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It’s the story of how I got from doing okay, to doing quite alright, professionally speaking.
Almost every week I get emails from readers, asking me to reveal the big secret to my so-called success.
Why “so-called success”?
Well, everything is perception, and perception is everything. We all define success in different ways.
Before I tell you about this secret, you should probably know a bit more about me.
As a freelancer, I work in a highly competitive and increasingly crowded field: I’m a voice-over. I talk for a living. The other day I recorded an audio tour of a gorgeous area in the North of France. Today I’m pretending to be a medical doctor, telling physicians about the side effects of a new cancer drug. It’s a fun job with many pros and cons.
As a player in the new gig economy I have a lot of freedom, no benefits, and very little protection. Weeks of underemployment are usually followed by a crazy busy period where I’m scrambling to finish every project I was hired to do on schedule. It’s feast or famine.
A voice actor’s income can vary tremendously. Some twenty-second commercials bring in thousands of dollars, particularly if you’re an A-list celebrity, which I’m not. An hour of e-Learning or audio book narration may generate a few hundred bucks (before expenses and taxes). Most clients come and go. Very few stick around.
Although my work is not physically demanding, sitting still in a small, dark studio behind a microphone for hours and hours, isn’t exactly healthy. It’s also easy to feel socially isolated because my colleagues are all sitting in small, dark studios in different parts of the world. And I’ll be honest: at times the stress of being out of a job as soon as a project ends, can get to you. Work fluctuates, but bills keep coming.
Even though I think I’m experienced and highly qualified, most of my days are dominated by the search for new clients, and by auditions. Every audition is a crapshoot. Like most of my colleagues, I try to read between the lines of vague specs and scripts, attempting to second-guess what the invisible client is hoping to hear. And most days I’m wrong, and someone else ends up getting the gig.
Now, in spite of this sad story, I love what I do for a living, and I don’t think there’s anything else I’d rather do, career-wise. I’m not a good candidate for a 9 to 5 job. I can’t stand bosses who have risen to the level of their incompetence. I’ve had too many of them. I wouldn’t want to waste hours a day being stuck in rush hour traffic, just to make some corporation happy. I rejoice in the fact that I don’t have to go to endless staff meetings or mandated office parties. Been there. Done that.
My accountant is also pleased because every year I make more money than the year before. There’s still no Lamborghini parked in my driveway, but I can live with that. And every time I book a new job, I realize that there are probably hundreds of hopefuls who are trying to figure out why the client picked that silly Dutch American with the European accent over them.
I know… It baffles me too!
Taking all of that into account, how did I get from doing okay to doing quite alright?
Do I use a special microphone that turns my vocal folds into the Voice of G-d?
Are eager talent agents fighting to add me to their roster?
Am I friends with the movers and shakers of the voice-over industry?
I have to disappoint you. It has very little to do with all of the above.
Sure, I use first-rate recording equipment. I have a number of great agents and a nice network of connections. But the thing that has made a real difference in my career is not something you can buy, and it has nothing to do with other people. So, what is it?
It is a strong belief in the Law of Cause and Effect. The mechanism of action and reaction. Specifically, my preference to rather be at the cause-side of the equation, than at the effect. It boils down to this:
I see myself as the prime instigator of change in my life. Change through choice.
I choose to be proactive (at cause) instead of reactive (at the effect). It’s the difference between sitting in the driver’s seat, and being a passenger. I like to hold the wheel and set the course.
People who share this belief are go-getters. They take the initiative. They take responsibility.
People who prefer to be passengers are usually more passive. They tend to be finger pointers and complainers, who often see themselves as victims. They’ll sue McDonald’s for making them fat, or for serving coffee that’s too hot.
Here’s a question you can ask to determine where someone stands:
“Do you like to let things happen, or make them happen?”
Of course I know we’re not omnipotent, and that certain things are beyond our grasp and control. My attitude only applies to the things I feel I can actually influence, and the person I can influence the easiest is… me.
