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Are You My Colleague or My Competitor?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion 18 Comments

The Olympic Games in Rio are over. The Paralympics end on September 18th.

Since the start of these games I have been glued to the television. For me, that’s a strange thing to do, and I’ll tell you why.

I’m not a huge sports fan. I don’t support one particular team. Between you and me, I think most sports coverage is overrated as the most important of very unimportant news.

I often wonder why millions of people get all psyched about a major game, but seem to care very little about famine, global warming, or the annihilation of yet another endangered species.

I don’t get why some folks are willing to fork over a fortune to buy tickets to a match, but aren’t willing to pay a few dollars more in taxes so their state can properly fund education, or repair those bridges that are on the brink of collapse.

I don’t understand why people make time to go to a lame game where two teams are chasing a round rubber object, but they couldn’t be bothered to leave the house to vote.

I find it profoundly disturbing that music, drama, and art teachers are always the first to be fired when schools need to cut jobs, but nobody dares to touch the athletic department.

Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m not fully integrated into American society yet. The USA is a country where baseball is called “The National Pastime,” and where NFL stars are paid more to defend their team’s title than we pay servicemen and women to defend their nation.

How we spend our money as a society, reveals our priorities.

If you want to know what’s important to a country, you should also listen to its language. U.S. politicians talk about “leveling the playing field.” Motivational speakers teach strategies for “winning the game of life,” and managers will ask us to “step up to the plate.”

Sport is part of the American spirit.

Enthusiasts tell us that it teaches healthy habits, strategic thinking, and teamwork. Sport, they say, is a powerful metaphor for life. 

That may be, but is sport always healthy?

According to Safe Kids Worldwide, an international non-profit organization aimed at preventing unintentional childhood injury, every 25 seconds, a child athlete suffers a sports injury serious enough to send him or her to the emergency room (source). Twenty year-old American snowboarder Trevor Jacob admitted that his memory is already a little fuzzy as the result of at least 25 concussions.

And what does sport teach us about relationships?

When we talk about sports, we’re talking about competition. Competition is based on confrontation where being the best is often more important than doing one’s best. The aim is to overpower the other team or fellow-competitor(s), rather than to work together as teams toward a common goal. It’s a black-and-white world of us against the rest. A world of winners and losers.

America does not like losers.

These days, the world of professional sports is also a universe of sponsorships, mega-contracts, endorsements, and merchandise. You may be thinking that you’re watching a fun game, but in reality it is a shameless vehicle for product promotion. At this point the ad agencies have conditioned us so well, that many viewers are more excited about the TV commercials than about the game itself.

As voice-overs we’re benefitting from this development because we often lend our voices to these commercials. Fifteen seconds of script can pay the bills for an entire month.

Many of us have embraced sports metaphors in our line of work. We talk about “winning or losing an audition,” and we sign up for seminars to stay “ahead of the competition.” A bottle of “Entertainer’s Secret” is the performance enhancing drug of choice.

Having said that, I think it’s a big mistake to compare our job to what athletes do. First of all, most athletes are in much better shape! Secondly, we’re not running a race (although it may feel that way). We’re not competing for a place on the podium.

Yes, just like athletes we need coaching, quality equipment, and experience. Our success demands sacrifice. But submitting an audition is not the same as entering a competition, because we do not determine the outcome.

In many sports, the fastest competitor wins. It’s that simple. Winning an audition has little to do with being the best. It’s about being the best fit in the eyes and ears of whoever is casting the part.

As voice talents, we are not opponents. We’re colleagues. We have no title to defend or national reputation to uphold. Your success does not diminish my standing. As far as I’m concerned, we have a common goal:

To deliver the best service, to increase our standards, and to ensure that we’re getting paid a fair and decent rate.

In order to do that, we need to lead by example, and we need to stick together.

Clients love to have us fight among ourselves, especially about rates. They’re trying to drive a wedge between those who sell their talent for less, and those who refuse to devalue what we have to offer. It’s up to us to play that game or not.

One thing I know for sure.

As long as we see each other as competitors with a price to beat, there’s only going to be one winner: The Client.

Back to the Olympics.

By now you know I’m not that much into sports, but I have been watching what’s happening in Rio. Even though I don’t consider myself to be a chauvinist, I’m usually rooting for the guys and girls in orange: the Dutch team. But what really got me, was this.

This summer, American middle-distance runner Abbey D’agostina and her former opponent Nikki Hamblin were both awarded special Olympic medals for sportsmanship. I’ll let the official Olympic website tell the story:

New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin tripped and fell to the ground during the 5,000m race, accidentally bringing American D’Agostino down behind her with around 2,000m to go. The 24-year-old D’Agostino was quick to get up again, yet instead of carrying on with her race she stopped to help the stricken Hamblin to her feet, encouraging her to join her in attempting to finish the race. However, during her tumble, D’Agostino suffered an ankle injury, slowing the runner down, but Hamblin sportingly hung back to in return offer her encouragements. The two women went on to complete the race together.

Now, that’s the spirit I love in sports, and I love seeing it in my profession too: people helping each other succeed.

So, be a good sport. Engage in fair play. Help each other out. Admire your colleague’s accomplishments. 

You might not receive a medal, but you’ve just earned my respect, and the respect of your community.

That alone, makes you a winner!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Be Sweet. Please retweet.


The Devil Is In The Delivery

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 19 Comments
Voice actor James Arnold Taylor

James Arnold Taylor

There’s no doubt about it.

The repugnant R-word is one of the most dreaded words in the business, if not in life.

We all have a deep desire to be accepted, to belong, to be loved, and to be recognized.

Many people aim to please, hoping for a warm reception, only to receive a cold shoulder.

Rejection can be a terrible thing, especially when you have no clue why you’re being rejected.

Yet, if you want to become a (voice) actor, you must accept the fact that most jobs you audition for, you will never get. No reasons given.

That’s not unkind or unfair. It just is.

“But…” say my students, “rejection would be so much easier to take, if only the client or the casting director would tell me why I didn’t make the cut. It would allow me to correct my mistakes, and grow from the experience.”

At that point I usually take a deep breath and tell them:

“That casting director or client does not owe you an explanation. He or she is not your mentor. If you need feedback, hire a coach. If you need validation, ask your fans. And if you can’t get over the fact that you weren’t selected, perhaps you should pick another profession.”

This is not a business for the thin-skinned, or for those who thrive on rational explications. Quite often, casting decisions are based on budgets, gut feelings, past experience and, -dare I say it- nepotism. This business is as subjective as it gets (just as this blog is, by the way).

Although we’ll never be able to penetrate the voice-seeker’s psyche, I do know why some of you were never hired.

Narrowing it down to voice casting, here are a few obvious reasons:

  1. You did not follow simple audition instructions. 
  2. You were unable to deliver professional quality audio.
  3. Your voice wasn’t right for the project.
  4. Your rate was too high or too low.
  5. You weren’t able to convincingly deliver the lines.

In my book Making Money In Your PJs, freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs, I’ve written extensively about most reasons, and how to overcome them. Because this blog post is part of a series on delivery and performance, let’s focus on number five.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DELIVERY

In previous articles I’ve already stressed the importance of clear, clean, convincing, and consistent delivery. Today I want to discuss whether or not your vocal performance is context and content appropriate. It’s one of the secrets to winning more auditions.

By context I mean the situation in which something happens; the setting of an event that allows you to understand what is going on.

If your delivery does not support the context of the script, it will contradict the content.

Let me give you a few examples.

If the context is e-Learning, and your delivery is too casual, you’ll lack credibility, and learners will be more likely to disregard what you’re supposed to teach them. If you’re auditioning to narrate a rich historic novel and your tone is all business, your demo will be history before you know it. 

One of my students had hoped to narrate her favorite adult mystery novel, and she spent hours on her audition. When the author told her she’d completely missed the mark, my student was peeved and puzzled, but when I listened to her audition, there was no mystery. She sounded like she was reading to a group of children. Her delivery wasn’t context and content appropriate.

And what about commercials?

Most advertisers have figured out that their target market doesn’t want to be sold. Their market wants to be told, preferably by someone the listener can relate to. That’s why many scripts require a natural, conversational read. If you, however, submit an announcer-read, there’s a mismatch between the conversational nature of the copy and your delivery. It’s a sure way to lose an audition.

These examples speak for themselves, and you may wonder why voice-overs might make these basic mistakes. I’ll tell you.

  • Some people don’t take the time to do their homework.
  • Some people don’t realize how they come across.
  • Some people don’t know how to use their voice properly.
  • Some people have no sense of their strengths and limitations.
  • Some people have an inflated sense of their strengths and limitations.
  • Some people are afraid to let loose and experiment.
  • Some people have little or no acting skills/experience.


UNFLATTERING IMITATION

This also brings me back to what we discussed last week in The Big Secret To Audio Book Success. In this article I mentioned one of the classic beginner mistakes:

  • Some people believe that in order to make it as an audio book narrator or in animation and video games, they have to be good at doing impressions.


James Arnold Taylor nailed it when he said: 

“It seems most people believe voice-over acting is simply talking into a microphone and doing funny voices. Nothing can be farther from the truth. In voice-over all you have to convey every type of emotion is your voice. Making faces or using your hands and body to express yourself is great, but nobody gets to see that in voice-over.

Acting is the most crucial skill, and there is a large divide between acting and mimicking. Just because you can imitate others doesn’t mean you can just go out and do what they do. You must know how to make what you’re reading in a script sound as though it is free flowing from you.

You also have to be able to read things “cold,” meaning having never seen them before. Most voice acting is done with a script you’ve received a few minutes before the recording session begins. You have to be extremely flexible with your emotions and your attitude. It is a very demanding profession yet very rewarding if you’re dedicated to it.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to listen to demos of voice actors who were trying to sound like… other voice actors, regardless of the content or the context of the copy. Mark my words:

Let the script speak to you first, before you open your mouth!

Then you decide on tone, tempo, volume, pitch, and perhaps accent. 

Forget impersonations, no matter how good you may think you are. Casting directors don’t want more of the same, unless they need a voice match for an existing character. Most of them are looking and listening for three things: authenticity, originality, and versatility. You have to come up with unique voices that are appropriate in the context of a particular production. 

Now, allow me to make one or two more points before I bring this to a close.

WHO BEARS THE BLAME

There is another reason why some (voice) actors won’t make it past the audition, regardless of their talent. I blame it on lack of information. Without a map, it’s hard to get to one’s destination. Without a backstory, it is tough to create a character, and to strike the right tone.

These days, clients are giving less and less info about the projects they need a voice for. This is particularly true for those clients using online casting services. 

How helpful is a description like this:

Male, English, neutral, Mid-Atlantic.”

It is as if clients expect us to read their minds.

Sorry, but most voice-overs aren’t psychic. That’s a prediction I can confidently make.

Unless and until we get a better sense of how clients would like us to sound, it’s hard to give them what they’re hoping to hear. That’s why it is so important to ask clients to clarify the context. Unfortunately, that’s not always allowed or possible.

Let me tell you another casting secret that makes your job as voice-over even harder.

Some clients have no idea what they want, until they hear the perfect voice. Then, everything falls into place. All you can do for an audition, is to be your best self, and to have fun with the copy. 

One last thing.

If you’re new to this field and you’ve recently been rejected, please remember this:

Just because you’ve failed to land that job, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

There are many variables in the casting process you have no influence over. You can only control the things that you can change. 

My student who didn’t get to narrate her favorite mystery novel, was hired to record an amazing children’s book. It opened the door to opportunities she hadn’t even considered, and she told me yesterday:

“I’ve learned to never dwell on the jobs I didn’t get. It’s pointless. Instead, I focus on the things I can do today to become even better at what I do, and I have never felt happier!”

How’s that for a storybook ending?!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

photo credit: gordontarpley via photopin cc

PS You didn’t think this article only applied to voice-overs, did you?


The Big Secret To Audio Book Success

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 29 Comments

Jim Dale in "Barnum."Heroes and role models.

We all have people we admire because they inspire.

One of my heroes happens to be a dancer, singer-songwriter, comedian, stage and screen actor, as well as a first-rate audio book narrator.

Like me, he is a naturalized U.S. citizen. One of the songs he wrote the lyrics to, was nominated for an Oscar. He received five Tony Award nominations, and won one for Barnum. He also has two Grammy’s.

In July of 2014, aged 78, he finished a twelve week one-man show about his career at the Laura Pels Theater in New York called “Just Jim Dale.”

I’m sure you know Jim Dale as the narrator of the Harry Potter series in the U.S. (Stephen Fry narrated the UK version). For his voice work Dale received ten Audie Awards, and twenty-three Audio File Earphone Awards.

Dale previously held the record for creating and recording 134 different characters portrayed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The new record holder is Roy Dotrice -aged 91- with 224 voices for A Game of Thrones.

This is what the AudioFile magazine wrote about Dale:

“When J.K. Rowling has Hagrid boom, Dumbledore hum, and Aunt Marge belch, listeners can hear exactly what that sounds like, thanks to Jim Dale’s spellbinding narration. He gives voice to every wizard, muggle, house elf, goblin, giant, and hundreds of other characters who pass through Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and the other magical environs of the Harry Potter series. He is a major part of why these fantastical volumes are among the top-selling audiobooks of all time.”

THE BIG SECRET

This begs the question: Is there a secret to Jim Dale’s mastery? Fortunately, he gave us the answer. Dale said:

“Good acting is consistency of performance.”

The ability to deliver the same quality over a period of time is one of those things that separates the professional from the pretender, whether it is in sports, music, the culinary arts or in (voice) acting.

If you want your performance to be credible, you have to be consistent.

This may seem obvious, but as in many things in life, it is easier said than done. Imagine having to come up with 134 different character voices, knowing that many of them will return in a series of seven books.

In a motion picture, these characters are portrayed by different actors. The audio book narrator is on his or her own, and has to create and recreate these characters accurately over a period of time. It’s a daunting task, and quite a responsibility.

In an article on authentic listening, Junko Yokota and Miriam Martinez said the following:

“The audiobook narrator plays a role similar to that of a translator of a book from one language to another. A good translator can make a big difference in the reading experience through word choice and passage interpretation; likewise, the audiobook narrator helps mediate the story for the listener by selecting what tone to take, what types of voices to give to characters, what to emphasize, and how to engage the listener.”

There’s a big difference between reading into a microphone, and telling a story. Great narrators like Jim Dale are storytellers who take you on a journey you never want to end. And by the way, this doesn’t only apply to audio books. Sometimes, a twenty-second script for a commercial is a short story in and of itself.

BEGINNER MISTAKES

These days, some voice-over coaches are trying to drum up business by telling prospective students that audio books and video games are booming. They are right. We’re living in the golden age of the spoken book, and successful video games make way more money than Oscar-winning movies.

Hordes of hopefuls sign up for voice-over classes because they believe they have the pipes casting directors are waiting for. Many of these beginners are making two big mistakes:

  1. They believe that in order to make it as an audio book narrator or in animation and video games, they have to be good at doing impressions.
  2. They think that being able to sing one song, makes them ready to perform an entire opera.

In the Documentary I Know That Voice, voice actor James Arnold Taylor had this to say:

“It’s not about ‘I can do Christopher Walken, I can do Johnny Depp, I can do Michael J. Fox.’ That’s great, but can you do ANYTHING as them? Can you stay in that voice for hours; scream in that voice for four hours?”

In other words: consistency is key. Consistency and stamina.

ARE YOU REALLY READY?

