voice acting

Be Bold. Be Brave. Be You.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 6 Comments

skydiverLooking back at my writing of the past few years, I see that I spent a lot of time warning my readers:

“A voice-over career is not as easy as some people want you to believe.”

“There’s no success without sacrifice.”

“This business is highly subjective and unfair.”

“You’ll be competing against thousands of hopefuls.”

While some of you appreciate my “tell it like it is” style, others think I have a secret agenda. Recently, one of my critics wrote the following, after he had watched my video The Troublesome Truth About A Voice-Over Career:

“This video was made by an old-timer, unwilling to accept a changing industry, and the new competition it brings !!!”

I’ve heard that silly argument numerous times. Somehow, I supposedly feel so old and so insecure that I want to scare off the competition by telling them that they’re never going to make it. It’s either that, or people assume I’m recruiting new students for my VO-coaching by telling them how much they need me.

Well, let me set the record straight.

I’m not that old yet, and I’m certainly not insecure. I welcome any newbie who wants to give this voice-over thing a try, and I believe there’s enough work for talented, unpretentious people who sell their services at a fair price. I don’t advertise my coaching services, and those who want me to be their mentor have experienced that they need to go through several hoops before I take them on as a student.

Got that?

Now, what I’m about to say is not meant to scare you, but to open your eyes.

Whether you’re an aspiring voice-over or a veteran, if you doubt your ability to deliver what clients want to hear and pay you for, you have some serious soul-searching to do. If -for some reason- you feel inferior, incapable, or undeserving, you will be undermining your chances of success every single day.

In the tough world of freelancing there is no room for the unprepared, the needy, the desperate, or the faint of heart.

That doesn’t mean that I want you to be an overconfident, self-absorbed know-it-all. On the contrary. You do need the ability to recognize your challenges. You have to be open to learning new things, and a healthy sense of humility will serve you well. However, if you don’t believe in yourself as a professional, don’t expect others to take your word for it.

What makes humans so interesting is that our thoughts and feelings come to the surface via our behavior. In the way we walk. In the way we talk. In the way we respond to our environment. Some psychologists call those clues BMIR’s (pronounced “Beamers”): Behavioral Manifestations of Internal Representations.

Whether we’re terrified, or madly in love, we will give ourselves away by the tone of our voice, our body language, and by how we interact and react to the world around us. It’s natural. So, if deep-down you believe you’re “just a beginner” who doesn’t deserve to paid a fair, normal rate, your actions will reflect that belief, and your results will confirm it. Ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?

If a script requires you to play the role of a confident academic, and those grey cells between your ears tell you that’s “just not you,” you’re in trouble. One of my students wanted me to help her with a script that required her to use a sultry, seductive voice. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t do it. It turned out that she wasn’t comfortable with her own sexuality, and she thought the words she was hired to record were somewhat degrading.

“If that’s how you feel,” I said, “why on earth did you accept this job?”

“To be honest,” she replied, “I did it for the money.”

Rule number one: Don’t ever accept a job you feel you can’t be proud of, no matter how much it pays. If what you have to say goes against your belief system, people will pick up on that, unless you’re an amazingly talented trained actor who can fool his own mother.

No one forces you to say yes to a job you’re uncomfortable doing. That being said, if you wish to develop your range as an actor and be more marketable, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You have to be bold, and be brave to take on a persona so you can serve the script to the best of your professional abilities.

Consider it a form of role play. It’s the perfect excuse to take on a role that might be far removed from who you really are. You can play the meanest villain in the universe, and get away with it without being arrested! You can be a tough business negotiator, closing a million dollar deal. The question is: how do you do that if you suffer from self-doubt?

Well, if you’re not the most confident person in the room, start by pretending you are, and see where the script takes you. If you need some inspiration, think of someone in your life who embodies certain qualities you’d like to emulate. How does this person walk, talk, and breathe? What would they be saying to themselves?

