Career

The Myth of the Shortcut

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters Leave a comment

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

In a society as hectic as ours, that seems to be sound advice. Especially at the beginning of a new year.

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 do more in less time. While some of these ingenious tools can be helpful, they are part of a trend that worries me:

Life is speeding up. People are getting less patient, and more stressed.

They are 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 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 cheap gear. 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 ONLINE 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 $399 on membership, and you make $399, what’s your profit? To see if that $399 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 required 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, do you think this is still a good investment, or should you spend your time and money elsewhere? Of course no one ever takes the time to run the numbers. Perhaps they’re afraid of the answer.

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).

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

How do we turn this around?

Step one: realize that short-term actions have long-term consequences.

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 sustained 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 have 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. If you think that’s just a slogan, tell me: who’d have thought people would be willing to pay over $1000 for a mobile phone?

Thinking big picture also means you have to consider the effect your actions may have on others, and on this planet (often 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. 

So, here’s my humble request for 2019:

Accept that there are no shortcuts to success.

Slow down, practice patience, and embrace delayed gratification.

Dare to say no, instead of settling for low.

Trust me.

All of this will pay off in the long run!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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My Most Moving And Miraculous Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Promotion, Social Media, Studio 6 Comments

Paul Strikwerda

Counting correctly, this is my 49th entry this year. Wow!

You may have read them all, or you may have read a few. Anyhow, I’m glad you’re here so I can remind you of the stories you have memorized, as well as the ones you may have missed. As always, blue text means a hyperlink that takes you straight to the story.

Apart from the usual musings about clients, colleagues, and the ins and outs of running a for-profit freelance business, things took a very serious turn some nine months ago. March 26th was the day I almost died. It was hard to imagine that only a few days before, I had been a presenter at VO Atlanta, which I didn’t like, by the way. I LOVED it, and I’ll be back in 2019!

After my stroke, the blog entries kept coming, but I disappeared from your radar screen, so I could focus on my recovery. One of the things I had to work on was getting my voice back, which is not as easy as it sounds.

People going through major, traumatic, life-changing events often ask three questions:

– Why me?

– Why this?

– Why now?

In Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It, I’ll tell you how I deal with these questions. Stories like these are examples of what I’m trying to do with this blog. Many assume that since I work as a voice talent, this must be a blog about voice-overs. That’s only partially true.

For me, the world of voice acting is just a lens through which I observe and comment on the world. When I write about customers, colleagues, and communication, what I really write about is relationships and human interaction.

A story like Filling In The Blanks, is not only a tale about what happens when you start to second-guess what you think your clients want to hear. It’s a story about perception and projection. About making assumptions, and finding true meaning.

In Getting In Our Own Way, I describe two types of voice talents: the narcissist and the masochist. They are two types of people who are very hard to teach. Take a few minutes to read it, and tell me if it only applies to the world of voice acting.

One more example. Are Clients Walking All Over You? is not just about dealing with difficult clients. It’s about how to handle conflict and getting a spine. That’s something many of us struggle with on a regular basis.

Some of my stuff is explicitly written for those who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, and those who are new to the business. When it comes to these people, here’s my general approach: I tell them what they don’t want to hear. As you can imagine, that makes me very popular in certain circles.

Stories like Entitled Wannabees Need Not Reply, Ten Lies Voice Overs Tell, and 5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice-Over are perfect examples. Bored Stiff, about the unexciting parts of being a VO, is another one.

This December I wrote a 3-part series called Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? (here’s a link to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three). If you ever have the “People told me I have a great voice” conversation with a wannabe, and you’re lost for words, please point them to this series.

Now, whenever I write these cautionary articles, there are always one or two commentating newcomers who still believe I’m trying to denigrate and disparage beginners.“You must be threatened by us,” they say, or “You were once a newbie. Why are you so mean?” It’s as if I personally reject them.

Although I’m convinced The Voice-Over World Needs More Rejection, it is never my intention to spitefully discourage people who are talented and truly committed to becoming a voice actor. In fact, in my blog I give those folks tools and strategies to help them navigate a new career in a competitive market.

Take a story like Surviving the Gig Economy, or 4 Ways To Get From Good To Great. The Secret to Sustained Success is another example. As a blogger I want to warn and welcome my readers to this fascinating but tricky line of work. Not to scare them, but to prepare them. If you don’t get the difference, you’re probably too thin-skinned for this business.

Speaking of business, without customers, you would not have one. Blog posts like Is Your Client Driving You Crazy? or Learn To Speak Like Your Clients were written to help you manage the delicate relationship with the hands that feed you.

In Would You Survive The Shark Tank? I invite you to take a good look at your business to see how well you would do in front of cash-hungry investors. If you want to cut expenses, read Becoming A Frugal Freelancer. If you need to increase sales, turn to How To Sell Without Selling. If you’re struggling with getting fair rates, read Stop Selling Yourself Short.

As a voice-over coach I’ve encountered a common problem that’s keeping talented voice actors from making a good living. They have the right training, the right gear, and promising demos, and yet they’re struggling. Why?

Because they are subconsciously sabotaging their success. They might be stuck in the Perfectionism Trap. They might be suffering from Mike Fright, or they might be held back by other fears. In other cases they are lacking a support system, or they may need some serious rebranding.

This year (like any other year), I could not resist writing about gear. Check out Picking the Perfect Voice-Over Microphone, and Equip Your Voice-Over Studio For Under A Thousand Bucks. Start spending those lovely gift cards during the post-Christmas sale! I know they’re burning a hole in your pocket.

What was my greatest gift this year? I’ll tell you: it was your ongoing support when I needed it most. Thank you for reaching out after my stroke, and for showing me that you’re not just a colleague or reader of this blog, but a true friend I can count on when times are tough.

My recovery made 2018 a miraculous year.

Your help and encouragement have moved me more than words could possibly convey.

I wish you a very happy and healthy New Year!

Gratefully yours,

Paul Strikwerda  ©nethervoice

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Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 3

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 12 Comments

Leap of FaithClick here for Part 1, and click here for Part 2.

One thing I am sure of.

Human beings have a hard time dealing with uncertainty.

From the moment we’re born till the moment we die, we have a need to know.

That’s why we spend a lifetime answering questions, such as:

  • Why am I here?
  • Is there a God?
  • Can I be happy?
  • Why does evil exist?
  • Is there an afterlife?
  • McDonald’s or Burger King?

Not knowing is often worse than knowing. That’s why TV shows take us from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and millions tune in to find out who the next American Idol is going to be. We cannot live with the suspense of not knowing.

Where does this innate urge come from? I believe it has to do with control. Subconsciously, people assume that the things they know for sure, they can control. We cannot measure and control the things that are unknown.

Two friends of mine love going on vacations. Let’s call them Jack and John. Both have traveled the world in ways that couldn’t be more different. Jack’s a free spirit. He likes to improvise, and takes life one step at a time. Jack is the person who’d buy a ticket to Rome and a Lonely Planet guide to Italy, and he lets his gut feeling determine where and when he goes to explore the country.

John would absolutely hate that. He prefers to tour Italy with a group, knowing exactly where he ‘s going to be, and where he is going to stay from day to day to day. And if things wouldn’t go according to plan, he’d get very nervous and upset. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is his favorite saying.

Ask yourself: Are you a Jack, or are you a John?

That’s a question anyone should ask before deciding to become an independent contractor. It’s exactly the sort of thing that makes it so hard to be a professional voice-over. I’ll go one step further: the answer to that question is the number one reason why most people who are going freelance, fail.

I’m not making that up to rain on your parade. The Small Business Association (SBA) estimates that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years, and 66% during the first 10. Those cold numbers camouflage dreams dashed, families in turmoil, and the burden of bankruptcy.

I’ll be very clear: those who eventually become successful at doing voice-overs, are great at handling uncertainty in an economic system that favors predictability.

So, what kind of uncertainty am I talking about?

For starters, you’ll never know where your work will be coming from, and which job you’ll land, and which job will go to a colleague. If you’re not selected, you’ll never know why.

When you audition, you won’t know what the client is looking for. Many clients will tell you: “I’ll know it when I hear it.” The job description is purposely vague: “Male/Female voice, Neutral English, Young Adult to Middle Age.”

You’ll never know how much the client has budgeted for the job you just auditioned for. They all plead poverty. These days you won’t even know how much a particular job is worth anymore, and what your bid should be. You’ll be bidding on jobs in many countries and many markets for all sorts of media. There will always be an idiot who will do more for less.

Once you’ve accepted the job, things don’t get any clearer. Nine out of ten times you’ll be recording by yourself without a director, so it’s up to you to read between the lines and interpret the script as best as you can. It’s a hit or miss process.

The whole thing feels like running a restaurant where you are the owner and chef. The client comes in and wants food. “What would you like?” you ask. “I’ll know it when I see it,” says the customer. “Go to the kitchen and work your magic. But make it quick.”

Half an hour later you proudly present your finished dish. The client smells the food, turns green, and waves the plate away saying: “That’s not what I ordered! I’m not paying for that.” Or worse, they’ll eat everything and disappear without leaving a check.”

You see, that’s another thing you’ll be uncertain about. As a voice-over, you run an international business that’s based on trust. The client trusts you to take care of the job. You trust the client to pay you for the job. On time and in full.

Good luck with that!

The Freelancers Union estimates that 7 out of 10 freelance workers face nonpayment, and freelancers are stiffed an average of $6000 annually.

Who is going to protect you? So far, New York is the only city in the United States to adopt the Freelancing Isn’t Free Act which extends unprecedented protections against nonpayment for millions of New York City’s freelance workers.