Like Jim Dale, you have to have the ability to stay in character, and then switch character and get back to the first character, while introducing a third. And you do this for hours at a time in a space smaller than a prison cell. Dale is usually in the studio from 10:30 am until 5:30 pm, recording twenty pages an hour for two weeks to record one book (source). This requires serious training, serious preparation, and serious self-care.

If you’re new to the business and want to break into audio books, I dare you to record for even one hour straight, and find out how your voice feels at the end. Does it still sound the same? Could you continue for another hour, or are you exhausted; do your vocal folds feel raw, and do you need a few hours to recover? If so, you’re not ready to meet that 3-week deadline for this 700-page novel you just agreed to narrate at $100 per finished hour (a ridiculously low rate by the way).

THE VOICE BUILDER

Gary Cantona, the voice builder

Gary Catona

There’s a reason why some VO-pros like James Arnold Taylor study with Gary Catona. Catona calls himself the “voice builder,” and he has worked with Andrea Bocelli, Usher, Shakira, Shirley MacLaine, Tony Bennett, and many others. He approaches voice building as a sport, and encourages his students to train the voice like an athlete trains his muscles. 

You can read about his method in his book “A Revolution in Singing.” Gary also developed an iPhone/iPad Voice Building App ($4.99) with over twenty voice building sessions, exercises, and video demonstrations for singing and speaking voices.

A few years ago he did a talk at Google, and if you’re interested in his work and his philosophy, you can watch it on YouTube when you click this link. At 26:34 Catona answers a question from a voice-over artist in the audience. 

BUT THERE’S MORE..

Being consistent as a (voice) actor means more than being able to do marathon recording sessions, and staying in character(s). Pacing is important too. If you’re reading your lines too fast, the listener has no idea of what’s being said. If you’re too slow, the listeners’ mind will start to wander.

It also means being able to deliver audio files of consistent professional quality. People like Jim Dale go to a studio and work with an audio engineer, and perhaps a director. Most narrators do not have that luxury. They run a business out of a walk-in closet, hoping the dog next door won’t start to bark. They self-direct, self-record, and they edit every minute of every file. One hour of finished audio can take many hours to complete.

Dale realizes how much work goes into the production of an audio book. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, he told reporter Rochelle O’Gorman:

“The magic of the Harry Potter books is really in the hands of the editors and engineers. They take all the mistakes that I make – and I make thousands of them – and edit them out, and splice the tape reading into such a beautifully seamless production. They’re the geniuses; they’re the ones that we should applaud because nobody knows how much work they have to do.”

Credit where credit is due, but at the same time, Dale gave those engineers something magical to work with:

Constant, consistent brilliance.

And that’s why he is one of my heroes!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS When this story was first published, I received the following message from Jim Dale:

“So many thanks for the words you have written about me, truly embarrassing. I also wish to congratulate you on all your work in the narrating world, very impressive. I have also traveled through your website, really amazing. My thanks again for writing about me and my sincere best wishes in whatever you choose to become involved in next. Jim”

PS This is part 5 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link. Click here for part 3. If you’d like to read part 4, please click here.


What Clients Hate The Most

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 19 Comments

SurpriseOkay, this may sound like a pop quiz, but are you a go-with-the-flow person, or do you like to plan everything out?

Do you like surprises, or do you prefer to know what will happen next?

How well do you handle uncertainty, and last-minute changes?

Personally, I think life would be unexciting without the unexpected. I like not knowing what I will get for my birthday. I love to give a chef free rein, as he creates a special dish for me. I purposefully seek out new ideas and uncharted avenues. It keeps the brain cells bouncing around in playful anticipation.

But forget personal preferences for a moment. Let’s talk about the lifeblood of your business: your clients.

If there’s one thing clients all over the world consistently hate, it’s not knowing what to expect.

That’s understandable.

In an uncertain and stressful world, clients want reliability, dependability, and predictability. If your work is inconsistent, you can’t be trusted to deliver a product or service a client can count on.

I’ve been going to the same restaurant for years, and the food was always outstanding. Always. Until a few months ago. The menu had changed. The wait staff wasn’t the same, and the open kitchen had disappeared. That evening, I had one of the worst meals ever, and now I hesitate to go back.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

So, let’s talk about inconsistency for a moment.

Since I’m continuing my series on script delivery, you may be inclined to connect (in)consistency to your (voice) acting performance. We’ll get to that later, because we have a bigger picture to discuss.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this post, it is this:

Consistent delivery is about much more than the way you read your lines.

As a solopreneur, you’re judged by the way you deliver a total package. This starts with first impressions:

  • What does your website look like?
  • How do your demos sound?
  • What kind of equipment do you use?
  • How do you present yourself in person, via email, in social media, and over the phone?


If done right, all of these elements should send one consistent and congruent message:

Professional At Work

In a time where anyone can hang out a shingle and pretend to be a pro, it is easy to spot the inconsistencies that turn clients off. Do you want examples? Be my guest!

MIXED MESSAGES

On her website, one freelancer boasted about “years of experience.” Then I looked at her client list of… seven companies total. None of them were names you would recognize.

Another colleague thought that adding that amateur Polaroid snapshot to his website would really impress visitors. I hope his ideal clients are into Margaritaville, because that’s the logo I spotted in the picture’s background. 

Can it get any worse? Of course.

A few years ago I went to a recording session in Manhattan. The first thing I heard when I came in, was the sound of crying kids. One of the other talents had brought her two toddlers to the studio. The high-end client who had flown in for the session, was not amused.

One voice actor described himself on his website as detail-oriented. In the next paragraph I found not one but two spelling errors.

Sending mixed messages like that, undermines credibility. It kills trust.

DECEPTIVE DEMO

Here’s another inconsistency clients talk about all the time. They hire a voice-over based on a kick-ass demo. The talent gets the script and records the audio. But when the client receives the recording, it sounds nothing like the voice on the demo tracks.

You can guess how this came about. The super slick demo was overproduced, and later doctored by a talented audio engineer. When it was time to do the real work, the voice talent went back to her boomy closet booth where she self-directed.

“I’m not going to pay for that,” said the angry producer. “This girl charges top-dollar for something I can’t use!”

That’s another inconsistency. In this case, the quality of the product did not match the price.

Here’s one more pet peeve of mine.

A talented voice actor offered a quick turnaround time. It took him over a week before he got back to me. Mind you, during that period he was all over Facebook. I’ll have to think a very long time before I ever recommend him.

NEW AND OLD

Now, before you tell me that this blog post is one of those “nice reminders for beginners,” you should know that I find these types of inconsistencies across the board. In fact, fresh talent seems a lot more willing to please, because they still have to make a name for themselves.

Some veteran voice actors, on the other hand, have become complacent. They believe that their reputation should speak for itself. Although a nice portfolio doesn’t hurt, many clients don’t want to know what you have done for others in the past. All they need to know is this:

“What can you do for me, today?”

Here’s the bottom line. If you advertise yourself as a pro, you have to present yourself as a pro on ALL levels.

There’s a reason why a fashion designer doesn’t dress like a slob. It is obvious why a fitness trainer is usually in good shape. It’s part of a consistent message. A message a client is more likely to remember and respond to.

And what about consistency when it comes to the delivery of your script?

Let’s continue that conversation next week, when I’ll also look at the big secret to audio book success!

How’s that for a surprising teaser?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS This is part 4 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link. Click here for part 3.

PPS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: dawolf- via photopin cc


How To Be Believable

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 20 Comments

Founders Hall ©nethervoiceCongruence.

It’s one of those mysterious English words I had to learn as a native Dutch speaker. Little did I know that this word would come to play a pivotal part in my voice-over career.

Congruence is not a word you hear very often. At least, I don’t. It’s sometimes used in mathematics or geometry. What does it mean?

Congruence is actually a state achieved by different elements coming together. It’s a state of agreement and harmony. In a moment, I’ll tell you why this state is so important to professional speakers.

