Morgan Freeman

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.

LIPSTICK AND PORK
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?).

VOICE-OVER MAKEOVER
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.

THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL
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.

STREETSMART
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?”

PEOPLE PLEASERS
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).

NEW & IMPROVED
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.

BACKYARD
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.

PRESENTATION
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.

LAST COURSE
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.

THE RIGHT RECIPES
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

www.nethervoice.com


Who’s Sabotaging Your Success?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 2 Comments

“The success of your business is equivalent to the strength of your relationships.”

It almost sounds like a slogan from one of those inspirational posters, doesn’t it? You know… the ones with pictures of eagles soaring over pristine mountain peaks. You can find these pearls of wisdom on coffee mugs, calendars and on mouse pads.

Because some of these truths are so trivialized, we’ve become as immune to them as to the violence in video games or human suffering on the evening news. 

METAPHOR

If you’ve read the first two installments of this series, “Voice Over Nightmares” and “Our Own Worst Critic,” you know that I’m using Gordon Ramsay’s TV-show “Kitchen Nightmares” as a metaphor. I’m trying to cut through the pre-orchestrated reality drama, in the hopes of uncovering recipes you and I can prepare to boost our business.

Today, the focus is on relationships.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a freelancer, is believing that you are a one-man (or one woman)-band on an island in the midst of a shark-infested ocean. Although it sometimes might seem that way, you’re not all alone in the universe.

This business revolves around relationships: relationships with our clients; with our team; with our significant others and ultimately… the relationship we have with ourselves (or is that too woo-woo for you?).

These inner and outer circles constantly connect and interact. Great relationships can motivate and energize us to do great things. Terrible relationships can suck the life blood out of us and our business.

GROUP EFFORT

Before you step up to the mic, think about how many people have already been involved in the project you’re about to work on: the end client and her team, the ad agency, the production company, script writers, animators, translators, your agent or the people at that Voices-site.

If you happen to record in a studio, you’ll probably work with a director and a sound engineer. Once the product is finished, the circle widens again as your voice reaches an audience. All of a sudden, your tiny island has become very crowded… There are a lot of people you need to please!

STRESS TEST

Whether he’s in the British Midlands or in the heart of Manhattan, Gordon Ramsay always encounters dysfunctional families and co-workers on the verge of a nervous breakdown. To get a good sense of the internal dynamics of a restaurant, he insists on observing how a team deals with the stress of a full service. It’s his chance to find out what really goes on underneath the veneer of polite pretentiousness.

Early in the night, Ramsay will notice three things: the chef/owner can’t communicate, can’t delegate and can’t even cook. Let’s start with the first problem: lack of communication.

DISHONESTY

Some owners won’t communicate because they have something to hide. Often, their mismanagement has resulted in a financial mess. Not even their spouse or partner knows how much in debt they are, and when these people finally find out, they feel betrayed, dismayed and ready to walk. That’s why “Kitchen Nightmares” frequently turns into a “Relationship Rescue.”

Sometimes, team members can’t be trusted: an accountant cooks the books (a bad thing, especially in an eatery); a server helps himself to the register.

DISRESPECT

Some chefs are dictators. All they do is boss people around, complain and criticize. It’s always somebody else’s fault. Praise is a dirty word. Compliments are for the weak. A team has to listen and obey. And if you don’t like it, you are free to leave!

By taking the employees for granted, many owners lose the respect and trust of the very people they depend on, to turn their business around.

MIND READING

Then there are chefs and owners who believe that they’re an open book… you know what I mean by that, don’t you? They expect the world to read their mind, and if that world is not on the same page, guess who gets blamed? This type of behavior is based on unrealistic expectations that can never be met, and it’s a relationship killer (in and out of the kitchen).

TURNING IT AROUND

So, let’s look at the flipside.

If a business wishes to survive and thrive, it needs to be built upon honesty, respect and openness.

Be honest with yourself and dare to ask the hard questions: Do I really have what it takes? How much am I in the red? How many weeks before I have to pull the plug? What’s my plan B?

Secondly: who’s on your team? Can they handle the job or are they sabotaging your success? Have you taken the time to monitor and evaluate their performance?

A year ago, you made an investment in one of those voice-over websites. Since then, you auditioned like never before. Did the staff deliver? How many gigs did you get? What’s the ROI?

