“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”
One sunny day, a fishmonger put up the following sign:
TODAY: FRESH FISH
One of his first customers said to him: “What’s this sign I see? You only have fresh fish today?”
“Of course not,” said the fishmonger. “I have fresh fish every day. You’ve been coming here for the past eight years. You know that.”
“Then why did you write: Today: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.
So the fishmonger erased the word TODAY.
An hour later another customer questioned him about the sign:
“Why does it say ‘Fresh Fish’? Isn’t your fish always fresh? Or have you been selling me unfresh fish all these years?”
“Of course not,” answered the fishmonger a bit annoyed. “Each day I go to the harbor at the crack of dawn and buy my fish straight from the men who caught it. It can’t get any fresher than that.”
“Then why did you write: Fresh Fish? That’s confusing,” said the customer.
So the fishmonger erased the word FRESH. “I don’t get these people,” he mumbled. “Wasn’t it obvious what I was trying to say?”
Our life is filled with unspoken assumptions. The obvious does not need to be stated, does it? If we hold that to be true, we’re forgetting one thing:
What’s obvious to one person might not be obvious to another person.
Language in and of itself is vague, inadequate and ambiguous, and therefore up for interpretation. If you have any doubts about that, talk to theologians or lawyers. In both cases you often need divine intervention to get them to agree on anything, even if they speak the same language.
Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) is the developer of what he called “General Semantics.” Simply put, this refers to the study of how you and I react to our environment or an event, and how we derive meaning from it.
Korzybski coined the phrase “The map is not the territory,” meaning that a word is not what it defines (the territory), but merely a symbolic representation of it (the map). That’s why we don’t get wet from the word water.
Here’s the problem: if we don’t know what the territory looks like, how on earth can we know what the map refers to?
Take Nike’s famous trademark “Just do it.”
Without knowing anything about it, would you have any idea what these three words stand for? For instance: what is “it”? And if we don’t know what “it” is, how are we supposed to know how to “do” “it”? It could mean a million things, and we’re supposed to “just” do them? Forget it!
Let’s move away from fishy advertising and “just do” a little experiment. Take this simple sentence:
“We only have a small budget.”
That’s plain English, isn’t it? But what does it really mean? Do we have enough information to know what the writer intended it to mean?
If you say “yes” to the question, please tell me what you think it means and what you are basing it on. If you say “no,” tell me what is missing.
I have a feeling that you’ve seen this sentence before. I will also go as far as to imagine that every day, freelancers like you and me allow these six words to influence the bids they put in, to win a project. Am I right?
In order to truly know what the client means by “We only have a small budget,” a lot of blanks need to be filled in. First of all: who is “we”? Is it a client? And if so, who is this client? Donald Trump? I bet you anything that what “the Donald,” considers to be small, will forever redefine your meaning of the word!
My voiceover agent sometimes sends me five hundred-dollar jobs and apologizes for the “small budget.” To some, five hundred dollars might be a huge step up from the hundred-dollar jobs they’ve been auditioning for, just to break into the business. But considering the fact that this client is a key retailer and that the job involves all major markets and a six-year buyout, five hundred bucks is very low pay.
It’s all relative, relatively speaking.
By giving you these examples, what did I just do?
I provided you with some context.
The meaning of words is not only determined by what you find in the dictionary. It is defined by the setting and circumstances in which they are used. In fact, dictionary editors define the meaning of words by studying the context in which they appear. They even come up with sentences in which a word is used to illustrate its meaning.
But let’s assume that little or no context is provided. What do we usually do to attempt to understand the words we read or hear?
We start making things up. Believe it or not, there’s a mindreader in all of us! To me, this is where things get really interesting. On what exactly do we base our uninformed guesses?
I remember the first time I drove on an American highway and saw a sign that said RAMP. I must confess that I had no idea what it meant (for first-time readers: I’m originally from The Netherlands).
In an attempt to understand its meaning, my mind started making associations based on my personal frame of reference. In Dutch, the word RAMP means DISASTER! Till this very day, I get uncomfortable whenever I see that sign.
Without a clear context and without the ability to ask any questions, we generally base our understanding on speculation, which in turn is based on our subjective experience. In other words: the way you interpret “we only have a small budget,” will tell us a lot about you and next to nothing about the person who wrote it. This gets us into trouble all the time.
As a service provider it is not supposed to be about us. It’s about what the client wants to see and needs to hear. But clients typically hand out maps and leave it to us to second-guess what their territory is supposed to look or sound like.
They’ll tell you:
“I don’t know how to describe to you what I want, but I know it when I hear it. As long as you try to sound warm but professional…. If you know what I mean.”
No I don’t know what you mean. How could I? We have never met. Sometimes I don’t even understand my wife, and I think that I know her better than most people.
Now, do you still wonder why you didn’t land that ‘warm and professional’ gig?
Could it be, because you were led by your own assumptions? Did you forget to ask critical questions, or were you unable or not allowed to contact the client and get some context?
Beginners often wonder: “If only I could get some feedback after the fact. That would give me some idea as to why my audition was rejected.”
I think it would be much more helpful to get some perspective before the fact; some sense of direction. Dump the vague and ambiguous verbiage. If you don’t tell us what you want, how are we supposed to give it to you? I know that words are inadequate ways of describing an experience, but can you at least try a little harder?
While you do that, let’s go back to the story.
TODAY: FRESH FISH
After erasing the first two words, the fishmonger stared at the sign that now read “FISH.”
That should do it, he thought.
No one can argue with that.
He was ready to go inside when a boy walked up to him. He had a ten-dollar bill in his hand.
“Sir, sir…” the boy said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” said the fishmonger. “What can I help you with, young man?”
The boy looked at him with big, hopeful eyes.
“Sir, I just saw your sign and I was wondering: do you sell goldfish?”
The fishmonger made a gesture of utter exasperation.
People are completely clueless, he thought.
Then he took a damp sponge and erased the word FISH.
Dave Courvoisier says
Thanks for so ingeniously shining a light on this quandary. Who said: “you can’t please all the people all the time”?
I’ve stopped trying. People who create DEMAND do not find success when they accept “one size fits all” concepts. It doesn’t work. The “average” customer is a myth. Different customers, and even the same customer at different TIMES have different needs. The trick is to constantly improve the product to fit different customer types as close to 100% of the time as possible.
Thanks, too for the contribution of the “verbatims” from others in the business about my VOAT promotion. That’s helpful.
Good stuff, Paul!
Paul Strikwerda says
Dave, I’m not sure this is a matter of not being able to please everyone. The whole concept of Voice Over Awareness is apparently not clear to every colleague.
However, I am writing these words on the first day of your “campaign”. It will take some time to catch on.
I do like the fact that you’re offering an incentive to participate in VOAT, and it seems to work. Your initiative has already become a prize-winning website!
It was not my intention to minimize your efforts in any way shape or form. Putting all of this together must have been quite an undertaking. Once again, you’ve shown the rest of us that you’re a community builder and contributor.
Hats off to you!
Dave Courvoisier says
I didn’t take your comments any other way than support, Paul.
I suppose I haven’t actually defined “awareness”, but as you say, I think the nuances of it will sink in over the stretch of September.
Thanks for your response.
Peter K. O'Connell says
What Dave does is “do” – as in just do it. Execute. Formulate the plan and put it out there.
The rest of us (me too) sit back and watch…maybe participate and always criticize.
The first response from most voice talents always seems to be “the problem with that idea is…” versus a more proactive “here’s a way I can apply this idea to my business” or if there is no comfortable application “thanks for trying this on behalf of the community.”
We all know better (or so we seem to act as if we do) and yet we don’t do it. And I include me in all those we’s as well as everybody on this page and most everybody in our community. We do our charitable bits here and there because we are not bad people but too often we hide under the guaze of “criticism” to mask what I consider childish nit picking.
In this particular case, Dave doesn’t make any $ and I believe in fact it costs him $ and certainly time to do this because he is trying to give back to the voice over community. Dave’s selflessness on this project seems, Paul, to be the very deeply buried lead in this post. And my opinion is that I think that’s unfair. Not malicious or even intentional but the end result is unfair.
The intent of the VOAT event is to help celebrate our industry in one of most time honored ways the field of public relations ever conceived: the national month. But as a community we can’t step over each other fast enough to find fault with it.
I’d ask all those who do find fault with the idea to offer your options to Dave in an email or call and the first thing I hope you say to him is: Dave, thank you for doing this.
Paul Strikwerda says
Dave’s project is but a side note; an mere illustration of my point that vague language causes people to assume and attribute certain meaning based on their own preconceptions.
As I made clear in my piece, as well as in my responses to Dave’s comments, I am not critical of the initiative itself. The question: ‘Do we really need a more Voice Over Awareness Today’ is legitimate, as is the question ‘What does Voice Over Awareness’ mean?
Peter K. O'Connell says
As the gifted writer and owner of the blog I don’t question your reasoning for illustrating your point but I would only offer that the tactic of questioning the need for awareness of our industry completely jumps over the point that someone took the initiative to create a program to foster awareness. As to whether it’s wording is vague, unclear or not simplistic enough…such comprehension is so individually focused that I don’t know that there is any perfect word for promoting voiceover awareness or selling fish.
With words as in life, you cannot be all things to all people. Making the resultant Lowest Common Denominator both good thing and a bad thing. Possibly the reason behind the phrase “necessary evil”.
Thanks for the opportunity to offer my opinion here, Paul.
Paul Strikwerda says
A wise man once said: “Question everything and hold on to the good.” Both of us are doing that, looking at the same phenomenon from different angles.
I have sung Dave’s praises recently, and I will continue to do so! Based on the number of responses to Dave’s new site, his VOAT-campaign is gaining momentum. That means that people are aware of it and are taking part in it. In that sense, VOAT is already a success and I commend Dave for taking the initiative.
steve hammill says
As long as the check clears and the jobs keep coming why worry about people being aware of VO. The people who eat fresh fish are aware of fish; the people who use VO are aware of VO.
If my memory is correct, the original VO awareness campaign started because there’s a new breed of people consuming VO. As a group, those people seem to think that since (almost) everybody can talk, talk should be cheap. The awareness effort was to enlighten them that VO skills take years to develop.
My feeling has always been that fish eaters won’t appreciate fresh fish until they eat really dead fish. It is the difference between eating sushi in Japan and having sushi in Eureka, Montana where you’d be better off eating bait 😉
Paul Strikwerda says
The old Voice Over Appreciation campaign seemed to be reaching out. The new Awareness campaign is reaching in. If I’m correct, Dave shifted the focus from voiceover clients to voiceover talent. At least, that’s my best guess…
Debbie Irwin says
Thank you for sharing your fishy parable.
You raise a very important point. Ever hear the phrase:
‘When you assume it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’?
(My paraphrasing may be off!)
I’m guilty of it too, but am always looking to improve.
Many people don’t know the right questions to ask, and in your article you offer one suggestion: Ask who the client is.
““We only have a small budget…. who is “we”? Is it a client?”
I’d like to start a list for people to add to so we all get smarter about asking the right questions, to get the right answers, so we have the right context, to ask for a fair price for our work.
1. What is your budget? (Too often there’s no reply to this question. Suggestions?)
2. What is your timeline? (Do you want this yesterday? That commands a higher price.)
3. Where will the audio be used? (Broadcast/Internal/Trade Shows/DVDs/etc.)
4. Do you want to pay for a full buyout? (The ability to use the recording anywhere and for all time.)
5.What is the word count? (One indicator of how long the project may take you to record.)
6. What are the editing requirements? (Do they want the 1,000 word script in one long file or do they want each of the 100 sentences broken up into individual files, named accordingly?)
7. Do they want music?
Everyone, please add to this list. I don’t assume I know it all.
Paul Strikwerda says
In my school of thought, the process of getting specifics is called “chunking down”. For that, we use questions such as where, what, when, how, whom etcetera. In the context of voiceovers, your list is very helpful.
I like “What is your budget” but I prefer “How much have you budgeted” because it contains a presupposition. If the client does not reply, I’ll simply ask again and do my homework (trying to find out info about the client).
If a colleague has referred the client to me, I usually ask him or her about the rate because I don’t want to overbid or undercut anyone.
Without knowing the details of a project, I refuse to give a quote. I tell my clients that there is no cookie cutter approach to this business.