Personal

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

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.


Those Silly Americans

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Personal, Promotion 12 Comments

The authorHere’s a question I get asked a lot:

“What’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over, living and working in the United States?”

Who wants to know?

Mostly European colleagues, who either think I’m totally nuts, or who secretly want to do what I did and move to this land of milk, honey, and doughnuts. Some of them have strange ideas about what my life on this side of the pond is like.

I sometimes have to explain to them that “No, I don’t live in a McMansion; there’s no giant gas guzzler parked in my garage, and I can’t call a Hollywood studio and put in a good word for you.” In fact, this American life I am leading is pretty ordinary and rather unspectacular.

I don’t know what my existence would have been like had I stayed in Holland, but in my experience, setting up shop in the States has as many advantages as disadvantages. My colleague Jamie Muffet just wrote a great piece on that very topic for Backstage, and he had me thinking. 

In this day and age where all of us are part of a huge global network, does it really matter where we do our job? It’s just as easy for me to plug into a studio in Amsterdam, as it is to reach a recording facility in New York or Johannesburg. Even agents who used to insist I make a personal appearance, don’t mind if I send them an mp3 audition. Times have changed.

Although technology has made it easy to have an international presence, there’s something I must admit. It took me a good number of years to find my way here in Pennsylvania, and at times I still struggle to make sense of my surroundings and the culture I live in. Personally, and professionally. For instance, I had a hard time trying to figure out how to position myself as a voice for hire.

CONFUSION

From a marketing perspective, it is important that clients have a clear concept of who I am, and what I bring to the table as a talent. When I first came here, people were mainly confused, and I don’t blame them. I spoke with a distinct British accent (the one I was taught in school), and most Americans thought I was from the UK. It was both a good and a bad thing.

It was good because casting directors who didn’t know any better, often hired me to play the part of a stuffy English professor. I even did a voice-over promoting a Beatles jukebox musical on Broadway. I tell you: it was fun being a fake!

There was a downside to having this posh accent. I felt that people were judging me all the time. They either thought I was highly intelligent, or a pompous ass. Of course neither is true. I can’t say it helped me define my professional identity as a native Dutch speaker. Then there was something else I stumbled upon.

IGNORANCE

Even though the United States is supposed to be this big melting pot, I’ve learned that Americans struggle with languages and accents. Many of them have never left the country, and they are rarely exposed to different tongues and twangs, the way Europeans are. Thanks to a brilliant educational system, their sense of geography tends to be off too.

A few weeks ago an agent asked me to audition for a documentary, and she was convinced my accent would be perfect. “You’re Dutch. You should nail this one,” she said. The minute I got the script I saw it was about an old ship… from Denmark. “Well, Dutch and Danish are pretty much the same, aren’t they?” the agent stated.

Not really. And Copenhagen is not the capital of the Netherlands.

Another thing I’ve had to explain over and over again, is the difference between Dutch and Flemish. Flemish is a kind of Dutch, spoken in a specific part of Belgium. It’s as different from Dutch as British English is from American English. That means you shouldn’t hire a Dutchman to voice a commercial meant for viewers in Belgium. But most people in the States don’t know that.

I used to get very annoyed with these ignorant Americans, but having lived here for over ten years, I’ve come to realize that many of them don’t know what they don’t know. Instead of holding it against them, I do my best to educate casting directors and agents, without sounding like a European know-it-all. And quite often they are very grateful for my advice.

Here’s another thing I learned the hard way.

SELF-PROMOTION

Coming from a Calvinistic country where any form of self-aggrandizement is frowned upon, I found out that in America modesty isn’t always an asset. In fact, people like talking about themselves. A lot. If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?

I had to learn to be comfortable with my accomplishments, and speak and write about them openly. In Holland I would have been accused of bragging. Here people say: “Don’t be shy. It’s okay. You have every reason to be proud.”

When talking to a potential client or an interested agent in the U.S., I make sure to sell myself as best as I can. When I’m dealing with someone in Europe, I like to tone it down considerably.

Another thing I realized was that Americans tend to be quite informal. Before you know it, you’re on a first-name basis talking about your family with someone you barely know. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people who come across as friendly, want to be your friend. Give it a few weeks, and they might not even remember your name. Don’t take it personally. 

Things are gradually shifting in Europe, but unless a new client signs his or her emails with a first name, I err on the side of caution, and I’m much more formal.

FEELING LIKE A KING

So, what’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over in the United States? 

In the Netherlands we have a saying: “In the land of the blind, the guy with one eye is king.” As one of the very few native Dutch voice-overs in North-America, that’s often how I feel. I’m a small orange fish in a huge pond. In all the years I have lived here, my English accent has changed considerably. It’s no longer British, and it’s not entirely American either. As I explained to Jamie Muffet: 

“Demand for a Dutch narrator isn’t exactly overwhelming, and thanks to the Internet, my competition in Holland is only one click away. My real niche is in ‘neutral English’ voiceovers, meaning my accent is neither British nor American. It’s more of a European twang, and businesses wanting to increase their global appeal hire me because of my international sound.”

If that’s not shameless self-promotion, I don’t know what is…

On occasion I go back to the Netherlands to see friends and family. I walk around in this tiny country, and I comment on how everything is so close, and how small things are. It’s guaranteed to make my Dutch friends laugh out loud.

“Oh, Paul,” they say…

“stop being such a silly American!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet, Please retweet!


The Weight Of The World

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

AtlasParis. Ankara. Istanbul. Brussels.

On some days this beautiful planet is so full of hatred and hardship that I feel guilty writing about such trivial things as “work.”

It sure is fun to blog about freelancing, marketing, and microphone technique, but I have to ask: “To what avail?”

Does it lead to a deeper understanding of the human psyche?

Does it tell us why young, radicalized men stuff their luggage with glass and nails, before they blow themselves and innocent others to bits and pieces?

Does it explain why so many people still believe that violence is the only way forward to further a cause?

As a blogger, shouldn’t I be writing about those issues, instead of talking about home studios, auditions, and online casting companies? 