But what do you do when that client in Mumbai or Shenyang doesn’t respond to your payment requests? They wanted your audio files yesterday, you sent them, and now they’re MIA. You have no leverage. The only thing you can do is publicly shame them, and demand payment up front the next time you work with an unknown client.

Given the fact that you don’t know what you’ll be working on, when you’ll be working, how much you’ll be working, how much you’re getting paid, and when the money will be coming in, how do you know you’ll be able to pay the bills?

Try getting a mortgage on a freelance income, or any other loan for that matter. If you’re just getting started you need the money the most to pay for all that equipment, your demos, website, home studio, marketing materials, and coaching sessions. And you have nothing to show for it but good intentions.

No matter how much or how little is coming in, your insurance company expects you to pay your premium on time, your rent is due the first of the month, and your credit cards need to be paid, as well as your taxes. John would go crazy going from month to month.

You may be able to live with uncertainty, but what about your family?

Now, in the past I used to say that the only factor in this business you can count on and control, is YOU.

That sounds nice, but based on my experience, most people who try their hand at voice-overs lack the knowledge, the drive, and the discipline to run a business. They can handle it as a hobby, but that’s it. Let me give you an example. As a VO-coach I can quickly tell if someone has what it takes by the way they handle my assignments.

Those who need a lot of hand-holding don’t impress me. Those who don’t do their homework and make all sorts of excuses, tend not to do well. Those who say “Just tell me where I can find work,” are likely to fail.

Many are interested. Very few are committed.

Here’s the problem: as someone who is self-employed, no one will tell you what to do. No one will hold you accountable. No one cares if you sleep in, or waste your time surfing the web.

And then there’s this.

Until March of this year, I thought I was in control. I believed that I was the certainty my business was based on.

Then I had a stroke.

I woke up weak, exhausted, and without a voice. During many months of rehab I lost thousands of dollars in work I was unable to do. Some of my clients with whom I’d been working for years, found other talent and never came back.

Instead of building my business, I am rebuilding it, piece by piece. But if it weren’t for my amazing better half, my business probably would have gone bust.

At the end of the day, running a business is about risks and rewards.

Too often, newcomers focus on the rewards, and forget about the risks.

So, if you’re seriously thinking of becoming a voice-over, are you a Jack or a John?

I know you want the rewards, but are you certain you’re ready for the risks?

If so, you are in for a most rewarding career!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 2

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Pay-to-Play, Promotion, Social Media 10 Comments

Click here for part 1

What do you think voice-overs do all day long?

Sit behind their microphones and record the most amazing scripts?

Make $5,000 for a twenty-second commercial?

Narrate yet another best-selling novel?

If you choose to believe Facebook, that’s what voice-overs do. They book, they record, and they cash in. Rinse and repeat.

Unfortunately, that’s a big fat lie, told to the world because no one wants to look like a loser on social media. We’re one happy family, everything is always great, and business is booming!

The truth is, some voice actors are doing really well, and many are not. Going into 2019, even the big names are asked to work for smaller budgets at full perpetual buyouts, while $249 seems to be the new normal for many non-union jobs. Jobs that would easily go for four or five times as much some years ago, perhaps even more.

If you’re just starting out, and your expectations are as great as your ambition, that’s probably not something you want to hear. But let’s be realistic for a moment.

Once you’ve told the world that you are now a professional voice-over, it stops being a hobby or a daydream. In fact, you’ve just opened up a business. Congratulations.

Are you ready to be a business owner?

Just to be clear: the IRS considers an activity to be a business if:

“that activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year (…).”

As someone who has coached many beginning voice talents, I’ll be straight with you. Most of my students have no clue what it means to run a for-profit business in a market saturated with wannabes. That’s a huge part of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult!

Think about it. You may be a crazy talented chef in your state-of-the-art kitchen, but if you don’t know how to run a successful restaurant, you’re doomed to fail. If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Ramsey!

Here’s where the comparison stops. A smart chef has a staff managing all business aspects of his establishment. That way, he can concentrate on the cooking. As a VO-pro you are on your own, wearing many, many hats. You’ve got to get customers in the door, set the tables, cook the food, clean up at the end of the day, and do the books.

On top of that, too many beginners don’t know what they don’t know. Between you and me, they just want to have fun talking into a microphone, and get paid for it.

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: most voice-overs spend way more time trying to get the work than doing the work, myself included (and I’ve been at it for over thirty years).

Like any business, you’ve got to attract customers. How do you do that when no one has ever heard of you (and no one cares to hear about you)? Have you thought about that?

Don’t tell me you’re going to sign up for a voice casting website, and expect them to get you work. That big unethical one in Canada claims to have a global network of over 200,000 voice-overs, and most of them speak English. By the time you open that casting email, you’re at the back of a long line of hopefuls who just received the same message. Chances are that the client won’t ever hear your carefully crafted custom demo. I mean, who’s got time to listen to over a hundred auditions?

