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.
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?
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
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