One of the reasons for my so-called success in voice overs has never made any sense to me.
I owe it to my fake British accent.
If you’re new to my blog, it helps to know that I was born, raised, and educated in the Netherlands, in a province called Friesland. Friesland has its own language (“Frisian”) which is very different from Dutch. For a great part of my life, English has been my third language, right after German. Since I emigrated to the USA in 1999, English moved to number one.
Surprisingly, my very first voice over job in the United States was not as a Dutchman, but as a stiff upper lipped British archeologist in a radio commercial for Hershey Park, Pennsylvania. My most requested celebrity impersonation is that of naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.
When the Beatles musical “Let it Be” came to Broadway, guess who was selected to voice all the promos? Have a listen.
Does that make any sense to you? In fact, when I came to New York to record these promos, the whole crew treated me as if I was from the UK and I never told them otherwise. These days I’m more well-known, and the team that hires me is usually aware that I’m not a Brit. And yet they still want me to pretend I am.
What’s going on here?
Either, the Americans are rather ignorant and forgiving when it comes to foreign accents (something I have noticed throughout the years), or my British accent is perceived as good enough to fool the listeners. Greenpeace seemed to like it.
Anyway, to me this is one of the many logic-defying examples I have encountered in my VO career. It also points at something else to which I attribute my modest success: my state of mind.
You see, I could have easily NOT auditioned for these roles. Let’s be brutally honest. Why would I, a Dutchman with a phony British accent, stand a chance? The USA is inundated with English expats, and I know quite a few who make a living as a voice talent. Mike Cooper, Peter Bishop, to name a few. These guys are the real deal.
But I auditioned anyway, thinking:
IF YOU DON’T GIVE YOURSELF A CHANCE, THE ANSWER WILL ALWAYS BE NO.
In Holland we say: “If you don’t take a shot, you’ll always miss the target.”
That’s how I landed this national commercial:
So, my advice to you is simple:
This business is not about how you perceive yourself, but about how you are perceived by others.
Do not limit yourself to what you believe you can pull off.
GO FOR IT
Even if it doesn’t make any sense.
That’s how you break new ground and defy the odds.
When I moved from the West of the Netherlands (that’s where you’ll find Amsterdam), to the North, I was in for a culture shock no one had prepared me for.
I will never forget the first day at my new school. Kids surrounded me as if I was some kind of novelty, and they started making fun of me for the way I spoke.
“You talk funny,” they yelled. “Your Dutch sounds so proper.” They said it as if this was not a good thing.
I had no idea what they were referring to. I didn’t do anything special. I just spoke the way I always spoke; the way I was taught to speak.
I had no clue that the town in the West of the Netherlands I had moved from (Santpoort), was known for being at the heart of where ABN (Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands) was spoken.
In English you’d call it RP or SAE. It’s the (subjective but influential) standard of how a language should be spoken “Beschaafd” by the way, means “civilized” in Dutch.
So, ABN literally means Common Civilized Dutch, implying that those with a different way of speaking were uncivilized. How stupid!
The people in the West (the part of Holland that was dominant in an economical sense) enunciate very clearly, making many sounds in the front of the mouth.
The Northerners (living in a poorer part of the country) often seem to mumble their words, making many sounds in the back of their mouth.
All my life I had been praised for my clear diction, but in my new school (in the town of Roden, Drenthe), kids were mocking me because of my posh accent. They called me a “show-off,” “the teacher’s pet,” or “the professor.”
Fast forward ten years.
At the age of seventeen, I had moved from the North to a central part of the Netherlands (Utrecht), and I found myself applying for an internship at one of Holland’s public radio stations to make youth radio programs.
You should know that living in the North had not changed my Dutch accent very much. To me, the way I spoke was like a warm, familiar blanket. I had learned to live with kids making fun of me, and I never felt the need to blend in. I still don’t.
At this radio station, part of the application process was a job interview with the head of the station. I introduced myself, and his eyes immediately lit up. The first thing he said was:
“I just LOVE the way you speak. I could listen to you for hours. It’s perfect for radio!”
Again, the way I talked was totally normal to me, but he thought there was something special to it.
Not to show off, but he hired me on the spot, and it was the beginning of a 25-year career in broadcasting, which eventually led to me doing voice overs.
MEANING AND CONTEXT
Coming back to last week’s story about branding, always remember that you don’t see or hear yourself the way other people see or hear you. And the way other people perceive you, tells you a lot about them. I certainly learned a lot about my mocking classmates from the North.
The meaning of things is always determined by the context, that is, the setting and the circumstances that determine the interpretation and understanding of what’s happening.
For instance, a bunch of people sitting stark naked in a small room, is totally inappropriate if this were to take place during an American voice over conference. But in a Finnish sauna, it would be inappropriate for the same people to wear any clothes.
Same behavior. Different context. Different meaning.
Running a red light is usually a dumb and dangerous thing to do, but running the light because your wife is about to give birth and you need to get to the hospital, is a different matter. You get the picture.
LISTEN TO LISA
I remember voice talent Lisa Biggs telling me how kids at school made fun of her childlike voice. It affected her self-esteem, until – one day – she discovered that there was a need for more mature voice actors who could sound like children. Think Bart Simpson.
Her high-pitched, squeaky voice that was often ridiculed, turned out to be quite the money maker! These days, Lisa is a powerhouse in voice over land. She offers trainings and coaching, and she’s hired by the biggest brands and the best animation studios. If your kids have any speaking toys at home, chances are you’ve heard Lisa’s happy voice.
Again, for Lisa, special was normal. After she had done a talk, a professor once told her:
“Your presentation was great, but if anyone is ever going to take you seriously in the real world, you’re going to have to do something about your voice”.
What in one context was seen as an impediment, turned out to be a big asset in another context. Normal was special, and these days people are taking Lisa’s talent very seriously.
So, here’s this week’s takeaway:
If you ever feel less than positive about something that makes you stand out, please ask yourself: in which context could this actually be an asset?
And remember: your “normal” could be pretty special to the rest of the world.
The simple task of getting the right shampoo is overwhelming. There’s just so much to choose from!
I just came back from the supermarket, and all shampoos promised to do amazing things for my thinning hair and sensitive scalp, so what made me reach for this particular bottle?
It’s the BRANDING!
I mean, who doesn’t want to have News Anchor Thick Hair?
Fellows, are you with me?
I love it when a brand doesn’t seem to take itself seriously. On the back of the bottle you’ll find the following message:
“A man with a head of thick, healthy hair does not need a motivational quote to start the day. Duke Cannon’s News Anchor 2-in-1 Hair Wash is formulated with premium ingredients for hard-working men whose hair commands the respect of others. Your hair is a weapon.”
There’s also a silly sign on the back label that says: “Not for clowns.”
Here’s VO colleague Ken Scott, the voice of Duke cannon.
Of course all of this may look like a fun gimmick, but the bottom line is this:
This shampoo came home with me, and that’s the idea of effective marketing. It makes you and your product STAND OUT from the rest of the pack in such a way that people are compelled to buy it.
This is precisely where most voice overs have a hard time. They will all read a script for money, just like all shampoo will clean dirty hair. It’s a solution to a problem.
The challenge is to distinguish yourself from all the thousands of other voices on this planet, to make clear that you are the perfect solution to a specific problem.
BUILDING A BRAND
So, who’s going to do that, and how?
Here’s the thing. You are probably the worst person to brand your business. Why? Because you are way too familiar with what you’re offering. You can no longer see what makes you special because to you, special is normal.
The second worst thing you can do, is ask family and friends to chime in. They too, know you inside out, AND they don’t know the industry you want to make your mark in.
You need someone who can think like a client as well as an industry insider. Someone who immediately picks up on what makes you YOUnique.
This branding specialist needs to translate that into a consistent, succinct, and memorable message that’s both verbal and visual.
PS Some of you have asked if I will be taking part in VO Atlanta 2021, the virtual edition. The answer is NO. As many of you know, I love VOA dearly, but this year, the conference coincides with a period in my life in which I won’t have any time for such events. Of course I will continue to blog on my website and on Instagram, so, let’s stay connected!
Voice Overs are usually known for their ability to talk, but I tell you what… Andrew can listen! He was kind enough to let me be his first guest.
He kept on asking questions, so I kept on talking. So much so, that poor Andrew had to slice our interview up into three, bite-sized pieces.
Here’s part one:
To be honest, I had to talk myself into watching the podcast on YouTube. Even though I listen to my voice every single day, it’s not easy for me to observe myself. When I listen to my voice, it’s usually because I’m editing a voice over I just recorded. I’m reading someone else’s text, and the words and inflection are very deliberate.
Being interviewed is a more or less spontaneous process. I can choose my own words, and once they’re uttered, I can’t take ’em back, or record another take. That’s why I prefer blogging.
Blogging allows me to edit my thoughts, and sculpt my message until I’m satisfied. Every post you read on this blog contains dozens of rewrites before it reaches you. It’s a neatly manicured lawn, whereas an interview can be a bit of a jungle.
Well, you be the judge. Part two of the interview is right here:
One of my greatest challenges during an interview is my altered awareness of time.
As recently as last night, I left a burner on our electric stove on the highest setting, after I had removed the pan and served our dinner. I then went up to watch some TV and totally forgot about the stove.
When my wife came down, the thing was red hot, and had been inadvertently warming up the kitchen. Imagine what could have happened, had I left a pan on the burner!
During live interviews I also lose my sense of time, and I just keep on talking. One thought leads to another and another. I’m sure you’ve noticed that while watching the interview. If you haven’t, you must have been in the moment, too!
Because I am aware of it, I instruct my interviewers beforehand to interrupt me when I’m going on too long. In our society, interrupting someone is usually seen as impolite, so, not every podcast host feels comfortable doing it.
If you’ve made it through part one and two, you might as well watch the conclusion.
I sincerely hope you won’t feel as uncomfortable as I am, watching myself. Of course I could have declined Andrew’s request for an interview, but I believe that it’s good to do things in life that make us uncomfortable. “Playing it Safe” is not a strategy I subscribe to.
One thing the great movers and shakers of society have in common is that they never play it safe. Many of them proved that what people believed could never be done, could actually be done once you turn fear into courage, and courage into action.
Those people dare to be different. They dare to stand out, and be laughed at for being dreamers. A flower will never bloom as long as it’s afraid of the sun.
There’s another thing that holds people back from sticking their necks out. It’s the following thought:
“What will others think of me?”
The moment I released that limiting idea, was the moment my freelance career started taking off.
Here’s the thing.
If you’re doing a good job as a content producer (such as a blogger or podcaster), people WILL talk about you. You actually WANT that! The moment people stay silent, or stop caring, you should be worried.
This is what I learned over time:
No matter how hard you try, you cannot force people to like you, or to agree with you. Even if you think you’ve explained your position to the best of your abilities, there will always be folks who believe they’re looking at a 6, while you are clearly talking about a 9.
Our perception of reality is subjective, and is always a matter of personal perspective. If you don’t believe me, read up on confirmation bias.
Now, how you respond to Andrew’s interview with me is up to you. I can only (more or less) control what I send out into the world, including this interview.
If you recall, it was a blog about ethics in our business. Apparently, it’s a hot potato in our community. Click here to read the full story called “You are an enabler.”
The gist of the story was this:
Before you accept a job because it pays well, think about the bigger picture. Who or what are you enabling by doing this voice over? Are you selling your soul to the devil for a few bucks? Just because you can do this job, doesn’t mean you should.
Some thought my article was too political because it mentioned colleagues who had been doing VO’s for right-wing media. Others questioned why I was pointing fingers. Who was I to call people out? Why don’t I mind my own business?
Many responses were supportive of my position, but there’s always this one guy who says:
“Screw morals. I have to put food on the table. I’m a hired gun.”
So, in his model of the world it’s either Money or Morals.
Beware of people who give you false choices. The moment you respond, you have to buy into the limited choices they present to you.
“Do you want A or B?”
What if you prefer C, D, E or F?
Why would you have to choose between money or morals? Can’t you run a for-profit business in an ethical manner? I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not the only one. You can put food on the table AND be ethical. If you’re one of those rare people with a conscience, you’ll sleep much better at night.
IT’S ALL PRETEND
Then there are those who claim that doing voice overs is JUST ACTING. In other words, we can’t be held accountable for lines other people feed us.
It may be acting, but it’s still enabling!
As I am writing these words, we are observing International Holocaust Remembrance day. During the Second World War, thousands of professional musicians played in orchestras that were used to glorify the Third Reich.
Tell me, were they “JUST PLAYING,” or did they enable a well-oiled Nazi propaganda machine that lead to the killing of millions of people?
WINE AND TOAST
Another person thought he had a GOTCHA-moment by pointing out that I had voiced a national IHOP commercial, singing the praises of Hawaiian French Toast. On top of that, I had had the audacity to record a promo for wine!
Think of the poor souls dying from obesity and alcoholism! I had been encouraging them to eat junk food, and drink alcohol while accusing others of being immoral.
Stop the presses: Mr. Nethervoice is an enabler too!
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!
I have several things to say about that. First, I never claimed that I am holier than Pope Francis. Secondly, our moral compass is always evolving.
Things we did years ago without reservations, we probably wouldn’t do again, knowing what we know now. I, for instance, used to eat meat. Then I learned about the agricultural-industrial complex, and how animals are mistreated. Now I am a staunch vegetarian. So, depending on where we are in life, our ethics may change.
THE WHEAT AND THE CHAFF
But there is a more important point I’d like to make. It has to do with the way I make ethical decisions in my business. Here’s my thinking:
If a voice over script deals with (purported) FACTS, especially if it’s news and current affairs related, I will think twice about what information I will or will not be spreading.
For instance, if some television news network would ask me to promote the lie that Donald J. Trump won the election and should be president, I would absolutely refuse, no matter how much they’d pay me.
What people see and hear in the context of a newscast, they will take much more seriously (as we have seen on January 6th).
If a voice over script is FICTION, however, it’s much easier for me to say YES to a job. To me, commercials fall under fiction, because anyone with half a brain knows most ads aren’t truthful. Be honest: do you take them seriously?
So, for me, promoting Hawaiian French Toast and Spanish wine falls in the category fiction. Promoting a big fat political lie on cable news as if it were fact, is not okay.
Let me quickly add that those are my personal choices. Different people do different things for different reasons.
WHO AM I?
On to the last point: Who the hell do I think I am to lecture people about what VO jobs they should or should not take?
The answer is simple:
I’m just a guy with an opinion and a blog, who can’t keep his big mouth shut. That’s probably why I am a voice over. But seriously, that’s it.
