voice-over advice

The Worst Acting Advice Ever

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 24 Comments

Looking glass smileIn my last blog post I talked about delivery.

No, I wasn’t referring to your local pizza parlor. I was sinking my teeth into our performance as (voice) actors.

If you’ve missed it, here’s the takeaway:

Delivery is what separates the pro from the wannabe. You may have the most pleasant pipes in the world; you may be an okay reader, but if your delivery is flat,* you’ll never have a career as a voice-over.

Delivery can kill a joke, and it can bring tears of laughter to the audience. Delivery can put people to sleep, and it can make them jump for joy.

Delivery is like magic dust. It can turn a text from bland to grand. It’s one of the reasons why computer-generated voices will never be able to perform a Shakespeare play in a most moving way.

Delivery, good or bad, is never neutral. Masterful delivery is:

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


Let’s break these factors down a bit.

CLEAR & CLEAN

In order to change and improve your delivery, you first have to be aware of the way you speak. Most people mumble and stumble through life, and they don’t even know it.

People have no idea how they come across because they don’t hear their own voice the way others do. They’re so used to it that they cannot be objective. Unless they’re an expert, they’re probably not even equipped to properly analyze the way other people sound. This is not their fault. It’s built into our biology.

Our brains are conditioned to detect meaning, and to filter out fluff. By fluff I mean irrelevant sounds such as background noises, lip smacks, breaths, and um’s and ah’s. Most of the time, we’re not even listening, but we’re interpreting what we believe the other person is saying, which is also based on their body language. Plus, every conversation takes place in a specific context which helps us determine meaning.

THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

Now, take away the context, take away someone to talk to, and replace the conversation with a script. Bring the speaker into a small dark room, and have him or her talk into a microphone. Ask your wannabe to read the words on the page without making any mistakes, and make sure they know that critical ears will be evaluating every single sound. No pressure!

If you would, imagine yourself in that hot seat. 

Unless you’ve had some training and experience, you will quickly discover that the microphone works like a cruel magnifying glass. It exposes all the sounds you didn’t even know you were making. As nerves take over, your mouth gets as dry as the Sahara desert. You start fidgeting in your chair, and on top of that, your full stomach decides to make an embarrassing guest appearance.

Then you see the people on the other side of the thick studio glass, and you realize you can’t hear a word of what they’re saying. As you begin to read the first lines of the script, they start laughing, and you wonder: Is it me they’re laughing at? Am I making a fool of myself? What am I even doing here?

It gets worse.

When you’re done reading, you’re greeted with absolute silence. You can see the team on the other side, and it’s clear that they’re discussing something. They’re not laughing anymore. In fact, you detect a couple of grim faces.

Finally, the sound engineer gets on the intercom, and says rather sternly:

“Alright, let’s do this again. Before you begin, let me play this first take back to you, so you can hear what we’re hearing, okay?”

As you’re listening to yourself, you panic. This doesn’t sound like you at all. Who is this person? What’s up with those loud breaths and shrill S-sounds? What did you do to produce this sickening symphony of mouth noises? Drink a gallon of milk? Eat super salty food? And what’s up with all the mumbling?

Before your internal dialogue sends you into a deep depression, the engineer has something to add:

“Let’s try it again. This time, I want you to drink some water first, and relax a little. There’s so much tension in your voice. Please remember to E-Nun-Ci-Ate, but don’t overdo it.

And one last thing: “Be you, and you’ll do just fine.”

THE WORST ADVICE

I’ve heard that phrase a million times: “Just be you, and you’ll do just fine.” It’s supposed to sound reassuring, but it’s as contradictory as, “Act normal.” It’s impossible to do. If you are your normal self, you don’t act. You just are.

Whether on stage, in front of a camera or in the recording studio, you’re not hired to “just be you.” You’re hired to be your best, most professional self, and to make it sound (and look) perfectly spontaneous.