As I continue my series on performance, I want to remind you of the five characteristics of masterful delivery. They are:

• Clear and Clean
• Convincing
• Consistent
• Context & content appropriate
• Charismatic

SAY YOU’RE SORRY

Last week we talked about the significance of clean and clear delivery. Today we’ll move on to the next C. Let’s start off with a question:

How can you tell someone’s apology is not sincere? To put it differently, how do you pick up on the fact that someone doesn’t mean what he or she is saying?

It might help to think back to a moment where one of your friends or colleagues sounded totally unconvincing. From the moment this person opened his or her mouth you knew something was wrong, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.

Was it the choice of words? Could it be the tone of voice? Was it the body language that tipped you off?

I’d like to suggest that it was all of the above.

You see, what we say, how we say it, and the way we hold our body while we are saying it, is utterly revealing.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Years ago, a collection agency wanted to know the difference between a successful debt collector, and someone struggling to collect. In this case, they looked at employees who were using the phone to commit debtors to pay. In other words: these guys were making collect calls.

Both the successful collectors and the unsuccessful ones were using the same script, verbatim. So, why did one group succeed and the other fail? One of the determining factors turned out to be the very last sentence in the script. After informing the respondent of the outstanding debt and ways to take care of it, here’s what the collectors had to ask:

“Can you make a payment today?”

Because it is constructed as a question, the natural thing would be to read this line with a question mark. In other words, the speaker’s voice would go up at the end of the sentence. That’s exactly what the unsuccessful collectors did. Collectively.

UPTALK

We all know people who are in the habit of ending their sentences on a higher pitch. Phonologists have named this tendency HRT or high-rising terminal, and they believe this trend is growing in Australia and North America. Down Under they call it the Australian Question Intonation or AQI.

To many listeners, upward inflection (or uptalk) is an indicator of insecurity, and that’s exactly how the debtors interpreted it. Listening to the collector on the phone, the person owing money didn’t think the situation was urgent, so most people would put off making a payment.

The successful collectors on the other hand, treated the question “Can you make a payment today” as a statement. Instead of going up, their voices would go down at the word “today.” It almost sounded like a command, and it had the desired effect.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN

Same words. Different tonality. Different meaning. The French even have a saying for that:

“C’est le ton qui fait la musique”

It’s not what you say, but the way you say it.

Just as our tone of voice conveys meaning, our body language can be very revealing too.

At a party, one of my friends was rather quiet and withdrawn. He avoided eye contact, and looked down at the floor.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Oh, I feel great,” my friend said. “I’m really enjoying this party.”

“If that’s the case, why don’t I see it in your face?” I asked.

It turned out that his partner just broke up with him, and he felt as happy as a sad sack of potatoes.

PANTS ON FIRE

You see, it’s easy to choose the right words. We can also make an effort to sound upbeat even if we’re not, but it’s tough to make our bodies lie. That’s because our posture and facial expressions are a result of unconscious processes that are hard to manipulate, unless…. you’re in the acting business.

Actors are paid pretenders. The more convincing they can “lie,” the higher their paychecks.

As a (voice) actor, it is your job to sell your lines so that the audience is buying it. In order for them to believe in what you’re saying, they have to believe that you believe it yourself. How do you do that? Here’s one clue:

If you wish your audience to access a certain state, you have to access that state yourself first.

What do I mean by that? Lets assume you’re a keynote speaker at a conference, and you want to pump the audience up. They’ll never get out of their seats if you take forever to come on stage, start adjusting your microphone, and you begin by arranging your notes saying the following words in the most sleep-inducing tone of voice:

“Ehhh, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor and a privilege to be here with you tonight.”

Zzzzzzzzz

Now imagine a hypnotherapist trying to put his patient under while speaking in a most animated, rapid-fire way. It’s not going to work because his words are saying one thing, and his actions are saying something else. 

CONFIDENCE

If you want to be a successful (voice) actor, you have to become masterful at evoking and managing your states. Like so many things in life, this starts between the ears.

Your external dialogue begins with your internal dialogue.

We started this story by talking about being convincing. You will never be able to convince anyone of anything without confidence. If you wish to come across as confident, you have to access a state of confidence. 

But what if you’re insecure or nervous? What do you do? Well, there are a few ways you can approach this.

Strategy number one: Just pretend that you’re confident. As kids, most of us were very good at pretending. This is your chance to become a kid again, and feign the state you wish to access. It’s fun and it works, as long as you give yourself permission to play. Are you willing to do that, or are you too stuck in your adult ways?

Strategy number two: Model confident people. Study how they walk. Study how they talk. Study their beliefs. It’s the basic stuff actors do when preparing for specific roles. Once you’ve analyzed people’s mannerisms, speech patterns and body language, it’s your turn to reproduce them, and make them your own.

Strategy number three is based on the following principle: Competence breeds confidence. In other words, the more competent you become, the more confident you will feel. For instance, years of doing live radio taught me that I can cold read any script any time and sound like I know it inside out. What’s one thing you can do to increase your competence? 

Strategy number four: Face your fears. People who aren’t very confident and convincing are usually afraid that something unpleasant will happen should they assert themselves. Unless and until you deal with that, you’ll always be stuck at the level of pretending.

NEED PROOF?

So, let’s assume you’ve taken the time to use these strategies, and you’re ready to put them to the test. How can you tell you sound convincing? How do you actually know you’ve nailed it? This brings me back to the very first word of this blog post: congruence. It’s the polar opposite of sending mixed signals.

When your tone of voice and your body language match your message, you’ve become a congruent, convincing communicator.

This does not mean that you always have to act as someone who knows what he or she is doing. It totally depends on the part you play. If your job is to portray someone who is insecure, you embody that role as convincingly as you can. 

Secondly, -like the debt collectors- you will know you’re on the right track by observing how people react. Are they paying… attention to you?

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

One last question. Well, two actually, but who’s counting? 

Have I convinced you?

Is congruence key to a solid delivery?

As a writer, I have a bit of a problem here. All I have to work with are words. You can’t see me, and you don’t hear me.

Unless you’re blessed with a rich imagination.

In that case, I hope you’ve made me look and sound incredibly convincing!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 3 in my series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 1 by clicking on this link, and part 2 by clicking on this link.


The Worst Acting Advice Ever

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 24 Comments

Looking glass smileIn my last blog post I talked about delivery.

No, I wasn’t referring to your local pizza parlor. I was sinking my teeth into our performance as (voice) actors.

If you’ve missed it, here’s the takeaway:

Delivery is what separates the pro from the wannabe. You may have the most pleasant pipes in the world; you may be an okay reader, but if your delivery is flat,* you’ll never have a career as a voice-over.

Delivery can kill a joke, and it can bring tears of laughter to the audience. Delivery can put people to sleep, and it can make them jump for joy.

Delivery is like magic dust. It can turn a text from bland to grand. It’s one of the reasons why computer-generated voices will never be able to perform a Shakespeare play in a most moving way.

Delivery, good or bad, is never neutral. Masterful delivery is:

  • Clear and Clean
  • Convincing
  • Consistent
  • Context & content appropriate
  • Charismatic


Let’s break these factors down a bit.

CLEAR & CLEAN

In order to change and improve your delivery, you first have to be aware of the way you speak. Most people mumble and stumble through life, and they don’t even know it.

People have no idea how they come across because they don’t hear their own voice the way others do. They’re so used to it that they cannot be objective. Unless they’re an expert, they’re probably not even equipped to properly analyze the way other people sound. This is not their fault. It’s built into our biology.

Our brains are conditioned to detect meaning, and to filter out fluff. By fluff I mean irrelevant sounds such as background noises, lip smacks, breaths, and um’s and ah’s. Most of the time, we’re not even listening, but we’re interpreting what we believe the other person is saying, which is also based on their body language. Plus, every conversation takes place in a specific context which helps us determine meaning.