This does require that you give yourself permission to let go a little. Can you do that? Can you stop that critical internal dialogue, and focus on the external dialogue, if only for a moment? Chances are that you’re by yourself anyway, so no one is going to judge you for experimenting.

Once you’ve tried on this new persona, you might discover that you’re not half as bad as you thought you’d be. It can actually be fun! It’s like trying on a new style of clothes you never saw yourself wear, and find out that you look pretty good in them!

Let’s say you do this a couple of times, and you find that it’s getting easier to step out of your comfort zone (and by the way, a comfort zone is nothing but a story we tell ourselves). Here’s what will happen: not only will you start seeing changes as a voice actor. You may notice that you’re beginning to be a bit more bold and brave in your personal life as well. I’m not saying this will happen overnight, but it just might.

For the longest time I was socially shy. You’d see me hiding in a corner, pretending not to be there. It wasn’t fun at all. But one day, someone asked me if I’d be interested in playing a character in a variety show a group was putting on for a charity. The day I said yes to that opportunity, my life changed. I put on a funny costume and some make-up, and tried out a silly voice. The public loved it! This gave me a tremendous confidence boost. Now I don’t need those props anymore.

The trick is to put yourself in a position where you have to take a risk. Mind you, I’m not asking you to become a different person. I want you to discover a different aspect of who you are. Is that something you’re willing to try?

Then challenge yourself this week, by doing something you’ve never dared to do. 

Don’t pick the biggest thing in the entire universe. Start small and build from there.

Give yourself a chance to succeed, and watch yourself grow.

Be bold. Be brave. Be you!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Are You Wasting Your Time Going Nowhere Fast?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 9 Comments

Being busyWhat’s frustration number one for a freelancer?

Being busy without being productive. 

It’s a trap I have fallen into many times. I was working all day long, without much to show for it. That is, until something finally dawned upon me:

Busy people talk about how little time they have. Productive people make time for what is important. 

The question is: how do you know what is important for your business?

On some days, everything seems important: answering emails, invoicing clients, making phone calls, updating the website, recording auditions, paying bills, designing marketing materials, researching new gear, keeping up with social media… The list is endless, especially when you’re a one-person band. It’s tempting to do it all, and to do it all by yourself. 

That’s mistake number one. Here’s how to fix it:

Focus on what you’re good at. Outsource the rest.

There’s a reason why a brain surgeon doesn’t do her own billing, a CEO doesn’t answer every call, and Tim Cook doesn’t design the next iPhone. People who run a successful business hire people who are smarter and more talented than they are, to take care of certain aspects of that business. These experts are able to do things better and quicker, leaving you with more time to focus on your strengths. That’s where the money is!

So, if you’re not a kick-ass web designer, hire someone who is, and have him/her teach you to maintain and update the site once it’s up and running. Or do you have time to become an SEO specialist? I didn’t think so!

If you stink at bookkeeping, get an office assistant to take care of the numbers, and let an accountant prepare your taxes. This ensures that you maximize your deductions, and you minimize the money going to the IRS. An office assistant can also take on other administrative tasks, such as dealing with unpaid invoices. That way, you don’t have to be the bad guy (or gal). 

If you’re struggling to create a logo or a catch phrase, hire a graphic designer and a copywriter. They specialize in making you look and sound much more professional than you’ll ever be able to do yourself. Clients will only see you as a professional if you present yourself like a pro.

If you’re recording a massive project (such as an audio book) on a tight deadline, pay someone to edit and master the audio for you. Why spend time on a $50 to $100 per hour job, if you could make between $350 and $500 per hour? 

If you’re thinking about how much all of this will cost, you’re looking at it the wrong way. Reinventing the wheel, learning on the fly, trying to do everything yourself… it will leave you frustrated and without energy to do what you do best. You know, the very things clients hire you to do. That is going to cost you!

If -on the other hand- you decide to outsource some or all of these things, you’ll be surprised how much time you will gain. Now, let’s see if I can save you some more!