Whenever I ask myself these questions, I have to remind myself of where I came from.

Before leaving the Netherlands, I worked as one of those stone-faced newscasters informing the world of yet another tragedy. On air, I asked countless experts about the roots of evil, and I grilled politicians about their ideas on how to fix a broken world.

Day after day I reported on endless suffering and strife, and I was part of the sensationalist “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” gang, that determines what is newsworthy and what isn’t. On sunnier days I would be searching for that snippet of positive news we could end our program with, to remind the listeners that not all people are perverts, rapists, or suicidal religious radicals. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the excitement and the adrenaline of the newsroom. It gave me a steady income, a certain status, and a sense of purpose. A democracy can only function when people are able to make smart decisions based on hard facts, and I was in the business of providing those facts. My radio station also gave me a unique opportunity to hold the feet of the famous to the fire.

Yet, one day, it all fell apart when I noticed myself caring less and less about the horror stories I was covering. In the beginning I would blame my lack of response on the need to “stay professional,” meaning detached from the raw emotions that are part and parcel of every human tragedy. I was supposed to stay as neutral as our network professed to be, and not get emotionally involved. But it came at a price. 

I gradually developed a tendency to disassociate myself from all kinds of feelings. Positive and negative. That invisible screen I was using to shield myself from sadness in the newsroom, had become like a second skin. It protected me, and it numbed me at the same time.

Over time, I came to a frightening realization:

I had lost one of the very few things that separates humans from animals: the ability to empathize.

I’d seen this happen to veteran journalists who were trying to cope with the crazy demands of their job. Some became chain smokers, heavy drinkers, and lifelong cynics. Others filed for divorce. It was not a road I wanted to travel.

One day, after covering yet another disaster, I just knew I had reached my limit. Years of reporting had done nothing to change the world. If anything, the world had gotten worse. All I wanted was to get out of broadcasting, and do something useful with my life. Something exhilarating. Something inspiring. Something uplifting.

When I finally left the poisonous bubble that was the newsroom, it took me a while to adjust to a new reality. A reality that wasn’t nearly as violent as I had thought it would be. Slowly but surely I discovered a world filled with kindness and good people. It was as if someone had opened the dark blinds that had been filtering the light from the windows for such a long time.

I came to realize that the news I had covered for all those years focused on the exceptions; on the grotesque and the extraordinary. The thousands of planes that land safely every day will never be on CNN. It’s the plane that crashes that ends up making headlines. And if you add all those headlines up, it’s easy to get the impression that this world is rotten to the core. But it’s a deliberate distortion of reality, contrived to kick up the ratings. 

Reality is so much better and less sensational than the networks want you to believe. For most of us it is reassuringly unspectacular and ordinary. It revolves around friends, family…. and work. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to blog about work, even when evil forces are trying to fill this world with fear.

The question remains: how do we respond to those who want to scare us by causing panic, pain, and suffering?

How do we deal with the fact that -to quote Harold Kushner- bad stuff happens to good people?

All of us have to come to terms with this in our own time and in our own way. Life and death are mysterious teachers.

Let me leave you with what I think.

The only way we can learn to live with darkness, is to focus on the light, and to become a reflection of that light.

Whether we realize it or not, all of us were born with the ability to shine. 

Once we start taking that to heart, perhaps we can begin making this place a better world.

In Paris. In Ankara. In Istanbul. In Brussels.

Everywhere.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.  


Call Me Oscar

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 19 Comments

Oscar the GrouchCurmudgeon.

I just love the sound of that word, don’t you?

Curmudgeon.

Linguists believe it dates back to the 1570s, but no one can tell for certain where it came from.

If you’re like me, and English is your second or third language, you might not even know that curmudgeon is used to describe a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. It’s the archetypal grouch: unpleasant, argumentative, stubborn, and unsociable.

A while ago I made a surprising discovery. I was talking to a colleague whom I had never met before, and near the end of our conversation she said to me:

“I can’t believe how nice you are. You’re not at all what I expected.”

“What did you expect?” I asked.

“Well, based on your blog I always thought you were this grumpy, super-serious, sourpuss kind of a guy. I mean, you’re always so critical of newbies, clients, and colleagues, and you don’t exactly mince words.”

“You thought I was a curmudgeon,” I interjected.

“Your words, not mine,” she said, “but to be honest, I had expected some cranky complainer. You’re not like that at all.”

Normally I don’t fall for flattery, but her comment made me smile. A little bit.

“In a previous life I used to teach self-help seminars,” I said, “and your observation reminds me of one of the main messages I impressed upon my students:

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

It’s the idea that it doesn’t really matter what people write or say. The meaning comes from how listeners interpret and respond to what was written or said. Intentions -good or bad- are irrelevant.

My colleague looked puzzled.

“Let me give you an example,” I continued.

“Bono, the U2 frontman, was on a fact-finding mission in Africa. One of his hosts gave this long-winded, academic spiel on the origins of urban poverty and the rise of AIDS. At one point Bono had had enough. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘But I just explained it to you,’ said his host annoyed. ‘I was as clear as I could be. Perhaps this is going over your head. After all, you’re not an expert.’

‘Perhaps you should explain it better,’ answered Bono.

I looked at my colleague and said:

“The meaning of our communication is the response we get. This academic thought he was making himself perfectly clear, yet Bono’s response told him otherwise. Who was at fault here?

The way I see it, Bono was right. Now, let’s bring this back to you and me. I believe it is our responsibility to communicate a message in such a way that the other person will understand its true meaning. If that’s not the case, we need to explain ourselves in a different way until understanding is reached. 

Unfortunately, most of my teachers -whether in elementary or in high school- never got that concept. If a pupil didn’t comprehend something that was explained to them, they always blamed the “dumb” student.”

“And how is all of this connected to your blog?” asked my colleague.

“Perfect example,” I said. “Here I am… attempting to make a connection between my blog and your expectations of me as a person, and I fail miserably. So, let me try again.