You don’t have to agree with me. I don’t want to convince you of anything. All I want is for you to look at certain aspects of our business through my colored lens, and then make up your own mind.
If you don’t like what I have to say, move on!
If my writing inspires or amuses you, GREAT!
But please, even if I annoy you and push a few buttons, stay civil. This isn’t FOX News. Don’t make assumptions about me, or utter rude remarks. Those reactions say more about you, than about me.
In the end, the Facebook moderator had to disable the comments because things got a bit out of hand.
Heaven forbid we ever talk about ethics again.
Let’s talk about microphones and Pay-to-Plays instead. Those are not controversial topics, are they?
It’s simple. As a voice over, you’re a service provider. Your job consists of serving others, helping them to reach a certain goal.
Oftentimes, you are literally the mouthpiece of an author, a scientist, a corporation, or even a political campaign.
They have a message that needs to reach the masses:
“Buy this. Buy that. Our butter is the best. Ask your doctor about this medication. Vote for Donald J. Trump. Elect Joseph R. Biden.”
They provide the platform. You are their bullhorn.
They tell you what to say. You say it.
You bear no responsibility. You didn’t write the words. You just said them, and got paid.
Please don’t shoot the messenger.
You are an enabler. You’re using your voice to entertain, educate, encourage, entice, and even incite.
Ask yourself: To what aim? What could be the consequences?
Don’t tell me you have no impact. Why else would they hire you? The powers that be expect your voice to drive business and move minds.
Every time you record a voice over, you help spread information. You enable the person or platform that paid you to get that information across in the most professional, effective way.
Why YOU, out of all other voices, you may ask?
Because you happen to have a voice people respond to and trust.
YOU HAVE A CHOICE
Now, you could use that trusted voice to spread falsehoods about COVID vaccination or the “stolen election,” or you could use your voice to tell the truth.
You could use your voice to glorify a political candidate who doesn’t believe people are equal, and who thinks this pandemic shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Or you could voice an anti-racism campaign, and a PSA that encourages people to get a COVID shot.
It’s up to you.
Before you randomly accept a voice over job because of all the money you’ll make, ask yourself:
“By recording this script, what or who am I enabling?”
Think about the bigger picture before you think about your bank account.
Our profession isn’t values-free. Just because you can accept any assignment, doesn’t mean you should.
In my opinion, integrity and ethics should play a huge part in our business decisions.
Let me make it personal.
I cannot on one hand be a vegetarian, and with the other, help promote the sale of beef, pork, or chicken.
It would make me a greedy hypocrite.
I can’t be in favor of stricter gun laws, and voice a campaign for the now bankrupt National Rifle Association.
Mind you, it’s not for me to tell you where I think you should stand on the political spectrum. Follow your conscience. Use your moral compass. But I want you to think about this.
On December 24, 1913, in Calumet, Michigan. Seventy-three men, women, and children, were crushed to death in a stampede when someone falsely shouted “fire” at a crowded Christmas party.
Words have meaning. Words have consequences. Words can spark and fan flames, as we have seen on the sixth of January, the day the heart of American democracy was threatened by a misguided mob. The day five people lost their lives.
Why was this angry mob there?
Because they were inspired by words from people they trusted.
Because they had been watching right-wing television networks and had been listening to right-wing radio stations spewing out untruths about the recent election.
Some of our voice over colleagues are contracted by those media to assist them in the spread of misinformation.
These colleagues are enablers that had a choice.
THE BURDEN OF RESPONSIBILITY
The only way a corrupt and immoral administration stays in power, is thanks to the support of the many people that do their bidding (and the many that are too afraid to speak out in the face of injustice).
So, if you are one of those voices that enabled the spread of falsehoods, I am calling you out.
YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!
You helped create and propagate a myth millions of people still believe in, because it was repeated endlessly by trusted voices like you.
Don’t hide behind the argument that you were just reading someone else’s script. Did they force you at gunpoint to do it, or did you have a choice?
Could you have walked away when you saw that things were getting out of hand? Of course you could, but you chose not to.
Don’t hide behind the argument that we have freedom of speech, either. Incitement to hatred, encouraging lawless action, and spreading blatant lies is an abuse of that freedom.
In the beginning of my career, I made a vow to only accept work that would make me proud. This vow has cost me tens of thousands of dollars.
Last year I received a very generous offer from a megachurch to become the voice of their international outreach. My father was a minister, and I used to be a religious affairs correspondent, so this was right up my alley.
Until I did some research, and found some horrible homophobic sermons on the church’s website. Right there and then I knew I could not lend my voice to this faith community, even though it would have paid the mortgage for an entire year.
Anyone can take a symbolic stance, but it really means something when there is a price to pay. I’ll say it again:
My voice is for hire, but my integrity and my soul are not for sale.
THE GIFT YOU WERE GIVEN
You were born with a very special instrument. Some say it’s the most beautiful and most personal instrument on earth. The question I have for you is this:
How are you going to use this instrument?