And you pay for that “privilege”?

Don’t expect an agent to send you work either when you still have to prove yourself. The irony is: agents want you when you no longer need them. As soon as you have clearly demonstrated an ability to make them money, you become interesting. By that time you should already have a portfolio of returning clients giving your business a sustainable basis.

So, if you can’t rely on Pay to Plays or agents, what are you to do? Where do all these fantastic money-making voice-over jobs come from? Do you find them on Craigslist? Do they grow on trees?

Ultimately, finding work comes down to one person: YOU!

Here’s secret number two: it’s easier to have clients find you, than you having to find clients.

To get people’s attention, you’ve got to toot your own horn. That puts you not only in the business of providing voice-overs. You’re also in the business of self-promotion and marketing. Be honest: do you have expertise in those areas? Are you even comfortable telling people why they should hire you?

Let’s be more specific. Do you know how to design and maintain a kick-ass website that’s search engine optimized, and ready to withstand hackers? If not, do you know a reputable company that can build that site for you? Let’s assume you just spent thousands of dollars on coaching, professional demos, equipment, and a good recording space, how much money is left to get you an online presence? Include the money you pay to a company like SiteGround, to host your website.

Building a website is not just about finding an attractive template and some stock photographs. You need someone with serious copywriting skills to sell your services. Someone who can capture your essence and turn it into a brand. You also have to develop fresh content to give visitors a reason to come back to your website. How are you going to do that?

Then there’s your social media presence. Your brand new company has to be on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and whatever the next big thing is going to be. Each platform has its own rules, algorithms, and format. You’ll have to learn how to shoot and edit decent home videos, how to take striking pictures, and how to write compelling copy that makes you stand out above the crowd.

A word of warning. Once you get started, you’ll soon notice that social media is a monster that constantly needs to be fed with fresh, relevant, and unique content created by YOU. This takes time. Lots of time. If you’re lucky, your content gets picked up. More likely, it gets lost in an ocean of mindless, self-absorbed chatter crying “Look at ME. Look at ME!”

Those who are young and full of energy are used to living life online. Their self-esteem is linked to the number of likes each post receives. To them, creating a social media presence is no big deal. I have coached quite a few people for whom voice-overs is a second or third career. They’re in their fifties or sixties, and to them building a website and being active on social media is intimidating and often frustrating. It’s not what they signed up for when they dreamt of being an audio book narrator.

They want to try it the old-fashioned way: cold calling clients. It’s the most masochistic way to spend your day. With people being sick of unwanted solicitation and robocalls, good luck trying to get past the screener before you can read your script to some teenager who is in charge of promotions. These days, more and more people refuse to answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number. If you love listening to voicemail and pissing people off, go for it!

So, let’s quickly recap. Why is doing voice-overs so difficult?

Last week I told you it is hard to sound natural in an unnatural situation, and to act as if you’re not acting. You need much more than a great voice to make it.

Today we talked about running a business, finding work, and self-promotion.

Next week I’ll add another layer: dealing with constant uncertainty.

Be certain to check it out!

Click here for part 3.

Paul Strikwerda

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PPS Bob Souer, one of the nicest people in the voice-over community, has had a tough year. He has asked for our help to turn a corner and move ahead. Through the years, Bob has supported many of us with his wisdom and insight. Now it is time we support him and his family. Please visit his GoFundMe page, and give what you can give. Thank you!

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Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 1

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Studio 9 Comments
Yuja Wang performing with the National Youth Orchestra of China at Carnegie Hall on July 22, 2017

Yuja Wang

“How do I become a voice-over?”

It’s the number one question I get from my readers.

Well, if you’re one of the many people who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, this three-part series is for you. Before you leave your day job, you need to hear from someone on the inside what life is like when you depend on your voice for a living.

I can tell you one thing right now: in spite of what you may have heard, it’s not what you think it is. Far from it. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, so please trust that I know what I am talking about.

I have to warn you, though. You may hear me say a few things you don’t want to hear. Please keep an open mind. It’s not my job to either encourage or discourage you from following your dream. If there’s a fire burning inside of you, don’t let me put it out. Use this information to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

So, why is doing voice-overs so hard?

Anything that seems easy, usually isn’t.

It sounds like no big deal, doesn’t it? Talking for a living. We all do it, incessantly. Human beings need to communicate, so, why not get paid for it? Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer J. Simpson is said to be worth over $60 million, just like Nancy Cartwright who voices Bart Simpson. All they do is blabber into a microphone.

Seeing them at work in the studio, voice acting looks like so much effortless fun, and that’s where you make your first mistake. What you see is the result of unique talent, and many, many years of training, hard work, and experience.

