Career

How To Be Believable

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 20 Comments

Founders Hall ©nethervoiceCongruence.

It’s one of those mysterious English words I had to learn as a native Dutch speaker. Little did I know that this word would come to play a pivotal part in my voice-over career.

Congruence is not a word you hear very often. At least, I don’t. It’s sometimes used in mathematics or geometry. What does it mean?

Congruence is actually a state achieved by different elements coming together. It’s a state of agreement and harmony. In a moment, I’ll tell you why this state is so important to professional speakers.

As I continue my series on performance, I want to remind you of the five characteristics of masterful delivery. They are:

• Clear and Clean
• Convincing
• Consistent
• Context & content appropriate
• Charismatic

SAY YOU’RE SORRY

Last week we talked about the significance of clean and clear delivery. Today we’ll move on to the next C. Let’s start off with a question:

How can you tell someone’s apology is not sincere? To put it differently, how do you pick up on the fact that someone doesn’t mean what he or she is saying?

It might help to think back to a moment where one of your friends or colleagues sounded totally unconvincing. From the moment this person opened his or her mouth you knew something was wrong, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.

Was it the choice of words? Could it be the tone of voice? Was it the body language that tipped you off?

I’d like to suggest that it was all of the above.

You see, what we say, how we say it, and the way we hold our body while we are saying it, is utterly revealing.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Years ago, a collection agency wanted to know the difference between a successful debt collector, and someone struggling to collect. In this case, they looked at employees who were using the phone to commit debtors to pay. In other words: these guys were making collect calls.

Both the successful collectors and the unsuccessful ones were using the same script, verbatim. So, why did one group succeed and the other fail? One of the determining factors turned out to be the very last sentence in the script. After informing the respondent of the outstanding debt and ways to take care of it, here’s what the collectors had to ask:

“Can you make a payment today?”

Because it is constructed as a question, the natural thing would be to read this line with a question mark. In other words, the speaker’s voice would go up at the end of the sentence. That’s exactly what the unsuccessful collectors did. Collectively.

UPTALK

We all know people who are in the habit of ending their sentences on a higher pitch. Phonologists have named this tendency HRT or high-rising terminal, and they believe this trend is growing in Australia and North America. Down Under they call it the Australian Question Intonation or AQI.

To many listeners, upward inflection (or uptalk) is an indicator of insecurity, and that’s exactly how the debtors interpreted it. Listening to the collector on the phone, the person owing money didn’t think the situation was urgent, so most people would put off making a payment.

The successful collectors on the other hand, treated the question “Can you make a payment today” as a statement. Instead of going up, their voices would go down at the word “today.” It almost sounded like a command, and it had the desired effect.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN

Same words. Different tonality. Different meaning. The French even have a saying for that:

“C’est le ton qui fait la musique”

It’s not what you say, but the way you say it.

Just as our tone of voice conveys meaning, our body language can be very revealing too.

At a party, one of my friends was rather quiet and withdrawn. He avoided eye contact, and looked down at the floor.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Oh, I feel great,” my friend said. “I’m really enjoying this party.”

“If that’s the case, why don’t I see it in your face?” I asked.

It turned out that his partner just broke up with him, and he felt as happy as a sad sack of potatoes.

PANTS ON FIRE

You see, it’s easy to choose the right words. We can also make an effort to sound upbeat even if we’re not, but it’s tough to make our bodies lie. That’s because our posture and facial expressions are a result of unconscious processes that are hard to manipulate, unless…. you’re in the acting business.

Actors are paid pretenders. The more convincing they can “lie,” the higher their paychecks.

As a (voice) actor, it is your job to sell your lines so that the audience is buying it. In order for them to believe in what you’re saying, they have to believe that you believe it yourself. How do you do that? Here’s one clue:

If you wish your audience to access a certain state, you have to access that state yourself first.

What do I mean by that? Lets assume you’re a keynote speaker at a conference, and you want to pump the audience up. They’ll never get out of their seats if you take forever to come on stage, start adjusting your microphone, and you begin by arranging your notes saying the following words in the most sleep-inducing tone of voice:

“Ehhh, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor and a privilege to be here with you tonight.”

Zzzzzzzzz

Now imagine a hypnotherapist trying to put his patient under while speaking in a most animated, rapid-fire way. It’s not going to work because his words are saying one thing, and his actions are saying something else. 

CONFIDENCE

If you want to be a successful (voice) actor, you have to become masterful at evoking and managing your states. Like so many things in life, this starts between the ears.

Your external dialogue begins with your internal dialogue.

We started this story by talking about being convincing. You will never be able to convince anyone of anything without confidence. If you wish to come across as confident, you have to access a state of confidence. 

But what if you’re insecure or nervous? What do you do? Well, there are a few ways you can approach this.

Strategy number one: Just pretend that you’re confident. As kids, most of us were very good at pretending. This is your chance to become a kid again, and feign the state you wish to access. It’s fun and it works, as long as you give yourself permission to play. Are you willing to do that, or are you too stuck in your adult ways?

Strategy number two: Model confident people. Study how they walk. Study how they talk. Study their beliefs. It’s the basic stuff actors do when preparing for specific roles. Once you’ve analyzed people’s mannerisms, speech patterns and body language, it’s your turn to reproduce them, and make them your own.

Strategy number three is based on the following principle: Competence breeds confidence. In other words, the more competent you become, the more confident you will feel. For instance, years of doing live radio taught me that I can cold read any script any time and sound like I know it inside out. What’s one thing you can do to increase your competence? 

Strategy number four: Face your fears. People who aren’t very confident and convincing are usually afraid that something unpleasant will happen should they assert themselves. Unless and until you deal with that, you’ll always be stuck at the level of pretending.

NEED PROOF?

So, let’s assume you’ve taken the time to use these strategies, and you’re ready to put them to the test. How can you tell you sound convincing? How do you actually know you’ve nailed it? This brings me back to the very first word of this blog post: congruence. It’s the polar opposite of sending mixed signals.

When your tone of voice and your body language match your message, you’ve become a congruent, convincing communicator.

This does not mean that you always have to act as someone who knows what he or she is doing. It totally depends on the part you play. If your job is to portray someone who is insecure, you embody that role as convincingly as you can. 

Secondly, -like the debt collectors- you will know you’re on the right track by observing how people react. Are they paying… attention to you?

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

One last question. Well, two actually, but who’s counting? 

Have I convinced you?

Is congruence key to a solid delivery?

As a writer, I have a bit of a problem here. All I have to work with are words. You can’t see me, and you don’t hear me.

Unless you’re blessed with a rich imagination.

In that case, I hope you’ve made me look and sound incredibly convincing!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 3 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link.

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The Worst Acting Advice Ever

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 24 Comments

Looking glass smileIn my last blog post I talked about delivery.

No, I wasn’t referring to your local pizza parlor. I was sinking my teeth into our performance as (voice) actors.

If you’ve missed it, here’s the takeaway:

Delivery is what separates the pro from the wannabe. You may have the most pleasant pipes in the world; you may be an okay reader, but if your delivery is flat,* you’ll never have a career as a voice-over.

Delivery can kill a joke, and it can bring tears of laughter to the audience. Delivery can put people to sleep, and it can make them jump for joy.

Delivery is like magic dust. It can turn a text from bland to grand. It’s one of the reasons why computer-generated voices will never be able to perform a Shakespeare play in a most moving way.

Delivery, good or bad, is never neutral. Masterful delivery is:

  • Clear and Clean
  • Convincing
  • Consistent
  • Context & content appropriate
  • Charismatic


Let’s break these factors down a bit.

CLEAR & CLEAN

In order to change and improve your delivery, you first have to be aware of the way you speak. Most people mumble and stumble through life, and they don’t even know it.

People have no idea how they come across because they don’t hear their own voice the way others do. They’re so used to it that they cannot be objective. Unless they’re an expert, they’re probably not even equipped to properly analyze the way other people sound. This is not their fault. It’s built into our biology.

Our brains are conditioned to detect meaning, and to filter out fluff. By fluff I mean irrelevant sounds such as background noises, lip smacks, breaths, and um’s and ah’s. Most of the time, we’re not even listening, but we’re interpreting what we believe the other person is saying, which is also based on their body language. Plus, every conversation takes place in a specific context which helps us determine meaning.

THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

Now, take away the context, take away someone to talk to, and replace the conversation with a script. Bring the speaker into a small dark room, and have him or her talk into a microphone. Ask your wannabe to read the words on the page without making any mistakes, and make sure they know that critical ears will be evaluating every single sound. No pressure!

If you would, imagine yourself in that hot seat. 

Unless you’ve had some training and experience, you will quickly discover that the microphone works like a cruel magnifying glass. It exposes all the sounds you didn’t even know you were making. As nerves take over, your mouth gets as dry as the Sahara desert. You start fidgeting in your chair, and on top of that, your full stomach decides to make an embarrassing guest appearance.

Then you see the people on the other side of the thick studio glass, and you realize you can’t hear a word of what they’re saying. As you begin to read the first lines of the script, they start laughing, and you wonder: Is it me they’re laughing at? Am I making a fool of myself? What am I even doing here?

It gets worse.

When you’re done reading, you’re greeted with absolute silence. You can see the team on the other side, and it’s clear that they’re discussing something. They’re not laughing anymore. In fact, you detect a couple of grim faces.

Finally, the sound engineer gets on the intercom, and says rather sternly:

“Alright, let’s do this again. Before you begin, let me play this first take back to you, so you can hear what we’re hearing, okay?”

As you’re listening to yourself, you panic. This doesn’t sound like you at all. Who is this person? What’s up with those loud breaths and shrill S-sounds? What did you do to produce this sickening symphony of mouth noises? Drink a gallon of milk? Eat super salty food? And what’s up with all the mumbling?

Before your internal dialogue sends you into a deep depression, the engineer has something to add:

“Let’s try it again. This time, I want you to drink some water first, and relax a little. There’s so much tension in your voice. Please remember to E-Nun-Ci-Ate, but don’t overdo it.

And one last thing: “Be you, and you’ll do just fine.”

THE WORST ADVICE

I’ve heard that phrase a million times: “Just be you, and you’ll do just fine.” It’s supposed to sound reassuring, but it’s as contradictory as, “Act normal.” It’s impossible to do. If you are your normal self, you don’t act. You just are.

Whether on stage, in front of a camera or in the recording studio, you’re not hired to “just be you.” You’re hired to be your best, most professional self, and to make it sound (and look) perfectly spontaneous.

(Voice) actors are paid messengers. They’re paid to get information across in a way that’s easily understood and remembered. That’s why your speech needs to be clean and clear. If it’s not, it will distract from the message. In my experience, this is something the average person -regardless of their sound- is unable to deliver.

BECOMING A PRO

The average speaker is a lazy speaker. The professional speaker is aware and articulate.

If you’re thinking of becoming a professional speaker, you have to unlearn bad habits, and learn to dramatically improve your diction to the point where it becomes second nature. This is not something you can pick up through trial and error. You won’t learn it by reading books. This needs guided practice, and lots of it. Compare it to learning how to play an instrument. It’s not something you pick up overnight.

The goal is not to make you sound like an over articulating British stage actor from the forties or fifties. The goal is simply to be understood without having to work hard to get your words out. Once this becomes almost effortless, you know you’re on the right track. At that stage, you’ve become “unconsciously competent.” You don’t even realize that you’re doing it.

But good delivery requires another skill: the ability to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t always know what you’re talking about.

It has to be convincing

How do you do that?

Let’s continue that conversation next week!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 2 in a series on performance and script delivery. Part 3 is coming next week.

*To me “flat” refers to speech without vocal variety. Variety in pitch, tempo and volume.

photo credit: helenadagmar via photopin cc

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The Funniest Joke Of The Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 22 Comments
Tim Vine

Tim Vine

I love jokes.

Especially the ones that make me laugh.

Seriously!

Every year, the public at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival votes for the funniest joke of the year. Comedian Tim Vine was declared the 2014 winner with the one-liner:

“I decided to sell my Hoover…. well, it was just collecting dust.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read that joke, I had to chuckle a bit. That’s all. It wasn’t one of those tears in my eyes – I can’t stop laughing – rib-tickling moments. Why is that? If 2,000 people polled at the Festival thought this was the funniest joke, why am I barely laughing?

THE PROBLEM WITH SCRIPTS

The problem with that joke is the same a problem I encounter with many of the scripts I’m asked to voice. Well-written scripts aren’t meant to be read. They are meant to be spoken. Just like jokes.

I often compare the words in a script to musical notes. They’re dots on a piece of paper. Only when they’re played, you have the beginnings of music. And only when they’re played very well (and on a good instrument) do they have the potential to move you.

A great script can fall flat on its face due to a lackluster performance, but a great performer can still make magic out of a mediocre script. It has to do with that thing (voice) actors and comedians have in common with the Ob/Gyn’s and midwives of this world:

It’s all about the delivery.

Yeah, baby!

Now, those last two words might not make you smile, but when I hear them, I hear Mike Meyers say them as sixties-spy Austin Powers, and I have to laugh.

Delivery is the trademark of a pro. Done well, it sounds easy, but it’s not. And that’s what many hopefuls don’t yet get. 

Someone might have a resonant, pleasing voice, but as we all know, that’s not enough to have a career as a voice-over. Believing that having good pipes is all it takes, is the same thing as saying that you only need good looks to make it in Hollywood. As far as I can tell, only Tom Cruise pulled that one off.

Having the goods is one thing, but you have to know how to deliver. 

SHOW ME THE MONEY

So, the next question is: What makes a good delivery? What’s involved; can it be learned or does it come naturally?

I had to think about that when I listened back to a Terry Gross interview with Robin Williams for her show Fresh Air. At first, Williams manages to stay himself, but it doesn’t take him long to start doing all kinds of voices. The amazing thing is, Williams never sounds like someone pretending to be someone else. When he does an impression, he sounds like a completely different person. One thing was immediately clear: he’s a master of his instrument; a master of his voice.

Trained vocalists would immediately notice his use of voice placement. It’s a way for singers and actors to focus their sound into a particular area (head, mouth, chest or nose) with a specific resonance, coloring the sound. During the interview, I actually got the feeling that some of the characters Williams pulled out of his hat were sitting at different places at the table. I’m sure this also had to do with the way he worked the microphone.

If you listen to the entire interview, you’ll understand why he must have driven the sound engineer crazy…

Moving away from voice placement, what factors influence the way we come across, vocally?

If I were a college professor, I’d say: Human speech can be broken down into several basic elements, and each of these elements makes the way we sound unique, very much like a vocal fingerprint. Here they are:

  • Pitch: the degree of highness or lowness of our tone, as well as our vocal range and inflection
  • Tempo: the relative speed or slowness of the way we speak, and the way our speech flows
  • Volume: the relative loudness or softness of our voice
  • Timbre: the color and quality of a voice, e.g.  clear, nasal, raspy, breathy


COLORING OUR SOUND

These four elements can be affected consciously, and unconsciously. For instance, our health -or lack thereof- influences the way we sound. We all know that we don’t sound the same when we have a cold or suffer from a bad allergy. Our lifestyle may color our voice too. If you’re a heavy smoker or drinker, if you’re on a junk food diet, and if you’re not physically active, it will slowly change the sound of your voice. 

The way you are built and your posture have an impact too, as well as your facial expressions. Try saying something serious with a huge grin on your face… Then there’s your emotional state. A sad person sounds very different from an angry or a happy person. Environmental factors may influence your voice too. If you live in a very dry or polluted climate, the way you sound will tell the tale.  

And finally, we should consider age. After a lifetime of talking, the vocal folds and surrounding tissue lose strength and elasticity, and our mucous membranes become thinner and drier. Over time, men’s voices become higher, and women’s voices will drop. We lose volume, endurance, and control. All of this and more will influence our delivery. 

Now, here’s the good news: even though we cannot stop the aging process, you can protect and strengthen your voice. That means investing in your health. A few tips:

  • Be critical of what you put into your body.
  • Avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Avoid screaming and whispering.
  • Breathe deeply, and from the diaphragm.
  • Use good posture.
  • Manage your stress level.
  • Take singing lessons.


When you do all that, you will start to notice a huge difference in your delivery because you gain more control over your instrument. That’s essential if you want to get to the next level: making music.

And that’s precisely what I’ll be talking about next week, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, comedian Tim Vine told The Independent that his award-winning Hoover-joke wasn’t even his favorite joke of the show. Tim tells about two hundred one-liners in sixty minutes. 

Vine also won funniest joke in 2010. Here it is:

“I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

I’ll tell you what…

Never again.”

Rimshot!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be sweet Please retweet!

PPS This is part 1 in a series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 2 “The worst acting advice ever,” and part 3 “How to be believable,” in the weeks to come. 

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The Wind Beneath Our Wings

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 19 Comments

FriendsThis blog post is dedicated to my wife Pam.

 

Some fifteen years ago, I walked into the office of my very first U.S. casting agent.

I was absolutely thrilled, but I didn’t realize that I was about to make a big mistake.

The walls were filled with posters of all the blockbuster movies the agency had been involved in. Signed thank you notes from famous directors decorated the hallways. Old awards were gathering dust in the renovated warehouse-turned-office that oozed sleek, expensive minimalism.

“Our voice-over director will see you shortly. One of her sessions is running late. Would you care for some coffee?,” asked a secretary.

Ten minutes and a perfect cappuccino later, I was handed an audition script. It would take a little longer, I was told.

“No need to be nervous,” the girl said. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

It’s strange how these things work. When I walked in, I was feeling great. I knew I could nail this. But as soon as she mentioned nerves, I felt like a kid waiting outside the principal’s office, wondering what I had done wrong.

GETTING STARTED

It was my first year in the States and I was green. I even had a Green Card to prove it. I didn’t really know anybody, and nobody knew me. That’s why I had brought a friend along for the audition.

I just needed some backup, a second opinion if you will, to make sure this place was legit. Too many people were being taken for a ride by shady characters posing as casting directors, and I didn’t want to become one of them.

This friend happened to be nosy. Very nosy.

If you were to invite him to your house, he would read the back of the postcards that are hanging on your fridge. He would open up a family photo album without asking permission. I once caught him checking out a closed bedroom on his way to the smallest chamber in the house.

So, while I was learning my lines for the audition, you can imagine what my friend was doing. When the secretary was away to get the coffee, he went over to her desk and looked at some of the contracts she was working on. When she came back, he grilled her about the business, as if this was an episode of Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.

I tried to give him the Cut it out, You’re not helping me-look, but to no avail. He acted like a pit bull sniffing a hot trail.

It got even worse when we finally met the voice-over director. Initially, my friend was wise enough to let me do all the talking. But when I went into the vocal booth to record my script, I could see him distracting her with all his inappropriate questions.

When the session was over, I heard in my headphones: “Paul, we need to talk…. in private. Ask your friend to go back to the waiting area and tell him not to snoop around.”

ONE ON ONE

“Let me level with you,” the casting director said when we sat down. “You have talent. You have experience and I love your accent. I don’t think we have anybody that can bring that European sense of sophistication to a read. In short, we’d like to represent you, but on one condition.”

I knew what was coming, and I knew she was right.

“Don’t ever bring your friend to this office again. I can understand you’re new to this country and you needed some support, but seriously… I almost kicked the two of you out. He was asking all sorts of questions about how much you would be making and how many jobs we would offer you each month. It was obvious that he knew nothing about the casting process, and we hadn’t even taken you on board.

Let me be clear. Contrary to what your friend seems to believe, there are no guarantees in this business. We can send you auditions, but YOU have to book the jobs. We don’t control our clients. If they ask us to recommend five voices for a project, we give hem five voices. You might be number one on my shortlist, but that’s irrelevant. You’d be surprised how often a client picks the voice I personally find least suitable. It’s all very subjective, and you have to be okay with that. By the way, did you bring some recent headshots?”

We talked for another ten minutes, we shook hands, and I left.

“It’s up to you, but I would never do business with these people,” said my nosy friend when I came out of the meeting. “I got the weirdest vibes off that casting director. You should have seen the way she looked at me. All I did was ask some simple questions to make sure the place was kosher. What’s wrong with that?

Of course it’s up to you what you want to do, but I think you should explore other options. One day you’re going to thank me.”

He was right. I did thank him for teaching me a valuable lesson that day. I also told him that I had signed with the agency. Two months later, he went his way and I went mine. Recently, someone told me he’s now an investigative reporter at some magazine I’d never heard of.

SUPPORT SYSTEM

Our choice of friends says a lot about who we are as a person and as a professional. In order to be successful in any business, it’s important to surround yourself with people you believe in, and who believe in you.

I don’t mean people who think that every word that comes out of your mouth is pure gold. That role is reserved for proud mothers and misguided fans. You need people who look out for you in a discreet, intelligent way. Preferably, people who know the territory. There’s nothing as useless as the advice coming from the mouth of a person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

And let me tell you something else.

The most important friend you and I will ever have, is the person we choose to live our life with. First and foremost, this friend needs to be comfortable with uncertainty. Although attitudes are gradually shifting, most people still prefer the predictability of a steady job (and income) over the freedom and fluctuation of a freelance career.

If you’re living with a voice actor, you know some months are slow and others are crazy busy. You probably know how much money goes out every month, but you never know how much money will be coming in. That makes it hard to plan ahead. The perfect partner for a voice actor has a steady job with benefits. This is especially important in the beginning of a career.

Because of the ongoing uncertainty, this partner also has to be incredibly patient, flexible, and understanding. Ask any established talent, and they’ll tell you that a voice-over career is not a sprint but a marathon. If you’re still in business after the first three years, you’re either a fool or you’re beginning to get somewhere.

Not everybody can and will hang in there while you’re trying to make it in a field that’s becoming increasingly competitive. You need to sow a lot of seeds, and the harvest might be years away.

BENDING OVER BACKWARDS

Talking about flexibility… I can’t tell you how many times we have had to change our family’s plans at the last minute, because some client needed me to record a script pronto. At times I wish I had the audacity to tell that customer:

“You can’t do this to me. I have a life, you know! When you called this Sunday morning, we were all wearing our bike shorts, ready for a ride.”

Instead I keep quiet, go down to my studio, close the soundproof door and start recording that darn, poorly written script about the importance of family time. When the client says “Dance,” I dance. Meanwhile, the family goes on a bike ride without me.

If you’re not ready to roll with the punches and take life one day at a time, you’re not ready to start a serious relationship with a voice actor. And if you are, you must be a saint!

People with a steady job often have a hard time wrapping their brains around what it means to be self-employed. I’m lucky to be married to a professional musician. She understands that if someone offers you a good gig, you take it. If you don’t, someone else will, and they’ll start calling that person next time.

EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER

On paper it sounds great. Today’s voice actor stays home all day, recording short commercials and promos that bring in more money than most people will make in a month. It’s easy to forget that getting the work takes up far more time than doing the work.

Every audition brings new hope. “What if I get picked to be the next voice of ….?” (name a big brand name). “I’d finally have some income I can count on, and the recognition I’ve been secretly longing for.”

