Hillary Clinton

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!


The ONE Thing Every Client Is Listening For

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 24 Comments

Senator Bernie SandersFor once the pundits and the public agree.

Donald Trump has it, and so does Bernie Sanders.

But Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton definitely do not.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about what separates the pretenders from the real deal. It could determine the outcome of the presidential election, as well as the future of your career.

It is what clients are listening for when they make the decision to hire you or not. It’s something you cannot buy, and it’s almost impossible to fake.

What is it?

Authenticity.

Some dictionaries define it as “being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”

Authenticity is often linked to being truthful and sincere. Presidential candidates need to convey to the electorate that they genuinely care, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum.

If politicians pick positions just to score points, or if they flip-flop in the hopes of becoming more electable, people get extremely suspicious. Commentators say it’s one of Hillary Clinton’s stumbling blocks on the road to the White House. Some voters feel that she is distant, calculated, and disingenuous.

Sanders and Trump, on the other hand, are seen as principled, passionate, and authentic.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Authenticity also has to do with how well you hold up under external pressure. Some people prefer to conform to certain trends in society to live a more comfortable life. Others stand up for what they believe in, and fight for the truths they hold dear.

When I became a vegetarian in my mid teens, friends and classmates never wasted an opportunity to make fun of me. While I was asked to defend my choice over and over again, the meat eaters at the table never had to explain themselves. I still get comments from those who love beef and bacon about wearing leather shoes, and why that’s supposedly inconsistent with a vegetarian lifestyle.

Going against the grain is never easy, but at some point all of us need to answer this question:

Do I want to live a life of conviction, or a life of compromise?

The question is deceptively simple, but the answer is not. It depends on the context, and on one’s personality. In certain areas it is easier to give in and be flexible. But in other areas you and I are morally obliged to draw a line so we can stay true to ourselves.

SMOKE SCREENS

For instance, one of my voice-over colleagues was asked to do a cigarette commercial. The money was very good, and he could certainly use it to pay off some of his mounting credit card debt. Yet, as a staunch non-smoker, he had serious reservations about promoting an unhealthy product.

Colleagues told him not to worry. “Just because you’re lending them your voice doesn’t mean you are endorsing their brand,” they said. “Work is work. What you choose to do privately has nothing to do with it. Most people won’t even know that it’s your voice in the commercial.”

“But,” answered my colleague, “how could I possibly persuade others to buy tobacco products I so much despise? It would be one big lie.”

“Oh, come on,” said one of his closest friends. “You’re an actor. Actors lie. That’s what they do. And the best liars become millionaires and win Oscars. That is how the game is played.”

In the end my colleague decided not to take the job because it would feel hypocritical, as he put it, to help sell a product he hated, and that had killed his father and grandfather. But the story doesn’t end there.

Two days later he got an offer for an on-camera job. A new client wanted him to appear in a short video for a chain of health food stores.

“Any conflicts?” he asked.

“Well,” said the producer, “because the video is promoting a healthy lifestyle, they want to make sure that the actors they hire are not associated with campaigns endorsing alcohol and tobacco products. Are we good on that?”

“You bet,” said my colleague with a smile. “You bet!”

FINDING REPRESENTATION

There is another way in which the word “authentic” is often used in our business. One of my voice-over students wanted to know what she had to do in order to get an agent. What would a typical agent be looking and listening for?

“Definitively someone with an authentic sound,” I said.

“But what does that mean?” she asked. “How do I know I sound authentic?”

“Well,” I responded, “You’ve probably noticed that many people who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, believe they stand a chance because they’re good at impersonations. Others come to me doing an impression of what they think a voice actor should sound like. It’s usually a version of a stereotypical movie trailer voice. That’s not what agents want to hear. They’re not interested in a cliché.

Agents want to hear the real, unvarnished YOU. It’s the YOU only you can bring to the table.”

“But how do they know it’s me?” my student wanted to know. “They don’t know me.”

“Trust me, they know,” I said. “They know because when you’re authentic, you sound believable and honest. You’re not pretending to be someone else.

Most people try too hard to sound good. They overact. They over articulate. They fix the mix a million times until they sound unnatural. You now what I mean, don’t you?

Of course you need to be easily understood in order to do this job. Your plosives can’t pop, and you have to tame your sibilance. But that’s technique. Just as in music, a technically perfect performance can fail to move people because there’s no personality behind it. No heart. A true artist uses technique to support the creation of something magical and vulnerable. Something real.”

A SIMPLE REVELATION

“That’s easier said than done,” responded my student. “Where do I even begin? Since I started these coaching sessions I’ve become so self-conscious. I find it hard to read a script and not evaluate myself as I’m reading it. It’s very unhelpful, and I feel like a fake.”

“Wow,” I said. “If only you could hear yourself right now. That was phenomenal.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“This is the YOU I have been wanting to hear for quite a while now. This is the YOU I had hoped would come out.”

“But I wasn’t acting,” she said. “I was just talking to you.”

“Exactly,” I said. “You hit the nail on the head. You were not acting.

You’ve been trying way too hard for way too long. Relax! Take a deep breath. Soften the muscles in your face and in your neck. Smile for Pete’s sake. You’re taking this way too seriously.”

She looked at me as if I’d said something inappropriate. Then I continued:

“I want you to stop the internal dialogue, so you can focus on the external dialogue. Can you do that for a minute or two?”

She nodded.

“Let’s take a look at the first few lines of the script we’ve been working on, and TALK to me. Pretend it’s just you and me having a conversation.”

THE REAL YOU

After a while my student stopped and said: ”I don’t think this is working. I feel like I’m just phoning it in without making any effort. I don’t think I sound good at all.”

“How you think you sound, and how you actually sound, are two different things,” I said. “You can’t hear yourself the way I’m hearing you. That’s the problem. Shall I play the audio back to you?”

When she listened to herself for a moment, her mouth fell open. Literally.

“This DOES sound like me,” she admitted. “I had no idea… This is pretty amazing!”

“Allow me to let you in on a little secret,” I said.

“Great (voice) acting has nothing to do with acting. It has more to do with being. If you want to do this type of work and do it well, you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself. If you’re not, people are going to pick up on that, just as they can tell when a politician is blowing smoke.”

“Oh, let’s not talk about politics,” said my student. “My authentic self doesn’t want to hear about that.”

“Fine by me,” I said. “I vote to continue this session at another time.”

“I’m not going to debate that,” my student replied.

“See you next week!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Bernie Sanders via photopin (license)