On Saturday, October 13th, a good group of voice-overs came together in Bloomfield NJ, for Uncle Roy’s 13th annual VO BBQ. For those of you who don’t know him, Uncle Roy is Roy Yokelson, Emmy Award winning sound designer, recording engineer, bagel lover and demo/audio book producer extraordinaire. You can find him at Antland Productions.
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of working with Roy, can tell you about his love for our business, his vast experience, his astounding professionalism, and above all, his big heart. Roy is what Jews would call a true “Mensch.” That’s one way to describe an all-round good, honest, positive person who is a pillar of the community. Roy is everything, and more.
So, after twelve VO BBQ’s, I decided it was time to serenade him with a song, using the melody of the classic “Oh Danny Boy.” At four o’clock we gathered around the deck, and with my pal Paul Payton at the piano, we surprised Roy with the following words:
Oh Uncle Roy, our pipes, our pipes are calling From coast to coast, and down the Jersey shore The summer’s gone, and all the leaves are falling It’s you, it’s you, that we so much adore
Your smile, your hair, your laugh, your bagel Thursday your cats, your car, your kids, your warm hello We’re here for you, in sunshine or in shadow Oh Uncle Roy, Oh Uncle Roy we love you so
Now we have come to Bloomfield for a reason to be together at this barbecue as family that celebrates this season to celebrate the person that is you
And we say Thank you for the many memories And for the kindness that you always show We’re here for you, in sunshine or in shadow Oh Uncle Roy, Oh Uncle Roy we love you so
Hugh Edwards, who flew in from the UK with Peter Dickson just to be at the BBQ, captured the moment on Facebook video. Click here to watch. If that link doesn’t work, click here for George Whittams video. Please pardon my voice. It’s not been the same since my stroke, and I’m still recovering.
Every forty seconds, someone is struck with a stroke. It is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Most people will never make a full recovery, and more than two-thirds of survivors have some kind of disability associated with the attack.
Those are the statistics.
It’s a good thing I don’t believe in numbers. I believe in proving them wrong. The history of the world is filled with people who were told “It can’t be done,” and yet they persisted and succeeded. Against all odds.
I believe that people don’t equal statistics.
Going by the stats, it seems reasonable to believe that I would never fully recover from the stroke that struck me six months ago. But I chose to be unreasonable.
Last week I wrote about my road to recovery, and I promised you to open up about the one thing that terrified me most. It was something I didn’t want my colleagues or clients to know, because it could ruin my career.
HOW IT STARTED
Let me take you back to March 26th, 2018, the day I woke up on the floor of my voice-over studio wondering what the heck was going on. In hindsight I had the classic signs of a stroke: a sudden and pounding headache, loss of coordination, and blurry vision. One side of my body was paralyzed, my face was drooping, and I had trouble speaking.
That last symptom manifested itself in two ways: I had difficulty speaking sentences that made sense, and my speech was slurred. This usually means that the part of the brain that controls language is not getting the blood supply it needs. It was in fact dying.
As I was being transported to the hospital in a helicopter, my wife got a phone call from the surgeon who was on standby to operate on me. “When Paul comes in, I probably won’t have time to introduce myself,” he said, “so I want to take a moment to speak with you now. I’ll be totally honest. Everything we do will depend on the results of Paul’s CT scan, which will show us what parts of his brain are still intact when he arrives. Timing is crucial.”
He continued: “Be prepared that he might not make it, or that he’ll end up being severely handicapped and dependent on others for the rest of his life. If the scan looks good, we can do a thrombectomy to remove the blood clot from his brain, and take it from there.”
Since you’re reading these words, you already know the outcome. I guess it wasn’t my time to go, and I beat the statistics. Annually, out of the 1600 stroke patients that arrive in the hospital I was admitted to, only 80 are eligible for a thrombectomy.
THE RECOVERY BEGINS
So, my surgery was a success, but this did not mean that all was well between my ears. The scans showed a black area on the right side of my brain where cells had died. Those cells do not grow back. In order to compensate for the loss, the brain has to rewire itself and have other parts take over the function of the cells that are lost. To make that happen I needed at least five things: a positive attitude, a solid support system, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy.
Even though I no longer sounded like a drunkard, clear articulation wasn’t my forte in the first few months after my stroke. I suffered from dysarthria. That’s a fancy word for unclear speech caused by brain damage. It’s a weakness or lack of coordination of the muscles of the tongue, lips, palate, jaw, and larynx. On top of that I had word-finding issues, indicative of memory loss.
By far the weirdest symptom of my post-stroke condition was the fact that I didn’t sound like me. My speech had become rather robotic and monotonal. It came in little bursts of language, just like the thoughts in my head. In the weeks to come, I discovered that I had the hardest time infusing my words with emotion.
No matter the subject, I sounded as passionate as a concrete wall. After I came home, I tried my hand at a few voice-over scripts for existing clients. It took countless retakes before I was somewhat satisfied with the result, but clients were noticing that something was off. The feedback I consistently received boiled down to this: “Once more, with feeling, please.”
The problem was that I had no idea how to access those right brain feelings. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed incapable of translating instructions like “confident,” “warm,” or “excited” into sound, whether in my studio, or in ordinary conversations. This was infuriatingly frustrating. I felt like a soccer player unable to handle the ball, or a painter who can’t hold a brush to add color to his canvas.
Would I ever be able to reach these emotions again, or were they part of the right brain that was destroyed by the stroke? What would this mean for my voice-over career?
Twice a week I went to speech therapy to learn how to improve my articulation. With my therapist, I also worked on regaining memory, and on sharpening my information processing skills. Very soon I realized that all of this wasn’t going to be as easy as flipping some internal switch. It needed time, energy, and lots of practice at home.
Speaking of home, on top of her busy schedule my wife became my designated driver, my patient advocate, my caregiver, my personal chef, and my hero. She made sure I got to all my appointments, that I took all my medications, and that my recovery would be pretty much stress-free. Her delicious meals were almost always based on fresh, locally sourced and unprocessed ingredients. You can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body.
In the weeks after my hospitalization there was something else about my voice that concerned me. For some reason I was hoarse all the time, and I had no vocal stamina for long conversations and even longer scripts. I was tired, and I sounded like it. Something told me that if I didn’t take care of this, my career as a professional speaker would be over.
In May I went to see an otorhinolaryngologist who specializes in working with actors, singers, and public speakers. She performed a flexible fiberoptic laryngoscopy whereby a small endoscope is inserted through one nostril and guided through the nose to the back of the throat. It’s a funny feeling.
This revealed a slight laryngeal tremor. That’s an involuntary tremor of the vocal folds that causes changes in the voice. My ENT also concluded I had laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), a.k.a. “silent reflux.” Why silent? Because it doesn’t necessarily trigger the usual symptoms of acid reflux, such as heartburn. It does lead to hoarseness, coughing, and throat clearing because stomach fluid travels back through the food pipe to reach the back of the throat.
It is likely that the laryngeal tremor was caused by the stroke. Perhaps it will go away over time. Perhaps it won’t. I’m treating my LPR in several ways. I avoid spicy and acidic foods. I limit my intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, mints and tomato-based products. I’ve stopped snacking before bedtime, and I’ve lost about twenty pounds. I’m also taking omeprazole which decreases the amount of acid the stomach makes. A new wedge pillow raises my head in bed, and keeps the acid down where it belongs.
Experts estimate that forty percent of the population may have undiagnosed LPR. If you’re experiencing hoarseness, a need to clear your throat, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or a red, swollen, or irritated voice box, please see an ENT to get to the root of the problem.
The good news is that after months of speech therapy my articulation and ability to focus has greatly improved, and the robot voice is gone. Only when I get really tired, it becomes more monotonal. I’m relieved that my speech has become more expressive, allowing me to continue to work as a voice talent. I’m also back to doing four-hour shifts as one of the announcers at the Easton Farmers’ Market.
Twice a week I work on strengthening my vocal folds and building my endurance with my speech therapists. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I’ve started recording longer scripts again.
It takes a positive attitude, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy to recover from a stroke. Add to that a support system; a network of caring people who provide you with practical and emotional support. Reading and responding to your comments on last week’s blog post, I realize how lucky I am to have such a supportive group of friends and colleagues!
Thank you for your kind words, good thoughts, and prayers. Your positive vibes revitalize me, and give me energy to keep on beating the odds. The process of healing goes on, which means that I have to be careful not to do too much, too quickly. So, if you don’t hear from me within 24 hours, and you don’t see me on social media, rest assured that I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself.
Important: the information presented here does not substitute for medical consultation or examination, nor is it intended to provide advice on the medical treatment appropriate to any specific circumstances.
Six months ago I was on top of the world. And then my world collapsed.
I remember being in Carnegie Hall on Thursday, March 22nd to hear Itzak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman play. During the intermission, I checked my phone to see if one of my agents had news about an audition. Seconds later I learned that I had landed a national spot for IHOP. The recording session was the very next day.
That night my wife and our companions went home without me, while I stayed at our friend Peggy’s, an oboist who shares a small apartment in the city with her cat Boston. The next morning I took the subway to Heard City at 16 W 22nd Street, a boutique audio post production facility. After two intense hours of takes and retakes the job was done, and I felt fantastic!
Very soon this obscure Dutchman, who came to the States with no contacts and no career, would be selling Hawaiian French toast all over America. Life was sweet! Little did I know that in three days time, I would be toast, as doctors were fighting for my life.
I’ve documented the story of my stroke in “I’m Still Here.” It starts with me, waking up half-paralyzed on the floor of my voice-over studio, a rescue by friends followed by a bumpy helicopter ride, a thrombectomy, and a two-week stay in the hospital.
But that was just the beginning.
CHANGING MY LIFE
From the moment I came out of the ER, it was clear that from now on two things would be crucial. I had to Rest and Recover. Anything else was secondary. This may sound easy, but for a busy bee like me it required a disruptive but essential change in lifestyle and in attitude. For me, the hardest part was this: Being okay with being incapacitated.
I’ll be honest with you: I was anything but okay with that concept. For years and years I had gone full speed ahead, sitting in the driver’s seat of my life, frantically holding on to the wheel. I couldn’t stand that after the stroke I felt weighed down by an overwhelming fatigue, unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
Trapped in my lethargic body, and held back by persistent brain fog, I observed myself becoming dependent on the help and kindness of others to heal from this stroke of misfortune. My prospects for recovery were unclear.
One neurologist casually informed me that the dead brain cells would not regenerate. “What you’ve lost will never come back,” he said. “You just have to learn to live with it.” I hate it when people use the word “just” in that way, don’t you?
Another doctor told me to trust the amazing ability of the brain to reorganize itself and form new connections between cells. It’s called neuroplasticity. As long as I did my part, the grey matter between my prominent ears would do the rest. Now, there’s a concept I could embrace!
Apart from feeling tired and overwhelmed all the time, there were other signs that the stroke had done a number on my body and my mind. I’ll mention a few, but please note that these “side effects” are by no means typical. It all depends on which parts of the brain are affected by the stroke, and to what extent. That’s why they say: “Different strokes for different folks,” I guess.
My stroke had wiped out a part of my right brain, which affected the left side of my body. At times that side felt rather uncooperative and weak. If you and I were to go for a stroll, you’d see my left foot dragging, and my left arm refusing to swing. After six months, I still have an interesting time picking things up with my left hand.
Surprisingly, my eyesight was also impacted. For the first time in my life I couldn’t read all the letters on the ophthalmologist’s chart, which is why I now permanently sport a pair of stylish bifocals. As it turned out, my brain was also ignoring part of the left side of my field of vision, which requires bi-weekly vision therapy. Driving a car was out of the question.
Overall, I found it hard to focus in other ways too, especially in an environment with lots of things going on at the same time. My brain would quickly reach stimulus overload and tune out. Supermarkets and department stores were places to avoid, as well a large gatherings of people.
Social situations became particularly awkward for me. I can’t explain why, but instead of taking part in a conversation, I found myself becoming a disengaged observer. It was as if my brain had trouble connecting and downloading the information. Should you and I meet and strike up a conversation, please don’t think I’m bored as my eyes start drifting away and I stop responding. It simply means it’s challenging for me to process the information and the environment, and my wheels are churning.
Anyway, I don’t want this to be a litany of complaints, so, before I talk about how my stroke affected my voice and my career as a professional speaker, I’ll tell you how I approached my recovery.
GETTING BACK ON MY FEET
From the moment I landed in the hospital, I knew I had one job and one job only: to heal my body and my mind. Everything I do and not do, has to serve that purpose. I use present tense, because the process is ongoing.
One of the first things I had to wrap my brain around is that it is okay to be unproductive. Healing from a stroke requires rest. Lots of it. In the first few months, I spent hours and hours in bed. At night and during the day. Even though my body told me to take it easy, my mind felt terribly guilty for not doing my share and pulling my weight. Talking to a neuropsychologist made me realize this was unhelpful, to say the least.
I learned to listen to my body, and accept that I was (temporarily) unable to contribute much to the household. I learned to accept that other people would pick up the slack. Daily afternoon naps are now part of the program. I also learned to avoid things that would drain my energy.
On any given day, you and I spend a lot of time worrying about things that happened in the past, or things that might happen in the future. As a result, we’re barely in the moment. It’s like going out to dinner in a fancy restaurant. During the main course we’re still evaluating the appetizer, or we’re already wondering about dessert. Meanwhile, we ignore what’s on our plate and in our mouth.
The truth is: the only reality is the here and the now. The rest is imagination. Yes, even memories are figments of our imagination because they’re nothing but personal interpretations of what we believe has happened in the past.
Recovering from a stroke is teaching me to be here now; to savor the moment, and not let worries about what may or may not happen suck the life blood out of me.
Next, I had to decide how to deal with distractions. To me, a distraction was anything that would keep me from my main goal: to rest and recover. This meant putting my voice-over career on a back burner, and (temporarily) disengage from my community. So, no more Instagram or Twitter, and very limited time on Facebook. I’d stay out of discussions about the state of our industry, and I stopped writing a new blog post every week. In short, I practically disappeared from the radar screen, and I have to tell you: it was bliss!
If you’re active on social media, you know that it can be quite stressful to have to produce new content for the world to see. It’s a monster that’s always hungry for more. On top of that you have to keep up with all the content produced by others on a daily basis. The trick is to control “it” before it controls you.
As I’m taking a social media break, I am reevaluating to what extent I should maintain my presence. Is it a good use of my time? Does it keep me healthy and sane? And most importantly, does it make me and others happy? Having a stroke reemphasized that our time on earth is by no means guaranteed, and certainly not unlimited. It’s what you do with it that matters.
Work wise, I took a long and beneficial break from doing auditions. I only record for existing clients, and for jobs that land in my lap. It’s all I have time and energy for. But don’t think I spend most of my days in a horizontal position. It’s amazing how much time goes into doctor’s visits, medical tests, endless follow-up appointments, and therapy sessions. Getting well has become my day job, and my night time activity.
Every time I go to rehab and see other stroke patients, I realize how lucky I am. I’m not in a wheelchair. I can communicate. My brain still works, and I have a wife and friends who are there for me, every step of the way. Every week caring colleagues check in with me, wanting to know how I am doing. And when I meet people that haven’t seen me for a while, they are surprised how well I seem to be doing.
However, there’s one thing I haven’t told you about: how the stroke has affected my voice. I’ve kept this quiet because I didn’t want my clients to know and look elsewhere for talent. But since I’m on the mend, I’m ready to share that story with you next week!
If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post without reading part one “Would You Survive The Shark Tank?” please stop. Click on the title above; read the story, and come back when you’re done.
By the way, as always, blue text on this blog indicates a hyperlink.
Here’s one nugget from last week’s post you’ll remember:
“The way you manage your money is one of the most important indicators of success. You may have the most enchanting voice in the world, but if you don’t price for profit, and you spend more than you make without even knowing it, you may end up driving for Uber, instead of doing your dream job.”
A week ago we talked about investing in your business. You’ve got to spend money to make money, but you have to do it wisely. I call it “strategic splurging.”
Today I’m going to talk about saving some cash, but before I get to that, let’s go over a few basics.
As a solopreneur, you have to ask yourself:
“What is the purpose of my business?”
Financially speaking, there can only be one answer:
It’s not to make money, but to turn a profit.
If I were a bank, and you’d come to me for a loan, I wouldn’t care about how well-respected you are in your community, or how much you love your job. I would not look at how many people read your blog, or how many friends you have on Facebook. I would look at your bottom line.
Your profit is the number one indicator of the health and success of your business. Here’s a simple formula:
Total Sales – Total Expenses = Profit
AMATEUR OR PRO
We often talk about the difference between doing voice-overs as a hobby, or as a business. What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional? In the end it doesn’t matter what you think, or what your coach tells you. You’ve got to convince the tax man!
Every time you’re tempted to make a major purchase, ask yourself:
“Do I really need it right now, or is it just something I want?” “Is it a necessity, or a luxury?”
So, if you really, really want to buy a nice, new, shiny piece of equipment, ask yourself:
– Will it make me more professional, productive, and profitable?
– Will my clients experience an undeniable difference as a result of this purchase?
– Will this investment pay for itself within a reasonable period of time?
If you can answer these three questions with an emphatic YES, move on to the next level:
2. Find the product that best meets your needs and your budget
This applies to business expenses, but also to other purchases. You have to be a smart shopper across the board, to allow your business to grow.
If you must make an investment, do your homework before you make an impulse buy. Determine how much you can afford to spend, and begin your research. Ask people you trust for suggestions. Look at what the pros are using.
Skip commercial copy, but pay close attention to independent reviews from reliable sources. For gadgets and certain pieces of gear, I will often turn to The Wirecutter website for extensive comparisons, reviews, and recommendations.
Here’s my rule of thumb: Always choose high quality over low price. You may pay a bit more today, but you will save money in the long run.
When you operate your own business, it’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day running of your shop. However, if you want to have staying power, you must think long-term, and plan accordingly. And speaking of time, here’s your next decision:
3. Determine the best moment to buy something
Saving money has a lot to do with timing. For instance, the best time to buy a new television is right before the Super Bowl, and before new models hit the showroom. It can save you hundreds of dollars.
Once you’ve found what you are looking for, and you know when to get it, you must make the following commitment:
4. Never pay full price
No one pays sticker price on a new car, right? That would be foolish. So, I want you to bring that same mindset to your next purchase. And just as you’d go from dealership to dealership to get the best price, I want you to use the same method online.
The first thing you need to find out is how much retailers are generally charging for what you want to buy. Otherwise you don’t know if you’re overpaying, or you’re getting a steal.
A simple way to do that, is to start a Google search for your product. Click on the shopping tab, and sort by price from low to high. Before you begin this process, always clean your disk space by clearing your cookies, cache, history, and footprints. Otherwise, your search history might reveal to online retailers that you’re interested in buying a certain product, and they’ll quote you a higher price.
If you’re an Amazon fan, I recommend installing the free camelcamelcamel price tracker. It monitors millions of products, and it gives you insightful price history charts. On top of that, this tracker can send you alerts via email and Twitter, notifying you of price drops.
The website Slickdeals also has a price tracker, tracking prices from 52 stores. You can install a bookmarklet, and add it to your browser’s bookmarks bar to check the price history of any item at a supported store as you browse the web.
Once you have a clear price point, the next decision you’ll have to make is whether to buy…
5. Refurbished or used
My biggest savings have come from purchasing previously loved equipment. Not everyone is comfortable with buying second-hand, but once you’ve had a few positive experiences, I think you’ll warm up to the idea.
The safest way to buy used gear, is to get it from someone you know. The Facebook group VO Gear Exchange has over 1,500 members, and right now there are 123 items for sale. Online retailer Sweetwater has a Trading Post where you can buy and sell gear. You can also buy and sell used pro audio equipment from Guitar Center by clicking this link.
As a buyer and seller, I’ve had mostly positive experiences with eBay. The trick is to do your homework before you start bidding. Know how much something is worth, and use the website Checkaflip to find out how much a certain product is usually selling for.
Buyer beware! Only buy from sellers with overwhelmingly positive feedback, and look for auctions that end on hours very few people will be bidding (mornings and early afternoons). The fewer people bid on something, the better your deal will be. eBay has a money back guarantee if your item hasn’t arrived, or isn’t as described.
Amazon shoppers can also buy used or reconditioned products. Just click on the Used & New link below the description of the item you’re looking for. You might be surprised how much money you can save.
Speaking of reconditioned or refurbished, that’s another great option for frugal freelancers. I recently bought an iPad Air 2 with 128 GB, Wireless & Cellular. You can find it at the Apple store for $629. I bought a factory refurbished model from BLINQ for $396.79 with free shipping (using a 20% off coupon for signing up for email alerts). Apple sells the same iPad refurbished for $529. Retailer Best Buy is selling the iPad Air 2 with similar specs as an Open Box item for $464.99.
My tablet didn’t arrive in Apple’s signature fancy packaging, but otherwise it looked and felt brand new, without any dents or scratches. Right now I’m using it as a second monitor, with the help of an app called Duet. The app is available for Mac and PC.
If you’re still not comfortable with getting a used or reconditioned product, you have to consider what to do when you’re…
6. Buying new
Of course you’d start by using a shopbot like Pricegrabber, to find the best price. You can also look for deals on Retailmenot or a site like Overstock.
Rick Broida from website CNET, writes the Cheapskate Blog that’s written for bargain shoppers like me. Once I had ordered my iPad, I wanted to set up cellular service. The Cheapskate Blog told me about a free T-Mobile data plan for my tablet. All I had to do was buy a ten-dollar Sim card, install it, and BAM: I now have a 200MB monthly plan at no cost.
Rick also wrote about the Brenthaven Elliot Slim Brief with lifetime guarantee which normally retails for $79.95. I got it for $24.95, and it protects my iPad perfectly during my travels. This deal is no longer available.
Apart from Rick’s blog, CNET has another deals & promotions page you might want to check regularly. You’ll find deals on anything from electronics, cruises, office equipment, to clothing.
There are at least four other deal aggregators I visit regularly: kinja Deals, Bradsdeals, Woot, and Tanga. Please do some window shopping to find out what they have to offer. You can thank me later!
Another money-saving concept is that of the Buyer’s Club. This is where a number of buyers commit to purchasing something to get a group discount. Groupon is probably one of the best examples. One of my favorites is MassDrop, which has a special Audiophile section.
Whenever I’m shopping online, I make sure to activate my eBates account to earn cash back on my purchases. The Cash Back Button I’ve installed tells me how much cash back is being offered, and it reminds me to activate the discount. About 2,000 stores give cash back through eBates. The way I see it, it’s free money!
“But what about coupons?” you may ask. Well, I use a browser extension called Honey. Honey automatically finds and applies coupon codes at checkout on thousands of sites. Honey also finds better prices on Amazon, and offers cash bonuses on many stores.
Once you have Honey installed, whenever you’re on a shopping site that Honey supports, you will see the Honey icon in the top right corner of your browser turn the color orange. This means that Honey supports that store.
Now, here’s my last money-saving tip for you:
7. Get a good accountant who specializes in small businesses
Let’s face it: you didn’t become a freelancer so you could bury yourself in boring and time-consuming paperwork. Spare yourself the headaches, save yourself some time, and hire an expert. Your forms will be filled out correctly, and filed on time. A good accountant helps you maximize your deductions, lower your tax bills, and can be your financial sounding board.
When you’re ready to make your next purchase, remember this: it’s easy and lazy to pay full price. It’s also bad for business.
It may take you some time to track down the best bargains, but you’ll learn a lot, and finding a bargain can be quite gratifying.
The way you shop for your business will help you cut down your household expenses as well.
Small savings add up quickly. At the end of the day, you’ll have more money in the bank; money that’s going to be your security blanket.
Of course there are more ways to save, and if you have specific tips, I hope you’ll share them in the comment section.
Three years ago, two aspiring voice-overs took the plunge, and opened up shop.
One was incredibly talented, undisciplined, and thought he always knew best. The other one wasn’t as good, but she was business-savvy, and listened to feedback.
36 months later, number one is now an Uber-driver, entertaining his clients with celebrity impressions. Number two is starting to make a living… as a voice talent.
What went wrong, and what went right? Was it a matter of luck, attitude, or preparation?
Simply put, it takes more than talent to make it as a freelancer, no matter what field you pick. Way more. Let’s explore.
INVESTING IN YOU
Here’s a question for you.
If I were an investor on Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den, and you came to me with a pitch to back your business, what would I be looking for?
Number one: I’d look for your ability to make me money. By the way: that happens to be the same reason why agents sign you, and clients hire you.
Think about that for a minute.
You may believe that you’re doing what you’re doing to make money for yourself. If that’s the case, I have news for you.
Your clients don’t care whether or not you turn a profit. Your clients don’t want to know how much you spent on that new microphone or revamped website. All they are interested in, is this:
“Will your voice help me spread my message so I can make more money?”
Even if you happen to work with a non-profit, it’s always a matter of benefits and costs. The benefits of hiring you should outweigh how much your clients pay. If that’s the case, those clients will perceive you as an asset, and not as an expense.
MAKING YOUR PITCH
There’s a lot of psychology in selling, but it starts with this: in a competitive market you have to offer a competitive product. Something that’s different, or better than what’s already on the shelves.
If you’re providing a service like voice-over narration, you better bring it from day one. Don’t jump into the ocean if you barely know how to swim. Amateurs learn on the job, and they get eaten alive. Professionals know what they’re doing, and they’re able to survive.
In the Shark Tank as well as in real life, you’d need to bring something to the table that’s rather unique; a brilliant solution to a common problem, sold at the right price. Yes, you heard me. As one of the investors, I would expect you to know what you’re worth and charge accordingly.
Mark my words: Those who sell themselves short, aren’t taken seriously.
You’d also have to demonstrate what sets you apart from the competition. You have to come up with a solid marketing plan, and convince me why I should trust you.
It’s also important that you present your plans compellingly and logically, particularly under pressure. The reason is simple. If you cannot sell yourself, how will you ever sell your service, especially if you are the embodiment of that service?
LOOKING AT THE NUMBERS
Lastly, you’d have to show me your books.
Some freelancers think this is the boring stuff, but to me, this is where things get interesting.
No matter what business you’re in, the way you manage your money is one of the most important predictors of success. You may have the most enchanting voice in the world, but if you don’t price for profit, and you spend more than you make without even knowing it, you may end up driving for Uber.
Your balance sheet needs to reflect a few other things as well:
a keen sense of organization,
an aptitude for making intelligent investments, and
an ability to control costs.
If it’s okay with you, I want to talk about the last two things I just mentioned: investing in your business, and controlling how much you spend. Today I’ll talk a bit about spending. Next week I’ll show you a few of my favorite ways to save.
WHERE TO PUT YOUR MONEY
No matter what some people want you to believe, you cannot run a profitable voice-over business on a shoestring budget. It starts with getting the proper training. Clients pay you because they trust that you know what you’re doing. They don’t expect you to figure it out on the fly and on their dime.
Just as a carpenter needs quality tools to deliver quality work, you need to have equipment that says you’re taking this voice-over thing seriously. Otherwise, you’re nothing more than a hopeful hobbyist talking into a stupid snowball microphone.
Now, if you’re just getting started, here’s something you probably don’t want to hear: without a dedicated, isolated, and acoustically treated recording space, you’re not going to make enough money to stay afloat.
When a client calls, or there’s an audition, you need to be able to jump into your booth and press “record.” Otherwise the client will go somewhere else, and you’ll be last in line for that audition. You really can’t afford to wait until your neighbor stops using his snow blower, or until that barking bulldog finally falls asleep.
An expensive microphone in a bad recording space won’t sound half as good as a cheaper microphone in a treated environment. I think you get the point. Looking back at my career, building a home studio was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. It has paid for itself many times over, and frankly, I wish I’d done it earlier.
THE INVISIBLE EQUALIZER
Another investment you should make, is an investment in something invaluable that cannot be bought or rented. You can’t taste it, or touch it. Yet, everyone is using it every day (some to greater effect than others).
I’m talking about Time.
The success or failure of your business greatly depends on how you spend your time. First of all, give yourself time to become good at what you want to do. Cultivate your craft. Don’t rush it. There’s a lot more to doing voice-overs than most people think. And just because it sounds easy, doesn’t mean it is.
Time is all about goals and priorities. We usually get things done that are important to us. People tend to get their “musts,” but not their “shoulds.”
In a past profession, I interviewed many people who were considered to be a success. Politicians, captains of industry, and entertainers. Most of them were incredibly busy, but they were really good at planning, or had someone else do the planning for them. That way, they made the most out of every day.
These people were just like you and me, but they didn’t spend hours checking Facebook, or watching soap operas. What struck me most was their tremendous power to prioritize, delegate, and focus. Whatever they were doing at a particular moment, had their full attention.
So, if you wish to learn from those who are where you want to be, don’t ask them about the moment they knew they wanted to be a voice-over.
Don’t ask them about the silliest thing that ever happened to them in a studio.
Ask them how they spend their time, and learn from it.
This will help you get ready for the Shark Tank that is your professional life.
Three years from now, it might make the difference between working a dream job, or driving a cab.
Something strange is happening in the voice-over world, and it scares me.
I know of no other profession where colleagues (and I use the word loosely) denigrate other colleagues simply because they’re advocating for decent rates.
Those who favor higher fees are regularly labeled as greedy, unrealistic, elitist, old school, or as misguided union members.
Since when did it become uncool to want to make more money, or at least earn a living wage?
Is it bad for business? Would it tarnish our reputation? What are people afraid of?
Some voice-overs who operate on the lower end of the scale have even come forward to proudly defend why they’re charging next to nothing. People like Rebecca Schwab, who confessed in a blog post that bloggers like me sometimes make her feel like “a voice over fraud.”
She goes on to describe her method of breaking into the voice-over business: by selling her services at rock bottom prices. In another blog post Rebecca writes:
“Whether or not I was “undercutting” anyone was the last thing on my mind. It was simply a matter of economics.”
I’m not going to copy and paste her articles here, but I think Rebecca* needs to learn a thing or two about economics and collegiality.
The frightening thing is that she’s not alone. If you frequent certain Facebook voice-over groups, you’ll notice that even some moderators have become very defensive when the subject of rates comes up. What’s even worse, you can’t argue with these people because they will kick you out of a group if you try to start a dialogue about money.
So, rather than get into a discussion with people who are unwilling to listen, let me give you my take on some of the arguments that are being used to defend, excuse, or justify low rates. Even though we’re talking about voice-over services, you’ll find the same type of reasoning when other freelance rates are discussed.
Let’s start with something I hear almost every day:
1. There will always be a high end and a low end of the market. Accept it and move on.
That’s a given, and it’s not addressing the real issue. We all know that there’s a market for KIA and Rolls-Royce. The point is: how low is the KIA dealer willing to go to make a sale? Is he prepared to sell his cars at a loss, just to get his business going? How long can he keep that up before he goes bankrupt? It’s not a way to get loyal customers either. Next time, they’ll just buy from someone who’s willing to go even lower.
Bottom line: You need to cover your costs, and then factor in a profit. Once you get clients hooked on cheap fees, they will never pay full price again.
2. You may lose money on every sale, but you’ll make it up in volume!
That’s like buying ten melons for a dollar each, and then selling 12 for 10 bucks. Does that make any sense? No matter how many KIAs a dealer sells, if he sells them below cost, he’s not making any money. A small business owner once said: “Sales numbers feed egos. Profits feed families.”
It’s not how much you sell, but how much money you get to keep that matters. Business is a game of margins, not volume. Bargain airlines tried making money on volume. Guess what? They’re gone! Would you rather do less for more, or more for less?
3. Purchase decisions are primarily based on price.
If that’s the case, Mr. Client, I will send you your order in two years, okay? I’ll also make sure that it will fall apart in two weeks, and you won’t be getting your money back. Don’t bother calling me, because I just closed our customer service department.
Most people do not buy on price alone. They will talk about price, but what they really mean is that you haven’t offered enough value to justify paying the price you’re asking.
There’s this cartoon with a picture of a brother and sister each with their own lemonade stand side by side. The brother’s lemonade stand reads “Lemonade 25 cents.” The sister’s lemonade stand reads:
Lemonade 50 cents (clean water).
Do you want your service to be known for being the cheapest on the market, or for high quality? Competing on price is a losing battle.
“If you want to earn a solid living in sales, you need to remember that you are going to face a consistent challenge to hang on to a higher price, because you will always find yourself competing with a fool who is going broke cutting prices.”
The key is adding value. If you don’t offer exceptional value, then your product or service becomes just another commodity. People buy commodities on price. If you’re just another web designer, voice-over artist, or car dealership, you’re in trouble.
Value means: offering more at a higher price.
4. Price does not influence the perception of a product.
If that were the case, why are people prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a Rolex, instead of buying a $50 Seiko? Most watchmakers agree that the Seiko is the better time piece.
Let’s talk about brain surgery. Why don’t people go to the cheapest surgeon in the area? Because low prices make people think he isn’t any good. Price makes a statement. Cheap = cheap. What does your rate tell the world about what you think you’re worth?
5. Some clients just can’t afford paying higher rates. I cannot change that.
How do you know they can’t pay you a better rate? Buyers lie in order to get you to lower your price. It’s the oldest trick in the book. If they could get it from someone else at a better price, why are they still talking to you?
Stop making excuses for those who don’t respect you enough to pay you a decent fee. Unless you’ve seen their balance sheet, you don’t know what they can or cannot afford.
Know your bottom line. Add value. Don’t compromise so easily. Negotiate. Dare to say NO to a bad deal. Study the art of making the sale. It’s part of being a pro.
6. I don’t set the rates. The market does.
So, what you’re saying is that you don’t take responsibility for your prices? They are forced upon you at gunpoint? You’re just a helpless leaf in the wind?
Let me put it bluntly: The market doesn’t determine your price. Your client doesn’t set your fee. YOU do.
It’s just very convenient to tell the world that you don’t have any influence over your rate. If you can’t control it, you can’t change it. You’re a victim of circumstance. End of story. Now go feel sorry for yourself.
Market trends are the result of millions of individual decisions. Decisions you and I make, each and every day. Change the decisions, and you change the trends.
Price-cutting is a self-inflicted wound. Should you decide that $5 for an eight paragraph voice-over script is fair compensation, so be it. Contract law states that parties must agree to enter into a contract freely, and must be of sound mind.
I’m not saying that you should ignore the competition or forget about the rate cards that are floating in cyberspace. It’s up to you if you want to look at Odesk, freelancer.com, or the $100 voices.com minimum rate, and decide that that’s what “the market” is willing to pay. After all, the only thing the client cares about is price, right?
Or you could decide to look at union rates, and make those the basis of your pricing structure.
Why not talk to a few agents? If you’re any good, they might want to represent you. They will fight for a decent rate because if you do well, they will do well.
7. I’m not a sales person. I’m an artist. I don’t know how to negotiate.
No, you’re a wimp, and you need a firm kick in the pants! Nobody is forcing you to be a full-time freelancer. But if you tell the world you are doing this to make a living, it automatically means that you’re the head of the sales department, whether you like it or not. Lawrence Steinmetz has this to add:
“The first thing you have to understand is that the selling price is a function of your ability to sell and nothing else.”
Any idiot can cave in at the first sign of buyer resistance, and offer a price cut. That’s not selling. That’s being lazy and fearful. It’s a sign that you don’t believe in the value of your product or service. Clients always pick up on that, and it will cost you dearly.
Being extraordinarily talented in what you do, doesn’t guarantee instant success. Life might have dealt you a pretty good hand, but if you don’t know how to play the game, even the best cards are useless. We all know starving geniuses.
The way I see it, you have two choices. You either learn the rules and become good at playing the game, or you stay out of it. Remember: experience is the slowest teacher.
8. Low-end rates do not affect high-end rates.
If that were the case, why aren’t rates going up, instead of down? Why have so many auditions turned into a bidding war? Actor, writer and producer J.S. Gilbert:
“While it’s not being broadcast, I’m seeing people I know who have made six-figure+ incomes at voice-over for years now, looking at incomes that are fractions of what they were a few years ago.”
I understand that we’ll never get back to the golden days of Don LaFontaine (a.k.a. “The Voice of G-d”) and his limo. Thanks to the internet, the rise in home studios, and online job boards, clients no longer have to book union talent at union rates through an agent. Talk has become a lot cheaper.
As Gilbert pointed out to me, a job that used to cost the client $1000, is now offered at $250. But why pay $250 if some fool is willing to do it for $25?
As I said before, once clients are taught they can get it for less, why should they pay a penny more? Give me one reason why this trend does not impact today’s prices, and has never done so in the past.
9. But I’m just getting started. I can’t possibly ask full price.
Some beginners admitted to me that they’ve offered their services for free, just to be able to build a portfolio. Mind you: they were not talking about doing stuff for charity.
I think a freebie only makes sense if you have something else to sell. That’s why a baker hands out samples, and that’s why my custom demos are free of charge. But if you’re giving 500 dollars worth of services away for free, you’re not only creating expectations, you’re in fact saying: “This is what I think my work is worth.” Meanwhile, you’re robbing a colleague of the chance to make five hundred bucks.
Jason Fried is the co-founder and President of software solution provider Basecamp. He recommends you practice charging a reasonable rate from day one. But what he said next was a real eye-opener to me:
“It’s very safe to charge low rates, because you don’t have to prove anything. But as soon as you charge a customer a good price, it gives them the power to demand something from you, such as good quality and great service. Those are the types of pressures you want on you as a small business owner. You want to be forced to be good. Charging for something forces you to be good.”
10. I don’t need to make a full-time income. It’s only a hobby.
If it’s only a hobby, then why are you advertising yourself as a voice-over professional? I play the piano, but I don’t market myself as a concert pianist.
If you enjoy reading to other people, go volunteer at your local children’s hospital or elder care facility. You will probably get more appreciation for doing this, than for anything you’ve ever done before.
Most talents I know are only freelancing part-time, because they’re still building what they hope will become a full-time business. A part-time teacher only gets paid less because she puts in fewer hours. Does a part-time cab driver fix the meter so he can drive you around at half-price? So, why should you offer your services at bottom dollar?
Oh… I see. Your partner has a steady job, and the money you make doing the occasional voice-over doesn’t have to pay the mortgage, right?
Guess what? In this economy there’s no such thing as a steady job anymore. What would happen if your partner gets laid off and you become the sole breadwinner? Can your beer money pay the bills? Do you really think you could raise your rates to make ends meet?
Price buyers are the first to look elsewhere. They don’t care about your personal situation. They care about cutting costs. But stop thinking about your own situation for a moment.
There are people who depend on doing this for a living right now, and they think your price dumping is nothing but unfair competition. I must admit: you’re quite talented, and by charging these low rates you are making it harder and harder for them to justify their fees.
I think it’s time for you to think about the bigger picture.
Asking for a reasonable rate is not about shameless greed or about becoming filthy rich and famous. This is about being able to provide for your family; being able to send your kids to college, and save some money for a rainy day.
Your voice could help sell millions of dollars worth of product. It can introduce people to brilliant books that enrich their lives. Your voice can be the voice of a mentor, teaching valuable skills to e-learners across the globe. Your voice can inform, entertain, sell, and assist. Surely, that must be worth something?
Those who fail to build value, have nothing left but to compete on price.
Some of these lessons came easy. Others were excruciating.
Out of all the things I picked up along the way, these two were perhaps the hardest:
1. How to deal with conflict.
2. How to stand up for myself.
I grew up in a very protective environment, and was taught never to raise my voice. The main philosophy in our house was this:
Most people have good intentions. If you treat them with kindness and understanding, they will treat you in a similar way.
So, when my best friend asked if he could borrow some money, I immediately gave it to him. I think I was eight years old at that time, and I had earned a few bucks by helping out around the house. “You’ll get it back tomorrow,” he said, and I totally believed him.
Of course he never returned a penny, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it something I had said? Was it something I had done? You see, that was one of my patterns. Whenever something negative would happen to me, I started questioning myself.
This made it harder for me to confront my friend and ask for my money. Part of me didn’t want to risk losing him as my best buddy. Part of me was just too scared to challenge him. “Don’t cause conflicts,” said that little voice in the back of my head that sounded very much like my mother. “People might not like you when you start arguing with them.”
A LOSING STRATEGY
I have to tell you right now: this approach didn’t work for me as a child, and it didn’t work for me as an adult. It left me with no backbone, and it made me vulnerable. Yet, when I started my own business, I did everything I could to avoid conflict by becoming a people-pleaser.
If you’re offering a professional service like I do, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You want your clients to be happy, and their wish is your command, but there are limits. I found it very hard to say “No,” even when clients made unreasonable demands.
“Could you cancel all your plans and come to our studio for an audition tomorrow? Let’s make it nine o’ clock.”
The next day I cursed rush hour traffic on my way to New York for a cattle call in some obscure basement. I would spend half a day on the highway, and a small fortune in parking fees to audition for a $250 job. It was madness.
“Since you’re a Dutch native speaker, could you check the translation of the script we sent you, just to make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be?”
Unable to refuse, I would spend the next two hours proofing and correcting a horrible script that had been translated by stupid software. All of this for a cheap client who never said “please,” or “thank you,” and who expected me to do this at the drop of a hat, and for free.
“If I don’t do it, I might lose the job,” I told myself in those days.
Five minutes later, the phone would ring. It was one of my late-paying clients.
“Paul, we’re having some cashflow problems. Is it okay if we pay you in about… six weeks?”
“I’d rather get paid in six weeks than not being paid at all,” I said to myself, and I told the client not to worry. I was going to be the easiest freelancer they would ever work with!
Looking back, I had all sorts of people walk over me, and I found it increasingly difficult to put on a professional smile, and be okay with being treated like a dirty disposable doormat. Even though I began to resent being disrespected, there were three things I forgot.
1. Ultimately, my ultra-accommodating behavior gave me something I wanted: a way to avoid conflict. I would be seen as the amiable hired helper who always went above and beyond. Who wouldn’t want to work with me?
2. I wasn’t a powerless victim of those who took advantage of me. I was an active participant in the process by allowing people to walk all over me.
3. By behaving the way I did, I created certain expectations. I taught my clients how to treat me.
At the time, I didn’t see it that way. I saw myself as the always accommodating Mr. Nice Guy, smiling on the outside, but suffering in silence on the inside. It was only a matter of time before the last drop landed in the bucket.
PUSHING MY BUTTONS
I had finished recording a technical script for a high-maintenance, unorganized client who always needed everything yesterday. Even though I was swamped, I managed to meet his deadline. Two days later I was getting ready to go to a wedding, when he called me with some drastic changes to the script.
“Don’t blame me,” he said. “I don’t control the people I work for.”
He basically expected me to drop everything and help him out, and here’s the worst part: he wanted me to do it at no charge.
Already in my tuxedo, my frustration finally reached a boiling point, and I snapped at this man with an indignation that had been building up for years. I’ll tell you: when I was done, I felt so relieved!
My client, on the other hand, was speechless. Once he composed himself, he just said a few words:
“I wouldn’t want you to miss that wedding. We’ll go over everything tomorrow, and I’ll make sure you get paid for your time.”
Just like that!
I was stunned.
I looked in the mirror and thought:
“So, that’s what happens when you put your foot down!”
I later apologized to the client for losing my temper, and I thanked him for teaching me a valuable lesson.
This all happened quite some time ago. Eventually, I came to realize that I had to set some professional boundaries. Now, if you’re going through the same things I experienced, you might wonder:
How do you know where these boundaries are? They’re pretty much invisible.
It’s simple, really. You know where your boundaries are by the amount of BS you’re willing to put up with in your life.
As long as you’re okay, no lines are crossed. But if someone or something makes you angry or upset, it’s probably a sign that your boundaries have been violated. You’re likely to find out during some kind of crisis. That’s when you discover who you are, and what’s important to you.
Over the years I have developed very strong boundaries when it comes to rates, professional standards, and the terms and conditions under which I am willing to work with a client or a student.
I no longer drive to New York if a job pays less than $500. My agents know that, and they understand. Most of them will ask a producer if it’s okay for me to send an MP3 audition, instead of making me go to a cattle call. Usually, that’s no problem either.
If clients want me to translate or proof a script, they’ll have to pay me to do it, and payment is expected within 30 days after the invoice is received. I’m happy to record changes to the script after the initial, approved text was recorded, but not for free.
Did I lose a couple of clients because I refused to put up with their BS? Of course I did, but I was glad to get rid of them. Now here’s the kicker…
Because I was putting my foot down (ever so gently, of course), people started to respect me more.
As my self-confidence increased, their confidence in me increased as well. To my surprise I discovered that being clear about my boundaries lead to less conflict.
My rate was no longer seen as expensive, but as a sign of professionalism. These days, many clients are willing to do a lot to accommodate me, instead of the other way around.
All in all I’d say that standing up for myself has made me feel better about myself in general, and it has brought more clients to my business.
However, there’s one thing that keeps on bugging me.
Not long ago, the childhood friend I told you about in the beginning, found me on Facebook, and now he wants to connect. It’s been more than forty years since we last spoke, and I’m curious to find out how he is doing. However, I’m reluctant to honor his request.
There are two types of people who are very hard to teach.
Let me break it down for you.
The first group could care less about how the world sees them.
These people often have an exaggerated sense of self, or worse, a narcissistic personality disorder. They have a hard time registering social cues, and they’re not very open to feedback. Feedback makes them hostile and defensive because they always know better. And those who know better, don’t have an incentive to learn new things. Teaching them, is like trying to fill a cup that’s already full (of itself).
The second group is the opposite. These people care too much about how the world perceives them. They suffer from the “invisible audience phenomenon,” a sense that they’re always on stage, and that the world is watching them. Gentle feedback is often taken as harsh criticism. The fearful voice of low self-esteem tells them they might as well give up. Teaching these people is like trying to fill a bottomless cup.
Of course these are extremes, but I’m sure you know one or two people who fall into both categories. Perhaps even intimately. The origin of these behaviors has a lot to do with self-awareness. You know, that thing that is supposed to separate human beings from animals.
One way to detect the presence of self-awareness is to do the mirror test. When a dog sees his reflection in a mirror, he’ll think it’s another dog. When we see our reflection, we know we’re staring at ourselves.
If you’d let group one and two do the mirror test, here’s what you would find:
The first group looks into the mirror, and finds it irresistible. The second group can’t stand their own reflection. Group one is focused on self, and group two is (consciously or unconsciously) focused on what others might be thinking.
As a voice actor and coach, I sometimes deal with people who display various forms of narcissism and self-deprecation. Oddly enough, it’s not all bad. One thing I always keep in mind is that certain aspects of these behaviors are actually useful and necessary, if you wish to survive as a freelancer (and as a voice-over). Shall I explain?
GOOD AND BAD
Let’s start with being self-conscious. All of us have to have a sense of how we come across, and we need to be aware of how others respond to us to. How else will we learn socially acceptable behavior? It’s also good to realize that we’re far from perfect. It keeps the mind open, and our spirit humble.
Secondly, as voice-over professionals working from our home studios, we often direct our own sessions. That requires the ability to recognize when we’re missing the mark, and when we’re hitting the nail on the head. If we want to deliver our best work, we need to be good evaluators of our performance. The more self-conscious we are, the easier this is.
The narcissist has an inflated sense of self. Obviously, that’s not helpful. However, any solopreneur can benefit from a healthy dose of self-confidence. You have to believe in yourself, and in your ability to attract clients. You may have incredible talent, but if you doubt that you can deliver, you’re sabotaging yourself.
The narcissist is able to recognize the good in him or herself. People who are shy and insecure find that hard to do. If you wish to have a successful career, you have to accept that you have something special to offer. Something that is worth paying for. You don’t need to be arrogant, but it helps to be audacious!
From an acting perspective, I think it is also useful to have the ability to imagine what it’s like to be a self-absorbed jerk, as well as an insecure mouse, and anything in between. The wider your emotional range, the greater your chance to land more demanding and interesting roles.
Now, being overly self-conscious can have a paralyzing effect in everyday life, and in the recording studio. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons why some people have such a hard time sounding natural. They’re constantly over-analyzing what they’re doing, and usually not in a positive way. They’re busy thinking about how they will be perceived by others, and whether or not they can live up to certain expectations.
In a way, that microphone in front of them is like a camera. You’ve seen it happen. People are perfectly spontaneous, and they’re having a great time, until someone points a camera at them. All of a sudden they become very aware of themselves, and start acting in strange, stilted ways.
What’s really happening is this:
Without a camera pointing at them, most people focus on each other. They’re in the moment. In the flow of things. They act like no one’s watching. Naturally. As soon as a photographer or a cameraman comes in the picture, that changes. People start wondering: How does my hair look? Did I iron my shirt? Do I look fat in these clothes?
The same thing can happen in a studio. People are having a nice conversation. They’re animated and relaxed. Until the recording starts. All of a sudden the enthusiasm and the quiet confidence is gone. The voice becomes flat, and the text is not spoken but read. The narrator has become self-conscious.
In that moment, the focus on the script is replaced by the focus on self. That’s a shame, because as voice-over professionals, we get paid to let the script speak. In order to do that, we need to get out of our own way.
I remember the day that Tom Magliozzi, one of the presenters of NPR’s Car Talk, died at the age of 77. For more than 25 years, Tom and his younger brother Ray entertained millions of people every week with car repair advice and comedic banter. People who didn’t care about cars, tuned in to Car Talk, if only to hear the brothers laugh.
What made these guys such a pleasure to listen to, was the fact that they talked to one another and their guests as if there were no microphones. In fact, the Magliozzi’s would be the first ones to admit that they knew nothing about radio. All they did, was be themselves. Their long-time producer Doug Berman told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air:
“What you heard on the show was absolutely them. And when you finish the show and went to get a cup of coffee it sounded the same, you know. I mean, the topics would change, but that’s what they did. They sat down and they enjoyed themselves and they found humor in whatever was around them. And they made each other laugh and they made us laugh. So it was not an effort to be funny about anything. That’s how they approached everything.”
FORGET THE MIC
Of course there’s a difference between doing a semi-live radio show and narrating a voice-over script, but I think many of us could benefit from forgetting that there’s a microphone in front of us. Just imagine there’s a dear friend or close relative to whom you’re telling a story. There is no audience. There are no critics. You have nothing to prove.
Imagine how freeing that would be!
Imagine what that would do to the way you sound!
From time to time you might slip into old behavior, and invite that inner voice to start critiquing you again. As soon as that happens, STOP, and bring your attention back to the text. Be script-conscious, instead of self-conscious. Let the focus be on the music, and not on the musician.
Instead of beating yourself up when you make a mistake, be soft on yourself. It’s no big deal. Correct it, and move on.
Eventually, you’ll notice a shift inside. A shift from that self-disparaging voice, to a self-accepting voice, to a self-respecting voice.
“So, what do you hope to accomplish with that blog of yours,” asked one of my clients.
I had just finished a recording session, and somehow we started talking about my website.
“No offense,” said the client, “but these days, everybody has a blog. I try to read a few every once in a while to keep up with the business, and usually I’m sorry I did. Just because people are good at reading copy doesn’t mean they should write it. ‘Stick to what you know, and leave the rest to a pro.’ That’s what my father taught me.”
“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said, “but we can’t fault people for trying. They’ve heard that blogging is good for SEO. Every other colleague is doing it, so they jump on the bandwagon. The first few months they’ll write a few original posts, but when the newness wears off, it becomes a burden to find something to blog about. The five people who had been following the blog, disappear, and within three months, it goes belly up.”
“For how long have you been blogging?” my client wanted to know.
“I think I published my very first story about eight years ago. As long as I can remember I’ve been jotting things down on a piece of paper. Notes to self, mostly. I had no idea other people would be interested in what I had to say.
“So, back to my first question,” said the client. “I’m thinking of starting a company blog. That’s why I’m interested in what your goals are. Do you want to increase the number of visitors to your website? Are you trying to sell yourself? What are you aiming for?”
“First off, I have never written anything simply to increase web traffic. Any self-respecting writer sets out to write a good book, but never a bestseller. It’s true that my blog drives people to my website, but that’s just a pleasant side effect. The reason I write has to do with professionalism.
Call me idealistic, but I hope my stories will inspire people to raise the professional bar in freelancing, and in voice-overs. Secondly, I love to write. It’s a simple as that. As soon as writing becomes a chore, I’ll hang up my hat.”
“So, you’re not selling yourself?” asked the client, as if he didn’t believe me.
“I don’t like that term,” I said. “There’s too much selling in social media, and people aren’t buying it. Those who are trying to sell something usually do so with themselves in mind: ‘Look what I did! See what I have to offer!’ It’s a big, boring ego trip.
I see myself more as a tour guide. You know, the guy with the silly hat, holding up an umbrella. As a blogger, it is my job to show people something they would otherwise overlook; something unexpected. At times I also want to give them something to think about.”
“That’s very noble of you,” said the client, “but with so much information available online, do you think that’s necessary? Do we really need another blog?”
“I believe it is a matter of perspective and style, I replied. “Great bloggers talk about things people can relate to. They’re not in the business of breaking news. It’s their point of view that makes them interesting, and the way they package it. The best blogs read like a conversation. Not like a sales pitch.”
The client was scribbling some notes on the back of a script as I continued:
“I agree, a lot of information is already available online, but also a lot of misinformation. I often use my blog to separate the facts from the advertorial. I don’t claim to be objective, but I do my research. My readers know that I’m not on the payroll of some corporate sponsor, and they seem to respect me for that. I always tell them: My voice is for hire, but my opinion is not for sale. I guess that’s why most of them trust me.”
The client interrupted: “The service I am offering is very much geared toward start-ups. Many of them are trying to reinvent the wheel. What’s the main thing you run into, when you write a blog for beginners?”
“Let me correct you there,” I said. “My blog isn’t only for beginners, but I do have a lot of newbies among my regular readers. I hate to generalize, but many of them tend to have a Q and A problem.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked my client.
“Questions and Assumptions,” I answered. “They make too many assumptions, and they don’t ask enough questions. As a blogger, I like taking their assumptions apart, and I address questions I know people want to ask. Blogging is not about what I want to tell, but about what readers want to know. I use that same approach with my customers. What I want to sell is irrelevant. It’s about what they want to buy.”
“Now, tell me this,” said the client. “Voice-overs is a niche market, right? How come you have over 39 thousand subscribers, and some of your colleagues only have a few hundred?”
“Well, you have to remember that I’ve been at it for a while,” I said. “That certainly helps. For one, I’m proud that I never bribed people to subscribe to my blog. Some blogging gurus will tell you to give stuff away for free in exchange for an email address. I always wonder: are these subscribers interested in the blog or in the freebie? And what happens once you give them your gift? Will they move on to the next free thing?
I sincerely think that colleagues with only a few hundred subscribers make one big mistake: they only write for the in-crowd. They preach to the choir. Had I only written about and for voice-overs in these past eight years, I would have run out of material a long time ago. We’re a small, ruminating community. We tend to talk and write about the same things over and over again. It gets predictable.
For a blog to grow, you need to step out of your protective bubble, and find new readers and fresh content in areas that are related to your expertise, but that are different. I used the same strategy for my book Making Money In Your PJs. It’s not just a book for voice actors. It’s about freelancing in general.
Many of the examples in my book are taken from the world of voice-overs, but the advice I give applies to many solopreneurs. We all want to negotiate good rates, and we want to know how to market and grow our business. Once you start writing about these topics, your potential readership will skyrocket.”
“Interesting,” said the client. Do you happen to have a copy of your book with you?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” I said. “Would you like me to sign it for you?”
As I was signing the book, the client looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Boy, you’re subtle,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I replied, giving him my most innocent look.
“You said you were not selling anything to me, but look what you just did. I’m going to subscribe to your blog, and I’m buying your book!”
“It’s too risky, too challenging, too expensive, and you’ll be very lonely”.
That’s what people told me when I announced that I was going to become self-employed. This was many, many moons ago.
I’m sure these folks meant well, but what struck me most was the fact that these self-appointed business coaches were all working in some nine to five job, making money for someone else. They had no clue what it would be like, to be one’s own boss. The idea alone probably terrified them. I say “probably” because I’m not sure.
What happened in these conversations was something that is universally human, and universally flawed: people projecting their own life experiences, values, beliefs, fears, and attitudes onto the life of someone else. Not hindered with practical experience or specific knowledge, they’ll tell you:
“I know precisely what you mean. I know exactly how you feel. I totally get it.”
The question is: Is that really true?
UNDERSTANDING AND BEING UNDERSTOOD
When you hear a seemingly innocent phrase such as “I know how you must be feeling right now,” let me tell you what is actually going on. With a few simple words, your friend, colleague, or family member has become a mind reader, and has managed to shift the conversation away from you and onto them. Hence the prominent use of the pronoun “I.”
They have taken what you wanted to talk about, and used it as an opportunity to refocus the conversation. Perhaps not on purpose, but they did it nevertheless.
By saying “I know exactly what you mean,” people are also comparing their personal situation to your unique circumstances, as if these two are equal. That is hardly ever the case. Even when situations seem very similar, they rarely are, and people respond to them in their own way. That’s what makes us so interesting, and at times unpredictable.
When people say things like “I know exactly how you feel,” most of us don’t make a big deal about it, unless it concerns something very personal, and there’s a need to be understood. Let me give you an example.
WALKING IN SOMEONE’S SHOES
You may know that my wife has multiple sclerosis. It’s a nasty disease which manifests itself in different ways on different days. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue. Fatigue is different from being tired. It is often described as an acute lack of energy; an unusual and utterly overwhelming whole-body tiredness not relieved by sleep, which prevents a person from functioning normally.
So, when my wife told one of her friends that she was exhausted, and the friend (who doesn’t have MS) responded by saying “I know exactly how you feel,” my wife said:
“Actually, I’m glad you don’t. I would not want to wish this on anybody.”
I remember going to an event where friends and family members were educated about multiple sclerosis. To give me a sense of what it might feel like to experience MS symptoms, a facilitator put weights on my legs which affected my sense of balance.
Blurred vision is another MS symptom, so they had me wear strange goggles that made the world around me look distorted. I could not read a simple text they asked me to read. Then I had to wear thick gloves, and I was instructed to unbutton my shirt, which was totally impossible.
I still remember the frustrating feeling of helplessness as I was wearing this weird outfit. The things I had come to rely upon: my sense of balance, my eyesight, and my sense of touch, were seriously affected. I needed the help of other people to get around and get things done, and I hated losing my independence. For a moment.
Luckily, after a while I could take all these gadgets off, but I tell you: I never looked at my wife in the same way. Never again would I tell her: “I know exactly how you feel.” Even after my limited MS symptom simulation I can’t say I know what it’s like to have an incurable chronic disease. And I hope I’ll never find out.
PERCEPTION AND PROJECTION
Now, this may be an extreme example, but extremes can make things clear. As a human being it is hard not to compare and project. We constantly have to make sense of the world around us, and we use our own experiences as a frame of reference. Based on that I have a few questions for you:
• How often are you aware that your perception is based on projection?
• How often do you really know what a client means or a what friend feels?
• What would happen if you’d stop filling in the blanks based on your model of the world?
It doesn’t matter if you’re in a personal or in a professional relationship. If you are using your own experience to interpret the world, you are severely limiting yourself, and you’re not doing the other person justice. You’re not even focused on the other person because you’re too busy working things out in your own head.
Or as they say in the East: “You cannot pour tea into a cup that is already full.”
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
When I give a voice-over student a script and ask him or her to read it as if they were hired to be the narrator, I can predict what is going to happen. The student just starts reading the text. A few paragraphs later I ask them:
“How did you know to read it the way you did? How did you choose the tone, the tempo, the volume, and the accent?”
And most of the time they tell me: “I thought it would sound good this way. That’s all.”
Then I ask:
“Is this what the client wanted?”
“I have no idea,” the student answers. “It’s just a guess. How was I supposed to know?”
“Well, did you ask?” is my response.
And then the coin drops.
You can’t give a client what s/he wants to hear, if you have no clue what it is. You might think you have some idea, but that perception is based on your projection. It’s like asking a bartender to fix you a drink, and he just starts mixing something. Unless you asked to be surprised, you might not like what you are getting, let alone pay for it.
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