THE MAGNIFYING GLASS

Now, take away the context, take away someone to talk to, and replace the conversation with a script. Bring the speaker into a small dark room, and have him or her talk into a microphone. Ask your wannabe to read the words on the page without making any mistakes, and make sure they know that critical ears will be evaluating every single sound. No pressure!

If you would, imagine yourself in that hot seat. 

Unless you’ve had some training and experience, you will quickly discover that the microphone works like a cruel magnifying glass. It exposes all the sounds you didn’t even know you were making. As nerves take over, your mouth gets as dry as the Sahara desert. You start fidgeting in your chair, and on top of that, your full stomach decides to make an embarrassing guest appearance.

Then you see the people on the other side of the thick studio glass, and you realize you can’t hear a word of what they’re saying. As you begin to read the first lines of the script, they start laughing, and you wonder: Is it me they’re laughing at? Am I making a fool of myself? What am I even doing here?

It gets worse.

When you’re done reading, you’re greeted with absolute silence. You can see the team on the other side, and it’s clear that they’re discussing something. They’re not laughing anymore. In fact, you detect a couple of grim faces.

Finally, the sound engineer gets on the intercom, and says rather sternly:

“Alright, let’s do this again. Before you begin, let me play this first take back to you, so you can hear what we’re hearing, okay?”

As you’re listening to yourself, you panic. This doesn’t sound like you at all. Who is this person? What’s up with those loud breaths and shrill S-sounds? What did you do to produce this sickening symphony of mouth noises? Drink a gallon of milk? Eat super salty food? And what’s up with all the mumbling?

Before your internal dialogue sends you into a deep depression, the engineer has something to add:

“Let’s try it again. This time, I want you to drink some water first, and relax a little. There’s so much tension in your voice. Please remember to E-Nun-Ci-Ate, but don’t overdo it.

And one last thing: “Be you, and you’ll do just fine.”

THE WORST ADVICE

I’ve heard that phrase a million times: “Just be you, and you’ll do just fine.” It’s supposed to sound reassuring, but it’s as contradictory as, “Act normal.” It’s impossible to do. If you are your normal self, you don’t act. You just are.

Whether on stage, in front of a camera or in the recording studio, you’re not hired to “just be you.” You’re hired to be your best, most professional self, and to make it sound (and look) perfectly spontaneous.

(Voice) actors are paid messengers. They’re paid to get information across in a way that’s easily understood and remembered. That’s why your speech needs to be clean and clear. If it’s not, it will distract from the message. In my experience, this is something the average person -regardless of their sound- is unable to deliver.

BECOMING A PRO

The average speaker is a lazy speaker. The professional speaker is aware and articulate.

If you’re thinking of becoming a professional speaker, you have to unlearn bad habits, and learn to dramatically improve your diction to the point where it becomes second nature. This is not something you can pick up through trial and error. You won’t learn it by reading books. This needs guided practice, and lots of it. Compare it to learning how to play an instrument. It’s not something you pick up overnight.

The goal is not to make you sound like an over articulating British stage actor from the forties or fifties. The goal is simply to be understood without having to work hard to get your words out. Once this becomes almost effortless, you know you’re on the right track. At that stage, you’ve become “unconsciously competent.” You don’t even realize that you’re doing it.

But good delivery requires another skill: the ability to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t always know what you’re talking about.

It has to be convincing

How do you do that?

Let’s continue that conversation next week!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS This is part 2 in a series on performance and script delivery. Part 3 is coming next week.

*To me “flat” refers to speech without vocal variety. Variety in pitch, tempo and volume.

photo credit: helenadagmar via photopin cc


The Funniest Joke Of The Year

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

Tim Vine

I love jokes.

Especially the ones that make me laugh.

Seriously!

Every year, the public at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival votes for the funniest joke of the year. Comedian Tim Vine was declared the 2014 winner with the one-liner:

“I decided to sell my Hoover…. well, it was just collecting dust.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read that joke, I had to chuckle a bit. That’s all. It wasn’t one of those tears in my eyes – I can’t stop laughing – rib-tickling moments. Why is that? If 2,000 people polled at the Festival thought this was the funniest joke, why am I barely laughing?

THE PROBLEM WITH SCRIPTS

The problem with that joke is the same a problem I encounter with many of the scripts I’m asked to voice. Well-written scripts aren’t meant to be read. They are meant to be spoken. Just like jokes.

I often compare the words in a script to musical notes. They’re dots on a piece of paper. Only when they’re played, you have the beginnings of music. And only when they’re played very well (and on a good instrument) do they have the potential to move you.

A great script can fall flat on its face due to a lackluster performance, but a great performer can still make magic out of a mediocre script. It has to do with that thing (voice) actors and comedians have in common with the Ob/Gyn’s and midwives of this world:

It’s all about the delivery.

Yeah, baby!

Now, those last two words might not make you smile, but when I hear them, I hear Mike Meyers say them as sixties-spy Austin Powers, and I have to laugh.

Delivery is the trademark of a pro. Done well, it sounds easy, but it’s not. And that’s what many hopefuls don’t yet get. 

Someone might have a resonant, pleasing voice, but as we all know, that’s not enough to have a career as a voice-over. Believing that having good pipes is all it takes, is the same thing as saying that you only need good looks to make it in Hollywood. As far as I can tell, only Tom Cruise pulled that one off.

Having the goods is one thing, but you have to know how to deliver. 

SHOW ME THE MONEY

So, the next question is: What makes a good delivery? What’s involved; can it be learned or does it come naturally?

I had to think about that when I listened back to a Terry Gross interview with Robin Williams for her show Fresh Air. At first, Williams manages to stay himself, but it doesn’t take him long to start doing all kinds of voices. The amazing thing is, Williams never sounds like someone pretending to be someone else. When he does an impression, he sounds like a completely different person. One thing was immediately clear: he’s a master of his instrument; a master of his voice.

Trained vocalists would immediately notice his use of voice placement. It’s a way for singers and actors to focus their sound into a particular area (head, mouth, chest or nose) with a specific resonance, coloring the sound. During the interview, I actually got the feeling that some of the characters Williams pulled out of his hat were sitting at different places at the table. I’m sure this also had to do with the way he worked the microphone.

If you listen to the entire interview, you’ll understand why he must have driven the sound engineer crazy…

Moving away from voice placement, what factors influence the way we come across, vocally?

If I were a college professor, I’d say: Human speech can be broken down into several basic elements, and each of these elements makes the way we sound unique, very much like a vocal fingerprint. Here they are:

  • Pitch: the degree of highness or lowness of our tone, as well as our vocal range and inflection
  • Tempo: the relative speed or slowness of the way we speak, and the way our speech flows
  • Volume: the relative loudness or softness of our voice
  • Timbre: the color and quality of a voice, e.g.  clear, nasal, raspy, breathy


COLORING OUR SOUND

These four elements can be affected consciously, and unconsciously. For instance, our health -or lack thereof- influences the way we sound. We all know that we don’t sound the same when we have a cold or suffer from a bad allergy. Our lifestyle may color our voice too. If you’re a heavy smoker or drinker, if you’re on a junk food diet, and if you’re not physically active, it will slowly change the sound of your voice. 

The way you are built and your posture have an impact too, as well as your facial expressions. Try saying something serious with a huge grin on your face… Then there’s your emotional state. A sad person sounds very different from an angry or a happy person. Environmental factors may influence your voice too. If you live in a very dry or polluted climate, the way you sound will tell the tale.  

And finally, we should consider age. After a lifetime of talking, the vocal folds and surrounding tissue lose strength and elasticity, and our mucous membranes become thinner and drier. Over time, men’s voices become higher, and women’s voices will drop. We lose volume, endurance, and control. All of this and more will influence our delivery. 

