Articles

What Some Clients Won’t Tell You

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Freelancing, Money Matters 40 Comments

If you don’t know what your clients want and need, you’ll never be able to give it to them. Paul Strikwerda

Throughout my career I have really tried to educate potential clients. Yet, almost every day I get the same old question:

“How much do you charge for a 2 minute voice-over?”

As if we’re talking about a pound of sugar or a gallon of milk.

I really can’t answer that question, but if you think you can I’d like to know:

What are you basing your answer on?

In the absence of specifics most people start making things up.

Take it from me: Do not assume you know what your clients want.

Ever.

Amateurs make assumptions. Professionals…

Read the rest of this story in my new book. Click on the cover to access the website and get a sneak peek. Use the buttons to buy the book.

Making Money In Your PJs cover

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Becoming Van Gogh

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, International, Journalism & Media 15 Comments

Paul Strikwerda, the voice of Van Gogh

A number of years ago, I paid a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

At that time I was a reporter, producer and presenter for Radio Netherlands International. The museum had just announced the discovery of a new Van Gogh, and I was on my way to get a first look.

The curator was visibly excited to share his find with the world. So-called “new” Van Gogh’s had popped up now and then, but most of them turned out to be poor imitations or brilliant forgeries. This time around, the authenticity was not in doubt. Why? Because the actual painting was invisible.

As I walked down the climate controlled basement, I saw canvas after canvas radiating with vibrant colors. Some of them were in the process of being restored. Others were carefully wrapped up, ready to go on loan to a museum abroad. Then we stopped at what looked like a huge file cabinet with wide drawers.

“This is it,” said the young curator, as he opened one of the drawers. “Here’s our discovery. It is a portrait of an unknown woman.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “All I see is a painting of a Patch of Grass.”

The broad brush strokes of vivid green seemed to be sculpted onto the canvas, making this magnificent meadow an almost three-dimensional work of art.

The curator smiled and said: “That’s because you can’t see the portrait. Van Gogh often re-used his old canvases to save money. The painting you’re looking at right now was painted over the image of the woman. Let me show you what the X-ray revealed.

A HIDDEN MASTERPIECE

We believe the painting underneath was made in 1884 or 1885, during a period in which Van Gogh painted several portraits of peasants in the Dutch village of Nuenen.

The colors are kind of gloomy, certainly compared to the work of Impressionists, and that’s probably why Vincent decided to paint a brighter and more commercial scene over it when we was in Paris. As many as one-third of his paintings may conceal earlier works.”

In 2008, researchers used a newer technique to penetrate the layers of paint, revealing more details and color of the unknown woman hidden underneath the green grass.

In March of 2012, the Philadelphia Museum of Art had some 40 Van Gogh’s on display at their “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibition. I don’t think “A Patch of Grass” has made it to the U.S. but a work like “Undergrowth With Two Figures” from 1890 is part of the exhibit. Looking at it, one can almost feel the waves of wind whispering in the weeds.

MY U.S. TELEVISION DEBUT

The catalogue for the exhibition was in part funded by the Netherland-America foundation and NBC 10 provides promotional support.

As part of that promotion, Eileen Matthews produced the documentary “Van Gogh Up Close” which aired on March 17. Lori Wilson was the narrator, and you can hear me as the voice of Van Gogh, reading quotes from some of the many letters he wrote.

NBC wanted me to add some authenticity to this production and that made for an interesting challenge because we don’t really know what Van Gogh sounded like. He was born in the South of Holland and at age 20, he moved to London to work for an art dealer. Some scholars believe these were the happiest days of his life.

Van Gogh returned to England for work as a supply teacher in a small boarding school and later he became a missionary’s assistant. This leads me to believe that he might have spoken English with Dutch-British accent.

Here is part of a letter Van Gogh wrote in 1881 to his brother Theo who was an art dealer. These are the actual words Vincent wrote:

[audio:https://www.nethervoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Letter-to-Theo-Dutch.mp3|titles=Van Gogh’s Letter to Theo in Dutch read by Paul Strikwerda]

Listen to the same letter in English:

[audio:https://www.nethervoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Letter-to-Theo-English.mp3|titles=Van Gogh’s letter to Theo in English read by Paul Strikwerda]

Talking to non-Dutch speakers, one thing always comes up when discussing Van Gogh. Nobody seems to know how to correctly pronounce his last name. Is it “Van Goff” or “Van Goh”?

The correct answer: neither.

If you wish to impress your friends and family, here’s how you do it:

[audio:https://www.nethervoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Untitled.mp3|titles=Dutch pronunciation Vincent Van Gogh]

A NEW DISCOVERY?

Even today, people claim to have found new masterpieces by van Gogh. On Wednesday March 14th, Joshua Tree resident Michael Wilson announced he had discovered a long-lost painting depicting beech trees at sunset. He bought it for $50 in a junk shop. If the painting turns out to be genuine, it could be appraised at approximately $200 million.

During his lifetime, Van Gogh only sold one oil painting. He lived and died in poverty, but he knew he was leaving an extraordinary legacy.

He once said:

“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell, but the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”

Well, that’s certainly one of the most prophetic understatements in the history of art. Especially if you take into consideration that some owners of a real Van Gogh might actually have purchased two pictures for the price of one!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Artsy.com is a terrific online resource for all things Vincent Van Gogh. Click on this link to get to his page. 

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More Studio Secrets Revealed

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 25 Comments

You’ve seen the inside of my voice-over booth. Now it’s time to talk about technology.

Don’t worry, I’ll do my very best not to be too technical, if only for my own sake.

When it comes to the tools of the trade, I subscribe to the “less is more” philosophy. Life is complicated as is, and in my studio I’d like to keep things as simple as possible. 

Without exception, my clients ask for audio that’s “unfooled around with”. Most of them are much better equipped to do post-production sweetening in their studios, if that’s what they want.

I have no inclination to compete with all the high-end bells and whistles their engineers have at their disposal. As long as I can give them clean and clear audio, they’re happy and I’m happy.

Computing Power: the hardware

At the heart of my studio is a Mac Mini with a dual-core 2.3 GHz Intel i5 processor running OS X Lion. It came with 2GB of memory, but thanks to a removable bottom, it is very easy to add more memory to your mini. If you let Apple do it for you, 8 GB will cost you $400. It took me ten minutes to do it myself for less than $45. At the time I even got a $10 rebate and free shipping!

Sorry, but I’m not going to get into the Apple versus PC discussion. I’ve used both and I have found Apple to be more reliable and user-friendly. I do want to tell you what prompted me to get a Mac Mini.

Reason number one: it barely makes any noise. When it does, it produces a whisper that’s almost inaudible.

Some colleagues have a studio with two separate areas: a sound booth and a control room. The computer is usually outside the booth. I combined both spaces, which means that my desktop sits next to me in my studio. The Mac Mini uses very little energy and it rarely ever gets warm. That makes it amazingly quiet.

Secondly, this computer stays in my studio. It doesn’t have to go on the road with me. Otherwise I would have bought the Macbook Air (no moving parts and also nearly silent).

Third: I already had peripherals such as a flat-screen monitor and an ergonomic mouse. I just added a wireless keyboard. Tip: if you want to connect a standard analog computer monitor or LCD to your Mac Mini, you need a Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter.

What the Mac Mini doesn’t have is an optical drive to play and burn CD’s or DVD’s. For that purpose I bought the Macbook Air SuperDrive which can be plugged into one of the four Mac Mini USB 2.0 ports.

The actual move from PC to Mac was very easy. It took me about a week to get used to my new computer and the operating system. It’s all rather intuitive. A few weeks ago we did add a MacBook Air to our household. This is no ordinary laptop. It is a work of art!

Backup, please!

We’ve all heard horror stories of friends who lost months if not years worth of irreplaceable data when their system decided to take a permanent break. Backing up is something all of us should do, but we often don’t. We forget. We tell ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow or the day after. It’s just one more thing to think about, and that’s why I wanted a backup system that would do the thinking for me.

I now have an Apple Time Capsule with a 2 TB hard drive, designed to work with my operating system (although it works with PC’s too). After an initial backup which lasted several hours, it now backs up both computers in our home quickly, wirelessly and automatically. Installing it was a piece of cake. The Time Machine feature in the OS detected the Time Capsule and within minutes it was up and running.

Tip: as the Time Capsule is backing up, it may interfere with your recording. In my case, I noticed a soft but annoying buzzing sound on the audio file, which disappears when the automatic back-up is switched off.

Look at me!

Next on my list was a webcam which I use for coaching sessions, webinars and Skype. I picked the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910. The Carl Zeiss optics lens has a wide angle and the video quality is remarkably crisp and clear.

Reviewers also praise the quality of the stereo microphones. That’s not so important to me because my sound comes directly from my studio condenser.

Mac users: don’t get all gaga over all the advanced features listed on the box and in the manual (zoom, face tracking, exposure adjustments). Even though Apple sells this camera in their stores, most of the Logitech functionally works on a PC and not on a Mac. The C910 is also not supported as an iMovie camera, but that’s Apple’s fault.

In summary, this camera gets an A for image quality, but a C- for limited Apple functionality.

Software

There are many different types of DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations) available for audio production on a Mac. Colleagues with a background in audio engineering like to use Pro Tools. A lot of my voice-overs friends rave about Adobe Audition CS5.5 and Twisted Wave. Until I made the switch, I was a happy Sound Forge™ Pro user.

I won’t be going over the pros and cons of each program. You can try most of them out for free and I’d certainly take advantage of that.

I ended up choosing Twisted Wave because it’s very stable, easy to use and at $79.90 it’s also budget-friendly. Thanks to a great interface, zooming in and out of a waveform is very fast, even when the file is quite long. I particularly like the fact that I can zoom in at great detail for precision editing.

Different clients prefer different audio formats and TW can import, export and convert most of them. It has a time-saving batch processing feature which is especially useful when you’re working on a lengthy e-Learning project with lots of short files that need to be separated out and individually named.

TW doesn’t come with a whole lot of special effects, but new and existing plugins are imported seamlessly. With TW, effects no longer have to be applied one by one, but it’s possible to load any number in an effect stack and still adjust them separately.

Some of you might prefer Adobe Audition CS5.5 because it’s loaded with features such as Noise Reduction, a DeClicker, a DeHummer etcetera. I had already invested in Izotope’s RX2 audio repair toolkit and it’s now an integral part of my Twisted Wave Effects line-up.

I do have two items on my Twisted Wave wish list. I’d love to have a feature similar to Adobe Audition’s Auto Heal function for brushing away audio glitches. It’s like having Photoshop® for your audio! I also like to have my Sound Forge WaveHammer tool back. It applies a tad of compression and normalization to the sound files to give the audio just a bit more oomph.

Controlling the Wave

To streamline my job in the editing room I’m using a ShuttlePROv2 controller. It has 15 programmable buttons, a jog knob and a spring loaded wheel with which I can control the main editing functions in Twisted Wave.

It’s preprogrammed for things like Garageband, iPhoto and iTunes, but it was really easy to program the TW keyboard shortcuts into the Shuttle. With my mouse in one hand and my ShuttlePRO in the other, I can scroll, zoom, cut, copy and paste much faster than with a keyboard.

The ShuttlePROv2 connects to your computer via a USB port and it comes with custom labels for the top 9 buttons. It can be used on either MAC or PC computers.

Gefell M 930 Ts & Rycote's InVision™ Studio KitMicrophone and shock mount

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I consider myself to be a very lucky man. In December 2011, I won a Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts large diaphragm condenser microphone in a recordinghacks.com giveaway. This microphone happens to be ideal for voice-over work. To find out why, you should read my review by clicking here.

Because the Gefell did not come with a shock mount, I had to find a suspension system that would hold this small microphone. Rycote, a company based in the UK, makes the InVision™ Studio Kit you see in the picture. It’s a combination of a unique, universal shock mount and a very light and effective pop filter. If you click here, you’ll find out what I think of this kit.

I’m using an Ultimate Support® mic stand and their telescoping Ulti-Boom. WindTech cable clips keep the mic cable separate from the stand.

Preamplifier

A good preamplifier strengthens the low level signal coming from your microphone to a level suitable for recording, without degrading the signal to noise ratio (S/N). A preamp with a high S/N has very little background noise.

Some boutique preamplifiers can really color your sound and that wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. My ideal preamp needed to be dead quiet, transparent, detailed and clear in all frequencies.

As I researched preamps within my budget range, I kept coming back to one model: the Grace Design m101.

Built in Colorado, the sound quality is often described as “natural” and “pristine”. I couldn’t agree more. This is a phenomenal preamplifier!

Looking at the front panel, you’ll see a 48V phantom power button, a ‘ribbon button’ which, when engaged, bypasses the phantom power circuit, and a high-pass filter button to reduce low-end rumble and curb the proximity effect of a microphone.

In my review for pro audio dealer Sweetwater, I called this preamp an “Amazing Grace” because it makes my microphone shine.

Audio Interface

In a nutshell, an audio interface connects your microphone and other sound sources to your computer. For audio to be usable by a computer it needs to be digital, and an interface converts your analog signal to bits and bytes. You’ll often find external audio interfaces that include a mic preamp, but since I already had a pre, I opted for the pocket-sized Echo AudioFire2 (discontinued, but still available for around $200).

Echo AudioFire2This device is connected to and powered by the computer via a FireWire bus. I purposely didn’t want to get a USB-interface. The Mac Mini only has four USB slots that fill up pretty quickly and USB devices cannot draw power from the computer. With the AudioFire 2 you can record 24-bit 96 kHz audio with near-zero latency (delay) monitoring.

Because the AudioFire2 has a 400 Mbps FireWire port and the Mac Mini has an 800 Mbps port, you need an adaptor to be able to connect it to the computer. The AudioFire could also use a simple step-by-step  set-up guide. Perhaps it’s my lack of technical insight, but it took me a while to make the right connections (literally and figuratively).

Overall, this sturdy, small metal box performs just fine. It’s more of a necessity than anything else.

Monitoring

Like so many of you, I evaluate my audio in two ways: I use headphones and studio monitors. Gear-guru’s often recommend buying closed headphones to prevent sound leaks from feeding back through the microphone. That’s why I got the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro.

These headphones stay put alright, and they shut outside sounds out (not that ambient noise is a problem in an isolated studio). Over time I found them to be quite uncomfortable. I happen to have a rather large head (thanks Dad!), and I didn’t like the tight grip the Sennheiser had on my ears.

The AKG K 240 semi-open Studio headphones I am using now, are very comfy and they provide plenty of acoustic isolation. My ears can breathe! After a year and a half, the cups started showing some wear and tear, and I will replace them soon with velvet ear pads.

The AKG has a regular, straight cable which I also prefer. Somehow, things always get caught in a coiled cable, such as the one that comes with the Sennheiser.

Both headphones are excellent for detailed monitoring.

When it came to picking out a pair of speakers a few years ago, my budget was limited and so was my space. At that time I was recording in a cold corner of the attic, and I got a pair of Alesis M1Active 320USB monitors.

At first I was quite skeptical and I didn’t really expect much from these bookshelf speakers. Once I plugged them in, I was blown away by the fact that so much sound could come out of such a small package. That has not changed.

I’m sure they are no match for a pair of Genelec studio monitors, but for under 100 bucks these Alesis speakers continue to impress me. As you can see, I have placed them on stands at ear hight. It really makes a difference.

Enough already

Alright… I think I’m done shopping for a while, don’t you?

Selecting audio equipment can be a daunting task and it can be a learning experience. Just as a musician has to know his instruments, a voice-over pro has to have a basic knowledge of the tools he or she is using. There’s so much good stuff available these days, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Whatever you do, don’t be intimidated by gear-snobs and audiophiles. Talk to people you trust and whenever possible, try things out for yourself.

Don’t blindly buy something just because some guy at your local Guitar Center told you he loves it, or because Paul Strikwerda wrote about it in his blog.

After all, that’s just a bunch of Double Dutch!

Paul Strikwerda ©2012

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My Studio Secrets Revealed

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Studio 11 Comments

Almost every week colleagues and clients ask me about my voice-over studio. I’m proud of it and I am always happy to answer questions such as:

  • Did you buy prefab or did you build it yourself?
  • What’s your audio chain?
  • Why did you pick this particular preamp?
  • What audio editing software do you use?

You should know that I don’t consider myself to be an expert on booth-building or gear selection, but years of hands-on experience and the advice from friends like Dan Lenard, George Whittam, Dan Friedman and Mel Allen has given me a pretty good idea of how to spend my dollars wisely.

When it comes to investing in my business, I am guided by a few, simple principles:

  • A professional career requires professional gear.
  • Keep costs down and bring revenue up.
  • If you don’t invest, you can’t grow.
  • Every investment is a calculated risk that should pay for itself many times over.
  • The growth of your business determines and justifies the amount you invest.
  • Every investment must have long-term benefits.
  • Smart spending = smart saving.
  • Learn from the best and don’t reinvent the wheel.

Today I’ll take you on a tour of my studio and I’ll tell you what choices I have made and why. Please keep in mind that what works for me might not work in your situation, but you never know.

When reading the info below as well as the next story about my professional gear, remember this: my voice is for hire but my opinion is not for sale. I did not receive or solicit compensation for featuring the products I am using.

With that out of the way, why not start with the space I spend most of my time in:

The Nethervoice-over Booth

If you take your profession seriously, you need a quiet, dedicated recording space. Period.

Noise pollution is everywhere and it is on the rise! I was sick of having to interrupt my sessions just because my neighbors decided to try out their new leaf blowers and weed wackers.

The most expensive equipment sounds terrible in an untreated, non-isolated room. More and more clients are rightfully demanding recordings free of rumble, hiss and reverberations.

After a year of comparison shopping and studying soundproofing principles, I was ready to create my own recording area. I designed a seven-by-seven foot isolated room in my basement for under $2000, which I helped build with my two bare left hands.

The entire process is documented in a 46-page booklet called “Building a Vocal Booth on a Budget,” and over a hundred colleagues have used my plan or parts of it with great success.

Foam Alone

Once my vocal booth was built, the sounds of the outside world were kept pretty much at bay. However, the acoustics were worse than in my bathroom because the space was not yet treated with dampening materials.

Many companies sell so-called “soundproofing foam” and that’s just ludicrous. Foam does not soundproof a room. It absorbs and diffuses sound waves, which reduces slap and flutter echos.

To tame these echos, I spent $118 on a Small Studio Starter Kit made by Next Acoustics. It contains twelve 2 inch SoundTrax™ panels and 4 CornerBlox™ bass traps. It didn’t only look cool, it immediately absorbed most of the sound waves bouncing up and down the walls and ceiling. But I had more up my sleeve.

Freecycle.org

Freecycle is a worldwide network of people who are giving and getting things for free in their towns. Not junk, but good stuff that would otherwise end up in landfills. I found 10 Sonox acoustic miniPanels on Freecycle, as well as a rug and two bookcases. I also added four huge floor pillows from my attic to reduce even more reverb.

Last but not least, I added some leftover Auralex foam from my old recording space and put it on opposite walls and the ceiling. Yes, it’s a bit of a mishmash, but I think my clients care more about the way my studio sounds than about the way it looks. Listen to the difference:


Remember that the hard surface of a desk or music stand can cause unwanted reflections too. That was certainly the case with my desk which is in part made of glass. Luckily, I found a fleece dog bed that just happened to be a perfect fit.

What about ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the study of designing equipment and devices that fit the human body, its movements, and its cognitive abilities. Because I spend many hours a day in my studio, I wanted to create a healthy set-up for the mind and for the body.

The following question always pops up on various voice-over forums:

“Do you record standing up or sitting down?”

I can honestly answer that question with a resounding “Yes”! You can’t really see it, but I’m sitting on an adjustable kneeling chair. These types of chairs were first developed in the seventies in my neck of the woods: Northern Europe.

The kneeling chair promotes a healthier body posture, allowing your back to straighten. This relieves compression of the spine as well as tension in the lower back and leg muscles.

It also allows the diaphragm to move freely, and this promotes better breathing and blood circulation.

Most people need some time to adapt to this new kneeling position because they’ve been sitting like a sack of potatoes for years. The body has to build up the core muscles in the lower back, but once you have that strength going, you will never want to go back to a regular office chair. It helped me get rid of the pain in my lower back.

Should you decide to invest in a kneeling chair, you’ll discover that there are many poorly made products on the market that barely have any padding. As in voice-overs, you get what you pay for. My kneeling chair came all the way from New Zealand. It arrived within a week and I paid about $450 including shipping.

Preventing RSI

After one particularly long editing session, my right hand, arm and shoulder were protesting loudly and painfully. My neck wasn’t too happy either and my eyes were burning after staring at the monitor for so long. It lasted for a couple of days and it felt like the beginnings of repetitive strain injury.

One of the best ways to prevent that from happening is to move regularly. More and more research is coming out, pointing to the fact that a sedentary lifestyle is dangerous.

I also bought five things that have made my studio life a lot easier.

  • An adjustable, ergonomic arm rest
  • A computer monitor arm putting the screen at eye level.
  • Anti-glare computer glasses to reduce eyestrain. I’m wearing them in the pictures.
  • An ergonomic mouse and mouse pad

Here’s the disclaimer: if life at the editing desk is getting uncomfortable, it may be wise to talk to your doctor. There might be things going on that go beyond quick fixes and fancy chairs.

See the light

Lighting can affect someone’s mood (that’s why there’s heliotherapy). Personally, I prefer a warmly lit workplace and I’m not a big fan of those bright halogen lamps. They often buzz and that’s a no-no in a studio. Some energy-saving bulbs produce a high-pitched screech.

The one lamp I knew I had to have is a Himalayan salt lamp. Not only does it emit a very soothing light, some people believe that when heated up, the salt crystals actually purify and ionize the air, especially around electronic equipment. True or not, I just love the warm, comforting glow in my studio.

What about gear?

Next time I will show you what type of audio equipment I use to record and monitor my voice-overs with.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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It’s Only Your Image

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion 2 Comments

“I don’t care about looks. They just have to take me as I am. And if they don’t like it, that’s their problem, not mine.”

My piano-playing friend whom we met in the second installment of this media training, was at it again. He was getting ready for another interview and he decided to wear an old shirt that had a stain and desperately needed ironing.

I said to him:

“Just look at you. Your shirt is dirty. Your nails are filthy. You haven’t had a haircut in months and it might be nice to wear some deodorant for a change. Is this the best you can do for a TV show with an audience of three million?”

“Give me a break, Mr. Clean!” he said. “You’re not my mother. They’ve invited me for my music and not for my dashing looks.”

“Just think about that for a moment,” I said. “Picture yourself in a studio with the camera zooming in as you’re playing a romantic piece. Do you really feel that we should see a close-up of your dirty nails; hair sticking out of your ears and nose and that beer stain on the cuff of your shirt… in crystal-clear HD? Wouldn’t that be a bit distracting, if not repulsive?

The camera lens is a magnifying glass. It makes everything look bigger (including your ego). I guarantee you: When you watch that interview on TV, you’ll notice things about yourself you’ve never seen before.

I recently saw a show featuring one of my voice-over colleagues, and after the first five seconds I said to my wife: “This guy’s a radio man.”

“How can you tell?” she asked.

“For starters, look at his hands,” I said. “He’s scratching his head. He’s touching his face. He’s playing with his coffee mug. He acts as if nobody’s watching, and I bet you anything he has no clue he’s doing it. This guy is used to being in a radio studio where nobody but the engineer can see him.”

Then I asked my wife: “Tell me what he just said.”

She paused for a moment and drew a blank.

“Why can’t you remember?” I asked.

“I guess I was distracted by what he was doing,” she said. “The guy can’t sit still and he looks nervous.”

“That’s exactly my point,” I responded. “It might seem silly, but most people don’t realize that television is a visual medium and that pictures always overpower words.

THE REVELATION

When I teach a media training, I usually tape the first interview of the day and play it back without sound so my students can focus on their body language. Most of them are shocked by what they see.

Then we tape the interview again, and this time they look like a deer staring in the headlights of a fast approaching Mack truck. They’re frozen stiff. That’s not good either.

Unless you’re a trained actor or presenter, most of us are not so great at being natural in unnatural situations, and we have no sense of how we come across. That’s why training is so important. People need to learn to sit still and make smaller, purposeful movements that emphasize the points they’re making. If a movement doesn’t add anything, it distracts from the story.”

JUDGING A BOOK

My piano playing friend finally stopped me and said: “I don’t want to be judged based on my looks or on my moves. I want to be taken seriously as a musician and I’m not going to sell out to the media. It’s all so superficial. All I want is to make music and reach people through my art.”

“Precisely!” I said. “And that’s why you have to learn to use the media instead of complaining that they’re using you. The media are nothing but an instrument and you have to know how to play it.

Understand that everything about you sends a message, including the way you look. First impressions matter. In a way, an interview is like an audition for thousands, if not millions of people. You want to show your best and most professional self.

“What are you really saying?” asked my friend.

“Just because you wear comfortable clothes in your home studio doesn’t mean you should show up in your favorite jeans and a T-shirt that says “Who’s Your Daddy?

