Why Navel-Gazing Is Bad For Business

photographerI love being part of my sweet, supportive, and unpretentious voice-over community. It’s one of the many perks of the job.

When one of us lands the gig of a lifetime, all of us rejoice.

When one of us is down in the dumps, many of us reach out.

When one of us spots a scammer, we spread the news and warn our colleagues.

Most voice-overs I know, are sharing and caring people. We like hanging out with members of our invisible community, whether it’s in person, or online. While we may disagree on certain issues, we tend to have “warm exchanges,” instead of heated debates.

Spending time with our peeps is good fun, and often educational, but there’s a slight risk involved. The more time we spend inside our rosy VO-bubble, the greater our tendency to look inward. 

That inner focus may lead us to believe that the challenges we’re dealing with are unique to our profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is estimated that over one third of the U.S. workforce consists of freelancers. That’s over 54 million people, and those people have a lot in common!

So, when I am searching for answers and inspiration, I like to look outside of my small circle. Take freelance photographers, for instance. You may think that there are quite a few colorful characters among voice actors, and you’re right. But have you ever watched photographers on YouTube? Oh dear!


But let’s be serious for a moment.

Like voice-overs, many photographers operate as a one-person band. Like us, they tend to have studios. Just as the microphone is our professional ear that zooms in on sounds, the camera is the all-seeing eye that registers images.

Both voice-overs and photographers edit in “post,” using software. And if you think VO’s go crazy for the greatest gear, you should spend some time reading reviews of the latest lenses, filters, and other accessories!

If you still believe that any comparison between VO’s and photographers is a bit contrived, listen to David Shaw. He writes:

“More gear won’t make you a better photographer. Don’t get me wrong, I love camera gear. New bodies, lenses, and accessories are fun and exciting, but they won’t magically make you better at photography. To be a better photographer you need to learn how to find images. The gear can help you capture them, but the finding part is up to you.

Whenever I’m thinking of buying a new piece of gear, I ask myself, “Is my current gear holding me back?” Sometimes the answer is yes. (…) More often though, the answer to whether my gear is holding me back is no. The actual reason I want a new piece of gear is that it is shiny. I may lust over new camera stuff, but if that gear won’t improve my photography in a very tangible way, I don’t buy it. Remember that good photography comes from your heart and your mind, not your wallet.”


Whenever I try to explain the value of my work as a voice-over pro to a potential client, or even to a lowballing colleague, I often use the metaphor of a photographer. Since everyone carries a camera (disguised as a phone), and we all take snapshots, most people can relate to that.

I’ll often tell a hesitant client:

“Imagine it’s your wedding day. One of the best and most important days of your life. Who is going to take the pictures you will one day share with your grandchildren? Uncle Arthur with his silly smart phone? Cousin Fred with his point-and-shoot, and unsteady hand? Or will you look for the cheapest hack on Craigslist? You’ll save a lot of money, and you will regret it every single day.”

And all of a sudden, people who know very little about hiring a voice-over, get it.


Now, another thing photographers and voice-overs have in common is this: people tend to underestimate what it takes to get to a certain level. An amateur can take pictures all day long, and doesn’t have to live up to a standard. He or she can learn on the job. Pros, on the other hand, are expected to know what they’re doing. It takes hard work to make something look effortless.

Once again, here’s David Shaw:

“A few times, I’ve been told by people looking at one of my images, “You have such a gift.” I know they are being kind, that they are offering a compliment, but I can’t help feeling insulted. I want to say, “It’s not a gift! I worked my ass off to make that image! That shot is the result of years of effort, of early mornings, and hours of travel, of study and practice, tens of thousands of failed and deleted shots, and thousands of dollars in equipment. Nothing about that image was given to me, I earned it.” Of course, I don’t say that. Instead, I smile as though they’ve just said the nicest thing, and say thanks. (…) So no, photography is not a knack – it’s work.”

That’s precisely why professional rates are based on experience, and not on time spent. What’s true in photography is true in voice-overs. Talent cannot be bought. It has to be cultivated. Patiently. It requires discipline. It requires commitment. It may take years before you see a decent return on investment. David Shaw agrees:

“With the exception of the very top people in the industry, we pros aren’t millionaires, or anywhere close. Out of our meagre incomes have to come our mortgage, food, computers, software fees, travel, and yes, camera equipment. When I made the transition to full-time freelancer, that new reality hit me like a falling piano. Science fiction writer John Scalzi once wrote that you shouldn’t consider leaving your day job until you are making TWICE your normal income with your writing (or in this case photography). It’s good advice.”


So, if you’re searching for answers, inspiration, and a common cause, look outside of your familiar circles. Extend and expand your network, and reach out to fellow-freelancers. Find script writers, copywriters, cinematographers, graphic designers, art directors, authors, artists, photographers, et cetera. Learn from their struggles. Immerse yourself in new ideas. Stand with them, be stronger, and be ready to be surprised.

This the really exciting part:

One new connection will often lead to another, and another, and another.

A photographer I had been in contact with, was getting into video production. She wanted to produce virtual house tours for realtors, and she needed someone to do the voice-over narration. Guess who she turned to?