Have you heard from your webmaster, lately? He promised to update your demos. What’s taking him so long? And what about your agent? Has she forgotten that you exist?

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

What would your team members have to say about you? Are you stressed, short-tempered and impatient because you’re feeling the heat? Are you willing to listen and are you ready to implement suggestions? When’s the last time you paid someone a sincere compliment? Did you let your partner know how much you appreciate the fact that he or she is there for you through thick and thin?

Now think about your clients. When’s the last time you reached out to all those smart people that have hired you in the past? Why did you neglect them? What could you do today, to reestablish the connection?

THE MENTALIST

When it comes to mind reading, I have news for you: most of us aren’t born with psychic powers. We spend a lifetime figuring out what goes on in our own head; let alone what goes on in the minds of others. All the same, we tend to forget the advice our favorite teacher once gave us:

“Never assume. Always ask.”

Seconds later, we run into the studio, script in hand, and we glance at the voice-seeker’s instructions: “Male or Female, English, enthusiastic but not over the top.”

What’s that supposed to mean? How can you ever arrive at your destination when someone hands you vague directions?

Can you ask the client for specifics? I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The voice-seeker wishes to remain anonymous. So, how do you determine your take on the script? It’s simple: you use your imagination. In other words: you make it up based on what you think the client might be listening for. Two hours later, some stranger trashes your demo after the first ten seconds because it’s not really what he assumes his client wants. That was time well-spent, wasn’t it?

DELEGATION

Back in the middle of a Kitchen Nightmare, Gordon Ramsay is still observing service as he spots another basic mistake.

Because there’s no trust or effective communication, the headstrong chef/owner thinks that that he must be in charge of… everything and everyone. He’s running from dessert to entrée while arguing with the front of the house.

Within ten minutes, he’s totally overwhelmed and most of his words need to be bleeped out. Hardly any food leaves the kitchen. A lot is coming back due to poor quality. Impatient patrons have had it and vow never to come back.

FREEDOM

I hope it’s not that extreme in your voice-over kitchen. Yet, I know it’s very tempting to believe that you can do it all by yourself. Becoming an “independent contractor” seemed to be the ideal way to escape the 9 to 5 rat race. It’s a dream come true: working from home, pursuing your passion and setting your own hours.

When you wake up, you suddenly realize that you are heading the sales department; you’re in charge of advertising and marketing; you’re designing your own website; you are the chief technician as well as the CFO. And let’s not overlook one insignificant detail: you deliver the goods!

This poor, overworked, idealistic, multi-talented genius is now working 15-hour days in the pursuit of happiness. Heaven forbid this superhuman being should get a cold…

FULL CIRCLE

Seriously, do you really need to do your own mixing and editing? Do you really have to master PhotoShop? Are you the best person to handle your finances and legal affairs?

Some people won’t delegate because they believe that “nobody does it better.” Others tell me they can’t afford any hired help. The end-result? Tumbling productivity, deteriorating quality, messed-up relationships and a life that’s seriously out of balance.

Frustrated, angry and alone, you look at that magnificent poster on the wall. It’s the one with the eagle soaring over pristine mountain peaks. Then you read the words written underneath.

All of a sudden, you realize that this familiar truism has surpassed the status of cliché. It has become relevant.

“The success of your business is equivalent to the strength of your relationships.”

It’s time to give that Ramsay-guy a call…

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Less work, more competition, lower rates. Now what? Read the last installment in this series!


Busting Five Voice-Over Myths

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 5 Comments

Some of you won’t like what I am about to reveal, but it needs to be said.

Yes, I will be the Debbie Downer of the voice-over community and the rain on your parade. If you’re a seasoned vo-pro, my message should come as no surprise. But I realize that blogs like these are also read by aspiring voice-over artists, and it’s about time that they should know the truth (or at least my version of it). Even if it hurts.

PERSISTENT MYTHSTAKES

In times of recession, desperate people cling to desperate things. For many, a new career as a voice-over artist seems to be the next best thing. Let me tell you point blank that it’s not. Far from it. Yet, every day, hundreds of hopefuls plunge into the pool of voice-over talent without even knowing how to swim. Why? Because they’re holding on to ideas that have no basis in reality.

