it, they were practically begging me to lower my rate.

In the beginning -when I didn’t know any better- I fell for it big time. I wanted to be liked, and I felt sorry for the couple as I remembered the times I had to nickel and dime. Guess what… I paid for my lack of backbone, until I had learned my lesson.

First of all, these couples turned out to be the most demanding couples I had ever worked with. I’d give them a finger, and they would want the entire hand. I’m all for underpromising and overdelivering, but within reason. If you’ve seen some of the Bridezilla shows on TV, you know that not every princess is as sweet as her Daddy believes her to be.

Secondly, these ‘shoestring weddings’ often turned out to be the most lavish events I’d ever been invited to. Apparently, other vendors had not fallen for the couple’s story of woe. As soon as I had learned my lesson, and I started charging fair fees, I would say to my couples: 

“You can’t expect a gourmet meal at a fast-food price.”

When I finally dared to put my foot down, something amazing happened: people began taking me seriously! Sure, I lost a few weddings due to price, but my limited time on earth was too valuable to have to deal with haggling Bridezillas.

Now, let’s move from the wonderful world of weddings to the business of investing.

THE SECRET TO MAKING BILLIONS

Author William Ury recalls a breakfast he once had with Warren Buffet, one of the most successful investors ever. Ury writes: “He confided in me that the secret to creating his fortune lay in his ability to say No.” Buffet said: 

“I sit there all day and look at investment proposals. I say No, No, No, No, No, No -until I see one that is exactly what I am looking for. And then I say Yes. All I have to do is say Yes a few times in my life and I’ve made my fortune.”

So, let’s learn from Buffet and promise each other to teach our clients how to treat us. 

Say NO to rates that insult your unique talent, your professionalism, your intelligence, and your experience.

Economists tell us that the only way to get out of an economic slump is to start spending again. 

If anything, we should start making more money, not less. 

For that to happen, you need to assert yourself. Or, as I like to put it:

“You sometimes have to put your foot down, in order to get a leg up!”

Take that, Bridezillas!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoiceHow 

photo credit: cheriejoyful Brides by CherieJPhotography via photopin (license)

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Why Navel-Gazing Is Bad For Business

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 9 Comments

photographerI love being part of my sweet, supportive, and unpretentious voice-over community. It’s one of the many perks of the job.

When one of us lands the gig of a lifetime, all of us rejoice.

When one of us is down in the dumps, many of us reach out.

When one of us spots a scammer, we spread the news and warn our colleagues.

Most voice-overs I know, are sharing and caring people. We like hanging out with members of our invisible community, whether it’s in person, or online. While we may disagree on certain issues, we tend to have “warm exchanges,” instead of heated debates.

Spending time with our peeps is good fun, and often educational, but there’s a slight risk involved. The more time we spend inside our rosy VO-bubble, the greater our tendency to look inward. 

That inner focus may lead us to believe that the challenges we’re dealing with are unique to our profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is estimated that over one third of the U.S. workforce consists of freelancers. That’s over 54 million people, and those people have a lot in common!

So, when I am searching for answers and inspiration, I like to look outside of my small circle. Take freelance photographers, for instance. You may think that there are quite a few colorful characters among voice actors, and you’re right. But have you ever watched photographers on YouTube? Oh dear!

A DIFFERENT LENS

But let’s be serious for a moment.

Like voice-overs, many photographers operate as a one-person band. Like us, they tend to have studios. Just as the microphone is our professional ear that zooms in on sounds, the camera is the all-seeing eye that registers images.

Both voice-overs and photographers edit in “post,” using software. And if you think VO’s go crazy for the greatest gear, you should spend some time reading reviews of the latest lenses, filters, and other accessories!

If you still believe that any comparison between VO’s and photographers is a bit contrived, listen to David Shaw. He writes:

“More gear won’t make you a better photographer. Don’t get me wrong, I love camera gear. New bodies, lenses, and accessories are fun and exciting, but they won’t magically make you better at photography. To be a better photographer you need to learn how to find images. The gear can help you capture them, but the finding part is up to you.

Whenever I’m thinking of buying a new piece of gear, I ask myself, “Is my current gear holding me back?” Sometimes the answer is yes. (…) More often though, the answer to whether my gear is holding me back is no. The actual reason I want a new piece of gear is that it is shiny. I may lust over new camera stuff, but if that gear won’t improve my photography in a very tangible way, I don’t buy it. Remember that good photography comes from your heart and your mind, not your wallet.”

YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED

Whenever I try to explain the value of my work as a voice-over pro to a potential client, or even to a lowballing colleague, I often use the metaphor of a photographer. Since everyone carries a camera (disguised as a phone), and we all take snapshots, most people can relate to that.

I’ll often tell a hesitant client:

“Imagine it’s your wedding day. One of the best and most important days of your life. Who is going to take the pictures you will one day share with your grandchildren? Uncle Arthur with his silly smart phone? Cousin Fred with his point-and-shoot, and unsteady hand? Or will you look for the cheapest hack on Craigslist? You’ll save a lot of money, and you will regret it every single day.”

And all of a sudden, people who know very little about hiring a voice-over, get it.

IT IS A GIFT

Now, another thing photographers and voice-overs have in common is this: people tend to underestimate what it takes to get to a certain level. An amateur can take pictures all day long, and doesn’t have to live up to a standard. He or she can learn on the job. Pros, on the other hand, are expected to know what they’re doing. It takes hard work to make something look effortless.

Once again, here’s David Shaw:

“A few times, I’ve been told by people looking at one of my images, “You have such a gift.” I know they are being kind, that they are offering a compliment, but I can’t help feeling insulted. I want to say, “It’s not a gift! I worked my ass off to make that image! That shot is the result of years of effort, of early mornings, and hours of travel, of study and practice, tens of thousands of failed and deleted shots, and thousands of dollars in equipment. Nothing about that image was given to me, I earned it.” Of course, I don’t say that. Instead, I smile as though they’ve just said the nicest thing, and say thanks. (…) So no, photography is not a knack – it’s work.”

That’s precisely why professional rates are based on experience, and not on time spent. What’s true in photography is true in voice-overs. Talent cannot be bought. It has to be cultivated. Patiently. It requires discipline. It requires commitment. It may take years before you see a decent return on investment. David Shaw agrees:

“With the exception of the very top people in the industry, we pros aren’t millionaires, or anywhere close. Out of our meagre incomes have to come our mortgage, food, computers, software fees, travel, and yes, camera equipment. When I made the transition to full-time freelancer, that new reality hit me like a falling piano. Science fiction writer John Scalzi once wrote that you shouldn’t consider leaving your day job until you are making TWICE your normal income with your writing (or in this case photography). It’s good advice.”

LOOKING BEYOND

So, if you’re searching for answers, inspiration, and a common cause, look outside of your familiar circles. Extend and expand your network, and reach out to fellow-freelancers. Find script writers, copywriters, cinematographers, graphic designers, art directors, authors, artists, photographers, et cetera. Learn from their struggles. Immerse yourself in new ideas. Stand with them, be stronger, and be ready to be surprised.

This the really exciting part:

One new connection will often lead to another, and another, and another.

A photographer I had been in contact with, was getting into video production. She wanted to produce virtual house tours for realtors, and she needed someone to do the voice-over narration. Guess who she turned to?

Had I stayed in my sweet, supportive, and navel-gazing community, she probably wouldn’t have found me. What she needed, was a personal connection. 

Here’s what you have to understand.

These things don’t just happen. You have to be the one who reaches out. Today.

Do you get the picture?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: ** RCB ** pictures the hard way via photopin (license)

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What Were They Thinking?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Promotion, Social Media 21 Comments

Sale!No matter how much you love your job as a voice-over, there are always aspects of your work you don’t care for, or would rather have someone else do.

I, for instance, am not a numbers man, and I’m glad my office manager is keeping the books for my business. Very few colleagues I talk to, enjoy doing the unglamorous paperwork that is part and parcel of running a professional service. Yet, it needs to be done. 

But if there’s one thing many voice-overs are very uncomfortable with, it is this: selling themselves. They’d rather spend hours in a dark booth recording an obscure historic novel, than having to talk a client into hiring them.

If you’re experienced enough to have a couple of agents, they will do the talking for you. Quite often though, a potential client will approach you directly because they’ve been on your website. In that case you have to do the negotiations yourself. Inevitably, you have to answer the following client questions:

1. Why should I hire a professional voice? 

2. Why should I pay that much money, if all you’re going to do is talk?

In the end there are three ways to answer these questions. You can highlight the benefits of what you have to offer, or you can tell some horror stories of clients who went with a cheap, unprofessional voice… or you can use a combination of positives and negatives.

Now, for some clients that’s not enough. Maybe they’re new at hiring a VO, and they simply can’t imagine what effect a bad voice-over could have on a good script. Those people need to see, in order to believe.

One guy started talking to me about text-to-speech software, and how advanced things were getting in that area. His boss had suggested he buy some software, and use it for the next video, instead of a real voice. The TTS-software would pay for itself in no time, he told me. 

“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure your company could afford the kind of artificial voices that are developed and used by Google or Apple. But let me send you a link to a video that was uploaded as recently as last year. This is an affordable product you could buy right now. Take a look, and let me know if this is what you had in mind?” Here it is:

Some things just speak for themselves, don’t they? A few weeks later I spoke to a Head of Internal Training who wanted to “explore his options.” He was producing a tutorial, and he said:

“I’ll be honest with you. Keith from IT has a decent voice, and he said he’s willing to put this thing together for a six-pack and a pizza. That would save me a lot of money. Give me one reason why I should hire you.”

“I’d be happy to,” I said, and I sent him this educational YouTube masterpiece:

Let me share one of my other favorite tutorials. It’s not a corporate presentation, but if you’re interested in baking banana bread, this is a must-see (but you might want to turn the volume up a bit…).

Are you hungry yet? I admit it: I put that video in here just for fun, and because it’s rather bizarre. Don’t be fooled though. People put strange stuff on YouTube because they can monetize it. That’s why you’re forced to watch all those annoying ads. 

The most popular tutorials on YouTube have to be the ones of girls teaching you how to put on make-up. Why do I bring this up? A year or so ago I was approached by a cosmetics brand. Their creative team was coming up with a new campaign, and they had two directions they wanted to explore. One was a more sophisticated approach for which they had my voice and accent in mind.

“The other idea,” said the account manager, “is to let real people tell their story. After all, that’s what our clients can relate to. We want someone who sounds like the friend they never knew they always wanted. Someone who can demonstrate our product, rather than sell it in a commercial.”

“Do you mean someone like this?” I asked? (and you might want to turn your volume down again…)

Most potential clients I talk to aren’t the creative types. They’ve already decided they want to hire me based on my demos, but they want me to give them my “best price.” That’s client speak for: “I think your rates are ridiculous, so let’s see how desperate you are.”

Last week I had a very interesting experience. A woman I was talking to about a voice-over project did something crazy.

She used the F-word!

We were talking about what I would charge, and all of a sudden she said: “But what about all these guys on Fiverr?”

“What about them?” I asked.

“Well,” she continued, “if I were to go with one of them I’d pay a lot less. In the end it’s all about the bottom line, you know.”

“Listen,” I said. “This video you’re putting together is going to be on the world wide web forever, and I hope thousands and thousands of people are going to watch it. For many, this is how they will learn about what your family business has to offer.

In most cases, you’ll get one chance to make your pitch. One chance. People have become extremely critical and impatient. If they don’t like what they see and what they hear, they’ll have millions of other things to watch. So, it’s up to you how you want to present the company your grandfather built. If your video looks unprofessional or sounds unprofessional, your company looks unprofessional.

Do you honestly want to put the reputation of your business in the mouth of this Fiverr guy?”

I think she got the point. Now, let me be clear.

This blog post is not about bashing people who are trying to make a few bucks with a dynamic microphone, or who want to share their knowledge, passion, and whispery voice with the online community. I used the above examples to provide some perspective, and because these videos are in the public domain.

One thing I’m sure you’ve picked up on, is that voice-over narration is very different from giving a running commentary of whatever you’re doing, using the cheapest device in the house. It’s not as easy as it seems, and it’s not true that anyone can do it. 

The difference between a pro and an amateur is this: a pro makes it seem easy and effortless. Amateurs are often hard to understand, and clumsy. Their presentation distracts from the message. A professional voice allows the viewer or listener to focus on the message. 

SELLING YOURSELF

This blog post started as a story about selling, so let’s get back to that.

Some clients are sold on benefits. They need to know what good things will happen when they hire you. Other clients are motivated by fear. They want to avoid disaster. Sometimes it really helps to give those people a flavor of what’s in store for them, should they go cheap. My message to them is this:

Cheap is always more expensive. 

Some things in life are just too important to leave to hobbyists or stupid software.

If you need a builder, a car mechanic, or an electrician, would you go to someone who charges five dollars for his or her service?

Would you pick your OB/GYN based on whomever has the lowest rate?

Would you want to get your teeth fixed by an amateur dentist?

Then why on earth would you trust a Bottom Dollar voice talent with your promotional message? Why would you allow a babbling dabbler to take a shot at your training course that took a fortune to develop? Do you want your employees to be distracted by Keith from IT, or do you want them to actually retain some information?

And to the creators of the Text to Speech video, the software tutorial, the banana bread lady, the make-up girl, and Mr. Fiverr I want to say this:

I’m not going to take away your right to post anything on YouTube you believe is worthwhile watching. But honestly:

What Were You Thinking?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Paula Satijn Bargain via photopin (license)

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