I control what I put in my body, I control the size of my portions, and I decide how much I exercise. I don’t blame the fast food industry for my expanding waistline. To bring it back to my profession: I don’t blame online casting sites when my voice-over career isn’t where I want it to be. Instead I ask myself what I can do to increase my skill level, to promote my services, and to attract more clients.
Being “at cause” means being accountable for taking or not taking the necessary steps to achieve a specific goal.
That’s why as a voice-over coach I never guarantee results. I tell my students:
“As your mentor I don’t have magical powers that will result in you booking jobs. I will give you tools, but it is up to you to use those tools effectively and appropriately. You are responsible for your own results.”
On a superficial level my proactive philosophy may seem a no-brainer, but it’s not. It is a lot easier to blame and complain, than to take fate into your own hands.
Being “at cause” means sticking your neck out. Taking risks. Doing the hard work. Making tough decisions. Going against the grain.
It’s not an easy way out. Quite often, it’s an uneasy way in.
The moment I decided to take charge of my career and be “at cause,” was a turning point in my life. The effects of that decision have brought me to where I am today. From being a spectator, to being an instigator. From doing okay, to doing quite alright.
And you know what?
You can apply this principle in any area, whether personal or professional.
Now, if you’re still with me, you have noticed that this wasn’t the shortest blog post ever, and I apologize.
I guess I could have condensed my message into three words:
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
Be sweet. Please retweet!
PS Last week, this blog reached 39K subscribers. I am beyond thrilled! If you enjoy my musings, the best compliment you could pay me is by pointing others to these pages. Thank you!
Can you believe the stuff people put on t-shirts these days?
This morning, one of the guys who looks like he lives in the gym I go to, had this slogan printed all over his colossal chest:
“If it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.”
What kind of message is that? It’s along the same lines as “No pain, no gain.”
Do people actually believe that stuff?
You see, I have the exact opposite experience. When I’m doing things right, everything seems to flow naturally, and nothing is hard or painful. Granted, it has taken some hard work to get to that point, but when I’m in the zone, things are surprisingly easy.
If you happen to share that experience, take it as a sign that in certain areas of your life you may have reached a level of what experts refer to as “unconscious competence.” You’re not even aware that you’ve become pretty good at what you’re doing. It feels like driving a car. In the beginning it was frustratingly complicated. Now, you don’t even have to think about it.
“So what do you find hard in your business?” one of my workout buddies wanted to know, as we were doing our exercise routine. “You’re a voice-over, right?”
He was not the one wearing that silly t-shirt, by the way.
“At the risk of sounding brash,” I said, “it’s not so much the work I find hard, but the people I have to deal with every now and then. Particularly the people who think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe it’s my age, but there are at least three things I can’t stand:
Ignorance, pretentiousness, and a sense of entitlement. Especially if all these qualities reside within one person.”
“We must be working with the same people then,” laughed my friend, as he was programming his treadmill. “I’m a professional photographer, and you wouldn’t believe how many people think they can do what I do without having a clue.”
“That’s the trouble with ignorance,” I said. “People don’t know what they don’t know, but it doesn’t stop them, does it?”
“Agreed,” said my buddy, “but here’s what I don’t get. Everyone understands that playing the violin is not something you can learn overnight. However, every ambitious idiot with a camera believes he’s the next Annie Leibovitz. It ticks me off.”
I wanted to tell him that I saw the same thing in my line of work. Give a monkey a microphone, and he thinks he can be the next Tom Kenny.
“Ignorance isn’t always bliss,” I said, as I increased the speed on my treadmill. “Usually, ignorance is a pain in the neck, and I find it very challenging to teach ignorant people who think they know it all. I mean, if they supposedly know what they are doing, why do they want me to be their coach? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I have no problem with beginners who come to me, and who are aware that they have a lot to learn,” said my photographer-friend. “Everything you teach them is new and exciting. I admire kids with an open mind. They remind me of the time I got started. That’s why I love being a mentor.”
He wiped the sweat from his forehead, and said: “Is it just me, or are today’s kids a bit full of themselves?”
“Quite possibly,” I responded. “Parents are quick to praise, and hesitate to criticize, so as not to damage the delicate self-esteem of their offspring. I’m all for raising confident kids, as long as they know their strengths and their limitations. In my class they’d never get a trophy, just for showing up.”
I took a sip of water, and continued:
“Now, there’s another type of ignorance I’m allergic to.”
“What might that be?” asked my friend, as he was walking uphill on the exercise equipment.
“It’s the lazy type of ignorance. You know… quasi-ignorant people who are looking for a big, fat, silver platter. I just got an email from someone who asked to pick my brain about casting sites and voice-over rates. I politely suggested she do a Google search first.
“What was her response?” asked my friend.
“Oh, I never heard back from her,” I said. “But on Facebook she told all her fans that I was the most unhelpful person in the voice-over community. To be honest, she didn’t use the word “person,” but the term she used starts with a “p” and it rhymes with chick.
“Some people think I’m rather obnoxious,” said my buddy, “just because I refuse to give them the answers they are fishing for. Of course I want to help, but I tell my kids: ‘You won’t learn anything as long as I spoon-feed it to you. The things you discover yourself tend to stick much better.’
I want my students to make an effort. I want them to fail, and I want them to overcome the biggest challenges. Otherwise they’ll attach no value to what they have learned, and they’ll have no respect for the business.
There’s no gratification in arriving on the top of a mountain in a helicopter. But when you start at the bottom and climb your way up, the journey itself becomes meaningful. And when you’ve finally reached that peak, you feel on top of the world!”
“Are you sure you’re a photographer?” I asked. “That’s a darn good metaphor you just used. I might steal that one for my blog.”
“You go right ahead,” he said. “I used to do a bit of mountain climbing when I was younger. I have the pictures to prove it. And a few scars. But what about you? Are you a climber?”
“Oh no, I’m from The Netherlands,” I answered. “There are no mountains in our tiny Kingdom below sea level. Holland is as flat as a pancake.”
“In that case, I have the perfect exercise for you,” said my buddy, as he pointed to the StairMaster.
“I believe this baby has your name on it,” he smiled. “Come on! This thing is the perfect way to get nowhere fast. Try it.”
Reluctantly, I climbed onto the steps, and started my ascend into nothingness.
“I hope it’s not a metaphor for my career,” I said, gasping for air. “This is really hard!”
“Well, you know what they say…” said the photographer with a big grin.
“If it’s hard, it means you must be doing it right!”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be sweet. Please retweet.
Being a successful voice-over.
It has a little bit to do with having pleasant pipes, and lot with other factors. Some of those factors can be influenced. Others are beyond our control.
A few days ago, one of my students had an interesting question for me. Professionally speaking (pun intended, always), she was doing okay. Clients loved working with her. Business was getting better every year. Yet, she felt that something was preventing her from reaching that proverbial “next level,” and she couldn’t figure out what to do.
“Paul,” she said, “I’ve read all the books on voice-over I could find, including yours. I follow the best bloggers. I listen to podcasts, and I watch videos on VO. What am I missing? I seem to be stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results. How do I move forward from here?”
“What you’re really asking,” I said, “is how to get from good to great. Am I right?”
“Well, the first thing you have to realize is that growth is a gradual process. You don’t expect a seed to bloom the next day, do you? We all grow in different ways at different speeds.
People can teach you new techniques, but it may take a while before those techniques become second nature. However, at your level, techniques are usually not the issue. Other things are holding you back. One of the main obstacles to growth is familiarity. You said it yourself.”
“What do you mean?” my student asked.
“You can call it coasting, if you like. You just told me that you were stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results.
Secondly, you seem to be looking for inspiration and guidance within your field. Again: you’re focusing on the familiar. You already know how to interpret a script. I think you can handle a microphone. You don’t better yourself by doing things that are easy and predictable. That’s like working out without weights.
If you really want to grow as a person and as a professional, you’ve got to look elsewhere. That’s where the challenges will be, and challenges will help you grow. Now, here’s the amazing thing: growth in one area of your life will positively influence growth in other areas of your life.”
“Any suggestions as to what I should do?” my student asked.
“Plenty,” I said. “Here’s one:
1. Start leading a healthy life.
A year ago, one of my students was in bad shape. He was overweight, he sat in his recording booth for long periods of time, and his diet had way too much sugar, fat and salt in it. It affected his mood, his self-image, and his self-confidence. I could hear it in his voice. His breathing was very shallow, and he sounded insecure.
One day, he decided he had had enough, and he joined a gym. He exercised at least five times a week, and started shedding pounds. In the kitchen he began using fresh, organic ingredients, and he filled his plate with fruits and vegetables. Within two months, he felt more energetic and alive, and people told him he looked better.
His renewed energy and enthusiasm could be heard in the way he spoke when the mic was on, and when the mic was off. Because he felt better, he performed better, and he began booking more and more jobs. For him, leading a healthy lifestyle was the key that brought him to the next level.
Here’s another thing you can do:
2. Learn a foreign language.
Forget tongue twisters and other vocal exercises. Start studying that language you’ve always wanted to learn! A new language is a doorway to a different culture. Every language has its own rhythm and melody. You’ll even start thinking differently when speaking a foreign language.
Becoming bilingual benefits the brain. It improves cognitive skills that don’t even have to do with language. Bilinguals are better at solving puzzles, better at staying on task, and being bilingual can even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.
One of my students decided to learn Italian at a later point in life. It took her a couple of years, but after a few vacations near Florence, she was almost fluent. As a bilingual voice talent, a whole new market opened up. She claims that she feels much more flexible, vocally speaking, and that it has become easier to do all sorts of accents and character voices.
But there’s more you can do to take your career to the next level:
3. Join a community theater or improv group.
Voice-overs are usually so stuck to their scripts… they have a hard time letting it go, and letting it flow. When you’re forced to memorize your words to perform on stage, you not only train your brain. You also learn how to speak your lines, instead of reading them. It’s also a very physical experience.
Rather than talking into a microphone, you get to inter-act with real people who re-act to what you’re saying. You get instant feedback on how you land your lines, not only from your fellow-actors but from the audience. You have a whole new way of getting into character.
Improv classes are a great way to learn to loosen up, and become conversational. Name one client who doesn’t ask for a “conversational read”?
I remember an audio book narrator who was stuck in his studio most of the time. Some people thought he was anti-social. When he finally joined an improv group, he made new friends who thought he was witty, funny, and charming. Two years later, the introvert has become quite extroverted, and his loyal listeners love the way his audio book characters bounce off the page like never before.”
“Those are some great suggestions,” said my student. “Is there anything else you’d recommend?”
“Well, how about you…
4. Take singing lessons, and join a choir.
Voice-overs talk for a living, yet too many of them have no clue how to use their voice. Their range is limited, their diction is off, and after half an hour, vocal fatigue sets in. Using your voice means using muscles, the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles to be exact.
Taking singing lessons is like going to the gym for your voice. You’ll learn effective warm-ups, proper pronunciation and projection, and you’ll train the muscles needed to produce sound. After a while, your voice will become stronger, clearer, more resonant and more flexible. Your listening skills and timing will improve, and you’ll be able to infuse your scripts with musicality.
On top of that, you’ll have yet another reason to get off your behind, and rehearse with your choir. There’s nothing like the sweet sensation of voices blending, creating harmonies and melodies that soothe the soul.
The main thing to remember is that everything is connected. The change you make in one area of your life is likely to affect other areas of your life.
Whatever you decide to do, you are the goose with the golden eggs, so you had better take good care of yourself.
Step out of your comfort zone, but be patient. It might take a while before you see the payoff of your pursuits.
Eventually, things will fall into place in a most surprising and delightful way.
Take it from me, the exercising, multilingual, singing amateur stage actor!”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be sweet. Please retweet!
It’s one of those mysterious English words I had to learn as a native Dutch speaker. Little did I know that this word would come to play a pivotal part in my voice-over career.
Congruence is not a word you hear very often. At least, I don’t. It’s sometimes used in mathematics or geometry. What does it mean?
Congruence is actually a state achieved by different elements coming together. It’s a state of agreement and harmony. In a moment, I’ll tell you why this state is so important to professional speakers.
As I continue my series on performance, I want to remind you of the five characteristics of masterful delivery. They are:
• Clear and Clean
• Context & content appropriate
SAY YOU’RE SORRY
Last week we talked about the significance of clean and clear delivery. Today we’ll move on to the next C. Let’s start off with a question:
How can you tell someone’s apology is not sincere? To put it differently, how do you pick up on the fact that someone doesn’t mean what he or she is saying?
It might help to think back to a moment where one of your friends or colleagues sounded totally unconvincing. From the moment this person opened his or her mouth you knew something was wrong, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.
Was it the choice of words? Could it be the tone of voice? Was it the body language that tipped you off?
I’d like to suggest that it was all of the above.
You see, what we say, how we say it, and the way we hold our body while we are saying it, is utterly revealing.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Years ago, a collection agency wanted to know the difference between a successful debt collector, and someone struggling to collect. In this case, they looked at employees who were using the phone to commit debtors to pay. In other words: these guys were making collect calls.
Both the successful collectors and the unsuccessful ones were using the same script, verbatim. So, why did one group succeed and the other fail? One of the determining factors turned out to be the very last sentence in the script. After informing the respondent of the outstanding debt and ways to take care of it, here’s what the collectors had to ask:
“Can you make a payment today?”
Because it is constructed as a question, the natural thing would be to read this line with a question mark. In other words, the speaker’s voice would go up at the end of the sentence. That’s exactly what the unsuccessful collectors did. Collectively.
We all know people who are in the habit of ending their sentences on a higher pitch. Phonologists have named this tendency HRT or high-rising terminal, and they believe this trend is growing in Australia and North America. Down Under they call it the Australian Question Intonation or AQI.
To many listeners, upward inflection (or uptalk) is an indicator of insecurity, and that’s exactly how the debtors interpreted it. Listening to the collector on the phone, the person owing money didn’t think the situation was urgent, so most people would put off making a payment.
The successful collectors on the other hand, treated the question “Can you make a payment today” as a statement. Instead of going up, their voices would go down at the word “today.” It almost sounded like a command, and it had the desired effect.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN
Same words. Different tonality. Different meaning. The French even have a saying for that:
“C’est le ton qui fait la musique”
It’s not what you say, but the way you say it.
Just as our tone of voice conveys meaning, our body language can be very revealing too.
At a party, one of my friends was rather quiet and withdrawn. He avoided eye contact, and looked down at the floor.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Oh, I feel great,” my friend said. “I’m really enjoying this party.”
“If that’s the case, why don’t I see it in your face?” I asked.
It turned out that his partner just broke up with him, and he felt as happy as a sad sack of potatoes.
PANTS ON FIRE
You see, it’s easy to choose the right words. We can also make an effort to sound upbeat even if we’re not, but it’s tough to make our bodies lie. That’s because our posture and facial expressions are a result of unconscious processes that are hard to manipulate, unless…. you’re in the acting business.
Actors are paid pretenders. The more convincing they can “lie,” the higher their paychecks.
As a (voice) actor, it is your job to sell your lines so that the audience is buying it. In order for them to believe in what you’re saying, they have to believe that you believe it yourself. How do you do that? Here’s one clue:
If you wish your audience to access a certain state, you have to access that state yourself first.
What do I mean by that? Lets assume you’re a keynote speaker at a conference, and you want to pump the audience up. They’ll never get out of their seats if you take forever to come on stage, start adjusting your microphone, and you begin by arranging your notes saying the following words in the most sleep-inducing tone of voice:
“Ehhh, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor and a privilege to be here with you tonight.”
Now imagine a hypnotherapist trying to put his patient under while speaking in a most animated, rapid-fire way. It’s not going to work because his words are saying one thing, and his actions are saying something else.
If you want to be a successful (voice) actor, you have to become masterful at evoking and managing your states. Like so many things in life, this starts between the ears.
Your external dialogue begins with your internal dialogue.
We started this story by talking about being convincing. You will never be able to convince anyone of anything without confidence. If you wish to come across as confident, you have to access a state of confidence.
But what if you’re insecure or nervous? What do you do? Well, there are a few ways you can approach this.
Strategy number one: Just pretend that you’re confident. As kids, most of us were very good at pretending. This is your chance to become a kid again, and feign the state you wish to access. It’s fun and it works, as long as you give yourself permission to play. Are you willing to do that, or are you too stuck in your adult ways?
Strategy number two: Model confident people. Study how they walk. Study how they talk. Study their beliefs. It’s the basic stuff actors do when preparing for specific roles. Once you’ve analyzed people’s mannerisms, speech patterns and body language, it’s your turn to reproduce them, and make them your own.
Strategy number three is based on the following principle: Competence breeds confidence. In other words, the more competent you become, the more confident you will feel. For instance, years of doing live radio taught me that I can cold read any script any time and sound like I know it inside out. What’s one thing you can do to increase your competence?
Strategy number four: Face your fears. People who aren’t very confident and convincing are usually afraid that something unpleasant will happen should they assert themselves. Unless and until you deal with that, you’ll always be stuck at the level of pretending.
So, let’s assume you’ve taken the time to use these strategies, and you’re ready to put them to the test. How can you tell you sound convincing? How do you actually know you’ve nailed it? This brings me back to the very first word of this blog post: congruence. It’s the polar opposite of sending mixed signals.
When your tone of voice and your body language match your message, you’ve become a congruent, convincing communicator.
This does not mean that you always have to act as someone who knows what he or she is doing. It totally depends on the part you play. If your job is to portray someone who is insecure, you embody that role as convincingly as you can.
Secondly, -like the debt collectors- you will know you’re on the right track by observing how people react. Are they paying… attention to you?
The meaning of your communication is the response you get.
One last question. Well, two actually, but who’s counting?
Have I convinced you?
Is congruence key to a solid delivery?
As a writer, I have a bit of a problem here. All I have to work with are words. You can’t see me, and you don’t hear me.
Unless you’re blessed with a rich imagination.
In that case, I hope you’ve made me look and sound incredibly convincing!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!
I just love the sound of that word, don’t you?
Linguists believe it dates back to the 1570s, but no one can tell for certain where it came from.
If you’re like me, and English is your second or third language, you might not even know that curmudgeon is used to describe a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person. It’s the archetypal grouch: unpleasant, argumentative, stubborn, and unsociable.
A while ago I made a surprising discovery. I was talking to a colleague whom I had never met before, and near the end of our conversation she said to me:
“I can’t believe how nice you are. You’re not at all what I expected.”
“What did you expect?” I asked.
“Well, based on your blog I always thought you were this grumpy, super-serious, sourpuss kind of a guy. I mean, you’re always so critical of newbies, clients, and colleagues, and you don’t exactly mince words.”
“You thought I was a curmudgeon,” I interjected.
“Your words, not mine,” she said, “but to be honest, I had expected some cranky complainer. You’re not like that at all.”
Normally I don’t fall for flattery, but her comment made me smile. A little bit.
“In a previous life I used to teach self-help seminars,” I said, “and your observation reminds me of one of the main messages I impressed upon my students:
The meaning of your communication is the response you get.
It’s the idea that it doesn’t really matter what people write or say. The meaning comes from how listeners interpret and respond to what was written or said. Intentions -good or bad- are irrelevant.
My colleague looked puzzled.
“Let me give you an example,” I continued.
“Bono, the U2 frontman, was on a fact-finding mission in Africa. One of his hosts gave this long-winded, academic spiel on the origins of urban poverty and the rise of AIDS. At one point Bono had had enough. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
‘But I just explained it to you,’ said his host annoyed. ‘I was as clear as I could be. Perhaps this is going over your head. After all, you’re not an expert.’
‘Perhaps you should explain it better,’ answered Bono.
I looked at my colleague and said:
“The meaning of our communication is the response we get. This academic thought he was making himself perfectly clear, yet Bono’s response told him otherwise. Who was at fault here?
The way I see it, Bono was right. Now, let’s bring this back to you and me. I believe it is our responsibility to communicate a message in such a way that the other person will understand its true meaning. If that’s not the case, we need to explain ourselves in a different way until understanding is reached.
Unfortunately, most of my teachers -whether in elementary or in high school- never got that concept. If a pupil didn’t comprehend something that was explained to them, they always blamed the “dumb” student.”
“And how is all of this connected to your blog?” asked my colleague.
“Perfect example,” I said. “Here I am… attempting to make a connection between my blog and your expectations of me as a person, and I fail miserably. So, let me try again.
Based on my blog, you thought I would be a certain way, correct? And as you admitted, I wasn’t like that at all. Is that your fault? Not really. Your initial impression was based on my writings. Your response was the meaning of my communication. So, I thank you for your feedback.”
I paused for a moment before I opened up.
“You know, I don’t really want to come across as the curmudgeon of the voice-over world. That’s not who I am. As you have noticed, I don’t take myself too seriously. I love most of my clients and colleagues, and I love what I do for a living. I also want to warn newbies before someone takes advantage of them. That’s one of the reasons why I started blogging.
I blog to provide an antidote to all those manipulative marketing messages telling gullible people what they want to hear. At least, that’s my intention.”
“Well, that comes across loud and clear,” said my colleague. “But perhaps you could sprinkle it with a bit of humor every now and then. Lighten up, and don’t be so preachy. I know your dad was a minister, but a blog is not a pulpit.”
“Amen to that,” I said. “Thank you again.” A few moments later, we parted ways.
Later that day I got a phone call.
“Hi, remember me?” asked my colleague. “I’ve been thinking about that conversation we had this morning, and I need to know something. Were you talking about yourself, or were you talking about me when you told that Bono story?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, earlier on I had told you about the difficulties I had communicating with a client. I didn’t feel he understood me, and I blamed him for purposely missing the points I was trying to make. After you and I talked I did my best to see things from his perspective. I modified my approach and my tone in the last message I sent him. He just emailed me back, and I think we’re finally getting somewhere. Am I on the right track?”
“I don’t think I have to answer that question,” I said. “You changed your communication, and you got a different response. Congratulations. You’re a fast learner!”
“And you’re a pretty good teacher,” she responded. Then she laughed.
“For a curmudgeon, that is…”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.
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)
It’s like hiring a team of third-rate voice-overs from a lowball website to narrate a piece of pulp fiction. It’s guaranteed to turn your stomach.
If you’re an old-school Catholic, The Seven Deadly Sins have a very different meaning. Dating back to the 4th century AD, it’s a classification of capital vices, also known as cardinal sins. They are: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.
In one way or another, these sins are as old as mankind, and you’ll see manifestations of them in our professional community. So, let’s talk about them for a moment, starting with…
Originally, lust was equated to desire, as in the desire for fame, power or money. If that’s what you’re secretly after, I strongly advise you to choose a different career path. With a few exceptions, voice actors are the unknown, unseen, unsung heroes of video games, documentaries, audio books, and more. We’re not in the picture. Literally.
If you’ve been around the block for a few years you might disagree, because you happen to know lots of voice-overs. To the rest of the world this is totally irrelevant. Just stop a stranger in the street. Ask her to name one voice actor. Just one, and watch what happens. If you’re lucky she’ll call out the name of an A-list Hollywood celebrity, but that’s it.
Big names make the big bucks, and you’ll see their names on billboards all over the world. The average VO Pro will forever be the anonymous disembodied voice, running from gig to gig, as unremarkable as can be.
There is a bright side. One of the best perks of this job is that we can keep our privacy!
This is a delicate one, because I know I’ll probably step on a few sensitive toes here. If we’d have a room full of on-screen actors and voice-overs, how would one tell the two apart? It’s easy. The voice-overs are more likely to be overweight.
I’ve written about this before, but weight gain is often the result of a sedentary life spent in a small space behind a microphone. Combine lack of movement with the overeating of unhealthy foods, and you have a recipe for disaster. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an occupational hazard. Lifestyle and diet are based on choices, and choices can be changed. Consider this:
You’ll never be satisfied until you know what you’re truly hungry for.
If you believe that voice acting is a shortcut to making lots of money in a short amount of time, think again. To an outsider, being paid $250 for a 60-second narration might seem good money. What people don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between what voice-overs make and what they actually get to keep.
Some colleagues are lucky to have a steady stream of well-paying projects. Many others know that these two hundred and fifty dollars also have to pay for the time in between gigs. It also pays for all the expenses that come with being self-employed, for the rent, for utilities, and for all the other bills that never stop coming.
There’s one more thing I want to say about greed, and it has to do with the quality of our service:
People will never do their best work if money is their main motivator.
I have seen quite a few people fail at VO, not because they’re untalented, but because they’re downright lazy. Technology has made it so easy to sign up for a voice casting site, and watch the auditions come in. And when -after a month or two- the booking rate is still zero, guess who gets the blame?
Laziness is also about expecting others to give you the answers on a silver platter, and milking their network to get ahead. It’s a failure to do all the hard, boring, and unglamorous work that comes with running your own business. It’s about taking things for granted, and not being grateful.
Those who have made the move from a corporate job to being self-employed, know that you often have to work twice as hard and twice as long. When you’re the boss, you run all the risk, there are no paid benefits, and results are never guaranteed. Isn’t that fun?
In the eyes of some, the multifarious VO-community is made up of a very helpful and altruistic group of people. However, if you’ve spent some time online, you know that we’re not all saints and angels. There are some very bitter, frustrated, and angry individuals who are trolling various groups.
They will gladly put a newbie in his or her place. These people always know better, and if you don’t bow to their eternal wisdom and status, they will publicly slap you on the wrist. But wrath takes on other forms as well.
People get angry when they feel ripped off, either by cheapskate clients or by lowballing colleagues. They get upset when an (in their opinion) mediocre talent “steals” a job they’re not worthy of. Angry people tend to take things very personally, and that’s tricky in an industry where rejection is commonplace. Anger is often the basis for the next deadly sin:
I wish all of us could be happy for one another all the time. But some people aren’t wired that way. Another person’s success becomes a source for their misery. I remember losing a friend after I landed a job both of us were in the running for. I had no idea why he suddenly disappeared from my life. Years later he told me his jealousy got the better of him.
Some psychologists believe that there are two kinds of envy: benign envy and malicious envy. Benign envy can be a driving force, motivating people to achieve something great. Malicious envy doesn’t only destroy relationships, it’s self-destructive as well.
The idea that we are always in competition with one another, and that the world is divided into winners and losers, can lead to envy. I always encourage my students to cultivate the lost art of admiration. Rather than being jealous of someone’s accomplishments, ask yourself:
“What has this person done to get to where he/she is now, and what can I learn from him or her?”
I think there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in what you do, and being proud of what you’ve accomplished. Pride turns poisonous as soon as you start believing that you’re better than others, or when you can’t appreciate other people’s achievements.
Pride often manifests itself as arrogance. The sad thing is that arrogance stunts growth and it creates distance. It’s tough to teach someone who thinks he knows better. Arrogant people tend to have little patience for those who are (supposedly) not at their level. They’re great at making other people feel inadequate and inferior.
Someone once said: “Pride leads to contempt; gratitude leads to compassion.”
Let’s remember that as voice-overs, we’re in the service industry. Our success relies on the extent to which we understand the needs of our clients, and our ability to meet those needs. Professional pride can give us the confidence needed to get the job done. But we can’t allow pride to feed our ego, causing us to focus on ourselves, instead of on our customers.
We can only grow as professionals once we realize that we don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to be perfect. We need to stay open, appreciative, show some humility, and be eternally grateful for the talents we were born with.
Are you following me?
Good, and if -for some reason- you don’t agree with me, there’s only one thing I can do.
I’ll drag you to the nearest pub, and make you drink The Seven Deadly Sins.
That will teach you.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
PS Be sweet. Please retweet.