Will you be an Amanda Gorman, the young poet who spoke so eloquently at Biden’s inauguration, or will you use your voice to help spread falsehoods and hatred on Fox News or Newsmax?
Is your voice a megaphone for good, or a MAGAphone?
She starred in shows like The Music Man, Mary Poppins, The Phantom of the Opera, Showboat, and The Secret Garden. Luker was nominated for three Tony Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, and two Drama Desk Awards.
“When I described her singing, I used to say, “She opens her mouth and her heart falls out.” That’s exactly how it felt. I know of no other singer who’s had that same effect on me. She had some innate connection to her soul when she sang that made the listener instantly feel the deepest emotions. It made you understand why poets wrote about purity and beauty. It was simply that obvious. That perfect. That special. That connected.”
In voice over circles, the latest buzz word seems to be authenticity. Clients and booth directors all seem to want it, but no one ever tells you how to get it. “Just be yourself” is another one of those overused, empty phrases.
The trouble is, we’re almost never hired to be ourselves. If that would be the case, we’d be using our own words and not some idiotic script that seems to be penned by a twelve year old.
If we were hired to be ourselves, we wouldn’t be asked to pretend to sell something we’d never buy, or teach something we have no interest in learning.
As voice actors we are paid to pretend, to lie, to fool the listener into believing we love this new deodorant, or we give a damn about the environment.
In our profession, the best liars get the best paychecks and some shiny statue. Perhaps even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, if you’re on camera.
Be yourself, my ass!
Half of the time I don’t even know who I am, so how am I supposed to be this person I’m still trying to get to know?
What people really ask when they want us to be authentic, is to sound natural. Whatever that may be.
“Paul, talk to me the way you would normally talk,” a director once instructed me. “Pretend I’m your best friend.”
That particular director was a notorious, womanizing jerk I would never hang out with if it were not for the money they were paying me to even listen to this guy.
Best friend? Never!
Think about what it means to talk like you normally talk. It is a mental exercise in and of itself to imagine yourself listening to yourself when you know no one is listening, but let’s try it anyway.
When I talk, I stammer and stagger, I start over mid-sentence, and I don’t care about proper enunciation and emphasis. I say “uhm” and “ah,” and I often lose my train of thought. It is imperfect, and no one cares. We all mumble and stumble our way through life.
Conversational speech is an unconscious process.
As voice overs we are paid to be perfect. Every word of our script was carefully chosen after much debate and intervention by the legal department. Just as a musician can’t simply make up notes that aren’t in the score, we can’t just burst in with our own, spontaneous version of the text.
Our goal is to ensure the listener clearly understands, remembers, and connects to the approved message the minute they first hear it. The moment they have to think: “What did that guy just say?” we’ve lost our audience and our impact.
It’s our job to be precise and deliberate. Every word gets its own weight; every phrase its own melody. Even every pause is premeditated.
This is an entirely unspontaneous, conscious process.
Natural speech, on the other hand, is impulsive, imperfect, and uncalculated.
That’s why the phrase “Act naturally,” is a ridiculous contradiction in terms.
Only the best actors and singers like Rebecca Luker, can make what they do SEEM and sound spontaneous, as if what they’re saying and singing is invented in the moment.
It’s a professional illusion.
To me, the key to reaching this level of unconscious competence, lies in memorization. You know, the thing voice over artists never do.
Danny Burstein describes his wife’s process as follows:
“She could memorize a lyric in 20 minutes. By contrast, it takes me a week. She read music easily and could make the most beautiful sounds without even trying. That’s not to say she didn’t work hard, she did, but she had an ease with music and lyrics. They liked her and she liked them and they melted into one another very easily.”
When you memorize a text, you become the words, and the words become you. It’s the melting Burstein was referring to. Once you have memorized something, you never have to consciously think about what to say. The words just flow out of you, like a pianist playing a prelude from memory.
It takes a lot of conscious effort (hard work) to attain unconscious competence, but once you know the score, you can focus on actually making music. If you’re still learning the notes, it’s a struggle to play the piece, let alone add some feeling to it and make it sound seamless.
As voice overs, we never get the time or take the time to go off book. We rarely do any memorization. We’re always reading lines, which is one of our occupational weaknesses.
We seldom get to the point where, when we open our mouth, our heart falls out. That’s something that separates the true masters of the craft from those who are making a heroic attempt.
Danny Burstein lovingly remembers his wife:
“Two weeks before she passed she finally began to talk about her own death and asked how it might happen. She’d been in such denial until then. She spoke with her doctor and rejected his offer of a tracheotomy because she knew it would mean that she would never speak or swallow again.
She was extremely weak but told him that she didn’t want to live attached to a machine that way. She told him:
“If I don’t have my voice, I don’t know who I am. My voice is everything I am. I’ll take my chances.”
I broke down sobbing next to her when she said that. I’ve never witnessed anything so brave in my life.”
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a freelancer, is to see yourself and what you have to offer, as an expense.