Based on my blog, you thought I would be a certain way, correct? And as you admitted, I wasn’t like that at all. Is that your fault? Not really. Your initial impression was based on my writings. Your response was the meaning of my communication. So, I thank you for your feedback.”

I paused for a moment before I opened up.

“You know, I don’t really want to come across as the curmudgeon of the voice-over world. That’s not who I am. As you have noticed, I don’t take myself too seriously. I love most of my clients and colleagues, and I love what I do for a living. I also want to warn newbies before someone takes advantage of them. That’s one of the reasons why I started blogging.

I blog to provide an antidote to all those manipulative marketing messages telling gullible people what they want to hear. At least, that’s my intention.”

“Well, that comes across loud and clear,” said my colleague. “But perhaps you could sprinkle it with a bit of humor every now and then. Lighten up, and don’t be so preachy. I know your dad was a minister, but a blog is not a pulpit.”

“Amen to that,” I said. “Thank you again.” A few moments later, we parted ways.

Later that day I got a phone call.

“Hi, remember me?” asked my colleague. “I’ve been thinking about that conversation we had this morning, and I need to know something. Were you talking about yourself, or were you talking about me when you told that Bono story?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, earlier on I had told you about the difficulties I had communicating with a client. I didn’t feel he understood me, and I blamed him for purposely missing the points I was trying to make. After you and I talked I did my best to see things from his perspective. I modified my approach and my tone in the last message I sent him. He just emailed me back, and I think we’re finally getting somewhere. Am I on the right track?”

“I don’t think I have to answer that question,” I said. “You changed your communication, and you got a different response. Congratulations. You’re a fast learner!”

“And you’re a pretty good teacher,” she responded. Then she laughed.

“For a curmudgeon, that is…”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Oscar the Grouch via photopin (license)


Voice-Over’s Seven Deadly Sins

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 26 Comments

I never knew this, but if you ask a bartender for The Seven Deadly Sins, he’ll give you a shot comprised of equal parts of the seven cheapest liquors available at the bar.

It’s like hiring a team of third-rate voice-overs from a lowball website to narrate a piece of pulp fiction. It’s guaranteed to turn your stomach. 

If you’re an old-school Catholic, The Seven Deadly Sins have a very different meaning. Dating back to the 4th century AD, it’s a classification of capital vices, also known as cardinal sins. They are: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.

In one way or another, these sins are as old as mankind, and you’ll see manifestations of them in our professional community. So, let’s talk about them for a moment, starting with…

Lust

Originally, lust was equated to desire, as in the desire for fame, power or money. If that’s what you’re secretly after, I strongly advise you to choose a different career path. With a few exceptions, voice actors are the unknown, unseen, unsung heroes of video games, documentaries, audio books, and more. We’re not in the picture. Literally.

If you’ve been around the block for a few years you might disagree, because you happen to know lots of voice-overs. To the rest of the world this is totally irrelevant. Just stop a stranger in the street. Ask her to name one voice actor. Just one, and watch what happens. If you’re lucky she’ll call out the name of an A-list Hollywood celebrity, but that’s it. 

Big names make the big bucks, and you’ll see their names on billboards all over the world. The average VO Pro will forever be the anonymous disembodied voice, running from gig to gig, as unremarkable as can be.

There is a bright side. One of the best perks of this job is that we can keep our privacy!

Gluttony

This is a delicate one, because I know I’ll probably step on a few sensitive toes here. If we’d have a room full of on-screen actors and voice-overs, how would one tell the two apart? It’s easy. The voice-overs are more likely to be overweight.

I’ve written about this before, but weight gain is often the result of a sedentary life spent in a small space behind a microphone. Combine lack of movement with the overeating of unhealthy foods, and you have a recipe for disaster. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an occupational hazard. Lifestyle and diet are based on choices, and choices can be changed. Consider this:

You’ll never be satisfied until you know what you’re truly hungry for.

Greed

If you believe that voice acting is a shortcut to making lots of money in a short amount of time, think again. To an outsider, being paid $250 for a 60-second narration might seem good money. What people don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between what voice-overs make and what they actually get to keep.

Some colleagues are lucky to have a steady stream of well-paying projects. Many others know that these two hundred and fifty dollars also have to pay for the time in between gigs. It also pays for all the expenses that come with being self-employed, for the rent, for utilities, and for all the other bills that never stop coming.

There’s one more thing I want to say about greed, and it has to do with the quality of our service:

People will never do their best work if money is their main motivator.

Sloth

I have seen quite a few people fail at VO, not because they’re untalented, but because they’re downright lazy. Technology has made it so easy to sign up for a voice casting site, and watch the auditions come in. And when  -after a month or two- the booking rate is still zero, guess who gets the blame?

Laziness is also about expecting others to give you the answers on a silver platter, and milking their network to get ahead. It’s a failure to do all the hard, boring, and unglamorous work that comes with running your own business. It’s about taking things for granted, and not being grateful.

Those who have made the move from a corporate job to being self-employed, know that you often have to work twice as hard and twice as long. When you’re the boss, you run all the risk, there are no paid benefits, and results are never guaranteed. Isn’t that fun?

Wrath

In the eyes of some, the multifarious VO-community is made up of a very helpful and altruistic group of people. However, if you’ve spent some time online, you know that we’re not all saints and angels. There are some very bitter, frustrated, and angry individuals who are trolling various groups. 

They will gladly put a newbie in his or her place. These people always know better, and if you don’t bow to their eternal wisdom and status, they will publicly slap you on the wrist. But wrath takes on other forms as well. 

People get angry when they feel ripped off, either by cheapskate clients or by lowballing colleagues. They get upset when an (in their opinion) mediocre talent “steals” a job they’re not worthy of. Angry people tend to take things very personally, and that’s tricky in an industry where rejection is commonplace. Anger is often the basis for the next deadly sin:

Envy

I wish all of us could be happy for one another all the time. But some people aren’t wired that way. Another person’s success becomes a source for their misery. I remember losing a friend after I landed a job both of us were in the running for. I had no idea why he suddenly disappeared from my life. Years later he told me his jealousy got the better of him. 