Had I stayed in my sweet, supportive, and navel-gazing community, she probably wouldn’t have found me. What she needed, was a personal connection. 

Here’s what you have to understand.

These things don’t just happen. You have to be the one who reaches out. Today.

Do you get the picture?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: ** RCB ** pictures the hard way 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, Freelancing

9 Responses to Why Navel-Gazing Is Bad For Business

  1. Rick Lance

    A very interesting parallel with David Shaw (photography) and voice over, Paul. I can speak from experience here. I don’t always talk about it much among the VO community but I had a commercial photography studio in Nashville for almost 20 years. And recorded VOs part time inside a little semi insulated box for several years before retiring the photo biz in 2007 and going at VO full time.

    That freelance photo business taught me a lot about conducting a professional business in general. (I also worked as a photo assistant a couple of years, and a Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Petty Officer in the US Navy.) This experience and my years of simultaneous musical endeavors in Nashville’s music scene, set the stage for my VO career today. I too never focused that much on the latest gear but rather on performance, natural ability and skills improvement. And it sure gave me an interesting perspective on things!

    My point is, I find myself often reflecting on my photo and music career to improve and sustain my VO career today. I feel very lucky to have this kind of past experience to draw from. I think that many other VO pros have earlier careers to draw experience from, as well. And I say, don’t be afraid to INTERJECT that experience into your VO life. It can be heard in the sound of your words. Relish it! And your clients will as well.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!


  2. Bruce Kramer

    Each time I read your blog, I am struck by how elegantly you describe some aspect of human nature, and a possible alternative course. Yes, these observations apply directly to voice over work, and to freelance in general, but also to more or less all humans, which makes your potential audience rather large. Obviously, yours is a talent honed by years of observation and thought.

    As to this week’s topic, it is a fact that many in the general public do not recognize the thousands of hours necessary to bring a creative talent to a professional level, whether it is music, art, photography, dance, theatre or voice over. In the case of voice over, there is of course the additional problem that everyone can talk…so how hard could it be?

    Perhaps another way to frame this thought would be to compare the creative artist to a physician. Everyone knows that a physician must undergo years of training and examinations to achieve professional competency. And their credentials will be framed and hanging on the wall. If a physician quickly “nailed” a complicated diagnosis based on their training and professional experience, would you want to pay him or her less because it did not take much time? Probably not.

    I do not mean to equate the role of the physician with that of the professional creative artist. Both are necessary, for different aspects of human health. And each has to work diligently to achieve professional competency. It’s just that everyone knows how high the hurdle is to become a physician, but for the creative arts most people are pretty fuzzy about what is necessary.


  3. Natasha



  4. Shireen Shahawy

    I meet once a month with a group of creative professionals. We call it our ‘Creative Salon.’ We are a mix of folks — web developers, artists, photographers, documentarians, ad folks, TV producers and writers. It’s one of the best evenings of my month. It’s amazing to have a group of people who live the creative freelance life in one space to discuss triumphs, challenges and anything else that happens to come up. Our group has been meeting for four years and many joint cross-pollinated projects have come as a result of the relationships that have been built. I highly recommend it and encourage people to try and create those groups in their own lives. Great advice, Paul!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Now that’s what I’m talking about, Shireen! I know there’s a place for voice-over specific meetup groups, but your “Creative Salon” is something I would join in a heartbeat. So many freelancers fly solo, trying to reinvent the wheel. Groups like yours take away the isolation, and offer a wealth of collective experience and camaraderie (or in the case of photographers: “cameraderie”).


  5. Mike Harrison

    Brilliant! And the bit about the “gift” comment made to the photographer reminded me of a story I found once and wish I could find again:

    At the conclusion of a VO recording session, the client (or producer) remarked to the engineer that he felt short-changed that he had to pay what he thought a very steep price when the VO talent nailed the read in a very short amount of time. According to the story, the recording engineer explained that the VO talent’s fee wasn’t for the short time spent in the studio that day, but for the years of developing the necessary skills to be able to nail the read in that short a time.

    If someone were to make the “gift” (or similar) comment to me, I would thank them, but then I would also politely go on to say what the recording engineer said and what the photographer apparently was uncomfortable saying.

    What Paul said: “Talent cannot be bought. It has to be cultivated.”

    Thanks, Paul.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Great story, Mike. Thanks for sharing! It’s the same with “gifted” musicians. Yes, it helps to be born with talent, but talent needs to tamed and polished like a diamond.

    The audience sees the mountain top. The artist knows how long it took to get there, and how much had to be sacrificed to reach that peak.


  6. Ted Mcaleer

    The way you can see complicated things and put them into words that anyone can understand and relate to is pure MAGIC! You must have a gift! 🙂 I’ll take this away with me…

    “John Scalzi once wrote that you shouldn’t consider leaving your day job until you are making TWICE your normal income with your writing (or in this case photography). It’s good advice.”

    Thanks, this is a keeper


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    If you want to keep it, it’s yours, Ted.

    I really should be thanking photographer David Shaw for his wise words. He sees the world through a similar lens!


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