You know what they say about hindsight, and it’s annoying.
Especially in retrospect.
The idea is that, had we known better, we would have done better. That sounds very reasonable in theory, but in reality, I find most people to be stubbornly unreasonable. Hindsight or no hindsight.
In many major decisions, logic seems to play a minor part: the choice of a life partner (or to stay single); whom to trust in business and in politics; whether to have children or not, to name a few.
If logic and reason would rule the world, no one would be overweight, or smoke cigarettes. There would be no littering, global warming, texting while driving, or unprotected sex.
Instead, we live in a world where people cannot control their most primitive impulses, their most unfounded fears, and their most irrational ideas. History repeats itself as fallible human beings fail to learn from the past. As countless psychologists have observed: previous behavior is a good predictor of future behavior.
Having said that, I really wish I had known a thing or two before I started speaking for a living. Here’s my top 7 of things I did, before I knew better:
1. Putting on a voice
Listening back to old recordings, I noticed that I was trying too hard to sound like a voice-over. I was imitating someone else, instead of being me. There’s too much effort. I spoke louder than I normally do, delivering a speech, instead of having a conversation.
Takeaway: There’s no one like you. Be effortlessly authentic. (click here for some tips)
2. Auditioning for everything under the sun
Once upon a time I believed in the numbers game. You know, the silly idea that the more you audition, the greater the chance you’ll eventually land a job. Forget that. If you don’t sound like John Wayne, Darth Vader, or Helen Mirren, don’t be a pretender. It’s embarrassing. Only take on what you know you can pull off, while developing your range.
Takeaway: Be selective in what you audition for. Play to your strengths.
3. Not delivering pristine audio
What’s the number one reason most auditions end up in the garbage bin? Bad sound quality! In hindsight, I took too long to get a professional recording space, and quality equipment. Once I did, my bookings tripled, because the audio from my home studio was just as good as the audio of my demos.
Takeaway: If you want to play with the best, you need to invest. Having a home studio is a must.
4. Approaching it like a hobby
You may have an amazing voice and great equipment, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll have a successful voice-over career. You must learn how to run a freelance business, how to manage your money, and how to toot your horn without annoying the heck out of everybody.
Takeaway: Being business savvy is often more important than having a unique talent.
5. Being reactive instead of proactive
Being a voice-over is not for those who wait and see, or for those playing the blame game. You’re in the driver’s seat, buddy! If you don’t steer your career, you’ll never know where you’ll end up. Successful solopreneurs are risk-takers, go-getters, and fast learners. They love to lead, and hate to follow.
Takeaway: Don’t let things happen. Make them happen!
6. Trying to reinvent the wheel
You may think you know it all, and can do it all, but you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s better to admit your limitations, than to be willfully ignorant. The self-employed wear many hats. Dare to excel in a few things, instead of being mediocre in many.
Takeaway: Do your homework, and ask for help. Outsource the things you’re not (yet) good at. (click here for more on this)
7. Not charging enough
I thought that low rates would get me work. It turned out that by charging less, I branded myself a desperate beginner. People didn’t take me seriously, and those who paid the least, were the biggest pains in the neck.
Takeaway: Any fool can undercut the competition and go broke in the process. Running a for-profit business starts with valuing yourself and your services properly. (click here for more on low rates)
Well, there you have it.
Now I can tell you “I told you so.” Not that it’s going to make any difference.
Some people don’t like being told what to do, and I understand that.
The most profound life lessons are often the ones coming from experience, and not from books, blogs, or well-meaning mothers.
But it might take you a few years to come to that realization.
In mid-session, I gave one of my voice-over students a simple script for a cold read. I thought he’d be excited to try something new, but this is what he said:
“You’re giving me this now? Are you trying to trick me? You gave me zero time to practice and get ready. I don’t think that’s fair.”
“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that response,” I said. “You’ve grown so much in the last few weeks, I thought you’d be up for a challenge. Maybe we should use this as a teaching moment?”
“First off, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no fair in voice-overs, or in any freelance job for that matter.”
“What do you mean?” my student asked.
“Let me give you a few examples.
Yesterday, some A-list actor made fifteen grand for saying three lines in a 30-second commercial. Today, a VO-colleague got a nineteen hundred dollar check for narrating a lengthy novel that took her a month to record, and two weeks to edit. Is that fair?
How about this one:
A voice-over veteran auditioned for ten jobs a day for four weeks straight, and landed none of them. Meanwhile, a newbie walked up to a microphone, yelling a few words and hit the jackpot because some producer thought he sounded “raw and authentic.”
Here’s another one:
A fellow voice actor had been recording eLearning programs for the same company for six years at the same rate. His work was consistent, and he never missed a deadline. He came to think of himself as the go-to voice of that company. So, when year seven came around, he raised his rates a little, in line with the increased cost of living.
He never heard from the company again.
Is that fair?
Now, here’s something that happened to me.
A few weeks ago I auditioned for a very prestigious job that would have paid the mortgage for at least six months. At the end, it was between me and another person. Why didn’t I get the job? The reason was simple: the client preferred a female voice.
“Tell me,” I asked my student, “do you think that’s fair?”
He made a noise suggesting a lightbulb was slowly coming on in his head, so I continued…
“The idea of “fair” presupposes that there’s some grand equalizing principle at work in the world that gives equal opportunities to people with similar education, abilities, and experience.
Well, wouldn’t that be nice?
In many ways we may be equals, but that doesn’t mean we’re equal, or that we’re treated as such. What do I mean by that?
In a highly subjective and personal business as ours, things like training and experience count for something, but they will never get you hired. The fact that you’ve taken a few voice-over classes, and you’ve been knocking on doors for a few years, entitles you to… nothing.
The only guarantee I can give you, is that there are no guarantees.
No matter how hard or how long some people study, they’ll never become the next Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma, or Don LaFontaine.
That’s not unfair. It is what it is.
On paper you may be the most experienced voice talent in the room, but a casting director isn’t listening for your resume or seniority. She needs to make her client happy, and the client wants someone who sounds just like his grandfather selling cattle in Kansas during the Great Depression.
Oh… but the specs didn’t say that, right? How unfair!
That’s because the client didn’t know he was looking for that voice until he listened to the top ten auditions.
My student let out a despondent sigh.
“That’s why the audition was a “cattle call,” I joked.
“But seriously, the only “fair” thing about this situation is that to most people in the middle, this crazy business is equally unfair. With “people in the middle” I mean the vast majority of voice-overs who aren’t making millions voicing The Simpsons, but who aren’t new to the business either.
I call them “the Nobodies.”
It may sound derogatory, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it literally. Not figuratively.
Voice actors get hired for the way they move their lips; not for the way they move their hips. We’re not in the game for our glamorous looks, but for the way we sound. You and I… we are a no-body. Personally, that makes me very happy because slobs like me still stand a chance.
“But what about things like merit,” my student wanted to know. “Isn’t winning something like an Audie, or a Voice Arts™ Award going to open certain doors? That would be fair, wouldn’t it? I mean, winning a prize makes people more in-demand, right?”
“It’s a definite maybe. Let me explain.
Even though audio books have become increasingly popular, most people still think of a German car when they hear the word Audie. Secondly, I’m not sure clients will hire you on the spot because you won some gold-plated statuette they’ve never heard of. Accolades may be well-deserved, but they’re only worth their weight if they mean something to people outside the cheering in-crowd.
Even Oscar winners need to audition again and again, unless a part is especially written for them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps people sharp and humble.”
I took a long sip of water, and formed my next thought.
“Then there’s this weird phenomenon in our business that’s hard to prove. Let’s pretend people actually know about your reputation as a prize-winning narrator. They might not consider you for their next project because they assume you’ve become too expensive. Do you think that’s fair?
I once thought I could convince a client to hire me by telling them about the famous brands I had worked with in the past. Big mistake! The software giant I was auditioning for, ruled me out once they heard a close competitor had used my voice in 2015. This is what I also learned:
Most clients aren’t very interested in what you did for others, years ago. They want to know one thing:
What can you do for ME, today?
I’m not saying accolades aren’t awesome, but as the Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff used to say:
“Every advantage has its disadvantage.”
That’s unfair too, but here’s the ugly truth:
In an unregulated business, those in power, and those with the deepest pockets get to determine what is fair.”
“Pardon me, but that’s depressing,” said my student. “First of all, you’re giving me a lecture instead of a lesson. Secondly, I thought you were supposed to encourage me. Now I don’t even know if I want to be a voice-over anymore.”
“Language is a wonderful thing,” I said. “Especially if you like to play with words. To the ear, there’s almost no difference between “the termination,” and “determination.” The choice is yours.
If you want to end this, it’s going to be the termination of something promising. If -on the other hand- you really, really want to become a successful voice-over, allow what I’ve just said to strengthen your determination.
Please don’t be a chicken. You didn’t hire me to stick some feathers up your butt, so I could make some money off your dreams. That would be unethical. Just like that coach in the gym, you hired me to take you through a series of exercises designed to build your muscles, and give you a strong spine. You’re gonna need it!
And just like in the gym, change is a gradual process. Some days, your muscles might ache because of the resistance training. Sometimes, it might feel like you’ll never reach your ideal weight because you see other people getting fitter faster. But remember:
You’re on a personal path.
Those scary slim people you admire so much were born with different bodies, and different metabolisms. Some of them go to the gym every day of the week, and stay there for hours. Others like you can only afford to come twice a week for a 45-minute session.
You know what isn’t fair? Comparing yourself to others!
Compare yourself to yourself instead. So, here’s what I want you to do.
Forget the word fair.
Instead, focus on the word Prepare.
My goal is to help you be the best you can be at this moment in time, and to become even better in the future. Forget the silly randomness of this subjective business. You cannot control it. But one day soon, opportunity will knock on your door, and you’d better be ready! That’s the part you can control. Do you get that?”
My student made an affirmative noise.
“Before we end this session, I want to give you one more piece of advice. I’ve known you for a while, and you’ve told me more than once that you’re a perfectionist. That mindset will hold you back, and that’s why you probably didn’t want to do the cold read I just gave you. Am I right? Were you afraid of making mistakes because I didn’t give you any time to look at the text?”
Reluctantly, my student agreed, and I went on:
“Please listen to this:
Be soft on yourself!
I strongly believe that living is learning. As human beings, I feel it is our job to evolve; to unearth and develop what we’re capable of, and to share those gifts with the world.
To that effect, life offers us lessons. And unlike in voice-overs, life’s unscripted. You never know what it will throw at you next, so you have to be prepared to catch it while you can. Sometimes you need to improvise, and try things you’ve never done before. Sometimes you’ll get it right, and sometimes you won’t. As long as you keep on learning and growing, you’re doing great. This is what I want you to remember:
No matter how long you train, and how hard you work, you will never be perfect, and that’s perfectly fine. You want to know why?
Because perfection has nowhere to grow.”
My student’s response was so quiet that I could almost hear the penny drop. Then I said:
“Let that sink in for a while, and let me know what you think, okay?”
As a blogger and somewhat visible voice-over person, there are a few questions I get asked a lot:
– How did you get started in the voice-over business?
– What challenges did you encounter in your career, and how did you overcome them?
– What advice do you have for beginners?
Well, I could write a book about that (and I did), but some time ago, my colleague Peter Kinney O’Connell asked me the following:
1. When did you know you wanted to be a voice-over talent; how did your career begin, and when did your passion for voice-over develop into something professional?
When I was six years old, my parents gave me a Philips cassette recorder. It didn’t take long before I discovered how to capture the sound of my own voice. That’s when it all began. In 1969.
I can still see myself sitting on the front porch with a copy of “King Arthur and the Black Knight.” It would become my very first audio book. Actually, it was more of a radio drama. Around me were all sorts of self-made instruments I used for sound effects. Every character had a different voice. Every voice had a different character.
The tape I made that day was used over and over again, and eventually it broke. What didn’t break was my love for painting pictures with sound.
Eleven years later I auditioned for my first job in Hilversum, the heart of Dutch broadcasting. A public network was recruiting a group of promising teens to start producing radio and television programs. Veterans would coach them in all aspects of the business. I just knew I had to be part of that program.
In the years that followed, that program became part of me. I produced and presented documentaries, talk shows, music specials, and radio plays. The microphone became my best friend. It was the beginning of a career in broadcasting that would take me to a number of national Dutch networks, the BBC, and Radio Netherlands International.
In 1999 I made a bold decision: I would leave Holland and start a new life in the New World. In a matter of months I was represented by Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My European accent seemed to be a welcome addition to their talent pool. It took me a number of years to build a client base that would sustain a full-time voice-over career, but eventually I became the Chief Artistic Officer of a company I named Nethervoice.
2. What is the one thing you know now that you wish someone had told you when you started out in voice-over?
If someone had warned me that this job could easily turn into an obsession, I still would have applied for it. It’s true though, but it might also have to do with my personality. When I’m passionate about something, I want to immerse myself in every aspect of it, and learn to do it well.
I realized early on that it takes more than a good voice to make a good living in this field. Success needs to be carefully planned. It’s like a flower bed that has to be protected, watered, and fertilized regularly (more about that in Jonathan Tilley’s “Voice Over Garden“).
Because I have a home studio, I’m always at work. It seems ideal, but for someone with an obsession it can be dangerous. It’s tempting to become a boring recording recluse who lives and breathes voice-overs. And you know me… When I don’t read and record, I write about it in my blog.
Life Coaches always advocate finding a balance between work and play. But what if your work is your play? At some point in the day, the headphones have to come off, and we must leave our soundproof studio. Without sunlight, there’s no growth. Our job is just a means to and end.
3. What do you see as the biggest professional or personal obstacle you face that impacts your voice-over business and how are you working to overcome it?
I wasn’t born to toot my own horn. The Calvinistic Dutch preach modesty and frown upon anything that may be perceived as vanity. Why? Because human talents are seen as a gift from God, so we shouldn’t take too much credit for our accomplishments. Many centuries have passed since the spirit of Calvin touched the Netherlands, yet, some of his principles are still present in our DNA, the Dutch National Attitude.
Looking back, I really believe that this mindset kept me from promoting myself properly. But there was something else. Coming from the relatively safe world of broadcasting, I never needed to market myself. I was hired by a network to do a number of jobs, and I left it to the PR people to sing my praises.
After I’d said goodbye to Holland, I had to learn that it was okay to be proud of what I had achieved, and use those achievements to attract business. To this day, I try to do this in a veiled way, by offering advice and entertainment in my blog. That’s where clients and colleagues get to know me as someone with a certain level of experience and pizzazz. Well, that’s the idea…
4. What personal trait or professional tool has helped you succeed the most in your career so far?
One thing that has helped me tremendously is a toolbox called Neuro-Linguistic Psychology. It’s a mix of positive attitudes, beliefs, and strategies to help people design and live the life they’ve always dreamt of.
At the basis of NLP is the process of modeling. I’m not talking about the catwalk in Milan, but about the study of exceptional people: business tycoons, sports icons, therapists, artists, et cetera.
The idea is that these people -in order to achieve something extraordinary- have set themselves up for success. They have carefully (and often unconsciously) conditioned themselves to accomplish amazing things. The question is: How did they do that?
NLP tries to break it down into bits and pieces: the ingredients of a recipe. Once the recipe is uncovered, it can be taught to almost anyone. The finest and fastest way to mastering something is to start teaching it. That’s why I eventually became an internationally certified trainer of NLP, and that’s the reason I started coaching voice talent.
5. In your development as a voice-over performer, what has been the one piece of performance advice that you felt has had the most impact on your actual voice over performance and why?
Here’s my answer:
Find something that defines you, but that does not limit you.
In other words: you want to box yourself in to emphasize what sets you apart, but you want that box to be big enough to attract a wide audience. If you try to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing to no one.
In my case, I describe myself as a European Voice. Not British. Not American. Not even Dutch, even though that’s my native language. I tell my clients that I specialize in intelligent international narration. For that reason I get to do multilingual projects and jobs that require someone with a more global, neutral English accent.
WANT MORE ME?
A while ago, my old Radio Netherlands colleague Constantino De Miguel interviewed me about the voice-over business on Voice Over Plaza. If you want to take notes, get pen and paper ready!
Today I want to start by thanking you for reading my blog. There’s so much content to choose from these days, and I am so glad you landed on this page.
Perhaps this is your first time, so: “Welcome!” Perhaps you’ve been here before. In that case I welcome you back with open arms.
One of the joys of being a blogger is the opportunity to connect with so many people from all over the world. This year I’ll be aiming for 40 thousand subscribers, which is unheard of in my particular niche: voice-overs. Then again, this blog is not just for professional speakers. It’s for all kinds of creative freelancers who struggle with things like finding work, dealing with difficult clients, and getting paid a decent amount.
If these topics interest you, I hope you’ll take a minute or so to subscribe. That way you’ll always know when I’ve written a new post. Just enter your email address in the upper right-hand corner. It will never be sold or used in any other commercial context. I promise!
WHAT DID YOU MISS
Now, we all lead pretty busy lives, and I completely understand that you might have missed a few stories from last year (especially if you’re new to this blog). That’s why I’m starting 2017 by giving you a quick overview of some of the topics I have covered (or uncovered). The headlines in blue are all hyperlinks, by the way.
I’ve been freelancing for my entire professional life. Being a solopreneur is often fantastic, and sometimes frustrating. Do you want to know what my pet peeves are? Click here to find out. We might have a few in common!
