Nethervoice blog

Losing My Voice

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 28 Comments

At speech therapy wearing a TENS device

The facts are sobering.

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.

MORE TROUBLE

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.

POSITIVE RESULTS

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.

RECOVERY CONTINUES

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.

I hope you will do the same.

Paul ©nethervoice

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.

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Becoming A Frugal Freelancer

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Money Matters Leave a comment

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.”

BUSINESS 101

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!

Here’s what the IRS has to say about the difference between a hobby and a business: 

In order to make this determination, taxpayers should consider the following factors:

  • Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
  • Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?
  • If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?
  • Has the taxpayer changed methods of operation to improve profitability?
  • Does the taxpayer or his/her advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
  • Has the taxpayer made a profit in similar activities in the past?
  • Does the activity make a profit in some years?
  • Can the taxpayer expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?

 

The IRS presumes that an activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year.

SAVING MONEY

Healthy companies focus on two main things:

1. Increasing revenue
2. Decreasing expenses

Here’s what you should know: Curbing costs starts between your ears.

In Are Those Black Friday Deals Really Worth It?” I gave the following spending advice:

1Distinguish between a WANT and a NEED

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. 

One of my favorite sites is lifehacker. Lifehacker has a handy graphic, illustrating The Best Time to Buy Anything During the Year. You’ll see that February is great for buying cellphones and home theaters. August is best for office supplies.

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, BradsdealsWoot, 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.

Happy frugal shopping!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Would You Survive The Shark Tank?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, Money Matters 2 Comments

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.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Filling In The Blanks

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal Leave a comment

bartender“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.

“Am I making any sense?” I asked my student.

“Absolutely,” she said. And then she added:

“Believe me… I know exactly what you mean.”

“Believe me,” I answered.

“You absolutely don’t.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: via photopin (license)

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Is Your Client Driving You Crazy?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 4 Comments
David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy

The other day, one of my readers wanted to know:

“Have you ever fired a client, and why? I have one customer who is driving me nuts, but I can’t afford to lose his business.”

First of all, that’s a horrible position to be in. Many freelancers choose to run their own business because they don’t want to depend on someone or something else. Having big spenders as clients may seem fantastic, but if you’re not careful, you end up being in their pocket, and they start pulling all the shots. 

David Ogilvy, the famous advertising guru, took great care in selecting his clients. That concept alone was revolutionary. If you’re a service provider, don’t clients choose you? Isn’t that how the game is played? Not in Ogilvy’s world. 

Ogilvy and his partner would turn down about sixty clients every year, and this was one of their rules:

“Never work for a client so big you can’t afford to lose them.”

They once turned down Ford because the iconic motor company would represent half of their total billing. 

So, to get back to my reader’s question: be selective in whom you want to work with, even if you’re just starting out. Don’t put all your eggs in one or two baskets. It makes you overly dependent, and very vulnerable. If that one big client pulls out, you’re toast. 

Have I ever fired a client? I sure have, and I’m happy I did. It wasn’t all about money. In fact, in many cases money had little to do with it. 

Here are a few clients I gladly gave the sack:

THE DICTATOR

Here’s the client who thinks he owns you twenty-four seven. He always knows best; he’s overly demanding, disrespectful, and never satisfied. These people are impossible to please. The more you try, the less you succeed.

Working for dictators made me hate myself and my job. I did everything I could to avoid contact with them because it was emotionally draining. No money in the world could make up for how lousy I felt working for these bullies. 

THE VIOLATOR

Some clients act as if the rules don’t apply to them. Even with a written agreement in place, they try to bend and break it as fast as they can: “Sorry, we can’t pay you within thirty days. We’ll cut a check as soon as the end-client pays us.” 

“Did the agreement say that we have to pay you even if we don’t use your recording? Well, that’s just too bad. We have switched gears, and don’t need your voice-over anymore.”

When you continue working for a client who is not paying your bill, you are sending the message that you are not worth the fee you charge. 

THE  CHEAPSKATE 

Stay away from clients with great ideas and no budget, and the ones that try to nickel-and-dime you from the get-go. I once fired a long-time client of mine that was locked into old rates. When I increased my fees across the board, she insisted I make an exception “for old times sake.” 

While it may seem like a “nice” gesture, deals like that hold your business back. Time spent on these small-budget clients prevents you from spending that time working for a client who respects your rate. Ogilvy was right when he said:

“Only work for clients who want you to make a profit.” 

THE UNETHICAL

When thinking of your clients, ask yourself these two questions:

“Do they sell a product or service I can be proud of?”

“Will I be able to do my very best work?”

Whether you’re a copywriter, a graphic designer, or a voice-over, you will be professionally associated with a product or service you helped promote. Your reputation is always on the line.

An advertising agency I had worked with in the past, asked me to voice a commercial for one of the world’s worst weed killers. I politely declined, and they understood. My voice is for hire, but my integrity is not for sale. 

It’s up to you where you draw the line, but I would never want to be involved in something illegal, or help sell something I’m morally against. 

THE UNPROFESSIONAL

Some clients are completely unorganized and in over their heads. One day they want one thing. The next day all has changed. It’s something you find out once you start working with them. As a freelancer, you’re used to juggling many plates, but you’re not getting paid to help your clients juggle theirs. 

Sometimes clients become overly friendly. They start calling at night with some lame excuse. It turns out: they just want to talk about a personal issue, or they start gossiping about a colleague they’ve worked with. Before you know it, they’ll be asking you favors because of the perceived friendship. 

Take my word: keep things clean, and have clear boundaries. It’s painful to have to fire these clients, because you know they’ll start gossiping about you to the next professional they cling to. But if you give in because you want to be nice, they’ll suck up your time and tire you out.

THE HIDDEN MESSAGE

All the clients I just described have a few things in common: They keep you from growing your business. They drag you away from your goals. They also appear on your path as your teachers.

People who don’t respect you, are giving you a chance to learn to respect yourself.

People who distract you, are showing you the importance of being focused.

People who don’t pay you, are testing what you think of the value of your work.

People who are trying to manipulate your feelings, are helping you grow a pair. 

Now, if you are bound by a contract I’m not suggesting you break your word and fire these clients. Rather than cutting them loose, you’ve got to cut your losses, fulfill your obligation, and learn from the situation.

But should these clients contact you again for a project, respectfully decline their offer. All they would do is take the fun out of your job. And as Ogilvy said:

“Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

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Turning Resistance Into Results

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal Leave a comment

push upEvery January I see them walk in.

The men and women who told themselves: “I can do this!”

They’re sporting brand new workout clothes, and are wearing fancy gym sneakers that have yet to be broken in. Water bottles in hand, they flock to the eight o’ clock spinning class lead by Helga, a platinum blonde transplant from Germany. Her voice is as muscular as her thighs.

As the newbies adjust their exercise bikes, the regulars look at each other knowingly. We’ve seen this sad ritual many times. Give it a few weeks, and it will all be over. 

BAILING OUT

February has barely begun, and half of the new recruits have already given up. “It wasn’t really my thing” they tell their friends with a faint smile. “But at least I tried, and that’s worth something, right?”

Luckily for them, they only paid for a trial membership. It’s the ultimate cop-out for those who can’t or won’t commit. How do I know?

A few years ago, I belonged to this group of dropouts, and I’m not proud of it. But last year I made a courageous comeback, and today I feel like I’m part of the LA Fitness furniture. To me, a gym workout is the ultimate stress-busting, fat-burning, energy-boosting experience. Here’s something else I discovered along the way.

The microcosm of the gym is a powerful metaphor for the real world. In fact, there are lots of parallels between my professional life as a voice-over, and what’s happening on the gym floor. Do you think this is a stretch? Let’s talk about machines!

1. The best equipment does not guarantee results. It’s how you use it that matters.

People hurt themselves on the gym floor all the time, because they don’t know how to use the equipment. They start lifting, pushing or pulling, without adjusting the machines first.

Willful ignorance leads to lack of results and could be damaging.

This is true in so many contexts. Whether you’re a professional photographer, a graphic designer, or a musician, you need good tools to get the job done. But owning a million-dollar violin means nothing if you don’t know how to play it well. 

In our tiny voice-over bubble, we love to talk gear. Some colleagues seem to be forever searching for the Holy Grail of microphones or preamps. What they’re currently using is perfectly fine, but somehow they think that getting that shiny new mic will give them a tremendous leg up over the competition. 

In my opinion, it’s much wiser to spend your money on a coach who can help you get the most out of your equipment and your performance. But how do you know which coach is right for you? 

2. Effective coaches are role models who practice what they preach.

Let me ask you a question. While you’re at the gym, would you want to be guided by an overweight, uninterested, uninspiring coach? 

Of course not!

I’m sorry to say that many “personal trainers” at my gym just seem to phone their sessions in. There’s no enthusiasm. No encouragement. No pride in the work they do. They’re merely going through the motions, counting the hours until their shift is over. Some seem way too young and inexperienced. That’s probably because they are.

The word “mentor” means “wise advisor.” It comes from the Greek noun “mentos” meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, and passion.” A great coach or mentor embodies all these notions. Wise people are much more than an experienced source of information. They know how to apply that information with purpose and with passion. And they’re not afraid to give you a hard time and hold you accountable for your progress, or lack thereof! Here’s why:

3. Resistance makes you stronger.

Fans of the diving board know that they need the resistance it offers to jump to the right height. In the gym, resistance training increases muscle strength by making the muscles work against a weight or force.  

If you’ve ever tried to get into shape, you know that you sometimes get to a point where you run up against the limits of what you believe is possible. Your body cries out: “no more,” and your mind tells you to quit. Those moments are critical. During those times you need to push through what feels uncomfortable in order to gain strength and grow. Otherwise you’ll always remain in your comfort zone and coast.

Success doesn’t come naturally to those who are always playing it safe. 

Now, as you’re reading these words, something in your personal or professional life may seem to work against you. This leaves you with a choice. You can see these moments as threats, or as opportunities. Obstacles can become stepping stones, although you might not directly see it that way. Here’s some good news.

At certain times you don’t necessarily need to feel discomfort to know it’s time to up your game and go to a higher level. Here’s my rule of thumb (and I use this in the gym as well):

If it becomes too easy, it’s time for a new challenge, and time to raise the bar.

There’s one last thing I learned from going to the gym:

4. Use others as your inspiration, but never as the measure of your success.

It’s human nature to contrast and compare. When I first entered the gym, I was a bit intimidated by all these lean bodies pumping iron. I wondered how long it would take me to get into shape. I had no desire to look like a bodybuilder, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more muscular definition, and a lower number on the scale.

Then I realized that these guys and gals were once just like me. Over time they developed a routine that worked for them, to get into the shape they wanted to be in. They made changes in their diet and lifestyle, and they had trainers who held them accountable.

Above all, they consistently kept coming, rain or shine. They used persistence and resistance in combination with the right equipment and the best mentors.

If they could do it, I could do it.

And I’ll tell you what:

If I can do it, you can do it!

There’s only one question:

How soon are you going to start?

Or will you be walking out the door within a month?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Interested in working out? My colleague Rick Lance has published a series of “Fitness Tips from a 32 Year Fitness Novice.”
photo credit: Zac Aynsley Natural Fitness Models 1 via photopin (license)

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Do Nice People Always Finish Last?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 15 Comments

smiling girl in a princess dress“Why do clients always think they can play me?” said one of my students. Let’s call her Ella.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, first they try to nickel and dime me, and then they expect me to record a major revision of a script for free. After going above and beyond to keep them happy, they wait months and months to pay me. I’m sick of it! Who do they think I am? Some kind of doormat?”

“If anything, you’re a goody two-shoes,” I said, “and that might be part of your problem.”

“How so?” my student wanted to know.

“I’ll get to that in a moment,” I responded. “First you have to acknowledge something I had to learn the hard way.”

“And what is that?”

“It’s the fact that it’s virtually impossible to change other people. You can only change yourself. So, if you want a different response from a client, you have to change the way you respond to them. That’s the way it works in any type of relationship. And when you act differently, your environment might start to treat you differently.”

“Can you give me an example?” Ella asked intrigued.

“Sure. Here’s one thing I noticed when we started working together,” I said. “You’re a very friendly person who will go out of her way to please people. You also have a tendency to become very informal very quickly.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a kind and open person. However, you can be friendly and business-like at the same time. There’s no need to share all kinds of personal details with someone you know professionally. You work together to get a job done. You don’t have to become best buddies. In fact, I think it’s often best to keep your personal life out of it.

Because you tend to be so informal with everybody, some clients might get the impression that you’re not very professional. It’s a lot easier to push people around who don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Do you know what I mean?”

“I totally get it,” Ella said. “I probably come across as someone who is very naive and inexperienced.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, Ella, and part of this business is all about perceptions. If people perceive you to be weak in one area, they’ll take advantage of it.”

“So what do I do?” Ella asked.

“Use your secret weapon,” I said. “Use your voice!

I have noticed that your voice has a tendency to go up at the end of most sentences. You might not even be aware of it, but it sounds like you’re not very certain of yourself. Everything ends in a question. It makes you sound insecure. And if you seem insecure, clients won’t trust you. We’ve got to work on that.”

“Perhaps I am insecure,” said Ella. “I don’t have a lot of experience, and I don’t want to lose a client because he doesn’t like me.”

“Thanks for bringing that up,” I said. “Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that you are rather inclined to take things personally. Is that true?”

Ella nodded.

“That’s going to be tough in this business. Very tough. In any given week you’ll hear a lot of no’s, and very few yeses. If you take every single no as a personal rejection, you’ll be absolutely miserable. And I don’t want that to happen. You’re too talented.

Unless you completely messed up, or the quality of your recording was abysmal, it is never about you. It is all about the subjective opinion of the person casting the job. Emphasis on subjective.

Now, back to using your voice.

If you end your sentences with a period instead of with a question mark, you’ll sound a lot more confident. Period. You might not feel entirely confident, but the client doesn’t know that. You also have to work on your breathing, but that’s for another day.

Secondly, keep things strictly business. Remember, you are the expert. That’s why they’re thinking of hiring you. They’re not looking for a new friend. 

Take charge of the conversation, and -if it is a new client- explain how you usually work. Let the client know they’re in good hands. And one more thing: stop apologizing all the time. You came in seven minutes ago, and you’ve already apologized ten times for things that weren’t even your fault. Why?

“I’m sorry,” said Ella…

And then she realized what she was doing. She blushed, and said: “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“I know you’re not doing it on purpose, but it’s not doing you any favors. Did you have a Catholic upbringing?”

“No, said Ella. “I’m Jewish.”

I laughed.

“Now, let’s get back to what we were talking about. I was giving you some advice, so here’s another thing I want you to consider: only take on a job you know you can handle. Be clear about your policies and procedures, and be firm about your rates. Never negotiate a rate after the fact. Get to an agreement before you go into the studio, and confirm things in writing ahead of time. Are you following me?”

“I’m listening,” said Ella, “and it all makes sense. I just don’t know if I can come across as someone who has been doing this for years. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not. That’s not who I am.”

“I understand that” I said, “but here’s the good news:

In this business you get paid to pretend.

I just recorded a voice-over for a pharmaceutical company, and I played the part of a neurologist. The day before I worked on a guided tour for a museum, and I was cast as a historian. Who knows what they want me to be tomorrow? A mad scientist? A cartoon character? A Flying Dutchman? That’s the fun of this job! You can pretend to be anyone you want, and make some money too! The better you are at pretending, the more in-demand you’ll be as a voice-over.

If you can convince the client you mean business, you are in business.”

Ella looked at me, and I could see that my words had ignited a spark. 

“Ella, listen to me. You know that as soon as you get a script that reads like it’s been written for you, you’ll knock it out of the park, right? In other words: it’s not even a matter of being qualified or not. It’s a matter of you believing in yourself. Don’t you agree?

A wise teacher once said: You can pretend anything, and master it.

So, let’s start this coaching session by “pretending” you know the ropes, okay? We’ll do a mock conversation with a potential customer. I’ll be the obnoxious client, and you’ll be the brilliant voice talent. It is your job to convince me that you are the right person for the job. 

Are you game?”

Ella smiled.

“As in voice acting, you might need a few takes before you hit the nail on the head, but by the time we’re done, you’ll know how to respond like a pro, and you’ll never be played again.

How does that sound?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Wanderin’ free | Part of your world via photopin (license)

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Stop Selling Yourself Short

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 10 Comments

Famous Dave’s Signature Spicy Pickle SpearsA while ago it happened again.

One of my contacts sent me the following message:

“Paul, my client would like you to voice two animations. Both advertise the same product on the same platform, but each one appeals to a different audience. Both scripts are no longer than 125 words. Normally we’d pay you €250 per video, but the client was wondering if you’d record both videos for €250. After all, these things are very short, and this is for the same product on the same platform. Another option would be to offer the client a $150 discount. Let me know how you’d like to proceed.”

What do you think I should do? Should I voice these two videos for €250 or $350? Should I charge the full €500, or even more?

Well, the answer depends on your pricing strategy, and on how you position yourself in the market place.

Let me explain.

A TALE OF TWO PICKLES

In front of me I have two 24 ounce jars filled with pickle spears. One is a store brand retailing for about two dollars. The other is a jar of Famous Dave’s Signature Spicy Pickle Spears, selling for about five bucks. Both jars contain the same basic ingredient: crunchy cucumbers immersed in an acidic solution.

Why would people pay five dollars instead of two, for ten to twelve pickles, you may ask. The answer is simple. Dave’s spears are distinctly different. His spicy cucumbers tingle your tongue with a signature blend of sweet and heat. They are addictively delicious.

Last weekend I was entertaining guests, and I served Dave’s pickles without telling them. I just put them on a plate. After the first guest took a bite his whole face lit up and he said: “Wow, where did you get these pickles? They are incredible!” Two minutes later everyone in the room was crunching away, and wanted to know where they could buy these special spears.

Yesterday I talked to one of my friends who was with us that evening, and he said: “I had so much fun last weekend. And by the way… those pickles were amazing!”

So, let me ask you this:

Would you rather be an ordinary pickle, or one of Famous Dave’s Spicy Spears?

MAKE A CHOICE

Are you a dime a dozen, or do you have something unique to offer? If you fall into the last category, in what way do you distinguish yourself, and how do you convey that to your clients? You see, believing that you’re special doesn’t get you anywhere. You need to prove it.

Famous Dave is a smart guy. He knows he’s got something awesome going, and that’s why he’s not competing on price. He is competing on added value. Added value can be defined as “an improvement or addition to a product or service that makes it worth more.”

As a voice-over, you add value to a video, a computer game, an ad campaign, an e-Learning program, a bestseller, or a major brand. The right voice can bring credibility and authenticity to a message. That alone can be worth millions of dollars, and advertising agencies know it.

You will never see those millions, but I happen to think that you deserve to be well compensated for your contribution. That will only happen if and when YOU value what you have to offer in terms of your expertise, and your experience.

PRICE LIKE A PRO

One way to convince a client that what you’re offering is valuable, is by using the link between price and professionalism. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Your rate is more than a number. It is a powerful statement. It says: This is what I believe I’m worth. It is also a way to prequalify your clients.

My rate sheet tells them: I take my job seriously. Lowballers better stay away. Quality clients are welcome. I will treat you with respect, and I will do the best job I can.

Like Famous Dave, I know that what I have to offer is different. My English has a European quality that adds a special flavor to a script. Those who like that flavor have no reason to haggle.

WHY COMPROMISE?

Now, let’s discuss that discount I talked about in the beginning of this blog post. Here’s my take on reducing a fee.

1. Discounts are for people who compete on price only, and for clients for whom price is the determining factor.

Here’s a hint: price is rarely the sole determining factor in a purchasing decision.

If clients would buy based on price alone, it would be perfectly fine to take months to send them a poorly made product, right? They wouldn’t dare to complain because you were the cheapest.

2. But Paul, didn’t the client say that these two jobs combined would be no more than 250 words? Why not give in a little?

Well, there are two hidden assumptions behind that argument. One: This job is something I could record in a heartbeat. Two: Clients pay me for my time. Both assumptions are false.

We all know that most clients have no idea how long it takes to deliver any length of finished audio. Secondly, I don’t charge clients for my time. They pay for my talent, my skills, and for my experience. They pay me for the added value I bring to their production.

3. If I were an on-camera actor, and I’d be featured in two videos targeting different audiences, wouldn’t I get paid in full for both? Then why should a voice actor accept a huge pay cut? Does that make any sense? Just because we’re invisible, doesn’t mean people should take advantage of us.

A MATTER OF TRUST

4. The client promised that both videos would be for the same platform, but how can I trust a claim made by someone I’ve never worked with? Clients will tell you anything to bring your price down. What guarantees do I have that these two videos won’t end up on different platforms? Who’s going to check that?

5. In the beginning of a relationship with a new client you set the parameters. If you accept a certain fee for whatever reason, that becomes your going rate. Don’t blame it on the client. That’s what you’ve trained them to expect.

So, the next time you ask for more money, don’t be surprised if your client comes back with: “But last week you did a similar job for X amount of dollars. Why should we pay you a penny extra?” And you know what? They’re right!

6. If you accept doing two jobs for the price of one (or even less), you’ve just stabbed your colleagues in the back. We are not independent contractors. We’re interdependent contractors. We are connected. A going rate is nothing but the prevailing market price. Every individual pricing decision -big or small- impacts that market. Before you know it, you’re contributing to a downward trend.

RATE REDUCTION

Having said that, here’s where I’m willing to give a discount:

A. When a client commits to a long-term working relationship, and a high volume of jobs.

B. As an incentive for a client to pay in full upon receipt of the invoice.

Some colleagues are in the bad habit of giving discounts to all charities, but I make that determination on a case-by-case basis. More about voice-overs and charities in my article “Work For Free For Charity?

STICK TO YOUR GUNS

Listen carefully. You don’t have to agree with me when it comes to discounts. In fact, you don’t have to agree with anything I’m saying in this blog. It’s just my opinion. But if you haven’t thought about your value, your pricing, and about your position on discounts, simple questions like the one from my contact can get you in a pickle.

I decided to charge full price for those two animations, and I told my contact why. Taking a stance means taking a risk, and I ended up losing the animation job to a colleague who was willing to do it for less. But the story doesn’t end there.

Two weeks later my contact called me again. Working with the cheaper voice-over had left a bitter taste in the mouth of the client, and they wanted me to step in.

“At full price?,” I asked.

“At full price,” he said.

Being cheap often costs more, but some people have to learn that lesson the hard way. Don’t be one of them.

That day I went to the post office to send my contact a small thank you gift.

“Does this parcel contain anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous, including lithium batteries and perfume?” the woman behind the counter wanted to know.

“Yes it does,” I said.

“What’s in it?” she asked.

“It’s a jar of Famous Dave’s Signature Spicy Pickle Spears!”

“Oh, those are the best,” she said. “Not cheap, but so worth it!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please subscribe &retweet!

PPS The word ‘pickle‘ comes from the Dutch word ‘pekel,’ meaning ‘something piquant,’ and originally referred to a spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative (source.) You should know that I am in no way compensated to promote Famous Dave’s delicious pickles.

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Celia Siegel’s Voiceover Achiever

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Book, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 6 Comments

Celia Siegel Voiceover Achiever“Brand Your VO Career. Change Your Life.”

That’s the somewhat ostentatious subtitle of Celia Siegel’s book Voiceover Achiever. It’s an illustrated, conversationally written step-by-step guide to branding your voice-over business, by one of the most amiable experts in our industry.

Will your life change after reading this book? It depends on how you’d answer the following question:

Can you get slim from reading about weight loss?

Or, to put it differently:

Are you an active, or a passive reader?

We all know people (perhaps intimately) who have tons of self-help books in their Billy bookcases that just collect dust. I call them shelf-help books, because that’s what they are. They’re the useless property of passive readers who are all talk and no action. In my estimation, about eighty percent of non-fiction fans fall into this category.

Active readers, on the other hand, absorb and embrace the information like a sponge. They make notes, they do the exercises, and start applying what they’ve learned immediately, and consistently. If that’s you, Celia’s book has tremendous potential to help you transform your business, and even your life. Whether you’re a voice-over, or otherwise self-employed.

And here’s the remarkable thing: Celia does it all in under 130 colorful pages, many of which feature large illustrations.

WHO NEEDS BRANDING?

But why buy a book about branding? I assume you have talent, training, equipment, connections, and even some business skills. You run a small shop. You’re not a company like Coca-Cola or Apple. Do you really need to boil down your essence into some smart slogan and a logo? Celia Siegel:

“The big question in our industry used to be: Do you have a beautiful voice? Do you know how to act? Those are still important. But they’re no longer enough. These days the question is: Are you brandable?”

Here’s the gist of it: In a cacophony of voices, you want to be found and heard. You want to stand out. You want to distinguish yourself from the rest by highlighting what makes you different, and more desirable. That’s what intelligent branding does. And since you personify the service you’re offering, you’ve got to start thinking of yourself as a brand, by -in Celia’s words: “being loud and proud about who you really are.”

That sounds great, but here’s the not so easy part. A brand is not something you can bottle and sell at a supermarket. It lives in people’s minds. A brand is the result of many implicit and explicit associations and perceptions of a product, a service, a person, or a company. It’s what turned brown, carbonized sugar water into a billion dollar business, and Oprah Winfrey into one of the most influential and wealthy people on this planet.

Now, here’s what you need to ask yourself: How can you create and control these associations that set you apart, and help your business perform better? That’s precisely what Celia Siegel does for a living, and her book is loaded with examples of voice talent whose niche she’s helped define.

Chapter by chapter, Voiceover Achiever takes you through the process she uses with her clients, helping you identify what makes you unique, and showing you how to tell the story of your brand through language, visuals, and different media. If this sounds like a daunting task, think again. Celia writes the way she speaks. She keeps it light and playful. She clearly knows her stuff, but she’s never stuffy, and at no point does she come across as a know-it-all talking down to noobs.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?

As you can tell, this is not a boring intro into branding. It is a book about Celia, Celia’s business, and Celia’s clients. That’s its strength, and its weakness. Examples from the same talent are reused throughout the book, and at times I got the impression that I was reading a long testimonial. All those testimonials are from voice-overs, and not from agents, or from people who are searching for voices for their projects.

I’m glad the people who hired Celia are happy with their new image, but what about the professionals they wish to reach? What’s their feedback? I want to know to what extent business has increased after Celia’s intervention, and how much can be attributed to branding.

Here’s another question: How much are rates part of branding? If we’re in the business of controlling associations and perceptions, the price of a product or service definitely influences how it is perceived. That’s why some people prefer a Rolex over a Seiko, even though the much cheaper Seikos are just as good at keeping time. There’s no mention of rates in Siegel’s book.

A MATTER OF IMAGE

Some of the images in Voiceover Achiever feel like fillers, just as the twelve empty pages of Brand Journal in the back of the book make it look more substantial than it is. I wish there had been more content, instead of pictures of lollipops, unicorns, and bicycles that seem to have come out of a kids magazine.

While I appreciate the examples of websites that have had the signature Siegel makeover, I would have loved to see a before and after, revealing some of the no-no’s of branding. Celia also doesn’t mention A/B testing and other methods as a way to find out what clients most respond to.

Teaming up with a “Brand Buddy” as suggested by Siegel (a fellow vo-talent embarking on his or her own branding journey), might not be ideal. As a sounding board, a colleague could be just as clueless as to what works and what doesn’t as you are. If, on the other hand, you need someone to hold you accountable and keep you on track, a Buddy could be very helpful. 

CULTURAL DIVIDE

As a European living and working in the U.S., I’d like to know to what extent branding is context dependent, meaning that a different market may require a different message. In the Netherlands where I was born and raised, humility is considered a virtue, and superlatives frequently found on American websites, are often seen as bragging and off-putting.

I also don’t agree with some of the advice Celia’s giving. She recommends using a personal Facebook profile for business purposes, and I do not. It’s actually against the Facebook Terms of Service (for more about that, click here).

Siegel writes about website design:

“If you’re doing it yourself, I suggest a one-page, endless-scroll website, the simpler the better.”

From an SEO-perspective, websites that use pagination (spreading content over a number of pages) do much better because Google Analytics and other sites measuring statistics count page clicks. Visitors to infinite scroll sites don’t click. Clicking lowers the bounce rate, and increases engagement.

MAKING SOME NOISE

When it comes to spreading the message, I agree with Celia: You have to remind people that you exist. If you want to stand out, it’s no enough to be outstanding. That’s where her book moves from branding to marketing. Siegel explores social media such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. She lists the benefits of using stickers, branded E-cards, banners, newsletters, and networking. However, there’s no mention of blogs, podcasts, or videos. That’s a big omission in a time where YouTube has become the second largest search engine, and blogs such as this one are huge drivers of website traffic.

I also would have liked to see a few paragraphs devoted to brand protection. Your brand is your intellectual capital, and national and international trade mark registration should at least be discussed. At the same time it’s important that you don’t infringe on someone else’s intellectual property by using names, tag lines, or images that are already in use by existing brands. It could cost you dearly (more on that when you click here).

Last but not least, instead of empty Branding Journal pages, I would have loved a list of recommended resources such as graphic designers, website developers, copywriters, copy editors, SEO-specialists, illustrators, social media experts, and other people who can help you tell your story, and spread your message.

SUMMING UP

Voiceover Achiever covers a vital aspect of our business that, until now, has not been written about in much detail. As such it is a welcome and wonderful addition to the growing list of books about the voice-over industry (click here for a list of other books). Better still, anyone running a freelance business can benefit from Celia’s experience and expertise. However, please keep the following in mind:

No amount of clever branding can cover up a bad product or poor service. It may take years to build a reputation, and it can be destroyed in a matter of minutes.

Before you buy this book (and I really hope you do), ask yourself:

Am I an active or a passive reader?

Here’s the bottom line:

This is not a must-read book.

It’s a must-DO book.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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A Quick Course In Blogging & How To Get Thousands Of Subscribers

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Freelancing, Internet, Journalism & Media, Promotion, Social Media 5 Comments

Paul Strikwerda = OutspokenAs you’re reading these words, I’m at VO Atlanta, the largest gathering of voice talent in the world. When people spot me on the conference floor, one of the first things they usually say is:

“Hey, are you Paul from the Nethervoice blog? I thought I’d recognize you!”

Then we’ll chat for a few moments, and inevitably, people start asking me questions about my blog. Of course I love talking about the stories I write, and I’m happy to give aspiring bloggers some pointers.

Now, to save some time I’ve decided to answer some Frequently Asked Questions, and that way you don’t have to take any notes. So, here’s question number one:

Should every (freelance) business have a blog? 

That’s a tough one to answer. I can certainly tell you why I blog, and then you should decide for yourself if blogging could be beneficial to your business.

Here’s the thing.

You could own the best store in town, but if nobody knows who you are and where to find you, you’re not going to attract any customers. So, you need to do something to get people in the door. Once your customers have found you, you have to gain their trust. Nobody likes to do business with people they don’t trust. 

My blog does a number of things. It brings thousands of people to my website every month. That’s a big deal. It means that out of all the voice-overs sites they could have gone to, they go to Nethervoice.com, and they stay there for a while. 

