Career

Would You Survive The Shark Tank?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, Money Matters 2 Comments

Three years ago, two aspiring voice-overs took the plunge, and opened up shop.

One was incredibly talented, undisciplined, and thought he always knew best. The other one wasn’t as good, but she was business-savvy, and listened to feedback.

36 months later, number one is now an Uber-driver, entertaining his clients with celebrity impressions. Number two is starting to make a living… as a voice talent.

What went wrong, and what went right? Was it a matter of luck, attitude, or preparation?

Simply put, it takes more than talent to make it as a freelancer, no matter what field you pick. Way more. Let’s explore.

INVESTING IN YOU

Here’s a question for you.

If I were an investor on Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den, and you came to me with a pitch to back your business, what would I be looking for?

Number one: I’d look for your ability to make me money. By the way: that happens to be the same reason why agents sign you, and clients hire you. 

Think about that for a minute.

You may believe that you’re doing what you’re doing to make money for yourself. If that’s the case, I have news for you.

Your clients don’t care whether or not you turn a profit. Your clients don’t want to know how much you spent on that new microphone or revamped website. All they are interested in, is this:

“Will your voice help me spread my message so I can make more money?”

Even if you happen to work with a non-profit, it’s always a matter of benefits and costs. The benefits of hiring you should outweigh how much your clients pay. If that’s the case, those clients will perceive you as an asset, and not as an expense.

MAKING YOUR PITCH

There’s a lot of psychology in selling, but it starts with this: in a competitive market you have to offer a competitive product. Something that’s different, or better than what’s already on the shelves. 

If you’re providing a service like voice-over narration, you better bring it from day one. Don’t jump into the ocean if you barely know how to swim. Amateurs learn on the job, and they get eaten alive. Professionals know what they’re doing, and they’re able to survive.

In the Shark Tank as well as in real life, you’d need to bring something to the table that’s rather unique; a brilliant solution to a common problem, sold at the right price. Yes, you heard me. As one of the investors, I would expect you to know what you’re worth and charge accordingly.

Mark my words: Those who sell themselves short, aren’t taken seriously.

You’d also have to demonstrate what sets you apart from the competition. You have to come up with a solid marketing plan, and convince me why I should trust you.

It’s also important that you present your plans compellingly and logically, particularly under pressure. The reason is simple. If you cannot sell yourself, how will you ever sell your service, especially if you are the embodiment of that service?

LOOKING AT THE NUMBERS

Lastly, you’d have to show me your books.

Some freelancers think this is the boring stuff, but to me, this is where things get interesting.

No matter what business you’re in, the way you manage your money is one of the most important predictors of success. You may have the most enchanting voice in the world, but if you don’t price for profit, and you spend more than you make without even knowing it, you may end up driving for Uber.

Your balance sheet needs to reflect a few other things as well:

  • a keen sense of organization,
  • an aptitude for making intelligent investments, and
  • an ability to control costs.

 

If it’s okay with you, I want to talk about the last two things I just mentioned: investing in your business, and controlling how much you spend. Today I’ll talk a bit about spending. Next week I’ll show you a few of my favorite ways to save. 

WHERE TO PUT YOUR MONEY

No matter what some people want you to believe, you cannot run a profitable voice-over business on a shoestring budget. It starts with getting the proper training. Clients pay you because they trust that you know what you’re doing. They don’t expect you to figure it out on the fly and on their dime.

Just as a carpenter needs quality tools to deliver quality work, you need to have equipment that says you’re taking this voice-over thing seriously. Otherwise, you’re nothing more than a hopeful hobbyist talking into a stupid snowball microphone. 

Now, if you’re just getting started, here’s something you probably don’t want to hear: without a dedicated, isolated, and acoustically treated recording space, you’re not going to make enough money to stay afloat.

When a client calls, or there’s an audition, you need to be able to jump into your booth and press “record.” Otherwise the client will go somewhere else, and you’ll be last in line for that audition. You really can’t afford to wait until your neighbor stops using his snow blower, or until that barking bulldog finally falls asleep.

An expensive microphone in a bad recording space won’t sound half as good as a cheaper microphone in a treated environment. I think you get the point. Looking back at my career, building a home studio was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. It has paid for itself many times over, and frankly, I wish I’d done it earlier.

THE INVISIBLE EQUALIZER

Another investment you should make, is an investment in something invaluable that cannot be bought or rented. You can’t taste it, or touch it. Yet, everyone is using it every day (some to greater effect than others).

I’m talking about Time.

The success or failure of your business greatly depends on how you spend your time. First of all, give yourself time to become good at what you want to do. Cultivate your craft. Don’t rush it. There’s a lot more to doing voice-overs than most people think. And just because it sounds easy, doesn’t mean it is. 

Time is all about goals and priorities. We usually get things done that are important to us. People tend to get their “musts,” but not their “shoulds.” 

In a past profession, I interviewed many people who were considered to be a success. Politicians, captains of industry, and entertainers. Most of them were incredibly busy, but they were really good at planning, or had someone else do the planning for them. That way, they made the most out of every day.

These people were just like you and me, but they didn’t spend hours checking Facebook, or watching soap operas. What struck me most was their tremendous power to prioritize, delegate, and focus. Whatever they were doing at a particular moment, had their full attention.

So, if you wish to learn from those who are where you want to be, don’t ask them about the moment they knew they wanted to be a voice-over.

Don’t ask them about the silliest thing that ever happened to them in a studio.

Ask them how they spend their time, and learn from it.

This will help you get ready for the Shark Tank that is your professional life.

Three years from now, it might make the difference between working a dream job, or driving a cab.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Debunking Bottom Feeders

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Book, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 15 Comments

Lowest PriceSomething strange is happening in the voice-over world, and it scares me.

I know of no other profession where colleagues (and I use the word loosely) denigrate other colleagues simply because they’re advocating for decent rates.

Those who favor higher fees are regularly labeled as greedy, unrealisticelitist, old school, or as misguided union members.

Since when did it become uncool to want to make more money, or at least earn a living wage?

Is it bad for business? Would it tarnish our reputation? What are people afraid of?

Some voice-overs who operate on the lower end of the scale have even come forward to proudly defend why they’re charging next to nothing. People like Rebecca Schwab, who confessed in a blog post that bloggers like me sometimes make her feel like “a voice over fraud.”

She goes on to describe her method of breaking into the voice-over business: by selling her services at rock bottom prices. In another blog post Rebecca writes:

“Whether or not I was “undercutting” anyone was the last thing on my mind. It was simply a matter of economics.”

I’m not going to copy and paste her articles here, but I think Rebecca* needs to learn a thing or two about economics and collegiality.

The frightening thing is that she’s not alone. If you frequent certain Facebook voice-over groups, you’ll notice that even some moderators have become very defensive when the subject of rates comes up. What’s even worse, you can’t argue with these people because they will kick you out of a group if you try to start a dialogue about money.

So, rather than get into a discussion with people who are unwilling to listen, let me give you my take on some of the arguments that are being used to defend, excuse, or justify low rates. Even though we’re talking about voice-over services, you’ll find the same type of reasoning when other freelance rates are discussed.

Let’s start with something I hear almost every day:

1. There will always be a high end and a low end of the market. Accept it and move on.

That’s a given, and it’s not addressing the real issue. We all know that there’s a market for KIA and Rolls-Royce. The point is: how low is the KIA dealer willing to go to make a sale? Is he prepared to sell his cars at a loss, just to get his business going? How long can he keep that up before he goes bankrupt? It’s not a way to get loyal customers either. Next time, they’ll just buy from someone who’s willing to go even lower.