One of the recurring themes of this blog is me taking a critical look at the field I work in: voice-overs. In “Voice-Over’s Seven Deadly Sins” I explore manifestations of things like Lust, Gluttony, and Greed among voice actors. Not every colleague always appreciates what I have to say. In fact, some think I’m quite the curmudgeon. Read “Call Me Oscar” to find out if that’s really true.
Another topic I like to write about is how to deal with setbacks. No path to success is ever smooth, and in “Turning Resistance Into results” I take you to my gym for a few unexpected tips. In “The Mistake You Don’t Want To Make” I discuss a list of things freelancers do to sabotage their success, and I tell you about the onething you must do, to make it in this business.
Beginning voice-overs often have to overcome a lack of confidence before they are comfortable selling their services. My story “Do Nice People Always Finish Last?” deals with that issue.
During the course of a year great things happen, and things that are absolutely horrible. When tragedy strikes, I don’t always feel like writing about microphones, challenging clients, or impossible scripts. I feel a need to get personal with my readers, and posts like “The Weight Of The World” elicit lots of responses.
Not every reader knows that I was born, raised, and educated in the Netherlands. So, what’s it like for a Dutchman to live and work in the United States? You can read all about it in “Those Silly Americans.”
Because I bring a different and more European perspective to the table, some of my readers say that I usually “tell it like it is.” This attitude is appreciated by many, and criticized by some. In “The Cult of Kumbaya” I’ll tell you how I deal with my critics, and with criticism in general. “How I Handle Negative Comments” is another take on how I respond to feedback that is less than positive. If you’re in a business where rejection is the name of the game, I think you’re going to find these stories helpful.
Another theme I like to return to has to do with treating your business like a business. If you don’t do that, you’ll never have the success you’re hoping to have. “Are You In Bed With A Bad Client” tells you what to do when a client is taking you for a ride. In “Is Your Client Driving You Crazy” I write about the clients I gladly gave the sack.
IT’S ALL ABOUT COMMUNICATION
As voice actors we spend a lot of time in one place: our studio. Did you know it could be dangerous to do that? Just read “How Dangerous Is Your Voice-Over Studio” and you’ll find out about the hidden dangers in your recording space, and what you can do about it.
Since I’m in the communication business, it won’t surprise you that I love blogging about communication. “Filling In The Blanks” deals with a strange habit many of us have that could cost us clients, as well as personal friends. “Don’t Ever Do This To A Client” is a warning about how not to conduct business, ever.
What I love about being a blogger is the interaction with my readers. Many of them respond in the comment section. Others send me emails. The question I get asked a lot is this: “Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?” Click here to read my answer.
One of the unexpected discoveries I made in the past few years is that this blog is also read by copywriters, freelance photographers, web designers, as well as producers, and potential clients. For them I wrote “How To Hire The Right Voice-Over.” Even if you provide VO-services yourself, you might want to check this one out to get a sense of what clients are really looking and listening for.
If you’ve been following me for a few years, you know I’m no big fan of the Pay-to-Play model. Now, here’s a fun fact. If I want to guarantee myself at least a thousand hits in one day, all I need to do is write about one of those Pay-to-Plays: Voices dot com. “Stop Bashing Voices.com” is a story for those who don’t like what “Voices” is doing, and yet renew their membership year after year.
Marketing your services is one of the most important skills you must possess to have a flourishing freelance business. At times you need to educate clients new to voice-overs about the benefits of hiring a professional voice. One way to do that, is to contrast what you have to offer with examples of what I call “voice-overs gone wrong.” If you want to have a laugh and some heart-felt advice, click on “What Were They Thinking?“
Another question some people ask me is where I find the inspiration to write a new blog every week. To be honest with you, I often look outside of my own professional bubble. Click here to find out why, and what we can learn from fellow-freelancers who are active in another field.
Many blogs in the blogosphere are highly topical. Writing about current events is fun, but here’s the problem: the content gets outdated rather quickly. I do blog about things that are in the news, but I do my very best to make something that is timely more timeless. A good example is my story about the presidential election in the U.S., and the question of ethics and morality in voice-overs. It’s called “Should We Shoot The Messenger?” It certainly got people talking.
Another example is my blog about Black Friday. Yes, Black Friday is the “hook,” but in reality this is a blog about why people buy, and how you -as a frugal freelancer- should spend your money. “The Most Important Question Of The Year” is another story about the business of being in business. If you want to get to the bottom line, please read it.
There you have it. That’s my overview. What were your favorite stories?
One thing I hope you’ll continue to do, is come back to this blog every once in a while, -better still- every Thursday. Leave some feedback for me. Let me know what you’d like me to write about. Share your experiences in the comment section.
If you enjoy my musings and think they’re helpful, share them with your friends and colleagues on social media. That always makes my day.
And remember: Subscribe to stay in the loop, and get the latest scoop.
We’re nearing the end of December, and I want to ask you a few innocent questions, if I may. Questions that may make a few freelancers slightly uncomfortable.
Here’s the most important one:
“How was business in 2016?”
Some of you might tell me:
“2016 was great. I had so much fun!”
“I feel blessed to do what I do and even get paid for it.”
“I booked more gigs than ever, and I learned a lot this year.”
Those are interesting points, yet from a business perspective they are almost irrelevant. Let’s unpack theses statements one by one.
I’m so glad you had fun (and I don’t mean that sarcastically), but that’s not how you measure success as an entrepreneur. I know quite a few starving artists who had tons of fun while losing boatloads of money.
You may feel incredibly blessed, but how is that reflected in your books? Did your CPA congratulate you because your numbers are up this year?
It’s great that you landed more jobs, but if you’ve been doing more for less, are you really better off? I don’t know about you, but I became a freelancer so I could do less for more. That has nothing to do with being lazy. I wanted to have time to travel, to volunteer, to write, to coach, and to enjoy being with family and friends.
Learninga lot is cool, but clients don’t pay you to learn on the job. They expect you to know the job. I’m sure you’re familiar with certain folks (perhaps intimately) who are very good at learning how NOT to do a job. That’s not a way to determine the well-being of a business, is it?