Take your pick and allow me to burst your bubble:

1. “I LOVE YOUR VOICE”

Tons of people have told you that you have a great voice. “You’d do so much better than that woman announcing the Tony Awards,” they said. And you’ve heard it so many times that you start believing it yourself. Could this be a new career; the golden key to fame and fortune?

Without realizing it, you just made mistake number one. Thinking that having a good voice is all it takes, is like saying that, in order to be a successful actor, all you need are great looks. As far as I can tell, only Tom Cruise pulled that one off.

Owning a Steinway doesn’t automatically make you a great pianist. Having a Viking range in your kitchen doesn’t make you a phenomenal chef. Having a good set of vocal chords definitely helps, but it’s a very small piece of a big puzzle. Knowing how to use that voice is a different matter!

2. IMPRESSIONISM

Friends have said that you do a mean Morgan Freeman impression. In fact, they like it so much that you’re asked to perform your little trick at parties and high school reunions. It got you thinking: “Mr. Freeman must make lots of money reading a few words off a page. If he can do it, why can’t I? The world loves impersonators, right?”

Wake up, pal: we already have one Morgan Freeman. We do not need a clone. Your impression might be dead-on, but if you’re hoping to ride on the back of his success, you’ll always be someone you’re not. Making money impersonating a celebrity could get you in all kinds of legal trouble too. More importantly, you’re betraying yourself by forsaking what makes you truly unique: your very own sound.

3. RADIO GA-GA

You read the news for a local station. The latest membership drive didn’t go so well, and all of a sudden you’re as relevant as yesterday’s paper. What’s worse: you’re out the door. Thank goodness for your radio training. You can always become a voice-over artist, right? After all, it’s basically the same thing.

Next, you join one of those voice-over casting sites, and you record your first audition: a paragraph from a book about bachelor cardiac surgeons, voluptuous nurses and broken hearts.

Luckily, your membership came with a free voice evaluation and your coach gave your first demo…. a firm thumbs down. What hurt you the most was that the fact that she said that you sounded “like a news reader”. Wasn’t that supposed to be a good thing?

4. EASY MONEY

Even though your financial advisor warned you not to do it, you decide to tap into your nest egg and spend part of your IRA on a decent home studio and premium memberships of voices.com, voice123.com and voplanet.com. If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it right! These sites will no doubt open the door to big companies offering big bucks to have you do a 20 second commercial or a 2-minute narration. Just wait and see… A few auditions a day will make the recession fade away!

I guess no one ever told you that almost 40% of professional voice-overs makes less than $25,000 per year, even after having been in the business for 10-25 years. Over one quarter of those surveyed make less than $10,000 per year.  (Source: VoiceOver Insider magazine). If that’s not living large…. I don’t know what is!

Veteran voice actor Ed Victor shared that over the past four weeks, he had submitted 50 auditions on Pay 2 Play sites. The net result: zero jobs. Mind you: Ed is known as “The Big Gun” of the business. In my opinion, he is the cream of the crop. But even if your last name happens to be Victor, it doesn’t automatically make you a winner.

5. OVERNIGHT SUCCESS

Would you ever pick up a violin and after a few weeks of practice and no lessons, record your first CD? Of course not.

No one would walk into a sports store and get the best tennis gear money can buy, and expect to be playing Wimbledon the week after.

Now explain to me why some wannabe voice-actors dig deep into their pockets and invest in top of the line equipment without any formal training or experience, expecting instant return on investment?

It takes great skill and practice to breathe life into a text, as well as technical expertise. It’s very similar to mastering a musical instrument. It usually takes many years to become an overnight success. And as we’ve seen, even respected talents find that the pickings are becoming increasingly slim. So, if you’re still thinking of pursuing a voice-over career, think again…. and then some more.

In a way, it’s like that picture on the box of your microwave dinner. It makes you hungry, but the meal usually doesn’t taste half as good as it looks. What’s even worse: it doesn’t have enough nutritional value to sustain you! Yet, millions are falling for it…. and are left hungry and feeling ripped-off.

YOUR TURN

Well, there’s your reality check. I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty. Feel free to disagree with me. Did I mention in my last blog that everything is perception? That’s why I’m really interested in your assessment of the voice-over business. Is it a goldmine or a minefield?

What advice would you give to a newbie? Have you seen talented people fail? What went wrong? Have you made it against all odds? If so, what’s been the secret of your success? What voice-over myths would you like to bust?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice