Being Wrong About Being Right

Looking at the mirrorGo ahead. Do it!

After today you may ask me everything about the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, and the early onset of puberty.

I promise you one thing: it will make me cry like a baby.

Normally, I don’t concern myself with gonadotripin-releasing hormones stimulating steroid secretion. But as a voice-over, people send me the strangest scripts with the weirdest words. My job is to sound like these words are my bread and my butter, even though I prefer to have other things for breakfast.

Just to give you an idea of my voice-over diet so far:

On Monday I was telling the world about how “metabolic programming” can change the genetic expression of young farm animals. On Tuesday I pretended to be the monotonous Swiss CEO of a company refurbishing projectile weaving machines. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the art of selling on eBay in Germany.

But today… today was all about the regulation of the reproductive system in kids with central precocious puberty, and a discovery I made about myself. Don’t worry. I won’t take you back to my childhood in the Netherlands, where naughty boys are forced to stick their fingers in dikes, while eating insane amounts of cheese.

This story is about a medical script, and how easy it is to fool ourselves into believing that we actually know what we are doing. Well, I cannot speak for you, but I’m usually pretty confident about my skills as a professional narrator.

After years and years in radio, I always thought of myself as a solid cold reader. You can throw any text at me, and I’ll sound as if I know what I am talking about. It’s a dangerous skill to have, by the way. It’s like wearing glasses. Somehow, people automatically assume that the bespectacled among us, must be more intelligent. Those who sound like they know what they’re talking about, are mistakenly put into the same category, until they’re exposed as professional pretenders.

The medical script in front of me, came with a page-long pronunciation guide. It was like learning another language. A language of affliction, clinical trials, and a cure. It was about one of those medications advertisers want you to ask your doctor about. Some kind of pill that takes ten seconds to describe, followed by thirty seconds of rapid-fire contraindications and sickening side-effects.

It took me a while to record the 5000-word script, and even longer to edit it. I like doing my own editing. My voice gets a rest, and my ears and eyes can do some quality control. After all the files were cleaned up, separated, and properly named, I uploaded my work feeling confident about what I had accomplished. I was sure the client would be just as impressed.

Two hours later I got an email from the guy who had proofed my audio. “Great work,” he said. Out of thousands of words, I had only mispronounced about a dozen. But here’s the kicker: I had mispronounced the same word twelve times!

Instead of “pituitary-gonadal axis,” I had read “pituary-gonadal axis.” At least I was consistent in my mistakes.

What struck me the most was this: even though I had prepared the script, read the script, and edited my audio, I had missed my slip of the tongue again and again and again. I didn’t see it, and I didn’t hear it. Why? Because something in me believed that “pituary” was right.

I saw what I wanted to see, and I heard what I wanted to hear.

It made me oblivious to my errors.

It reminded me of the copywriter who was ready to distribute a press release about a local public market to hundreds of news outlets. He had been working on it for hours, and gave it to me so I could take one last look at it.

I said to him: “Nice work, but I hope you’re not going to send it this way. Look at the headline.”

“What about it?” he asked defensively. “It says:

Public Market Attracts Thousands Of Young Visitors.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “Look closely.”

He still didn’t see it, so I told him:

“You forgot the letter “L” in the word “Public.”

“Oh my gosh,” he responded. “I have been staring at that headline for hours, and never even noticed it. Who wants to send their kids to a Pubic Market? How embarrassing!”

Well, that’s how I felt after my pituary debacle. It also had me thinking.

Have I become one of those people who lives life guided by conformation bias? You know, the idea that we’re always looking for evidence that supports our beliefs (and we’re conveniently ignoring the rest).

I really believed the word was “pituary,” and I didn’t even see that the word in the script was spelled differently.

What if I look at people that way? That’s pretty scary. They’ll never be able to be any better or different from whom I think they are…. until someone points something out I had never considered. It’s all a matter of perception.

Perceptions are powerful. And they can be so wrong.

Perceptions tell us more about the perceiver, than about what is being perceived.

This afternoon, instead of being done with my medical project, I had to revisit every file with the word “pituitary” in it, and correct my mistakes. It was a humbling, uncomfortable experience that took up way too much time. It taught me one other lesson.

Sometimes, something happens that makes us change our perception of who we think we are.

In those moments, it is time to have a word…

with the person staring back at us in the mirror.

And after some reflection, please tell that person:

Everything is perception, but perception isn’t everything.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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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, Personal

15 Responses to Being Wrong About Being Right

  1. Jem Matzan

    Someone was telling me a while back that they rage-quit an audiobook because the narrator mispronounced the name “Pierre.” Everyone who just read the previous sentence probably pronounced it incorrectly, too, because it’s not the French or Anglicized French name — it’s the town of Pierre, South Dakota, which the locals pronounce identically to “peer” (or “pier”). Then there was a diatribe about how that narrator was terrible because he didn’t look up how to pronounce Pierre, which I disagreed with.

    I would never have looked up the pronunciation of Pierre, SD because I know how to pronounce Pierre in the context of American English. Why would I have any reason to suspect that this one time it would be pronounced differently?

    My position was that in book-length material, you can’t look up every single word just to make sure this instance of it is not the lone exception. Even many names can’t be verified without a lot of work. My last name, for instance, was made up by immigration officials who couldn’t understand what the actual name was when filling out paperwork. How could I possibly be upset when people mispronounce it? In a non-fiction book containing hundreds of American names, many of which with odd pronunciations, what do you do?


    Howard Ellison Reply:

    True, Jem, it’s a challenge to check every pronunciation and regional variant. Here in UK, for example, anyone uttering Shrewsbury as “Shroesbury” is instantly identified by locals as a snobbish outsider who ought to know better.

    But voice it their way for a national audience and your editor will squirm. I recall one of them backing down only when I quoted the revered Bodleian Library as my source.
    Usually I ring a local pub or post office.

    What absolutely matters in a read is to be consistent.


  2. Howard Ellison

    Agreed, Michelle. My wife and I were debating self-delusion only this morning. No, it wasn’t a row! I brought up an example from my own geekdom: I was comparing the sound of two audio boxes, switching from A to B and back, but blind to which was which.
    Time and again, I came down strongly in favour of box B.
    Then I checked the switch: not connected!!! No sound difference at all.
    So what happened there? Did I develop an attachment to label B? Was there a hidden affinity for B-ness before I even started?
    We are mysterious beings. What fun!


    Michelle Falzon Reply:

    It’s crazy how that works! I’ve done the same with post processing my audio. I apply light compression and a slight noise gate. I fully believe it makes a huge difference. Last week, I accidentally edited a track without applying post. My ears didn’t hear the difference until I realized I didn’t apply my post processing!


    Howard Ellison Reply:

    Well, Michelle, it demonstrates that your pp is subtle – just as it should be!


  3. Michelle Falzon

    I’ve done similar, Paul. I like how you talk about perceptions and link this back to things in everyday life. We really can deceive ourselves when we don’t question our perceptions of things. We can spend a lifetime thinking and believing something, never questioning it, only to realize we’re wrong! Good read!


  4. Nathan Carlson, MD

    When we physicians hear mispronunciations or uninspired deliveries in eLearning, we are DONE, I promise you. Credibility gone.

    Send me a couple minutes of your medically-related audio for me to review for you, if you are concerned, before you make your work pubic.


    Karol Walkowski Reply:

    Before publishing most of these recordings are checked either by their author or at least someone qualified.


  5. Joe Van Riper

    I’ve learned that, often, such lapses or blind spots in narrations are very temporary. I try to “take a break” before sending a job out, give my brain a distraction (read the paper, answer some email, go for a walk) and then give it one last listen with fresh ears. Any scrambled cognition I experienced earlier is usually gone and any errors become obvious to me.


  6. Ruth Weisberg

    Spellbinding topic today, Paul. I once narrated a medical script and pronounced the word “always” as “also” because the letters looked similar and didn’t sound like a mistake in my headphones. Blessedly, my ace audio engineer Gene Leone caught the oopsie and we fixed it immediately in the same session. Sometimes even simple, benign words can make us stumble and humble. As in, saying “tuh” instead of “to.” Too true!


  7. Kent Ingram

    Love it Paul! I thought I had it bad, narrating training videos for the major oil companies, back in the day! Amazing how our brains fill in information…


  8. Howard Ellison

    Haha! As well as your depth of thought, your spelling is superior to mine, Paul. That should keep you out of mischief.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I wouldn’t count on it, Howard 😉


  9. Howard Ellison

    Oh yes. Wisdom is to know what you don’t know. Wonder who said that?
    For certain I could never voice ‘stick fingers in dykes’ without giggling. Naughty boy, me.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Can we ever know what we don’t know, because if we do, we cannot not know it, can we?

    I’ll have to ask Hans Brinker about the difference between dikes and dykes. I hope he doesn’t give me the finger!


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