Some psychologists believe that there are two kinds of envy: benign envy and malicious envy. Benign envy can be a driving force, motivating people to achieve something great. Malicious envy doesn’t only destroy relationships, it’s self-destructive as well.

The idea that we are always in competition with one another, and that the world is divided into winners and losers, can lead to envy. I always encourage my students to cultivate the lost art of admiration. Rather than being jealous of someone’s accomplishments, ask yourself:

“What has this person done to get to where he/she is now, and what can I learn from him or her?”

Pride

I think there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in what you do, and being proud of what you’ve accomplished. Pride turns poisonous as soon as you start believing that you’re better than others, or when you can’t appreciate other people’s achievements.

Pride often manifests itself as arrogance. The sad thing is that arrogance stunts growth and it creates distance. It’s tough to teach someone who thinks he knows better. Arrogant people tend to have little patience for those who are (supposedly) not at their level. They’re great at making other people feel inadequate and inferior.

Someone once said: “Pride leads to contempt; gratitude leads to compassion.”

Redemption

Let’s remember that as voice-overs, we’re in the service industry. Our success relies on the extent to which we understand the needs of our clients, and our ability to meet those needs. Professional pride can give us the confidence needed to get the job done. But we can’t allow pride to feed our ego, causing us to focus on ourselves, instead of on our customers. 

We can only grow as professionals once we realize that we don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to be perfect. We need to stay open, appreciative, show some humility, and be eternally grateful for the talents we were born with.

Are you following me?

Good, and if -for some reason- you don’t agree with me, there’s only one thing I can do.

I’ll drag you to the nearest pub, and make you drink The Seven Deadly Sins.

That will teach you.

Cheers!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Nate and Megan via photopin (license)


Giving Up

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal, Social Media 46 Comments

Letting GoThis year…

I stopped running after every audition,

Or hoping for that big break.

I gave up my relentless quest for clients,

and allowed clients to come to me.

I quit writing long emails to people asking me for the secret formula to overnight success;

I relinquished my desire to have a constant social media presence;

I said “no” to most requests for interviews, guest posts, and twitter chats;

I even took a few weeks off from blogging, just because I felt like it.

I stayed away from most voice-over gatherings, online and offline;

I did not drool over the latest and greatest gear (well, just a little bit);

I gave myself permission to not be available all the time.

Instead of in the studio, I began most of my days in the gym, gaining strength, and losing weight.

I separated my personal from my professional life,

and decided that who I am, is more than what I do.

This year, I gave up the control

I never had in the first place,

and I replaced most of my “shoulds” and “musts” 

with “I choose to,” and “I’m going for it.”

And you know what?

Things turned out pretty okay.

My business survived.

I survived.

I feel less taxed, and more relaxed.

Here’s what I have learned:

Giving up is not so bad. 

Sometimes the old has to go, in order to make room for the new.

The junk we leave in the attic, and the trinkets we hang on to in the basement,

It can all go. Really.

Life is lighter without it. 

You see…

Many of us walk around with old stuff that isn’t necessarily our stuff.

It’s stuff other people left behind. Baggage. 

Thoughts. Habits. Beliefs. Even objects.

Things that no longer serve a purpose.

It weighs us down.

And when all of it is gone, we can move on.

Because we have reclaimed a space in our lives that is waiting to be filled with excitement and anticipation.

Take it from me:

We sometimes need to lose part of who we were, in order to discover who we are. 

There is much to gain from giving up.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: ‘Letting Go’, United States, New York, Montauk via photopin (license)


Please don’t let me be misunderstood

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 7 Comments

ReflectionA few days ago, something happened to me that had never happened before.

At the end of Uncle Roy’s 10th annual VO-BBQ, a young colleague walked up to me and said:

“I wanted to thank you.

You are the reason why I am a voice-over today.”

“How so?” I asked, pleasantly surprised.

He said: “When I watched your video The Troublesome Truth about a Voice-Over Career, I just knew I had to become a voice actor. Since then I have worked very hard to launch my career, and I couldn’t be happier doing what I love to do. So, thank you!”

“I’m so glad to hear that,” I said, “but really… all the credit goes to you. You made this happen. Not me. I just put a video on YouTube.”

When I thought about this encounter the next day, it made me smile. So many people have seen the video, and quite a few commentators accused me of trying to kill their dreams by listing all the reasons why a voice-over career might not be for them. How dare I?

Now, here’s a guy who had the opposite response. After watching my video, he became more determined than ever to make it as a professional voice talent! It just goes to show that the same information can elicit an entirely different reaction, depending on the person who’s processing it.

This confirms one of my favorite sayings:

The world we see is a mirror of who we are.

If you are a glass-is-half-empty kind of person, you will always find evidence to support that idea. If you believe that the glass is always half full, you’ll find example after example to underpin that view. Our perception is mostly projection.

I also had to smile because I do love it when open-minded, talented people take advice to heart, and run with it.

You see, it’s so easy to look at a video, listen to a podcast or quickly scan a blog post, and immediately move on to something else. That’s today’s society. We go from one stimulus to the next. There’s no percolation time, allowing info to sink in. That’s a shame, because processing more information faster doesn’t make us any wiser. I believe it makes us more shallow and stressed. 

When we listen to someone making a point, we hardly ask ourselves the basic questions:

1. What is the speaker really saying? How much of it do I understand, and what is it that I don’t yet get?
2. What does this information mean to me? How is it relevant?
3. What should I do with it?

Why do we skip these questions?

For one, because many of us have lost the ability to be in the moment and truly listen. We’re so busy trying to come up with a response, that we don’t even hear what’s being said. Or, we assume we already know what the other person is going to say, and we respond to that. The better we know the person we’re talking to, the more frequently this happens.

It’s a relationship killer, and I’m not only talking about intimate relationships.

Whether you’re a voice actor or you do some other kind of freelance work, your level of success is deeply linked to the level in which you understand and respond to your client’s needs. That’s why I find it very challenging to work with clients who give little or no instructions.