Why do they do that? Because they find something of value that makes them come back again and again. That “something” happens to be my blog. And when they read that blog, they get to know me, and they learn about my take on the business I’m in. It’s a way for me to position myself in the voice-over market place as someone who knows a thing or two about my line of work. This builds trust.

I call this approach “under the radar marketing.” What do I mean by that? Well, I’m not putting up ads that say: 

“Better call Paul.

He’s the best!

If you need an international voice, Paul is your man!” 

People have become allergic to this kind of in your face, self-congratulatory marketing.

Instead, I write reviews, I give advice, and I tell stories. Most people hate ads, but they love a good story!

Does this approach work for everybody? Absolutely not. I happen to love writing. I’ve been doing it for most of my life. If you don’t like to write, then a blog is not for you. Perhaps you should do a weekly podcast. Others love making videos, or they put out a picture diary on Instagram. 

The important thing is to do something that excites you, and that fits you. People can sense whether or not your heart is in it.

How do you become a successful blogger?

Before I answer that question, I’d have to answer another question. How do you define success? That’s not only important for blogging, but for any area in your life. Success is one of those tricky words. We think we know what we’re talking about, but we all have our own definition.

Personally, I like Deepak Chopra’s definition:

“Success is the continued expansion of happiness, and the progressive realization of worthy goals”

The next questions would then be: What makes you happy, and what are worthy goals? 

Money? Fame? Influence?

For some bloggers, success means having two hundred followers. Others want two hundred thousand. Some bloggers look at how much money their blog is making them. My blog makes me happy because it enables me to connect with people from all over the world. Clients and colleagues. And when they tell me: “What you’ve written really helped me today,” that is a success. That makes me happy. 

When people write to me and say: “I don’t agree with you, but you really made look at some things in a different way,” that too is a success. 

Now, if I would tell you that numbers don’t matter, I would be lying. I am proud that I now have over thirty-nine thousand subscribers. For some bloggers that’s nothing, but I look at it in the context of our small voice-over community. 

If you believe that you have something that’s worthwhile sharing, you want to share it with as many people as possible. So, 39K is a nice start!

Now, back to the question. How do you become a successful blogger?

Three words: Content, Personality, and Promotion.

We all lead very busy lives. Every week I ask people to take a few minutes out of their day, and spend those minutes with me. They will only do that if they feel I have something to offer that is valuable and relevant.

My blog is a free service. It’s not a sales pitch, and I think my readers get that, and appreciate that. But there’s something else that I think makes it work. 

If you want to appeal to a wide audience, you have to have a unique point of view.

Why do people watch the Late Show with Stephen Colbert? It’s not because he rehashes dry facts from the paper. It’s because he’s Stephen Colbert.

Another reason why my blog has become a success is because I know a little bit about spreading my message. And thankfully, my readers are my best promoters. Without them, I would make as much noise as one hand clapping in a soundproof room. 

What should a blogger write about? 

If you don’t mind, I have to answer that question with a few more questions.

1. Who is your audience?

2. What are they interested in? What are they hungry for?

3. What do you have to offer that distinguishes you from other bloggers?

One of the things I like to do is to write about topics that are timely, and make them relatively timeless. News is outdated the moment it is published. Analysis lasts much longer.

If you want to give your content more staying power, I suggest you use specific examples to make a general point. For example…

Last year, I wrote about World Voice Day, an international event held every year on April 16th. I used it as an opportunity to write about vocal health. In the past I have written about the Voice Arts Awards. I used that story to talk about the pros and cons of competitions. I wrote about Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson who was fired after physically and verbally abusing a producer. I used his story to identify seven traits of successful colleagues, and the ways they treat the people they work with.

What things should you avoid as a blogger, and what are things you should absolutely do?

Here are a couple of dos and don’ts. Let’s start with a few don’ts.

1. Do not oversell yourself. People love to buy but they hate being sold. A blog is about offering value for free, and about creating a connection. Once people start trusting you, they will start trusting your product, especially if you happen to be your product.

If you wish to increase sales, don’t make it about selling.

2. If you want to highlight what you have to offer, don’t make it all about you. Show people what you’re made of, but avoid the ME, ME, ME-stories. Focus on your readers.

Here are a few do’s:

3. Educate without lecturing. Come across as an expert, but not as a know-it-all. The most compelling way to pack information is to make it fun and light. Make your blog conversational, as if you’re talking to one reader who is sitting across the table from you. Use stories to make a point. 

4. Always do your research. Make it easy for your readers to find and check your sources. If you want people to look at you as a reliable source of information, don’t spread rumors or make claims you cannot back up. It may take you years to get a decent following. It takes one stupid gaffe to lose your tribe.

Give your readers an opportunity to go one level deeper by giving them links to sources and resources. It will enhance your credibility.

5. Care about your readers, but don’t care about their opinions. If you feel like stirring the pot, then do it. Push that envelope. If you want to bring about change, you have to start pissing people off. Make a few folks uncomfortable. But be prepared to live with the consequences. 

I once wrote a blog post about podcasting that didn’t go over so well with the podcasting community. People started calling me all kinds of nasty names, and I had to change my comments policy because of it.

I also rubbed a few readers the wrong way by giving them five reasons why they should never become a voice-over. With over 10 thousand views, it became the most widely read story I ever wrote. 