Now, here’s the good news: even though we cannot stop the aging process, you can protect and strengthen your voice. That means investing in your health. A few tips:

  • Be critical of what you put into your body.
  • Avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Avoid screaming and whispering.
  • Breathe deeply, and from the diaphragm.
  • Use good posture.
  • Manage your stress level.
  • Take singing lessons.


When you do all that, you will start to notice a huge difference in your delivery because you gain more control over your instrument. That’s essential if you want to get to the next level: making music.

And that’s precisely what I’ll be talking about next week, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, comedian Tim Vine told The Independent that his award-winning Hoover-joke wasn’t even his favorite joke of the show. Tim tells about two hundred one-liners in sixty minutes. 

Vine also won funniest joke in 2010. Here it is:

“I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

I’ll tell you what…

Never again.”

Rimshot!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

PS Be sweet Please retweet!

PPS This is part 1 in a series on performance and script delivery. You can read part 2 “The worst acting advice ever,” and part 3 “How to be believable,” in the weeks to come. 


The Wind Beneath Our Wings

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 19 Comments

FriendsThis blog post is dedicated to my wife Pam.

 

Some fifteen years ago, I walked into the office of my very first U.S. casting agent.

I was absolutely thrilled, but I didn’t realize that I was about to make a big mistake.

The walls were filled with posters of all the blockbuster movies the agency had been involved in. Signed thank you notes from famous directors decorated the hallways. Old awards were gathering dust in the renovated warehouse-turned-office that oozed sleek, expensive minimalism.

“Our voice-over director will see you shortly. One of her sessions is running late. Would you care for some coffee?,” asked a secretary.

Ten minutes and a perfect cappuccino later, I was handed an audition script. It would take a little longer, I was told.

“No need to be nervous,” the girl said. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

It’s strange how these things work. When I walked in, I was feeling great. I knew I could nail this. But as soon as she mentioned nerves, I felt like a kid waiting outside the principal’s office, wondering what I had done wrong.

GETTING STARTED

It was my first year in the States and I was green. I even had a Green Card to prove it. I didn’t really know anybody, and nobody knew me. That’s why I had brought a friend along for the audition.

I just needed some backup, a second opinion if you will, to make sure this place was legit. Too many people were being taken for a ride by shady characters posing as casting directors, and I didn’t want to become one of them.

This friend happened to be nosy. Very nosy.

If you were to invite him to your house, he would read the back of the postcards that are hanging on your fridge. He would open up a family photo album without asking permission. I once caught him checking out a closed bedroom on his way to the smallest chamber in the house.

So, while I was learning my lines for the audition, you can imagine what my friend was doing. When the secretary was away to get the coffee, he went over to her desk and looked at some of the contracts she was working on. When she came back, he grilled her about the business, as if this was an episode of Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.

I tried to give him the Cut it out, You’re not helping me-look, but to no avail. He acted like a pit bull sniffing a hot trail.

It got even worse when we finally met the voice-over director. Initially, my friend was wise enough to let me do all the talking. But when I went into the vocal booth to record my script, I could see him distracting her with all his inappropriate questions.

When the session was over, I heard in my headphones: “Paul, we need to talk…. in private. Ask your friend to go back to the waiting area and tell him not to snoop around.”

ONE ON ONE

“Let me level with you,” the casting director said when we sat down. “You have talent. You have experience and I love your accent. I don’t think we have anybody that can bring that European sense of sophistication to a read. In short, we’d like to represent you, but on one condition.”

I knew what was coming, and I knew she was right.

“Don’t ever bring your friend to this office again. I can understand you’re new to this country and you needed some support, but seriously… I almost kicked the two of you out. He was asking all sorts of questions about how much you would be making and how many jobs we would offer you each month. It was obvious that he knew nothing about the casting process, and we hadn’t even taken you on board.

Let me be clear. Contrary to what your friend seems to believe, there are no guarantees in this business. We can send you auditions, but YOU have to book the jobs. We don’t control our clients. If they ask us to recommend five voices for a project, we give hem five voices. You might be number one on my shortlist, but that’s irrelevant. You’d be surprised how often a client picks the voice I personally find least suitable. It’s all very subjective, and you have to be okay with that. By the way, did you bring some recent headshots?”

We talked for another ten minutes, we shook hands, and I left.

“It’s up to you, but I would never do business with these people,” said my nosy friend when I came out of the meeting. “I got the weirdest vibes off that casting director. You should have seen the way she looked at me. All I did was ask some simple questions to make sure the place was kosher. What’s wrong with that?

Of course it’s up to you what you want to do, but I think you should explore other options. One day you’re going to thank me.”

He was right. I did thank him for teaching me a valuable lesson that day. I also told him that I had signed with the agency. Two months later, he went his way and I went mine. Recently, someone told me he’s now an investigative reporter at some magazine I’d never heard of.

SUPPORT SYSTEM

Our choice of friends says a lot about who we are as a person and as a professional. In order to be successful in any business, it’s important to surround yourself with people you believe in, and who believe in you.

I don’t mean people who think that every word that comes out of your mouth is pure gold. That role is reserved for proud mothers and misguided fans. You need people who look out for you in a discreet, intelligent way. Preferably, people who know the territory. There’s nothing as useless as the advice coming from the mouth of a person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

And let me tell you something else.

The most important friend you and I will ever have, is the person we choose to live our life with. First and foremost, this friend needs to be comfortable with uncertainty. Although attitudes are gradually shifting, most people still prefer the predictability of a steady job (and income) over the freedom and fluctuation of a freelance career.

If you’re living with a voice actor, you know some months are slow and others are crazy busy. You probably know how much money goes out every month, but you never know how much money will be coming in. That makes it hard to plan ahead. The perfect partner for a voice actor has a steady job with benefits. This is especially important in the beginning of a career.

Because of the ongoing uncertainty, this partner also has to be incredibly patient, flexible, and understanding. Ask any established talent, and they’ll tell you that a voice-over career is not a sprint but a marathon. If you’re still in business after the first three years, you’re either a fool or you’re beginning to get somewhere.

Not everybody can and will hang in there while you’re trying to make it in a field that’s becoming increasingly competitive. You need to sow a lot of seeds, and the harvest might be years away.

BENDING OVER BACKWARDS

Talking about flexibility… I can’t tell you how many times we have had to change our family’s plans at the last minute, because some client needed me to record a script pronto. At times I wish I had the audacity to tell that customer:

“You can’t do this to me. I have a life, you know! When you called this Sunday morning, we were all wearing our bike shorts, ready for a ride.”

Instead I keep quiet, go down to my studio, close the soundproof door and start recording that darn, poorly written script about the importance of family time. When the client says “Dance,” I dance. Meanwhile, the family goes on a bike ride without me.

If you’re not ready to roll with the punches and take life one day at a time, you’re not ready to start a serious relationship with a voice actor. And if you are, you must be a saint!

People with a steady job often have a hard time wrapping their brains around what it means to be self-employed. I’m lucky to be married to a professional musician. She understands that if someone offers you a good gig, you take it. If you don’t, someone else will, and they’ll start calling that person next time.

EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER

On paper it sounds great. Today’s voice actor stays home all day, recording short commercials and promos that bring in more money than most people will make in a month. It’s easy to forget that getting the work takes up far more time than doing the work.

Every audition brings new hope. “What if I get picked to be the next voice of ….?” (name a big brand name). “I’d finally have some income I can count on, and the recognition I’ve been secretly longing for.”

Of course you’ll never hear back about the role you thought was made for you, and when you turn on the radio three months later, you hear a complete idiot mess up the lines you auditioned for because they chose him over you. That morning, you will hear that stupid commercial over and over and over again. This will make your day. I guarantee it!

But you’re never going to take your frustration out on the one you love most, right? You always manage to stay calm, composed, and positive. You never take things personally. It’s only your voice they’re evaluating.

Instead, you send a quick email to congratulate the lucky bastard who landed the job, and you put on a fake Facebook smile because it’s so wonderful to be able to do what you love and get paid for it. Meanwhile, you don’t know how you’re going to pay this month’s health insurance premium, or how to fix the fridge that just broke down.