AUDITION LESS. MAKE MORE. 

In the beginning of my career I spent way too much time auditioning for jobs that were out of my range. Why? Because someone had told me that it was a numbers game. The more I auditioned, the greater the chance I would eventually land a job, they said. Doing auditions was a way to learn on the job, right?

Wrong!

Clients hire you because they trust you can do the job. They don’t want you to experiment on their dime.These days I am super selective. I know I don’t have a movie trailer voice, so I’m not even going to try to sound like one. I won’t audition for projects by companies or causes I cannot support (sorry fast food and tobacco industry).

And if you’re not offering a decent rate, you can find yourself a Craigslist talent, but please don’t waste my time. 

I also got smarter in the way I audition. Knowing that clients will often only listen to the first seconds, I am no longer recording three-minute scripts. Unless the client specifies otherwise, I’ll pick a few lines from the beginning with the company name, and I’ll include the payoff line at the end. Then I’m done. I know Michael J. Collins auditions this way, and based on his fine dining pictures on Facebook he seems to be doing okay. 

One last thing about auditions: I no longer record ten takes before I’m satisfied. If I can’t produce a good read in a few tries, the job is probably not meant for me. 

THE HARDEST WORD

Apart from curbing my presence on social media, there’s one other thing that has saved me tons of time: I became better at saying a certain two-letter word. 

“Can you evaluate my demo for free?”

NO!

“Can you write a guest post for this blog with 12 subscribers?”

NO!

“Can you tell me how to break into the business?”

NO!

“Can you answer this question I am too lazy to research myself?”

NO!

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy helping others, but I don’t run a charity. I run a for-profit business. That means that in everything I do, I have to think about the Return On Investment. 

Making enough money gives me the opportunity to invest in ways that will save me money and grow my business, as well as the freedom to engage in activities that are important, but that won’t generate any money.

ONE MORE LESSON

When I look back at my career, I wasted so much time waiting for things to happen. I thought that if I put a few things in place; had the right equipment and a decent amount of talent, things would turn out okay. After all, a wise man had told me: “Do what you love, and the money will follow.”

Tell that to the people who are going broke, lovingly living a dream.

A few hard years later, I realized that if I wanted to be successful, I had to become the prime instigator and number one delegator. I had to stop being busy, and start becoming productive.

It was quite the transformation, but you know what they say:

“Busy people talk about how they will change.

Productive people are making those changes.”

Are you?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The One Thing That Will Improve Your Voice Acting Immediately

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 29 Comments

Bradley Cooper

Question:

What’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better?

Warm-ups?

Tongue twisters?

Sufficient hydration?

Well, in order to answer this question, we first have to agree on what “better” sounds like. “Better” is one of those vague words we all use, but rarely clarify. We always tell each other to do better, be better, and get better, but how? I’d better explain.

Before I do, let’s take one more step back, and find out what it is that actually needs to be improved. After all, we can’t come up with a solution if we don’t know what the problem is. 

Today I want to focus on something that many of my voice-over students struggle with. They have trouble sounding “natural.”

People who pose for pictures suffer from the same phenomenon. As soon as they see a camera, they become self-conscious, and start acting differently. Unnaturally. 

The same thing happens when you put people (even professionals) in front of a microphone, and it’s time to record. During the sound check they were chatting away carelessly, but as soon as the engineer utters the words “… and we’re rolling,” something weird happens. 

Immediately, the voice changes. With men it often becomes deeper, and forcefully resonant. Words start coming out in a more deliberate, over articulated way, as if the voice talent is impersonating what they believe a voice-over should sound like. It’s that intolerable tone that’s so cliché and contrived. It tells you a text is read aloud, instead of spontaneously spoken. 

This vocal switch-flipping phenomenon is not limited to voice-overs, by the way. I see it in grown-ups trying to interact with infants. Give them two seconds, and out comes the baby voice! Teachers have their teacher’s voice, priests have their preacher’s voice, and some nurses have this annoying way of saying: “And how are we feeling today?” 

