The ONE Thing Every Client Is Listening For

Senator Bernie SandersFor once the pundits and the public agree.

Donald Trump has it, and so does Bernie Sanders.

But Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton definitely do not.

What am I talking about?

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

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

What is it?


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any conflicts?” he asked.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you next week!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Bernie Sanders via photopin (license)

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media

24 Responses to The ONE Thing Every Client Is Listening For

  1. Pingback: Are You Suffering From Mike Fright? | Nethervoice

  2. Shane Morris

    Hi Paul,

    I have a saying hanging in my studio that I make every student write down “YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO BE YOUR SELF TODAY BECAUSE EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN!” The greatest actors in the world are just being them selves. Yes, I’m still learning too! Thanks again for being your self!



    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for sharing, Shane!


  3. Pingback: What is your most genuine, confident voice? | Your Work Is All I Talk About!

  4. Steve Krumlauf

    Another home run with the bases loaded, Paul!
    Your piece on authenticity reminded me of Gary Owens’ or Ted Knight’s version of a voice-over or on camera talent, (if you recall Laugh-In and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) That’s the average layman’s perspective on what we do, i.e., hand cupped to the ear and trying to push the voice down as low as it can go.

    I spent over an hour on Saturday talking to a top executive in a major, national insurance company who was told he has a good voice and would like advice on getting into VO. Your piece was a great reminder that voice over is not about the voice, but, what’s behind the voice.

    You better believe I’m going to share your coaching session with my new insurance executive/VO wannabe friend to encourage him to be the only person he can authentically be, himself!


  5. Laura Branch

    So true, Paul! Politics aside, I recall the first time I ever said to myself at an audition *Oh, #*!@ it, either they like my voice or they don’t; I’m tired of trying to sound like xxx, so I’m just gonna be me!”

    That was the very audition that turned into an 11-year gig with a wonderful retainer.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Your “*Oh, #*!@ it” is a very powerful strategy. The moment you decided to play the game that way, you stood in your own strength, and I’m pretty sure people could hear it and feel it. No wonder you booked the job!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Your “*Oh, #*!@ it” is a very powerful strategy. The moment you decided to play the game that way, you stood in your own strength, and people can hear it and feel it. No wonder you booked the job!


  6. Judy Fossum

    Paul, such a poignant post, thank you. Being comfortable with who you are and then being just who you are are so important, albeit it can be tough at times. I recently gave up an audition for a commercial (pay was very fair) due to the product it was advertising.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    To paraphrase the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard: One of life’s purposes is to become who we are. It can take a lifetime to answer the question: “Who am I?” and be comfortable with the answer.


  7. Rick Lanace

    NO WAY…. I’m NOT touching politics on line!

    I love the line… “I want you to stop the internal dialogue, so you can focus on the external dialogue. Can you do that for a minute or two?” I hope to steal that one when being asked for advice.

    I’ve taught a few “intro to VO” type workshops myself. I’ve found that often the folks with the biggest hang up about hearing their own voice and being “real” were the actors in the group. Once the mic was up instead of the camera they had problems. I’d tell them basically to quit listening to yourself and draw from within as you would on camera. And listen to the big Hollywood stars handle their VO work.

    Good talk… thanks!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Steal away, Rick!

    Being too self-conscious takes us out of the moment, and contributes to self-sabotage. It’s the curse of those who have to self-direct.


  8. Jeff Bugonian

    This is an excellent post. I for one will never forsake my moral/ethical stand for a few dollars of VO work. There are many who scoff at that and say “it is just acting”. But the truth is it would make me feel like a hypocrite if I did it. For example I do not use profanity in my real life and I will not use it in VO. Have I lost out on some work because of it? Yes. But I feel better about myself for taking that stand. Plus, if I ever tried going against my personal stand it would come across in the vocals. They would hear the conflict. Second, I try to instill high values in my children. If they ever heard me saying things that I try protecting them from, what kind of message am I sending them? I am in no way judging anybody for what they choose to do with their VO business and I am sure some will disagree with me. But thank you Paul for the encouragement to remain true to ourselves…no matter who we may be.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Integrity is so important. Our work is just one aspect of who we are, and like you I find it hard to separate my professional from my personal choices. As a vegetarian I would never promote meat products. I’d feel like I would be selling out just to make a few bucks. That’s not a price I am willing to pay. Some things are more important than the almighty dollar!


  9. Paul Payton

    Absolutely on the mark, Paul. Trump and Carson are both authentic, but both are wrong on the issues for my taste. But I give them credit for being honest about their positions. Same with Bernie, but I think he’s quite right on the issues. And Hillary – ah, Hillary. Every time I think I see the real her, she disappears again. Another authentic one is VP Joe Bisen. He seems to be a straight shooter as well. I wish him luck recovering from all the sadness in his life, and I admire his resiliance and his courage in stepping aside in the race, knowing that he couldn’t fully be his whole self.

    I keep thinking that the 2016 election is going to get even more !interesting (as in the old Chinese curse). I just hope that authenticity – or lack of it – will help to show us the best candidates and not just the best presenters.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’ve touched upon an important factor, Paul. As a former journalist, I know first-hand how hard it is to get an honest, spontaneous answer out of a politician. Most have been trained to think twice before they open their mouths, and there’s a good reason for that. Words carry consequences. So, when candidates emerge that are less polished and more outspoken, the general public finds it refreshing.

    As voice actors, it is our job to be polished presenters of information, and yet give our listeners the impression that we’re making it up as we speak.


  10. Howard Ellison

    So true, Paul, about authenticity. Only last week I was on a live session for a charity appeal. I really cared about the cause. The sample video had a deep-voiced American, so I offered deep-voiced Brit. The producer stopped me after a few lines and said fine, but be yourself: simply tell me all about this great cause in your own voice (just as you advised your student).
    The read flew along after that and I felt mighty grateful.

    As for politicians… yes we have the usual suspects tub-thumping from stage left and right here in UK, and just one or two with real passion who are building a new following among younger people. The voting audience is wising up, if not yet quite rising up.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Great example, Howard. Integrity is part of authenticity. When our thoughts, our heart, and our skills are aligned and speak the same language, we become believable.


  11. Matt Forrest Esenwine

    While I agree with you on the importance of authenticity, I’d hardly call Trump authentic. In fact, he’s one of the most UN-authentic who’ve ever run for president. In fact, over the past several elections he and his son have donated more than twice as much money to Democrats as Republicans – but suddenly NOW he’s a conservative?? I’m a Republican, and I’d vote for Bernie before I’d vote for Trump. Don’t confuse populist rhetoric with authenticity, my friend! I think Dr. Ben Carson, on the other hand, is much more authentic than Trump and is showing that more and more, which is why his #s are growing.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Perhaps I should clarify that calling Trump “authentic” is not my personal opinion, Matt. I’m merely quoting polls and pundits here, and they tell us that many people believe that The Donald “tells it like it is.” He’s deliberately politically incorrect, and a part of the electorate seems to appreciate and endorse his style.


    Rob E. Reply:

    I was coming here to say that exact thing re: Trump. Great article except for that. Authenticity is key in performing: Too many try to be like someone else. There already is that someone else – be yourself.

    As for Trump – well Trump is the Troll candidate – and he’s playing the Troll Roll very well. He isn’t authentic, he is in fact quite calculating and is playing to the Lowest Common Denominator brilliantly. Ben Carson may be authentic, but anyone who proudly admits they don’t believe the Holocaust happened but DOES believe in UFOs (as Ben Carson did) has no real shot at office anywhere – authentic or not.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    There’s a great article on, talking about authenticity, Trump and Sanders:

    The author says that authentic candidates:

    1. Write their own speeches
    2. Don’t use a teleprompter
    3. Do their own social media
    4. Open themselves up to real conversations with people

    In terms of Trump playing a role… if you look back at forty years of footage, I don’t see a big difference between the young Trump, and the man that is running for office right now. In that way, he has stayed true to himself.

    Agreeing or disagreeing with his politics is a very different matter that I’m not even going to touch!


    Rob E. Reply:

    I had a lengthy rebuttal written, but logic prevailed. This is a VO blog and an awesome one at that. Keep up the great work, Paul.

    For me, I’ll keep my politics to my Political VO Spots! 😉

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Smart choice, Rob. Discussing politics and religion publicly, isn’t always the wisest move. Bringing up presidential candidates was a way in which I could introduce the real topic of this blog post: authenticity.

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