Feed the need

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 1 Comment

Today, I went to “La Scala” in Milan, the most famous opera house in the world. It took me half an hour to get there. Rossini’s “Il viaggio a Reims” was shown at the same theater as where I had seen James Cameron’s two dimensional 3-D monsterpiece “Avatar”. In case you missed it: it’s that hyped-up, masterfully marketed mix of cinemagic, eco-babble and Blue Man Group against Giovanni Ribisi.

Now, every “Iron Chef” aficionado knows that great plating does not make a perfect dish. Put differently: lipstick on a pig doesn’t make the pork taste better… even if that lipstick happens to be a groundbreaking multi-million dollar special effect. As for leading man Sam Worthington’s acting…. it was so flat; I found myself longing for Leonardo DiCaprio. Believe me, in my world, that’s not a good thing.

So, today I opened Pandora’s Box and ended up in Milan. The story of opera in cinema is the story of a great medium reinventing itself. If people don’t come to the opera, the opera will come to the people. Some skeptics said it would be easier for Montagues and Capulets to get along, than for opera and cinema. But I believe that this love story will have a happy ending. As a matter of fact, so do most episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” (how’s that for a smooth transition to my last installment about this show?).

If your voice-over career could use a makeover, Gordon Ramsay might just be the man to model. You may not like his style or his methods, but his ability to turn ailing eateries around has earned him a reputation. It’s based on a few key ingredients: expertise, experience, gut-feeling and market research.

Ultimately, it boils down to this. Whether you run a restaurant or a voice-over emporium, you have to feed a need. You have to see yourself as the solution to a problem. You are the pleasure that relieves the pain. But before you present your remedy, it is your job to identify your client’s needs, problems and pains to make sure that you are the aspirin that can take their headache away.

One of the reasons why many so businesses fail, is because they’re trying very hard to be something they’re not, or they’re offering something nobody wants. A brush is not a comb, and it’s useless to try to sell a comb to a bald man. Bald men might need Rogaine or a rug.

Gioachino Rossini -who, by the way, was an outstanding cook- knew what his customers wanted and he gave it to them. When Italian opera went out of vogue, he turned to French librettos. No more pasta. Boeff Bourgignon instead! How did he know that Italian was out? Because he knew his market and he was flexible enough to adjust his sails. It made him a very rich man. And famously fat, too.

Back to another culinary giant and to “Kitchen Nightmares”. At some point in every episode, Chef Ramsay leaves the acrimony of the kitchen behind and hits the street. His mission is threefold:

  1. to find out what people really think of the restaurant he’s trying to rescue
  2. to scope out the competition
  3. to identify a hole in the market

Armed with that information, he starts devising a plan for the reinvention and re-launch of the business. Translated to our voice-over world that means:

  1. get an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses from an independent expert. Pick a person who will tell you what needs to be said; not what you’re hoping to hear
  2. go online and spend a few days listening to the good, the bad and the ugly in this industry. The ugly will teach you what not to do. The best will tell you what has shaped their career and how they are selling themselves
  3. find out where you come in; what’s your unique selling point; your niche?

Then, ask yourself two things:

  • “If I would be the answer, what would the question be?”
  • “What do I need to do today to get to where I want to be tomorrow?”

It’s easier said than done, but please avoid making the basic beginner’s mistake of trying to be everything to everyone. Even someone as talented as Robin Williams has his limitations.

CBS news didn’t hire Morgan Freeman because he sounded like James Earl Jones. We all know he doesn’t. Freeman followed in Cronkite’s footsteps because he sounds like Morgan Freeman.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t have a range. However, that range should come from a place of “being” instead of from a place of “pretending” (if that makes any sense to you).

Once Ramsey presents the restaurant with a new identity, he takes a good look at all the resources he can muster. It’s a cliché, but change has to come from within, and in this case it starts with the kitchen.

If you’ve seen the show a few times, you know that this almost always involves training or re-training the staff. Most often, this means back to basics. Hand-made super sharp German blades aren’t going to make a difference if your knifing skills don’t cut it. In your hands, they’re probably dangerous.

I’m pretty sure the kind folks at Sweetwater will happily sell you this Manley Reference Cardioid microphone. But let me ask you this: if you were a budding singer, would a new mic make you sound significantly better, or would singing lessons be a wiser investment?

Instead of spending a small fortune on gear, why not spend your money on quality training before you do anything else? I have seen colleagues go under, not because they lacked talent, but because they had the wrong priorities.

Next, Ramsay usually simplifies the menu, basing it on fresh ingredients grown in the area. He also makes a point of forging a relationship between the restaurant and the local (business) community. He often invites neighboring opinion-leaders to the table. Instead of waiting for customers to come in, he forces the staff to be pro-active and reach out to potential patrons on the street and offer them a sample of the new menu.

There are several obvious lessons to be learned:

1.   The success of your business is equivalent to the strength of your relationships.
2.    Your biggest market might be right under your nose.
3.    Make sure people know that you exist and know what you have to offer.
4.    Don’t sit around and wait for that phone to ring.

With a new identity comes a new look. Restaurant owners who tell you that people are only coming for the food and not for the decor, are like voice-overs who insist that it’s all about the way they sound. The thing is: if you are a professional, you have to come across as one.

If you don’t feel comfortable putting your headshot on your landing page, fine, but at least make sure your website is easy to find, easy to navigate and that it whets people’s appetite. There’s a reason why the interior and the exterior of each restaurant get a thorough makeover on “Kitchen Nightmares.” If you want to get the part, you need to look the part.

Like a scrumptious desert, there’s one observation I reserved for last. It’s perhaps the most revealing part of this whole series.

It occurred to me that Chef Ramsay never suggests the owner take on the competition by lowering the prices, unless the items on the original menu were ridiculously overpriced.

It’s always about carefully and passionately prepared quality food. It’s about setting and maintaining high standards. It’s about value for money.

You don’t turn a business around by giving in to the lowest common denominator.

Ramsay might tell an owner to be less pretentious and offer simpler fare reflecting the skill set, experience and imagination of the person preparing the food. But he knows that it is perfectly reasonable to sell a good product at a good price. In fact, most people are willing to pay more for an outstanding product. It’s yet another sign of professionalism that you know what you’re worth and that you’re not afraid to charge accordingly.

As I was leaving the movie theater, a lot was going through my mind. Mostly music. In a way, Rossini’s lavish operatic productions were the equivalent of today’s cinematic blockbusters. His sopranos and tenors were the celebrities of their day and age. Everywhere, people were humming his arias. We still do.

Even if you don’t know anything about opera, I’m sure you can sing one of the melodies from Rossini’s “Wilhelm Tell”, better known as the theme from “the Lone Ranger”. And if you happen to be a foodie, you’ve probably heard of the famous “Tournedos Rossini”, a French steak dish named after the culinary composer. No special effects or 3-D glasses required. And meat lovers say it’s out of this world.

Take that, Mr. Titanic! And hats off to you, Mr. Ramsay!

Paul Strikwerda ©2010