Back to the recording booth. Apart from a clear change in diction and tonality, I’ve noticed two other things both men and women are equally guilty of, as soon as they realize they’re being recorded.

One: they start talking louder.

Two: they start talking faster

If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know what I’m talking about. A conductor asking his choristers to sing softer, will tell you that they’ll automatically start singing slower. When asked to speed up a bit, people start singing louder. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction. 

Because this not a deliberate process, most of my students aren’t even aware that they’re suddenly talking faster and louder. I’ll often interrupt them and say:

“Who are you trying to reach? Your deaf grandmother in the back row of some imaginary theater? Right now you’re talking straight into a microphone. Think of it as my ear. There’s no need to raise your voice. The script doesn’t ask you to. This is a simple educational narration. Adjust your gain if you feel your signal is too weak, or come closer to the mic, but whatever you do, please use your normal, inside voice.”

At this point I wanted to write “It’s easier said than done,” but that’s not true. Saying it, is the problem. Consider this.

The relationship between a narrator and a listener is delicate, and intimate. Rarely will you be closer to a human being than when you’re whispering into his or her ear, even though both of you are invisible to the other.

At that moment of connection, you breathe life into the lines, creating a world with your words. It is your job to make that experience as truthful and natural as possible. When you manage to do that, a few things will happen: 

1. The listener will be able to focus on the content, without being distracted by an over-the-top delivery. 

2. The listener will become more receptive to your message, because you sound more real. 

3. By treating your voice gently, you’ll be able to go on longer, because you’re not putting so much stress on your vocal folds. 

Everybody wins.

Now for some bad news, and some good news. The bad news is that old habits tend to die a slow death. Think of all those ex-radio people who just couldn’t shake their announcer voice. It takes awareness, coaching, and practice to unlearn what has become automatic, and do more with less. 

The good news is that even the greatest actors of our time struggle with sounding natural. When the movie Silver Linings Playbook came out, leading man Bradley Cooper was interviewed by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. This is what he told her:

“As I’ve been acting the last 12 years, I’ve thought, ‘Well, the one thing I do have is this ability to make things seem … that I’m not acting.’ I’ve always felt like I can make lines that have been written come out of my mouth in a realistic way. … Then I met Robert De Niro and did the movie Limitless with him and realized that that wasn’t the case.

“I … still remember the table read for Limitless. … He comes in on about page 25. … The beginning of the movie is basically my character talking — there’s a lot of voice-over — and then all of a sudden he says something to me, and I stopped the reading, and I turned to him and I said, ‘I’m sorry. What’s that?’ And I realized he was actually saying his first line, but it was so grounded — as if he wasn’t acting — and I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve just been acting my tail off for the past 20 minutes. And here’s an example of somebody, you know, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.”

Of course there’s a difference between playing a role in a motion picture, and narrating a documentary, or an eLearning project. However, being a narrator is one of the roles voice-overs play, if you will. Good narrators give the impression that they’re not playing that role. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say with the least amount of performance. They create the illusion of spontaneity, giving the audience the impression that they’re not acting at all. 

Great (voice) actors are masters at pretending not to pretend. 

So, what’s the one thing that, if you’d start doing it today, would make you sound so much better? To put it bluntly:

Quit trying so hard!

Relax.

Breathe.

If you want to sound more natural, use your normal speaking voice and volume. 

Stop yelling, and start telling. 

Imagine you’re talking to someone across the table from you. 

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? 

Well, there’s the rub.

Only a true and talented professional knows how to make something unnatural seem natural, even if it’s as normal as making conversation. 

The great acting teacher Sanford Meisner explained it best when he was asked for his definition of acting.

This was his answer:

“Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Don’t Drive Yourself Crazy

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 16 Comments

Road rageDo you remember the time you learned how to drive?

I sure do!

