Before I give you my take on Dan Friedman‘s book “Zen and the Art of Voiceover,” there are a few things you need to know. The most important thing is that, even though we don’t see much of each other, I consider Dan a friend. He is more than a friend. He’s a kindred spirit when it comes to all things voice over.
Since we’re on the same page on so many topics, this makes it hard for me to be critical about Dan’s book. Plus, I like and admire Dan, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. But I also know that Dan would want me to be fair and not play favorites. So, in this review I’ll do the impossible and pretend not to know Dan and give you my honest assessment.
NOT FOR YOU
First and foremost, if you have plans to start a career in voice overs because you think it’s a quick, fun, and easy way to make money, you’re not going to like this book. If a VO career were a human body lying on the operating table, Dan is the surgeon who -with great precision- dissects every element, and puts it under a magnifying glass. It can become overwhelming in its complexity, but it’s the only way to do it.
The title of Friedman’s book is no doubt inspired by “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an inquiry into values,” by Robert M. Pirsig. That book was a play on the title of the 1948 book “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel. Persig’s book is a fictionalized autobiography, and Friedman’s book has some autobiographical elements in it as well.
DAN, THE MAN
When I finished it, I felt I had gotten to know Dan’s backstory better, and it gave me insight into where his expertise originated. With some coaches you wonder where all of their crazy ideas are coming from, but with Dan, there’s no doubt. He’s an audio engineer, a musician, an on-camera actor, a voice talent, a director, a demo producer, a mentor, a blogger, a loving father, and a husband… All these roles are represented in his latest book.
Now, the bulk of this book is based on previously published blog posts, some dating back to 2011. How do I know? Because Friedman lists where and when they were first published. This may give you the impression that he’s simply recycling old material because it literally is dated. But what surprised me most about this book is how well his writings and insights have stood the test of time.
Having said that, I think it wasn’t necessary for Dan to date his old articles. Good content is good content and the rest is irrelevant. Knowing when and where something first appeared may be an honest approach, but some may get the impression he is serving outdated stuff.
What’s more, because this is in part a collection of previous writings that appeared in isolation, you will find some overlap and repetition in the chapters. Putting old blog posts together does not make a cohesive book. On the other hand one could argue that some repetition may reinforce the message. You be the judge.
Part of this book is dedicated to some basic information like creating a recording environment, choosing voice over gear, mic placement, setting levels, compression, equalization and other technical stuff. But as Dan confirms, even if all these elements are in place, it doesn’t mean you’ll make any money as a voice over. The Zen all happens in the delivery and the effect it has on the listener. Dan writes:
“The sound of your voice is only a small part of voiceover. No matter what genre or multiple genres of voiceover you aim to pursue, you must deliver the copy with emotion and authenticity. But how do you do that? How do you take someone else’s words, especially words you care very little about and would likely never say in real life and make them your own? The answer is you must say them with intention. You must believe that these words mean something beyond what they are literally stating. You must identify that meaning and then speak those words intentionally with that meaning in your mind. Your sound will match what you are feeling. Sounds easy. Right?”
The best parts of the book are when Friedman methodically starts to unpack all the elements in the delivery. Here are some of his tips:
“Before you record, pick a point of view. Are you a consumer, an employee, or a spokesperson?
Find out who you are talking to. Know your audience and pretend you’re speaking to one person.
Where is the story taking place? Asking where the story is taking place determines two very important things: volume and intimacy.
What is the story about?”
This may seem like a very logical approach (and it is), but Friedman adds:
“Your script is about whatever the words on the page are saying. But the story is about emotions. Because the brain recognizes emotion before it processes logic, you must appeal to the listener on an emotional level before any of the words you are saying will be processed logically by the listener. Therefore, as the speaker, you must feel something if you want the listener to feel something.”
In the book, Dan teaches you how to break down a script and he describes many approaches and choices without ever imposing his ideas on how he thinks it should be done. He tells you what’s included in the buffet without telling you what to eat.
He’s got bad news for those who believe it won’t take long before they too, can tell the world they’re a voice over professional:
“You will have to be ready to commit more time to your business, to auditioning, to training, to editing, to networking, to marketing, and to things that have nothing to do with actually reading scripts for money than you ever thought to imagine. You will need to LOVE spending your time doing this.”
And he adds:
“Nearly every skill involved in a voiceover career takes time to develop and cultivate. Learning to use your ears and apply the knowledge gained from listening… takes years of listening. Learning to understand and communicate various emotions that a script calls for requires years of experiencing emotions and, perhaps more importantly, recognizing how others express emotions.”
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sold millions of copies and was featured on the best seller lists for decades. I don’t think Dan will sell millions of copies of his book, but it certainly deserves to become a best seller in the voice over community!
Click here for Dan’s website where you can read more about his coaching services and his demo production process.
When you’ve been recording (and coaching) voice overs for as long as I have, it’s easy to be unimpressed when a new book comes out. Why? Because it sometimes feels like everything has been said and done already. That is…. until a book like Zen and the Art of Voiceover is published. It takes a deeper dive into what we do and why we do it, and into how we can become better at what we do. Especially because it isn’t written by a know-it-all, but by someone who is very knowledgeable, giving, and gifted.
But if after reading this book you think you know what voice over is all about, wait until you work one-on-one with Dan. At the last VO Atlanta I went from room to room with my camera, to take a few snapshots of the various presenters. Most of the time I was in and out in under two minutes. Then I saw Dan publicly coach one of the participants who was working on a script for a car commercial. I simply couldn’t leave the room, it was so captivating.
Dan could read his student like a book, and with a few brilliant suggestions he was able to turn a vanilla performance into something memorable. And best of all: the student owned it! It was a transformative experience. I remember saying to myself: “How does Dan do that?”
Then I read his book.
Now I know what he was doing, and I’m inspired!
Inspired to start recording, using my trusted shotgun microphone.
And yes, you guessed it.
It’s a Zenheiser!