It’s impossible to live up to unknown expectations. This is true in our professional, as well as in our personal lives. And because we make assumptions instead of asking questions, we get in trouble. 

The other day I was convinced I knew what a client wanted me to do. My job was to dub a Dutch actor in English, and the director had sent me a video clip of the guy I was supposed to emulate. So, I sent the director a recording of me mimicking the Dutchman to the best of my abilities.

The next day I got a request to redo the dub. “I only sent you the video so you could get a sense of the tempo,” the director said. “I don’t want you to imitate the man. I want you to sound like yourself.” So, once again I had been mind reading someone else’s intentions, and had missed the mark.

Because of experiences like these, I can’t blame those who leave strange and unusual comments on my Troublesome Truth video, or on this blog for that matter. I have to accept that once I release words and images into cyberspace, they will take on a life of their own, and people will interpret them any way they want.

Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. Like the time this young colleague thanked me for my video.

And I realize that what he did with my message says a lot about him, and very little about me.

Enough said.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

photo credit: reflection via photopin (license)


The Ministry of Silly Voice-Overs

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Pay-to-Play, Personal 19 Comments

Lumberjack SongLast week it happened again.

In my dreams.

I got a phone call from a potential student who wanted to know how long it would take to break into the voice-over business.

He had no training, no equipment, no experience, and no patience. When I asked him how much he was willing to invest, it turned out he had no money either.

What a brilliant start!

“But I have a profile on voices.com,” he said proudly.

“How did you pull that off?” I wondered.

“I just recorded a few things on my friend’s computer so I would have some demos, and they accepted me straight away. They must think I have potential, right?”

“Listen carefully,” I said, “these people would accept a talking parrot for a new member as long as it presented a credit card that wasn’t expired. In fact, I believe I’ve heard a few of our feathered friends on that site, and they all sound very much like Gilbert Gottfried.”

“Oh, I can do a Gilbert Gottfried for you,” said my aspiring voice-over enthusiastically. “Just give me a few seconds to get into character.”

“Please don’t,” I begged, but it was too late. I had to hold the phone a mile away from my ear in order to avoid permanent hearing loss.

After one of the most painful minutes of my life listening to the sound of an Aflac duck being strangled, I had had enough, and shouted:

GILBERT, YOU’RE FIRED!”

“That’s so funny,” giggled the voice on the other end of the line. “Gottfried lost his job after making a tsunami joke. I must have sounded pretty convincing.”

“To tell you the truth, you sounded more like a dead parrot to me, my friend. Had you gone on for much longer, my neighbors would have reported me to the police for cruelty to animals. I’m sure they could hear every wretched noise you just made.”

“Speaking of dead parrots,” the aspiring student continued unabashed, “I can also do a mean John Cleese impression. And without skipping a beat he yelled:

‘Ello, Miss, I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.’

“Before you go any further, Mr. Cleese,” I interrupted, “I have an admission to make.”

‘ELLO POLLY!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing!’ the guy continued, but the moment he took a breath I seized the opportunity and said:

“You are extremely talented…”

The blissful silence that followed these glorious words lasted precisely two seconds.

“Do you really think so?” the impersonator whispered.

“Extremely talented…

at pissing people off, Pet Shop man,” I continued. “Let me give it to you plain and simple: 

If you go on like this, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression. Right now, your voice-over career is as dead in the water as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue. It’s stone dead. It has ceased to be. It’s expired, and gone to meet its maker. Bereft of life. It’s kicked the bucket, and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible…”

“Alright, alright… I get it,” said the voice-over wannabe. “But you have to help me out here. I came to you for some coaching. Not to have an argument. I told you that at the beginning.”

“No you didn’t” I said.

“Yes I did,” he said.

“You did not!”

“I’m telling you I did!”

“You did not!”

“Oh this is futile,” he said.”

“At last we agree on something,” I replied. “From what I’ve heard so far, you’re as good at doing voice-overs as Basil Fawlty was at running a hotel.”

“Coming from you, that means a lot,” the guy said. “I appreciate your honesty. Will you be my coach?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I exclaimed. “I just insulted you, and you want to be my student? What are you? A masochist? I don’t think you’re cut out for this sort of work.”

“But for the past few months this has been my dream,” he stammered. “Right now I work at Holiday Hair, and I hate it. I have this terrible un-un-uncontrollable fear whenever I see hair. When I was a kid I used to hate the sight of hair being cut. My mother said I was a fool. She said the only way to cure it was to become a hairdresser. Guess what? It didn’t work.”

He let out a deep, sad sigh.

“Mr. Strikwerda, If I can’t do voice-overs, what else am I to do?”

I knew I couldn’t leave the guy hanging. He had a good sense of humor, and I wanted him to get something out of our conversation. What was I to do? All of a sudden I knew the perfect answer.

“Listen, I said… why don’t you…  why don’t you become a… LUMBERJACK!” 

“Leaping from tree to tree as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia,” he continued.

“The giant redwood, the larch, the fir, the mighty scots pine…”

“If I ever want to get rid of this lad, I have to stop feeding him lines,” I said to myself. After taking a sip of water I got back into the conversation.

“You know my name. What’s yours?” I asked.

“Michael,” he said. “I was named after Michael Palin.” 

“How surprising,” I thought. 

“Well, Michael, I tell you what. Why don’t you take one of your demos, and send it to the Voice Arts™ Awards. If you win, I’ll give you five free coaching sessions. How does that sound?”

“Are you serious?” he asked. “That’s amazing! Thank you. Now I feel much more optimistic.”

“That’s the spirit!” I said. “You know what they say: ‘Always look on the bright side of life.'”

Michael laughed, and replied on cue:

“Nudge, nudge. Say no more!”

Paul Strikwerda (and Monty Pyton) ©nethervoice

Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Photo 02-07-14 11 21 31 via photopin (license)


How Vocal Coach Elissa Weinzimmer Lost Her Voice and Found Herself

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 14 Comments
Elissa Weinzimmer, vocal coach

Elissa Weinzimmer

Okay. I’m going to do the decent thing, and not start with how a simple sex toy could benefit your (voice) acting career.