In the beginning it was utterly overwhelming and scary. My hands and feet were supposed to do different things at the same time, and they vehemently refused. When I had to shift gears, I felt the urge to look at that darn stick shift, but my instructor insisted I keep my eyes on the road, and use the mirrors to monitor the dangerous world around me. 

How on earth was I supposed to peek at the dashboard; leave a safe space between my car and the one in front of me; keep a semi-intelligent conversation going, while figuring out where to go without getting everyone killed? 

As my hands were digging deep into the wheel, I couldn’t imagine ever drinking coffee while driving, or listening to a Shostakovich symphony on the freeway. And what would happen if I had to sneeze?

Mind you: at that point I was only doing fifteen miles per hour on a back road. 

“Give it some time,” said my overweight instructor as he wiped the pearly sweat from his impressive forehead. “Before you know it, everything will become second nature, and you’ll love being in the driver’s seat. Now, make sure not to cut off that cyclist on your right. I don’t think my insurance covers fatal accidents. Besides, I just washed the car.”

He paused for a moment, and said: “That was a joke.”

Then he took a long sip from his stainless steel flask. “Look,” he said proudly, “My wife had it engraved. Can you see what it says?” 

“Do not dangle that thing in front of me. I don’t want to see what it says,” I squeaked, barely avoiding a ditch. “I’m trying to focus!”

“It says: 

If everything comes your way, you are in the wrong lane. 

Isn’t that funny?” continued my instructor. “I love a woman with a sense of humor. You know, my first wife was way too serious. She got car sick all the time. That should have been a sign. It was a messy divorce, but it was worth every penny! Do you have any kids?”

At that point I firmly put my foot on the brake, stopping the car so abruptly that our bodies turned into crash test dummies. 

“Please take me home!” I cried. “My mind is in overdrive right now, and this is all I can take. I’m sure your new wife loves you very much, but giving you a flask for work? What was she thinking?”

“It’s just to take the edge off, Mr. Strikwerda. I think you should have a sip yourself. Believe me, you need it. Is it okay if I eat a bean burrito? I haven’t had lunch yet.”

Ten years and two driving instructors later, my mind took me back to this unsettling experience. The brain works in mysterious ways, especially when it consists of dark matter and black holes, like mine. 

I was at a fancy New York voice-over studio, surrounded by self-absorbed nitwits who all believed they were crucial to the success of the recording I was hired to do. It was some stupid script about a new type of air bag, designed for driverless cars (and instructors with engraved flasks). 

As five people argued over some last-minute script changes, I looked at the audio engineer. He nodded knowingly, and whispered in my headphones: 

“Just remember: your meter is running. My meter is running. The longer they take, the more we make.”

In the past, these types of situations would have been as stressful as learning how to drive a car. I didn’t like being in a different environment with different people. Too many things were going on at the same time. Lots of egos, and me feeling inadequate and insecure. My internal dialogue would almost paralyze me with its ugly voice:

“Are they talking about me? What if I make a mistake? What if they hate my take on the text? Why is my mouth so dry? Is it okay to take a bathroom break? And what about that horrendous tongue twister in the third line?”

That was then. This is now. Things have changed.

I’ve learned how to drive while drinking a tall Latte as I listen to the BBC. I even drove myself to New York. In rush hour, and I only got beeped at once. 

Call me Mr. Cool!

I leaned back in my chair, looking at the microphone. The folks on the other side of the studio window were still deliberating, and for some reason I had to think back to a radio interview I just heard on my way to the Big Apple. It was more of a conversation between two pianists, Gabriela Montero and Khatia Buniatishvili.

The interviewer asked:

“Could you describe the moment when the concert hall hushes, your fingers are poised above the keys… Take us inside your head. What are you thinking then?”

Khatia, who is from Georgia, answered:

“Actually, on stage I try not to think, because on stage there are things much more important than just human thinking that happen there. I’m totally forgetting my ego.”

“What about you, Gabriela?”