In a way it’s like watching Yuja Wang perform a Rachmaninov piano concerto. Her playing is so fast and fluent that it’s easy to forget that even at the peak of her career, she has to practice many hours a day to get to a point where it becomes seamless and second nature.

In our society, we tend to fixate on the end result, and ignore the long and arduous journey to success. Please keep in mind that those who do well as voice-overs are in it for the long haul, and they realize that instant gratification is an illusion sold to you by people who want your money.

Back to the musical metaphor.

The relationship of a musician to a score is like the relationship of an actor to a script. You’ve got to make the words your own, finding the right tone, melody, and rhythm.

Here’s a question for you: There’s a difference between playing the notes and making music.

Anyone can read, but can you actually make music?

Let me take that back. Not everyone can read. Most people think they can, but when you give them a few lines, their volume drops, they start stammering and become very self-conscious. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. You put emphasis on the wrong words. You mumble as your tongue dries up. What comes out of your mouth sounds stilted instead of spontaneous. And when I point that out, you tell me:

“Here’s the problem, Paul. This script… those are not my words. I would never say it that way. That’s why I’m having so much trouble.”

Well, there’s your challenge! At one point, Nancy Cartwright had to find her Bart Simpson, and Dan Castellaneta his Homer (as well as the many other characters they play). They were asked to say things they would never say in real life, and convince the rest of the world they meant every word of it.

That’s part of why voice acting is so difficult. You’re paid to sound authentic and sincere, even when you’re faking it and the script sucks. And take it from me that more than half of the scripts you’ll be asked to voice are written to be read, not spoken, with too many words and too little time.

Meanwhile, you and I are still working on that text I just gave you. Now let’s put you in front of a microphone, and we’ll add an audience to the mix. Let’s assume you’re in a recording studio and the client is listening to your session, together with the director and the sound engineer.

Are you ready for that? After all, people have told you that you have “such a great voice.” How would you handle your nerves? How would you deal with last-minute script changes? How would you respond to feedback that isn’t necessarily positive? Are you patient enough to work for two hours on a thirty-second script, laying down take after take? Will your voice hold up, even when asked to scream enthusiastically over and over again?

All of the above assumes that you have passed the first hurdle: the microphone. Most people become very self-conscious when someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they don’t know where to put their hands or how to hold their head. The same thing happens with a microphone.

Once you’re aware that every sound you make is being recorded, the pressure is on. And when I say every sound, I mean every sound. Even the sounds you’re not aware of. Every breath, every lip smack, every pop, every click, every snap, bone crackle, and stomach rumble.

The microphone is like a merciless magnifying glass exposing all your imperfections.

These are just some of the things you have to confront as a voice-over professional. You have to…

Sound natural in an unnatural situation, and act as if you’re not acting.

To be honest, most people can’t do it, and they don’t need to because they have other talents and ambitions. Not every piano student wants to have a career like Yuja Wang, but those who do, better prepare themselves!

Next week I’ll talk about another aspect of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult:

It’s a freakin’ business!

Click here for part two.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Stop Giving All The Answers

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Social Media 10 Comments

One of the joys of visiting Facebook voice-over groups is this. Every day, you’ll find questions from VO-colleagues that have been asked and answered a gazillion times. In most cases, the person asking the question is new to VO (yet they’re on the Voice-Over Professionals group), and simply too lazy to do a quick search, and they want to be spoon-fed like a cry-baby.

This is not unique to VO, by the way. You’ll find the same phenomenon in almost any group on social media. In this age of information, laziness, willful ignorance, and an attitude of entitlement is alive and well!

Now, I can already hear my critics say: “Stop it already! There’s no need to bash beginners. Be supportive. You were a novice once. I’m sure a lot of people helped you out when you were new to this.”

True, but things were very different when I first stepped up to the microphone. This happened in 1980 (yes, I’m that old). I was seventeen when a national broadcaster picked me to produce and present youth radio shows in the Netherlands. I had lots of ideas, but no clue about how to bring those ideas to the airwaves.

Back then, everybody was using typewriters, rotary phones, and Rolodexes. There was no Internet to do research. No social media. No YouTube tutorials. No place like Quora to share knowledge. I totally depended on the information I was able to dig up myself, and on the help from those who were already working in the business.

SELF-RELIANT

I still have the same attitude I had when I was young. Before I would bother a pro, I would do everything in my power to find the answers myself. I did this out of respect for the experts’ time, and out of respect for myself.

Looking back, my quest for knowledge taught me more than the quick-and-easy answers the pros could have given me. To this day I am convinced that when we’re on a journey to find our own solutions, the knowledge tends to stick much better because we’re invested in the process.

I see this as a coach. My students ask predictable questions all the time. “Should I record sitting down or standing up? How do I protect my voice? What’s the best voice-over travel kit? Where can I find practice scripts? PC or Mac?”