Bottom line: You need to cover your costs, and then factor in a profit. Once you get clients hooked on cheap fees, they will never pay full price again.

2. You may lose money on every sale, but you’ll make it up in volume!

That’s like buying ten melons for a dollar each, and then selling 12 for 10 bucks. Does that make any sense? No matter how many KIAs a dealer sells, if he sells them below cost, he’s not making any money. A small business owner once said: “Sales numbers feed egos. Profits feed families.”

It’s not how much you sell, but how much money you get to keep that matters. Business is a game of margins, not volume. Bargain airlines tried making money on volume. Guess what? They’re gone! Would you rather do less for more, or more for less?

3. Purchase decisions are primarily based on price.

If that’s the case, Mr. Client, I will send you your order in two years, okay? I’ll also make sure that it will fall apart in two weeks, and you won’t be getting your money back. Don’t bother calling me, because I just closed our customer service department.

Most people do not buy on price alone. They will talk about price, but what they really mean is that you haven’t offered enough value to justify paying the price you’re asking.

There’s this cartoon with a picture of a brother and sister each with their own lemonade stand side by side. The brother’s lemonade stand reads “Lemonade 25 cents.” The sister’s lemonade stand reads:

Lemonade 50 cents (clean water).

Do you want your service to be known for being the cheapest on the market, or for high quality? Competing on price is a losing battle.

Lawrence Steinmetz and William Brooks are the authors of How to sell at margins higher than your competitors. Winning every sale at full price, rate or fee. They say:

“If you want to earn a solid living in sales, you need to remember that you are going to face a consistent challenge to hang on to a higher price, because you will always find yourself competing with a fool who is going broke cutting prices.”

The key is adding value. If you don’t offer exceptional value, then your product or service becomes just another commodity. People buy commodities on price. If you’re just another web designer, voice-over artist, or car dealership, you’re in trouble.

Value means: offering more at a higher price.

4. Price does not influence the perception of a product.

If that were the case, why are people prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a Rolex, instead of buying a $50 Seiko? Most watchmakers agree that the Seiko is the better time piece.

Let’s talk about brain surgery. Why don’t people go to the cheapest surgeon in the area? Because low prices make people think he isn’t any good. Price makes a statement. Cheap = cheap. What does your rate tell the world about what you think you’re worth?

5. Some clients just can’t afford paying higher rates. I cannot change that.

How do you know they can’t pay you a better rate? Buyers lie in order to get you to lower your price. It’s the oldest trick in the book. If they could get it from someone else at a better price, why are they still talking to you?

Stop making excuses for those who don’t respect you enough to pay you a decent fee. Unless you’ve seen their balance sheet, you don’t know what they can or cannot afford. 

Know your bottom line. Add value. Don’t compromise so easily. Negotiate. Dare to say NO to a bad deal. Study the art of making the sale. It’s part of being a pro.

6. I don’t set the rates. The market does.

So, what you’re saying is that you don’t take responsibility for your prices? They are forced upon you at gunpoint? You’re just a helpless leaf in the wind?

Let me put it bluntly: The market doesn’t determine your price. Your client doesn’t set your fee. YOU do.

It’s just very convenient to tell the world that you don’t have any influence over your rate. If you can’t control it, you can’t change it. You’re a victim of circumstance. End of story. Now go feel sorry for yourself.

Market trends are the result of millions of individual decisions. Decisions you and I make, each and every day. Change the decisions, and you change the trends. 

Price-cutting is a self-inflicted wound. Should you decide that $5 for an eight paragraph voice-over script is fair compensation, so be it. Contract law states that parties must agree to enter into a contract freely, and must be of sound mind.

I’m not saying that you should ignore the competition or forget about the rate cards that are floating in cyberspace. It’s up to you if you want to look at Odesk, freelancer.com, or the $100 voices.com minimum rate, and decide that that’s what “the market” is willing to pay. After all, the only thing the client cares about is price, right?

Or you could decide to look at union rates, and make those the basis of your pricing structure.

Why not talk to a few agents? If you’re any good, they might want to represent you. They will fight for a decent rate because if you do well, they will do well.

7. I’m not a sales person. I’m an artist. I don’t know how to negotiate.

No, you’re a wimp, and you need a firm kick in the pants! Nobody is forcing you to be a full-time freelancer. But if you tell the world you are doing this to make a living, it automatically means that you’re the head of the sales department, whether you like it or not. Lawrence Steinmetz has this to add:

“The first thing you have to understand is that the selling price is a function of your ability to sell and nothing else.”

Any idiot can cave in at the first sign of buyer resistance, and offer a price cut. That’s not selling. That’s being lazy and fearful. It’s a sign that you don’t believe in the value of your product or service. Clients always pick up on that, and it will cost you dearly.

Being extraordinarily talented in what you do, doesn’t guarantee instant success. Life might have dealt you a pretty good hand, but if you don’t know how to play the game, even the best cards are useless. We all know starving geniuses.

The way I see it, you have two choices. You either learn the rules and become good at playing the game, or you stay out of it. Remember: experience is the slowest teacher.

8. Low-end rates do not affect high-end rates.

If that were the case, why aren’t rates going up, instead of down? Why have so many auditions turned into a bidding war? Actor, writer and producer J.S. Gilbert:

“While it’s not being broadcast, I’m seeing people I know who have made six-figure+ incomes at voice-over for years now, looking at incomes that are fractions of what they were a few years ago.”

I understand that we’ll never get back to the golden days of Don LaFontaine (a.k.a. “The Voice of G-d”) and his limo. Thanks to the internet, the rise in home studios, and online job boards, clients no longer have to book union talent at union rates through an agent. Talk has become a lot cheaper.

As Gilbert pointed out to me, a job that used to cost the client $1000, is now offered at $250. But why pay $250 if some fool is willing to do it for $25?

As I said before, once clients are taught they can get it for less, why should they pay a penny more? Give me one reason why this trend does not impact today’s prices, and has never done so in the past. 

9. But I’m just getting started. I can’t possibly ask full price.

Some beginners admitted to me that they’ve offered their services for free, just to be able to build a portfolio. Mind you: they were not talking about doing stuff for charity.

I think a freebie only makes sense if you have something else to sell. That’s why a baker hands out samples, and that’s why my custom demos are free of charge. But if you’re giving 500 dollars worth of services away for free, you’re not only creating expectations, you’re in fact saying: “This is what I think my work is worth.” Meanwhile, you’re robbing a colleague of the chance to make five hundred bucks.

Jason Fried is the co-founder and President of software solution provider Basecamp. He recommends you practice charging a reasonable rate from day one. But what he said next was a real eye-opener to me:

“It’s very safe to charge low rates, because you don’t have to prove anything. But as soon as you charge a customer a good price, it gives them the power to demand something from you, such as good quality and great service. Those are the types of pressures you want on you as a small business owner. You want to be forced to be good. Charging for something forces you to be good.”

10. I don’t need to make a full-time income. It’s only a hobby.

If it’s only a hobby, then why are you advertising yourself as a voice-over professional? I play the piano, but I don’t market myself as a concert pianist.

If you enjoy reading to other people, go volunteer at your local children’s hospital or elder care facility. You will probably get more appreciation for doing this, than for anything you’ve ever done before.

Most talents I know are only freelancing part-time, because they’re still building what they hope will become a full-time business. A part-time teacher only gets paid less because she puts in fewer hours. Does a part-time cab driver fix the meter so he can drive you around at half-price? So, why should you offer your services at bottom dollar?

Oh… I see. Your partner has a steady job, and the money you make doing the occasional voice-over doesn’t have to pay the mortgage, right?