“I sit down, and I just want to be able to tell stories. That’s really the only thing that matters to me. I want to be able to convey in the deepest ways who we are, as a people; who we are, and what moves us. I want to move the public.”

Listening to these two professional performers, I felt a surprisingly close connection. As I was getting ready for my voice-over, I took a nice deep breath, and said to myself:

This script is my score, my voice is my instrument, and this studio is my stage.

The best thing I can do right now, is to stop thinking about myself. 

I’m a conduit. A storyteller, paid to move people with a message.

I have worked on my technique. I have analyzed the text. I have rehearsed it at home.

I am ready to let it go, and let it flow. 

I am in my comfort zone, and this is just as easy…

as driving a car.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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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

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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.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!


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!


What Clients Hate The Most

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 19 Comments

SurpriseOkay, this may sound like a pop quiz, but are you a go-with-the-flow person, or do you like to plan everything out?

Do you like surprises, or do you prefer to know what will happen next?

How well do you handle uncertainty, and last-minute changes?

Personally, I think life would be unexciting without the unexpected. I like not knowing what I will get for my birthday. I love to give a chef free rein, as he creates a special dish for me. I purposefully seek out new ideas and uncharted avenues. It keeps the brain cells bouncing around in playful anticipation.

But forget personal preferences for a moment. Let’s talk about the lifeblood of your business: your clients.

If there’s one thing clients all over the world consistently hate, it’s not knowing what to expect.

That’s understandable.

In an uncertain and stressful world, clients want reliability, dependability, and predictability. If your work is inconsistent, you can’t be trusted to deliver a product or service a client can count on.

I’ve been going to the same restaurant for years, and the food was always outstanding. Always. Until a few months ago. The menu had changed. The wait staff wasn’t the same, and the open kitchen had disappeared. That evening, I had one of the worst meals ever, and now I hesitate to go back.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

So, let’s talk about inconsistency for a moment.

Since I’m continuing my series on script delivery, you may be inclined to connect (in)consistency to your (voice) acting performance. We’ll get to that later, because we have a bigger picture to discuss.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this post, it is this:

Consistent delivery is about much more than the way you read your lines.

As a solopreneur, you’re judged by the way you deliver a total package. This starts with first impressions:

  • What does your website look like?
  • How do your demos sound?
  • What kind of equipment do you use?
  • How do you present yourself in person, via email, in social media, and over the phone?


If done right, all of these elements should send one consistent and congruent message:

Professional At Work

In a time where anyone can hang out a shingle and pretend to be a pro, it is easy to spot the inconsistencies that turn clients off. Do you want examples? Be my guest!

MIXED MESSAGES

On her website, one freelancer boasted about “years of experience.” Then I looked at her client list of… seven companies total. None of them were names you would recognize.

Another colleague thought that adding that amateur Polaroid snapshot to his website would really impress visitors. I hope his ideal clients are into Margaritaville, because that’s the logo I spotted in the picture’s background. 

Can it get any worse? Of course.

A few years ago I went to a recording session in Manhattan. The first thing I heard when I came in, was the sound of crying kids. One of the other talents had brought her two toddlers to the studio. The high-end client who had flown in for the session, was not amused.

One voice actor described himself on his website as detail-oriented. In the next paragraph I found not one but two spelling errors.

Sending mixed messages like that, undermines credibility. It kills trust.

DECEPTIVE DEMO

Here’s another inconsistency clients talk about all the time. They hire a voice-over based on a kick-ass demo. The talent gets the script and records the audio. But when the client receives the recording, it sounds nothing like the voice on the demo tracks.

You can guess how this came about. The super slick demo was overproduced, and later doctored by a talented audio engineer. When it was time to do the real work, the voice talent went back to her boomy closet booth where she self-directed.

“I’m not going to pay for that,” said the angry producer. “This girl charges top-dollar for something I can’t use!”

That’s another inconsistency. In this case, the quality of the product did not match the price.

Here’s one more pet peeve of mine.

