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VO Atlanta: a Waste of Money or a Wise Investment?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Promotion, Social Media 10 Comments

on stage at VO Atlanta 2018, click to enlarge

As VO Atlanta (March 28 – 31) is rapidly approaching, something predictable is happening. The people who are on the fence about going, start making the rounds on social media asking:

“Is it worth it?”

You’ll never hear those who have participated in previous years ask this question. For them, it’s a non-issue because they know from experience that they will receive much more than they have invested. That’s why they’re coming back again and again and again.

The question “Is it worth it,” is asked a lot on social media in different ways. “Is joining Pay to Play X worth the money?” “Should I buy microphone Y?” “Does Mr. Z produce good demos?” I’m always surprised by the number of people ready to answer these queries without knowing anything about the person who is asking, and knowing very little about the subject matter. Online, the deaf often lead the blind.

A MATTER OF VALUE

When someone asks me “Is it worth it” I want to know at least two things before I decide to chime in:

What do you mean by “it,”

and

How do you determine “worth?”

If I don’t get clarification on those two things, I’ll run the risk of answering the question from my experience and with my values in mind, which are bound to be different from the person asking the question. Bear in mind:

People don’t do things for my reasons or your reasons.

They do things for their reasons.

Once you find out what their reasons are, you can make a case based on what motivates them. Consequently, they’re more likely to resonate with what you have to say. Anyone working in sales should know this.

Going back to the questions behind the question “Is it worth it?” what does the first “it” actually mean? Obviously, “It” refers to VO Atlanta. It is a linguistic attempt to fit the entire conference experience into a two-letter word. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see that that’s impossible. A conference like VO Atlanta consists of multiple days loaded with content and social interaction. It’s pointless and unfair to boil that down to one meaningless word.

ACTIVE PARTICIPATION

Besides, everyone experiences the conference differently. It’s not a spectator sport. As in real life, what you get out of it is greatly determined by what you put into it. If you don’t put yourself out there professionally and personally, you’ll have a very different conference then when you do. In other words: YOU determine the return on investment.

Here’s my prediction. If your mindset is “I’ll wait and see. You come to me,” then you’re not going to get as much out of the conference compared to an actively involved participant. Some of the most valuable and memorable moments at VO Atlanta (and I’m talking about “worth” now) may come from unplanned, spontaneous meetings in the corridors of the hotel, or at the lunch table.

They may come when you gather all your courage to walk up to one of your VO idols and start a conversation. Before you know it, you end up sharing a meal as you informally talk about the biz. That’s what makes VO Atlanta so unique.

2019 keynote speaker Kay Bess

As a former journalist, I had to report on lots of conferences. From that, I learned two things. One: most of these gatherings are a snooze fest. Two: the speakers are unapproachable and leave as soon as they’ve collected their checks. Everyone who’s ever been to VO Atlanta will tell you that this event is the complete opposite. It is engrossing and entertaining, and all presenters are accessible during the entire conference.

There are no industry secrets and no oversized egos. Just people who want you to succeed.

What else would make VO Atlanta worthwhile? I won’t speak for you, but I’ll gladly share my thoughts and feelings.

IN IT TOGETHER

What many are looking for, is a sense of connection. We all do our work in isolation, in a small box, talking to imaginary people. We know that there are lots of other silly people who do the same thing, but they’re just a profile picture on Facebook or Instagram. Meeting these people in real life means truly connecting with an international voice-over family you never knew you always had. There’s an instant rapport with folks who really get you because they do what you do, and love it just as much.

As the grand hotel ballroom fills up with hundreds of talkative colleagues, you look at the gathering crowd, and it suddenly dawns upon you:

2018 keynote

I am not alone! This is my community! These are my people!

Here’s what happens: competitors become colleagues, and colleagues become friends. Friends become a support system you can count on in good times, and when times are not so good.

“That’s all nice, warm and fuzzy, but will it get me any work?” you ask. “My clients aren’t going to be at VO Atlanta.”

I can only speak for myself, but I get a lot of work through referrals from colleagues who know that I am the go-to person for Dutch and neutral English jobs. People don’t refer people they don’t know, so it’s important to make connections. A conference is an ideal setting to do just that.

LEARNING FROM FEEDBACK

You also get a chance to impress top coaches and casting directors with your audition. Normally, you’d probably have a hard time getting in the door with these folks because they have no time and they don’t know you. At VO Atlanta, meeting them is part of your ticket. Not only will they listen to you, but they’ll also give you feedback on your read, and if they like you, they might sign you.

Because the voice-over industry is not regulated, there is no requirement for continued education. Come to think of it, there’s no requirement for any education! As the number of professional VO’s increases each year, those who are best prepared, have a greater chance of actually making a living. The many panels, workshops, presentations, and X-sessions at VO Atlanta will give you a necessary edge in a crowded field. Rather than reinventing the wheel making beginner’s mistakes, you’ll save time and money by learning from the pros who made the same mistakes when they were starting out.

Do you need more reasons to come to Atlanta?

THE SECRET INGREDIENT

There’s one thing you won’t find in any of the promotional materials, online or otherwise, simply because it cannot be captured. It has to be experienced. I am talking about the energy at the conference. At times it’s electric and contagious.

I may be biased, but I think that voice-over people are among the least pretentious, kindest, and most giving people on the planet. In Atlanta, the sense that we’re all here to help and support one another is overwhelming. Together we’ll continue the fight for fair rates, we’ll call out unethical and greedy companies, and together we’ll strive to continuously raise the professional bar. Plus, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we like to laugh a lot!

To someone who has never been to this conference the following may sound overly dramatic, but at VO Atlanta I got a glimpse of what the world can be when people of all backgrounds, faiths, persuasions, languages, and traditions come together and cheer each other on. It is powerful in the most positive way, and this world needs more of it. When leaving last year’s conference, I couldn’t stop smiling!

To me, that positive energy was one of the greatest takeaways from the conference, and one of the many reasons why I will be coming back as a presenter and a participant.

WHY YOU SHOULD GO

Lets face it. You’ve been working hard for the past couple of months and you deserve a break. A BIG break, even. Do yourself a favor and get out of that musty studio of yours. Go south, see some daylight, and meet some real people. You may not read from the same script, but you’re already on the same page.

the author presents

Take part in the group challenge and record a commercial for a charity. You might even win some gear! Dress up under the disco ball, and dance like no one is watching. Laugh a lot and cry a little when a deserving colleague receives the Unicorn Award. You’ll come home feeling recharged and refreshed.

And remember to look for the guy in the yellow clogs!

See you there!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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The Myth of the Shortcut

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

“Seize the day,” “Carpe Diem,” “Maximize each moment.” 

In a society as hectic as ours, that seems to be sound advice. Especially at the beginning of a new year.

All of us are given a limited time on earth. The best thing is to use it wisely. Don’t worry too much about tomorrow. Get the most out of each day.

Go to any electronics expo, and you’ll find tons of smart gadgets designed to make us do more in less time. While some of these ingenious tools can be helpful, they are part of a trend that worries me:

Life is speeding up. People are getting less patient, and more stressed.

They are focused on the short term, instead of thinking ahead.

Why? Because we crave certainty, and it’s easier to predict what will happen in the next moment as opposed to years from now. Instant gratification has never been more popular, and has never been more destructive.

A few examples. 

Politics doesn’t think in decades anymore. Voters have short memories and demand quick results. Policies that lead to temporary gains are favored over measures that may take years to implement and bear fruit. Let’s drill for energy today, and we’ll worry about the environment later!

We’re not interested in diets or exercise that lead to gradual, lasting weight loss. No, we demand results by the end of the week. And if that scale doesn’t give us a number we’re happy with, we blame it on the method and move on to something else. But everybody knows that losing pounds is the easy part. Keeping them off is much more challenging. That requires long-term commitment.

Makeover shows on television tell us that people can change their lives in a matter of days. It takes us a week to build an Extreme Home, five days to turn a failing restaurant around, and 48 hours to learn what not to wear. After that, we’ll never be the same again! Well, a few weeks later our dream home is leaking, the bistro is going bankrupt, and that fashion-challenged girl dresses like a slob again. 

I’m sorry to break it to you, but quick fixes rarely lead to lasting change

Short-term thinking is a big problem in the “industry” I’m a part of: the wonderful world of freelancing, in particular, the voice-over industry.

THE MYTH OF THE SHORTCUT

Thanks to false advertising, unrealistic expectations, and an attitude of entitlement and impatience, some people still believe they can rise to the top in very little time. Just read this book, take that seminar, and buy some cheap gear. Before you know it, you’re in business! No experience necessary. 

And when these people finally come to me for coaching because they’re not getting anywhere, they are shocked when I present a long-term plan without guarantees. 

“That can’t be,” they say. “This takes too long, and it’s too expensive. I don’t have the time, and I don’t have the money. I thought this would be easy.”

I tell them: 

“If you’re in this for the long run, a few simple steps won’t get you anywhere. Would you throw some seeds into the soil and expect a few trees to magically pop up the next morning? And would you expect these trees to bear fruit the day after? It may very well be a couple of years before you book your first job.”

One person responded: “If it takes that long, you’re probably not a very good coach.”

I replied: “If that’s what you believe, you probably won’t be a very good student.”

THE ONLINE CASTING TRAP

Another example of short-term thinking is the way some people perceive the “membership” fee for online casting sites. They tell me: “If I book one nice job, this whole thing pays for itself.”

No, it doesn’t. It wouldn’t even be true if you only booked that one job. If you spend let’s say $399 on membership, and you make $399, what’s your profit? To see if that $399 would be a worthwhile investment, you’d have to look at an entire year of membership, and ask yourself:  “For all the time and money invested, how many dollars did I get in return?”

You’d have to add up all the money made through that Pay to Play in one year, and deduct the membership fee, taxes and other expenses. Then you divide your net profit by the total number of hours required to generate that income. By hours I mean all the time spent looking at jobs on that site, doing auditions, communicating with clients, and recording/editing the audio.

When you finally look at how much you’ve made per hour in a year, do you think this is still a good investment, or should you spend your time and money elsewhere? Of course no one ever takes the time to run the numbers. Perhaps they’re afraid of the answer.

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION

But don’t make the mistake that short-term thinking is just a problem for the newbie. I often encounter it when colleagues discuss the hot topic of pricing. People with a short-term view tend to charge lower rates than those who are in it for the long haul. 

“I’d rather make a hundred bucks now, than lose out on a job,” they say. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” A week later they complain that they can’t seem to make a living as a voice talent. 

No surprise there. 

Your rate is not just about money. It’s a sign of professionalism. It sends a signal to the client: “This is what I believe my time and talent are worth.”

It also sends a signal to the industry: “This is what I believe this job is worth.” 

By the way, it’s much easier to book a low-rate job than to land a well-paid gig. Any fool can undercut the competition (and go broke in the process).

Here’s the thing: If we devalue the work we do, don’t expect rates to rise. Low rates will become the new normal.

How do we turn this around?

Step one: realize that short-term actions have long-term consequences.

If you don’t think about the long-term consequences of your actions, your life becomes inconsequential.

A NEW FOCUS

If you wish to have sustained success as a freelancer, you have to start thinking long-term, and big picture.

You have to ask yourself:

“Where do I want to be, five years, ten years from now? How much do I need to minimally make in a year to get there? What do I have to invest? How much do I need to charge?” 

Of course you also have to factor in what people around you are charging, and what clients are willing to pay. But don’t let that limit you. Premium products command a premium price. If you think that’s just a slogan, tell me: who’d have thought people would be willing to pay over $1000 for a mobile phone?

Thinking big picture also means you have to consider the effect your actions may have on others, and on this planet (often for generations). You don’t live on an island. It’s not just about you. What you do or don’t do may not seem earth-shattering, but it makes a difference. A tidal wave consists of many small drops. 

So, here’s my humble request for 2019:

Accept that there are no shortcuts to success.

Slow down, practice patience, and embrace delayed gratification.

Dare to say no, instead of settling for low.

Trust me.

All of this will pay off in the long run!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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My Most Moving And Miraculous Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Promotion, Social Media, Studio 6 Comments

Paul Strikwerda

Counting correctly, this is my 49th entry this year. Wow!

You may have read them all, or you may have read a few. Anyhow, I’m glad you’re here so I can remind you of the stories you have memorized, as well as the ones you may have missed. As always, blue text means a hyperlink that takes you straight to the story.

Apart from the usual musings about clients, colleagues, and the ins and outs of running a for-profit freelance business, things took a very serious turn some nine months ago. March 26th was the day I almost died. It was hard to imagine that only a few days before, I had been a presenter at VO Atlanta, which I didn’t like, by the way. I LOVED it, and I’ll be back in 2019!

After my stroke, the blog entries kept coming, but I disappeared from your radar screen, so I could focus on my recovery. One of the things I had to work on was getting my voice back, which is not as easy as it sounds.

People going through major, traumatic, life-changing events often ask three questions:

– Why me?

– Why this?

– Why now?

In Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It, I’ll tell you how I deal with these questions. Stories like these are examples of what I’m trying to do with this blog. Many assume that since I work as a voice talent, this must be a blog about voice-overs. That’s only partially true.

For me, the world of voice acting is just a lens through which I observe and comment on the world. When I write about customers, colleagues, and communication, what I really write about is relationships and human interaction.

A story like Filling In The Blanks, is not only a tale about what happens when you start to second-guess what you think your clients want to hear. It’s a story about perception and projection. About making assumptions, and finding true meaning.

In Getting In Our Own Way, I describe two types of voice talents: the narcissist and the masochist. They are two types of people who are very hard to teach. Take a few minutes to read it, and tell me if it only applies to the world of voice acting.

One more example. Are Clients Walking All Over You? is not just about dealing with difficult clients. It’s about how to handle conflict and getting a spine. That’s something many of us struggle with on a regular basis.

Some of my stuff is explicitly written for those who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, and those who are new to the business. When it comes to these people, here’s my general approach: I tell them what they don’t want to hear. As you can imagine, that makes me very popular in certain circles.

Stories like Entitled Wannabees Need Not Reply, Ten Lies Voice Overs Tell, and 5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice-Over are perfect examples. Bored Stiff, about the unexciting parts of being a VO, is another one.

This December I wrote a 3-part series called Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? (here’s a link to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three). If you ever have the “People told me I have a great voice” conversation with a wannabe, and you’re lost for words, please point them to this series.

Now, whenever I write these cautionary articles, there are always one or two commentating newcomers who still believe I’m trying to denigrate and disparage beginners.“You must be threatened by us,” they say, or “You were once a newbie. Why are you so mean?” It’s as if I personally reject them.

Although I’m convinced The Voice-Over World Needs More Rejection, it is never my intention to spitefully discourage people who are talented and truly committed to becoming a voice actor. In fact, in my blog I give those folks tools and strategies to help them navigate a new career in a competitive market.

Take a story like Surviving the Gig Economy, or 4 Ways To Get From Good To Great. The Secret to Sustained Success is another example. As a blogger I want to warn and welcome my readers to this fascinating but tricky line of work. Not to scare them, but to prepare them. If you don’t get the difference, you’re probably too thin-skinned for this business.

Speaking of business, without customers, you would not have one. Blog posts like Is Your Client Driving You Crazy? or Learn To Speak Like Your Clients were written to help you manage the delicate relationship with the hands that feed you.

In Would You Survive The Shark Tank? I invite you to take a good look at your business to see how well you would do in front of cash-hungry investors. If you want to cut expenses, read Becoming A Frugal Freelancer. If you need to increase sales, turn to How To Sell Without Selling. If you’re struggling with getting fair rates, read Stop Selling Yourself Short.

As a voice-over coach I’ve encountered a common problem that’s keeping talented voice actors from making a good living. They have the right training, the right gear, and promising demos, and yet they’re struggling. Why?

Because they are subconsciously sabotaging their success. They might be stuck in the Perfectionism Trap. They might be suffering from Mike Fright, or they might be held back by other fears. In other cases they are lacking a support system, or they may need some serious rebranding.

This year (like any other year), I could not resist writing about gear. Check out Picking the Perfect Voice-Over Microphone, and Equip Your Voice-Over Studio For Under A Thousand Bucks. Start spending those lovely gift cards during the post-Christmas sale! I know they’re burning a hole in your pocket.

What was my greatest gift this year? I’ll tell you: it was your ongoing support when I needed it most. Thank you for reaching out after my stroke, and for showing me that you’re not just a colleague or reader of this blog, but a true friend I can count on when times are tough.

My recovery made 2018 a miraculous year.

Your help and encouragement have moved me more than words could possibly convey.

I wish you a very happy and healthy New Year!

Gratefully yours,

Paul Strikwerda  ©nethervoice

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Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 3

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 12 Comments

Leap of FaithClick here for Part 1, and click here for Part 2.

One thing I am sure of.

Human beings have a hard time dealing with uncertainty.

From the moment we’re born till the moment we die, we have a need to know.

That’s why we spend a lifetime answering questions, such as:

  • Why am I here?
  • Is there a God?
  • Can I be happy?
  • Why does evil exist?
  • Is there an afterlife?
  • McDonald’s or Burger King?

Not knowing is often worse than knowing. That’s why TV shows take us from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and millions tune in to find out who the next American Idol is going to be. We cannot live with the suspense of not knowing.

Where does this innate urge come from? I believe it has to do with control. Subconsciously, people assume that the things they know for sure, they can control. We cannot measure and control the things that are unknown.

Two friends of mine love going on vacations. Let’s call them Jack and John. Both have traveled the world in ways that couldn’t be more different. Jack’s a free spirit. He likes to improvise, and takes life one step at a time. Jack is the person who’d buy a ticket to Rome and a Lonely Planet guide to Italy, and he lets his gut feeling determine where and when he goes to explore the country.

John would absolutely hate that. He prefers to tour Italy with a group, knowing exactly where he ‘s going to be, and where he is going to stay from day to day to day. And if things wouldn’t go according to plan, he’d get very nervous and upset. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is his favorite saying.

Ask yourself: Are you a Jack, or are you a John?

That’s a question anyone should ask before deciding to become an independent contractor. It’s exactly the sort of thing that makes it so hard to be a professional voice-over. I’ll go one step further: the answer to that question is the number one reason why most people who are going freelance, fail.

I’m not making that up to rain on your parade. The Small Business Association (SBA) estimates that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years, and 66% during the first 10. Those cold numbers camouflage dreams dashed, families in turmoil, and the burden of bankruptcy.

I’ll be very clear: those who eventually become successful at doing voice-overs, are great at handling uncertainty in an economic system that favors predictability.

So, what kind of uncertainty am I talking about?

For starters, you’ll never know where your work will be coming from, and which job you’ll land, and which job will go to a colleague. If you’re not selected, you’ll never know why.

When you audition, you won’t know what the client is looking for. Many clients will tell you: “I’ll know it when I hear it.” The job description is purposely vague: “Male/Female voice, Neutral English, Young Adult to Middle Age.”

You’ll never know how much the client has budgeted for the job you just auditioned for. They all plead poverty. These days you won’t even know how much a particular job is worth anymore, and what your bid should be. You’ll be bidding on jobs in many countries and many markets for all sorts of media. There will always be an idiot who will do more for less.

Once you’ve accepted the job, things don’t get any clearer. Nine out of ten times you’ll be recording by yourself without a director, so it’s up to you to read between the lines and interpret the script as best as you can. It’s a hit or miss process.

The whole thing feels like running a restaurant where you are the owner and chef. The client comes in and wants food. “What would you like?” you ask. “I’ll know it when I see it,” says the customer. “Go to the kitchen and work your magic. But make it quick.”

Half an hour later you proudly present your finished dish. The client smells the food, turns green, and waves the plate away saying: “That’s not what I ordered! I’m not paying for that.” Or worse, they’ll eat everything and disappear without leaving a check.”

You see, that’s another thing you’ll be uncertain about. As a voice-over, you run an international business that’s based on trust. The client trusts you to take care of the job. You trust the client to pay you for the job. On time and in full.

Good luck with that!

The Freelancers Union estimates that 7 out of 10 freelance workers face nonpayment, and freelancers are stiffed an average of $6000 annually.

Who is going to protect you? So far, New York is the only city in the United States to adopt the Freelancing Isn’t Free Act which extends unprecedented protections against nonpayment for millions of New York City’s freelance workers.

But what do you do when that client in Mumbai or Shenyang doesn’t respond to your payment requests? They wanted your audio files yesterday, you sent them, and now they’re MIA. You have no leverage. The only thing you can do is publicly shame them, and demand payment up front the next time you work with an unknown client.

Given the fact that you don’t know what you’ll be working on, when you’ll be working, how much you’ll be working, how much you’re getting paid, and when the money will be coming in, how do you know you’ll be able to pay the bills?

Try getting a mortgage on a freelance income, or any other loan for that matter. If you’re just getting started you need the money the most to pay for all that equipment, your demos, website, home studio, marketing materials, and coaching sessions. And you have nothing to show for it but good intentions.

No matter how much or how little is coming in, your insurance company expects you to pay your premium on time, your rent is due the first of the month, and your credit cards need to be paid, as well as your taxes. John would go crazy going from month to month.

You may be able to live with uncertainty, but what about your family?

Now, in the past I used to say that the only factor in this business you can count on and control, is YOU.

That sounds nice, but based on my experience, most people who try their hand at voice-overs lack the knowledge, the drive, and the discipline to run a business. They can handle it as a hobby, but that’s it. Let me give you an example. As a VO-coach I can quickly tell if someone has what it takes by the way they handle my assignments.

Those who need a lot of hand-holding don’t impress me. Those who don’t do their homework and make all sorts of excuses, tend not to do well. Those who say “Just tell me where I can find work,” are likely to fail.

Many are interested. Very few are committed.

Here’s the problem: as someone who is self-employed, no one will tell you what to do. No one will hold you accountable. No one cares if you sleep in, or waste your time surfing the web.

And then there’s this.

Until March of this year, I thought I was in control. I believed that I was the certainty my business was based on.

Then I had a stroke.

I woke up weak, exhausted, and without a voice. During many months of rehab I lost thousands of dollars in work I was unable to do. Some of my clients with whom I’d been working for years, found other talent and never came back.

Instead of building my business, I am rebuilding it, piece by piece. But if it weren’t for my amazing better half, my business probably would have gone bust.

At the end of the day, running a business is about risks and rewards.

Too often, newcomers focus on the rewards, and forget about the risks.

So, if you’re seriously thinking of becoming a voice-over, are you a Jack or a John?

I know you want the rewards, but are you certain you’re ready for the risks?

If so, you are in for a most rewarding career!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 2

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Pay-to-Play, Promotion, Social Media 10 Comments

Click here for part 1

What do you think voice-overs do all day long?

Sit behind their microphones and record the most amazing scripts?

Make $5,000 for a twenty-second commercial?

Narrate yet another best-selling novel?

If you choose to believe Facebook, that’s what voice-overs do. They book, they record, and they cash in. Rinse and repeat.

Unfortunately, that’s a big fat lie, told to the world because no one wants to look like a loser on social media. We’re one happy family, everything is always great, and business is booming!

The truth is, some voice actors are doing really well, and many are not. Going into 2019, even the big names are asked to work for smaller budgets at full perpetual buyouts, while $249 seems to be the new normal for many non-union jobs. Jobs that would easily go for four or five times as much some years ago, perhaps even more.

If you’re just starting out, and your expectations are as great as your ambition, that’s probably not something you want to hear. But let’s be realistic for a moment.

Once you’ve told the world that you are now a professional voice-over, it stops being a hobby or a daydream. In fact, you’ve just opened up a business. Congratulations.

Are you ready to be a business owner?

Just to be clear: the IRS considers an activity to be a business if:

“that activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year (…).”

As someone who has coached many beginning voice talents, I’ll be straight with you. Most of my students have no clue what it means to run a for-profit business in a market saturated with wannabes. That’s a huge part of what makes doing voice-overs so difficult!

Think about it. You may be a crazy talented chef in your state-of-the-art kitchen, but if you don’t know how to run a successful restaurant, you’re doomed to fail. If you don’t believe me, ask Gordon Ramsey!

Here’s where the comparison stops. A smart chef has a staff managing all business aspects of his establishment. That way, he can concentrate on the cooking. As a VO-pro you are on your own, wearing many, many hats. You’ve got to get customers in the door, set the tables, cook the food, clean up at the end of the day, and do the books.

On top of that, too many beginners don’t know what they don’t know. Between you and me, they just want to have fun talking into a microphone, and get paid for it.

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: most voice-overs spend way more time trying to get the work than doing the work, myself included (and I’ve been at it for over thirty years).

Like any business, you’ve got to attract customers. How do you do that when no one has ever heard of you (and no one cares to hear about you)? Have you thought about that?

Don’t tell me you’re going to sign up for a voice casting website, and expect them to get you work. That big unethical one in Canada claims to have a global network of over 200,000 voice-overs, and most of them speak English. By the time you open that casting email, you’re at the back of a long line of hopefuls who just received the same message. Chances are that the client won’t ever hear your carefully crafted custom demo. I mean, who’s got time to listen to over a hundred auditions?

And you pay for that “privilege”?

Don’t expect an agent to send you work either when you still have to prove yourself. The irony is: agents want you when you no longer need them. As soon as you have clearly demonstrated an ability to make them money, you become interesting. By that time you should already have a portfolio of returning clients giving your business a sustainable basis.

So, if you can’t rely on Pay to Plays or agents, what are you to do? Where do all these fantastic money-making voice-over jobs come from? Do you find them on Craigslist? Do they grow on trees?

Ultimately, finding work comes down to one person: YOU!

Here’s secret number two: it’s easier to have clients find you, than you having to find clients.

To get people’s attention, you’ve got to toot your own horn. That puts you not only in the business of providing voice-overs. You’re also in the business of self-promotion and marketing. Be honest: do you have expertise in those areas? Are you even comfortable telling people why they should hire you?

Let’s be more specific. Do you know how to design and maintain a kick-ass website that’s search engine optimized, and ready to withstand hackers? If not, do you know a reputable company that can build that site for you? Let’s assume you just spent thousands of dollars on coaching, professional demos, equipment, and a good recording space, how much money is left to get you an online presence? Include the money you pay to a company like SiteGround, to host your website.

Building a website is not just about finding an attractive template and some stock photographs. You need someone with serious copywriting skills to sell your services. Someone who can capture your essence and turn it into a brand. You also have to develop fresh content to give visitors a reason to come back to your website. How are you going to do that?

Then there’s your social media presence. Your brand new company has to be on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and whatever the next big thing is going to be. Each platform has its own rules, algorithms, and format. You’ll have to learn how to shoot and edit decent home videos, how to take striking pictures, and how to write compelling copy that makes you stand out above the crowd.

A word of warning. Once you get started, you’ll soon notice that social media is a monster that constantly needs to be fed with fresh, relevant, and unique content created by YOU. This takes time. Lots of time. If you’re lucky, your content gets picked up. More likely, it gets lost in an ocean of mindless, self-absorbed chatter crying “Look at ME. Look at ME!”

Those who are young and full of energy are used to living life online. Their self-esteem is linked to the number of likes each post receives. To them, creating a social media presence is no big deal. I have coached quite a few people for whom voice-overs is a second or third career. They’re in their fifties or sixties, and to them building a website and being active on social media is intimidating and often frustrating. It’s not what they signed up for when they dreamt of being an audio book narrator.

They want to try it the old-fashioned way: cold calling clients. It’s the most masochistic way to spend your day. With people being sick of unwanted solicitation and robocalls, good luck trying to get past the screener before you can read your script to some teenager who is in charge of promotions. These days, more and more people refuse to answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number. If you love listening to voicemail and pissing people off, go for it!

So, let’s quickly recap. Why is doing voice-overs so difficult?

Last week I told you it is hard to sound natural in an unnatural situation, and to act as if you’re not acting. You need much more than a great voice to make it.

Today we talked about running a business, finding work, and self-promotion.

Next week I’ll add another layer: dealing with constant uncertainty.

Be certain to check it out!

Paul Strikwerda

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PPS Bob Souer, one of the nicest people in the voice-over community, has had a tough year. He has asked for our help to turn a corner and move ahead. Through the years, Bob has supported many of us with his wisdom and insight. Now it is time we support him and his family. Please visit his GoFundMe page, and give what you can give. Thank you!

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Stop Giving All The Answers

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Social Media 10 Comments

One of the joys of visiting Facebook voice-over groups is this. Every day, you’ll find questions from VO-colleagues that have been asked and answered a gazillion times. In most cases, the person asking the question is new to VO (yet they’re on the Voice-Over Professionals group), and simply too lazy to do a quick search, and they want to be spoon-fed like a cry-baby.

This is not unique to VO, by the way. You’ll find the same phenomenon in almost any group on social media. In this age of information, laziness, willful ignorance, and an attitude of entitlement is alive and well!

Now, I can already hear my critics say: “Stop it already! There’s no need to bash beginners. Be supportive. You were a novice once. I’m sure a lot of people helped you out when you were new to this.”

True, but things were very different when I first stepped up to the microphone. This happened in 1980 (yes, I’m that old). I was seventeen when a national broadcaster picked me to produce and present youth radio shows in the Netherlands. I had lots of ideas, but no clue about how to bring those ideas to the airwaves.

Back then, everybody was using typewriters, rotary phones, and Rolodexes. There was no Internet to do research. No social media. No YouTube tutorials. No place like Quora to share knowledge. I totally depended on the information I was able to dig up myself, and on the help from those who were already working in the business.

SELF-RELIANT

I still have the same attitude I had when I was young. Before I would bother a pro, I would do everything in my power to find the answers myself. I did this out of respect for the experts’ time, and out of respect for myself.

Looking back, my quest for knowledge taught me more than the quick-and-easy answers the pros could have given me. To this day I am convinced that when we’re on a journey to find our own solutions, the knowledge tends to stick much better because we’re invested in the process.

I see this as a coach. My students ask predictable questions all the time. “Should I record sitting down or standing up? How do I protect my voice? What’s the best voice-over travel kit? Where can I find practice scripts? PC or Mac?”

It would be easy for me to answer these questions based on my experience. But what works for me, doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of the world. Voice-overs is not a one-size-fits-all business. My job is to make sure the individual I am coaching finds something that caters to his or her unique needs and budget.

If I were to give them all the answers on a silver platter, I’d make my students lazy and dependent, but if I send them on a quest, they’d have to do the work, and depend on themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I won’t send them on a wild goose chase. Like a tour guide, I point them in a certain direction, but they have to explore the area by themselves and report back to me. Why is this important?

FORCED CHOICES

We live in a time of algorithms. Algorithms determine what pops up in your Facebook feed. Algorithms decide what products Amazon thinks you should buy. Algorithms suggest which people to befriend, and which jobs you should go after. In an ocean of information, cutting-edge technology beyond our control filters what reaches us and what doesn’t. We are being spoon-fed by artificial intelligence.

As fascinating as this new technology may be, I believe people should use their own initiative and intelligence to gather and evaluate information first. I want them to become critical, knowledgeable voters, consumers, and professionals who are able and ready to make their own choices. You don’t need Netflix to tell you what you want to watch.

A word of warning. Our society doesn’t necessarily like these independent thinkers, because they don’t conform to the norm. These people question what’s being presented to them, and refuse to be manipulated. They don’t buy into hypes, they’re not impressed by assumed authority, and tend not to fall for schemes that take advantage of the willfully ignorant.

This pro-active, non-conformist, and critical mindset is exactly what I’d like my students, colleagues, and readers to develop. As more and more people flood the freelance market, it is vitally important to question the easy answers, to not do what everybody does, and to be the instigator of our own success.

WINNING ATTITUDE

This mindset alone will make you stand out, and increase your chances in the unregulated world of voice acting. Why is that? Because so many people are afraid to be different, so many people love the reward but don’t want to do the work, and so many believe BS because they can’t distinguish between fact and fiction.

You don’t want to be like so many people.

So, the next time you feel tempted to answer one of those common questions on social media, ask yourself the following:

“Will a baby ever learn to walk, if we carry her everywhere?”

“Is it better to teach a new colleague how to fish, or do we feed him a fish?”

“Are we really helping this person by spoon-feeding them information, or are we enabling a lazy attitude that is counterproductive to a successful career?”

Don’t expect me to answer that for you!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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What Is Holding You Back?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 2 Comments

Doll on Halloween pumpkinIf I were to ask you:

“What is one of the greatest motivators of behavior on the planet?”

What would you say?

Before you answer, let me add this:

All animals respond to it, including us, humans.

Every year, companies make billions of dollars because of it. People lose sleep over it. Others are driven to insanity because they can’t handle it. Some people use it for entertainment purposes.

The remarkable thing is this: Most of the time we don’t even know if it is based in reality. It doesn’t matter. Alfred Hitchcock knew that our imagination is way more powerful than anything he could ever put on celluloid. He famously said:

“There is no terror in the bang. Only in the anticipation of it.”

WHAT DRIVES US?

One of our greatest motivators is FEAR.

Around this time of year we are all reminded of our love-hate relationship with fear. We love scary movies. Terrifying videos games are worldwide bestsellers. The most dangerous amusement park rides have the longest lines.

Fear is fun!

Why else would people jump out of airplanes, swim with sharks, or scare each other on Halloween, dressed up like zombies?

Fear also explains why so many Americans love their guns, why we buy insurance, and why some people believe in G-d.

At the heart of fear is our deep concern for getting hurt. People are willing to do a lot to avoid a little pain, but they’re willing to give up even more to play it safe.

How many friends have given up a dream because they were afraid it would become a disaster? How many sweet souls have never declared their love for fear of rejection? How many people never dared to step on stage and show their talent, because they didn’t want to embarrass themselves?

Fear can paralyze and suffocate. It prevents people from even trying. Fear is the spirit behind the inner voice that whispers:

“I’m not good enough”

“I don’t deserve this”

“I’m sure I will fail”

“People will laugh at me”

DIFFERENT FEARS

Of course I should stop for a moment to make the distinction between rational and irrational fear. Fear of heights, ferocious animals, and fear of evil men with loaded guns is usually a good thing. When the danger is real, fear is meant to protect us from harm.  

However, we often suffer needlessly because we’re afraid of things that may happen, but probably never will. In holding on to irrational beliefs, we deny ourselves a chance to find out what will really happen when we dare to take a risk.

Many, many years ago I decided I didn’t want the security of a corporate job with corporate hours, and corporate benefits. I defied the expectations of family and friends by becoming a freelancer. Why? Because something inside me knew that the opposite of fear was freedom. I needed to be free to do my own thing in my own way, and in my own time.

Looking back, I can’t say that my road was without bumps, and that my game was free of curveballs. There were times I wished I had a regular schedule, and a regular paycheck. And yet, I am so glad I didn’t listen to those who warned me it would never work. Those people are now jealous that I can set my own hours, my own rates, and that I work out of my own home.

LIBERATE YOURSELF

If you wish to claim the rewards, you have to embrace the risk, defy your critics, and defeat your fears.

There will always be a million reasons that hold you back, but you only need one good reason to go for it.

What is yours?

Believe me, if you’re a self-starter and you run your own business, you will be asked to dig deep. People will test you, they will ridicule you, and they will desert you when you need them most. That’s scary, but not in a Halloween sort of way. In these times you will ask yourself:

“Why am I doing this? What is my motivation?”

Even though you and I may not know each other, I do know this:

There is something you are really good at. Maybe it has to be developed and refined. Perhaps it needs a few more years to mature. But you know the fire is burning, and you feel the yearning.

That talent and that fire is one of your many strengths. It is one of the reasons why you’re here. You owe it to yourself and to the rest of us to stand in your strength. That strength will help you turn your fear into faith. By faith I mean self-confidence. 

TRANSFORMATION

Faith will help you believe you can make it, even in the absence of proof. After all, how can you prove something that hasn’t happened yet? You have to believe it, before you can see it. 

I don’t know who Paul Sweeney is, but he said something powerful that has always stuck with me:

“True success is overcoming the fear of being unsuccessful.”

Perhaps you know the story of British singer Alice Fredenham. People first heard of her when she appeared on The Voice, a talent show created by John de Mol, and based on the concept The Voice of Holland. When she came on, this “beauty therapist” was all bubbly, upbeat, and full of confidence. Even though her performance of The Lady Is a Tramp was solid, she didn’t impress any of the judges, and she was sent home. Her greatest fear had become a reality. 

But Alice didn’t give up. Two months later, she appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, but with a very different attitude. Take a look:

Of course I realize that these shows thrive on carefully crafted sentimentality. Alice was accused of faking her insecurity and her tears, but I wonder how confident I would have felt on that stage.

After being rejected in front of millions, she overcame her fear and insecurity, because the song inside of her was stronger. She eventually made it to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, and signed a record deal with Sony. Sony decided to release her from her demo contract, but Alice didn’t give up. A Kickstarter campaign allowed her to record her first album in 2015.

BACK TO YOU

If you allow yourself to be motivated by fear, your focus is on what you don’t want. Take it from me, that’s not where your energy should be. Your energy should be on your strengths and your goals. Not on your weaknesses.

This week, do yourself a favor. Be like Alice Fredenham and do something uncomfortable. Do something you’re a bit afraid of; something that scares you. Don’t pick your greatest fear. Pick something small for starters. Big success is built on a series of small achievements.

Discover that what you were initially afraid of, wasn’t really a big deal after all. Perhaps what you expected to happen, didn’t. 

Next week, pick something else; something a bit bigger, and build on that experience. 

Use this trick, and turn it into a treat.

Make it worthwhile. Make it memorable. Make it meaningful.

That way, you get yourself ready for a moment when you can’t choose the challenge. The challenge chooses you. 

That’s when you’ll discover this simple fact:

Life doesn’t have to be a thriller, but it certainly can be thrilling.

Happy Halloween!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: alain l’étranger via photopin cc

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The Voice-Over World Needs More Rejection. Here’s Why.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 14 Comments

Words are powerful things.

They can inspire us, they make us laugh, they melt our hearts, and they entice our souls to jump for joy.

Words can also scare us and scar us. They can intimidate, discriminate, and humiliate.

The sound of certain words alone, can petrify people. Try this, will you?

Say the following words out loud, and let them sink in for a moment:

Terror
Horror
Pain
Death
Disaster

Did you feel the effect?

Although they are nothing but letters arranged in a specific order, they sound dark and ominous because of all the things we’ve learned to associate with them. The terror of 9/11, the horror of the Holocaust, the pain of suffering, the death of a loved one, and the disaster of losing a home in a fire.

We all carry these uniquely personal connotations within us, and -invisible to the outside world- they resonate whenever we hear these words. Here’s where things get interesting.

Although you may think that we share some of life’s ups and downs because they are part of being human, all of us experience these highs and lows in our own way. These experiences color what we associate with certain words. This explains why people can use the same words, and yet mean and feel very different things.

For instance, the word “Dutch” means something different to me than what it means to you. I was born in the Netherlands and grew up there. Dutch is part of my DNA. If you’re an American, the first thing you may think of is Pennsylvania Dutch, or a fun game of Double Dutch.

Take the word “relationship.” There’s the definition from the dictionary, and then there’ s our experiential definition, infused with memories, and expectations. We emotionally respond to the latter, not the former.

There are many scary words in our language, the scariest being the word “NO.”

A close second is the word “rejection,” which basically means the same thing. Today, I’m going to zoom in on that word, because I believe the voice-over community needs more of it.

What?

Yes, you’ve heard me.

We need more rejection. And before you reject that idea, please hear me out.

For newcomers trying to make a name for themselves in this competitive business, rejection is the worst that can happen. They’ve (hopefully) invested a lot of time and money in training and equipment, and feel ready to start playing the game. Subconsciously, many are convinced the world owes them. Why?

Well, when you make a serious investment, you should expect a decent return, right? That’s only fair.

Unfortunately, there is no fair in voice-over casting. There’s talent, training, experience, luck, who you know in the business, and subjective selection. None of them will guarantee any work.

So, when a novice starts auditioning for everything under the sun, and lands exactly zero jobs in three months, it feels like a slap in the face. Over time, they may start suffering from a gloomy condition I call rejection dejection, a feeling of failure caused by perceived incompetence.

Now, if that’s the result of rejection, why do I believe we need more of it? I’ll tell you.

1. People set themselves up for failure, and they deserve to be rejected

If you were ever in a position to cast a project, you know what I mean. You can throw at least half of the submissions out because the audio quality is appalling. Snowball microphones, egg crates, and leaf blowing neighbors can’t compete with pristine professional audio from someone who knows what s/he’s doing.

A quarter of auditionees don’t read the specs, and can’t be bothered to follow instructions. A quarter sounds fake and inauthentic, and many don’t know how to price their services. They’re either too cheap to be taken seriously, or too expensive to be competitive.

How do I know this? Because I’ve made all these mistakes! I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know without knowing it. The other day I was listening to some of my old auditions, and I was embarrassed. No wonder I didn’t book anything. But did I go on Facebook to moan and groan? No way! The only thing I could do was up my game, and rejection was the kick in the pants I desperately needed.

In short, rejection separates the wheat from the chaff, and can give people a strong incentive to learn and grow up.

2. We need to reframe rejection

The discussion about rejection almost always focuses on the poor, powerless voice-over, being a victim of the whims of a demanding, mysterious client. I’m not falling into that trap of misery and self-pity. Over the years I have turned the tables, and have come to see myself as the one doing the rejecting. It’s quite simple:

On any given day, I receive invitations to audition, and projects to record. Most of them I reject. I believe that quality, not quantity, is the secret to winning auditions. The client does not pay me to learn on the job, so I will only accept projects I know I can handle in terms of my skills and the time I have available.

I also reject projects that advocate unethical practices or promote products I cannot stand behind. For instance, I don’t want to be associated with the weapons trade, climate destruction, human rights abuses, the meat processing industry, and political parties whose ideas I cannot support. I know this has cost me work, but having principles comes at a price.

Lastly, I reject working with clients, corporations, or businesses that have been shown to act unethically. A particular Canadian Pay to Play comes to mind.

What’s the result of all this rejection? It’s the fact that I do work I can be proud of; work that makes me happy. If that’s something you want, I advise you to warmly embrace rejection!

3. We need to reject low rates, cheap clients, greedy Pay to Plays, and lowballing “colleagues”

Audio books are booming, video games are making billions, streaming services are producing more and more original content, eLearning is in high demand… I’d say the opportunities for voice-overs have never been better. That’s why so many want to give it a try.

In spite of these opportunities, many colleagues I talk to are finding it harder to get decent work for decent pay. Some of them end up doing more for less because the cost of living is going up and bills need to be paid. Agents dealing with clients tell me that it’s harder to negotiate a good rate, and that almost every client wants an unlimited buyout without paying for it.

Meanwhile, new voice casting services are opening their virtual doors, hoping to do good business with low rates and high commissions. It seems the gradual commoditization of our industry is in full swing.

The big questions is: how should we respond to that?

I think the answer lies in …. you’ve guessed it: rejection.

Be proud of your pricing, and reject rates that are insultingly low. Reject companies that triple dip, and leave you with less. Reject undercutting “colleagues.” Educate them, just as you educate your clients about fair fees.

Reject the lowballers that say: “One bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” That’s based on shortsighted, egotistical thinking. It’s not a way to carve out a sustainable career that can feed a family.

Reject the notion that your decisions do not make a difference. Every time you quote a project or you accept a fee, you send a signal to the market: “This is what I believe my work is worth.” The only reason clients are getting away with paying pennies, is because people agree to work for pennies. No one is forcing them at gunpoint.

Now, you may have all kinds of reasons why you feel you have the right to work for a low rate, but I’m not interested in reasons. I’m interested in results. And the result is that for many it’s become harder and harder to make a living as a full-time voice-over.

Do all of us a favor and stop competing on price. It’s a game you will lose, because there’s always an idiot willing to do more for less, and go bankrupt in the process.

Show some self-respect, and show some respect for your craft and your community. Start competing on added value. Prove to the client that you’re worth what you’re asking.

Because if you do things right, your added value will always be higher than your rate!

Now, if that’s an idea you reject, I’m afraid can’t help you.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Losing My Voice

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 28 Comments

At speech therapy wearing a TENS device

The facts are sobering.

Every forty seconds, someone is struck with a stroke. It is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Most people will never make a full recovery, and more than two-thirds of survivors have some kind of disability associated with the attack.

Those are the statistics.

It’s a good thing I don’t believe in numbers. I believe in proving them wrong. The history of the world is filled with people who were told “It can’t be done,” and yet they persisted and succeeded. Against all odds.

I believe that people don’t equal statistics.

Going by the stats, it seems reasonable to believe that I would never fully recover from the stroke that struck me six months ago. But I chose to be unreasonable.

Last week I wrote about my road to recovery, and I promised you to open up about the one thing that terrified me most. It was something I didn’t want my colleagues or clients to know, because it could ruin my career.

HOW IT STARTED

Let me take you back to March 26th, 2018, the day I woke up on the floor of my voice-over studio wondering what the heck was going on. In hindsight I had the classic signs of a stroke: a sudden and pounding headache, loss of coordination, and blurry vision. One side of my body was paralyzed, my face was drooping, and I had trouble speaking.

That last symptom manifested itself in two ways: I had difficulty speaking sentences that made sense, and my speech was slurred. This usually means that the part of the brain that controls language is not getting the blood supply it needs. It was in fact dying.

As I was being transported to the hospital in a helicopter, my wife got a phone call from the surgeon who was on standby to operate on me. “When Paul comes in, I probably won’t have time to introduce myself,” he said, “so I want to take a moment to speak with you now. I’ll be totally honest. Everything we do will depend on the results of Paul’s CT scan, which will show us what parts of his brain are still intact when he arrives. Timing is crucial.”

He continued: “Be prepared that he might not make it, or that he’ll end up being severely handicapped and dependent on others for the rest of his life. If the scan looks good, we can do a thrombectomy to remove the blood clot from his brain, and take it from there.”

Since you’re reading these words, you already know the outcome. I guess it wasn’t my time to go, and I beat the statistics. Annually, out of the 1600 stroke patients that arrive in the hospital I was admitted to, only 80 are eligible for a thrombectomy.

THE RECOVERY BEGINS

So, my surgery was a success, but this did not mean that all was well between my ears. The scans showed a black area on the right side of my brain where cells had died. Those cells do not grow back. In order to compensate for the loss, the brain has to rewire itself and have other parts take over the function of the cells that are lost. To make that happen I needed at least five things: a positive attitude, a solid support system, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy.

Even though I no longer sounded like a drunkard, clear articulation wasn’t my forte in the first few months after my stroke. I suffered from dysarthria. That’s a fancy word for unclear speech caused by brain damage. It’s a weakness or lack of coordination of the muscles of the tongue, lips, palate, jaw, and larynx. On top of that I had word-finding issues, indicative of memory loss.

By far the weirdest symptom of my post-stroke condition was the fact that I didn’t sound like me. My speech had become rather robotic and monotonal. It came in little bursts of language, just like the thoughts in my head. In the weeks to come, I discovered that I had the hardest time infusing my words with emotion.

No matter the subject, I sounded as passionate as a concrete wall. After I came home, I tried my hand at a few voice-over scripts for existing clients. It took countless retakes before I was somewhat satisfied with the result, but clients were noticing that something was off. The feedback I consistently received boiled down to this: “Once more, with feeling, please.”

The problem was that I had no idea how to access those right brain feelings. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed incapable of translating instructions like “confident,” “warm,” or “excited” into sound, whether in my studio, or in ordinary conversations. This was infuriatingly frustrating. I felt like a soccer player unable to handle the ball, or a painter who can’t hold a brush to add color to his canvas.

Would I ever be able to reach these emotions again, or were they part of the right brain that was destroyed by the stroke? What would this mean for my voice-over career?

Twice a week I went to speech therapy to learn how to improve my articulation. With my therapist, I also worked on regaining memory, and on sharpening my information processing skills. Very soon I realized that all of this wasn’t going to be as easy as flipping some internal switch. It needed time, energy, and lots of practice at home.

Speaking of home, on top of her busy schedule my wife became my designated driver, my patient advocate, my caregiver, my personal chef, and my hero. She made sure I got to all my appointments, that I took all my medications, and that my recovery would be pretty much stress-free. Her delicious meals were almost always based on fresh, locally sourced and unprocessed ingredients. You can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body.

MORE TROUBLE

In the weeks after my hospitalization there was something else about my voice that concerned me. For some reason I was hoarse all the time, and I had no vocal stamina for long conversations and even longer scripts. I was tired, and I sounded like it. Something told me that if I didn’t take care of this, my career as a professional speaker would be over.

In May I went to see an otorhinolaryngologist who specializes in working with actors, singers, and public speakers. She performed a flexible fiberoptic laryngoscopy whereby a small endoscope is inserted through one nostril and guided through the nose to the back of the throat. It’s a funny feeling.

This revealed a slight laryngeal tremor. That’s an involuntary tremor of the vocal folds that causes changes in the voice. My ENT also concluded I had laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), a.k.a. “silent reflux.” Why silent? Because it doesn’t necessarily trigger the usual symptoms of acid reflux, such as heartburn. It does lead to hoarseness, coughing, and throat clearing because stomach fluid travels back through the food pipe to reach the back of the throat.

It is likely that the laryngeal tremor was caused by the stroke. Perhaps it will go away over time. Perhaps it won’t. I’m treating my LPR in several ways. I avoid spicy and acidic foods. I limit my intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, mints and tomato-based products. I’ve stopped snacking before bedtime, and I’ve lost about twenty pounds. I’m also taking omeprazole which decreases the amount of acid the stomach makes. A new wedge pillow raises my head in bed, and keeps the acid down where it belongs.

Experts estimate that forty percent of the population may have undiagnosed LPR. If you’re experiencing hoarseness, a need to clear your throat, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or a red, swollen, or irritated voice box, please see an ENT to get to the root of the problem.

POSITIVE RESULTS

The good news is that after months of speech therapy my articulation and ability to focus has greatly improved, and the robot voice is gone. Only when I get really tired, it becomes more monotonal. I’m relieved that my speech has become more expressive, allowing me to continue to work as a voice talent. I’m also back to doing four-hour shifts as one of the announcers at the Easton Farmers’ Market.

Twice a week I work on strengthening my vocal folds and building my endurance with my speech therapists. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I’ve started recording longer scripts again.

RECOVERY CONTINUES

It takes a positive attitude, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy to recover from a stroke. Add to that a support system; a network of caring people who provide you with practical and emotional support. Reading and responding to your comments on last week’s blog post, I realize how lucky I am to have such a supportive group of friends and colleagues!

Thank you for your kind words, good thoughts, and prayers. Your positive vibes revitalize me, and give me energy to keep on beating the odds. The process of healing goes on, which means that I have to be careful not to do too much, too quickly. So, if you don’t hear from me within 24 hours, and you don’t see me on social media, rest assured that I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself.

I hope you will do the same.

Paul ©nethervoice

Important: the information presented here does not substitute for medical consultation or examination, nor is it intended to provide advice on the medical treatment appropriate to any specific circumstances.

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Why I Have Disappeared

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 53 Comments

Six months ago I was on top of the world. And then my world collapsed.

I remember being in Carnegie Hall on Thursday, March 22nd to hear Itzak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman play. During the intermission, I checked my phone to see if one of my agents had news about an audition. Seconds later I learned that I had landed a national spot for IHOP. The recording session was the very next day.

That night my wife and our companions went home without me, while I stayed at our friend Peggy’s, an oboist who shares a small apartment in the city with her cat Boston. The next morning I took the subway to Heard City at 16 W 22nd Street, a boutique audio post production facility. After two intense hours of takes and retakes the job was done, and I felt fantastic!

Very soon this obscure Dutchman, who came to the States with no contacts and no career, would be selling Hawaiian French toast all over America. Life was sweet! Little did I know that in three days time, I would be toast, as doctors were fighting for my life.

I’ve documented the story of my stroke in “I’m Still Here.” It starts with me, waking up half-paralyzed on the floor of my voice-over studio, a rescue by friends followed by a bumpy helicopter ride, a thrombectomy, and a two-week stay in the hospital.

But that was just the beginning.

CHANGING MY LIFE

From the moment I came out of the ER, it was clear that from now on two things would be crucial. I had to Rest and Recover. Anything else was secondary. This may sound easy, but for a busy bee like me it required a disruptive but essential change in lifestyle and in attitude. For me, the hardest part was this: Being okay with being incapacitated.

I’ll be honest with you: I was anything but okay with that concept. For years and years I had gone full speed ahead, sitting in the driver’s seat of my life, frantically holding on to the wheel. I couldn’t stand that after the stroke I felt weighed down by an overwhelming fatigue, unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Trapped in my lethargic body, and held back by persistent brain fog, I observed myself becoming dependent on the help and kindness of others to heal from this stroke of misfortune. My prospects for recovery were unclear.

One neurologist casually informed me that the dead brain cells would not regenerate. “What you’ve lost will never come back,” he said. “You just have to learn to live with it.” I hate it when people use the word “just” in that way, don’t you?

Another doctor told me to trust the amazing ability of the brain to reorganize itself and form new connections between cells. It’s called neuroplasticity. As long as I did my part, the grey matter between my prominent ears would do the rest. Now, there’s a concept I could embrace!

SIDE EFFECTS

Apart from feeling tired and overwhelmed all the time, there were other signs that the stroke had done a number on my body and my mind. I’ll mention a few, but please note that these “side effects” are by no means typical. It all depends on which parts of the brain are affected by the stroke, and to what extent. That’s why they say: “Different strokes for different folks,” I guess.

My stroke had wiped out a part of my right brain, which affected the left side of my body. At times that side felt rather uncooperative and weak. If you and I were to go for a stroll, you’d see my left foot dragging, and my left arm refusing to swing. After six months, I still have an interesting time picking things up with my left hand.

Surprisingly, my eyesight was also impacted. For the first time in my life I couldn’t read all the letters on the ophthalmologist’s chart, which is why I now permanently sport a pair of stylish bifocals. As it turned out, my brain was also ignoring part of the left side of my field of vision, which requires bi-weekly vision therapy. Driving a car was out of the question.

Overall, I found it hard to focus in other ways too, especially in an environment with lots of things going on at the same time. My brain would quickly reach stimulus overload and tune out. Supermarkets and department stores were places to avoid, as well a large gatherings of people.

Social situations became particularly awkward for me. I can’t explain why, but instead of taking part in a conversation, I found myself becoming a disengaged observer. It was as if my brain had trouble connecting and downloading the information. Should you and I meet and strike up a conversation, please don’t think I’m bored as my eyes start drifting away and I stop responding. It simply means it’s challenging for me to process the information and the environment, and my wheels are churning.

Anyway, I don’t want this to be a litany of complaints, so, before I talk about how my stroke affected my voice and my career as a professional speaker, I’ll tell you how I approached my recovery.

GETTING BACK ON MY FEET

From the moment I landed in the hospital, I knew I had one job and one job only: to heal my body and my mind. Everything I do and not do, has to serve that purpose. I use present tense, because the process is ongoing.

One of the first things I had to wrap my brain around is that it is okay to be unproductive. Healing from a stroke requires rest. Lots of it. In the first few months, I spent hours and hours in bed. At night and during the day. Even though my body told me to take it easy, my mind felt terribly guilty for not doing my share and pulling my weight. Talking to a neuropsychologist made me realize this was unhelpful, to say the least.

I learned to listen to my body, and accept that I was (temporarily) unable to contribute much to the household. I learned to accept that other people would pick up the slack. Daily afternoon naps are now part of the program. I also learned to avoid things that would drain my energy.

On any given day, you and I spend a lot of time worrying about things that happened in the past, or things that might happen in the future. As a result, we’re barely in the moment. It’s like going out to dinner in a fancy restaurant. During the main course we’re still evaluating the appetizer, or we’re already wondering about dessert. Meanwhile, we ignore what’s on our plate and in our mouth.

The truth is: the only reality is the here and the now. The rest is imagination. Yes, even memories are figments of our imagination because they’re nothing but personal interpretations of what we believe has happened in the past.

Recovering from a stroke is teaching me to be here now; to savor the moment, and not let worries about what may or may not happen suck the life blood out of me.

STAYING FOCUSED

Next, I had to decide how to deal with distractions. To me, a distraction was anything that would keep me from my main goal: to rest and recover. This meant putting my voice-over career on a back burner, and (temporarily) disengage from my community. So, no more Instagram or Twitter, and very limited time on Facebook. I’d stay out of discussions about the state of our industry, and I stopped writing a new blog post every week. In short, I practically disappeared from the radar screen, and I have to tell you: it was bliss!

If you’re active on social media, you know that it can be quite stressful to have to produce new content for the world to see. It’s a monster that’s always hungry for more. On top of that you have to keep up with all the content produced by others on a daily basis. The trick is to control “it” before it controls you.

As I’m taking a social media break, I am reevaluating to what extent I should maintain my presence. Is it a good use of my time? Does it keep me healthy and sane? And most importantly, does it make me and others happy? Having a stroke reemphasized that our time on earth is by no means guaranteed, and certainly not unlimited. It’s what you do with it that matters.

Work wise, I took a long and beneficial break from doing auditions. I only record for existing clients, and for jobs that land in my lap. It’s all I have time and energy for. But don’t think I spend most of my days in a horizontal position. It’s amazing how much time goes into doctor’s visits, medical tests, endless follow-up appointments, and therapy sessions. Getting well has become my day job, and my night time activity.

Every time I go to rehab and see other stroke patients, I realize how lucky I am. I’m not in a wheelchair. I can communicate. My brain still works, and I have a wife and friends who are there for me, every step of the way. Every week caring colleagues check in with me, wanting to know how I am doing. And when I meet people that haven’t seen me for a while, they are surprised how well I seem to be doing.

However, there’s one thing I haven’t told you about: how the stroke has affected my voice. I’ve kept this quiet because I didn’t want my clients to know and look elsewhere for talent. But since I’m on the mend, I’m ready to share that story with you next week!

Paul ©nethervoice

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