Guess what? In this economy there’s no such thing as a steady job anymore. What would happen if your partner gets laid off and you become the sole breadwinner? Can your beer money pay the bills? Do you really think you could raise your rates to make ends meet?

Price buyers are the first to look elsewhere. They don’t care about your personal situation. They care about cutting costs. But stop thinking about your own situation for a moment.

There are people who depend on doing this for a living right now, and they think your price dumping is nothing but unfair competition. I must admit: you’re quite talented, and by charging these low rates you are making it harder and harder for them to justify their fees.

I think it’s time for you to think about the bigger picture.

Asking for a reasonable rate is not about shameless greed or about becoming filthy rich and famous. This is about being able to provide for your family; being able to send your kids to college, and save some money for a rainy day.

Your voice could help sell millions of dollars worth of product. It can introduce people to brilliant books that enrich their lives. Your voice can be the voice of a mentor, teaching valuable skills to e-learners across the globe. Your voice can inform, entertain, sell, and assist. Surely, that must be worth something?

However…

Those who fail to build value, have nothing left but to compete on price.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

*since the publication of this article, Rebecca’s blog posts are no longer available

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS The above article is an excerpt from my book “Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing For Voice-Overs And Other Solopreneurs.” Click on one of the buttons below to get your copy.

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Are Clients Walking All Over You?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters, Personal 18 Comments

Angry manAs a freelancer, I’ve had to learn many lessons.

Some of these lessons came easy. Others were excruciating.

Out of all the things I picked up along the way, these two were perhaps the hardest:

1. How to deal with conflict.

2. How to stand up for myself.

I grew up in a very protective environment, and was taught never to raise my voice. The main philosophy in our house was this:

Most people have good intentions. If you treat them with kindness and understanding, they will treat you in a similar way.

So, when my best friend asked if he could borrow some money, I immediately gave it to him. I think I was eight years old at that time, and I had earned a few bucks by helping out around the house. “You’ll get it back tomorrow,” he said, and I totally believed him.

Of course he never returned a penny, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it something I had said? Was it something I had done? You see, that was one of my patterns. Whenever something negative would happen to me, I started questioning myself.

This made it harder for me to confront my friend and ask for my money. Part of me didn’t want to risk losing him as my best buddy. Part of me was just too scared to challenge him. “Don’t cause conflicts,” said that little voice in the back of my head that sounded very much like my mother. “People might not like you when you start arguing with them.”

A LOSING STRATEGY

I have to tell you right now: this approach didn’t work for me as a child, and it didn’t work for me as an adult. It left me with no backbone, and it made me vulnerable. Yet, when I started my own business, I did everything I could to avoid conflict by becoming a people-pleaser.

If you’re offering a professional service like I do, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You want your clients to be happy, and their wish is your command, but there are limits. I found it very hard to say “No,” even when clients made unreasonable demands.

“Could you cancel all your plans and come to our studio for an audition tomorrow? Let’s make it nine o’ clock.”

The next day I cursed rush hour traffic on my way to New York for a cattle call in some obscure basement. I would spend half a day on the highway, and a small fortune in parking fees to audition for a $250 job. It was madness.

“Since you’re a Dutch native speaker, could you check the translation of the script we sent you, just to make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be?”

Unable to refuse, I would spend the next two hours proofing and correcting a horrible script that had been translated by stupid software. All of this for a cheap client who never said “please,” or “thank you,” and who expected me to do this at the drop of a hat, and for free.

“If I don’t do it, I might lose the job,” I told myself in those days.

Five minutes later, the phone would ring. It was one of my late-paying clients.

“Paul, we’re having some cashflow problems. Is it okay if we pay you in about… six weeks?”

“I’d rather get paid in six weeks than not being paid at all,” I said to myself, and I told the client not to worry. I was going to be the easiest freelancer they would ever work with!

MR. DOORMAT

Looking back, I had all sorts of people walk over me, and I found it increasingly difficult to put on a professional smile, and be okay with being treated like a dirty disposable doormat. Even though I began to resent being disrespected, there were three things I forgot.

1. Ultimately, my ultra-accommodating behavior gave me something I wanted: a way to avoid conflict. I would be seen as the amiable hired helper who always went above and beyond. Who wouldn’t want to work with me?

2. I wasn’t a powerless victim of those who took advantage of me. I was an active participant in the process by allowing people to walk all over me.

3. By behaving the way I did, I created certain expectations. I taught my clients how to treat me.

At the time, I didn’t see it that way. I saw myself as the always accommodating Mr. Nice Guy, smiling on the outside, but suffering in silence on the inside. It was only a matter of time before the last drop landed in the bucket.

PUSHING MY BUTTONS

I had finished recording a technical script for a high-maintenance, unorganized client who always needed everything yesterday. Even though I was swamped, I managed to meet his deadline. Two days later I was getting ready to go to a wedding, when he called me with some drastic changes to the script.

“Don’t blame me,” he said. “I don’t control the people I work for.”

He basically expected me to drop everything and help him out, and here’s the worst part: he wanted me to do it at no charge.

Already in my tuxedo, my frustration finally reached a boiling point, and I snapped at this man with an indignation that had been building up for years. I’ll tell you: when I was done, I felt so relieved!

My client, on the other hand, was speechless. Once he composed himself, he just said a few words:

“I wouldn’t want you to miss that wedding. We’ll go over everything tomorrow, and I’ll make sure you get paid for your time.”

Just like that!

I was stunned.

I looked in the mirror and thought:

“So, that’s what happens when you put your foot down!”

I later apologized to the client for losing my temper, and I thanked him for teaching me a valuable lesson.

BOUNDARIES

This all happened quite some time ago. Eventually, I came to realize that I had to set some professional boundaries. Now, if you’re going through the same things I experienced, you might wonder:

How do you know where these boundaries are? They’re pretty much invisible.

It’s simple, really. You know where your boundaries are by the amount of BS you’re willing to put up with in your life.

As long as you’re okay, no lines are crossed. But if someone or something makes you angry or upset, it’s probably a sign that your boundaries have been violated. You’re likely to find out during some kind of crisis. That’s when you discover who you are, and what’s important to you.

Over the years I have developed very strong boundaries when it comes to rates, professional standards, and the terms and conditions under which I am willing to work with a client or a student.

I no longer drive to New York if a job pays less than $500. My agents know that, and they understand. Most of them will ask a producer if it’s okay for me to send an MP3 audition, instead of making me go to a cattle call. Usually, that’s no problem either.

If clients want me to translate or proof a script, they’ll have to pay me to do it, and payment is expected within 30 days after the invoice is received. I’m happy to record changes to the script after the initial, approved text was recorded, but not for free. 

NEW RESPECT

Did I lose a couple of clients because I refused to put up with their BS? Of course I did, but I was glad to get rid of them. Now here’s the kicker…

Because I was putting my foot down (ever so gently, of course), people started to respect me more.

As my self-confidence increased, their confidence in me increased as well. To my surprise I discovered that being clear about my boundaries lead to less conflict. 

My rate was no longer seen as expensive, but as a sign of professionalism. These days, many clients are willing to do a lot to accommodate me, instead of the other way around.

All in all I’d say that standing up for myself has made me feel better about myself in general, and it has brought more clients to my business.

However, there’s one thing that keeps on bugging me.

Not long ago, the childhood friend I told you about in the beginning, found me on Facebook, and now he wants to connect. It’s been more than forty years since we last spoke, and I’m curious to find out how he is doing. However, I’m reluctant to honor his request.

After all, the guy still owes me money!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: la colérica e inmediata respuesta gestual via photopin (license)

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Getting In Our Own Way

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 4 Comments

young woman looking in the mirrorThere are two types of people who are very hard to teach.

Let me break it down for you.