How much time does blogging take? 

Some stories come easier than others. On average I’d say I spend at least one day every week on my blog, but usually more. This includes prep time, writing, rewriting, and publishing. It also includes how long it takes me to respond to your comments, tweets, Facebook & LinkedIn messages, and emails. 

I also spend a considerable amount of time repurposing content. I turn some of my blog posts into booklets, and I turn quotes from my blog into pictures that I repost on social media. My book “Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for Voice-Overs and other Solopreneurs” is largely based on stories I wrote for this blog.

Can blogging really increase business? 

Absolutely, and this brings me back to the beginning. People don’t do business with someone they don’t know and can’t find. Years ago I was at a voice-over conference, and I did a presentation. At the beginning I asked people how they had heard about me. No one said:

“Because you’re on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Google+.”

Most of them said: “We know you because we read your blog every week.”

Now, you might say: “These people are your colleagues. Not your clients.” Well, I happen to get a lot of business through referrals from colleagues. But my blog is also read by agents, on-camera actors, producers, audio engineers, and other freelancers. 

What many people don’t realize is that I’m also a voice-over coach. Most of my students come to me because they’ve read my blog and/or my book.

So, in all modesty I can say that my blog did put me on the map. People visit my website because of it. They don’t go to a voice casting site or my Facebook page to find me. They come directly to me, and I can deal with them on my turf, and on my terms. To me, that’s huge!

How did your blog get over 39,000 subscribers?

Let me tell you: it didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of a lot of calculated small steps, and the support of my readers.

If you want to have that kind of success, the bigger question really is: Why would people come to your website? Why would they want to spend some of their limited time with you, week in, week out?

Here’s the answer:

You have to offer them something of value that is relevant to what they’re doing and thinking, and you have to present your content in a way that’s easy on the eyes. 

People also read blogs to find out where someone stands. My most opinionated pieces are the usually biggest hits. People like controversy, and a good rant. As a blogger I have made many friends, and also a few enemies. 

In summary: content, relevance, value, personality, and a pleasant format is what brings people to a blog.

But there’s even more to it.

If I were to write for the VO-community only, I would never have gotten where I am today. If you wish to be successful, you have to widen your reach. How do you do that? Start by asking yourself:

What greater community am I a part of?

This is what I came up with:

– Actors & artists

– The self-employed

– The underemployed

– Freelancers

– Solopreneurs

– Small business owners

As a narrator and voice actor, I’m also in touch with:

– Linguists & translators

– Sound engineers

– Bloggers

– Writers

– e-Learning specialists

– Advertisers & Social Media specialists

– People in the entertainment industry

Looking at this list, I had an idea: What if I were to write a blog that would be of interest to all of these groups? That way, I could use the angle of the voice-over industry as an example of a much greater picture. This really brings us back to one of my most important content rules:

If you want to appeal to a wide audience, you have to have a unique point of view.

Take fellow-freelancers for instance. They run into the same problems as I do as a voice-over professional:

• How do you put a price on your product?

• How do you handle challenging clients?

• How do you advertise your services?

• How do you overcome fear of failure?

• Where do you find new business?

Those are some of the things I write about every week.

Using Technology

Last but not least, you have to use technology to spread the word. My publishing platform is WordPress, and I let some of the WordPress plugins do part of the work for me.

A few tips: 

1. I optimize my blog for search engines, using the All in One SEO Pack plugin. This allows me to enter a title, a short description of the topic, and keywords to the blog. 

2. On the day my blog is posted to my website, I add it to relevant Facebook groups, such as Voice-Over Pros. I try not to post the blog to all groups at once.

3. I add it to relevant LinkedIn groups, to Google+, my Tumblr site. I add it to StumbleUpon and Reddit. Some of that is automated via the JetPack plugin. I usually write special Twitter links with shortened url’s. 

4. I make it easy for people to subscribe to my blog. Some bloggers offer an incentive to get people to subscribe. It’s usually a free book or link to a video. I don’t do that, but I’ve heard it works well. 

5. I encourage people to add my blog to Feedly, a content curator.

6. People can search for blog content by typing in keywords, or by category. 

7. I have a list of the most popular posts, and a list of the most recent posts.

8. I offer them related posts. That way they stay on my site a bit longer. For this I use the Related Posts by Zemanta plugin.

9. I encourage my readers to share my stories with friends and colleagues, and people do.

10. I reward interaction. I do my best to thank every commentator and people who share my content. I believe in the power of PR: positive reinforcement. First-time commentators get an automated thank you note, via the Thank Me Later plugin.

All these small steps combined create a nice wave of publicity, and it’s such a joy to ride that wave with you!

Thank you so much for your comments, and for your continued support. It means more to me than I’ll ever be able to put into words.

If you happen to be at VO Atlanta for the next few days, I’d love to meet you in person!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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PPS I’ll be at the entire conference, and below are the events I am scheduled to participate in:

Friday, March 2, 2018, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM: I’m on a panel about The Future of Voiceover Casting, moderated by the inimitable and amicable J. Michael Collins.

Friday, March 2, 2018, 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM: I’ll be conducting an X-Session named “Six Steps To Turning Your VO-Business Around.”

Saturday, March 3, 2018, 3:15 PM–4:15 PM: I will do a presentation entitled “The Inner Game of Voice-Over.”

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