It would be easy for me to answer these questions based on my experience. But what works for me, doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of the world. Voice-overs is not a one-size-fits-all business. My job is to make sure the individual I am coaching finds something that caters to his or her unique needs and budget.

If I were to give them all the answers on a silver platter, I’d make my students lazy and dependent, but if I send them on a quest, they’d have to do the work, and depend on themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I won’t send them on a wild goose chase. Like a tour guide, I point them in a certain direction, but they have to explore the area by themselves and report back to me. Why is this important?

FORCED CHOICES

We live in a time of algorithms. Algorithms determine what pops up in your Facebook feed. Algorithms decide what products Amazon thinks you should buy. Algorithms suggest which people to befriend, and which jobs you should go after. In an ocean of information, cutting-edge technology beyond our control filters what reaches us and what doesn’t. We are being spoon-fed by artificial intelligence.

As fascinating as this new technology may be, I believe people should use their own initiative and intelligence to gather and evaluate information first. I want them to become critical, knowledgeable voters, consumers, and professionals who are able and ready to make their own choices. You don’t need Netflix to tell you what you want to watch.

A word of warning. Our society doesn’t necessarily like these independent thinkers, because they don’t conform to the norm. These people question what’s being presented to them, and refuse to be manipulated. They don’t buy into hypes, they’re not impressed by assumed authority, and tend not to fall for schemes that take advantage of the willfully ignorant.

This pro-active, non-conformist, and critical mindset is exactly what I’d like my students, colleagues, and readers to develop. As more and more people flood the freelance market, it is vitally important to question the easy answers, to not do what everybody does, and to be the instigator of our own success.

WINNING ATTITUDE

This mindset alone will make you stand out, and increase your chances in the unregulated world of voice acting. Why is that? Because so many people are afraid to be different, so many people love the reward but don’t want to do the work, and so many believe BS because they can’t distinguish between fact and fiction.

You don’t want to be like so many people.

So, the next time you feel tempted to answer one of those common questions on social media, ask yourself the following:

“Will a baby ever learn to walk, if we carry her everywhere?”

“Is it better to teach a new colleague how to fish, or do we feed him a fish?”

“Are we really helping this person by spoon-feeding them information, or are we enabling a lazy attitude that is counterproductive to a successful career?”

Don’t expect me to answer that for you!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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What Is Holding You Back?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 2 Comments

Doll on Halloween pumpkinIf I were to ask you:

“What is one of the greatest motivators of behavior on the planet?”

What would you say?

Before you answer, let me add this:

All animals respond to it, including us, humans.

Every year, companies make billions of dollars because of it. People lose sleep over it. Others are driven to insanity because they can’t handle it. Some people use it for entertainment purposes.

The remarkable thing is this: Most of the time we don’t even know if it is based in reality. It doesn’t matter. Alfred Hitchcock knew that our imagination is way more powerful than anything he could ever put on celluloid. He famously said:

“There is no terror in the bang. Only in the anticipation of it.”

WHAT DRIVES US?

One of our greatest motivators is FEAR.

Around this time of year we are all reminded of our love-hate relationship with fear. We love scary movies. Terrifying videos games are worldwide bestsellers. The most dangerous amusement park rides have the longest lines.

Fear is fun!

Why else would people jump out of airplanes, swim with sharks, or scare each other on Halloween, dressed up like zombies?

Fear also explains why so many Americans love their guns, why we buy insurance, and why some people believe in G-d.

At the heart of fear is our deep concern for getting hurt. People are willing to do a lot to avoid a little pain, but they’re willing to give up even more to play it safe.

How many friends have given up a dream because they were afraid it would become a disaster? How many sweet souls have never declared their love for fear of rejection? How many people never dared to step on stage and show their talent, because they didn’t want to embarrass themselves?

Fear can paralyze and suffocate. It prevents people from even trying. Fear is the spirit behind the inner voice that whispers:

“I’m not good enough”

“I don’t deserve this”

“I’m sure I will fail”

“People will laugh at me”

DIFFERENT FEARS

Of course I should stop for a moment to make the distinction between rational and irrational fear. Fear of heights, ferocious animals, and fear of evil men with loaded guns is usually a good thing. When the danger is real, fear is meant to protect us from harm.  

However, we often suffer needlessly because we’re afraid of things that may happen, but probably never will. In holding on to irrational beliefs, we deny ourselves a chance to find out what will really happen when we dare to take a risk.

Many, many years ago I decided I didn’t want the security of a corporate job with corporate hours, and corporate benefits. I defied the expectations of family and friends by becoming a freelancer. Why? Because something inside me knew that the opposite of fear was freedom. I needed to be free to do my own thing in my own way, and in my own time.

Looking back, I can’t say that my road was without bumps, and that my game was free of curveballs. There were times I wished I had a regular schedule, and a regular paycheck. And yet, I am so glad I didn’t listen to those who warned me it would never work. Those people are now jealous that I can set my own hours, my own rates, and that I work out of my own home.