Let me share something with you I learned not by guessing, but from decades of experience:
People who are prone to making the above statements may be good at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at running a for-profit business. In fact, their comments tell me they don’t seem to have their priorities straight.
If you wish to have sustained success in any competitive field, you need to be better than 90% of your colleagues in terms of talent and skills, AND you must run your business like a business (instead of some elevated hobby). You can’t have one without the other.
This means that when I ask you “How was business in 2016?” you should be able to answer the following (and potentially uncomfortable) questions:
“Did you break even? Did you turn a profit, or are your (still) struggling to survive?”
Be honest. Don’t give me an answer that would look good on Facebook. It’s time to face the facts. To quote Dr. Phil: “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”
The bottom line is always about the bottom line.
Now, if you’re not yet where you want to be: Welcome to the club! Trust me. Even the big names you look up to, are seldom where they want to be. It’s what drives them! They know business is unpredictable and volatile. But they also know the five factors that lead to success:
Learn from the best.
Offer an outstanding product or service.
Make it easy for clients to find you.
Make it easy to work with you.
Make it easy to pay you.
I always tell my students not to reinvent the wheel. It’s a huge waste of time. There are no shortcuts to success, but it does help to model your business after those who are where you want to be. When you do that, you’ll notice a sixth factor that contributes to continued success:
6. Manage your money.
This is where many freelancers lose the game, because they’re not on top of their finances. I admit: it’s not a glamorous job, but it pays the bills. Literally. If this is something you’re interested in, you need to take the first step:
If you’re like me, and you could use some help in that area, consider a service like Invoice2go.com. It was developed by someone like you: a small business owner. For $149.99 per year (The Enterprise Plan), you can list 100 clients, and send an unlimited number of customized invoices using your phone, tablet, or computer. Invoices will show a Pay Now button, allowing your customers to pay you online in multiple ways.
Here’s the thing:
Not only will you look much more professional, but when you make it easier for clients to pay you, they will pay you faster.
Invoice2go also helps you keep track of your expenses. That way you’ll always know how much is coming in, and how much is going out.
Mind you, I’m not getting paid to toot their horn, but I was approached to contribute to an infographic they put together for small business owners. I think that’s a really cool thing! Invoice2go asked entrepreneurs with years of experience for their top advice for starting a small business.
Here’s the result. Let’s see if you can find my quote!
Invoice2go just launched a free invoice template generator, allowing you to create and send customized invoices in three simple steps. Here’s the link:
Last week, I shared the story of Rick, a voice actor and producer with over 30 years of experience. In spite of his talent and time in the business, Rick isn’t doing so well. What’s even worse: he has pretty much given up hope that things will change for the better.
His story struck a chord. Colleagues reacted privately and publicly, telling me that the voice-over Boulevard of Broken Dreams is a crowded place. Is it possible to get stuck there? Of course it is, but with the right mindset, skill set, and marketing strategy, your chances at success will improve dramatically.
I asked my commentators what kind of advice they had for Rick. Here’s what they had to say.
1. DON’T DWELL ON THE PAST
“The bottom line is this: get rid of all the negativity in your life, believe in yourself, and thank the powers that be for all the good fortune in your life. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow doesn’t exist, so that leaves today! Working on today is what I do very well!”
“Be in the right mindset. We can often be our own worst enemy with what we unconsciously BELIEVE to be “true,” and can sabotage our own best efforts, because deep down, we really think we don’t deserve success, or some other faulty belief that we keep living out and finding evidence to support.”
“After working as a Part-time VO for 20 years, I only just went full time 3 years ago, and I am in the midst of my best year ever. I am tracking to make 30K this year. Still only a third of what I used to make as a multimedia developer. But I am much happier.
I realize I may not ever hit the “Big-Time,” but it doesn’t deter me from continuing in this industry because I am happy. I know the pitfalls, and in my opinion, they are less stressful and more rewarding than any company I worked for all my life. It’s not all peaches and cream. It’s perspective, and I appreciate honesty above all. Less surprises that way.”
“If you can find a mid-sized market where you can be the “only” at something, I think you can have a real shot. I entered a mid-sized market when there was no one else who sounded like me. This mattered because there were tons of women with deep, sexy voices in the Philly market.
I was a recent college grad with a high-pitched, very young sounding voice. I even had engineers say to me “We finally have someone to call to play a high school or college student!” At that time, there was a lot of character parts in radio VO, and I played the daughter, the valley girl (that was a “thing” at the time), the high school or college student, etc. I wasn’t the best voice talent, but I did have acting skills and I was essentially the “only.”
“People will tell you that because of the internet, Source-Connect, ISDN, etc. you can do this from “wherever.” Don’t believe it. I mean, you can…sort of… but with limited success. I have had the success I’ve had because I can be at studios in Burbank/Los Angeles/Hollywood at the drop of a hat. It’s not because I’m better than anyone else – I’m sure I’m not.
I have a dear friend in Des Moines who works at a car dealership. He has an amazing home studio with everything you could ever need or want, and he’s a lot better than I am. He would beat me at every read. But, I book 200% more work than he does because of WHERE he is, and because opportunities come when he’s working his other job. I get auditions that need to be done in the next 4 hours and so does he. You can’t do those if you’re working another job. I get work, not because I beat guys on the read, but because I beat them to the punch.
Treat VO like a part-time job or a sideline, and that’s all it will ever be.”
“Stay up with the times. Just because you’ve been doing something for 30 years, if you’re working from an old paradigm, then perhaps you need to expand into a new way of thinking… not only with copywriting, but vocal delivery, music mix, and message.
Diversify. Don’t only focus on commercial work. How about being open to niches in narration, explainers, phone messaging, audio books, video games? The VO world has expanded so much from 30 years ago, with niches opening up that didn’t even exist before.”