The first group could care less about how the world sees them.

These people often have an exaggerated sense of self, or worse, a narcissistic personality disorder. They have a hard time registering social cues, and they’re not very open to feedback. Feedback makes them hostile and defensive because they always know better. And those who know better, don’t have an incentive to learn new things. Teaching them, is like trying to fill a cup that’s already full (of itself).

The second group is the opposite. These people care too much about how the world perceives them. They suffer from the “invisible audience phenomenon,” a sense that they’re always on stage, and that the world is watching them. Gentle feedback is often taken as harsh criticism. The fearful voice of low self-esteem tells them they might as well give up. Teaching these people is like trying to fill a bottomless cup.

Of course these are extremes, but I’m sure you know one or two people who fall into both categories. Perhaps even intimately. The origin of these behaviors has a lot to do with self-awareness. You know, that thing that is supposed to separate human beings from animals.

MIRROR, MIRROR

One way to detect the presence of self-awareness is to do the mirror test. When a dog sees his reflection in a mirror, he’ll think it’s another dog. When we see our reflection, we know we’re staring at ourselves.

If you’d let group one and two do the mirror test, here’s what you would find:

The first group looks into the mirror, and finds it irresistible. The second group can’t stand their own reflection. Group one is focused on self, and group two is (consciously or unconsciously) focused on what others might be thinking.

As a voice actor and coach, I sometimes deal with people who display various forms of narcissism and self-deprecation. Oddly enough, it’s not all bad. One thing I always keep in mind is that certain aspects of these behaviors are actually useful and necessary, if you wish to survive as a freelancer (and as a voice-over). Shall I explain?

GOOD AND BAD

Let’s start with being self-conscious. All of us have to have a sense of how we come across, and we need to be aware of how others respond to us to. How else will we learn socially acceptable behavior? It’s also good to realize that we’re far from perfect. It keeps the mind open, and our spirit humble.

Secondly, as voice-over professionals working from our home studios, we often direct our own sessions. That requires the ability to recognize when we’re missing the mark, and when we’re hitting the nail on the head. If we want to deliver our best work, we need to be good evaluators of our performance. The more self-conscious we are, the easier this is.

The narcissist has an inflated sense of self. Obviously, that’s not helpful. However, any solopreneur can benefit from a healthy dose of self-confidence. You have to believe in yourself, and in your ability to attract clients. You may have incredible talent, but if you doubt that you can deliver, you’re sabotaging yourself.

The narcissist is able to recognize the good in him or herself. People who are shy and insecure find that hard to do. If you wish to have a successful career, you have to accept that you have something special to offer. Something that is worth paying for. You don’t need to be arrogant, but it helps to be audacious!

From an acting perspective, I think it is also useful to have the ability to imagine what it’s like to be a self-absorbed jerk, as well as an insecure mouse, and anything in between. The wider your emotional range, the greater your chance to land more demanding and interesting roles.

PARALYZED

Now, being overly self-conscious can have a paralyzing effect in everyday life, and in the recording studio. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why some people have such a hard time sounding natural. They’re constantly over-analyzing what they’re doing, and usually not in a positive way. They’re busy thinking about how they will be perceived by others, and whether or not they can live up to certain expectations.

In a way, that microphone in front of them is like a camera. You’ve seen it happen. People are perfectly spontaneous, and they’re having a great time, until someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they become very aware of themselves, and start acting in strange, stilted ways.

What’s really happening is this:

Without a camera pointing at them, most people focus on each other. They’re in the moment. In the flow of things. They act like no one’s watching. Naturally. As soon as a photographer or a cameraman comes in the picture, that changes. People start wondering: How does my hair look? Did I iron my shirt? Do I look fat in these clothes?

The same thing can happen in a studio. People are having a nice conversation. They’re animated and relaxed. Until the recording starts. All of a sudden the enthusiasm and the quiet confidence is gone. The voice becomes flat, and the text is not spoken but read. The narrator has become self-conscious.

In that moment, the focus on the script is replaced by the focus on self. That’s a shame, because as voice-over professionals, we get paid to let the script speak. In order to do that, we need to get out of our own way.

CAR TALK

I remember the day that Tom Magliozzi, one of the presenters of NPR’s Car Talk, died at the age of 77. For more than 25 years, Tom and his younger brother Ray entertained millions of people every week with car repair advice and comedic banter. People who didn’t care about cars, tuned in to Car Talk, if only to hear the brothers laugh.

What made these guys such a pleasure to listen to, was the fact that they talked to one another and their guests as if there were no microphones. In fact, the Magliozzi’s would be the first ones to admit that they knew nothing about radio. All they did, was be themselves. Their long-time producer Doug Berman told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air

“What you heard on the show was absolutely them. And when you finish the show and went to get a cup of coffee it sounded the same, you know. I mean, the topics would change, but that’s what they did. They sat down and they enjoyed themselves and they found humor in whatever was around them. And they made each other laugh and they made us laugh. So it was not an effort to be funny about anything. That’s how they approached everything.”

FORGET THE MIC

Of course there’s a difference between doing a semi-live radio show and narrating a voice-over script, but I think many of us could benefit from forgetting that there’s a microphone in front of us. Just imagine there’s a dear friend or close relative to whom you’re telling a story. There is no audience. There are no critics. You have nothing to prove.

Imagine how freeing that would be!

Imagine what that would do to the way you sound!

From time to time you might slip into old behavior, and invite that inner voice to start critiquing you again. As soon as that happens, STOP, and bring your attention back to the text. Be script-conscious, instead of self-conscious. Let the focus be on the music, and not on the musician.

Instead of beating yourself up when you make a mistake, be soft on yourself. It’s no big deal. Correct it, and move on.

Eventually, you’ll notice a shift inside. A shift from that self-disparaging voice, to a self-accepting voice, to a self-respecting voice.

It’s something that’s almost impossible to teach.

It must be experienced.

Inside, and outside of your recording studio.

Are you ready for your lesson?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: gonzalo_ar via photopin cc

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The Secret to Sustained Success

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 11 Comments

Soybeen sprouts“Seize the day,” “Carpe Diem,” “Maximize each moment.” 

In a society as hectic as ours, that seems to be sound advice. All of us are given a limited time on earth. The best thing is to use it wisely. Don’t worry too much about tomorrow. Get the most out of each day.

Go to any electronics expo, and you’ll find tons of smart gadgets designed to make us more productive. Here’s what I find ironic. They won’t give us any extra time off, but they will allow us to do even more with the time we have saved! Just thinking about that makes me tired. 

While some of these ingenious tools can be helpful, they are part of a trend that worries me:

Life is speeding up, and people are losing their patience. They are more focused on the short term, instead of thinking ahead.

Why? Because we crave certainty, and it’s easier to predict what will happen in the next moment as opposed to years from now. Instant gratification has never been more popular, and has never been more destructive.

A few examples. 

Politics doesn’t think in decades anymore. Voters have short memories, and demand quick results. Policies that lead to temporary gains are often favored over measures that may take years to implement and bear fruit. Let’s drill for energy today, and we’ll worry about the environment later!

We’re not interested in diets or exercise that lead to gradual, lasting weight loss. No, we demand results by the end of the week. And if that scale doesn’t give us a number we’re happy with, we blame it on the method and move on to something else. But everybody knows that losing pounds is the easy part. Keeping them off is much more challenging. That requires long-term commitment.

Makeover shows on television tell us that people can change their lives in a matter of days. It takes us a week to build an Extreme Home, five days to turn a failing restaurant around, and 48 hours to learn what not to wear. After that, we’ll never be the same again! Well, a few weeks later our dream home is leaking, the bistro is going bankrupt, and that fashion-challenged girl dresses like a slob again. 

I’m sorry to break it to you, but quick fixes rarely lead to lasting change

Short-term thinking is a big problem in the “industry” I’m a part of: the wonderful world of freelancing, in particular, the voice-over industry.

THE MYTH OF THE SHORTCUT

Thanks to false advertising, unrealistic expectations, and an attitude of entitlement and impatience, some people still believe they can rise to the top in very little time. Just read this book, take that seminar, and buy some equipment. Before you know it, you’re in business! No experience necessary. 

And when these people finally come to me for coaching because they’re not getting anywhere, they are shocked when I present a long-term plan without guarantees. 

“That can’t be,” they say. “This takes too long, and it’s too expensive. I don’t have the time, and I don’t have the money. I thought this would be easy.”

I tell them: 

“If you’re in this for the long run, a few simple steps won’t get you anywhere. Would you throw some seeds into the soil and expect a few trees to magically pop up the next morning? And would you expect these trees to bear fruit the day after? It may very well be a couple of years before you book your first job.”

One person responded: “If it takes that long, you’re probably not a very good coach.”

I replied: “If that’s what you believe, you probably won’t be a very good student.”

THE CASTING TRAP

Another example of short-term thinking is the way some people perceive the “membership” fee for online casting sites. They tell me: “If I book one nice job, this whole thing pays for itself.”

No, it doesn’t. It wouldn’t even be true if you only booked that one job. If you spend let’s say $395 on membership, and you make $395, what’s your profit? To see if that $395 would be a worthwhile investment, you’d have to look at an entire year of membership, and ask yourself:  “For all the time and money invested, how many dollars did I get in return?”

You’d have to add up all the money made through that Pay to Play in one year, and deduct the membership fee, taxes and other expenses. Then you divide your net profit by the total number of hours needed to generate that income. By hours I mean all the time spent looking at jobs on that site, doing auditions, communicating with clients, and recording/editing the audio.

When you finally look at how much you’ve made per hour in a year, is this still a good investment, or should you spend your time and money elsewhere?

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION

But don’t make the mistake that short-term thinking is just a problem for the newbie. I often encounter it when colleagues discuss the hot topic of pricing. People with a short-term view tend to charge lower rates than those who are in it for the long haul. 

“I’d rather make a hundred bucks now, than lose out on a job,” they say. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” A week later they complain that they can’t seem to make a living as a voice talent. 

No surprise there. 

Your rate is not just about money. It’s a sign of professionalism. It sends a signal to the client: “This is what I believe my time and talent are worth.”

It also sends a signal to the industry: “This is what I believe this job is worth.” 

By the way, it’s much easier to book a low-rate job than to land a well-paid gig. Any fool can undercut the competition (and go broke in the process).

If we devalue the work we do, don’t expect rates to rise. Low rates will become the new normal. 

Realize that short-term actions have long-term consequences. That’s not a popular message, and that’s why many people like to stick their head in the sand. 

If you don’t think about the long-term consequences of your actions, your life becomes inconsequential.

 A NEW FOCUS

If you wish to have sustainable success as a freelancer, you have to start thinking long-term, and big picture. You have to ask yourself:

“Where do I want to be, five years, ten years from now? How much do I need to minimally make in a year to get there? What do I have to invest? How much do I need to charge?” 

Of course you also need to factor in what people around you are charging, and what clients are willing to pay. But don’t let that limit you. Premium products command a premium price.

Even if you were to run a charity, numbers matter. That’s a hard lesson to learn for people with an attitude of “Money doesn’t motivate me. I’m just so happy to be able to do what I do. It’s such a blessing.”

You’ve got to snap out of the thrill of the moment, and plan ahead. 

Thinking big picture also means you have to think about the effect your actions may have on others, and on this planet (sometimes for generations). You don’t live on an island. It’s not just about you. What you do or don’t do may not seem earth-shattering, but it makes a difference. A tidal wave consists of many small drops. 

You can’t just go from job to job, and pick a number out of a hat, hoping for the best. You have to price for profit. You need to develop a pipeline of projects coming from different sources. And you need to save for when times are slow, or when you are sick.

Running a successful freelance business is a game of costs and benefits. It means planning for delayed gratification with all the tools you have at your disposal.

You’ve got to visualize your future.

Find allies and experts.

Dare to say no, and set new standards.

Be patient. Be open. Be humble.

And if you play your cards right,

it will pay off in the long run.

And it will be momentous!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Soybean Sprouts During Early Growth via photopin (license)

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5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice-Over

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Pay-to-Play 106 Comments

voice talent“Millions of dollars paid out to voice actors globally.”

“Audition for your dream job now.”

“Instant access to amazing opportunities.”

“New job postings every day.”

It sure sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Especially when you’re young, idealistic, and impressionable. It’s the way online casting sites throw out their net, hoping that loquacious people will bite.

Well, bite they do, and day after day an ever-growing army of hopefuls is eagerly looking at their inbox, waiting for the next “amazing opportunity” to arrive. It comes at a price, though. 

If you’re taking part in these online cattle calls, be ready to be milked!

Of course these casting sites won’t tell you that you have to spend between $349 and $399 per year to take part in a crapshoot. They’ll feed you success stories about people who claim to make a six-figure income by winning audition after audition. Anecdotal evidence always trumps independently verified numbers, right?

Believe me: People believe what they want to believe.

So, today I’m not going to give you the golden formula to online voice-over success. Sorry to break the news, but it does not exist. Instead, I will give you a few reasons why you probably should stay clear of this business. I’ll start with the most important one. 

1. The world doesn’t need you.

Yes, you’ve heard me.

We have enough people talking into microphones, thank you very much. What this world needs is less talk and more action. We need teachers, doctors, nurses, and scientists. We need experts in conflict resolution; people who know how to fight global warming, and first responders to natural disasters.

If you want to make a real difference on this planet, don’t hide behind soundproof walls selling stuff no one needs. Get out there and start helping the poor, the homeless, and the ones without a voice. They need you more than Disney does.

2. There’s no money in voice-overs.

The cost of living goes up every year, while voice-over rates are in steady decline. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Even the union can’t stop it. Thanks to online casting services and ignorant amateurs, your voice has become a commodity, sold by the lowest bidder to the cheapest client.

VO has become a game of averages, and here’s how it works.

The bottom feeders choose lowball sites like Elance, Fiverr, and freelancer.com to sell their services for beer money. The top end of the market consists of A-list actors making millions voicing cartoons and commercials. If you’re average, you’re forever stuck in the middle. You have enough integrity to leave the crumbs to the idiots, but you won’t get the big gigs for the big money.

Don’t be fooled by voice-over veterans posting on Facebook how well they are doing. Some of them confided in me that they’re just keeping up appearances. No one wants to hire a loser, so you’ve got to tell the world you’re still an important player. Yay for social media! Everything people post is 100% true. 

3. You are a social being.

Unless you enjoy going to expensive conferences to hear VoiceVIP’s talk about themselves and plug their books, you’re pretty much on your own in this business. I mean, who likes being locked up between the four carpeted walls of a 3.5’ by 3.5’ whisper box all day long?

You have no one to talk to but yourself, and you’ll never see a response from the people you’re supposedly entertaining. If acknowledgment is what you’re secretly longing for, go to a nursing home and read to the residents. Tell stories to kids in the cancer ward. It will make their day, and yours!

The sedentary lifestyle of a typical voice-over is unhealthy for the mind, body, and soul. If you’re an extrovert, you crave contact, and you thrive in the company of others. I can tell you right now that you will curse the day you decided to isolate yourself from the world, just so you could narrate some third-rate novel for a royalty share that doesn’t even pay this month’s water bill. 

4. You’ll spend at least 80% of your time trying to get work, and 20% doing the work.

Voice-overs spend a lot of time being busy without being productive. How rewarding is that? Regardless of what voice casting sites want you to believe, most jobs you audition for will go to someone else, and you’ll never know why. Don’t you love it?

But what about agents, you may ask. Once you have an agent or two, things will get better, right?

No they won’t.

The pickings are slim, and these days, all the agents in North America will send the same Quilted Northern audition to every talent with a potty mouth. That really makes you feel part of an exclusive club, doesn’t it? (Quilted Northern is a type of bathroom tissue)

5. It may take many years before you see a return on your investment.

A voice-over career cannot be bought. It has to be conquered. Slowly.

You may think you’re going to be successful because of your unique sound. Dream on! The only way you’ll stand a chance is if you stop treating your pipe dream as a hobby. This means you’ve got to invest in professional gear and in a quiet place to record. Then you have to get yourself a few top-notch demos, plus a website to tell the world what you’re doing. And this is just the beginning.

Having all of that in place is no guarantee that you’ll make any money with your voice. Thousands of people all over the world are doing exactly what you do, and they are giving up within a year. The only money they’ll ever see is when they’re selling their stuff on eBay. At a loss. 

When you really think about it, you have to be a fool to become a voice-over.

I was foolish enough to choose that as my career, and guess what?

I’ve never been happier!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS If you believe I’m being negative for no reason, you should read 5 awful things nobody tells you about being an actor. Then we’ll talk, okay?

photo credit: Sound Design: ADR Recording via photopin (license)

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Filling In The Blanks

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal Leave a comment

bartender“It’s too risky, too challenging, too expensive, and you’ll be very lonely”.

That’s what people told me when I announced that I was going to become self-employed. This was many, many moons ago.

I’m sure these folks meant well, but what struck me most was the fact that these self-appointed business coaches were all working in some nine to five job, making money for someone else. They had no clue what it would be like, to be one’s own boss. The idea alone probably terrified them. I say “probably” because I’m not sure.

What happened in these conversations was something that is universally human, and universally flawed: people projecting their own life experiences, values, beliefs, fears, and attitudes onto the life of someone else. Not hindered with practical experience or specific knowledge, they’ll tell you:

“I know precisely what you mean. I know exactly how you feel. I totally get it.”

The question is: Is that really true?

UNDERSTANDING AND BEING UNDERSTOOD

When you hear a seemingly innocent phrase such as “I know how you must be feeling right now,” let me tell you what is actually going on. With a few simple words, your friend, colleague, or family member has become a mind reader, and has managed to shift the conversation away from you and onto them. Hence the prominent use of the pronoun “I.”

They have taken what you wanted to talk about, and used it as an opportunity to refocus the conversation. Perhaps not on purpose, but they did it nevertheless. 

By saying “I know exactly what you mean,” people are also comparing their personal situation to your unique circumstances, as if these two are equal. That is hardly ever the case. Even when situations seem very similar, they rarely are, and people respond to them in their own way. That’s what makes us so interesting, and at times unpredictable.

When people say things like “I know exactly how you feel,” most of us don’t make a big deal about it, unless it concerns something very personal, and there’s a need to be understood. Let me give you an example.

WALKING IN SOMEONE’S SHOES

You may know that my wife has multiple sclerosis. It’s a nasty disease which manifests itself in different ways on different days. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue. Fatigue is different from being tired. It is often described as an acute lack of energy; an unusual and utterly overwhelming whole-body tiredness not relieved by sleep, which prevents a person from functioning normally.

So, when my wife told one of her friends that she was exhausted, and the friend (who doesn’t have MS) responded by saying “I know exactly how you feel,” my wife said:

“Actually, I’m glad you don’t. I would not want to wish this on anybody.”

I remember going to an event where friends and family members were educated about multiple sclerosis. To give me a sense of what it might feel like to experience MS symptoms, a facilitator put weights on my legs which affected my sense of balance.

Blurred vision is another MS symptom, so they had me wear strange goggles that made the world around me look distorted. I could not read a simple text they asked me to read. Then I had to wear thick gloves, and I was instructed to unbutton my shirt, which was totally impossible.

I still remember the frustrating feeling of helplessness as I was wearing this weird outfit. The things I had come to rely upon: my sense of balance, my eyesight, and my sense of touch, were seriously affected. I needed the help of other people to get around and get things done, and I hated losing my independence. For a moment.

Luckily, after a while I could take all these gadgets off, but I tell you: I never looked at my wife in the same way. Never again would I tell her: “I know exactly how you feel.” Even after my limited MS symptom simulation I can’t say I know what it’s like to have an incurable chronic disease. And I hope I’ll never find out.

PERCEPTION AND PROJECTION

Now, this may be an extreme example, but extremes can make things clear. As a human being it is hard not to compare and project. We constantly have to make sense of the world around us, and we use our own experiences as a frame of reference. Based on that I have a few questions for you:

• How often are you aware that your perception is based on projection? 

• How often do you really know what a client means or a what friend feels?

• What would happen if you’d stop filling in the blanks based on your model of the world?

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a personal or in a professional relationship. If you are using your own experience to interpret the world, you are severely limiting yourself, and you’re not doing the other person justice. You’re not even focused on the other person because you’re too busy working things out in your own head.

Or as they say in the East: “You cannot pour tea into a cup that is already full.”

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

When I give a voice-over student a script and ask him or her to read it as if they were hired to be the narrator, I can predict what is going to happen. The student just starts reading the text. A few paragraphs later I ask them:

“How did you know to read it the way you did? How did you choose the tone, the tempo, the volume, and the accent?”

And most of the time they tell me: “I thought it would sound good this way. That’s all.”

Then I ask:

“Is this what the client wanted?”

“I have no idea,” the student answers. “It’s just a guess. How was I supposed to know?”

“Well, did you ask?” is my response.

And then the coin drops.

You can’t give a client what s/he wants to hear, if you have no clue what it is. You might think you have some idea, but that perception is based on your projection. It’s like asking a bartender to fix you a drink, and he just starts mixing something. Unless you asked to be surprised, you might not like what you are getting, let alone pay for it.

“Am I making any sense?” I asked my student.

“Absolutely,” she said. And then she added:

“Believe me… I know exactly what you mean.”

“Believe me,” I answered.

“You absolutely don’t.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: via photopin (license)

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Is Your Client Driving You Crazy?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 4 Comments
David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy

The other day, one of my readers wanted to know:

“Have you ever fired a client, and why? I have one customer who is driving me nuts, but I can’t afford to lose his business.”

First of all, that’s a horrible position to be in. Many freelancers choose to run their own business because they don’t want to depend on someone or something else. Having big spenders as clients may seem fantastic, but if you’re not careful, you end up being in their pocket, and they start pulling all the shots. 

David Ogilvy, the famous advertising guru, took great care in selecting his clients. That concept alone was revolutionary. If you’re a service provider, don’t clients choose you? Isn’t that how the game is played? Not in Ogilvy’s world. 

Ogilvy and his partner would turn down about sixty clients every year, and this was one of their rules:

“Never work for a client so big you can’t afford to lose them.”

They once turned down Ford because the iconic motor company would represent half of their total billing. 

So, to get back to my reader’s question: be selective in whom you want to work with, even if you’re just starting out. Don’t put all your eggs in one or two baskets. It makes you overly dependent, and very vulnerable. If that one big client pulls out, you’re toast. 

Have I ever fired a client? I sure have, and I’m happy I did. It wasn’t all about money. In fact, in many cases money had little to do with it. 

Here are a few clients I gladly gave the sack:

THE DICTATOR

Here’s the client who thinks he owns you twenty-four seven. He always knows best; he’s overly demanding, disrespectful, and never satisfied. These people are impossible to please. The more you try, the less you succeed.

Working for dictators made me hate myself and my job. I did everything I could to avoid contact with them because it was emotionally draining. No money in the world could make up for how lousy I felt working for these bullies. 

THE VIOLATOR

Some clients act as if the rules don’t apply to them. Even with a written agreement in place, they try to bend and break it as fast as they can: “Sorry, we can’t pay you within thirty days. We’ll cut a check as soon as the end-client pays us.” 

“Did the agreement say that we have to pay you even if we don’t use your recording? Well, that’s just too bad. We have switched gears, and don’t need your voice-over anymore.”

When you continue working for a client who is not paying your bill, you are sending the message that you are not worth the fee you charge. 

THE  CHEAPSKATE 

Stay away from clients with great ideas and no budget, and the ones that try to nickel-and-dime you from the get-go. I once fired a long-time client of mine that was locked into old rates. When I increased my fees across the board, she insisted I make an exception “for old times sake.” 

While it may seem like a “nice” gesture, deals like that hold your business back. Time spent on these small-budget clients prevents you from spending that time working for a client who respects your rate. Ogilvy was right when he said:

“Only work for clients who want you to make a profit.” 

THE UNETHICAL

When thinking of your clients, ask yourself these two questions:

“Do they sell a product or service I can be proud of?”

“Will I be able to do my very best work?”

Whether you’re a copywriter, a graphic designer, or a voice-over, you will be professionally associated with a product or service you helped promote. Your reputation is always on the line.

An advertising agency I had worked with in the past, asked me to voice a commercial for one of the world’s worst weed killers. I politely declined, and they understood. My voice is for hire, but my integrity is not for sale. 

It’s up to you where you draw the line, but I would never want to be involved in something illegal, or help sell something I’m morally against. 

THE UNPROFESSIONAL

Some clients are completely unorganized and in over their heads. One day they want one thing. The next day all has changed. It’s something you find out once you start working with them. As a freelancer, you’re used to juggling many plates, but you’re not getting paid to help your clients juggle theirs. 

Sometimes clients become overly friendly. They start calling at night with some lame excuse. It turns out: they just want to talk about a personal issue, or they start gossiping about a colleague they’ve worked with. Before you know it, they’ll be asking you favors because of the perceived friendship. 

Take my word: keep things clean, and have clear boundaries. It’s painful to have to fire these clients, because you know they’ll start gossiping about you to the next professional they cling to. But if you give in because you want to be nice, they’ll suck up your time and tire you out.

THE HIDDEN MESSAGE

All the clients I just described have a few things in common: They keep you from growing your business. They drag you away from your goals. They also appear on your path as your teachers.

People who don’t respect you, are giving you a chance to learn to respect yourself.

People who distract you, are showing you the importance of being focused.

People who don’t pay you, are testing what you think of the value of your work.

People who are trying to manipulate your feelings, are helping you grow a pair. 

Now, if you are bound by a contract I’m not suggesting you break your word and fire these clients. Rather than cutting them loose, you’ve got to cut your losses, fulfill your obligation, and learn from the situation.

But should these clients contact you again for a project, respectfully decline their offer. All they would do is take the fun out of your job. And as Ogilvy said:

“Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

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Are You Suffering From Mike Fright?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Social Media 3 Comments

Candid MicrophoneWhile listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, I discovered an interesting fact.

Before legendary producer Allen Funt created Candid Camera, he experimented with a different show based on the same premise.

It was called The Candid Microphone, and it first aired on June 28th, 1947 on ABC Radio. Funt came up with the idea while producing radio shows for the armed forces at Camp Gruber.

One of the shows he worked on was called “The Gripe Booth.” Funt asked soldiers to come into his studio and talk about things that bothered them. Here’s what he found out.

During the pre-interview, most of his guests were at ease and happy to talk. But as soon as the red light went on (indicating that the recording had started), the soldiers became extremely nervous and tongue-tied. This phenomenon is called Mike Fright, and it doesn’t make for good radio.

Luckily, Funt found a way around it. He disconnected the red light, and started recording his guests secretly. He pretended to do a practice interview during which most soldiers were… themselves. And when it was time to do the real thing, he told them he already had what he needed. It was a great gimmick to get spontaneous reactions.

Funt knew he was onto something, and when the war was over, he pitched the idea to ABC, and The Candid Microphone was born.

FEAR THE MICROPHONE

It might not surprise you to hear that Mike Fright is a very common condition. Just as some people become very self-conscious as soon as they spot a camera, you’ll find that folks who are normally very eloquent, will freeze up when you put a microphone in front of their mouth.

It’s tough to be natural in an unnatural situation, even for professional communicators.

I’ve worked in radio since I was seventeen years old, and in that time I have seen veteran-broadcasters hyperventilate, and wipe the sweat of their foreheads before they were about to go on air. The live broadcasts were the worst, because there are no retakes when you go live.

Even though I believe the public doesn’t really mind that much when people mess up on air (who doesn’t like bloopers?), I’ve seen colleagues who were utterly devastated after they misspoke. I’ve often wondered why they would beat themselves up over something that’s entirely human, and here’s what I came up with:

Many of us want to be perceived as being perfect in public.

That’s why we select the best selfie, and use photo editing software before we post it on social media. We treat the world to the highlights of our life, and we don’t expose our darker side. We love sharing our successes, and we carefully hide our failures.

PRIVACY PROTECTION

I completely understand that, by the way. “The world” doesn’t need to know everything about us. We have to protect our privacy and our reputation. The way to do that, is to control and manipulate the message.

Cameras and microphones scare us because they create a situation we can’t predict or control (unless we call the shots). They have the power to expose the private, and make it public. That’s part of the success of a show like Candid Camera. People who don’t know they’re being filmed are much more fun to watch.

Audiences all over the world prefer spontaneous over studied. We want raw emotions instead of rehearsed responses. But there’s something we conveniently forget: in the media, there is no “reality.” At best (or at its worst -depending on your viewpoint), it is “enhanced reality.”

Allen Funt found out pretty quickly that reality in and of itself was pretty boring. That’s why he ended up putting normal people in abnormal situations to see how they would react. I’m sure it wasn’t all comedy gold, and much of the footage ended up on the editing floor.

THE VOICE-OVER STUDIO

In a way, our recording booth is part of the “enhanced reality.” It is an artificial setting that can be quite intimidating, especially to newcomers. Some of my students have admitted that they too are sometimes suffering from Mike Fright, especially during live recordings. Their perfectionism might be part of the problem. They want to do so well that they tense up, and become like the self-conscious soldiers in “The Gripe Booth.”

One of the techniques I use to relax my students, is taken straight out of Allen Funt’s book. As we prepare for the session, we go over the script a couple of times and have fun with it. Unadulterated fun.

What my students don’t know, is that everything is being recorded. In their perception, there is no microphone, there is no right or wrong, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. They’re “just” talking to me, and there is no pressure to perform.

That’s when the magic happens, because people start sounding like themselves. They’re by no means perfect, but perfection is never the goal. Perfection is a perverse illusion, anyway. 

WINNING AUDITIONS

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want people to do their best. I just don’t want them to overdo it. 

One of the reasons why some people aren’t winning auditions is because they sound over rehearsed. They focus too much on the microphone, and they forget to have fun. I will often ask them to position the mike above their head, practically out of sight. That way, it doesn’t distract. It’s one of those small changes that can make a big difference.

Sometimes I go bit further.

A few weeks ago, I asked one of my students to print out a life-size picture of a human ear, and tape it to her microphone.

“Why should I do that?” she asked puzzled.

“To remind you that you’re always talking to a person,” I said. “Not to a mike. It might look a bit eerie, but you’ll get used to it. I promise.”

Soon after my request she said her Mike Fright was practically gone, and when I listened to one of her auditions, she sounded so much better!

To celebrate the achievement, I proposed to take a picture of her in the booth. “It has to be spontaneous,” I said. “So, I’m not going to tell you when I’m taking it.”

Even though she knew it was coming, my snapshot took her by surprise.

“Smile,” I joked.

“You’re on Candid Camera!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 3 Comments
Father and son at the sea shore

My Dad and Me

Jake was a model employee. He’d been with the same company for 45 years, and never missed a day. At his retirement party, he received a farewell gift: a trip for two to Aruba. It was something Jake and his wife had always dreamt of.

A week later, they were on their way to the airport. While going through security, Jake suddenly collapsed, and died of a heart attack.

Jenny was a model athlete: tall, muscular, and motivated. From the age of fifteen she’d won practically every triathlon she took part in. At her Olympic qualifier she crushed the national competition. Two more weeks, and she would be on her way to represent her country.

Friends threw her a farewell pool party. That night, Jenny slipped over an ice cube, and landed on the edge of the pool. With a broken tibia, she could kiss her Olympic dreams goodbye. She never reached her old level again.

A few years ago, Folkert, my father, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. One of his doctors told him he was in the final stages, and advised him to get his affairs in order.

My father began a breakthrough treatment to which he responded remarkably well. Instead of a few months, he was given a number of years. Then he started experiencing new symptoms, completely unrelated to his cancer. Before long he was diagnosed with ALS.

DO YOU HAVE THE ANSWER

What do you make of these stories? How do you respond? What can you possibly say to Folkert, Jenny, and to Jake’s wife?

Is there a satisfactory answer to the question why bad things happen to good people?

Some have tried to come up with something, as if knowing the answer would somehow soften the blow. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, I get very uncomfortable when people attempt to make a wrong right. On what authority are they speaking? What do they know that I don’t?

Please don’t tell me that “everything happens for a reason,” or that it’s “for the better.” Don’t tell me there is a G-d who orchestrates cruel things out of love for his unruly children. Don’t tell me that Jake, Jenny, and Folkert deserved their fate because of some colossal cosmic conspiracy we call karma.

It doesn’t help.

It only hurts.

Yet, in the back of most people’s minds is the belief that we reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. It’s at the heart of the American Dream. If you study, apply yourself, and work hard, you can go from foster care to self-made millionaire. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If you are a good person, good things will happen to you. Good boys get rewarded. Bad boys get punished.

But what about all those bad boys who end up on top? The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more selfish, cutthroat executives you’ll encounter. They didn’t get there by playing nice. In certain circles, success knows no mercy. It’s either eat or be eaten. Sharks in fancy suits walk all over gentle Mr. Goody two-shoes, the docile doormat.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR CAREER

A few days ago I had a serious conversation with one of my voice-over students. In the last twelve months, she had invested a nice chunk of change in her studio. She bought a great new mic, a lovely preamp, and even a new computer.

I believe in her, and more importantly, she believes in herself.

When we started our session, she sounded peeved.

“Paul,” she said, “Over the past couple of years I have worked my butt off. You know that. I promised myself to give this voice-over thing a good shot. When I listen back to some of my early recordings, I can tell that I have grown. And when I listen to what else is out there, I know I have something to offer. You said so yourself. But get this…

The other day I told one of my voice-over friends that I was going to audition for that commercial we talked about. I really poured everything you’ve taught me into that audition, and I sounded pretty good, if I say so myself. Guess who got the job? My friend! The one who has zero personality and zero experience. She even let me listen to her audition, and it was mediocre at best.

Be honest with me, Paul. Did I just waste years of my life? Should I sell my equipment? What good did all of that training do if I get beaten by a newbie? It’s so frustrating, and it makes me mad! How long do I have to wait for my big break?”

THE MYTH OF OVERNIGHT SUCCESS

When I heard her question, I had to think of actress Jenna Fischer. You probably know her as Pam from the American version of The Office. She always wanted to be an actor, and she eventually moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream. She fully expected to be working in movies within a year of coming to LA. It didn’t happen that way.

Jenna worked as a temp, she took acting and improv classes, and she borrowed money to make ends meet. At one point she had to wear a pair of shoes with a hole in them because she couldn’t afford anything else. It took her more than six long years before she finally got “discovered.”

Jenna Fischer is a perfect example of the adage that it can take years to become an overnight success. She knows from experience that the (voice) acting business is without guarantees, no matter how talented and motivated you are. When asked about it, she had this to say:

“This business is not fair. It is not like other businesses where if you show up, and work above and beyond everyone’s expectations, you are pretty much guaranteed to move up the ladder. I don’t know why it works out for some and not for others. And when you move here (Hollywood, P.S.) you have no idea which camp you are going to fall into.”

JUST BE FAIR

“Fair” is an interesting concept. Most dictionaries define it as “in accordance with the rules.” Most rules civil societies live by, are practical, logical, and even reasonable. They’re an example of cause-effect thinking: If A, then B. Without rules, life would be chaotic. 

Most of us have unwritten rules that guide our hopes and expectations. To name a few: “If I train hard, and do my very best, I will be successful.” Or “If I live a healthy life, I will live a long life.”

Here’s the problem: those rules aren’t always reasonable, and they are rarely absolute. They only seem that way. What makes sense, and what seems right from our limited perspective, doesn’t necessarily happen. Kind, innocent people die young. Selfish bastards live to be a hundred. No explanation given. 

Secondly: Most people don’t play by our rules. They might not even be aware of them. Perhaps they’re playing a different game altogether, and we don’t even see it. Many decisions that affect us, have nothing to do with us. 

Third: Life isn’t logical. It’s not a matter of “If A, then B.” Usually, it’s: “If A, then D or Z.” People are emotional beings, and what they do isn’t cold and calculated. We forget. We make mistakes. We act impulsively, and break all the rules.

Last but not least: Even though we often think we are, we’re never one hundred percent in control. If we’re physically and mentally healthy, we can control our actions to a great extent, but we cannot control the outcome. Life consists of too many variables. Even perfectionists have to admit that…. at some point.  

NOW WHAT?

So, where does this leave us?

Are we hopeless and helpless leaves in the winds of chance? Should we stop trying to accomplish things, simply because the outcome is uncertain, and likely to be unfair?

I’ll tell you what I think we should do.

We should begin by skipping the question “Why.” “Why me, why this, why now?”

Asking “Why” is asking for a logical, reasonable explanation which you won’t always get. I hate to break it to you, but your rules, conscious or unconscious, don’t apply all the time. 

My student did everything she could to win that audition. There was nothing she could have done to change the preference of the client.

Jenny missed the Olympics because she accidentally stepped on that ice cube. It wasn’t part of some devious celestial plan.

Jake had earned that dream vacation, but he died at the airport because his heart stopped working. Period.

My father did nothing to deserve ALS. There wasn’t anything he could have done to prevent it from affecting him. The question “fair or not fair” wasn’t going to change his condition. He had to learn to live with ALS, and he eventually chose to end life on his own terms.

One last thing, if I may.

Most people tend to contemplate the issue of fairness when they believe they’ve been wronged, tricked, or were denied something they felt entitled to. That’s when they will ask the question “Why?”

When things go really well, and life smiles upon us, we hardly ever ask the question “Why me, why this, why now?”

We take our good fortune for granted.

Think about it.

Is that really fair?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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