LIBERATE YOURSELF

If you wish to claim the rewards, you have to embrace the risk, defy your critics, and defeat your fears.

There will always be a million reasons that hold you back, but you only need one good reason to go for it.

What is yours?

Believe me, if you’re a self-starter and you run your own business, you will be asked to dig deep. People will test you, they will ridicule you, and they will desert you when you need them most. That’s scary, but not in a Halloween sort of way. In these times you will ask yourself:

“Why am I doing this? What is my motivation?”

Even though you and I may not know each other, I do know this:

There is something you are really good at. Maybe it has to be developed and refined. Perhaps it needs a few more years to mature. But you know the fire is burning, and you feel the yearning.

That talent and that fire is one of your many strengths. It is one of the reasons why you’re here. You owe it to yourself and to the rest of us to stand in your strength. That strength will help you turn your fear into faith. By faith I mean self-confidence. 

TRANSFORMATION

Faith will help you believe you can make it, even in the absence of proof. After all, how can you prove something that hasn’t happened yet? You have to believe it, before you can see it. 

I don’t know who Paul Sweeney is, but he said something powerful that has always stuck with me:

“True success is overcoming the fear of being unsuccessful.”

Perhaps you know the story of British singer Alice Fredenham. People first heard of her when she appeared on The Voice, a talent show created by John de Mol, and based on the concept The Voice of Holland. When she came on, this “beauty therapist” was all bubbly, upbeat, and full of confidence. Even though her performance of The Lady Is a Tramp was solid, she didn’t impress any of the judges, and she was sent home. Her greatest fear had become a reality. 

But Alice didn’t give up. Two months later, she appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, but with a very different attitude. Take a look:

Of course I realize that these shows thrive on carefully crafted sentimentality. Alice was accused of faking her insecurity and her tears, but I wonder how confident I would have felt on that stage.

After being rejected in front of millions, she overcame her fear and insecurity, because the song inside of her was stronger. She eventually made it to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, and signed a record deal with Sony. Sony decided to release her from her demo contract, but Alice didn’t give up. A Kickstarter campaign allowed her to record her first album in 2015.

BACK TO YOU

If you allow yourself to be motivated by fear, your focus is on what you don’t want. Take it from me, that’s not where your energy should be. Your energy should be on your strengths and your goals. Not on your weaknesses.

This week, do yourself a favor. Be like Alice Fredenham and do something uncomfortable. Do something you’re a bit afraid of; something that scares you. Don’t pick your greatest fear. Pick something small for starters. Big success is built on a series of small achievements.

Discover that what you were initially afraid of, wasn’t really a big deal after all. Perhaps what you expected to happen, didn’t. 

Next week, pick something else; something a bit bigger, and build on that experience. 

Use this trick, and turn it into a treat.

Make it worthwhile. Make it memorable. Make it meaningful.

That way, you get yourself ready for a moment when you can’t choose the challenge. The challenge chooses you. 

That’s when you’ll discover this simple fact:

Life doesn’t have to be a thriller, but it certainly can be thrilling.

Happy Halloween!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: alain l’étranger via photopin cc

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The Voice-Over World Needs More Rejection. Here’s Why.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 14 Comments

Words are powerful things.

They can inspire us, they make us laugh, they melt our hearts, and they entice our souls to jump for joy.

Words can also scare us and scar us. They can intimidate, discriminate, and humiliate.

The sound of certain words alone, can petrify people. Try this, will you?

Say the following words out loud, and let them sink in for a moment:

Terror
Horror
Pain
Death
Disaster

Did you feel the effect?

Although they are nothing but letters arranged in a specific order, they sound dark and ominous because of all the things we’ve learned to associate with them. The terror of 9/11, the horror of the Holocaust, the pain of suffering, the death of a loved one, and the disaster of losing a home in a fire.

We all carry these uniquely personal connotations within us, and -invisible to the outside world- they resonate whenever we hear these words. Here’s where things get interesting.

Although you may think that we share some of life’s ups and downs because they are part of being human, all of us experience these highs and lows in our own way. These experiences color what we associate with certain words. This explains why people can use the same words, and yet mean and feel very different things.

For instance, the word “Dutch” means something different to me than what it means to you. I was born in the Netherlands and grew up there. Dutch is part of my DNA. If you’re an American, the first thing you may think of is Pennsylvania Dutch, or a fun game of Double Dutch.

Take the word “relationship.” There’s the definition from the dictionary, and then there’ s our experiential definition, infused with memories, and expectations. We emotionally respond to the latter, not the former.

There are many scary words in our language, the scariest being the word “NO.”

A close second is the word “rejection,” which basically means the same thing. Today, I’m going to zoom in on that word, because I believe the voice-over community needs more of it.

What?

Yes, you’ve heard me.

We need more rejection. And before you reject that idea, please hear me out.

For newcomers trying to make a name for themselves in this competitive business, rejection is the worst that can happen. They’ve (hopefully) invested a lot of time and money in training and equipment, and feel ready to start playing the game. Subconsciously, many are convinced the world owes them. Why?

Well, when you make a serious investment, you should expect a decent return, right? That’s only fair.

Unfortunately, there is no fair in voice-over casting. There’s talent, training, experience, luck, who you know in the business, and subjective selection. None of them will guarantee any work.

So, when a novice starts auditioning for everything under the sun, and lands exactly zero jobs in three months, it feels like a slap in the face. Over time, they may start suffering from a gloomy condition I call rejection dejection, a feeling of failure caused by perceived incompetence.

Now, if that’s the result of rejection, why do I believe we need more of it? I’ll tell you.

1. People set themselves up for failure, and they deserve to be rejected

If you were ever in a position to cast a project, you know what I mean. You can throw at least half of the submissions out because the audio quality is appalling. Snowball microphones, egg crates, and leaf blowing neighbors can’t compete with pristine professional audio from someone who knows what s/he’s doing.

A quarter of auditionees don’t read the specs, and can’t be bothered to follow instructions. A quarter sounds fake and inauthentic, and many don’t know how to price their services. They’re either too cheap to be taken seriously, or too expensive to be competitive.

How do I know this? Because I’ve made all these mistakes! I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know without knowing it. The other day I was listening to some of my old auditions, and I was embarrassed. No wonder I didn’t book anything. But did I go on Facebook to moan and groan? No way! The only thing I could do was up my game, and rejection was the kick in the pants I desperately needed.

In short, rejection separates the wheat from the chaff, and can give people a strong incentive to learn and grow up.

2. We need to reframe rejection

The discussion about rejection almost always focuses on the poor, powerless voice-over, being a victim of the whims of a demanding, mysterious client. I’m not falling into that trap of misery and self-pity. Over the years I have turned the tables, and have come to see myself as the one doing the rejecting. It’s quite simple:

On any given day, I receive invitations to audition, and projects to record. Most of them I reject. I believe that quality, not quantity, is the secret to winning auditions. The client does not pay me to learn on the job, so I will only accept projects I know I can handle in terms of my skills and the time I have available.

I also reject projects that advocate unethical practices or promote products I cannot stand behind. For instance, I don’t want to be associated with the weapons trade, climate destruction, human rights abuses, the meat processing industry, and political parties whose ideas I cannot support. I know this has cost me work, but having principles comes at a price.

Lastly, I reject working with clients, corporations, or businesses that have been shown to act unethically. A particular Canadian Pay to Play comes to mind.

What’s the result of all this rejection? It’s the fact that I do work I can be proud of; work that makes me happy. If that’s something you want, I advise you to warmly embrace rejection!

3. We need to reject low rates, cheap clients, greedy Pay to Plays, and lowballing “colleagues”

Audio books are booming, video games are making billions, streaming services are producing more and more original content, eLearning is in high demand… I’d say the opportunities for voice-overs have never been better. That’s why so many want to give it a try.

In spite of these opportunities, many colleagues I talk to are finding it harder to get decent work for decent pay. Some of them end up doing more for less because the cost of living is going up and bills need to be paid. Agents dealing with clients tell me that it’s harder to negotiate a good rate, and that almost every client wants an unlimited buyout without paying for it.

Meanwhile, new voice casting services are opening their virtual doors, hoping to do good business with low rates and high commissions. It seems the gradual commoditization of our industry is in full swing.

The big questions is: how should we respond to that?

I think the answer lies in …. you’ve guessed it: rejection.

Be proud of your pricing, and reject rates that are insultingly low. Reject companies that triple dip, and leave you with less. Reject undercutting “colleagues.” Educate them, just as you educate your clients about fair fees.

Reject the lowballers that say: “One bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” That’s based on shortsighted, egotistical thinking. It’s not a way to carve out a sustainable career that can feed a family.

Reject the notion that your decisions do not make a difference. Every time you quote a project or you accept a fee, you send a signal to the market: “This is what I believe my work is worth.” The only reason clients are getting away with paying pennies, is because people agree to work for pennies. No one is forcing them at gunpoint.

Now, you may have all kinds of reasons why you feel you have the right to work for a low rate, but I’m not interested in reasons. I’m interested in results. And the result is that for many it’s become harder and harder to make a living as a full-time voice-over.

Do all of us a favor and stop competing on price. It’s a game you will lose, because there’s always an idiot willing to do more for less, and go bankrupt in the process.

Show some self-respect, and show some respect for your craft and your community. Start competing on added value. Prove to the client that you’re worth what you’re asking.

Because if you do things right, your added value will always be higher than your rate!

Now, if that’s an idea you reject, I’m afraid can’t help you.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Would You Survive The Shark Tank?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, Money Matters 3 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

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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

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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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