Should We Shoot The Messenger?

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!

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." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal

22 Responses to Should We Shoot The Messenger?

  1. Tom Parker

    BBC, The Century Of The Self’ is most informative.
    The ghost of Bernays is ubiquitous. Personally?
    I wont produce anything for money.

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  2. Joell Jacob

    Thank you, Paul. I’ve been battling in my brain about the VO commercial and corporate work I do, and with creating some new demos. How do I represent myself with all the contradictions between my core beliefs and supporting commercialism and corporations that I know somewhere along the line are doing something I wouldn’t like? As with everything being human, I have to figure out how to balance the dark and light and come to a place of acceptance that is managable. We are all walking contradictions in one way or another. We all need to find our own place of center and acceptance, and compassion and forgiveness, I suppose.

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    This wonderful job of ours can be an amazing opportunity to support the causes that resonate with what’s important to us. We can be the voice of charities, and help them get the funding they so desperately need and deserve. We can narrate books that will enrich people’s lives for a long, long time. We can “teach” eLearning courses that give people the tools needed to do a good job. The list is endless.

    Remember these words: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.”

    As a freelancer you have the privilege to select your clients. No boss will ever tell you to do something you’re ethically against. You have a moral compass. It will guide you in the right direction. Always.

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    Joell Reply:

    Absolutely! I love my compass! 🙂

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  3. William Cline

    Paul,
    Thanks for the heartfelt message.. We all could use something like this right about now 🙂

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re very welcome, William. This story was my way of dealing with the election.

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  4. Rick Lance

    Hey, Paul… yeah I see your point!

    I should clarify something , though. I have a policy or belief that I will NOT… in a political ad and just about everything else… “impersonate” someone. By that I mean, like those videos with scripts that say, ” Hi, I’m George Smith, and I can make you a millionaire in 1 week!” You know, that kind of stuff. That I think is dangerous to my career. Something could come back to me in a bad way. It’s that “first person” thing that bothers me there. Especially if I don’t agree with whatever the subject matter, product or service is that’s being promoted. I see this as a distinction in my approach.

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    It bothers me too, but not all “name calling” is created equal. The other day I was doing an eLearning script that started with: “Hi, I’m Andrew, and I will be your guide for this module about safety in the workplace.” Of course I was reading a Dutch translation, and apparently the original guy was really called Andrew. I can live with that.

    Sincerely yours, Andy

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  5. Juliette Gray

    Hi Paul, interesting article again. A few years ago I took Cedering Fox’s workshop and the entire emphasis was about the words we speak actually mean. I still think about it.

    Re your music metaphor – being married to a classical musician, I’m sure Pam strives to make her flute express more than the notes on the page and she uses her flute and her expertise in bringing it to life to do that.

    The quote by Claude Debussy is often in my mind when I voice certain projects that are poignant, MUSIC IS THE SPACE BETWEEN THE NOTES.

    I think we should all allow ourselves a few grace notes.

    Xoxox

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    The aim is to turn these notes into music, and into art that has the potential to touch lives in a deep, non-verbal way. Just as light only exists because there is darkness, sound only exists because of silence. Without that space, music would not exist.

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  6. Rick Lance

    Well, somebody had to say it! Glad it was you, Paul.

    I’ve certainly done my share of political ads, this season and prior. I’ve always believed that as a voice actor I play a part. Which is not necessarily in line with my personal politics. I do, however, have my limits… a line that I won’t allow myself to crossover. I turned down a spot recently with a new client because it went too far for my tastes! And I reserve the right to do that! It IS an individual choice for us to make.

    A word in a related issue: I would advise against posting…or allowing others to post… political messages on your Facebook (or the like) pages. I’m surprised at my intelligent colleagues that don’t think clearly here. It’s simply NOT professional to post these kind of messages. I work with ALL types of clients. Why risk my good relationships with them over controversial, unrelated, political issues? Posting political messages may energize a few clients and/or friends yet, at the same time turn off many others.

    Thanks again, Paul. Your perspective is always made clear in your articles.

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I knew you had voiced a number of political ads, and you in part inspired me to write about this today, Rick. When it comes to non-fiction, I totally agree that we are actors, hired to play a part. The people listening to us know this too. But for non-fiction work the boundary becomes blurry (at least to me). Let’s say we’re hired to pretend-endorse a product or a candidate. If we do our job right and we are believable, we are not seen as actors playing a role. People may hear us as the voice of authority, or the voice of the street. That would make it harder for me to distance myself from the message.