“Hire other professionals to help you in areas where you’re not an expert (website building, branding, marketing, SEO, social media management, blog writing, etc.) and also coaches, to keep fresh in your vocal delivery. Hire demo producers to cut new and cutting edge demos – they seem to constantly need to be refreshed.
Get copies of your work to upload onto many different playlists on YouTube, and then keyword those to attract potential clients. These are just a few practices that can make a big difference. Outsource, where you can, and this includes housekeeping, yard maintenance, etc.”
I want to thank my colleagues for chiming in with these words of wisdom. They illustrate the final point I’d like to make:
7. DON’T REINVENT THE WHEEL: LEARN FROM THE BEST
As they say: “Experience is the slowest teacher,” particularly bad experience. Cut your learning curve by working with pros who are where you want to be. That way, you don’t have to make the mistakes they had to make.
Remember that even the best athletes work with coaches on a regular basis. The success of a single player is a team effort.
Surround yourself with people who support your goals, and who have the expertise to get you there.
Whenever I try to warn people about the intricacies and pitfalls of the voice-over business, I get two types of reactions.
More experienced colleagues thank me for painting a realistic picture of a complicated industry.
Beginners criticize me for spitefully dashing their dreams.
To some, I am a hero for speaking my mind. To others I’m a villain who wants to curb his competition. There seems to be no middle ground. Just look at the reactions to my YouTube video “The Troublesome Truth About A Voice-Over Career.” Even though I made it a few years ago, I still stand behind every word of it. One of the commentators said:
“Why would anyone seek out this negative party pooper? Don’t just offer the problems, offer the solutions, or at least direct people to where they can find the solutions. That might be on your website, but most people will never go there as all you’ve done with this post is attempt to suck the life out of their dreams.”
Another one said:
“Why is this guy such a douche bag? Haha. This is a video about a VO actor that sadly didn’t “catch the big break” and made a rant video.”
Here’s a third response:
“Tough love. I appreciate it. Thank you for this, but it has me more determined than ever!”
And one more:
“A very honest and accurate summary of the voiceover business. As I tell folks, my job is not doing voiceovers. My job is finding voiceover clients.”
THE POWER OF PREJUDICE
Positive or not so positive, every response teaches us something about confirmation bias. It’s this very human flaw that makes us see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear, and believe what we want to believe. It’s a way of filtering information that confirms our preconceptions. Quite often, it makes people immune to facts.
Advertisers create entire campaigns to play into people’s biases by offering simple solutions to complicated problems. Here’s a familiar example from a new website, using the persistent myth (bias) that every ignorant fool with vocal folds has a good chance of becoming a professional voice-over!
Yes folks: anyone with a camera can make money as a photographer. Anyone with a hammer can become a carpenter, and anyone with a piano can be a concert pianist. You just have to believe in yourself, and sign up for whatever training program they’re trying to sell you. Clients worldwide are waiting for you!
CUTTING THE CRAP
Well, let’s do a reality check, shall we? If you believe I have a hidden agenda and can’t be trusted, perhaps you’re willing to listen to an accomplished colleague of mine. He’s a writer, producer, and voice talent. A while ago he responded to one of my blog posts entitled “What Clients Hate The Most.” His story is a tale I have heard many times since I started writing this blog.
It is honest. It is raw. It is painful.
Minutes after he posted his remarks, he asked me to delete them because of possible repercussions. Sharing setbacks could be bad for business, he said. I think he has a point.
Most of us do our best to look successful in the eyes of colleagues and clients. That’s why we share our latest and greatest accomplishments with our peeps. Colleagues refer colleagues with an impressive track record. Clients want to hire winners, not whiners.
So, I shelved his message for months, but in some way it continued to haunt me. Here was a story from the trenches that deserved to be heard. I’m not saying it is representative of what every single voice talent goes through, but it tells a story you have to hear. This week he gave me permission to share it with you.
I’ve written and produced for thirty years. One of my pieces is used by Dan O’Day in one of his courses, specifically the use of music in a commercial. I am quite good at nuance and communicating just what the client wants in the way he wants it. I have top-shelf recording gear with a couple of the world’s finest mics and preamps, and my stuff sounds very, very good.
I’m a good editor with an instinct for timing, layering, choosing the right music when required, and knowing where to put it. My demo is as good as anything you’ll hear. I’m a nice person with good people skills, and an ability to empathize.
I was mentored by a writer who did “Where’s the Beef,” and “Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut.” He told me 25 years ago, after working with him for many months, that I had reached a level where I should be making $75K. This was in 1981. I have read the books, gone to the seminars and webinars, written and produced 2000 commercials plus audio and video pieces for corporations and government agencies.
This year I will perhaps make $30K, only because I’m now on social security, and have a couple of new clients. All my clients are local. The average amount they spend per month on advertising is $700-$1000. I have sent out very well-designed and well-written post cards. I made hundreds of phone calls. My average income 15-20 years ago was $20-25K. For the last five it’s $15-18K.
I used to believe that if I learned my craft, had natural ability, never stopped learning, and worked diligently in making contacts and handling them well, I would succeed. I no longer believe that.
I have lost clients to people who don’t write any better than radio stations, and don’t know how to schedule for effectiveness.
I went with the two large pay-to-plays, and after 200 auditions and getting one inquiry that didn’t go, and after seeing people make it who sound like every dj you ever heard, I believe that success comes only when you (luckily) land that One Big VO gig or (luckily) get that One Big Client, and it all flows from there.
For the people I know, that’s how it happened for all of them. I’m sure for many it’s different, but I haven’t seen or talked to anyone like that. I know there are more than enough people out there whom I could greatly help, whose messages are off-point and blandly produced, and who believe a commercial should “sound like a commercial” because that’s mostly what they hear. They’re tossing their money in the street and don’t know it, and don’t know they don’t know. But I’ve never been able to find them.
It’s an understatement to say I’m crushed. I know several talented people who just can’t make it, who will probably never make it. I am one of them, apparently. It’s a horror, Paul. I mean that quite seriously.
I am 66, sound like I’m 40, am still firing on all 8, and am writing and editing better than ever. But after three decades of not making enough to keep my family above the poverty line, I feel I am condemned to having small clients forever: Moms and Pops who, God bless them, believe they know more about advertising than I do, because people think “anybody can do advertising” and “all you need to do is get your name out there” and advertising is an afterthought; something they can give to Mikey the office assistant. You know what I mean. My few clients think I’m a genius, and I’m always naturally ‘up’ when talking with them or talking to a possible new client.
Because I love doing this, I have offered my services free to several organizations including charities. I have yet to get one callback.
VO guys and people who write and produce, have told me they spun their wheels for five years before getting the break that opened the Horn of Plenty to them, and they complain about “all that time” it took before it happened.
Really? Try starting in 1981 and still be nowhere.
Dante posted a sign outside the Gates of Hades saying “Abandon hope, you who enter here.”
Well, I know how that feels.
So, here’s a guy who is a triple threat. He was trained by the best. He has tons of experience, and he owns the right equipment. Yet, he’s struggling. I don’t know enough about Rick’s situation to tell you where and why things went wrong, and how they can be improved. I do know that Rick is not alone.
If sharing Rick’s story makes me a party pooper, or a douche bag, so be it. Frankly, I don’t care what you think, because throughout history people have always blamed the messenger. The question is:
What do YOU take away from Rick’s story?
Does it upset you? Does it make you more persistent to pursue your dreams? What does it tell you about breaking into voice-overs?
I’ve had some time to think about Rick’s story, and here are my two cents.
If there’s a lesson in his narrative, it is this: The advertising/voice-over industry is not fair. In fact, life itself isn’t fair.
Studying hard, working hard, having the right chops, and owning the right equipment does not guarantee anything. Putting out nice brochures or postcards entitles you to… nothing. Being a nice guy doesn’t mean you’ll make enough to pay the bills.
Uncertainty is the name of the game. There is no promise of work. There’s just potential, talent, and subjective selection.
This is not a message many want to hear. It is a message most Pay-to-Plays, training companies, and demo mills want to suppress because it’s not sexy, and it doesn’t sell.
Now, Rick was brave enough to stick his neck out, and I would like him to walk away with something positive. That’s where you come in!
Ideally, I’d love it if you would use the comment section to answer some or all of the following questions:
• Is Rick’s experience unique, or do you recognize what he is going through?
• If you’ve been in a similar situation, what have you done to get out of it?
• What needs to happen in our industry to make it more likely that people like Rick can make a decent living?
I love being part of my sweet, supportive, and unpretentious voice-over community. It’s one of the many perks of the job.
When one of us lands the gig of a lifetime, all of us rejoice.
When one of us is down in the dumps, many of us reach out.
When one of us spots a scammer, we spread the news and warn our colleagues.
Most voice-overs I know, are sharing and caring people. We like hanging out with members of our invisible community, whether it’s in person, or online. While we may disagree on certain issues, we tend to have “warm exchanges,” instead of heated debates.
Spending time with our peeps is good fun, and often educational, but there’s a slight risk involved. The more time we spend inside our rosy VO-bubble, the greater our tendency to look inward.
That inner focus may lead us to believe that the challenges we’re dealing with are unique to our profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is estimated that over one third of the U.S. workforce consists of freelancers. That’s over 54 million people, and those people have a lot in common!
So, when I am searching for answers and inspiration, I like to look outside of my small circle. Take freelance photographers, for instance. You may think that there are quite a few colorful characters among voice actors, and you’re right. But have you ever watched photographers on YouTube? Oh dear!
A DIFFERENT LENS
But let’s be serious for a moment.
Like voice-overs, many photographers operate as a one-person band. Like us, they tend to have studios. Just as the microphone is our professional ear that zooms in on sounds, the camera is the all-seeing eye that registers images.
Both voice-overs and photographers edit in “post,” using software. And if you think VO’s go crazy for the greatest gear, you should spend some time reading reviews of the latest lenses, filters, and other accessories!
If you still believe that any comparison between VO’s and photographers is a bit contrived, listen to David Shaw. He writes:
“More gear won’t make you a better photographer. Don’t get me wrong, I love camera gear. New bodies, lenses, and accessories are fun and exciting, but they won’t magically make you better at photography. To be a better photographer you need to learn how to find images. The gear can help you capture them, but the finding part is up to you.
Whenever I’m thinking of buying a new piece of gear, I ask myself, “Is my current gear holding me back?” Sometimes the answer is yes. (…) More often though, the answer to whether my gear is holding me back is no. The actual reason I want a new piece of gear is that it is shiny. I may lust over new camera stuff, but if that gear won’t improve my photography in a very tangible way, I don’t buy it. Remember that good photography comes from your heart and your mind, not your wallet.”
YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED
Whenever I try to explain the value of my work as a voice-over pro to a potential client, or even to a lowballing colleague, I often use the metaphor of a photographer. Since everyone carries a camera (disguised as a phone), and we all take snapshots, most people can relate to that.
I’ll often tell a hesitant client:
“Imagine it’s your wedding day. One of the best and most important days of your life. Who is going to take the pictures you will one day share with your grandchildren? Uncle Arthur with his silly smart phone? Cousin Fred with his point-and-shoot, and unsteady hand? Or will you look for the cheapest hack on Craigslist? You’ll save a lot of money, and you will regret it every single day.”
And all of a sudden, people who know very little about hiring a voice-over, get it.
IT IS A GIFT
Now, another thing photographers and voice-overs have in common is this: people tend to underestimate what it takes to get to a certain level. An amateur can take pictures all day long, and doesn’t have to live up to a standard. He or she can learn on the job. Pros, on the other hand, are expected to know what they’re doing. It takes hard work to make something look effortless.
Once again, here’s David Shaw:
“A few times, I’ve been told by people looking at one of my images, “You have such a gift.” I know they are being kind, that they are offering a compliment, but I can’t help feeling insulted. I want to say, “It’s not a gift! I worked my ass off to make that image! That shot is the result of years of effort, of early mornings, and hours of travel, of study and practice, tens of thousands of failed and deleted shots, and thousands of dollars in equipment. Nothing about that image was given to me, I earned it.” Of course, I don’t say that. Instead, I smile as though they’ve just said the nicest thing, and say thanks. (…) So no, photography is not a knack – it’s work.”
That’s precisely why professional rates are based on experience, and not on time spent. What’s true in photography is true in voice-overs. Talent cannot be bought. It has to be cultivated. Patiently. It requires discipline. It requires commitment. It may take years before you see a decent return on investment. David Shaw agrees:
“With the exception of the very top people in the industry, we pros aren’t millionaires, or anywhere close. Out of our meagre incomes have to come our mortgage, food, computers, software fees, travel, and yes, camera equipment. When I made the transition to full-time freelancer, that new reality hit me like a falling piano. Science fiction writer John Scalzi once wrote that you shouldn’t consider leaving your day job until you are making TWICE your normal income with your writing (or in this case photography). It’s good advice.”
So, if you’re searching for answers, inspiration, and a common cause, look outside of your familiar circles. Extend and expand your network, and reach out to fellow-freelancers. Find script writers, copywriters, cinematographers, graphic designers, art directors, authors, artists, photographers, et cetera. Learn from their struggles. Immerse yourself in new ideas. Stand with them, be stronger, and be ready to be surprised.
This the really exciting part:
One new connection will often lead to another, and another, and another.
A photographer I had been in contact with, was getting into video production. She wanted to produce virtual house tours for realtors, and she needed someone to do the voice-over narration. Guess who she turned to?
Had I stayed in my sweet, supportive, and navel-gazing community, she probably wouldn’t have found me. What she needed, was a personal connection.
Here’s what you have to understand.
These things don’t just happen. You have to be the one who reaches out. Today.
Okay, this may sound like a pop quiz, but are you a go-with-the-flow person, or do you like to plan everything out?
Do you like surprises, or do you prefer to know what will happen next?
How well do you handle uncertainty, and last-minute changes?
Personally, I think life would be unexciting without the unexpected. I like not knowing what I will get for my birthday. I love to give a chef free rein, as he creates a special dish for me. I purposefully seek out new ideas and uncharted avenues. It keeps the brain cells bouncing around in playful anticipation.
But forget personal preferences for a moment. Let’s talk about the lifeblood of your business: your clients.
If there’s one thing clients all over the world consistently hate, it’s not knowing what to expect.
In an uncertain and stressful world, clients want reliability, dependability, and predictability. If your work is inconsistent, you can’t be trusted to deliver a product or service a client can count on.
I’ve been going to the same restaurant for years, and the food was always outstanding. Always. Until a few months ago. The menu had changed. The wait staff wasn’t the same, and the open kitchen had disappeared. That evening, I had one of the worst meals ever, and now I hesitate to go back.
So, let’s talk about inconsistency for a moment.
Since I’m continuing my series on script delivery, you may be inclined to connect (in)consistency to your (voice) acting performance. We’ll get to that later, because we have a bigger picture to discuss.
If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this post, it is this:
Consistent delivery is about much more than the way you read your lines.
As a solopreneur, you’re judged by the way you deliver a total package. This starts with first impressions:
What does your website look like?
How do your demos sound?
What kind of equipment do you use?
How do you present yourself in person, via email, in social media, and over the phone?
If done right, all of these elements should send one consistent and congruent message:
In a time where anyone can hang out a shingle and pretend to be a pro, it is easy to spot the inconsistencies that turn clients off. Do you want examples? Be my guest!
On her website, one freelancer boasted about “years of experience.” Then I looked at her client list of… seven companies total. None of them were names you would recognize.
Another colleague thought that adding that amateur Polaroid snapshot to his website would really impress visitors. I hope his ideal clients are into Margaritaville, because that’s the logo I spotted in the picture’s background.
Can it get any worse? Of course.
A few years ago I went to a recording session in Manhattan. The first thing I heard when I came in, was the sound of crying kids. One of the other talents had brought her two toddlers to the studio. The high-end client who had flown in for the session, was not amused.
One voice actor described himself on his website as detail-oriented. In the next paragraph I found not one but two spelling errors.
Sending mixed messages like that, undermines credibility. It kills trust.
Here’s another inconsistency clients talk about all the time. They hire a voice-over based on a kick-ass demo. The talent gets the script and records the audio. But when the client receives the recording, it sounds nothing like the voice on the demo tracks.
You can guess how this came about. The super slick demo was overproduced, and later doctored by a talented audio engineer. When it was time to do the real work, the voice talent went back to her boomy closet booth where she self-directed.
“I’m not going to pay for that,” said the angry producer. “This girl charges top-dollar for something I can’t use!”
That’s another inconsistency. In this case, the quality of the product did not match the price.
Here’s one more pet peeve of mine.
A talented voice actor offered a quick turnaround time. It took him over a week before he got back to me. Mind you, during that period he was all over Facebook. I’ll have to think a very long time before I ever recommend him.
NEW AND OLD
Now, before you tell me that this blog post is one of those “nice reminders for beginners,” you should know that I find these types of inconsistencies across the board. In fact, fresh talent seems a lot more willing to please, because they still have to make a name for themselves.
Some veteran voice actors, on the other hand, have become complacent. They believe that their reputation should speak for itself. Although a nice portfolio doesn’t hurt, many clients don’t want to know what you have done for others in the past. All they need to know is this:
“What can you do for me, today?”
Here’s the bottom line. If you advertise yourself as a pro, you have to present yourself as a pro on ALL levels.
There’s a reason why a fashion designer doesn’t dress like a slob. It is obvious why a fitness trainer is usually in good shape. It’s part of a consistent message. A message a client is more likely to remember and respond to.
And what about consistency when it comes to the delivery of your script?
Let’s continue that conversation next week, when I’ll also look at the big secret to audio book success!
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