Of course you’ll never hear back about the role you thought was made for you, and when you turn on the radio three months later, you hear a complete idiot mess up the lines you auditioned for because they chose him over you. That morning, you will hear that stupid commercial over and over and over again. This will make your day. I guarantee it!

But you’re never going to take your frustration out on the one you love most, right? You always manage to stay calm, composed, and positive. You never take things personally. It’s only your voice they’re evaluating.

Instead, you send a quick email to congratulate the lucky bastard who landed the job, and you put on a fake Facebook smile because it’s so wonderful to be able to do what you love and get paid for it. Meanwhile, you don’t know how you’re going to pay this month’s health insurance premium, or how to fix the fridge that just broke down.

At that point you need a soft place to land. You need someone who has your back. Someone who doesn’t think you’re a failure. Someone who says:

“I love you. Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day.”

SWEET SUCCESS

Other times you do get lucky and you hit the jackpot. You get tons of work and you need the house to be quiet so you can finish your recordings. Who’s there to make sure you can work in peace? Who’s taking over your household chores so you can finish editing that never-ending audio book?

When things go really, really well, and your voice is heard all over the nation; when hotshot agents who always ignored you all of a sudden know who you are; when you yourself start believing that you’re the Big Kahuna now… Who’s there to celebrate your success, and keep you grounded?

When you’re too big for your boots, who will gently put you in your place? Who will tell you that there’s more to life than talking into a microphone, or being adored by countless fans? Who’s going to be there for you when the applause fades away? With whom will you share and develop other interests?

I guess it boils down to this:

WHY are you doing what you’re doing?

Does it make any sense if you can’t share your setbacks or successes with someone?

Mind you, even though I am happily married, I’m not advocating the advantages of matrimony per se. I am simply in favor of surrounding yourself with a couple of close friends who can keep you sane in a weird and complicated world. People with whom you can let your guard down, be vulnerable, and be yourself.

It’s about time we give those friends the credit they deserve.

They truly are the wind beneath our wings.

Paul Strikwerda @nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Daadi via photopin cc

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Everything is perception. Perception is everything.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 13 Comments

Some people believe that auditioning is nothing but a numbers game.

Let me tell you a story.

Two groups of kids were playing outside. Someone had written a big number 6 on the street, and a fight had broken out because of it.

One group claimed that the number was actually a 9. The other group insisted it was a 6. Before the debate got totally out of hand, a little girl shouted:

“You’re all wrong. Can’t you see it’s just a circle with a line?”

The kids decided that she was right and they went on to do some cloud spotting. But as they were lying in the grass, another fight broke out.

“That cloud looks just like a giant elf,” said one of them.

“No way,” said another kid. “It’s a fairy. Anyone can see that!”

SOME PERSPECTIVE

How on earth is it possible to come to very different conclusions, based on the same input? Well, the simple answer is that most of us tend to select information based on what resonates with our model of the world. The rest is conveniently filtered out. In other words:

We see what we want to see, and we hear what we want to hear.

A young psychologist decided to test this principle. During a road trip to promote his first book, he had breakfast in a different diner every morning. And every morning he ordered “scramberred eggs.” Not once did a waitress ask: “Excuse me sir, what did you just say?” He always got a plate of scrambled eggs, because that’s what the waitress believed he said.

As a trained journalist I happen to be a professional skeptic. I was taught to always check my sources, and in the absence of empirical evidence, do my own fact-finding. So, when I read the “scramberred eggs” anecdote, I decided to put it to the test, but with a slight twist.

NAPKIN COLE

One of my favorite sound engineers was a huge fan of a crooner known for songs like “Stardust,” “Mona Lisa,” and “When I Fall in Love.” During a break I innocently asked:

“Hey Mike, did you know that they just discovered an unknown recording by Napkin Cole?”

He said: “Really? Where did you hear that?”

For the next half hour, all we talked about was Napkin Cole. I must have pronounced the name at least 40 times that way, and not once did Mike raise an eyebrow. It was unforgettable… Next week I will ask him about his favorite female jazz singer: Elephant Gerald.

Having strong preconceptions is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, taking things for granted means that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s the principle of generalization upon which all learning is based. On the other hand, it closes us off to valuable new information. Worst of all, it seems to happen beyond our control.

For us voice-over pros this can be frightening. Whenever we record a demo, we’re basing our approach on our take on the text. We put that info through our filters and come up with a unique interpretation of the script. That part we can control. But once this demo reaches the ears of the client, everything depends on what unknown filters are operating in his or her brain. Sometimes, the effect can be unexpected and surprising.

MY BIG BREAK

A few years ago, I auditioned for an amazing job. It was one of those once in a lifetime opportunities, and I just knew that it was going to be my big break. Needless to say, I pulled out all the stops to make sure my demo was spot-on. Only after I was completely satisfied that I had absolutely nailed it, did I send my demo on its way.

An hour later I received a generic rejection. It was a huge slap in the face, and I felt like a complete failure. I listened to my demo over and over again, and I couldn’t figure out what had gone so horribly wrong.

A year later I finally got the answer.

By chance I ran into a colleague of the voice-seeker who had so cruelly crushed my dreams. He recognized my voice, and we started talking about that fateful project I had auditioned for.

I said to him: “I have to ask… I know I would have been perfect for this project. Tell me: Why didn’t I get the job?”

He paused for a moment and replied:

“I know exactly why.

You sounded too much like the producer’s ex-boyfriend.”

When I heard those words, two very conflicting emotions boiled up to the surface. I was both livid and relieved. My angry ego shouted: How could this woman have been so unprofessional?

At the same time I was glad to know that there was nothing I could have done to change her mind.

Ancient wisdom tells us that the world we see is a mirror of who we are.

Everything is perception.

Perception is everything.

It is written in the clouds.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

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If Only I had Known

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 17 Comments

Crystal Ball“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

This question (and many of its variations), is really popular among those interviewing the rich and famous. It’s meant to elicit golden nuggets of priceless information, acquired over a long and illustrious career. It’s an old trick, and it still works.

As an interviewer I’ve probably used it dozens of times, and I could only get away with my lack of originality by editing myself out. I usually kept the answer until the end of the conversation. After a short musical interlude, the celebrity I was speaking with would “spontaneously” get philosophical, and come up with this profound life lesson that resonated long after the interview was over.

Mission accomplished!

Last week, the tables were turned when a young colleague asked me same question: “Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

At that moment one realizes that it’s much easier to ask than to answer, but I knew pretty quickly what I was going to say. It brought me back to the beginning of my American career, some sixteen years ago. Here’s what I came up with:

“I wish I would have listened to my heart, instead of to my mind, when I thought of becoming a voice-over.”

I realize that this is not an eye-opening, Zen-like insight, but I know I’m not the only one struggling with the battle between warm feelings and cold logic. 

At that time my analytical, practical mind came up with all these brilliant rationalizations as to why a VO-career would never work for me. This was at the beginning of a new millennium, and I had just arrived in the United States.

I had very little money, no contacts in the industry, and I didn’t know where to begin. How would I promote myself in a country with over 300 million people? Who would hire this nobody from Holland with his funny accent?

I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and insecure.

Of course there was no Facebook or LinkedIn group where aspiring voice-overs could ask questions. There were no books about the business, and the concept of home studios did not exist. It was much easier to find a job waiting tables, and as someone who needed to make money, that’s exactly what I did.

My first job was at The Fish House in Lambertville, NJ, and even though I was a vegetarian, I knew how to sell sardines, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass. Because I didn’t know anybody, the so-called celebs who frequented this restaurant didn’t impress me.

One day, a colleague took me aside and said: “Do you know who you just served?”

I had no idea.

“The coach of the Eagles!” he replied enthusiastically. “You know… THE EAGLES!!”

I looked at him with a straight face, and said: “What Eagles?”

In hindsight I think coach Andy Reid appreciated that I treated him like a regular customer. He even laughed at one of my wine jokes. His wife Tammy wanted to know why the Jersey Chard she was drinking had such a distinctive yellow glow. I told her the vineyard was next to a nuclear power plant.

Fortunately she though it was funny. 

Meanwhile, I didn’t know that I had just taken the first step in becoming a real actor: I was waiting tables!

The restaurant was also where people began commenting on my voice, my accent, and my ability to speak several languages. To me it was kind of a party trick to help my tip jar, but kind customers asked: “No offense, but why are you a waiter? You should really do something with that voice of yours!”

Encouraged, I signed up for an open casting call at Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My heart told me that’s where I should go, but my mind was skeptical. Once again it came up with a million reasons as to why I wouldn’t make the cut. All those reasons made perfect sense, but they were all wrong. 

That day, voice casting director Joanne Joella signed me on the spot, and my American adventure in voice-overs officially began.

Well, not quite.

Even though I was booking some decent jobs here and there, my mind told me this wasn’t going to last, and that I really needed a serious position doing serious work. I was doing well on tips as a waiter, but recommending Jersey wine and pan-seared scallops did not make a career.

That’s how I ended up in a call center, surveying European hard- and software specialists by telephone. Of course these overworked, stressed out professionals had nothing better to do than talk to me, and they all loved telling me about their satisfaction with the latest network servers.

NOT.

This job had two amazing perks. One: Because we called businesses in Germany and in the Netherlands, I lived on European time, getting up at 2:00 AM, making my first call at 3:00 AM (9:00 AM in Amsterdam and Munich). Two: I had to use a script from which I was not allowed to deviate.

That was my second step in becoming a real actor: I got to use scripts!

A year or two into that pathetic call center job, something wonderful happened. All the interviewers were mercifully replaced by an automated voice response system that was much better at taking verbal abuse from German software specialists who were sick of revealing their satisfaction with product X on a scale of zero to ten, zero meaning completely dissatisfied, and ten meaning completely satisfied.

It was time for me to move up the ladder!

Did I listen to my heart this time, and would I be pursuing a full-time voice-over career?

No, my friends. My mind talked me into accepting a job as a customer service trainer at Wachovia Bank. As we all know, banks are a secure place to work. Some of them even offer benefits.

Yea for me!

Luckily, I knew nothing about the financial industry or balancing books, and I suffer from dyscalculia. That’s like being dyslexic but with numbers instead of words. It’s particularly useful when you have to stare at bank accounts all day long, and figure out why this infuriated client got slammed with five overdraft fees after buying a burger with money he didn’t have.

Here’s what I loved about this job. Since I was the lead trainer, I was in front of a class of sleepy, unmotivated students all day long. 

Looking back, Wachovia was my third step in becoming a real actor: I got to perform in front of a live audience!

By the way, if you can’t remember the name Wachovia, that’s perfectly understandable. Wachovia was eventually overrun by the Wells Fargo wagon, and they brought in their own training team to cultivate a new corporate culture.

Good for them. Great for me!

After three pointless, mind numbing, soul crushing, dream dashing jobs, I finally got the message:

“Follow Your Heart, you idiot! Become a full-time voice talent, and conquer the world.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

I strongly believe that living is learning, and that every job helped prepare me for the future I created for myself. Yet, when I look back at all those years of doing things for money while my heart wasn’t in it… When I think of how miserable I used to be, and how happy I am now… I often wonder:

If only I had known…

If only I would have taken the risk, and had followed my dreams from the get-go. Where would I be now?

Would I be a household name? Would obnoxious fans ask for my autograph at crazy comicons and conventions? Would agents fight to represent me? Would I be rich and famous?

Well, if that were me, I’m pretty sure that one day, a young reporter would knock on my door. After an in-depth, hour-long interview, he would pause and get ready for that very last killer-question:

“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: you probably don’t wanna know via photopin (license)

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How Not To Be Like Jeremy Clarkson

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Journalism & Media, Social Media 26 Comments

Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May with Tony Harrison's Lancia Beta Coupe Stanford Hall 2008 Last Sunday, the BBC premiered the 23rd season of Top Gear with a new team of presenters. The program drew disappointing ratings in the UK and abroad. This had a lot to do with the absence of star presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who was forced to leave the show. More about that later.

Because Clarkson was such a dominating presence on Top Gear, he might have thought that the program wouldn’t stand a chance without him. Perhaps the critics and viewers proved him right. After all, there’s only one Jeremy Clarkson. This had me wondering…

Do you ever think you’re indispensable?

Do you believe your clients, your readers, or your viewers can’t live without you?

Unfortunately, the reality for most independent contractors is that they can be tossed out any time. The price of freelance freedom is often paid in uncertainty and stress.

In theory, this uncertainty should at least be partially compensated by a higher paycheck. But you know as well as I do that we have to fight for decent rates. 

Small fish in a big ocean don’t have a lot of leverage in the labor market, unless they operate as a school. But what about the big fish? How far are they allowed to go?

INFLATED EGOS

Some people, especially in the entertainment industry, seem to think they are untouchable, and they behave accordingly.

Like spoiled children.

Over the years they have gathered a loyal following, and have amassed a considerable fortune. Whenever they enter a room, people ooh and aah, and ask for autographs and selfies.

When these celebs say something that isn’t even remotely funny, people laugh hysterically. Some are suddenly seen as “thought leaders,” “trend setters,” or as the sexiest men/women alive.

Photographers will pray or pay for a pose and a smile. Companies fight for the opportunity to stuff backstage gift bags, hoping for a tweet of acknowledgment or better still: a product endorsement.

And so, the people who have everything they could possibly wish for, get even more without paying a dime. Those who aren’t as fortunate, can only hope, dream, and drool.

But fame is fickle, and recognition can be a double-edged sword.

The higher you climb, the lower you can fall. But if your cushion is elastic enough, you may be able to bounce back. Comfortably.

TOP GEAR

On March 25th, 2015, the BBC fired Jeremy Clarkson, one of the presenters of Top Gear. Top Gear is one of the most successful programs in the history of the Beeb, bringing in millions of pounds every year. The car show is one of the biggest factual TV shows in the world with an estimated audience of 350 million in 200 countries. People who don’t even care for cars (myself included) watch Top Gear religiously.

Clarkson’s sacking was self-induced. He was fired for physically and verbally attacking one of the producers because no hot food was provided after a day’s filming. Prior to that, he had been given a final warning because of earlier controversies. “This time,” said the BBC, “a line was crossed.” Clarkson was dismissed, in spite of the million+ people who had signed an online petition to reinstate him.

Yes, we’re all unique, but no one is irreplaceable, or above the law.

As Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director-General, said: “There cannot be one rule for one and one rule for another dictated by either rank, or public relations and commercial considerations.”

The question is: Who will have the last laugh?

Clarkson’s contract was up for renewal anyway, and as soon as he left, other networks in Great Britain started fighting over who could offer the man the most lucrative deal. In the end, Amazon Video won out. Like the Terminator, Clarkson (and fellow-presenters Richard Hammond & James May) will be back, making more money than ever.

THE TAKEAWAY

As much as I deplore what Clarkson did, I wondered if we could learn anything from what happened. Like Clarkson, you and I work with producers and directors all the time. Some of them are very nice people. Others are not. Some make unreasonable demands, crazy requests, and give you a hard time when asked if the check is finally in the mail.

There are some big egos in our business, and I’ve seen colleagues suck up to the people with power, and kick those who are lower on the ladder. Here’s something that happened to me while I was working at a radio station.

One day, a fellow-presenter lashed out at an assistant because he had given her a glass of water with what looked like a hair in it. The woman exploded, and left the assistant heavily hyperventilating in the hallway. But when the director of the station paid us a surprise visit right after the incident, my angry colleague was suddenly all smiles.

After we had taped our show, I took a good look at the infamous glass of water. A curly, red hair was indeed floating on the surface.

My explosive colleague happened to have curly, red hair.

SEVEN SIGNS

Most people I’ve worked with seem to have it together. Perhaps this is because invisible voices have a low profile. We don’t have millions of fans, or millions of dollars. 

Those I admire in my industry have certain things in common. They often thrive against the odds. They are loved by colleagues and clients alike. And if you wish to follow in their footsteps, I have a few recommendations for you.

My first suggestion is simple: Treat everyone around you with respect; not only the people in power. Even if some co-workers do their very best to push your buttons, you’re not a robot. You can’t control their behavior, but you can choose your response.

Secondly: Celebrate your achievements, and remember where you came from. You are where you are because people who probably didn’t know you, believed in you, and were kind to you.

You made tons of mistakes. We all do, but were they met with punishment or patience? And even if your teachers weren’t always tolerant, don’t use that as an excuse to give others the same treatment you so hated.

Third: Don’t ever take success for granted. It entitles you to nothing. It has to be earned, and treasured. Over and over again. And what good does it do you, if you make the people around you miserable? They’ll feed you what you want to hear, while spitting out the truth behind your back.

Fourth: Don’t mistake fame for importance, and money for value. Who gives a damn how many followers you have on social media, and how much you have stashed away in your Swiss bank account. Why should we even care about your credentials? All these things do not make you a good person.

You should take your work and your fans seriously, but please take yourself with a few grains of salt.

Fifth: If you end up -willingly or unwillingly- being a role model, know that it comes with responsibilities. You are in a privileged position to influence a great number of people who look up to you. Are you going to use that position, or abuse it?

Sixth: Don’t ever ask: “What’s in it for me?” The better question is: “What can I do today to improve the lives of others without getting anything in return?” It’s the result that matters. Not the reward.

Seven: Be humble, and be grateful. Every single day.

Success is hard to sustain. One moment you’re the flavor of the month. The next you’re yesterday’s news. Clients may seem ungrateful, but that doesn’t mean you should be. 

Appreciate what you have right now, and realize that you couldn’t have done it without the help of others. No matter how hard you’ve worked for it, and how much you think you deserve it, feel confident without being cocky. Big egos don’t make amigos.

One last thought.

No one is irreplaceable, but at least for one project, one gig, or for one show, you were chosen. That means something. 

If you’re lucky, you can make it last.

If it doesn’t, enjoy the ride, but hopefully not in a Jeremy Clarkson sort of way.

Paul Strikwerda ©Nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Jeremy Clarkson and James May Top Gear presenters with my Lancia Beta Coupe Stanford Hall 2008 IMG_6342 via photopin (license)

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Don’t Ever Do This To A Client

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 10 Comments

mooningSometimes I think I’m in the wrong business.

Has that ever happened to you? 

Especially during a dry spell, I start looking around, and I see people with a different skill set and a different level of education making tons of money.

All the time.

How fair is that?

Take Tom, for instance. Tom runs a small construction company. A few years ago, Tom and his team did a great job renovating part of our house. His business was still young, and he went above and beyond to make our home more modern. Tom was everything an average contractor isn’t. He was polite, communicative, affordable, he showed up on time, and he delivered on his promises. 

After weeks and weeks of hard work in the scorching July sun, the job was done. Before Tom gave us the keys to our brand new front door, his crew did something surprising. They carefully cleaned up the mess they had made during the renovation. Even our front and back yards received a make-over. How about that!

Needless to say, we sang Tom’s praises to anyone in need of a contractor, and it worked. For the next few months I saw Tom’s truck everywhere, and his business was booming.

He deserved every bit of success, and I was happy for him and his family. If only I could emulate his accomplishments… But, I was in the wrong business. Tom built walls, replaced windows, and renovated kitchens. It was tangible, visible work. All I did was talk for a living. 

Fast forward a couple of years.

Recently we were ready for the second phase of home improvement, and in our mind only one guy had proven himself worthy of the job. So, I called Tom again, and asked him to come over to take a look at what needed to be done.

I didn’t hear back from him for weeks. He did not respond to my messages, and I was worried that he might have left our Borough. However, his truck was parked next to his house, and he was still in business. When he finally answered his phone there was no explanation or apology. He almost sounded like I was inconveniencing him. I didn’t like that.

It took a few more weeks before Tom finally came over, and luckily he brought his old, cheery self. He assessed the work that we wanted done, and promised to give us an estimate within a matter of days. You can probably guess what happened next -or rather- what didn’t happen.

I lost count of how many times I called his business to remind him that we needed that estimate. I tried to sound upbeat and hopeful as I “talked” to Tom after the beep, but some of my messages might have revealed my increased frustration. Weeks and weeks passed, and Tom never returned any of my calls. It was as if I didn’t exist. 

I wondered what would happen if I would run my business like that. It would probably be “game over” in no time. You know what it’s like when an agent sends you a voice-over job that is making the rounds everywhere. You know what you need to do when you’ve spotted the perfect opportunity on a voice casting site. You’ve got to record that audition straight away, or else your voice will be lost in a whirlpool of other talent.

That’s one thing I imagine Tom doesn’t have to worry about. There are only a handful of reputable contractors in my area. Apparently Tom’s so busy, he doesn’t need more work. He can afford to ignore me.

And that’s where Tom and I differ.

At times I am pretty swamped, and job offers keep coming in. When it rains, it usually pours. But no matter how busy I am, I always get back to every client in a matter of hours. Some of them want me to start as soon as possible, and that’s not always an option. In that case I refer them to a reputable colleague. But quite often things are not as urgent as they seem, and I can fit the client in at a later point during the week.

To me this is not an earth-shattering approach, but I might be wrong. Just today, two clients thanked me for quickly getting back to them, as if it was something unusual. Isn’t that weird? I tend to think that the way I conduct business is the way everyone does it. I put in long hours. Others put in long hours. I have high standards. Others have high standards. But here’s what I have noticed.

Some colleagues just don’t seem to care as much, or they stopped caring, for whatever reason. And that’s the thing clients hate the most. They don’t want to be treated as a routine client with a routine job. They don’t want to be ignored or taken for granted. 

Clients are just like real people. People want to be acknowledged. Respected. Appreciated. They want to be treated as if they’re the only client in the world at that moment in time. And if you can give them that feeling, you do more than just a job. You are in the business of building long-lasting relationships.

So Tom… if you are reading this blog, I don’t know what happened to you since you started your company, but I don’t like it one bit. No matter how good you are at what you do, I will no longer recommend you. I will not hire you. I will find someone else to do the job.

Perhaps I will finally hear from you after you have read this, and you’ll give me some kind of lame excuse like: “I’ve been too busy, but it’s just business. Nothing personal.”

Well, you’re wrong about that.

It is always personal.

As a contractor, you come into people’s homes and invade their privacy. You tear up their walls, and you demolish their bathrooms. You fix what’s broken, and you make people feel safe under their own roof again.

I’m a contractor too. A so-called independent contractor. My voice gets in between people’s ears. Sometimes I tell them what to do or what to buy. Other times I read them a good book. It’s safe to say that we have a rather intimate relationship.

I will never take that relationship for granted, not just because it is the lifeblood of my business. I honor that relationship because it is the right thing to do. It’s how I was raised.

Let me end by saying this:

I vow to never let my success prevent me from treating my clients with professionalism, respect, and gratitude.

Even if all I do is talk for a living, I do my very best to walk my talk.

I’ve been doing this for over three decades.

Clients keep on coming, and I thoroughly enjoy what I am doing.

So… perhaps I’m in the right business after all!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Filling In The Blanks

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 15 Comments

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

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photo credit: via photopin (license)

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Is Your Client Driving You Crazy?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 3 Comments
David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy

After last week’s story about bad clients, one reader 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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