That would be a cheesy way to pique your interest, and I’m not going there.

Besides, it’s just a small part of a much bigger story, and it has been covered before

Don’t worry. I’ll get to it eventually, but you have to be patient.

Instead, I’d like your mind to go somewhere else…

Imagine for a moment that you’re young, and your voice is your life. 

You love it so much that you want to make a living using that voice.

You take every opportunity to speak, sing and perform in public.

You dream of a career on stage, and you work very hard to make it a reality. 

And then, all of a sudden, you lose the one thing you trust and rely on most.

How would you feel?

This is not some sort of hypothetical scenario. This actually happened to vocal coach Elissa Weinzimmer. She told me her story, and today I’m going to share it with you. Here’s Elissa, recounting the events that took place some eight years ago.

“Simply put, I lost my voice in 2007. It was due to a combination of factors… I was really pushing to belt a solo in my a cappella group (USC Reverse Osmosis), and I was also drinking almost every day because I was trying to enjoy my remaining months in college (!). The drinking part was quite out of character, so it only lasted about a month before my body reacted. One morning I woke up, and felt like I had shards of glass in my throat. It hurt to swallow and speak. Later on that day, I spat up blood.

I rushed myself to the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist that week to have my vocal cords scoped, and I was told I had severe onset of acid reflux, and had experienced vocal “trauma” from overuse. I was put on vocal rest for a month… I had to walk around with a little notepad to communicate my thoughts. After that, I was sent to speech therapy. The whole experience was a major turning point for me. I stopped performing. I even stopped singing much in the car or the shower, places where I usually rocked out. Recently, I’ve started to call the seven years after losing my voice my silent years.”

When your voice is such a part of your identity, what did it do to you psychologically, when you could no longer rely on it?

“It was really emotional, of course. My confidence took a hit because I felt like I couldn’t rely on my voice. When I talk about it in yogi terms, I say that I spent years shutting down my fifth chakra, the center of energy in my throat. The fifth chakra is all about creativity and expression, so I felt stifled. Opening back up to my expressiveness has been a challenging but joyful process.”

How did losing your voice change a possible career path you had set out for yourself at that time? 

“Well, I’d spent most of my life believing that I was going to pursue a career in acting – that I was going to sing on Broadway. Interestingly enough though, a few months before I lost my voice I directed my first full length show, the musical Cabaret. So I was already intrigued and exhilarated by the idea of pursuing a career in directing. When I couldn’t rely on my voice anymore, it was a no-brainer that I would focus my efforts on directing instead. The idea to teach voice didn’t arise until a year or so later.”

Some people look at unfortunate events as blessings in disguise. Was losing your voice such a blessing, and in what way?

“Eight years later, I absolutely believe that it was a blessing. My story fits the archetype of the person who enters a healing or helping profession because of their own challenges. Losing my voice redirected my course in life, and I deeply love what I do now. So, in some ways I’m very grateful to have gone through the experience.”

What surprising things did you discover in the process of getting your voice back, and how has that changed you as a person, and as a professional?

“By the time I was ready to start reclaiming my voice I was already teaching voice to others quite a lot. It became clear to me that it was time to start walking the walk rather than just talking the talk. After all, it’s one thing to tell people to express themselves fully, and it’s entirely something else to be a model of that. I have to admit, a lot of my motivation for performing again was selfish – I needed to do it for me. Yet in pursuing my passion and my truth, I hope I offer a model that encourages other people to do the same in their own way. I believe the world will get really exciting when a critical mass of people start pursuing their true passions and desires, and I feel very strongly about being part of that movement.”

You have used a few methods to restore your voice, to strengthen your vocal folds, and to deal with vocal fatigue. One is called Fitzmaurice Voicework®. In a nutshell, what did you learn from using this technique that was new to you?

“It wasn’t what I expected. I encountered Fitzmaurice Voicework® in my theatre voice class when I was a senior at the University of Southern California. After I lost my voice I began to study the technique more deeply. Fitzmaurice is a beautiful and unique full body approach to making sound, but the exercises weren’t the thing that provided the biggest change for me. The huge change came from encountering a mindset shift inherent in that work: that instead of needing to have the best voice or a perfect voice, I could focus on having my voice.

I showed up at Fitzmaurice lessons wanting to get better and fix my voice. Of course that makes sense, I had spent my whole life up to that point trying to be a good singer and trying to make a good sound. But I learned that improving the voice is a paradox, because in order to get “better,” we have to uncover what’s already there. It’s not about adding stuff, it’s about peeling the extra junk away. In this new way of thinking I could let go of judging myself as good or bad/right or wrong, and I could instead ask myself: “What might this way of making sound be good for?” or “What might this way of breathing be right for?”

This paradigm shift changed everything for me. Once it sunk in, I was immediately committed to the idea of becoming a voice teacher, and sharing this way of thinking with others.”

You say the whole body is involved in creating sound. Many voice-overs lead very sedentary lives. They lock themselves up in a small, soundproof box, and sit all day, reading long scripts. What advice do you have for them?

“An ongoing struggle that I’ve had in my own vocal practice is to actually do my warm ups and take good care of myself. I will be the first to admit that that’s challenging! I have often felt like I’m not doing enough, and when I start working without warming up I feel guilty. However I’m lucky to be curious – fascinated in fact – with how the voice works and the connection between the voice and the body. At this point I’ve spent years experiencing and teaching warm ups and exercises. In the process I have come to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that having a vocal practice works. Doing vocal warm ups and keeping ourselves in shape makes a difference.

So, for those of us who are really committed to using our voices as an instrument, I suggest this:

Get curious about how your voice works. We would never hop on a motorcycle without first learning how it works, so why would we ever presume to use our voice every day if we don’t understand it? Pick up a book and read. Joanna Cazden’s “Everyday Voice Care” is a great place to start. Create accountability and support. Sign up for a class. Go to yoga or the gym regularly. Create a practice.

