Filling In The Blanks

bartender“It’s too risky, too challenging, too expensive, and you’ll be very lonely”.

That’s what people told me when I announced that I was going to become self-employed. This was many, many moons ago.

I’m sure these folks meant well, but what struck me most was the fact that these self-appointed business coaches were all working in some nine to five job, making money for someone else. They had no clue what it would be like, to be one’s own boss. The idea alone probably terrified them. I say “probably” because I’m not sure.

What happened in these conversations was something that is universally human, and universally flawed: people projecting their own life experiences, values, beliefs, fears, and attitudes onto the life of someone else. Not hindered with practical experience or specific knowledge, they’ll tell you:

“I know precisely what you mean. I know exactly how you feel. I totally get it.”

The question is: Is that really true?


When you hear a seemingly innocent phrase such as “I know how you must be feeling right now,” let me tell you what is actually going on. With a few simple words, your friend, colleague, or family member has become a mind reader, and has managed to shift the conversation away from you and onto them. Hence the prominent use of the pronoun “I.”

They have taken what you wanted to talk about, and used it as an opportunity to refocus the conversation. Perhaps not on purpose, but they did it nevertheless. 

By saying “I know exactly what you mean,” people are also comparing their personal situation to your unique circumstances, as if these two are equal. That is hardly ever the case. Even when situations seem very similar, they rarely are, and people respond to them in their own way. That’s what makes us so interesting, and at times unpredictable.

When people say things like “I know exactly how you feel,” most of us don’t make a big deal about it, unless it concerns something very personal, and there’s a need to be understood. Let me give you an example.


You may know that my wife has multiple sclerosis. It’s a nasty disease which manifests itself in different ways on different days. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue. Fatigue is different from being tired. It is often described as an acute lack of energy; an unusual and utterly overwhelming whole-body tiredness not relieved by sleep, which prevents a person from functioning normally.

So, when my wife told one of her friends that she was exhausted, and the friend (who doesn’t have MS) responded by saying “I know exactly how you feel,” my wife said:

“Actually, I’m glad you don’t. I would not want to wish this on anybody.”

I remember going to an event where friends and family members were educated about multiple sclerosis. To give me a sense of what it might feel like to experience MS symptoms, a facilitator put weights on my legs which affected my sense of balance.

Blurred vision is another MS symptom, so they had me wear strange goggles that made the world around me look distorted. I could not read a simple text they asked me to read. Then I had to wear thick gloves, and I was instructed to unbutton my shirt, which was totally impossible.

I still remember the frustrating feeling of helplessness as I was wearing this weird outfit. The things I had come to rely upon: my sense of balance, my eyesight, and my sense of touch, were seriously affected. I needed the help of other people to get around and get things done, and I hated losing my independence. For a moment.

Luckily, after a while I could take all these gadgets off, but I tell you: I never looked at my wife in the same way. Never again would I tell her: “I know exactly how you feel.” Even after my limited MS symptom simulation I can’t say I know what it’s like to have an incurable chronic disease. And I hope I’ll never find out.


Now, this may be an extreme example, but extremes can make things clear. As a human being it is hard not to compare and project. We constantly have to make sense of the world around us, and we use our own experiences as a frame of reference. Based on that I have a few questions for you:

• How often are you aware that your perception is based on projection? 

• How often do you really know what a client means or a what friend feels?

• What would happen if you’d stop filling in the blanks based on your model of the world?

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a personal or in a professional relationship. If you are using your own experience to interpret the world, you are severely limiting yourself, and you’re not doing the other person justice. You’re not even focused on the other person because you’re too busy working things out in your own head.

Or as they say in the East: “You cannot pour tea into a cup that is already full.”


When I give a voice-over student a script and ask him or her to read it as if they were hired to be the narrator, I can predict what is going to happen. The student just starts reading the text. A few paragraphs later I ask them:

“How did you know to read it the way you did? How did you choose the tone, the tempo, the volume, and the accent?”

And most of the time they tell me: “I thought it would sound good this way. That’s all.”

Then I ask:

“Is this what the client wanted?”

“I have no idea,” the student answers. “It’s just a guess. How was I supposed to know?”

“Well, did you ask?” is my response.

And then the coin drops.

You can’t give a client what s/he wants to hear, if you have no clue what it is. You might think you have some idea, but that perception is based on your projection. It’s like asking a bartender to fix you a drink, and he just starts mixing something. Unless you asked to be surprised, you might not like what you are getting, let alone pay for it.

“Am I making any sense?” I asked my student.

“Absolutely,” she said. And then she added:

“Believe me… I know exactly what you mean.”

“Believe me,” I answered.

“You absolutely don’t.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: via photopin (license)

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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, Personal

15 Responses to Filling In The Blanks

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  2. Paul Payton

    Sorry to be late to this post – happy to be busy.

    I work with two rules:
    1. The client is always right.
    2. If in doubt, refer to rule 1.

    That said, of course there are exceptions. I’ve been asked, “How would you do it.” I’ve been directed, “Do it the way you always do.” (I take that as a compliment.) And occasionally if something is going off the rails, I might ask, “May I offer a suggestion?” unless the “temperature in the room” has become overheated.

    One of my favorite stories, especially because it’s true: I was in a multi-voice session with an astounding major talent (you’d know him if I mentioned his name, but I’m sworn to secrecy). They gave him 15 seconds of copy to tuck into a 9-second hole – and of course, done the way the client was asking, it was a word salad that “didn’t fit its bowl.” After several tries, the talent said, “Wait a moment,” centered himself, said, “roll it,” and the word salad came out crisp and clear and as easy-sounding as a walk in the park. The rest of us were agape that he actually pulled it off – and then were agape again when the client said essentially, “Yeah, but it sounds too good!” I forget how it worked out after that except that (1) the client eventually signed off on the project, (2) we were (under)paid and (3) none of us ever worked for them again!

    Hope that brings a smile – or at least a knowing grimace – to your day!


  3. DC Goode

    Feel the love brother Paul. 🙂
    As an old southern Pastor used to say…
    “The good Lord gave us 2 Ears and 1 mouth, there’s lots of good reasons for that.”


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I hear you!


  4. Kent Ingram

    Well, it looks like I’ll start the day out with a GUILT complex! Yep, I’m guilty of putting myself in other people’s situations. Self-analysis tells me I want to “bond” with that person because I’ve had a similar thing happen to me. Sort of camaraderie kind of thing. But, also underlying it all, must be the need for self-validation. I’ve had a lot of stuff go down in my life, in a negative sense, and I’m probably needing someone to understand and validate what I’m feeling. That isn’t fair to the person who just had that happen to THEM. I really have to work at, i.e., STOP that behavior. I’m not sure, but I hope that never leaked into my VO work. Thanks, Paul, this woke me up to something I suspected I was doing.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I think most humans want to feel validated. The whole circus of award shows in the entertainment industry is based on that. But I always ask the question: “Are you in it for the music, or for the applause?”


  5. Debbie Grattan

    You made me catch mySELF. I just did this yesterday, with a friend who was moving into a real estate career, and since I did that for a while (20+ years ago!) I chimed in with my thoughts and the “reality” of the biz. Later, I thought better of my interjection, and realized that everyone’s situation is different. She didn’t ASK for my opinion or advice…I just gave it. I think that’s something that social media magnifies, so we all feel some need to say how we FEEL about whatever someone else says/posts/tweets. But even before social media, I think it exists as you say, as part of a human condition of trying to fit someone else’s experience into something we can relate to.

    In regards to VO…since we are often tasked with a client who may have NO IDEA what he wants, and maybe has no clear way of articulating that (how many sessions have you been in with clients who basically want YOU to be the pro, and just “do what you do!”) it’s an easy jump to dive right in.

    But especially when dealing with a new client, or just over email communication, it’s important to ask those questions. And even then, there’s still that personal interpretation (what sounds compassionate to you may NOT be what it sounds like to them!) that can sometimes lead to a request for a re-record. That’s one reason I love my phone patch.

    Thank you for sharing about your wife’s MS. We have a friend with MS, and I appreciate the analogies you gave to help me understand what he may be feeling. Sometimes, it’s just hard to truly understand, until you’re walking in those shoes. But as actors, it’s kind of our job to PRETEND we know what it feels like. Maybe that’s why we’re quick to just make a choice, to inform our work, when required, without really asking.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I can so relate to your realtor-friend story! I have to bite my tongue sometimes and allow people to learn their own lessons in their own time.

    As far as clients are concerned, I try to prep them in my online “Guidelines, Terms, Conditions and Agreement.” I tell them:

    “Please remember: I can read your script, but I cannot read your mind. That’s why it is your responsibility to give me clear instructions ahead of time (more about that later). With those guidelines in hand, I will do my very best to interpret and read the script according to your wishes. If those instructions are missing, ambiguous or very broad, I will ask for clarification. If no (further) explanation is provided, I will assume that you have given me permission to interpret the script using my experience and expertise.”


    Debbie Grattan Reply:

    I’ll have to check out your online guidelines. Sounds like a great thing to have as a general template to assist with the everyday questions and concerns of a client. Thanks Paul.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It’s a hidden page so only clients can access it. But just for you, here is the link:

    Debbie Grattan Reply:

    Awesome!! Thank you Paul!

    Howard Ellison Reply:

    That’s an interesting insight, Debbi Grattan, when you suggest actors tend to jump in precisely because that’s an actor’s impulse. Our spring of inspiration, and mischief? Be Prepared’, yes, but also “Be not Afraid’ – or at least don’t show it!


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  7. Shireen Shahawy

    Paul, this was an amazing read. And, for me, more for the personal interaction references. We never know what people are really thinking, feeling or “managing.” BUT that said — makes so much sense with regard to understanding a client. I appreciate you taking the time to write this compelling read. It was a great way to start in on the day. Thank you.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My pleasure, Shireen. Of course many of my stories begin as “notes to self.” I decided to leave the mind reading to the psychics,although I have to admit that I sometimes try to guess people’s true motivations.


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