America has voted. The people have spoken.
Some of us are elated.
Some of us are scared.
Some of us are asking ourselves: “How the heck did this happen?”
Now, before you think this is yet another analysis of the election, let me stop you. This is primarily a blog about people’s voices and their meaning, and that’s why you and I need to talk.
Because some of us were foot soldiers in this war of words. Soldiers of fortune.
I’m referring to the voice actors who used their talent to spread the message of a particular party. The masterful manipulators, hand-picked and hired to move hearts and minds.
That’s not some dark, political point of view. It’s the ultimate purpose of our profession. Clients hire voice actors when they have something to sell, someone to entertain, something to teach, or something to preach.
If we do our jobs well, we lift dead words off the page, and bring them to life in the most impactful way possible. Sometimes, that way is a seductive whisper. Sometimes, it is a battle cry about keeping America great again, or restoring the soul of the nation. As long as that cry is believable, people are buying it in droves. Just look at the tremendous turnout!
It’s all about influence.
MAKING AN IMPACT
A masterful audio book narrator can create wonderful worlds and characters that become an intimate part of the listener’s experience. Well-delivered catch phrases from commercials become engrained in our culture.
As the French say: “It’s the tone that makes the music,” and in my mind, it’s the voice-over who sets the tone, whether it’s someone like Sir David Attenborough, Gilbert Godfrey, or Morgan Freeman.
Who can forget the way Ed McMahon delivered his “Here’s Johnny,” for almost thirty years? Who doesn’t remember Don LaFontaine’s booming “In a world…” or Don Pardo announcing Saturday Night Live?
As you’re reading these words, you probably heard their voices inside your head, and hearing these voices put you in a certain state of mind, if only for a moment.
Don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal.
Voice-overs infuse scripts with meaning and emotion. A talented voice actor can “play” the words, the way a musician turns notes into music, and music into art.
Now, at this point I can hear some of you say:
“Slow down a little. What’s the big deal? Words are just words! You can’t get wet from the word water. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
Well, you’re wrong.
Words are powerful weapons. Depending on who delivers them, and how they are delivered, words can act as a potent placebo, or as a poison. If you don’t believe me, ask a hypnotherapist, or someone who has been bullied.
The word Kristallnacht isn’t “just” a word. Kristallnacht opens up a burning world of meaning; a world of anti-Semitism and intolerance that led to the killing of six million innocent people.
Words are loaded. They can be used to divide, to incite, to help, and to heal. Words drive teenagers to suicide, and words inspire religious fanatics to murder and maim.
Words are never “just” words.
Now, subscribing to the idea that words have power has implications for all of us. Especially for professional communicators like you and me.
Whether you’re a copywriter, a speech writer, a politician, or a voice-over, as a paid manipulator of language, you have the responsibility to ask yourself:
“To what aim am I doing my job?”
“What are the potential consequences?”
“Would this project I’m involved in make me proud, or would I be embarrassed to be associated with it?”
“Under what circumstances would I refuse to work on a job?”
“Is this project an opportunity to make money, to make a difference, or both?”
Some of my fellow voice-overs answer those questions in a very pragmatic way. They tell me:
“Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only an actor. I’ll say whatever they pay me to say. At the end of the day, it’s money in the bank.”
To be perfectly honest with you: I struggle with that attitude. Especially when it’s about causes I strongly believe in, I find it hard to separate personal from professional ethics. For instance, as a lifelong vegetarian, I would never butcher my beliefs to promote the consumption of meat, no matter how much they’d pay me.
At the same time, I’m not going to make the mistake of confusing an actor with his or her character. If someone portrays a member of the KKK in a movie, I know it doesn’t mean this person supports the KKK in real life. Perhaps that actor wanted to play this role to warn the world about the dangers of the Klan.
So, to help myself deal with some professional, moral dilemmas, I find it useful to make a distinction between fiction, and reality. As a voice actor I give myself permission to play a despicable fictional character. However, I would never record a promo video for the KKK.
Do you know what I mean?
GETTING INTO POLITICS
But what about political ads? Would I be willing to help a political party sway voters?
Although many political ads sound too good to be true, I put them in the category of non-fiction. They’re a tool in a battle to influence the masses. They’re instruments of propaganda. Based on my personal morals, and knowing what I know about the power of words, I would never lend my voice to a message I don’t believe in, regardless of the paycheck.
My voice is for hire, but my integrity is not for sale.
I understand that you may draw the line differently, because your values and beliefs are different from mine. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss ethics in our profession. Our voice is a powerful instrument of influence that can be used for many purposes, good or bad.
One last thing.
Let’s not confuse doing a great job with doing what is right.
It is very much possible to do great work for a terrible cause. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens, is a cinematic masterpiece of propaganda about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Her documentary Olympia about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, was groundbreaking.
These cinematic masterpieces were paid for by the Nazis, and used to glorify the Third Reich!
Yes, you can do amazing work as a voice actor for a horrible company. Can you live with that?
It’s not always the work that’s being criticized. It’s the purpose it serves, that matters. You can lend your perfect pipes to promote a notorious weed killer like Roundup, but is that something you want to have on your conscience, just because you feel you have to make a quick buck?
Are your morals for sale to the highest bidder? Are you a vocal prostitute?
WAITING FOR A WINNER
I’ll let those questions resonate with you, while we adjust to a new reality, here in the United States.
The votes have been cast, and we have a president-elect.
This was an election about emotions like hope and fear; about who was best at selling a message to the masses.
The painful and embarrassing war of words is still going on.
Here’s what I want to know.
Let’s say all votes are counted, and we don’t like the outcome, should we start shooting the messengers?
I mean, we’ve got to find some people to blame, don’t we?
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be sweet. Please retweet!