At that point you need a soft place to land. You need someone who has your back. Someone who doesn’t think you’re a failure. Someone who says:

“I love you. Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day.”

SWEET SUCCESS

Other times you do get lucky and you hit the jackpot. You get tons of work and you need the house to be quiet so you can finish your recordings. Who’s there to make sure you can work in peace? Who’s taking over your household chores so you can finish editing that never-ending audio book?

When things go really, really well, and your voice is heard all over the nation; when hotshot agents who always ignored you all of a sudden know who you are; when you yourself start believing that you’re the Big Kahuna now… Who’s there to celebrate your success, and keep you grounded?

When you’re too big for your boots, who will gently put you in your place? Who will tell you that there’s more to life than talking into a microphone, or being adored by countless fans? Who’s going to be there for you when the applause fades away? With whom will you share and develop other interests?

I guess it boils down to this:

WHY are you doing what you’re doing?

Does it make any sense if you can’t share your setbacks or successes with someone?

Mind you, even though I am happily married, I’m not advocating the advantages of matrimony per se. I am simply in favor of surrounding yourself with a couple of close friends who can keep you sane in a weird and complicated world. People with whom you can let your guard down, be vulnerable, and be yourself.

It’s about time we give those friends the credit they deserve.

They truly are the wind beneath our wings.

Paul Strikwerda @nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Daadi via photopin cc


Can You Control Your Career?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 52 Comments

the author

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s the dreaded question that can make a child quiver.

“What do you mean, be?

Am I not good enough? Do I need to be something or someone else?

Who says I want to grow up? Grown-ups are boring…”

Some kids know exactly how to answer that question, though.

They have dreams of becoming an astronaut, a fireman, or a movie star.

At the age of eight, I knew what I wanted.

I wanted to be Uri Geller. Remember him?

In the seventies, this spoon-bending Israeli mentalist first appeared on television, performing mind over matter tricks. I was fascinated by his psychokinetic powers. Geller claimed he could fix household appliances through the strength of his mind. How useful!

Like thousands of other viewers, I took my broken watch and placed it in front of our television set, waiting for Geller to work his magic. This man was a miracle!

Inspired by Uri, I spent countless hours staring at a pencil, trying to make it move with my mind. I don’t think I ever grew up, because I still find myself waiting for a red traffic light, trying to make it turn green by using the power of my brain. 

Sometimes it works, and I take all the credit. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I blame technology.

In all seriousness, these are not just mind games. This type of behavior raises a few fundamental questions:

• Can we manipulate our environment, and even the people around us by using our mental powers?

• Can we make objects and people succumb to our will?

Traditional advertising seems to believe so. Well, at least as far as the people part is concerned. The mad men of Madison Avenue spend millions and millions of dollars trying to manipulate our minds into buying stuff we don’t need and don’t want.

As a voice-over professional, I’m part of the plan. If you go to a Dutch toy store, there’s a great chance you’ll hear my voice blasting out of the speakers, selling U.S. made skateboards.

I’ll try to make you buy Turtle Wax® at the local Auto World, or futuristic fluid to super grease the chain of your mountain bike. “Now on sale in aisle 4. Must hurry. Supply is limited.”

Do these campaigns actually work? Are people really that susceptible (or dare I say: that stupid)?

As a freelancer, my mailbox is filled with offers for seminars like:

“Learn how to Dominate your Market in two hours”

“Making Money with your Voice, guaranteed”

“Success Secrets to Winning Auditions”

“7 Easy Ways to turn Prospects into Buyers”

My efforts to move pencils, the ad agency’s efforts to move product, and the seminar’s promise to turn me into a dominator have one thing in common: they feed our natural need for control.

Somehow, in some way, we believe that with the right ingredients, training, and campaign, we can part the waters of the Red Sea and walk across to the Promised Land.

A mistake of biblical proportions…

Can we really move the minds of the masses by slogans, websites, billboards, and -dare I say- blogs?

Haven’t we become immune to the endless avalanche of marketing messages, sales pitches, and empty promises?

I have a confession to make.

During the first half of my life, I honestly believed I could change people. It gets worse. I even believed I could change G-d. I used to pray:

“Dear G-d, if you help me get a good grade, I promise to go to church every Sunday and not embarrass my parents. Amen.”

Later in life I learned that if I don’t do my part and learn my lessons, G-d isn’t going to bail me out. That would defeat the purpose of being on this planet in the first place.

As an investigative reporter, I thought that if I would publicly expose some grave injustice, people would rise up and do something about it.

Then I learned that, if it’s not in their back yard or has any impact on their lives, people care more about their favorite sports team, game show, or pet rabbit, than about the hungry, the sick, and the homeless.

In intimate relationships, I tried to influence significant others by withholding love and affection if they didn’t change into the people I wanted them to be. Guess what? In the process I ended up ruining relationships instead of rescuing them.

As a voice talent, I think I’m still trying to make people hire me: “Just listen to my demo. Go to my website. Read my blog. I’m brilliant. Isn’t that obvious?”

No, it is not.

They just hire someone cheaper, younger, older, sexier, or John Hamm.

But don’t worry. When things don’t work out, you and I can always go to our social media friends, cry out loud that life’s unfair, and ask ourselves: “Why is it so hard to get hired? Why don’t people do what we want them to do?” Life would be so much easier!

Now listen up, and listen carefully.

This desire for control has nothing to do with others.

It’s all about You and it’s mostly based on fear.

The fear of losing something you never had in the first place.

The thing is: people rarely do things for your reasons.

They do things for their reasons.

Altruism has left the building a long time ago.

Most people have a hard time controlling themselves, let alone others.

If self-control were that easy, very few people would smoke, all of us would maintain the perfect weight, and prisons would be empty.

The idea that you can control all aspects of your career is based on the myth of magical thinking. It’s not some silver spoon you can bend at will. You don’t hold all the cards. Perhaps you only hold the Joker.

Yes, you can set the stage, learn your lines and lessons, and strive to be the best you can be. But you can’t force feed your target markets, especially if you don’t know what they’re hungry for.

You can be the most succulent steak ever, but if your client’s a vegetarian, s/he won’t bite. Of course you didn’t know that, because you never cared to be curious. All you did was give this client reasons why he should pick you.

YOUR reasons.

Oops! 

If you really want to move your career forward, you need to give up your need for control and your urge to make it about you. Especially when your product happens to be…. you.

Stop pushing, and start listening.

Don’t offer a solution before you know what the problem is.

Don’t try to brainwash your prospects with an email blast, or by singing your own praises again and again and again. You worked on that nice looking newsletter for hours, and within a matter of seconds it ends up in the trash.

Unread.

Here’s my advice:

Turn your monologue into a dialogue.

Invest in building a relationship first. People ain’t buying if they don’t trust you. And they won’t trust you if they don’t know you.

The best way to show them what you’re all about, is by putting them first. Believe me, once they get that, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to tell your story.

So, is traditional marketing as dead as a Dodo?

Brains on Fire” is a book and a blog about word of mouth marketing. It’s narrated by a Dutch voice-over and blogger. The authors quote a revealing study by Copernicus Marketing Consulting and Research. According to Copernicus, the average ROI of TV advertising campaigns is 1 to 4 percent.

The Brains on Fire team also cites a 2009 Yankelovich Study. 76 percent of people believe that companies lie in ads, and people’s trust that businesses will do the right thing has dropped from 58 percent in 2008 to a dismal 38 percent in 2009 (2009 Edelman Trust Barometer).

Be honest. Would you become a buyer from a liar?

Meanwhile, Uri Geller no longer seems to tell the world his mind triumphs over matter. In the November 2007 issue of the magazine Magische Welt (Magic World) Geller said:

“I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed.”