Professor David Ley

Professor David Ley (left)

In 2012 you moved to Edmonton, Canada, to earn an MFA in Theatre Voice Pedagogy at the University of Alberta. That’s where you met one of your mentors, professor David Ley. One of the things he has developed is called the “Vibrant Voice Technique.” Tell me about it, and in particular how this technique could be beneficial to voice actors.

“Vibrant Voice Technique is based on this outside-the-box idea that David had to use a vibrator for your voice. He had a client suffering from extreme vocal fatigue. She’d been to the Ear Nose and Throat doctor, and she’d been scoped, but there was no damage. That being said, she was having ongoing difficulty making sound due to muscle tension. She had trouble giving herself a manual throat massage to release the tension, so David thought to himself… “Hmm, what’s small and vibrates?” The subsequent lightbulb moment led to a trip to the “love shop” to purchase a pocket-sized vibrator, and sure enough it worked!

Essentially, with Vibrant Voice Technique we use external vibration to reduce muscular tension, and enhance resonance. The technique can be incredibly beneficial to voice actors because it makes vocal exercises quick, easy, and highly effective. You don’t have to have a long regimen of exercises that you feel guilty about not doing. Quite honestly, Vibrant Voice is a shortcut to staying in vocal shape. So for voice actors who deal with issues of duration and overuse it can be extremely helpful.”

You’ve taught this technique to stage actors, on-camera actors, and professional singers. What’s the response when they found out they’re about to use a sex toy?

“There’s this very funny moment that happens when I say to someone: “I teach people to use a vibrator for their voice.” Almost always it goes like this: a blank stare, followed by a slow smile, then a vigorous nod. Sure the idea is surprising, but it makes sense to most people as soon as they think about it! Obviously many media outlets have capitalized on the sex toy angle because it’s sensational. Yet we continue to teach and do what we’re doing because the technique really works.”

Right now you’re recommending a “sensual personal massager” made by a Swedish company, but you’re developing a custom-made voice vibrator, aren’t you? What’s the word on that?

“Yes, we are in the process of developing our own vibrator. Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about that at the moment. However, if anyone reading this is interested in getting involved with the fundraising or research process, they are welcome to email us! You can find our contact info at Vibrant Voice Technique.

Apart from being the managing director of Vibrant Voice Technique, you run your own business called “Voice Body Connection.” What do you offer, and who are your clients?

“Voice Body Connection is based in New York City where I live. The business is all about helping people tune into the connection between their voice and body (as the name suggests). My mission is to help performers and public speakers communicate with more confidence and ease. I work in many ways: I coach clients privately in person, and over the internet. I teach actors at a studio in New York called Anthony Meindl’s Actors Workshop. I also teach an online Speak With Confidence class for public speakers. I’d love to develop a class for voice-over actors too!

In whatever format I’m teaching, the work starts with examining and shifting our mindset about how we communicate, and progresses to techniques and practices to create sound with more expression and less effort.”

I’m particularly intrigued by something you offer called Yoga for the Voice.

“I think there are many voice teachers now who are playing with combining vocal exercises and yoga. In a lot of ways the practices are complementary. So, I certainly can’t claim to have invented Yoga for the Voice. However I love exploring the interplay of how we might make sound while we do yoga, or how we might carry yoga concepts into voice work. It’s an exciting area of exploration for me, and I think for my students too!”

You also prep people for auditions. What are some of the common mistakes you help people correct?

“Well, I think the greatest challenge for a performer is that we’re usually given a script, and that maps out our impulses for us. It is so easy, when we’re being told what our impulses should be, to plan and make logical decisions about how we’ll perform. However the real goal is to allow impulses to bubble up creatively from our right brain, the same way impromptu speech pours out of us. So, the biggest thing I find I spend my time doing when I’m coaching people for auditions or performance, is helping them find a way to marry their own impulses with the impulses that have been provided in the script.”

Quite a few voice actors suffer from vocal fatigue. They got into the business because they loved to read out loud, and because they could do “funny voices.” Not everyone has had professional voice training. What advice do you have for an audio book narrator who records five hours a day, or for a voice actor who has to scream his head off while recording video games or cartoons?

“So, you’ve just brought up two issues: the duration issue (length of time doing the work) and the use issue (are we using healthy practices?). In either case, I highly recommend a warm up and a cool down.

Now, we’re doing the warm up not just to go through the motions. We’re doing it because it’s an opportunity to let our voice know: “This is how I’d like you to behave as I move through my work.” It sets us up for success. After you’ve done a warm up you can do whatever you want within reason – you can scream, cry, and make crazy sounds.

At the end of your session, you want to reset by doing a cool down. You’ve done a lot of work and potentially used extreme effort, so you want to come back down to a more healthy, neutral resting place. The primary reason actors get into trouble with fatigue is because they carry their overuse or misuse into the rest of their day or into the bar that night. So the biggest piece of advice I can offer is: Warm up and cool down! Even thirty seconds of humming will do.

Elissa Weinzimmer, performing "Home."

Elissa, performing her show “Home.”

And finally, back to you. Helping all these performers, don’t you feel the pull of the stage? Will you be coaching in the background, or is there a chance we could see you perform in public again?

“The answer to both is yes! I love coaching. I love helping facilitate people’s art. However, now that I’ve broken the seal, so to speak, I’m back, and I’m going to continue performing!

What do you mean?

I recently sang a cabaret show for my 30th birthday! It was an incredible experience. The theme of the show was “Home.” I’ve been moving around a lot over the last couple years, so it’s about finding home wherever I am. But it’s also about coming home to my voice. You can read about my three performances on a special website I just created.

I don’t know what my next project will be, but I’m very much open to the possibility and opportunity to perform again.”

SPECIAL OFFER

Elissa has developed an online training on how the voice works, and she offers online voice coaching. She also teaches one-on-one sessions in Vibrant Voice Technique via Zoom (online), or in-person in New York City. Check out her website for details.