(Voice) actors are paid messengers. They’re paid to get information across in a way that’s easily understood and remembered. That’s why your speech needs to be clean and clear. If it’s not, it will distract from the message. In my experience, this is something the average person -regardless of their sound- is unable to deliver.

BECOMING A PRO

The average speaker is a lazy speaker. The professional speaker is aware and articulate.

If you’re thinking of becoming a professional speaker, you have to unlearn bad habits, and learn to dramatically improve your diction to the point where it becomes second nature. This is not something you can pick up through trial and error. You won’t learn it by reading books. This needs guided practice, and lots of it. Compare it to learning how to play an instrument. It’s not something you pick up overnight.

The goal is not to make you sound like an over articulating British stage actor from the forties or fifties. The goal is simply to be understood without having to work hard to get your words out. Once this becomes almost effortless, you know you’re on the right track. At that stage, you’ve become “unconsciously competent.” You don’t even realize that you’re doing it.

But good delivery requires another skill: the ability to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t always know what you’re talking about.

It has to be convincing

How do you do that?

Let’s continue that conversation next week!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 2 in a series on performance and script delivery. Part 3 is coming next week.

*To me “flat” refers to speech without vocal variety. Variety in pitch, tempo and volume.

photo credit: helenadagmar via photopin cc


How I Became Dear Abby

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 45 Comments

Paul StrikwerdaSomething scary and awful has happened to me.

Because of the strange popularity of this blog and my appearance as an “expert” on several VO-shows and webinars, people are starting to take me seriously.

What am I to do?

All of a sudden, friends and foes feel the urge to retweet my nonsensical wisecracks, and care to comment on bizarre thoughts I share with you on Facebook. Some people even shower me with compliments and unhealthy adoration.

STOP THAT!

I already suffer from extreme self-esteem, and you’re not making it any easier for me to stick to my twelve-step program aimed at practicing modesty and humility.

My AA (Arrogance Anonymous) self-help group was just praising me for the progress I had made in that area. It was horrible. All of a sudden I felt exceedingly full of myself again, and their flattery threw me back several months.

Because of my growing reputation, folks from all corners of the earth believe I have the answer to all their voice-over questions. Who do you think I am?

Joan Baker? J.S. Gilbert? Bill DeWees?

I thought I’d share a few of their issues with you, and when you read my responses, you will soon realize that it’s pointless to contact me.

Here we go.

Q. Dear Paul, I’d like you to critique my demo. How much do you charge for that?

A. Mr. Friedman, it depends on the audio. If your demo is very bad, you can’t pay me enough to listen to it. If it’s any good, you don’t need my critique because it speaks for itself.

Q. Dear Paul, I want to get rid of my announcer voice. What do I do?

A. Dear Doug Turkel, I can see why this could be a problem for you. I suggest talk therapy, and be sure to keep it conversational. Once you’re rid of your radio voice, relaunch your business. When you do, you better make a big announcement!

Q. Dear Paul, can you tell me what James Cameron found when his submarine hit the floor of the Mariana Trench?

A. Contrary to popular belief, this was not a marine expedition. Mr. Cameron was actually looking for cheap voice talent for his upcoming productions. He wondered how low they would go, and I think he found some bottom feeders.

Q. Dear Paul, am I allowed to drink during the session if the client is paying for a “dry read only”?

A. Very funny. Yes, you may drink, but only from a Blue Bottle!

I have a good one for you: Are you allowed to shout in a Whisper Room®?

Q. Dear Paul, Marc Cashman charged me an arm and a leg to help me find my money voice. Is that okay?

A. Give the man some credit. He’s a genius, and he deserves every penny!

Q. Dear Paul, I have some emotional scars from a Nancy Wolfson tough love seminar. What do I need to heal from that experience?

A. A big hug from Bob Souer or Uncle Roy.

Q. Dear Paul, although I just started my voice-over business, I want to come across as a seasoned professional. What are some of the must-haves if I want to pull this off?

A. That’s easy. People are doing it every day. You have to have:

• a profile picture of you, hugging a microphone;

• demos that have been so doctored, sweetened, and spiced up that your voice needs decompression after the session;

• a YouTube video tour of your walk-in closet voice-over studio showing a surprisingly rich variety of naughty undergarments;

• knowing the answer to the question: “What would Don have done?” (No, not Don Draper);

• a Neumann TLM 103 because you can’t afford a U87;

• a website with a picture of you hugging a microphone;

• a friend request from Dave Courvoisier;

• a Facebook album with pictures of you holding various celebrities in an iron grip as they are forced to pose with you;

• a subscription to my blog;

• a real job.

Q. Dear Paul, please listen to my most recent audition. Should I put more egg crates on the wall to tame the reflections?

A. The audition was horrible. Your bathroom sounds just fine, but I think you are the one who needs more treatment.

Q. Dear Paul, you’re such a wordsmith. Can you come up with a snappy slogan for my VO-business?

A. What do you think of these?

“I can’t read your mind but I will read your script.”
“I’m always on speaking terms with my clients.”
“Speak for yourself, or I will do it for you!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS My sincere apologies to all the colleagues mentioned in this article. You never wrote to me, and after this article I fear you never will.


Casting Pearls Before Swine

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 27 Comments

handing out adviceTo an ignorant outsider, the voice-over community I belong to may seem cutthroat.

Yet, if there’s one thing that makes it stand out among other freelance groups it is this:

Voice-overs love to share.

People with no or very little experience can expect a warm welcome, and a helping hand when they join an online VO-community.

Do you need advice on a microphone? You’ve got it!

Are you wondering how to soundproof your booth? We’ve got you covered!

I could easily spend all day answering questions from people I don’t know on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media. However, those days are pretty much over. Why?

Because it is a thankless task that eats up time, and doesn’t build my business.

Perhaps I better explain myself.

LURING LURKERS

Here’s what I know about internet culture. Most online communities consist of lurkers. You know, the people who observe, and very rarely participate. These folks like to take, but never give. They want to play the game, but they never show their cards. Have they earned the right to pick my brain? I think not.

It also consists of lazy people who never learn; people who want you to do their homework. Sorry, but I’m not going to enable an attitude of entitlement. 

Can you imagine a teacher spoon-feeding her kids by giving them all the answers on a silver platter? I thought the purpose of education was to make children resourceful and independent. 

I’ve also noticed another trend: many members of online voice-over communities are simply not serious. How do I know? Just look at the basic questions people ask. If they had half a brain and a genuine interest in the subject matter, they would have figured it out for themselves. But no, they apparently need a pro to hold their hand. Poor babies!

“But Paul,” some people respond… “Don’t be so harsh. You were once a newbie. You had to start somewhere, didn’t you?”

Of course I did, but here’s the thing. When I embarked upon a career in radio, I had more questions than answers. I made it my mission to find as many answers on my own, before asking for help. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of a pro. I wanted them to know that I had done my homework.

So VO-newbies, if you want to earn my respect, do your research!

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE

Thinking back to my start in radio, here’s what comes to mind: I was serious, I was committed, and I was willing to make an investment.

You see, that’s another thing that’s missing these days. This is the age of the free ride. Why pay for a song if you can download it at no cost? Why pay for Netflix if you can watch a pirated movie online? Why pay for expert advice if the experts are giving it away?

If we don’t value what we have to offer, we can’t expect others to find it valuable either. Those who are willing to make an investment, are usually invested in the process. Those who are not, have other priorities. 

“But Paul,” some people commented, “wouldn’t it be good for your business if people got to know you as someone who knows his stuff? You might even get some coaching clients out of it!”

Let me tell you something. In all the years that I have chimed in on Facebook or Google+, no one ever contacted me for coaching because they liked my answer to their question. Nine out of ten times I didn’t even receive a “thank you,” or other sign of acknowledgement. That’s why I call it a thankless task. People simply get what they need, and move on.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Some did ask about coaching, but as soon as I told them my rate ($125 per session), they said they were just “exploring options.” It is the epitome of not committing. 

Now, there’s another reason why I won’t be handing out free advice to every Tom, Dick, or Harry. I’ll explain by quoting a question I recently received from Mandy:

Paul, I read your article about your most embarrassing moment in your voice over career. You said that you used to use voices.com, but were only able to book a handful of jobs before leaving the site. I’m a voice actor as well and have been primarily using voices.com to find work. Now you said that you don’t really like the pay to play model and prefer to get work elsewhere. So my question is: what do you recommend for someone like me who is still new to voice acting? Are pay to play sites the only way for me to go being so new? I don’t have a demo or an agent so I don’t have people contacting me about jobs either. What options do I have? I haven’t really gotten much success with voices.com either, and voice acting is not my main source of income. I would very much like to learn and get better at voice acting too. Any knowledge or insight you can share would be great, thank you.

HERE’S MY ANSWER

Hello Mandy:

First off: thank you so much for reading my blog. I really appreciate that!

There are many ways in which I could respond to your comments and questions, but I have to say this first:

Without demos, industry contacts, experience, or an online presence, it’s virtually impossible to build a voice-over career, especially on the side, and especially in 2016. 

I haven’t heard your work, so I can’t even tell whether or not you’re uniquely talented. This makes it really hard to give you advice. 

Some of my coaching colleagues might even question whether or not you’re serious about voice acting. They’re definitively not going to give you any recommendations on a silver platter. Their time and expertise are worth something.

I will say this, though.

The only way to get better in this field, is by taking trainings, and/or by working with a coach. Very much like driving a car, you can’t pick voice acting up from a book. You can’t teach it to yourself either, because you’re limited by your lack of knowledge. 

Overall I’d say that it is unwise to put yourself out there when you aren’t ready. No one opens a restaurant without knowing how to cook, right? 

The voice-over world has too many home cooks who all believe they’re the next best thing since sliced bread, and they don’t stand a chance against professional chefs. 

So, please don’t put the cart before the horse and expect to get work. Put in your time, make the necessary investments, learn the ropes, and build a solid home studio. Then we can talk about attracting clients.

Does that make sense?

This probably wasn’t what Mandy expected to hear, because she never responded. 

When it comes to a VO-career, there are too many people with their heads in the iCloud, and all of them believe they could be the next Don LaFontaine. Someone’s got to tell them that that’s never going to happen. Otherwise they’ll fall for all the propaganda from demo mills, unscrupulous VO-coaches, and greedy online casting sites.

UNDERSTAND FIRST

I do want to point out one more thing I tried to convey in my answer to Mandy: it’s rather pretentious to give advice to people you know very little about. You wouldn’t want a doctor to write you a prescription without having fully examined you, right? Yet, with the best of intentions, colleagues dish out advice left and right without knowing whom they are talking to. Stephen Covey was correct when he coined the phrase:

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.

I see a lot of people trying to be understood, without really understanding what the issue is. Do you know what I mean?

One last thing.

If all of the above is true, -and I believe it is… why am I still blogging? Isn’t that handing out unsolicited advice to people I don’t even know?

I suppose it is, but you know what? I pick the topics. I usually ask the questions, and I come up with answers. And most of the time, I feel very much appreciated.

Before I started blogging, very few people had even heard of this Flying Dutchman and his voice-over business. Now I am one of the go-to people when companies ask for someone with a European accent. Clients come to me when they need a native Dutch speaker. In other words: this blog has helped me build my business.

If people seek me out for my expertise, they have to come to my site, and not to someone else’s online platform. The amount of traffic this blog generates is worth more than any online ad campaign could give me. And the many friends I have made along the way… that’s simply priceless!

The way I see it, everybody wins, and that is why I will keep on sharing on my turf and on my terms. 

And yes: you’re welcome!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please Retweet!

photo credit: Pondering Bob’s advice via photopin (license)