    I was recently asked to pretend (as a voice-over) I was enthusiastic about smoking a certain brand of cigarettes. Even though I would be “just playing” that part, I refused the job because it went against my personal beliefs. We all draw the line somewhere, and I respect that this line isn’t the same for everyone. The reason I wrote this blog post is to at least have people think about the ethics of a job, before they sign up for it.

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  7. Howard Ellison

    My hum-hos are party politics, creeds, irresponsible investment. Yes indeed, exactly those things that make half the world go round – and which may well bring it to a halt. To voice these is to be an accessory.

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re absolutely right. At some point, the messenger becomes an enabler, and an accomplice.

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  8. David Gilbert

    Well done Paul! Your pragmatism shines through the haze of moral ambiguity surrounding this issue. Ultimately if you are a moral person of character, it will guide you through your professional career and instruct your soul to avoid doing any jobs that just don’t match your own personal beliefs. It is a highly personal decision but one that should be taken with considered thought and not just for the $$’s. Your comments about using words as more than words as evidenced by what words made people do 75 years ago in Europe is as prescient today as it was back then. It behoves us to seriously consider becoming tools of hate or intolerance for an almighty buck! Thanks again for this and all you do!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Words can indeed become swords, used to promote evil plans. The word “word” is even contained within the word “sword.”

    We always talk about the fact that what we do is so much more than read scripts for money. We provide tremendous added value. To deny the fact that we have nothing to do with the message we are hired to spread, is to deny the impact of what we bring to the table.

    The good news is that words can be used for positive purposes as well. I think we’re going to need a lot of positive word power in the days and months to come!

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  9. Joe Van Riper

    Financially, this election year was a bust for me. Why? Because I followed a couple of personal rules about accepting political voice jobs. The one that probably cost me the most income is: “No smear jobs, just information and stances on issues!” I am disgusted that, this year especially, we knew less about a candidates strengths and plans than we did about their clay feet! Another rule is; “Don’t be a hypocrite!” I was actually offered a VO job for one of the two candidates for President this year, but turned it down because it violated both of my rules! Regardless of how I may feel about the outcome of the race, and my accounts receivables, at least I feel “clean”.

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    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Principles don’t mean a thing if you’re not willing to pay the price for upholding them. From your comments it’s clear that you payed a price this election cycle, but that the reward (you being able to look at yourself in the mirror), was worth it. Bravo, Joe!

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  10. Shane Morris

    Its only words! Without them the world would be silent. Without VO talents they would have no life. Its an art form with high and low roads. Your soul will help you choose wisely!

    https://youtu.be/ifcKdPVXc0U

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    That’s why some of us call ourselves soul-o-preneurs.

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  11. Paul Payton

    As usual, Paul, an excellent article. My position is that I won’t voice spots for someone I wouldn’t vote for if they were in my voting district.

    How I got there (the story is real, but names and other specifics have been omitted): I was called by a producer, a repeat client and an enjoyable person to work with, who asked if I’d like to do a political spot. Knowing my feelings for the client and thus not asking more, I said, “Sure.” I showed up and the candidate and a couple of the support team were there – very pleasant people. They gave me the script – and it hit me how many “dog whistle” words and phrases were in it, nothing too overt but quite noticeably running counter to my political beliefs. Having already committed to doing the spot and being a pro about it, I did it to the client’s great satisfaction and, on a performance level, to mine, too.

    Well, it hit the airwaves and was a success. By this time, I had filled myself in on this individual, and when I was asked back to do another spot, I said I was booked and couldn’t (a statement that actually became true, but was not at that moment). I just couldn’t see myself promoting this person further and, in retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t offer up the real reason at the time.

    Alas, my pang of conscience came too late; the candidate won and held office for multiple notorious terms. I have always felt guilty about giving them their launch and finally felt “cleansed” when they lost this year.

    For me, the moral of the story is: Don’t let your voice represent something or someone you can’t stand with – especially if you’re effective in doing so! The money would have been nice, but I don’t have a price at which I’ll sell my soul or my principles

    Regarding your closing about the “war of words”: quoting Gerald Ford, “Our long national nightmare is over.” But that’s only partially complete: our new long national nightmare is just beginning. That’s my own viewpoint and “I approve this message.” Others may not. I’m OK with that.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Hi Paul, thank you so much for sharing your story about voicing a political ad, and regretting it. The question I ask myself is this: “Do I want to be associated with the content I am voicing?” In most cases, the work I do behind the mic is very innocent. I teach people about safety on the work floor. I am a dog chasing a ball in Amsterdam. Very soon I’ll be the voice of an astronaut aboard the European Space Station. Every now and them I get a job offer I have to say no to. Sometimes it hurts a bit, because the paycheck would have been nice. But as you say: “I don’t have a price at which I’ll sell my soul or my principles.”

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