She’s kindly offering readers of this blog 10% off of any of her sessions when you mention Nethervoice. If you’re unsure how to properly use your voice, or if you’re suffering from vocal fatigue, one or more sessions could very well save your career. 

Thank you, Elissa!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Be Sweet. Please retweet!


The Secret To Free Upgrades

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 8 Comments

smiling old manIt’s my ultimate dream…

To board a transatlantic flight, and get a complementary upgrade to first class.

Or to pay for a simple hotel room, and being handed the key to the penthouse suite. At no additional charge.

I love a good deal. Especially when I’m not paying for it!

And how about getting last-minute tickets to that sold-out play or musical? Wouldn’t it be great to run into someone who’s willing to sell you the best seats in the house at half-price because he can’t make it?

“Alright, that will never happen,” you respond, and I don’t blame you. 

Most airlines have instituted a zero-upgrade policy. Hotels will make you pay if you wish to stay in a nicer room, and that loud, sweaty guy in front of you will snag those cheap Broadway tickets for a show he doesn’t even like. 

Some things are just too good to be true, and they will never happen to you.

And yet, one of my friends seems to have the magic touch when it comes to upgrades. He’s in his seventies, and the other night he went to dinner and got a free dessert. Recently, he took a cruise to the Caribbean, and landed a spacious room with a view, even though he’d only paid for a small cabin.

He’s always getting deals and discounts, and I don’t know how he does it. Is he just lucky, or is he reaping the rewards of having been an amazing person in a past life?

Let’s forget reincarnation for a moment, and find out why my friend -let’s call him Ben- receives these complementary upgrades and discounts. I have a feeling it has to do with his mental make-up. His personality.

First of all, he’s the epitome of optimism. In Ben’s world, nothing is impossible. Ben doesn’t see obstacles. He spots opportunities. 

Secondly, he’s one of the most positive, altruistic souls I know. Ben is always complimenting people left and right because he sees the good in everyone.

And compliments make people fly.

Ben’s also a good listener. He’s the kind of person you’d tell the story of your life to, because Ben is genuinely interested, he doesn’t interrupt, and he doesn’t judge.

Ben doesn’t like to talk about himself. He wants to hear how you are doing. Ben doesn’t have a hidden agenda, or some intricate spiel. He happens to like people, and people like him.

And most importantly, he doesn’t care if you’re a captain of industry, or a burger flipper at the local greasy spoon. He will give you the same, warm Ben treatment, because that’s what you deserve.

You couldn’t find a nicer guy, even if you tried.

“But what about this saying Nice people finish last?” you may ask. “Isn’t there some truth to that? People walk all over doormats. They always have, and they always will.” 

I disagree. Nice people can be assertive. Sweet people can have a spine. A very sweet spine! Nice people do finish first.

Ben once told me:

“Most folks are willing to go the extra mile for you, but not if you’re a jerk. If you go all ballistic on a poor call center assistant, you know you’re going to be put on hold for a very long time. If you’re patronizing to a waiter, it may take a little longer for your food to arrive.

Being kind doesn’t cost a thing, but don’t expect any favors if you’re being disrespectful and rude.

Now, I know that’s not an earth shattering message, and yet I wish this world would choose kindness over conflict.”

Being a nice guy is not the only reason why my friend Ben enjoys his occasional perks and upgrades. When I asked him about it, he shared a very simple secret with me that has made all the difference. In fact, it is so simple and straightforward that most people don’t even think about it.

“My mother was a very wise woman,” said Ben. “And this is what she told me when I was five years old:

You’ll never get what you don’t ask for.

Here’s an example.

One of my grandsons is a freelancer. The other day he was complaining about a rate a client had offered him. It was on the low side, but he took the job anyway, because he needed the money.

Did you ask for more? I said.

“No,” he answered. “I didn’t want them to go to someone else. Besides, they said they had a limited budget.”

A month later he ran into a colleague who happened to work on a similar project for the same company. And get this: They were paying this man twice the amount he was making! 

My grandson became really angry. He called his project manager and yelled: “Why are you paying this guy two times what I’m making while we’re practically doing the same job? That’s not fair, is it?”

“Calm down, said the project manager. “It doesn’t have anything to do with fair, and I’ll tell you why. With us, you negotiate your own rate. That’s how we do it. Your colleague gave us a number, and we agreed. It’s as simple as that. You could have done the same thing. All you had to do was ask.”

I’ll give you another example, said Ben.

My neighbor’s wife -a very nice lady- was moaning and groaning that her husband wasn’t romantic anymore. “We used to go out all the time, and we had so much fun,” she sighed. “These days he just sits on the couch, and watches TV.”

Have you asked him to take you out on a date, lately? I said.

“Of course not,” she replied. “It has to come from him. It has to be spontaneous. My husband is anything but spontaneous.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Ben. “She doesn’t understand the concept. If she wants things to chance, she’s got to take action. 

You’ll never get what you don’t ask for.

Frankly, it’s the only reason I got that marvelous room on my last cruise. When I got on board, I started talking to the purser. He was an older guy, like me. It turns out, we went to the same high school, but we were five years apart. We even had the same favorite teachers, and we hated the same ones too! Then he asked me what room I was in, and I told him. He said it was very close to the engine. That’s probably why it was so cheap.

Then I looked at him, and said: “I don’t suppose there’s anything you could do about that, is there?”

He glanced at his chart for a moment, and said: “Let me see what I can do.”

Next thing I know I was out on my very own balcony, smelling the fresh, salty air. The engine room was far away. One night I was even invited to dine at the captain’s table. When you’re my age, it doesn’t get any better than that!”

He took a deep breath.

“You know,” said Ben with a smile. “People think these things only happen in books or in movies, and that’s not true. They do happen in real life, as long as you believe they are possible. You’ve got to believe.

Sometimes all it takes is a smile, a little kindness, and an innocent question.

Tell me: Is that too much to ask?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

photo credit: the old man and the sea : santa barbara (2006) via photopin (license)