It’s time to think of yourself as a brand. Every brand has an image. If you’re on camera looking ungroomed and sloppy, what impression do you think the viewers will get of you? If you constantly shift in your seat or play with a pen, what are you telling them?

YOU’RE A MOUTHPIECE

There’s one more thing to consider. As a recording artist, it’s not all about you. You also represent your label.

You know I’m a voice-over artist. This means that I am literally the spokesperson for a product, a company or the voice of an author of a book I just narrated. Because my voice is associated with something or someone else, it matters how I present myself. Take my word for it:

It’s not only important that you look good. It’s important that you make others look good (including your host).

You want to come across as an entertaining, informed guest; someone the viewers can relate to; someone they might want to hire or buy from.

Remember the purpose of the interview. It’s a means to an end. In your case, you’re selling CD’s and seats in the concert halls you’re playing in. Your talent keeps a lot of people employed. Do you still think you can show up in that stained old shirt or should I call in the team of “What Not To wear?

OVERDOING IT

My friend looked at me with a grin on his face as if he suddenly had an idea. He walked back to his bedroom to get changed.

Before he reached the door I said:

“Now, do me a favor will you? Don’t go overboard and show up in your tails. Save those for Carnegie Hall. Clean up. Get a haircut and a close shave. Dress business-casual if you like, but whatever you decide to do: make sure your clothes are relatively new, clean and ironed. Wear matching socks and polish your shoes. Don’t cut any corners but don’t overdo it either.

Some people panic and buy a three piece suit, even if they never wear a suit. During the show it’s obvious they feel like a dressed-up monkey performing tricks on TV.

I’ve seen women overdose on make-up and jewelry, sporting a “hairstylist special” held together with tons of hairspray. Just because you’re on TV doesn’t mean you have to dress up like a Christmas tree or show more cleavage. It doesn’t make you look more intelligent.

Again, the idea is to reinforce your message and not to distract from it. Simplicity and sophistication often go hand in hand. Less is more”

“That’s what I think when I hear you talking,” said my friend when he came back down.

“Get off your behind. We’re going clothes shopping. You and Me. Now!”

*              *              *              *              *

As we picked out an appropriate outfit, I had some time to give my friend a few last tips before he was ready to go on TV:

  • Turn your cell phone off before you go on the air. Better yet: don’t bring it with you into the studio.
  • Leave your watch with your cell phone. You don’t want the camera to catch you while you look at the time during an interview.
  • Take time to focus before it’s your turn to be interviewed. Go over your main talking points and remember your sound bites.
  • Never chew gum. It makes you look like a cow.
  • Apply a bit of lip balm before the interview, as long as it’s not glossy.
  • Be well-hydrated, but don’t drink a whole bottle right before going live. It could make the next ten minutes extremely uncomfortable.
  • Even though a TV studio might seem intimidating, act as if you belong there and focus on your message.
  • While on air, don’t say things like: “I never knew your studio was this big,” or “It certainly takes a lot of people to produce a show like this.” You want to come across as a pro.
  • Keep the magic of orchestrated spontaneity alive. The audience needs to feel that things are happening right there and then. They don’t need to know what is going on behind the scenes. Don’t say: “As I was just saying to one of your producers,” or “This is what I told the girl who did the pre-interview.”
  • In the world of television, the only moment that matters is the moment you’re on the air.
  • Forget the cameras. Talk to the interviewers. They are the windows to your audience. Have a normal conversation with them under artificial circumstances.
  • Don’t take it as a bad omen if the host acts distracted or disinterested. She’s probably not even listening to you but to the instructions in her earpiece.
  • Don’t expect your hosts to know the ins and outs of your topic. In the worst case scenario, they just read lines off the teleprompter pretending to be knowledgeable.
  • Be an active listener and show interest in other guests, if you happen to share the spotlight with them.
  • Never ever stare straight into the camera. Ignore it.
  • Don’t try to be funny. You either are or you’re not.
  • Be ready to illustrate your points with short anecdotes. Pick examples people can relate to; stories that paint a picture and evoke an emotional response.
  • Tell a story as if you’re telling it for the first time. For your audience, it is the first time they’re hearing it.
  • Avoid jargon, abbreviations and name dropping (unless you can reasonably assume people know whom you’re talking about).
  • Professional blindness will most certainly prevent you from knowing what is jargon and what isn’t. That’s why you need training!
  • If the interviewer asks you to keep your answer short, do it. Otherwise you’ll be cut off.
  • Be gracious. Don’t protest after the fact if the five minutes that were promised to you were reduced to two because of breaking news. It’s up to you to roll with the punches and make the best of every second you’re in the hot seat.

 

And finally…

  • Practice, practice, practice!

 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Managing Your Message

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion 9 Comments

This is part 2 of Face the Press without Stress. You can read the 1st part by clicking here.

“That guy was a complete idiot,” said one of my friends, a classical pianist. He had just been interviewed by a major newspaper about his latest CD, and he was not a happy camper. Steam was coming out of his nostrils.

“This so-called journalist knew absolutely nothing about music,” he fumed. “He asked the most basic questions and I don’t think he could tell the difference between a Steinway and a Clavinova. Worst of all, he didn’t seem to care. Within ten minutes he was off to his next assignment, leaving me with that bloody photographer.”

“I’m going to write to his paper,” he continued angrily. “Next time they should send someone who knows what he’s doing, instead of wasting my time with a nitwit.”

The following day I opened the paper, hoping to find the interview. It was easy to spot. It featured a blown-up photo of my friend staring straight into the camera, looking perpetually peeved. Would anyone buy a CD from a guy who looked that annoyed, I wondered? Pictures are powerful, and first impressions can become lasting impressions in a split-second. Then I read the interview.

What I had feared, had happened: my friend -who really is a wonderful and talented artist- came across as an arrogant bastard. Had I not known him personally, I would have nominated him for the Most Arrogant Artist of the Year Award. One thing was certain: this story wasn’t going to sell a whole lot of CD’s.

When we talked about the fiasco afterwards, I told him:

“I know you’re weren’t happy with the journalist. Keep one thing in mind. You and I are lucky. We have chosen a profession we’re passionate about. We pour our heart and soul into our work. Most people -including your reporter- don’t have that privilege. For them their job is just their job. Besides…

Journalists aren’t paid to care. They’re paid to share.

In fact, in order to tell a story objectively, they need to keep a professional distance. A photographer wouldn’t be able to do his job if he’d stop and help every hungry child in front of his lens. A political reporter wouldn’t be ready to ask penetrating questions if he were afraid to hurt the fragile ego of the person he was interviewing.

Just as it’s better for a surgeon not to get emotionally attached to the opened up patient in the operating theater, reporters must dissociate themselves from their stories and subjects. It’s nothing personal. Remember this:

It isn’t a journalist’s job to be knowledgeable or interested. It is your job to be informed and interesting.

The expert reporter is an endangered species. Dwindling advertising revenues means cutbacks in the newsroom. There are fewer people to cover more stories. Specialists have become generalists in order to survive. There is not enough time for proper research, and almost no budget for in-depth analysis or investigative reporting.

If you’re lucky, your next interview could be conducted by someone who loves what you do for a living, but don’t be surprised if that person is more into heavy metal or chess. Ultimately, that shouldn’t matter. A good story is a good story and you, my friend, have to hand it to him (or her). Here’s why.

You’re not talking to the journalist. You’re reaching out to the audience.

Just as you’re not telling your story to a microphone and you’re not posing to make the camera happy, an interviewer is merely a conduit. He represents all the readers, viewers and listeners you’re really talking to, when you’re being interviewed.

In a strange way, it’s better for you if he doesn’t seem to be too interested or knowledgeable, because most people scanning the pages or flipping the channels aren’t either. But if you manage to draw that interviewer into your story, chances are the audience will follow. Unfortunately, it cuts both ways.

So, no matter how obnoxious and superficial your interviewer may seem, always remember whom you’re talking to. A morning show host might ask basic questions because that’s all his viewers want to know. He might not even listen to your answer because he’s getting instructions in his ear prompter. That’s why it’s up to you to…

Take charge and get your message across in spite of the interviewer.

If you don’t remember everything I’m telling you, please remember this point. Too many people take on a passive role when being interviewed. They prepare to answer questions they think are interesting and essential, and complain afterwards that those questions were never asked. Or worse, they don’t prepare at all and just go with the flow.

You’re not a victim. You have a say in what you put out into the world. Literally. And you won’t get many chances to reach so many people at once, so you better make the most of it

Think about it this way. You know infinitely more about the subject than your interviewer ever will. If you’d only stick to what your interviewer knows or wants to know, you’ll never get beyond the surface. Here’s what you do to manage your message.

Use questions as a springboard to tell what needs to be told.

Often, reporters will throw something at you and it’s not what you want to talk about. The trick is to build a bridge between what’s being asked and what you really want to say.

Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m being interviewed about my voice-over business. Here’s the question:

“Do you think celebrities doing voice-overs are spoiling it for the rest of you?”

Here’s one way to respond:

“Not really. There’s plenty of work for everyone. The author of my latest audio book chose my voice because I am not a celebrity.”

You see how that works? In two sentences you have shifted the focus from talking about other people to talking about your new book. Here are a few more bridges.

That’s an interesting observation. Before I get that, there’s something you need to know…”

“Thanks for bringing that up. Here’s what’s happening…”

“I understand where you’re coming from. I get that question all the time. What many people don’t realize is…”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you entirely evade the issue at hand like a seasoned politician. I recommend you use the issue to redirect the conversation to get your point across. If you don’t do that, you could spend an entire segment talking about Jeff Bridges and Morgan Freeman instead of promoting your new project.

You don’t have to agree with or pretend to understand everything the interviewer is saying.

That’s another sign of a passive attitude. You can’t answer a question you don’t really understand. Yet, because some people are easily intimidated by members of the press, they hate to admit that they have no clue what the interviewer is asking. To make matters worse, they start imagining what the interviewer could have meant and start answering that.

It’s okay to ask:

“Could you repeat the question, please? I didn’t quite get that.”

Beware of overt or covert assumptions.

As we’ve seen in the question about celebrities, interviewers often won’t ask a straight question but begin with a statement. A few examples:

“It is a well-know fact that people make a lot of money doing voice-overs. Now, let me ask you this…”

“Many believe this is easy money, and I’d like to know how you got into this business.”

“We all know that voice-overs can make a comfortable living, and what I am interested in is…”

It’s very tempting to answer the question following the statement, but before you do, ask yourself if you agree with the assumption. If you don’t, you must challenge it before you answer the question. Otherwise the audience is left with the impression that you concur. Here’s another one.

Watch out for suggestive, leading questions.

In order to win the ratings war, editors and producers all over the world are searching for the extraordinary, the grotesque, the shocking and the violent. The tens of thousands of planes that take off and land safely every day are not news, but the one that crashes is.

Journalists are trained to look for controversy and if there is none, to push the envelope and stir the pot. Suggestive questions are like a loaded weapon.

Think of a question as a laser beam, zooming in on a very small area. If it’s specific, it will direct your thoughts into one direction, excluding everything else. What do the following questions require you to focus on?

“How bad are things really in your business?

Sometimes things can get really nasty, don’t they? Give me an example.”

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

“What do you dislike more than anything else?”

“Tell me about your client from hell.”

Take a deep breath before you answer those questions, and ask yourself: Do I really want to go there? Do I want to dwell on the negative or highlight the positive?

How’s this for an answer:

“No matter what kind of work you do, there are always things that are not so great and there are things that totally make your day. As a matter of fact, one of my clients called me yesterday…” and then you share a positive story.

You might not control the question, but you can always control the answer!

Look out for false choices and either/or scenarios.

News outlets often aim for the biggest market share to please the sponsors, and therefore cater to the lowest common denominator. In order to appeal to the army of couch potatoes that wants to be entertained instead of informed, simplification is the name of the game. Complicated stories are broken up into bite-sized pieces even my pet gerbil can digest. Thus, reality becomes a caricature.

A favorite technique is to reduce a colorful, complex world to a juxtaposition of right and wrong and black and white. Some networks have turned that into a dubious art form. But as you very well know, there usually are no easy answers. Watch the political shows and wait for it to happen:

“Senator, with all due respect: Do you want to socialize health care or leave it up to the American people to choose their own insurance plan?”

“Are you in favor of big government, or do you want to reduce Washington’s bureaucracy?”

“Should we bomb Iran or increase sanctions?”

“Please answer my next question with a simple yes or no.”

Let’s be clear. These aren’t questions. They are traps; false choices based on either/or scenarios. Remember, if you choose to answer the question as such, you implicitly agree with the options presented to you. Are you sure you want to go there?

If an interviewer tries to drag me into an is-it-this-or-that scenario, I often answer with YES. But usually, it isn’t A or B. Why can’t it be C or D or both? Watch this:

Interviewer: “As a voice-over, what do you enjoy doing most: audio books or commercials?”

You: “To tell you the truth, I love voicing video games. I think we have a clip of the one I just finished. I had such a blast creating the character of….”

You’re not falling for this false dilemma, and with the bridge technique, you use the question as a springboard to talk about things that are on your agenda. I do it all the time and I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

Is this something I am naturally good at or did I need training? (watch the question…)

Well, it’s a bit of both I guess, but it certainly helps to have been on the other side of the mic for many years. I know a few tricks of the trade, and I have lots more to share with you. So, if you’re up for it, I’ll continue our conversation next week.

Here’s are some of the things I’ll talk about: What do you need to know before the interview? Do you prepare differently for a taped and a live interview?

What do you think?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Face the Press without Stress

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion 7 Comments

This is Part One of a mini media training for artists, authors, entrepreneurs and anyone getting ready to be questioned.

As long as you’re prepared, you have no reason to be scared!

There’s no publicity like FREE publicity, especially if you run a small business on a small budget.

Right now I’m the media manager and PR-advisor to “Music for MS,” a benefit concert organized by and featuring my wife.

It’s my job to drum up as much media interest for this event as possible, and fill up the venue in a few weeks, by word of mouth and other means.

Every glossy flyer or multicolored poster we would print or ad we’d have to buy, would mean less money for the cause (the National Multiple Sclerosis Society), so I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m mobilizing the local press and I’m using social media to reach out to the community. It saves tons of paper which makes it eco-friendly.

The official campaign began yesterday, and so far we’ve already landed two interviews. This is where things get serious. Anyone can write a glorious press release, but not everyone does well on radio, television or in the papers. I know what I’m talking about because I have trained hundreds of people to get ready to meet the press.

YOU ARE UNINTERESTING

One of the first things my students would always complain about is the focus of the media: Why do they only cover sensational stories? Why has the news become so superficial? Why don’t they come to me for a story? What they’re really saying is this: “Paul, you’re a journalist. I’m interesting and you should interview me!”

My knee-jerk response would be: “No you’re not, and why should I?” But of course I’d keep that to myself. Here’s what I’d say instead:

1. You have to have a hook to be heard.

If your name is Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, you don’t have to do anything special to attract the attention of millions. In fact, that would be your only accomplishment: being famous for being famous. Mere mortals such as you and me have to give the news media a good REASON why they’d want to come to us. A hook. Preferably with fresh bait.

News is the report of an event that is:

  • recent
  • unusual
  • previously unknown and
  • interesting and relevant to a great number of people

 

Let me add something to that definition: If there’s nobody to cover it, it’s not news. Fortunately or unfortunately, these days, all we need is one idiot with an iPhone.

Secondly, news is news if conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation or Bertelsmann AG decide we should learn about it.

Third, news is news if the corporate sponsors (or other powers that be) feel it does not undermine their interests. (click here for an example)

Fourth: the more local the outlet, the lower the bar for what is deemed to be newsworthy.

Let’s assume you’re a voice-over professional hoping to attract some interest from the local papers. You’ve just completed another audio book. That’s something recent, but is it news?

Well, it depends on how unusual the book is and how many people would be interested in it. If we are talking about the audio version of Hitler’s secret diaries that were thought to be lost, you might have a story, but I don’t think this type of publicity would do your career any good. Which brings me to my next point.

2. You have to have a clear objective.

What do you ideally want to happen as a result of the media attention you hope to generate? Unless you’re hungry for recognition, an interview is just a means to an end.

In the case of my concert, the overall goal is to raise money and awareness for the fight to find a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, a chronic, mysterious and often misunderstood disease of the central nervous system. In order to accomplish that, I need as many people as possible to come to the concert. This gives me a way to measure the success of my campaign.

Please note: what you hope to accomplish and what the journalist wishes to accomplish, are usually two very different things!

If you don’t know what you want to get out of the interview, don’t do it. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to. It’s better to wait for the perfect opportunity than to waste a mediocre one.

If you do have an objective in mind, it’s time to go to the next step:

3. You have to craft a compelling core message.

If you could summarize what you’d like to get across in one or two sentences, what would it be? Let me put it in another way: If at the end of the interview people would only remember one thing, one powerful image or one great idea, what would you want that to be?

That should become the heart of your message, and it is your mission to get it across no matter what.

In the age of information overload, it is harder and harder to cut through the clutter and be heard. People scan the news and rarely look past the headlines or sound bites, so give them headlines and sound bites. You’ll survive.

I don’t care if you think it’s shallow or giving in to sensationalism. Should you get the chance to reach thousands, if not millions of people, don’t waste it by being boring. It’s regrettable to be forgettable.

A sound bite is usually not something you’ll come up with when the intimidating cameras are rolling and you’re staring into the hot, blinding studio lights. Do not count on your magic talent for improvisation. You can’t wing it.

4. You have to be prepared.

Well, well… isn’t that a given? Of course you need to give it some thought. Or is it better to be spontaneous and ‘in the moment’? You don’t want to look too rehearsed, do you?

Here’s my take on that.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make is not preparing for an interview. They’ve literally said to me: “But I’m the expert. You can throw any question at me any time. I don’t need interview training.”

Just because you’re an expert doesn’t mean you’ll do well during an interview. Readers, listeners, viewers… they all hate pompous know-it-alls that talk over people’s heads.

I have seen great thinkers, captains of industry and even bishops nearly faint because they couldn’t handle the pressure of the simplest unexpected question.

They approached a 2-minute interview as if they were delivering a half-hour sermon, and when time was up, they had said nothing of significance. Of course they’d blame the network for not giving them enough air time.

Everyone who’s ever been interviewed will agree with me: When you’re in the hot seat, time as we know it does not exist. In the stress and excitement of the moment, people forget the simples of things such as their middle names and the phone number of the organization they’ve come to promote.

Here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be that way. In the next installment I’ll tell you how to deal with tricky questions.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Seven Deadly Words

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles 25 Comments

No matter how tightly you run your ship, not everything will always go according to plan. That’s life.

What matters is how you deal with setbacks, mistakes and mess-ups.

Whether you run a one-person operation or you employ over 33,000 people worldwide, if you don’t go out of your way to treat your customers as if they’re the most important asset to your business, you’re playing Russian roulette with your reputation. This week, US Airways completely dropped the ball.

Before I tell you what happened, there’s something you should know.

My wife has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an incurable chronic disease of the central nervous system.

Symptoms differ from person to person, and can include muscle weakness, spasms, numbness, coordination and balance issues, problems in speech and swallowing, bowel and bladder difficulties, visual problems and fatigue.

We don’t yet know what causes MS, but we do know that MS symptoms can be triggered by physical exertion, overstimulation, temperature changes and stress.

Now think about the joys of modern day air travel. Who doesn’t feel overstimulated, stressed and fatigued after a day of going in and out of airplanes? Even if you don’t have MS, it can wipe you out.

Since my wife was diagnosed, we have learned to pace ourselves. Take our flight to Fort Lauderdale. My wife was invited to speak and perform at an MS gathering (she’s a flutist), and we were scheduled to arrive in the early afternoon. That way she would have plenty of rest to be ready for her appearance the next day.

Unfortunately, our first flight to Philadelphia was delayed by thirty minutes. When we were in the air, the flight attendant assured us that we would make our connecting flight to Florida, as long as we’d alert personnel on the ground who were supposed to be waiting with a wheelchair. They would need to let the gate know that we were on our way, and that the doors of the plane had to be kept open.

That morning we learned three lessons:

1. Don’t expect employees of the same airline using the same computer system to communicate with one another, let alone pay any attention to instructions.

When we arrived there was no wheelchair, a scene that would repeat itself at different times at different gates and different airports. As one of the pursers remarked:

“The guys responsible for getting you off the plane are usually chatting or playing with their cell phones. We almost always have to get them.”

And as we were waiting, time was ticking away.

2. Never trust or act upon the advice of one employee.

We asked four different people involved in ground transportation to notify the gate that we were coming. Some told us they couldn’t do that. Others shouted “Later!” and ran away.

In order to get to the gate, my wife had to jump into an electric car, onto a shuttle bus and into a wheelchair that took her to another electric car. For fit and able-bodied people this is no big deal, but if you have MS it is an ordeal.

3. People are oblivious of their environment.

If you’ve been at an airport lately, you might have noticed a familiar phenomenon. Almost everybody is connected to some kind of portable device, which completely disconnects them from reality. They’re all in their little bubble, totally unaware of, or seemingly uninterested in the rest of the world.

This becomes obvious when you’re in one of those electric cars used to transport passengers from gate to gate. Don’t expect people parading the aisles of the terminals to step aside. They don’t see the car coming. They don’t hear it beep. They don’t hear the driver shout. And when the car finally manages to pass by, people look peeved because they were almost run over.

Meanwhile, the passengers inside are holding on for dear life as they try to balance their bodies while keeping their luggage from falling off. The jerky movements of the car as it is attempting to avoid human roadblocks, are enough to make a healthy person seasick. Believe me, by the time we arrived at our gate, my wife wasn’t doing so well.

That’s why it was a huge relief to see that the plane was still there. As I was taking our luggage off the car, the woman at the US Airways desk looked at me and said in a stern voice:

“Sir, this gate is closed. The plane is leaving.”

I said to her: “Did anybody notify you that we were on our way?” “No,” she answered. “Any chance we could still get on board?” I asked. We really need to catch that flight.” “Sir,” she said in an annoyed tone,  “I told you that this gate is closed. We do not keep planes waiting.”

I told her that I’d been on many flights that had left a few minutes late so as to accommodate passengers coming in from other flights.

The woman at the counter looked at me as if I had just murdered her baby. Then she said these seven deadly words:

“THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO FOR YOU.”

There and then I learned my fourth lesson:

4. Body language is far more powerful than any word in the Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

“What are we to do?” I asked the unhelpful employee. “Go to Customer Service,” she said. “They will get you on the next flight.”

When our car took off again, the driver asked:

“When you landed in Philadelphia, did you let the people on the ground know you had to catch this flight?” I told her we did.

“Well,” she said, “There’s absolutely no reason why you should have missed it.”

As we approached the Customer Service desk, my wife had to get into another wheelchair. I could tell she was exhausted.

“Yes?” said the woman behind the counter, as she was trying to type a message with her long, artificial nails. As I explained what had happened, I learned a few more lessons from the US Airways book of customer treatment:

5. Never give a customer your full attention. You have far better things to do. Keep on staring at your computer screen and continue typing.

6. It’s not important that you understand the customer. The customer needs to understand you.

7. No matter what happens, do not show any signs of empathy.

“So, you arrived late at your gate,” concluded the customer service rep. “Boarding time was over. Let me see when the next flight leaves.”

“But the flight attendant assured us we would make it,” my wife replied.

“She should never have told you that,” the rep said.

8. When things go wrong, blame someone else.

“We asked four people on the ground to make a call to the gate and no one could be bothered,” my wife continued.

Sir, what are their names?” the rep wanted to know.

I looked at my wife who appeared to be fading fast.

“We were in a hurry to catch this flight,” I explained. “There was no time to write down people’s names. The driver of the electric car told me the gate could have been kept open a little longer.”

“She should never have said that,” retorted the rep. “Your next flight leaves in six hours.”

“But I have a medical condition,” said my wife. “I can’t wait that long. What do you suggest we do?”

“Sir,” said the rep, “I suggest you go to the gate and wait just like all the other passengers.”

THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO FOR YOU.”

9. Ignore people in wheelchairs. Always talk to the caregiver.

At that point I was really getting ticked off. My wife was treated as if as she didn’t exist and I asked the rep to include her in the conversation.

“I have MS,” my wife continued. “I need to lay down. The right side of my face is already numb. I can’t see properly. I’ve lost my sense of balance and I’m having trouble swallowing.”

“Is there a place we could go to,” I tried. “A quiet place where she can put her feet up and close her eyes. A first-class lounge perhaps?”

“There are Minute Suites at the airport,” the rep said.

“That sounds like a solution,” I said. “Could you get us a room?”

“We could get you there, but we wouldn’t pay for it,” the rep answered. “It’s $30 per hour.”

“Look,” I said as I was getting increasingly frustrated, “it wasn’t our fault we missed this flight. In what way can US Airways accommodate us for what happened? I shouldn’t have to pay $30 per hour out of pocket.”

“Sir,” the rep responded, “you can always file a complaint and send us the bill, but I can practically guarantee you that we won’t pay for it. You missed that flight.

THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO FOR YOU.”

At that point I asked to speak to her manager.

When he arrived, my wife could hardly hold her head up and parts of her face were twitching. “I can barely swallow,” she said. “If I don’t lie down now, things will only get worse. Your employee said there was nothing she could do for us.”

The manager looked at me and said: “Sir, your wife is obviously upset. Could I talk to you alone for a moment?”

“Absolutely not,” I responded. “We are a team and we’d like to know what you can do to help us. We’re stranded for six hours and my wife needs to rest because she has MS. The longer we wait, the worse it gets. I don’t feel we should have to pay for accommodation. It’s not our fault we missed that plane.”

“Sir,” said the manager, “US Airways has no arrangements with any hotels and we can’t put you up at our lounge. That would be more expensive than these Minute Suites and we’re not paying for that. If I were to offer that to you, I would get fired. Now, do you want to get me fired?”

That did it for me. I snapped.

“All I want is a quiet space for my wife while we wait, and I’d like US Airways to pick up the tab. You turn this around and make it about you losing your job? This is not about you. This is about my wife.”

I stopped for a moment and looked at him. “The stress of having to deal with your customer service -or lack thereof- is triggering all of my wife’s symptoms. Can’t you see that? Are you sure you don’t have anything to offer to us?”

He said: “We did. We booked you on another flight and we told you about the Minute Suites. Other than that, THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO FOR YOU. You have to be reasonable. I need your name and email address so I can file a report.”

Eventually, we ended up going to a Minute Suite and the organization that had invited my wife to speak, agreed to pay for a couple of hours.

Two hours later, when I stepped out for a moment, I saw the US Airways customer service rep drop off two meal vouchers for us. They were ten dollars each.

Our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed as well, and as usual, there was no wheelchair waiting for us at the gate in Florida, even though I had specifically and repeatedly reminded ground personnel to make arrangements. After another half hour wait for the car service, we finally arrived at the hotel around 10:30 PM, 14 hours after we had left our home.

Stepping out of the car, it was as if we had entered a different world. Staff at the Mariott warmly welcomed us with a smile and did everything they could to make our stay as pleasant as possible.

The next day I did some research on airlines and customer service. It turned out that Forbes-contributor Steve Denning had had a similar experience:

“The US Airways gentleman on telephone was the quintessential unhelpful bureaucrat from Hell. He was following rules and doing what he had been told was the right thing to do and saving money for the airline in the short run. The only problem for US Airways that his behavior was rapidly turning me into a vocal detractor of US Airways—someone who would tell the world how badly I was being treated. The agent whom I met at customer service was trying hard, and was being very helpful and pleasant about it, but she was hemmed in by company policies that prevented her from delighting me.

The airline has no provision to deal with the obvious and recurring problem of people who don’t make their connection because of flight delays. Instead the problem is dumped on the passenger to solve, by waiting in a long queue, increasing the level of frustration.”

Denning continues:

“Over the last two decades, there has been an epochal shift in the balance of power from seller to buyer. Today the customer has options and access to good information, can avoid companies whose principal objective is taking money from our wallets and putting in their own. As a result, companies whose primary goal is to make money are vanishing off the face of the planet, ever more rapidly. Studies show that the life expectancy of firms in the Fortune 500 is down from around 75 years to less than 15 years, and fast approaching five years.

(…) The future belongs to firms like Apple, Amazon and Salesforce.com which are dedicated to delighting us. It is some consolation that companies that do not delight us will not be with us much longer.”

As I was reading his words, my mind wandered back to that dreadful day at the airport. Like Denning, we had noticed that some people still seemed to care about the customer. I particularly remember that young guy whose shift had ended but he still insisted on helping my wife get to a room where she could rest. Or the lady back home at Allentown International Airport. She was there with a wheelchair and she stayed with us until we were picked up.

As I said in the beginning: not everything always goes according to plan. That’s life. When something goes wrong:

  • Acknowledge it
  • Show some empathy
  • Listen actively
  • Understand first. Then be understood
  • Be accountable
  • Seek solutions
  • Don’t make matters worse
  • Make matters right

It’s a well-known fact that if a person has a great experience, they will tell only a few people. However, if that same person has had a bad experience, they will most likely tell 30 to 40 people.

Whether you run a one-person business or a global corporation, the reputation of your brand rests on the number of positive interactions your customers have with you.

Adopt the attitude that is central to the way the Walt Disney Company consistently delights its customers. When something goes wrong, here’s what they say to their employees:

10. It may not be your fault, but it is your problem. Do whatever you have to do to fix it.

How’s that, compared to:

THERE’S NOTHING I CAN DO FOR YOU.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Next week, part one of my Media Training mini series. 

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My Prized Possession

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 34 Comments

What do the Vatican, the United Nations, the German Parliament, the BBC and my company Nethervoice have in common?

We all use top of the line microphones from a family owned business in the small German town of Gefell.

If you’ve never heard of Gefell and you enjoy European history, let’s travel back in time for a moment.

In 1943, Georg Neumann‘s main microphone laboratory in Berlin was hit by bombs and caught fire. To avoid more damage, Neumann and his technical director Erich Kühnast moved the entire company to Gefell where they continued their work in an old textile mill.

After Germany’s surrender, Gefell was occupied by the Americans and then handed over to the Soviet Union. In 1946 a number of Gefell employees returned to Berlin to establish a small workshop. This workshop eventually became Georg Neumann GmbH, the second Neumann company.

Kühnast and most of the original staff stayed in Gefell and continued to develop and build microphones. Neumann made Kühnast manager of the limited partnership Georg Neumann & Co. which was later nationalized by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Despite the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the management of the two companies stayed in touch with one another.

In 1972, the GDR prohibited use of the Neumann trademark, and the East-German company was renamed VEB Mikrofontechnik Gefell.

After the Wall came down in 1989, Georg Neumann’s heirs reclaimed their share in the company and a new period of cooperation began. Here’s what’s remarkable. When the Neumann engineers took a closer look at the Gefell products that had been developed behind the Iron Curtain, they discovered microphone technology that was more sophisticated than some of that in the West.

After Sennheiser took over Neumann in 1991, Microtech Gefell -as it is now called- became an independent, privately owned company, known for hand-made, high-end microphones. (this overview is in part based on an article in Sound on Sound and on information on the Gefell website).

MY NEW BABY

Fast forward to Tuesday, January 17th, 2012, the day I became the first person in America to own a Gefell M 930 Ts studio condenser microphone.

Out of thousands of microphones on the market, why did I pick this particular make and model?

I have to be honest with you: I didn’t pick this mic. It picked me. Or rather: I got lucky. Very, very lucky!

In my radio days I never paid any attention to the equipment I was using, but since I became master and commander of my own studio, things have changed. As a professional, I think it’s important to get to know the tools of the trade. 

Before I’m ready to make any type of investment in my business, I spend months doing research, reading reviews and talking to colleagues in the know. They make sure I don’t fall for the latest fad, and that when I finally decide on a new purchase, I invest in quality that will last for many years to come.

Any professional chef, musician or mechanic can tell you that well-made, reliable tools make the job a lot easier because they work with you instead of against you. Good tools can’t make an artist more creative, but they can inspire. Without them, he’s less able to realize his dreams. A great set of tools can take you to that proverbial next level.

It’s a cliché, but quality never goes out of style. It is remembered long after the price is forgotten.

RISING FROM THE PACK

As home studios are becoming the norm and more people are having a go at voice-overs, it’s increasingly important to distinguish oneself. It all starts with the way the voice is captured.

The quality of your sound is your signature.

Clients are sick and tired of having to put up with hiss, rumble, interference and echoes coming from inferior equipment recorded in so-called ‘professional’ booths set up in someone’s boudoir. By the sound of it, these spaces aren’t studios. They sound more like shacks. Radio shacks.

If you can’t provide clean, crystal clear audio, you should start a website where amateur VO’s can go forth, multiply and make a lot of noise. Why not call it VoiceRabbit (after the rabid growth I predict it will undergo)?

Alternatively, you could consult men like Dan Lenard, Dan Friedman, George Whittam or Mel Allen. They will set you up with the right gear and help you fine-tune your sound in less time than it will take you to learn the ropes through trial and error.

Although it never paints a complete picture, quality equipment does make a statement. When a client or agent sees you are using professional grade gear, they know you mean business and they have one less thing to worry about.

Imagine going to a wedding photographer to find out if he’s going to be a good fit for your big day, and the man pulls out a cheap point-and-shoot camera. Would you hire him? I don’t think so. Now, owning a Hasselblad 503CW does not make one a brilliant photographer, but that’s a different story.

RECORDINGHACKS

In my quest for the best equipment, I spent many hours on Matt Mcglyn’s creation: www.recordinghacks.com. It’s an online magazine as well as the world’s most extensive database of a 1000+ microphones.

If you happen to be looking for a good podcasting mic for $200, recordinghacks has put them to the test. If you need the specs of the Manley Reference Gold tube condenser, look no further. Interested in a $60,000 ribbon mic shootout? You know where to go!

In 2011, recordinghacks gave away a new mic every month: a Cascade Fathead II, a Blue Yeti Pro, a Lauten Horizon et cetera. December’s prize topped it all: a brand new Microtech Gefell 930 Ts. This small, large diaphragm condenser was made with broadcasting and voice-over applications in mind.

AND THE WINNER IS…

In the first week of January, Matt Mcglyn said he had some good news for me: I was the lucky winner of the giveaway! It was unbelievable. What a start to the new year!

I want to thank Microtech Gefell GmbH for such a generous gift, and for their ongoing, uncompromising dedication to quality.

Matt Mcglyn deserves a big ‘thank you’ for creating such an excellent database and magazine, and for magically pulling my name out of his recordinghacks-hat.

As for the rest of you, I’m sure you’d like to know how my new mic sounds, and how it stacks up against other voice-over microphones. Well, it just so happens that I have written a review for recordinghacks, and you’ll find out for yourself why the Vatican has given its blessing to a small German company.

If there ever was one brand that has earned the right to capture the voice of G-d, it has to be Microtech Gefell!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

Next week I’ll tell you about one of the worst customer service experiences I’ve ever had, and what lessons we can draw from that for our own business.

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Exhibitionists, Voyeurs and Stalkers

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 4 Comments

In the past these were dirty words for dirty people.

Now these very same words can be used to describe the average social media addict.

We like strutting our stuff in public. We want the world to watch us. And we follow the fools who think that tweeting nonsense all day long makes them relevant.

8:05 AM. In line at Starbucks.

8:10 AM. Ordering a tall latte.

8:15 AM. Should have asked for a double shot of espresso.

8:18 AM. Back in my Mercedes. New Jersey Turnpike, here I come!

8:21 AM. In a car accident. Tweeting and drinking coffee don’t go well together.

9:33 AM. Thank goodness this hospital has a Starbucks.

We can laugh about it. We can cry about it, but things like tweeting and texting are changing the way we communicate. Even the way we dress.

If you don’t believe me, you should shop for winter gloves and count the pairs with holes in them or with special patches. Touchscreen gloves, that’s what they are called. Snowstorms, twisters and other natural disasters won’t prevent mankind from texting.

Every single day, two hundred trillion text messages are received in America alone (source). That’s more than an entire year’s worth of regular mail.

Nielsen reported that the average American teen sends 3,339 texts each month. That’s more than six per every hour they’re awake. The girls are beating the boys with 4,050 texts per month, (boys send an average of 2,539 texts). Mind you, these numbers are from 2010!

But it’s not just the kids. Go into any supermarket and count how many times you’ll hear a mother tell her stroller-toddler:

“Not now sweetie. Mommy’s texting.”

8:42 PM. At Trader Joe’s. Should I buy broccoli or cauliflower?

Thanks to all these very important messages, safety is no longer the number one reason for getting a phone. We just love being social, don’t we?

THE FACEBOOK REVOLUTION

In 2010, Facebook beat Google as the most visited site (if we leave out visits to Google-owned YouTube). A year later, Facebook’s U.S. advertising revenue of 2.2 billion dollars had surpassed that of both Google and Yahoo.

It is THE place to hang out and make new friends. It’s that wonderful platform where -in the midst of an economic crisis- everything is always A-Okay. No matter what happens, the show must go on  and we keep on dancing.

Smile people! Always beware of your brand. Heaven forbid we become real and share our fears and failures.

Occasionally, some Facebook friends will vent their frustrations, but overall, a happy-go-lucky attitude seems to be the norm: Do what you love and the money will follow. 🙂 Really?

Many Europeans consider this attitude to be “typically American.” They see the States as a country where people have a hard time accepting failure. We’d rather take a happy pill than deal with our problems. We’re certainly not going to share them on our Facebook Walls. We’ve turned those into advertorials and infomercials:

9:15 AM. Join me for an online seminar where I’ll teach you how not to waste your time on Facebook. Remember the early bird discount!

10:02 AM. Finished an amazing gig with an amazing director. Life is good. It’s great to be back in L.A.

11:46 AM. Jesus rocks! He guided me to book another gig for Playboy Enterprises. Praise the Lord.

11:47 AM. Deuteronomy 5:11

11:48 AM. John 8:7

11:49 AM. Broccoli or cauliflower?

1:15 PM. There’s a new article on the Nethervoice blog. Be the first one to read it before it appears on VoiceOverXtra.

Yep, Facebook is definitely a site we can’t live without. In fact, we need more of those online chatrooms. What did you just tell me? You’re not on Google+ yet? Boy, you’re missing out on something spectacular. It’s great for your business. The other day I saw a video of a dog. Man, that was funny. Every time his owner began playing the guitar, this dog started smiling. No kidding. I’ll send you the link.

3:30 PM. Wasted another 3 minutes watching a dog on YouTube. 

A WINDOW TO THE WORLD?

Look, I am not going to pooh-pooh social media again, but we should bury the idea that these sites are widening our world and increase interpersonal connections.

First of all, we don’t seem to know the difference between socializing and advertising. Socializing is all about connecting with others. Advertising is drawing attention to oneself in order to sell. If that becomes the main purpose of the interaction, it will turn people off. Sooner rather than later.

Secondly, people mainly interact with people they know or agree with. We block the rest and ban them from our circles. And if we don’t do it ourselves, algorithms will make sure that we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. Author and activist Eli Pariser calls this the “Filter Bubble.”

Based on our location and on what you and I have searched for and looked at in the past, certain websites (like Facebook) and search engines now use algorithms to predict and select what we’d be interested in right now. They call it “creating a personalized experience.”

YOUR WEB YOUR WAY

If you’re in the market for a new set of wheels and you’ve been browsing a few dealerships, chances are that you’ll be presented with car commercials instead of chewing gum ads. If you’re a fan of the current man in the White House and you keep track of his party’s politics, you won’t be exposed to Tea Party rhetoric. So far, so good, right?

Amazon and Netflix work the same way:

“If you liked this product or that movie, here’s what we recommend you check out next.”

I once made the mistake of tweeting about how much I love my memory foam mattress. Within the hour I was followed by three companies selling mattresses. I wanted to challenge them to a pillow fight.

But wait, there’s more!

If you and I were to enter the same keywords in Google, we would receive different results, based on past online behavior. You will get sites that are more in line with your interests and I will get sites that -according to the secret algorithm- will resonate more with things I prefer. Why is that so terrible?

DIVERSITY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

I happen to think that it’s good to be exposed to different points of view. If I am only presented with an invisibly edited and uncontrollable stream of information that confirms my own bias, I lose something very important. Eli Pariser puts it this way:

“The Internet is showing us a world it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

We need to see how other people live and we need to hear what other people think. Intellectual discourse is part of a healthy democracy.

If we wish to promote peace, understanding and compassion in the world, we have to open ourselves up to other ideas, other traditions and the very things we don’t comprehend. Things that may make us uncomfortable. Otherwise, stupid stereotypes will go unchallenged and the people on this planet will never overcome their conflicts.

5:15 PM. More of the same is not only boring, it’s dangerous.

5:16 PM. I don’t want some geek at Google to tell me what’s relevant.

Knowledge empowers. Ignorance separates.

NOW WHAT?

It’s time to burst that filter bubble and give us control over the selection of sources of information. I don’t need Yahoo to determine what types of news stories will appear when I switch on my computer.

I want Facebook to be more about sharing and less about selling. I want parents to care more about their children than about their smart phones.

I want drivers to switch off their Blackberries and pay attention to the road. I want more people to be in the moment, instead of describing it on some electronic device.

That’s all great in theory, but here’s the question that’s been haunting me:

Will that ever happen or did we pass a point of no return?

5:24 PM. I am a practitioner of Positive Pessimism.

5:25 PM Hoping for the best. Expecting the worst.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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