His critics have replicated some of his tricks by creating the illusion of spoon bending by using misdirection. That’s another term for distracting the audience.

And in case you’re wondering, my old watch never started ticking during Geller’s television appearance. It just needed a new battery. Not a psychic.

As I grew older, I realized a few things.

Living is learning.

I can’t change others. I can only change myself.

If I don’t like the way the wind is blowing, I can always adjust my sails.

It’s okay to be out of control. Control is an illusion. I can plan. I can practice. I can participate, and I can even ignite a spark.

Whatever happens next is one of life’s delightful and mind bending mysteries.

It’s not linear, it’s not logical, and it’s certainly not playing by our rules.

It just is.

People still ask me:

“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

These days I answer:

“I want to be a good person.

A helper. A tour guide.

Someone who is caring, kind, and a bit silly.”

How mental is that?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please Retweet!


The Terrible Truth About The News

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media 6 Comments
Wereldomroeper

The author, reading the news

It was one of the most cynical cartoons I’d ever seen.

A colleague had just put it up on the wall of the newsroom at Radio Netherlands International where I was working at that time. The frenzy of fanatic reporters filing their stories disappeared into the background as I read the headline:

“WHAT IS NEWS?”

The question couldn’t be simpler. The answer couldn’t be more complicated. And yet, everything around me was buzzing with deadline-driven activity, as if all of us actually knew what we were doing. After all, we were the news makers. 

NEWS” is one of those words that you and I hear and use many times a day. In fact, we hear it and use it so frequently, that we rarely question what it means. 

There are many words like that; words such as crisis, control, communityand support. These words are so common, it’s pretty obvious what they stand for, isn’t it? There’s no need to define them. 

SEMANTICS

Scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, would strongly disagree. He coined the phrase: “The map is not the territory.” By that he meant that an abstraction derived from something, is not the thing itself. In plain language: you can’t get wet from the word water.

The word water (the map) is only a representation of something that’s much more fluid (the territory). But when we use the word water, it is generally assumed that we know what it means. Well, let’s ask the people of Flint, Michigan, about that.

That very human ability to make assumptions is the basis of many conflicts, big and small. People confuse maps with territories all the time. Here’s what I mean.

BUMPER TO BUMPER

“Support our troops” it said on the bumper sticker. Most Americans couldn’t agree more. Especially these days, it is important to support our troops, don’t you think? But on a deeper level, what does ‘support’ really mean?

Remember: the word ‘support’ is just a map. But of what? How exactly, should we support our troops? By increasing the defense budget? By sending those stationed abroad care packages for Christmas? Or should we support them by pulling them out of trouble spots, and bringing them back home?

As long as we’re talking on the level of abstractions, it’s easy to agree. For instance, who isn’t in favor of world peace? Who doesn’t want to see employment increased? Who doesn’t agree that we need to improve our system of education?

But how all these things should be achieved, is a different matter, and that’s where the bickering begins. Need I bring up the presidential race?

WHAT DO WE REALLY MEAN?

Bumper StickerThere’s a vital element through which we consciously (but most of the time unconsciously) determine meaning. Here’s a quick example.

Imagine seeing the “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on a pickup truck with a veteran license plate. There’s also a “Semper Fi” sign on the F-150, and a third sticker saying: “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism.” With that information in hand, how do you think the owner feels we can best support our troops?

Here’s a different scenario. You’re on the highway and you spot that same “Support Our Troops” sticker. But this time it’s stuck to the back of a beat up Volvo station wagon. Next to it is a “Bring them Home” sticker, and another one that reads: “Against the War. Not the Warrior.” Knowing what you know now, what assumptions would you make this time, about the owners’ views on how to best support our troops?

Even though we’re talking about the same sticker, the meaning of the words is contextdependent. And without knowing the context, we’re all in danger of mistaking the map for the territory. Our territory.

As a result, we carry on entire conversations based on mind reads and interpretations that have very little to do with the reality of the person we’re talking to. That person can be a (Facebook) friend, a foe, a politician, or our life partner.

Our lips might whisper the words: “I know exactly what you mean,” but truthfully, our perception is greatly based on distorted personal projections. 

Army MapTHE REAL WOR(L)D

I’m not just talking semantics here. Every soldier knows that the reality on the ground is most likely to be very different from the map that was used during the briefing. Confusing the map for the territory has led to deadly mistakes.

It has killed many relationships and numerous attempts to build bridges between people, cultures, faiths, and political systems. And because it is so ingrained in human nature, it won’t hit the headlines any day soon. The familiar might be deadly, but it’s also boring.

So, WHAT IS NEWS?

The cartoon at my radio station showed this very simple and sad formula for determining the newsworthiness of an event:

“The number of people killed, divided by how many miles away from home it happened.”

I did tell you it was one of the most cynical cartoons I had ever seen, didn’t I? It criticized the “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” type of journalism that is so pervasive these days. A plane crash in some far away land won’t make the six o’clock news, unless Americans are involved (if you live in the States, that is). Had it happened closer to home, it would have made the headlines.

That’s an example of the proximity effect. People tend to care more about what happens in their own backyard, especially if it’s grotesque, gruesome, and controversial.

MALFUNCTION

Now, let me ask you this: How many people experience a wardrobe malfunction on any given day? When it happens to you or me, it’s no big deal, but when a famous actress steps out of a limo, unintentionally showing some extra skin, the tabloids are having a field day.

It’s an example of the prominence effect. Whenever a celebrity is involved, the media will jump on it. The proximity effect and the prominence effect are just two of the filters journalists use to determine what news is. To a certain extent, these two filters are based on silly, but semi-objective criteria.

Here’s my question:

Is it possible to be utterly impartial, and leave personal values, opinions and ratings at the door when evaluating the newsworthiness of a story?

In 1996, the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists dropped the word “objectivity” from its code of ethics. Deborah Potter writes in The Handbook of Independent Journalism (a U.S. Department of State publication):

“Journalists are human beings, after all. They care about their work and they do have opinions. Claiming that they are completely objective suggests that they have no values.”

NEW SOURCES

Twitter has become one of the world’s fastest growing news sources. How objective do you think most of those microblogs (a.k.a. tweets) are? By definition, blogs usually reflect opinion instead of fact, and most Twitter-users don’t subscribe to a code of fair and balanced news-gathering, based on checking and double-checking sources to provide a complete picture. Twitter-chatter is highly subjective. That’s one of the reasons for its popularity.

But let’s bring it a bit closer to home. You’re a reasonable person, aren’t you? When push comes to shove, can you set your own prejudices aside, and open your mind to whatever information comes your way?

THE MIRROR

Well, let’s see how objective you are. When you see a “map,” do you think you really know the “territory”?

Remember that F-150 pick-up truck with the “Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism” sticker, the veteran license plate, and the “Semper Fi” sign?

That redneck driver is surely a right-wing republican Fox-News watching ex-marine in favor of killing our way out of any conflict, with an NRA endorsed semi-automatic rifle, yes? If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

Well, as you get off the highway to pump some gas, you end up parking your car right next to the F-150. A young guy in a “Life is Good” t-shirt, steps out of the truck and starts filling it up. A woman at the next pump is clearly upset about the provocative bumper stickers, and she says to the young man:

“Anti-War = Pro-Terrorism… that’s a terrible message you have on your car, young man. I’m against any type of war, but that doesn’t make me a supporter of terrorism, does it? Do you call yourself an American? Shame on you!”

The young man looks at her in shock. His face turns completely red. Then he takes a deep breath, and says:

“Ma’am, I’m on my way to the hardware store to pick up some stuff. I’m working on a house for Habitat for Humanity. This truck belongs to a friend of a friend who was kind enough to help us out. I didn’t even notice the stickers.”

On hearing that, the woman turned bright red, and apologized profusely.

At that moment she realized:

Things are never what they seem to be. The map is not the territory.

Think of that, when you watch or listen to tonight’s news.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice