voice-overs

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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Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 3 Comments
Father and son at the sea shore

My Dad and Me

Jake was a model employee. He’d been with the same company for 45 years, and never missed a day. At his retirement party, he received a farewell gift: a trip for two to Aruba. It was something Jake and his wife had always dreamt of.

A week later, they were on their way to the airport. While going through security, Jake suddenly collapsed, and died of a heart attack.

Jenny was a model athlete: tall, muscular, and motivated. From the age of fifteen she’d won practically every triathlon she took part in. At her Olympic qualifier she crushed the national competition. Two more weeks, and she would be on her way to represent her country.

Friends threw her a farewell pool party. That night, Jenny slipped over an ice cube, and landed on the edge of the pool. With a broken tibia, she could kiss her Olympic dreams goodbye. She never reached her old level again.

A few years ago, Folkert, my father, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. One of his doctors told him he was in the final stages, and advised him to get his affairs in order.

My father began a breakthrough treatment to which he responded remarkably well. Instead of a few months, he was given a number of years. Then he started experiencing new symptoms, completely unrelated to his cancer. Before long he was diagnosed with ALS.

DO YOU HAVE THE ANSWER

What do you make of these stories? How do you respond? What can you possibly say to Folkert, Jenny, and to Jake’s wife?

Is there a satisfactory answer to the question why bad things happen to good people?

Some have tried to come up with something, as if knowing the answer would somehow soften the blow. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, I get very uncomfortable when people attempt to make a wrong right. On what authority are they speaking? What do they know that I don’t?

Please don’t tell me that “everything happens for a reason,” or that it’s “for the better.” Don’t tell me there is a G-d who orchestrates cruel things out of love for his unruly children. Don’t tell me that Jake, Jenny, and Folkert deserved their fate because of some colossal cosmic conspiracy we call karma.

It doesn’t help.

It only hurts.

Yet, in the back of most people’s minds is the belief that we reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. It’s at the heart of the American Dream. If you study, apply yourself, and work hard, you can go from foster care to self-made millionaire. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If you are a good person, good things will happen to you. Good boys get rewarded. Bad boys get punished.

But what about all those bad boys who end up on top? The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more selfish, cutthroat executives you’ll encounter. They didn’t get there by playing nice. In certain circles, success knows no mercy. It’s either eat or be eaten. Sharks in fancy suits walk all over gentle Mr. Goody two-shoes, the docile doormat.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR CAREER

A few days ago I had a serious conversation with one of my voice-over students. In the last twelve months, she had invested a nice chunk of change in her studio. She bought a great new mic, a lovely preamp, and even a new computer.

I believe in her, and more importantly, she believes in herself.

When we started our session, she sounded peeved.

“Paul,” she said, “Over the past couple of years I have worked my butt off. You know that. I promised myself to give this voice-over thing a good shot. When I listen back to some of my early recordings, I can tell that I have grown. And when I listen to what else is out there, I know I have something to offer. You said so yourself. But get this…

The other day I told one of my voice-over friends that I was going to audition for that commercial we talked about. I really poured everything you’ve taught me into that audition, and I sounded pretty good, if I say so myself. Guess who got the job? My friend! The one who has zero personality and zero experience. She even let me listen to her audition, and it was mediocre at best.

Be honest with me, Paul. Did I just waste years of my life? Should I sell my equipment? What good did all of that training do if I get beaten by a newbie? It’s so frustrating, and it makes me mad! How long do I have to wait for my big break?”

THE MYTH OF OVERNIGHT SUCCESS

When I heard her question, I had to think of actress Jenna Fischer. You probably know her as Pam from the American version of The Office. She always wanted to be an actor, and she eventually moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream. She fully expected to be working in movies within a year of coming to LA. It didn’t happen that way.

Jenna worked as a temp, she took acting and improv classes, and she borrowed money to make ends meet. At one point she had to wear a pair of shoes with a hole in them because she couldn’t afford anything else. It took her more than six long years before she finally got “discovered.”

Jenna Fischer is a perfect example of the adage that it can take years to become an overnight success. She knows from experience that the (voice) acting business is without guarantees, no matter how talented and motivated you are. When asked about it, she had this to say:

“This business is not fair. It is not like other businesses where if you show up, and work above and beyond everyone’s expectations, you are pretty much guaranteed to move up the ladder. I don’t know why it works out for some and not for others. And when you move here (Hollywood, P.S.) you have no idea which camp you are going to fall into.”

JUST BE FAIR

“Fair” is an interesting concept. Most dictionaries define it as “in accordance with the rules.” Most rules civil societies live by, are practical, logical, and even reasonable. They’re an example of cause-effect thinking: If A, then B. Without rules, life would be chaotic. 

Most of us have unwritten rules that guide our hopes and expectations. To name a few: “If I train hard, and do my very best, I will be successful.” Or “If I live a healthy life, I will live a long life.”

Here’s the problem: those rules aren’t always reasonable, and they are rarely absolute. They only seem that way. What makes sense, and what seems right from our limited perspective, doesn’t necessarily happen. Kind, innocent people die young. Selfish bastards live to be a hundred. No explanation given. 

Secondly: Most people don’t play by our rules. They might not even be aware of them. Perhaps they’re playing a different game altogether, and we don’t even see it. Many decisions that affect us, have nothing to do with us. 

Third: Life isn’t logical. It’s not a matter of “If A, then B.” Usually, it’s: “If A, then D or Z.” People are emotional beings, and what they do isn’t cold and calculated. We forget. We make mistakes. We act impulsively, and break all the rules.

Last but not least: Even though we often think we are, we’re never one hundred percent in control. If we’re physically and mentally healthy, we can control our actions to a great extent, but we cannot control the outcome. Life consists of too many variables. Even perfectionists have to admit that…. at some point.  

NOW WHAT?

So, where does this leave us?

Are we hopeless and helpless leaves in the winds of chance? Should we stop trying to accomplish things, simply because the outcome is uncertain, and likely to be unfair?

I’ll tell you what I think we should do.

We should begin by skipping the question “Why.” “Why me, why this, why now?”

Asking “Why” is asking for a logical, reasonable explanation which you won’t always get. I hate to break it to you, but your rules, conscious or unconscious, don’t apply all the time. 

My student did everything she could to win that audition. There was nothing she could have done to change the preference of the client.

Jenny missed the Olympics because she accidentally stepped on that ice cube. It wasn’t part of some devious celestial plan.

Jake had earned that dream vacation, but he died at the airport because his heart stopped working. Period.

My father did nothing to deserve ALS. There wasn’t anything he could have done to prevent it from affecting him. The question “fair or not fair” wasn’t going to change his condition. He had to learn to live with ALS, and he eventually chose to end life on his own terms.

One last thing, if I may.

Most people tend to contemplate the issue of fairness when they believe they’ve been wronged, tricked, or were denied something they felt entitled to. That’s when they will ask the question “Why?”

When things go really well, and life smiles upon us, we hardly ever ask the question “Why me, why this, why now?”

We take our good fortune for granted.

Think about it.

Is that really fair?

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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What Were They Thinking?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Promotion, Social Media 1 Comment

Sale!No matter how much you love your job as a voice-over, there are always aspects of your work you don’t care for, or would rather have someone else do.

I, for instance, am not a numbers man, and I’m glad my office manager is keeping the books for my business. Very few colleagues I talk to, enjoy doing the unglamorous paperwork that is part and parcel of running a professional service. Yet, it needs to be done. 

But if there’s one thing many voice-overs are very uncomfortable with, it is this: selling themselves. They’d rather spend hours in a dark booth recording an obscure historic novel, than having to talk a client into hiring them.

If you’re experienced enough to have a couple of agents, they will do the talking for you. Quite often though, a potential client will approach you directly because they’ve been on your website. In that case you have to do the negotiations yourself. Inevitably, you have to answer the following client questions:

1. Why should I hire a professional voice? 

2. Why should I pay that much money, if all you’re going to do is talk?

In the end there are three ways to answer these questions. You can highlight the benefits of what you have to offer, or you can tell some horror stories of clients who went with a cheap, unprofessional voice… or you can use a combination of positives and negatives.

Now, for some clients that’s not enough. Maybe they’re new at hiring a VO, and they simply can’t imagine what effect a bad voice-over could have on a good script. Those people need to see, in order to believe.

One guy started talking to me about text-to-speech software, and how advanced things were getting in that area. His boss had suggested he buy some software, and use it for the next video, instead of a real voice. The TTS-software would pay for itself in no time, he told me. 

“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure your company could afford the kind of artificial voices that are developed and used by Google or Apple. But let me send you a link to a video that was uploaded as recently as last year. This is an affordable product you could buy right now. Take a look, and let me know if this is what you had in mind?” Here it is:

Some things just speak for themselves, don’t they? A few weeks later I spoke to a Head of Internal Training who wanted to “explore his options.” He was producing a tutorial, and he said:

“I’ll be honest with you. Keith from IT has a decent voice, and he said he’s willing to put this thing together for a six-pack and a pizza. That would save me a lot of money. Give me one reason why I should hire you.”

“I’d be happy to,” I said, and I sent him this educational YouTube masterpiece:

Let me share one of my other favorite tutorials. It’s not a corporate presentation, but if you’re interested in baking banana bread, this is a must-see (but you might want to turn the volume up a bit…).

Are you hungry yet? I admit it: I put that video in here just for fun, and because it’s rather bizarre. Don’t be fooled though. People put strange stuff on YouTube because they can monetize it. That’s why you’re forced to watch all those annoying ads. 

The most popular tutorials on YouTube have to be the ones of girls teaching you how to put on make-up. Why do I bring this up? A year or so ago I was approached by a cosmetics brand. Their creative team was coming up with a new campaign, and they had two directions they wanted to explore. One was a more sophisticated approach for which they had my voice and accent in mind.

“The other idea,” said the account manager, “is to let real people tell their story. After all, that’s what our clients can relate to. We want someone who sounds like the friend they never knew they always wanted. Someone who can demonstrate our product, rather than sell it in a commercial.”

“Do you mean someone like this?” I asked? (and you might want to turn your volume down again…)

Most potential clients I talk to aren’t the creative types. They’ve already decided they want to hire me based on my demos, but they want me to give them my “best price.” That’s client speak for: “I think your rates are ridiculous, so let’s see how desperate you are.”

Last week I had a very interesting experience. A woman I was talking to about a voice-over project did something crazy.

She used the F-word!

We were talking about what I would charge, and all of a sudden she said: “But what about all these guys on Fiverr?”

“What about them?” I asked.

“Well,” she continued, “if I were to go with one of them I’d pay a lot less. In the end it’s all about the bottom line, you know.”

“Listen,” I said. “This video you’re putting together is going to be on the world wide web forever, and I hope thousands and thousands of people are going to watch it. For many, this is how they will learn about what your family business has to offer.

In most cases, you’ll get one chance to make your pitch. One chance. People have become extremely critical and impatient. If they don’t like what they see and what they hear, they’ll have millions of other things to watch. So, it’s up to you how you want to present the company your grandfather built. If your video looks unprofessional or sounds unprofessional, your company looks unprofessional.

Do you honestly want to put the reputation of your business in the mouth of this Fiverr guy?”

I think she got the point. Now, let me be clear.

This blog post is not about bashing people who are trying to make a few bucks with a dynamic microphone, or who want to share their knowledge, passion, and whispery voice with the online community. I used the above examples to provide some perspective, and because these videos are in the public domain.

One thing I’m sure you’ve picked up on, is that voice-over narration is very different from giving a running commentary of whatever you’re doing, using the cheapest device in the house. It’s not as easy as it seems, and it’s not true that anyone can do it. 

The difference between a pro and an amateur is this: a pro makes it seem easy and effortless. Amateurs are often hard to understand, and clumsy. Their presentation distracts from the message. A professional voice allows the viewer or listener to focus on the message. 

SELLING YOURSELF

This blog post started as a story about selling, so let’s get back to that.

Some clients are sold on benefits. They need to know what good things will happen when they hire you. Other clients are motivated by fear. They want to avoid disaster. Sometimes it really helps to give those people a flavor of what’s in store for them, should they go cheap. My message to them is this:

Cheap is always more expensive. 

Some things in life are just too important to leave to hobbyists or stupid software.

If you need a builder, a car mechanic, or an electrician, would you go to someone who charges five dollars for his or her service?

Would you pick your OB/GYN based on whomever has the lowest rate?

Would you want to get your teeth fixed by an amateur dentist?

Then why on earth would you trust a Bottom Dollar voice talent with your promotional message? Why would you allow a babbling dabbler to take a shot at your training course that took a fortune to develop? Do you want your employees to be distracted by Keith from IT, or do you want them to actually retain some information?

And to the creators of the Text to Speech video, the software tutorial, the banana bread lady, the make-up girl, and Mr. Fiverr I want to say this:

I’m not going to take away your right to post anything on YouTube you believe is worthwhile watching. But honestly:

What Were You Thinking?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Paula Satijn Bargain via photopin (license)

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Are You My Colleague or My Competitor?

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

Lighting the Olympic flameIt’s February 2018, and the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang are in full swing. 

Since the start of these games I have been glued to the television. 

For me, that’s a strange thing to do, and I’ll tell you why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

PRIORITIES

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

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

Sport is part of the American spirit.

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

That may be, but is sport always healthy?

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

And what does sport teach us about relationships?

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

America does not like losers.

BIG BUCKS

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

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

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

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

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

BEING THE BEST

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

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

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

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

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

One thing I know for sure.

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

Back to the Olympics.

WORKING TOGETHER

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

In the summer of 2016, American middle-distance runner Abbey D’Agostina and her former opponent Nikki Hamblin were both awarded special Olympic medals for sportsmanship. I’ll let the official Olympic website tell the story:

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

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

So, be a good sport. Take the time to become good at what you do before you enter the race. Get an excellent coach. Buy professional equipment. Engage in fair play. Cheer each other on. 

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

That alone, makes you a winner!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Karma’s a Bitch

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Personal 14 Comments

Group holding handsOn February 8th, CNN broke the news that renowned voice actor and coach Peter Rofé had sexually harassed at least thirty of his female students. Since then, thirteen other women have come forward with similar experiences. According to CNN, Rofé’s lawyer has denied wrongdoing on behalf of his client.

As a man, a voice actor, and a coach, I am disgusted by Rofé’s actions as described by his former students, and I was moved by how my female colleagues came together to share their stories so others could be safe. I dedicate the following to them.

 

Here’s to the women.

The brave, smart, ambitious women

who wanted to become the best in the business;

trusting a teacher

to inspire them, to coach them, to provide a safe space,

to be vulnerable, to be challenged, and supported.

He took their money, and their dreams

as he slowly peeled away the layers

in a maze of manipulation,

attempting to erase their inhibitions

while exposing himself

as the perverted, messed up man he was.

He abused his power, and his reputation

again and again,

stripping his students

of their confidence

and their aspirations,

until they realized that they were not alone. 

One by one, they found the courage

to come forward, and speak about the unspeakable,

warning a community, and exposing the exposer

hoping he’d own up, face the consequences, and seek help. 

So, here’s to the women. 

The brave, smart, incredible women,

who knew they were not to blame 

for this sick man and his game.

Here’s to the women who took back control.

Silent no longer. Empowered, and stronger

and stronger, and stronger.

Karma is indeed a Bitch!


Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

Over thirty women who say they were sexually harassed by Rofé have formed a private Facebook group. If you’ve had a similar experience with Peter Rofé and you’d like support, please contact voiceoverjusticeclub@gmail.com. Confidentiality is guaranteed. 

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Act Like A Pro

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters, Social Media Leave a comment

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Bored Stiff

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 10 Comments

The author behind his microphone

I’ve been behind the mic since I was seventeen. By the look of my grey hair, you can tell that’s a pretty long time. Thirty-seven years to be exact. 

“Does it ever get old” someone wanted to know. “This voice-over thing you do.”

“Well, ‘it’ doesn’t get old, but I certainly do,” I replied, not knowing that I had spoken too early.

An hour later I got this really boring script about ladders, and I changed my mind. It was poorly written, poorly translated, and I had no idea why they had selected poor old me to narrate it. Yes, it was money in the bank, but in reality I would rather go back to bed. 

Let me explain something to you. 

I have no particular fondness for ladders. Walking under them brings bad luck, and many of them wobble in a most disconcerting way. Ladders are ugly and dangerous. Just because they take you to the top, doesn’t mean they’re special. They’re just a few steps up from step stools. One of the reasons I became a freelancer is because I wasn’t good at climbing the corporate ladder. So, why out of all people, should I have to sing their praises? 

It’s for the same reason they talked me into voicing videos about agricultural insurance, miracle car wax, and motorcycle repair. It’s part of the unavoidable, unglamorous, unexciting work voice-overs do every day in dimly lit chatter boxes. 

I must admit: that part of the job does get old and boring. Especially if one has to edit, separate, and name hundreds of files per specific client instructions that make it impossible to do this semi-automatically. Of course the client conveniently “forgot” to mention it at the time of the booking.

Come to think of it: that gets old too. You know, clients trying to take advantage. The other day one of them sent me a message saying that I had “forgotten” to read one paragraph. Of course they would need it right away. The thing is, that mystery paragraph was never in the original script. It was a last-minute addition. 

Now, I know that some colleagues would forgive the client for this “mistake,” and record the five or six extra lines pro bono. In my book, however, more words means more money. It’s not that I am greedy. I just happen to run a for-profit business. With the Arctic temperatures we’re experiencing, someone’s got to pay the heating bill!

If you were to ask a contractor to paint your kitchen as a courtesy, right after she’s finished with the living room, do you think she’d do it? Would an Uber driver take you to the town next to your agreed destination, and not charge you for it? Of course not. Then why do some people expect they can get a voice-over to record a few extra lines at no charge? 

“Well, the other guy we hired did it.” 

“Then why didn’t you ask him to do it?”

“Because he sucked.”

It’s the same old story, and it makes me yawn every time I hear it. 

If you’re getting your feet wet as a VO, trust me. There are parts of this job that are “just work.” Work you may hate. For instance, you’ve signed up to narrate a 400-page audio book, and with every chapter you get this nagging feeling that it’s not getting better. In fact, it’s going nowhere. You start wondering how this piece of pulp ever got published. Then you find out this is a vanity project by someone who should have kept his job at the department of motor vehicles. 

Argh!

One of the most boring jobs you can get in this business involves speech synthesis. It’s the artificial production of human sounds by computers. The text-to-speech software “runs” on thousands of snippets of sounds (phonemes) recorded by voice-overs. Recording sessions can go on for months and are notoriously tedious (just ask Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri).

Once the engineers have what they need, they can use the program to simulate speech for apps, navigation systems, or virtual assistants such as Bixby and Alexa. Amazon now has a database of synthesized voices that is rented out to developers in need of voices for their applications. 

Here’s the kicker. As a voice-over you only get paid once for the database you helped create. That’s it. A colleague of mine heard his voice in at least twenty applications varying from computer games to language courses that were created artificially, and he’ll never see a penny. 

Since he recorded his phonemes, technology has moved even further. 

Did you know that Adobe’s Voco (the Photoshop of speech) only needs about twenty minutes of recorded target speech to generate a sound-alike voice, producing sound patterns that were not even recorded?

Watch this (and try not to be bored):

Perhaps they should have Voco read that terrible self-published novel I mentioned earlier!

Anyway, thanks to modern technology, the most boring parts of voice-over jobs might be behind us. If we can get machines to say anything we want them to say, why use humans? Computers can work without a break, and don’t require a SAG-AFTRA contract. 

In a strange way, that’s music to my ears. 

I might lose a few dollars, but very soon people like me won’t have to talk about ladders anymore.

How exciting is that?!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS If you’d like to hear an audio version of this story, be my guest:

PPS Be sweet: subscribe and retweet!

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How Not To Impersonate A Saint

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 15 Comments
Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009

Sinterklaas

Becoming a professional is very much like growing up.

At some point we all have to lose our carefree, childlike naiveté.

Old beliefs about the trustworthiness of people disappear. Ideas we’ve cherished for too long, vanish as quickly as melting snow.

The tooth fairy is a lie, parents aren’t perfect, and reindeer don’t fly.

In The Netherlands, every child grows up believing in St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas as the Dutch call him. In November this legendary bishop leaves Spain on a steamboat loaded with gifts.

His triumphant arrival in Holland is broadcast live on national television. Just like his rotund brother Santa Claus, Sinterklaas will go from town to town to meet as many overexcited children as he can.

The “Sint” (a Dutch version of “Saint”), always brings a big book in which he keeps track of the behavior of every child. In the olden days, nice children would be rewarded. The naughty ones would be punished by one of his helpers.

DUTCH BOXING DAY

In the weeks leading up to Saint Nicholas’ Eve, kids are expected to be on their best behavior. They put their shoes next to the chimney (or radiator), and leave some treats for Sinterklaas’ horse. Children also sing traditional songs before they go to bed. The next morning, they’ll usually find some sweets or a small present in their shoes.

On the evening of December 5th, the Dutch celebrate their version of boxing day. It is still the main gift-giving day in The Netherlands, and retail wouldn’t be the same without it.

In my family, most presents would be accompanied by a rhyme, making innocent fun of the receiver. Sometimes a poem would contain a clue as to where the present was hidden. Some gifts would be disguised in all kinds of creative ways, and the recipient had to guess what he or she was getting.

As a kid, I never doubted the existence of Sinterklaas. After all, he came to my school and he visited my house, year after year. Even when I started having some logistical questions about the distribution of so many presents to so many homes on one single night, I kept the faith. Like every other kid, I was afraid that the minute I’d start believing Saint Nicholas was bogus, I wouldn’t get any presents anymore.

All was well, until that dismal day Sinterklaas came to my Elementary school.

SINTERKLAAS GOES TO SCHOOL

I must have been seven or eight years old. All classes gathered in the gym, which doubled as an auditorium. I can still smell the pungent aroma of sweat and tears this dreary hall was notorious for. We kids were arranged according to our grades, and as we were waiting for the Sint’s arrival, a bespectacled young teacher started playing songs on an out of tune piano. Soon we all joined in.

After about ten minutes we’d come to the end of our repertoire, but Sinterklaas and his helpers were nowhere to be seen. It didn’t take long before docile kids turned into a restless mob of minors. The principal who’d been on the lookout, rushed back to calm the crowds.

“Kids,” he barked, “if you’re not going to be quiet and show some respect, Sinterklaas will be skipping this school. Now, is that what you want?”

“NO!” we answered in unison.

“So, are you going to be quiet?” he asked.

“YES!” we shouted at the top of our lungs. “We want Sinterklaas! We want Sinterklaas!” the whole room chanted.

At that very moment, a rusty, beat up compact car arrived at the gates. This couldn’t be the old man, could it? He was supposed to arrive on a magnificent white horse. Not in a Morris Marina. A few boys in sixth grade stood up to catch a glimpse of the bearded shadow that came out of the car. A single helper in black face called Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete) accompanied the tall man.

“It’s him,” the boys cried. “He’s coming! He’s coming!”

WHO IS THIS MAN?

“Children, children,” shouted the principal. “Remember our agreement. If you can’t be quiet, I will ask Sinterklaas to leave, and you can all go back to your classroom. Now, let us sing a song to welcome our distinguished guest.”

To many children, Sinterklaas was as close to a living legend as one could get. On one hand they would fear him, because he knew exactly what they’d been up to in the past year. On the other, they’d revere him because he was old, wise and dignified. His warm, deep voice and saintly demeanor was enough to turn the biggest chatterbox in the room into a shy and silent mouse.

As my heart pounded with expectation, the doors of the auditorium swung open, and in came Sinterklaas, wearing his traditional red cape and a rather faded mitre. He was holding a long gold-colored crosier. He waved at the children as his helper handed out traditional treats called “pepernoten.”

The second I saw the Sint, I knew there was something familiar about him. Of course I’d seen Sinterklaas before, but that wasn’t it. This was different. First of all, he was wearing thick rimmed glasses. No Sinterklaas I’d ever seen wore glasses.

Secondly, for a man who was supposed to be in his eighties or nineties, he walked remarkably fast and energetic. There was also something very wrong with his white beard. It looked like it had been quickly attached to his face with cheap tape. It seemed to have a life of its own, because the thing barely stayed in place.

As the Sint sat down on a makeshift throne, I noticed something else: his brown shoes. I could have sworn I’d seen those shoes before. But that could just be a coincidence, couldn’t it? Then the principal started talking. He asked Sinterklaas about his trip to Holland, and about his plans for the day.

That’s when it happened.

A DREAM DASHED

Instead of that deep, grandfatherly voice every child had grown up with, “our” Sinterklaas had a relatively high-pitched, young voice. To tell you the truth: He didn’t sound like Sinterklaas at all. Not even like a bad imposter.

I was utterly confused, and I wasn’t the only one. Something wasn’t right, but I still wanted to hang on to my conviction that this man was real. I tried to see in him what I wanted to see. Meanwhile, the girl next to me started crying, and said she needed to go the bathroom.

Then one of the bigger boys in sixth grade whispered something astonishing:

“Jongens, dit is Sinterklaas niet. Het is de dominee!”

“People, this isn’t Sinterklaas. It’s our minister!”

The rumor spread like wildfire through the gym. Soon enough, kids in each row repeated the same phrase:

“It’s the minister. It’s the minister,” until it reached a very uncomfortable looking principal.

I must say he handled it gracefully. He told us Saint Nicholas wasn’t feeling so well, and that he had to cut his visit short. The “old” bishop left as fast as he had come, without much ceremony. Later on, one of my friends claimed he’d found a fake beard in the bushes.

AN ODD DISCOVERY

When I came home that afternoon, the first thing I noticed was a pair of brown shoes on the doormat. I walked up to the study where my dad was working on Sunday’s sermon. He was wearing his usual thick rimmed glasses.

He looked up from his books.

“I’m not much of an actor, am I?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m really sorry.”

He waited a few seconds, and gestured: “Why don’t you come a little closer?”

“You know,” he said, “this morning I got a phone call from your school. The guy who was supposed to be Sinterklaas had fallen off his horse and couldn’t make it. Your principal practically begged me to fill in. I just couldn’t disappoint him.”

I didn’t exactly know how to respond to that. At that age I did not get the irony of a Protestant minister pretending to be Catholic saint. Then my dad continued.

“Paul, today I learned a valuable lesson.”

“What lesson is that?” I asked.

“I learned that just because you can, doesn’t mean you must.

Remember that,” said my father. “I knew I wouldn’t be any good, and yet I forced myself to go through with it. What was I thinking?”

He stood up from his desk and gave me a big hug.

“Papa,” I said with a trembling voice, “may I ask you something?”

“Always,” he said. “What is it?”

“Does this mean I won’t be getting any presents this year?”

“Of course you will,” my dad responded. “The whole school is well aware that I was just pretending to be Sinterklaas, but you know what? The real guy is still out there. Trust me.”

I so wanted to believe my father, but I couldn’t. Not anymore.

That day, my childhood (and the childhood of seven hundred other kids), had lost a bit of its magic, simply because my father couldn’t say no.

COMING HOME

Forty-four years later I look at an inbox filled with voice-over auditions (I’m a voice actor); opportunities other people think I should embrace. But when I look at them, I know I don’t want to be the guy with the fake beard and the brown shoes, arriving in a Morris Marina. And I think of my fathers words:

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you must.

The author and his father.

My dad ain’t no saint, but his words of wisdom are a gift I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Some three years ago, I left for The Netherlands, and knocked on my father’s door. We both knew this was probably the last time we would see each other.

In my father’s presence I once again became the boy I used to be, and we talked about the day my dad impersonated a Spanish bishop.

We laughed.

We cried.

And we said our goodbyes.

My dad died on January 10th, 2015.

This Saturday it will be my turn to play Sinterklaas for the families of the Netherlands-America Association of the Delaware Valley. The day after I will make a saintly appearance at Trinity Episcopal Church, in Easton, Pennsylvania, where I now live.

And so, the family tradition continues. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Sander van der Wel, Netherlands

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