Every day, colleagues of mine put in lower bids on Pay to Plays, and charge lower fees, dreading that clients might think they’re too expensive. If a company like Apple or Tesla would use that strategy, it would no longer be in business.
Competing on low price is a desperate attempt to win over clients, used by those who don’t see themselves as valuable enough to land a job based on talent. It reeks of fear instead of competence, confidence, and experience.
THE FEAR FACTOR
Clients love using fear as a tactic to make you lower your rate. They’ll tell you they can easily find someone cheaper. They’ll plead poverty and say they cannot afford you. We’ve all heard it a million times. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
Let me say it again:
You have no way of knowing how much or how little a client can afford.
Successful negotiation is about finding that space between “can afford” and “willing to pay.”
When a client objects to your rate, three things could be going on. They have to do with:
VALUE, NEED, and CONNECTION
If there is little or no personal connection between you and the client, making a deal is so much harder. People who get along find it easier to come to an agreement. If you encounter resistance, strengthen the connection first, then renegotiate.
Let’s say you have created rapport, but the client still seems hesitant, make sure you establish an absolute and urgent need for what you have to offer. Window shoppers aren’t necessarily window buyers. Some clients aren’t serious. They’re just testing the waters to see what’s out there.
Give window shoppers the information they need based on what they think is important. It’s what they need to hear that matters. Not what you want to say. Don’t spend time convincing them they should hire you. Spend that time creating a connection and building trust.
Never mention price until you have established that you meet their needs.
The last reason a client may reject your rate is because they don’t feel you’re worth it. As they say in sales terms: your value proposition is lacking. This brings us back to where I started this story. The client sees you as an expense.
Here’s my take on that:
If you do your job right, you will MAKE your client money instead of COSTING your client money. Even if you’re working for a non-profit, your job is to always add value, and for that you deserve to be fairly compensated.
As a reminder to yourself, copy the following text, print it out, and put it where you can see it:
As long as you’re adding value, you’re not costing anyone anything.
Let’s look at an example of adding value.
Apple just launched the AirPods Max at $549. A premium price for a premium product. These things sold out in a matter of days. Here’s what’s remarkable: most buyers did not have a chance to try these headphones out first.
Because of Apple’s reputation and marketing, these buyers believed they’d be getting value for money.
Have I got news for you!
You don’t have to be an Apple to make people bite. As an independent contractor YOU are in charge of your product or service. You are the head of quality control. You are responsible for your reputation, and for your marketing.
So, instead of watching mic reviews on YouTube, or getting into arguments on social media, spend part of your time studying sales and marketing. Instead of spending money on new equipment you don’t really need, have someone build a better website or produce a better demo. Something that tells the world you’re not some amateur, but a real pro!
A NEW MINDSET
Turn the tables around for a change. At least in your head.
You don’t depend on that one client. That client depends on you. The client doesn’t dictate your rate. You determine how much you are worth. Within reason, and within your market, of course.
No matter what number you end up with, you’ve got to KNOW YOUR WORTH and PRICE for PROFIT. Whether you’re just beginning, or you’re a VO veteran. Otherwise you’re merely a hobbyist.
But what if a client refuses to pay what you think is fair?
As a business person you should know that you’re not right for every client, and not every client is right for you.
The great thing about being a freelancer is that there are always more and better opportunities. You just need to find them, or have them find you. That’s part of your job description.
It’s no accomplishment to book a low paying gig. It’s a lot harder to find clients that pay well and give you return business.
THE COST OF ADVERTISING
At the start of this new year, please get it out of your head that you are expensive. The word “expensive” is a comparative deletion. The question is: “expensive, compared to what?”
When you look at the cost of a television commercial, the money spent on a voice over is but a fraction of the total budget.
Unless they’re celebs, VO’s are always cheaper than on-camera actors, and cheaper than the entire crew and equipment needed to film those few seconds. VO’s are way less expensive than the big shot director, the guys who wrote the lousy script, the composer responsible for that ear worm of a tune, and the musicians playing the music.
And I’m not even talking about all the lawyers involved in making sure the campaign is kosher. When I did my David Attenborough soundalike for a national IHOP campaign, three lawyers on two continents were listening in. They had to make sure I didn’t sound too much like the famous British naturalist, or IHOP would get in trouble.
These lawyers were the reason the session took over three hours because the client wanted me to sound more like Attenborough, and the legal team wanted me to tone it down. Every word and every inflection was debated and recreated ad infinitum.
I love Hawaiian French toast, but I’ll never eat at the International House Of Pancakes again!
Do you think these corporate lawyers made more money than the humble voice over doing all the work?
Do I even need to answer that question?
If there’s anything I’d like you to take away from this blog post it is this:
You are an asset. Not an expense.
True pros consistently give more than what they take.
One hour, forty-nine minutes, and forty-seven seconds. That’s the length of the first chapter of the audio book I’m narrating at the moment.
If audio book narration is your bread and butter, a chapter of that length may be no big deal, but to me it’s an eternity. It feels like running a marathon in wet sand.
You see, after I had a stroke on March 26th, 2018, I woke up out of my sedation, unable to utter a coherent sentence. My emotions were all over the place, but I wasn’t able to express myself. It seemed that the signals from my brain to my mouth were completely distorted. (click here to read the full story of my stroke)
At one point I feared I would never be able to speak fluently and passionately again. That’s not exactly ideal if your career consists of talking into a microphone all day long. I felt like a concert pianist who couldn’t use his fingers.
Thank goodness our brain is this astonishing three-pound organ. In the time after my hospitalization, some of my grey cells started taking over from the ones that were forever lost. After months of speech therapy, I was finally able to read short sentences that eventually turned into paragraphs.
However, due to a persistent tremor in one of my vocal folds (probably a result of Atrial Fibrillation), I was only able to read for a brief period of time before getting hoarse. I had no vocal stamina whatsoever, and it looked like long-form narration wasn’t going to be in my future anymore.
But once again my body surprised me.
Months and months of exercises gave my vocal folds some renewed strength. Within a year or so, I was able to resume my voice over work starting with short scripts, and eventually I took on some longer eLearning projects. But still, after forty-five minutes behind the microphone, my voice would be shot.
During the rest of the day it would be very quiet in our house.
Now, more than two years later, I am happy to report that things have improved considerably. Recently, I felt confident enough to take on my very first audio book, post-stroke.
AUDIO BOOK NARRATION
As you can imagine, being an audio book narrator involves much more than the ability to read for hours at a time. It requires mental strength, focus, and flexibility.
Above all, the narrator needs to keep the listener engaged, especially if the material is quite dry and not so well written. To give you a quick example, here’s a snippet from the book I’m narrating at the moment. Let’s read it out loud together, shall we?
First, take a silent but deep, diaphragmatic breath:
“Capital goods have no value except as intermediate products in the process of turning out final (consumer) goods later, and insofar as the production of final products is more productive with than without them, or, what amounts to the same thing, insofar as he who possesses and can produce with the aid of capital goods is nearer in time to the completion of his ultimate goal than he who must do without them.”
Feel free to breathe in again…
It’s paragraphs like these that made the client call for a professional narrator, rather than a volunteer with too much time on his hands. The entire book is pretty much like this short selection. It’s a fascinating read, but rather dense and academic.
Could I have picked something less challenging to celebrate my reentrance into the underpaid world of spoken books? Certainly, but I had already narrated a couple of other publications in this genre for the client, and he wanted a familiar voice who could comfortably handle a few other European languages.
I’m always up for a challenge, and this one proved to be particularly therapeutic. As I said, it’s like running a marathon in wet sand, and I’m aware that I’m not cranking out the pages the way I used to. Some days I resent ever taking on this project. Other days I feel proud of myself for not giving up. In the process, I have discovered a tremendous benefit of having had a stroke.
MAKE IT STOP
When I started my rehab, I noticed it was very easy for me to be in stimulus overload. My brain simply couldn’t keep track of everything that was happening around me. Hospital waiting rooms, supermarkets, and department stores were the worst. The constant barrage of light and noise was too much for my brain to handle. It didn’t know what to pay attention to. After a while I felt an urgent need to vomit and escape.
You may argue that this is a normal, human response to these relentless triggers, but my reaction was extreme, and it prevented me from functioning. Till this very day I am still not allowed to drive a car, because my brain cannot keep track of traffic.
What it can do very well, however, is be in the moment.
As long as I’m left alone with no distractions, I can concentrate on whatever I am doing in that instant… such as narrating an audio book. When I’m involved in an activity, it’s as if I’m operating in a bubble outside of time and space. In fact, I totally lose my sense of time and will forget to take my medications if I don’t set the alarm.
I once had some milk on the stove and went down to my studio to get on Facebook, and my wife had to tell me that something was burning in the kitchen. I had already forgotten about the milk. People like me are the reason why nice homes burn down.
In my recording studio, however, this renewed focus that comes with being in the moment, is tremendously helpful. I find myself reading entire pages without making any mistakes! So, you can understand my joy when I received the following note from my proof listener:
“Hi Paul, just wanted to let you know that chapter one audio is proofed with no mistakes found.”
We’re talking about one hour, forty-nine minutes, and forty-seven seconds of pretty challenging audio.
A NEW BEGINNING
Two years ago, I thought my voice over career was as good as over, and I was struggling to communicate. Now it finally feels like I am back in business, ready to take on any script clients would like to throw at me!
Looking back, I could not have gotten to this point without the help of my doctors and therapists, nor could I have done it without the ongoing support of my wife and friends.
And lastly, I want to thank you, my readers and colleagues.
You have been checking in with me periodically, and have sent words of encouragement and hope. Whenever I felt down in the dumps and disappointed in myself, you were there to cheer me up. You probably didn’t even know you did it, but I heard you loud and clear. It meant and means the world to me!
So, my wish for the new year is to stay connected.
Soon, I will have a new website which will enable me to keep telling stories that I hope will both entertain and educate.
And yes, I promise to ruffle a few feathers too. I’m afraid I can’t help myself.
It filled me with reservation and trepidation. Here’s what was going through my mind:
1. Do I really want to spend more of my valuable time posting and responding to wisecrack quotes and grumpy cat pictures?
2. Would what I have to say be interesting enough to make a positive difference? I already have a Facebook presence and a blog. Enough already!
3. Social media has become a set of self-indulgent platforms for fakers, where blatant lies appear to be just as important as undeniable truths. Experts get as much exposure as idiots, and no one has time to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Fast forward a few years, and look at me now. Almost a thousand Insta-posts, over three thousand followers (@nethervoice), and the numbers are growing by the day.
I don’t know why, but companies I’ve never even heard of are now reaching out to me, to see if I’m interested in becoming their “influencer” or “brand ambassador.”
They will pay me if I mention them, link to them, or hold up a product in a picture.
I could be making money in my PJ’s!
Yeah, forget that. I don’t want to be in anyone’s pocket.
MY THREE CRITICAL KEYS
When it comes to my social media presence, three things are vitally important to me:
Credibility, sincerity, and integrity.
My entire reputation is based on those three pillars.
Credibility comes from the latin word “credo,” which means “I believe.” One of the reasons people seem to appreciate what I have to say, is because they trust me.
Trust is not something that can be bought. It is hard earned over a long period of time.
Even though I am known for being opinionated, my opinions are never based on rumors or on things that can’t be fact-checked. I always do my homework. Now, based on the same facts, different people may come to different conclusions, but that’s what makes life so darn interesting.
OUTSPOKEN AND EARNEST
In my eyes, a sincere person is an honest person who walks his or her talk. I’m not one of those people telling others to wear a mask, while taking mine off when I think no one is watching.
When I tell my readers to value their worth and bill the client accordingly, it would be hypocritical for me to charge a low fee to win a bid on a Pay to Play.
When I review a new product on my blog, and the maker decides to give it to me for free, I will still give my honest assessment. I’ll say it again:
My voice is for hire, but my opinion is not for sale.
You know me: I speak my mind, even if it is unpopular, and even if it could hurt my career. Isn’t that one of the reasons why you’re still reading my ramblings?
Being sincere also means opening up to you as a person, and not only as a professional. That’s why this blog isn’t only about voice overs. It’s about people and the imperfections that make them beautiful and vulnerable.
Between you and me, I merely use the prism of voice overs to talk about things that are much more important than being locked up in a vocal booth to make a few bucks.
MORALS AND ETHICS
Integrity is often explained as “uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values.” Both credibility and sincerity are part of being a person of integrity.
Yes, in some areas I am relentlessly uncompromising. However, many of my critics mistakenly believe that I’m writing this blog to convince my fans and followers of my truth. Nothing could be further from… the truth.
The truth is: it’s not my intention to change anyone’s mind. I do not possess that superpower. I do want to give my followers reasons to change their own minds, or to strengthen beliefs they already have.
By the way, I don’t like the word followers in the context of social media. People aren’t sheep, although they sometimes display sheepish behavior.
Of course I hope you’ll subscribe to my blog and follow me on Facebook and Instagram, but I don’t expect you to agree with everything I do or say. That would be scary and rather redundant.
Back to integrity.
Ethical principles and values are deeply personal. They go back to our unique upbringing and life experience. Our morals and convictions are often shaped by significant emotional events. Those events can be empowering and positive, or terribly traumatic.
What I’m hoping to do on social media and in this blog, is to offer people a fresh and different perspective based on my European upbringing and life experience. Here’s a quick example.
As someone who spent part of his life as a broadcast journalist trying to separate propaganda from facts, I realized early on that the truth is constantly under attack. We all know what happens if you keep on repeating a lie over and over again.
You end up with people who believe there’s no pandemic, vaccines are dangerous, the election was rigged, and Trump has a heart.
I publicly use this blog to expose some of the untruths in our line of work, one of them being that anyone can become a voice over.
Now, I know that because you’re reading this blog you don’t believe that, but as we speak, impressionable newbies affected by COVID are being targeted by certain unethical companies, trying to sell them a dead end dream. We need to warn these hopefuls.
I wholeheartedly hope that in 2021 we can not only discuss which microphone works best for VO, what to do with mouth noise, how to land an agent, or which computer is better in the studio, Mac or PC.
I hope we will find time to talk about how we can bring credibility, sincerity, and integrity to our profession.
If you’re up for that, you know where to find me!
One last thing before I go.
You may have noticed that this website is losing some of its functionality. The WordPress theme I’ve been using is no longer supported, comments are sometimes disabled, and your messages don’t always reach me.
The good news is that the brilliant folks at voiceactorwebsites are busy building a new blog-centered site as we speak, to be launched next year.
Thank you for all your support and kind comments in 2020. You’ve made a dark year a lot lighter!
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