A talented voice actor offered a quick turnaround time. It took him over a week before he got back to me. Mind you, during that period he was all over Facebook. I’ll have to think a very long time before I ever recommend him.

NEW AND OLD

Now, before you tell me that this blog post is one of those “nice reminders for beginners,” you should know that I find these types of inconsistencies across the board. In fact, fresh talent seems a lot more willing to please, because they still have to make a name for themselves.

Some veteran voice actors, on the other hand, have become complacent. They believe that their reputation should speak for itself. Although a nice portfolio doesn’t hurt, many clients don’t want to know what you have done for others in the past. All they need to know is this:

“What can you do for me, today?”

Here’s the bottom line. If you advertise yourself as a pro, you have to present yourself as a pro on ALL levels.

There’s a reason why a fashion designer doesn’t dress like a slob. It is obvious why a fitness trainer is usually in good shape. It’s part of a consistent message. A message a client is more likely to remember and respond to.

And what about consistency when it comes to the delivery of your script?

Let’s continue that conversation next week, when I’ll also look at the big secret to audio book success!

How’s that for a surprising teaser?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS This is part 4 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link. Click here for part 3.

PPS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: dawolf- via photopin cc


How To Be Believable

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 20 Comments

Founders Hall ©nethervoiceCongruence.

It’s one of those mysterious English words I had to learn as a native Dutch speaker. Little did I know that this word would come to play a pivotal part in my voice-over career.

Congruence is not a word you hear very often. At least, I don’t. It’s sometimes used in mathematics or geometry. What does it mean?

Congruence is actually a state achieved by different elements coming together. It’s a state of agreement and harmony. In a moment, I’ll tell you why this state is so important to professional speakers.

As I continue my series on performance, I want to remind you of the five characteristics of masterful delivery. They are:

• Clear and Clean
• Convincing
• Consistent
• Context & content appropriate
• Charismatic

SAY YOU’RE SORRY

Last week we talked about the significance of clean and clear delivery. Today we’ll move on to the next C. Let’s start off with a question:

How can you tell someone’s apology is not sincere? To put it differently, how do you pick up on the fact that someone doesn’t mean what he or she is saying?

It might help to think back to a moment where one of your friends or colleagues sounded totally unconvincing. From the moment this person opened his or her mouth you knew something was wrong, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.

Was it the choice of words? Could it be the tone of voice? Was it the body language that tipped you off?

I’d like to suggest that it was all of the above.

You see, what we say, how we say it, and the way we hold our body while we are saying it, is utterly revealing.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Years ago, a collection agency wanted to know the difference between a successful debt collector, and someone struggling to collect. In this case, they looked at employees who were using the phone to commit debtors to pay. In other words: these guys were making collect calls.

Both the successful collectors and the unsuccessful ones were using the same script, verbatim. So, why did one group succeed and the other fail? One of the determining factors turned out to be the very last sentence in the script. After informing the respondent of the outstanding debt and ways to take care of it, here’s what the collectors had to ask:

“Can you make a payment today?”

Because it is constructed as a question, the natural thing would be to read this line with a question mark. In other words, the speaker’s voice would go up at the end of the sentence. That’s exactly what the unsuccessful collectors did. Collectively.

UPTALK

We all know people who are in the habit of ending their sentences on a higher pitch. Phonologists have named this tendency HRT or high-rising terminal, and they believe this trend is growing in Australia and North America. Down Under they call it the Australian Question Intonation or AQI.

To many listeners, upward inflection (or uptalk) is an indicator of insecurity, and that’s exactly how the debtors interpreted it. Listening to the collector on the phone, the person owing money didn’t think the situation was urgent, so most people would put off making a payment.

The successful collectors on the other hand, treated the question “Can you make a payment today” as a statement. Instead of going up, their voices would go down at the word “today.” It almost sounded like a command, and it had the desired effect.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN

Same words. Different tonality. Different meaning. The French even have a saying for that:

“C’est le ton qui fait la musique”

It’s not what you say, but the way you say it.

Just as our tone of voice conveys meaning, our body language can be very revealing too.

At a party, one of my friends was rather quiet and withdrawn. He avoided eye contact, and looked down at the floor.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Oh, I feel great,” my friend said. “I’m really enjoying this party.”

“If that’s the case, why don’t I see it in your face?” I asked.

It turned out that his partner just broke up with him, and he felt as happy as a sad sack of potatoes.

PANTS ON FIRE

You see, it’s easy to choose the right words. We can also make an effort to sound upbeat even if we’re not, but it’s tough to make our bodies lie. That’s because our posture and facial expressions are a result of unconscious processes that are hard to manipulate, unless…. you’re in the acting business.

Actors are paid pretenders. The more convincing they can “lie,” the higher their paychecks.

As a (voice) actor, it is your job to sell your lines so that the audience is buying it. In order for them to believe in what you’re saying, they have to believe that you believe it yourself. How do you do that? Here’s one clue:

If you wish your audience to access a certain state, you have to access that state yourself first.

What do I mean by that? Lets assume you’re a keynote speaker at a conference, and you want to pump the audience up. They’ll never get out of their seats if you take forever to come on stage, start adjusting your microphone, and you begin by arranging your notes saying the following words in the most sleep-inducing tone of voice:

“Ehhh, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor and a privilege to be here with you tonight.”

Zzzzzzzzz

Now imagine a hypnotherapist trying to put his patient under while speaking in a most animated, rapid-fire way. It’s not going to work because his words are saying one thing, and his actions are saying something else. 

CONFIDENCE

If you want to be a successful (voice) actor, you have to become masterful at evoking and managing your states. Like so many things in life, this starts between the ears.

Your external dialogue begins with your internal dialogue.

We started this story by talking about being convincing. You will never be able to convince anyone of anything without confidence. If you wish to come across as confident, you have to access a state of confidence. 

But what if you’re insecure or nervous? What do you do? Well, there are a few ways you can approach this.

Strategy number one: Just pretend that you’re confident. As kids, most of us were very good at pretending. This is your chance to become a kid again, and feign the state you wish to access. It’s fun and it works, as long as you give yourself permission to play. Are you willing to do that, or are you too stuck in your adult ways?

Strategy number two: Model confident people. Study how they walk. Study how they talk. Study their beliefs. It’s the basic stuff actors do when preparing for specific roles. Once you’ve analyzed people’s mannerisms, speech patterns and body language, it’s your turn to reproduce them, and make them your own.

Strategy number three is based on the following principle: Competence breeds confidence. In other words, the more competent you become, the more confident you will feel. For instance, years of doing live radio taught me that I can cold read any script any time and sound like I know it inside out. What’s one thing you can do to increase your competence? 

Strategy number four: Face your fears. People who aren’t very confident and convincing are usually afraid that something unpleasant will happen should they assert themselves. Unless and until you deal with that, you’ll always be stuck at the level of pretending.

NEED PROOF?

So, let’s assume you’ve taken the time to use these strategies, and you’re ready to put them to the test. How can you tell you sound convincing? How do you actually know you’ve nailed it? This brings me back to the very first word of this blog post: congruence. It’s the polar opposite of sending mixed signals.

When your tone of voice and your body language match your message, you’ve become a congruent, convincing communicator.

This does not mean that you always have to act as someone who knows what he or she is doing. It totally depends on the part you play. If your job is to portray someone who is insecure, you embody that role as convincingly as you can. 

Secondly, -like the debt collectors- you will know you’re on the right track by observing how people react. Are they paying… attention to you?

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

One last question. Well, two actually, but who’s counting? 

Have I convinced you?

Is congruence key to a solid delivery?

As a writer, I have a bit of a problem here. All I have to work with are words. You can’t see me, and you don’t hear me.

Unless you’re blessed with a rich imagination.

In that case, I hope you’ve made me look and sound incredibly convincing!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 3 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link.


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