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If Only I had Known

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 17 Comments

Crystal Ball“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

This question (and many of its variations), is really popular among those interviewing the rich and famous. It’s meant to elicit golden nuggets of priceless information, acquired over a long and illustrious career. It’s an old trick, and it still works.

As an interviewer I’ve probably used it dozens of times, and I could only get away with my lack of originality by editing myself out. I usually kept the answer until the end of the conversation. After a short musical interlude, the celebrity I was speaking with would “spontaneously” get philosophical, and come up with this profound life lesson that resonated long after the interview was over.

Mission accomplished!

Last week, the tables were turned when a young colleague asked me same question: “Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

At that moment one realizes that it’s much easier to ask than to answer, but I knew pretty quickly what I was going to say. It brought me back to the beginning of my American career, some sixteen years ago. Here’s what I came up with:

“I wish I would have listened to my heart, instead of to my mind, when I thought of becoming a voice-over.”

I realize that this is not an eye-opening, Zen-like insight, but I know I’m not the only one struggling with the battle between warm feelings and cold logic. 

At that time my analytical, practical mind came up with all these brilliant rationalizations as to why a VO-career would never work for me. This was at the beginning of a new millennium, and I had just arrived in the United States.

I had very little money, no contacts in the industry, and I didn’t know where to begin. How would I promote myself in a country with over 300 million people? Who would hire this nobody from Holland with his funny accent?

I felt overwhelmed, unprepared, and insecure.

Of course there was no Facebook or LinkedIn group where aspiring voice-overs could ask questions. There were no books about the business, and the concept of home studios did not exist. It was much easier to find a job waiting tables, and as someone who needed to make money, that’s exactly what I did.

My first job was at The Fish House in Lambertville, NJ, and even though I was a vegetarian, I knew how to sell sardines, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass. Because I didn’t know anybody, the so-called celebs who frequented this restaurant didn’t impress me.

One day, a colleague took me aside and said: “Do you know who you just served?”

I had no idea.

“The coach of the Eagles!” he replied enthusiastically. “You know… THE EAGLES!!”

I looked at him with a straight face, and said: “What Eagles?”

In hindsight I think coach Andy Reid appreciated that I treated him like a regular customer. He even laughed at one of my wine jokes. His wife Tammy wanted to know why the Jersey Chard she was drinking had such a distinctive yellow glow. I told her the vineyard was next to a nuclear power plant.

Fortunately she though it was funny. 

Meanwhile, I didn’t know that I had just taken the first step in becoming a real actor: I was waiting tables!

The restaurant was also where people began commenting on my voice, my accent, and my ability to speak several languages. To me it was kind of a party trick to help my tip jar, but kind customers asked: “No offense, but why are you a waiter? You should really do something with that voice of yours!”

Encouraged, I signed up for an open casting call at Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. My heart told me that’s where I should go, but my mind was skeptical. Once again it came up with a million reasons as to why I wouldn’t make the cut. All those reasons made perfect sense, but they were all wrong. 

That day, voice casting director Joanne Joella signed me on the spot, and my American adventure in voice-overs officially began.

Well, not quite.

Even though I was booking some decent jobs here and there, my mind told me this wasn’t going to last, and that I really needed a serious position doing serious work. I was doing well on tips as a waiter, but recommending Jersey wine and pan-seared scallops did not make a career.

That’s how I ended up in a call center, surveying European hard- and software specialists by telephone. Of course these overworked, stressed out professionals had nothing better to do than talk to me, and they all loved telling me about their satisfaction with the latest network servers.

NOT.

This job had two amazing perks. One: Because we called businesses in Germany and in the Netherlands, I lived on European time, getting up at 2:00 AM, making my first call at 3:00 AM (9:00 AM in Amsterdam and Munich). Two: I had to use a script from which I was not allowed to deviate.

That was my second step in becoming a real actor: I got to use scripts!

A year or two into that pathetic call center job, something wonderful happened. All the interviewers were mercifully replaced by an automated voice response system that was much better at taking verbal abuse from German software specialists who were sick of revealing their satisfaction with product X on a scale of zero to ten, zero meaning completely dissatisfied, and ten meaning completely satisfied.

It was time for me to move up the ladder!

Did I listen to my heart this time, and would I be pursuing a full-time voice-over career?

No, my friends. My mind talked me into accepting a job as a customer service trainer at Wachovia Bank. As we all know, banks are a secure place to work. Some of them even offer benefits.

Yea for me!

Luckily, I knew nothing about the financial industry or balancing books, and I suffer from dyscalculia. That’s like being dyslexic but with numbers instead of words. It’s particularly useful when you have to stare at bank accounts all day long, and figure out why this infuriated client got slammed with five overdraft fees after buying a burger with money he didn’t have.

Here’s what I loved about this job. Since I was the lead trainer, I was in front of a class of sleepy, unmotivated students all day long. 

Looking back, Wachovia was my third step in becoming a real actor: I got to perform in front of a live audience!

By the way, if you can’t remember the name Wachovia, that’s perfectly understandable. Wachovia was eventually overrun by the Wells Fargo wagon, and they brought in their own training team to cultivate a new corporate culture.

Good for them. Great for me!

After three pointless, mind numbing, soul crushing, dream dashing jobs, I finally got the message:

“Follow Your Heart, you idiot! Become a full-time voice talent, and conquer the world.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

I strongly believe that living is learning, and that every job helped prepare me for the future I created for myself. Yet, when I look back at all those years of doing things for money while my heart wasn’t in it… When I think of how miserable I used to be, and how happy I am now… I often wonder:

If only I had known…

If only I would have taken the risk, and had followed my dreams from the get-go. Where would I be now?

Would I be a household name? Would obnoxious fans ask for my autograph at crazy comicons and conventions? Would agents fight to represent me? Would I be rich and famous?

Well, if that were me, I’m pretty sure that one day, a young reporter would knock on my door. After an in-depth, hour-long interview, he would pause and get ready for that very last killer-question:

“Looking back, and knowing what you know now… what would you have done differently, and why?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: you probably don’t wanna know via photopin (license)

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Those Silly Americans

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, International, Personal, Promotion 12 Comments

The authorHere’s a question I get asked a lot:

“What’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over, living and working in the United States?”

Who wants to know?

Mostly European colleagues, who either think I’m totally nuts, or who secretly want to do what I did and move to this land of milk, honey, and doughnuts. Some of them have strange ideas about what my life on this side of the pond is like.

I sometimes have to explain to them that “No, I don’t live in a McMansion; there’s no giant gas guzzler parked in my garage, and I can’t call a Hollywood studio and put in a good word for you.” In fact, this American life I am leading is pretty ordinary and rather unspectacular.

I don’t know what my existence would have been like had I stayed in Holland, but in my experience, setting up shop in the States has as many advantages as disadvantages. My colleague Jamie Muffet just wrote a great piece on that very topic for Backstage, and he had me thinking. 

In this day and age where all of us are part of a huge global network, does it really matter where we do our job? It’s just as easy for me to plug into a studio in Amsterdam, as it is to reach a recording facility in New York or Johannesburg. Even agents who used to insist I make a personal appearance, don’t mind if I send them an mp3 audition. Times have changed.

Although technology has made it easy to have an international presence, there’s something I must admit. It took me a good number of years to find my way here in Pennsylvania, and at times I still struggle to make sense of my surroundings and the culture I live in. Personally, and professionally. For instance, I had a hard time trying to figure out how to position myself as a voice for hire.

CONFUSION

From a marketing perspective, it is important that clients have a clear concept of who I am, and what I bring to the table as a talent. When I first came here, people were mainly confused, and I don’t blame them. I spoke with a distinct British accent (the one I was taught in school), and most Americans thought I was from the UK. It was both a good and a bad thing.

It was good because casting directors who didn’t know any better, often hired me to play the part of a stuffy English professor. I even did a voice-over promoting a Beatles jukebox musical on Broadway. I tell you: it was fun being a fake!

There was a downside to having this posh accent. I felt that people were judging me all the time. They either thought I was highly intelligent, or a pompous ass. Of course neither is true. I can’t say it helped me define my professional identity as a native Dutch speaker. Then there was something else I stumbled upon.

IGNORANCE

Even though the United States is supposed to be this big melting pot, I’ve learned that Americans struggle with languages and accents. Many of them have never left the country, and they are rarely exposed to different tongues and twangs, the way Europeans are. Thanks to a brilliant educational system, their sense of geography tends to be off too.

A few weeks ago an agent asked me to audition for a documentary, and she was convinced my accent would be perfect. “You’re Dutch. You should nail this one,” she said. The minute I got the script I saw it was about an old ship… from Denmark. “Well, Dutch and Danish are pretty much the same, aren’t they?” the agent stated.

Not really. And Copenhagen is not the capital of the Netherlands.

Another thing I’ve had to explain over and over again, is the difference between Dutch and Flemish. Flemish is a kind of Dutch, spoken in a specific part of Belgium. It’s as different from Dutch as British English is from American English. That means you shouldn’t hire a Dutchman to voice a commercial meant for viewers in Belgium. But most people in the States don’t know that.

I used to get very annoyed with these ignorant Americans, but having lived here for over ten years, I’ve come to realize that many of them don’t know what they don’t know. Instead of holding it against them, I do my best to educate casting directors and agents, without sounding like a European know-it-all. And quite often they are very grateful for my advice.

Here’s another thing I learned the hard way.

SELF-PROMOTION

Coming from a Calvinistic country where any form of self-aggrandizement is frowned upon, I found out that in America modesty isn’t always an asset. In fact, people like talking about themselves. A lot. If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?

I had to learn to be comfortable with my accomplishments, and speak and write about them openly. In Holland I would have been accused of bragging. Here people say: “Don’t be shy. It’s okay. You have every reason to be proud.”

When talking to a potential client or an interested agent in the U.S., I make sure to sell myself as best as I can. When I’m dealing with someone in Europe, I like to tone it down considerably.

Another thing I realized was that Americans tend to be quite informal. Before you know it, you’re on a first-name basis talking about your family with someone you barely know. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people who come across as friendly, want to be your friend. Give it a few weeks, and they might not even remember your name. Don’t take it personally. 

Things are gradually shifting in Europe, but unless a new client signs his or her emails with a first name, I err on the side of caution, and I’m much more formal.

FEELING LIKE A KING

So, what’s it like to be a Dutch voice-over in the United States? 

In the Netherlands we have a saying: “In the land of the blind, the guy with one eye is king.” As one of the very few native Dutch voice-overs in North-America, that’s often how I feel. I’m a small orange fish in a huge pond. In all the years I have lived here, my English accent has changed considerably. It’s no longer British, and it’s not entirely American either. As I explained to Jamie Muffet: 

“Demand for a Dutch narrator isn’t exactly overwhelming, and thanks to the Internet, my competition in Holland is only one click away. My real niche is in ‘neutral English’ voiceovers, meaning my accent is neither British nor American. It’s more of a European twang, and businesses wanting to increase their global appeal hire me because of my international sound.”

If that’s not shameless self-promotion, I don’t know what is…

On occasion I go back to the Netherlands to see friends and family. I walk around in this tiny country, and I comment on how everything is so close, and how small things are. It’s guaranteed to make my Dutch friends laugh out loud.

“Oh, Paul,” they say…

“stop being such a silly American!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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The Power Of Pricing

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 23 Comments

Snow stormSNOW EVERYWHERE… and Max was in the thick of it.

His client was expecting him within the hour, and he was all dressed up but couldn’t go anywhere.

This was the account he had been grooming for months, and today was D-Day: Deal or No Deal. Snow or no snow. He had to get out of that airport.

“This is the worst snow storm we’ve seen in decades,” said the dispatcher. “No cab driver is going to go anywhere today. I’m afraid you’re on your own.” Max headed out anyway. Perhaps he could hitch a ride with one of the other passengers that was being picked up by brave friends or family members.

As the snow was coming down, visibility was at a minimum. All flights were canceled until further notice. Just as Max was about to head back inside, a black SUV came out of nowhere, and stopped at the pick-up spot. The driver rolled the window down:

“Need a ride?”

“How did you know?” said Max, as he hopped in. “I have to get to my presentation. Are you here to pick somebody up?”

“No one in particular,” said the driver. “But I’d be happy to take you.”

“Well, that’s awfully nice of you,” said Max. “Thank G-d for Good Samaritans.”

“Dream on,” said the driver. “It’s going to be one hundred dollars. Cash only.”

“You must be joking,” replied Max. “They said a cab would cost me no more than ten.”

“Well, why don’t you get a cab then?” asked the driver. “I’ll go and rescue some other grey suit in a hurry.”

“I’ll offer you 50,” tried Max.”

“Listen,” said the driver. “You look like a smart businessman. You and I, we don’t run charities. We’re both entrepreneurs. We see an opportunity. We jump on it. We take risks. Today I am risking my life and my car just so you can get to your meeting. That must be worth something, don’t you think?

“How about 60?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” said the driver. “My economics teacher taught me: ‘When something is scarce, it becomes more valuable.’ You have a major problem. I am offering you a solution. No one else will. If you want to stay, you’ve got to pay.”

“70?”

“Think of it this way,” sighed the driver. “This meeting you want me to take you to, must be important, right? Otherwise, why bother? Is there a lot of money at stake?”

“You got that right,” answered Max impatiently. “I’ve got one shot to seal a deal.”

“Well,” said the driver, “It’s none of my business, but what’s 100 bucks compared to the money you’ll bring in after that contract is signed?”

“Alright,” said Max as he took out the cash. “I get it. Now, drive!”

While the SUV was battling the elements, Max looked at his chauffeur and said: “I gotta give it to you, man. You know what you’re worth, and you’re not afraid to ask for it.

Some ten years ago, when Max started his freelance business, he had had such a hard time putting a price on the service he was providing. To help him focus, his startup coach had asked him a couple of simple questions:

  1. Do you consider yourself to be a pro?
  2. Do you want to run a for-profit business?
  3. Do you want that business to grow?
  4. What are the costs of running that business?
  5. What’s your break-even point?
  6. How much do you want to make?

In the past, Max had always treated his services as a hobby. That’s exactly what it was. There was no plan. No purpose. Just a passion. He spent hours and hours helping people and never worried about what to charge. That is, until he lost his day job, his benefits, and his security. Perhaps this was an opportunity to turn his hobby into a real business. That’s when things got serious and complicated.

“Here’s the good news,” smiled his coach. “You’ve got clients, don’t you? I mean, you’ve been helping friends all along. If you want to turn your hobby into a genuine profession, why not start close to home. You obviously offer something people want. You already have a market… Go for it!”

“Here’s the problem,” said Max. “I never really charged my friends anything. Most of them gave me pizza and a six-pack. I can already hear them say:

Why would we ever pay you if we can get you for free?

“Good point,” admitted the coach, and he went on: “My brother is a computer geek and he’s crazy about technology. But if he would do every single friend ‘a favor,’ he’d be fixing broken laptops all day and night and not make any money. Free pizza does not pay the mortgage. Besides, I don’t think he’d make the guys happy who repair computers for a living.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s not okay to help out a friend in need, but as soon as people found out that my brother knew how to fix a computer, everybody wanted to be ‘friends’ with him. He had to draw a clear line between real friends and those who were well below the rank of Facebook buddies. That’s what you have to do too, Max. No more giveaways. From now on, you run a business; not a charity.

One of your jobs as an entrepreneur is to manage your client’s expectations. Let me give you an example. If you take on a project you know you can easily do in two days, tell your client you can get it done in three. Guess who’s going to look good when you hand it in 48 hours later?

That way you not only create the expectation that you can beat a deadline. You’re also showing your client that she’s a top priority, and that you really know your stuff. Meanwhile, you’ve allowed yourself an extra day should anything unexpected come up. Does that make sense?

Pricing is one of the most important tools for managing your client’s expectations, as well as your bottom line. Your price point sends a clear signal to your market:

This is what I am worth.

Like it or not, there is a clear link between perceived quality and price. Otherwise, every wine connoisseur would drink Beaujolais out of a box, and Pottery Barn would be out of business.

Remember this: Your fee structure will help you attract the kind of customers you want to be working with, and the type of jobs you are shooting for. At the same time it will weed out the folks that cannot or will not afford you; the ones that are most likely to give you a hard time anyway.

Here’s the deal, though: Your fee must be backed up by experience and expertise on one hand, and by a realistic sense of your value in the market place on the other.

Simply put: Be an expert and do your homework. Don’t just pull a rate out of a hat. That’s lazy and crazy. Find out what the competition is charging. Then ask yourself: “Do I want to charge more, less, or the same?”

“I can’t imagine it’s that simple,” said Max.

“It’s not,” answered his coach. “Smart pricing decisions require at least three elements:

  1. Facts about your own cost of doing business
  2. The client’s evaluation processes
  3. Competitive activity

I know you really care about your work, Max. To you, it’s much more than a way to pay the bills. You’re an artist and somehow, some artists (and clients) believe that there’s a clash between creativity and cash. Doing what you love should be enough of a reward.

I don’t think Andy Warhol or Keith Haring would agree with that. Being creative and being commercial can go hand in hand, and since you’re in business to make money, let me give you a simple formula:

Profit = sales volume x price – cost

Have you ever heard of Hermann Simon? He’s a German economics professor and one of the leading experts on pricing. Together with Robert Dolan, he wrote a book called Power pricing: how managing price transforms the bottom line. He calls volume, price, and cost “profit drivers.”

Simon says something very interesting:

“The customer’s willingness to pay is not determined by the costs of a product but by its performance and resulting value to this customer.”

In other words: when people get a haircut, they conveniently forget that they’re also paying for the rent the salon’s forking over every single month, or for the training the staff receives so they can make every teenage boy look like Justin Bieber.

Clients don’t care about your costs.

You should.

That’s why you have to figure out the answer to this question: How low can you afford to go? What is your Price Floor?

A Price Floor is a point below which a product or service should not be sold. In the long term, the price must obviously cover the full costs of a product. Otherwise the seller cannot make a profit and will not survive. Volume never makes up for selling below cost. 

Every year, tens of thousands of self-employed people file for bankruptcy because they made one big mistake: they followed a dream and forgot to run the numbers. They are what I like to call ‘under-estimators’. Literally.

Knowingly or unknowingly, they started selling below cost in an effort to drive out the competition or even out of ignorance. Some started giving their work away for free, hoping to get exposure and attract business. Last time I checked, my local baker was handing out free samples but never entire cakes. And between you and me: he doesn’t strike me as a marketing genius.”

“Speaking of prices… a friend of mine just bought a brand name watch at a price that was too good to be true,” said Max. “It turned out to be fake.”

“Were you surprised?” asked the coach.

“Not at all,” said Max. “You get what you pay for.”

“That’s right. In part, price is about perception. That’s probably why your friend wanted to buy that Rolex rip-off in the first place.

Professor Simon puts it this way:

“Price is the economic sacrifice a customer makes to acquire a product or a service. The customer always compares this sacrifice with his perception of the product’s value. (…)

“In essence, a customer buys a product or a service only, if its perceived value -measured in money terms- is greater than the price. If selecting from several alternatives, the customer prefers the one offering the highest net value, i.e. the greatest differential of perceived value over price.”

Go to any tattoo parlor and see for yourself how much pain people are willing to suffer in exchange for the pleasure derived from a name, permanently painted in the perforations of their delicate flesh. Years later, they spend a fortune burning out their ex-hubbie’s initials with a laser beam… turning the man in question into an ex-boyfriend, once removed… But I digress. We were talking about perceived value, weren’t we?”

“You’ve mentioned volume, price, and cost,” said Max. “How exactly does the market factor into this? Isn’t a certain price ultimately the result of the interaction between supply and demand? That’s not something I have any influence over, is it?”

“Great point,” smiled his coach. “First off…

*          *          *         *         *

THE BLACK SUV slowly made its way through the winter weather.

“Care for some hot cocoa?” asked the driver as he pointed at a thermos.

“Yes please!”said Max.

“And help yourself to a muffin too,” said the driver. “This might take a while.”

“Well, you certainly know how to treat your customers,” remarked Max.

The driver smiled. “Always exceed your client’s expectations. That’s my philosophy.”

“Will you pick me up when I am done?” asked Max.

“Of course,” said the driver.

“I love return business!”

Click here for part 2.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

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photo credit: It’s been DUMPING snow at Heavenly… via photopin (license)

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Voice-Over’s Seven Deadly Sins

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 26 Comments

I never knew this, but if you ask a bartender for The Seven Deadly Sins, he’ll give you a shot comprised of equal parts of the seven cheapest liquors available at the bar.

It’s like hiring a team of third-rate voice-overs from a lowball website to narrate a piece of pulp fiction. It’s guaranteed to turn your stomach. 

If you’re an old-school Catholic, The Seven Deadly Sins have a very different meaning. Dating back to the 4th century AD, it’s a classification of capital vices, also known as cardinal sins. They are: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.

In one way or another, these sins are as old as mankind, and you’ll see manifestations of them in our professional community. So, let’s talk about them for a moment, starting with…

Lust

Originally, lust was equated to desire, as in the desire for fame, power or money. If that’s what you’re secretly after, I strongly advise you to choose a different career path. With a few exceptions, voice actors are the unknown, unseen, unsung heroes of video games, documentaries, audio books, and more. We’re not in the picture. Literally.

If you’ve been around the block for a few years you might disagree, because you happen to know lots of voice-overs. To the rest of the world this is totally irrelevant. Just stop a stranger in the street. Ask her to name one voice actor. Just one, and watch what happens. If you’re lucky she’ll call out the name of an A-list Hollywood celebrity, but that’s it. 

Big names make the big bucks, and you’ll see their names on billboards all over the world. The average VO Pro will forever be the anonymous disembodied voice, running from gig to gig, as unremarkable as can be.

There is a bright side. One of the best perks of this job is that we can keep our privacy!

Gluttony

This is a delicate one, because I know I’ll probably step on a few sensitive toes here. If we’d have a room full of on-screen actors and voice-overs, how would one tell the two apart? It’s easy. The voice-overs are more likely to be overweight.

I’ve written about this before, but weight gain is often the result of a sedentary life spent in a small space behind a microphone. Combine lack of movement with the overeating of unhealthy foods, and you have a recipe for disaster. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an occupational hazard. Lifestyle and diet are based on choices, and choices can be changed. Consider this:

You’ll never be satisfied until you know what you’re truly hungry for.

Greed

If you believe that voice acting is a shortcut to making lots of money in a short amount of time, think again. To an outsider, being paid $250 for a 60-second narration might seem good money. What people don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between what voice-overs make and what they actually get to keep.

Some colleagues are lucky to have a steady stream of well-paying projects. Many others know that these two hundred and fifty dollars also have to pay for the time in between gigs. It also pays for all the expenses that come with being self-employed, for the rent, for utilities, and for all the other bills that never stop coming.

There’s one more thing I want to say about greed, and it has to do with the quality of our service:

People will never do their best work if money is their main motivator.

Sloth

I have seen quite a few people fail at VO, not because they’re untalented, but because they’re downright lazy. Technology has made it so easy to sign up for a voice casting site, and watch the auditions come in. And when  -after a month or two- the booking rate is still zero, guess who gets the blame?

Laziness is also about expecting others to give you the answers on a silver platter, and milking their network to get ahead. It’s a failure to do all the hard, boring, and unglamorous work that comes with running your own business. It’s about taking things for granted, and not being grateful.

Those who have made the move from a corporate job to being self-employed, know that you often have to work twice as hard and twice as long. When you’re the boss, you run all the risk, there are no paid benefits, and results are never guaranteed. Isn’t that fun?

Wrath

In the eyes of some, the multifarious VO-community is made up of a very helpful and altruistic group of people. However, if you’ve spent some time online, you know that we’re not all saints and angels. There are some very bitter, frustrated, and angry individuals who are trolling various groups. 

They will gladly put a newbie in his or her place. These people always know better, and if you don’t bow to their eternal wisdom and status, they will publicly slap you on the wrist. But wrath takes on other forms as well. 

People get angry when they feel ripped off, either by cheapskate clients or by lowballing colleagues. They get upset when an (in their opinion) mediocre talent “steals” a job they’re not worthy of. Angry people tend to take things very personally, and that’s tricky in an industry where rejection is commonplace. Anger is often the basis for the next deadly sin:

Envy

I wish all of us could be happy for one another all the time. But some people aren’t wired that way. Another person’s success becomes a source for their misery. I remember losing a friend after I landed a job both of us were in the running for. I had no idea why he suddenly disappeared from my life. Years later he told me his jealousy got the better of him. 

Some psychologists believe that there are two kinds of envy: benign envy and malicious envy. Benign envy can be a driving force, motivating people to achieve something great. Malicious envy doesn’t only destroy relationships, it’s self-destructive as well.

The idea that we are always in competition with one another, and that the world is divided into winners and losers, can lead to envy. I always encourage my students to cultivate the lost art of admiration. Rather than being jealous of someone’s accomplishments, ask yourself:

“What has this person done to get to where he/she is now, and what can I learn from him or her?”

Pride

I think there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in what you do, and being proud of what you’ve accomplished. Pride turns poisonous as soon as you start believing that you’re better than others, or when you can’t appreciate other people’s achievements.

Pride often manifests itself as arrogance. The sad thing is that arrogance stunts growth and it creates distance. It’s tough to teach someone who thinks he knows better. Arrogant people tend to have little patience for those who are (supposedly) not at their level. They’re great at making other people feel inadequate and inferior.

Someone once said: “Pride leads to contempt; gratitude leads to compassion.”

Redemption

Let’s remember that as voice-overs, we’re in the service industry. Our success relies on the extent to which we understand the needs of our clients, and our ability to meet those needs. Professional pride can give us the confidence needed to get the job done. But we can’t allow pride to feed our ego, causing us to focus on ourselves, instead of on our customers. 

We can only grow as professionals once we realize that we don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to be perfect. We need to stay open, appreciative, show some humility, and be eternally grateful for the talents we were born with.

Are you following me?

Good, and if -for some reason- you don’t agree with me, there’s only one thing I can do.

I’ll drag you to the nearest pub, and make you drink The Seven Deadly Sins.

That will teach you.

Cheers!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Nate and Megan via photopin (license)

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A Controversial Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 28 Comments

DSC07271I don’t know about you, but 2015 is a year I will not easily forget.

For one, I saw the number of subscribers to this blog grow to over 36 thousand. That’s insane!

It didn’t happen by accident. How did I do it? Well, if you read this article, you will get a good sense of my strategy. 

Few things are more gratifying than knowing that you chose to take a few minutes each week to spend them in my company. Not only that, you have shared my stories with your friends and colleagues. You’ve discussed them online and offline, and you’ve reached out to me when one of my posts struck a chord. Thank you so much!

Now, we all lead busy lives, and I realize that throughout the year you might have missed a blog post here or there. That’s why -at the end of the year- I want to highlight a few stories that you may not have seen, or that have faded from your memory.

If anything, this past year has been very emotional for me. There were times that I didn’t feel like going into my studio to record, and when I did, it was challenging to say the least. I wrote about it in Feeling Like A Fake

There were a few “firsts” in 2015. I believe I was the first voice-over who openly wrote about sex. If you’re curious about what I had to say, read The Confident Skills of a Sex God. I think I also was the first and perhaps the only VO who celebrated World Voice Day by writing two contributions.

The first post entitled Your Voice Your Life, was about vocal health. If you care about your instrument, it is a must-read! The second was The Window to the Soul, and it’s about a new area of research: emotional analytics. It’s all based on the notion that what we say is not as important as how we say it.

Like last year, I continued to rub many readers the wrong way. In fact, posts in which I vent my frustration usually end up being the most popular.

In March I became the most hated man among podcasters, when I published The Problem with Podcasting. After receiving some very nasty and mostly anonymous comments, I was forced to change my comment policy. Here’s a summary:

I no longer accept anonymous comments, or comments by people using a fictitious online identity. I want people to own up to what they’re saying, and not hide behind a made up character. Comments that are rude and disrespectful will be deleted immediately. You’ll find more about this in Poisonous Pens.

Another blog post that elicited some angry responses was 5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice Over. It was unfortunate that the angriest commentators forgot to read the last line. Skimming the text is not the same as reading it. In The Agony of Ignorance, I reveal some other traits I cannot stand.

People often get upset because I tend to say things that are perceived as being harsh and confrontational. One of those posts was The Message Very Few Want To Hear. Between you and me: I never ask my readers to agree with me, and I’m not intent on winning a popularity contest. I must admit: sugarcoating is not my strength.

One of the main goals in writing this blog, is to enhance professionalism in my line of work. In The Secret to Sustained Success, I discuss short-term versus long-term thinking, and the effect it can have on a career. In To Discount Or Not To Discount, I share what Famous Dave’s delicious pickles tell us about pricing strategy.

Are Clients Walking All Over You deals with the importance of setting professional boundaries, and in Sending The Wrong Signals I reveal one of the worst things you can do in customer service, and how you can turn it around.

Many more experienced readers want to know how they can get to the proverbial “next level.” If that speaks to you, please read 4 Ways to Get From Good to Great. You might also want to know The One Thing Every Client Is Listening For. Don’t get ahead of yourself, though, because Perfectionism Is A Trap!

And then there’s my biggest story of 2015. All my posts about Voices.com went viral this year, and the first one was Voices.com is Slapping Members in the Face, followed by Voices.com: Unethical and Greedy. Number three is called The Ciccarelli Circus.

To me, one of the biggest trends of 2015 was the fact that people were finally fed up with a pay-to-play system that didn’t give them a fair shot at landing jobs, and with a company that seemed to be double and triple dipping while cheapening the marketplace with low rates. Read Calling It As I See It, for other trends.

But if there was one piece that summed up my state of mind in 2015, it has to be Giving Up. It’s a new philosophy that I will continue to live by in 2016.

What I won’t give up, is this blog. As long as there’s still music inside of me, I will keep on singing with my Nethervoice.

May the new year bring you health, happiness, inspiration, satisfaction, and continued success!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS In case you hadn’t noticed, the text in blue is a hyperlink, taking you to the actual blog post. 

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Calling It As I See It

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 40 Comments

Paul StrikwerdaIn this blog I often take a critical look at the industry I’m a part of.

Some colleagues have told me that -from a marketing perspective- this is a stupid thing to do. 

Particularly in America, there is this culture of forced optimism, and fostering a positive image is seen as one of the keys to continued success.

In an environment where public perception can be instrumental in the making of a career, it’s important to come across as likable and easy-going. That’s why many voice-overs keep their money-making mouths shut about controversial issues. It’s not that they don’t have opinions. They just fear that if they would share those opinions with the rest of the world, it might tarnish their reputation as the “Good Girl” or as “Mr. Nice Guy.”

It’s common knowledge that you don’t burn bridges, or bite the hand that feeds you. That hand might come back to slap you in the face. Let me give you one example of how something small that is seen as “negative,” can ruin a relationship.

WHERE’S MY MONEY?

A talent from Germany emailed me about an American agent. Three months ago she had completed a job for this guy, and she was wondering when the check would arrive. Because I live and work in the States, she asked me if it was normal to have to wait that long to get paid, and what she could do about it. I told her to take it up with the agent, which she did. The agent promised to look into it.

A month later, my colleague (who, by the way, is one of the sweetest people on the planet), wrote another polite email about the payment, and the answer she received was something like this:

“Please don’t bother me about it. I’m still waiting for the client to pay me. When I get paid, you get paid. That’s how it works.”

My colleague didn’t like the tone of that message. In her mind, her agent had to earn his commission, not only by submitting her auditions, but by making sure she was getting paid within a reasonable period of time. So, after two more weeks had passed, she wrote another friendly reminder. The response:

“Stop pestering me. This is what happens with Non-Union work in the U.S. Everyone but you seems to understand that.”

Well, another month went by and still no check. You can predict what happened next. My colleague contacted the agent again, and he exploded. When the money finally arrived, the agent wrote angrily:

“This will be the last check you’ll ever receive from me. Goodbye.”

KEEPING MY BIG MOUTH OPEN

You may think that this is an extreme example, but it isn’t. Before I got a backbone, some clients treated me like a servant, with an attitude of “Remember: there are many voices we can choose from. You should be grateful that you even have work in this economy. If you don’t play by our rules, you don’t get to play at all.”

Maybe it’s because I’m European, but I’ve been taught to speak up in the face of disrespect and injustice, regardless of the consequences. I will never point fingers at someone or something just to push the envelope. That’s what bullies do. But when I see emperors wearing next to nothing, or I see certain companies engaging in unethical practices, I call them out… and deal with the consequences.

There’s no need to feel sorry for me, but I know that being outspoken may have increased my notoriety, and I’m sure it cost me a few jobs and speaking engagements. After all, who wants to hire a troublemaker? Why have someone known for stirring the pot, speak at a voice-over conference? It’s important to keep the sponsors happy!

“Thanks for writing what many are thinking but don’t dare to share in public,” is a comment I often get from those who send me an email. It’s ironic. People who talk for a living, are afraid to raise their voice. 

Luckily, I did notice a remarkable shift this year. Here’s what made 2015 different from previous years:

Voice-Overs have started to speak up!

At last.

POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS

Unionized video game voice actors threatened to go on strike if no understanding could be reached with big players such as Disney, Activision, and Warner Bros. Voice-overs want residuals or bonuses for blockbuster games that sell more than 2 million units. They also want limits on the number of consecutive hours they are expected to scream while dying a thousand horrible video game deaths.

2015 was also the year in which we saw a mass exodus from voices.com. People were finally fed up with a pay-to-play system that didn’t give them a fair shot at landing jobs, and with a company that seemed to be double and triple dipping while cheapening the marketplace with low rates.

At the same time, membership in the World Voices Organization (WoVo) grew to over 600 members, and their voice casting marketplace, voiceover.biz, positioned itself as a serious alternative for finding premium, vetted voice talent.

Together with global meetup group VO Peeps, WoVo hosted a series of roundtable discussions about rates. In the past, Non-Union rates had always been a tough issue to talk about publicly. This year, the elephant in the room was being discussed more than ever, and the awareness is growing that our fees need to be fair, and based on added value.

So, what do I make of all this?

It tells me that our profession is gradually getting away from its subservient yoke. We, who are used to treating our clients with respect, believe that respect is a two-way street. We also realize that it is pointless to fight our battles as individuals. We need to come together as a group, and find ways to impact the playing field, as well as increase our level of professionalism.

I will continue to do my part as a blogger, and ruffle feathers that need to be ruffled. I’ll no doubt step on some sensitive toes, and rub a few people the wrong way. Why? Because important players deserve to be challenged. False claims must be exposed. Newcomers need to be warned and educated.

My hope for 2016 is that you will join me in taking a good look at where we stand as voice-overs, and what we want to accomplish. Things won’t change if you keep quiet.

Don’t stand on the sidelines, and let others deal with the hot potatoes. Speak up! Participate. Be an engaged member of this community. 

It’s absolutely critical.

Happy Holidays!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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How To Secure Return Business

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters, Promotion 13 Comments
Reserved for salesperson of the month

photo ©Paul Strikwerda

It must be hard to be Balloons the Clown.

For years, Balloons has been a fixture in my Borough.

He drives around in a silly red VW Beetle with a slogan prominently printed on the back:

“Honk if you like clowns.”

I’ll be honest: in all the years that our paths have crossed, I’ve never heard a single honk. That must be pretty depressing, if you’re a professional clown. But as one of my old teachers used to say:

“The meaning of our communication is the response we get.”

Here’s my question: Why would someone like Balloons even ask us to make some noise? My guess is that it has to do with the theme of last week’s blog post: reassurance. Perhaps this family entertainer is hoping for honks to confirm his presumed popularity.

Even though you probably don’t make a living walking around in huge shoes wearing a red nose, you and I, and Balloons, have something in common: we like to be reassured.

Our need for reassurance has to do with a deep human desire: the wish to be accepted. It’s this universal, comforting feeling that we matter, that we are safe, and that everything is going to be alright. It’s what lovers love, preachers preach, and what politicians promise. The person able to reassure us the most, gains our trust and gets our vote.

Clients are no different. They want to know that they are in good hands, and that their money is well spent. It is your job to convince them of that fact. As I suggested last week:

Selling is about reassuring. Before the sale, during the sale, and after the sale.

THE DO’S AND DON’TS

As the client is making up his mind, here are a few things that will make him feel confident that you’re the right person for the job. This is what you have to do:

  • Listen carefully
  • Read and follow instructions
  • Ask questions
  • Respond in a timely and personal way
  • Be clear about your policies
  • Demonstrate knowledge and experience
  • Use plain language, and avoid jargon when dealing with inexperienced buyers
  • Use correct spelling and grammar
  • Be as helpful as you can
  • Only take on jobs you know you can handle

 

“But isn’t this what you’re supposed to do as a professional?” you may ask. Well, you’d be surprised to learn that many so-called pros:

  • Make assumptions
  • Focus on themselves
  • Don’t follow basic instructions
  • Leave clients hanging
  • Have no studio policies
  • Try to impress by using language clients don’t understand
  • Send out poorly written emails
  • Do the minimum to get the job done
  • Bite off more than they can chew

 

By treating clients that way, these colleagues risk way more than losing one specific job.

Here’s my second lesson:

Selling is not about making a sale. It is about winning a client’s confidence, and building a relationship.

Your aim is never to make a quick buck. Your ultimate goal is to cultivate a long-term connection.

MORE WORK TO DO

Now, once the buyer has decided to hire you, don’t think that everything is A-Okay. Your job to reassure him or her is far from over. You still need to prove yourself. You might have the best testimonials and reputation in the world, but some clients just don’t care about the opinion of others. This is the question they want answered:

“What can you do for ME?”

There’s only one appropriate answer: you have to deliver a stellar product that is worth more than the price paid. Remember: you’re not just in the business of providing a voice-over (or other freelance service). You are in the business of adding value. That’s what you’re really selling. 

There’s one other thing you must do at this stage: you need to keep your client informed of your progress. This is especially important when you’re working on longer projects such as eLearning modules, and audio books. If you’re behind schedule, let your client know. If you’re on schedule, tell your client too.

Remember the online purchase I wrote about last week? Once I had bought my reading glasses, I couldn’t wait to get them. I was happy to receive immediate confirmation of my purchase, and I got a message once my readers were shipped. Thanks to a tracking number, I knew when the package would arrive at my doorstep. How reassuring!

But wait… there’s more. Let’s get back to your client. 

AFTER SALES

Let’s say everything went according to plan. Your customer is happy with his or her purchase, and you are ready to move on. But are you really done?

Absolutely not!

This was just the beginning of a relationship, and some clients may need additional assurance that they made a solid investment. That’s nothing new. One of my best buddies just bought a car, and he is showing it to all his friends. Of course he is proud of his new Subaru, but what he is secretly hoping for, is some kind of confirmation that he made the right choice. In other words: he wants reassurance after the purchase was made.

So, what can you do to give a client a warm and fuzzy feeling once the audio has been delivered? Well, show some gratitude! Send your client a thank you email, or -better still- a handwritten card. Let them know how much you enjoyed working with them The key thing is personalization. Avoid clichés such as “I look forward to working with you again,” or “if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.” If you have done your job and you did it well, they WILL get back in touch with you.

Secondly, make it painless to pay you. Some authors will tell you to invoice a client as soon as possible. I always wait a few days. Number one: I want to be sure that my recording is approved before I send the bill. Number two: I don’t want to give the impression that I’m all about money. Don’t wait too long either. Catch the client in the afterglow of their experience. That way they still remember what they’re paying you for.

Ask clients what their preferred payment method is. If your client prefers PayPal, use PayPal. If your client likes TransferWise, use TransferWise. And when the check clears and the money is in the bank, send another thank you note. Always reward desired behavior!

AND FINALLY

When I received my readers I noticed four things:

  1. They arrived ahead of schedule
  2. They fit like a glove
  3. I received a 10% off coupon for my next purchase
  4. I was encouraged to leave feedback

Numbers 1 – 3 once again reassured me that I had made a wise purchase from a trustworthy company. That put me in the right mood to do something with number 4. An hour after getting my new glasses, I posted a glowing online review. The very next day I received an email from the customer service manager, thanking me for my feedback. It wasn’t one of those automated messages, by the way. It was a personal note that referenced my positive comments.

To those of us who will never meet their customers in person: that’s how you do business, and stay in business! 

So, whether you’re selling a product or a service, do yourself a big favor and don’t clown around.

If you consistently show your customers that you genuinely care, they will be happy to honk their horns!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet. It’s so reassuring!

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The Message Very Few Want To Hear

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Pay-to-Play 30 Comments

DisappointmentWhat if…

What if you advertise yourself as a pro, but you’re still learning on the job;

What if you wonder why you’re not booking, but you’re too cheap to hire a coach;

What if you’re too lazy to look things up, and count on your community to bail you out;

What if you think you can break into the business on a shoestring budget;

What if you’re convinced you can crush the competition by undercutting rates;

What if you feel that no one has your back, but you refuse to join WoVo;

What if “What’s in it for me?” is your motto, and you don’t care about your colleagues;

What if you expect to make money, but you don’t know how to run a business;

What if your Pay-to-Play acts unethically, yet you don’t raise your voice;

What if your client pays dirt, but you bend over backwards anyway;

What if you are totally exhausted, but you never take a break;

What if you love to complain, but you never contribute;

What if you don’t believe in yourself, yet you hope others will…

Well, I’m really sorry, but I cannot help you. You have to help yourself, and up your game if you want to become a pro.

Pros know what to do. That’s what they’re getting paid for;

Pros never stop learning. Even the best work with a coach;

Pros are proactive, and do their own homework;

Pros invest in quality, and are willing to pay for it;

Pros know what they’re worth, and charge accordingly;

Pros stick together, and belong to the World-Voices Organization;

Pros look at the bigger picture, and care about community;

Pros are business savvy, and price for profit;

Pros speak up when they’re treated with little respect;

Pros work with clients who recognize their value;

Pros take care of themselves, knowing they can’t give what they don’t have;

Pros aren’t whiners; they are winners;

Pros are poised, and self-assured.

Pros realize that talent entitles them to nothing. It challenges them to do everything. 

And above all, Pros know that success is the result of many small, intelligent steps, taken in the right direction.

Success can’t be rushed. It can’t be bought. It can’t be forced or faked.

It has to be learned.

It has to be earned. 

Every. Single. Day.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be Sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Disappointed via photopin (license)

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The Ciccarelli Circus

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Pay-to-Play 19 Comments

So, here’s the deal.

We all know that the CEO of Voices.com David Ciccarelli is on a charm offensive. He tried to do damage control by talking to fellow-Canadian Graeme Spicer of the Edge Studio. I don’t think that worked out so well.

The promised recording of the contentious interview was never released because (supposedly) the video version did not survive due to “technical problems.” Then Edge Studio and Mr. Spicer announced:

“We had every intention of releasing the recording of the event as originally stated. Unfortunately we are not in a position to post it at this time. I hope you understand our position, and that you will continue to support Edge Studio as we strive to advocate on behalf of voice actors.”

Some spoke of a falling out between “Edge” and “Voices.” Others suggested that possible legal action prevented Edge Studio from releasing the interview. Meanwhile, a SoundCloud copy of the interview has surfaced, and it is making the rounds on various VO Facebook groups.

Ciccarelli also did a webinar slash infomercial with Bill DeWees, in which DeWees solidified his reputation as Mr. Nice Guy. Some described the webinar as a “snooze fest”. Soon, the CEO of “Voices” will be on the Voice Over Cafe with Terry Daniel and company. I wonder: When will Ciccarelli be hosting Saturday Night Live?

But seriously, here’s the real question:

My blog post Voices.com: Unethical and Greedy? was published on September 3rd. Two months later Ciccarelli finally decides to tell us his side of the story. David, what were you waiting for? A Voice Arts™ Award for best Pay-to-Play?

VOICE TALENT HAS HAD ENOUGH

My guess is that he had hoped the turmoil would simply subside like it has always done. But he was wrong. This time, the voice-over community reacted like a ferocious pit bull. It just wouldn’t let go.

More and more people came forward with Voices dot com horror stories, and asked questions about the Ciccarelli way of doing business. Even voice-seeking clients started complaining, and experienced voice talent began to leave the site in droves.

Newsflash: Those with unpaid Voices-profiles are now asking to be removed from the site. Ouch! Something’s clearly wrong when people don’t even want your free service anymore. One of those talents is Mike Cooper. He told Voices dot com:

 “I see jobs for good money being intercepted by staff, with large percentages being creamed off the top – often without the client’s knowledge – and siphoned into the pockets of a company which I believe has become overly greedy. There is little or no transparency, and I no longer feel I want to be a part of that model.”

Connie Terwilliger was one of the original contributors to the Voiceover Experts podcasts on “Voices” back in 2007. This is what she asked Voices dot com to do:

“Please remove my two Voiceover Experts Podcasts from your library. I do not wish that my name be associated with Voices.com until such time that you recognize that your current business practices are simply not serving the professional voiceover community, nor helping the production community understand the value of the voiceover talent.

Frankly, you are acting as an “agent” and a casting director. Then you should act like one. Go ahead and charge a commission (the escrow fee) and even charge to coordinate large jobs (as long as you don’t undercut the rate to the talent in order to do so). 

However, since you are functioning as an agent, you should NOT be charging the talent a fee to be on the site.”

Connie’s podcasts have yet to be removed.

MONEY TALKS

Ciccarelli finally broke his silence, but don’t think for one minute that his recent interviews and articles were meant for you. The CEO of “Voices” needed to please two types of people: bankers and politicians.

Voices.com borrowed money, and received grants from the Canadian government to grow the business into a multinational. Lenders had to be reassured that everything was A-OK in London, Ontario. Politicians needed to know that their grant money was in the hands of a capable company, especially after the political landscape changed dramatically in October.

Susan Truppe, the conservative Canadian MP for London North Centre who handed “Voices” $900,000 in 2014, was badly beaten by a liberal candidate in the last election. Her successor, political scientist Peter Fragiskatos, might not be so generous. He actually wants small businesses to use crowdfunding to raise money and grow. Unfortunately, the crowd that is willing to fund “Voices” through membership fees seems to be shrinking day by day.

LOST LOVE

In anticipation of Ciccarelli’s appearances, colleagues have asked what I make of his campaign. To tell you the truth: it leaves me cold. My feelings for “Voices” are the same as my feelings for an ex-girlfriend. We had a good time for a while, but it’s over. We split up for a reason, and it’s pointless to try and change the other person when the relationship is dead. It’s hard enough when you’re together. 

Relationships that work have this in common: they are based on trust, and they meet the needs of both partners. Right now, it’s your turn to decide the following:

  1. Do I (still) trust Voices dot com, and
  2. Could a business relationship be mutually beneficial? 

I cannot answer those questions for you. What I can do, is give you information and opinion. In the past five years I have often blogged about Voices dot com, and I have written about them in my book. I think I’ve given “Voices” enough of my time, and part of me believes I could have spent that time in a more productive way. However, I must admit that it is thoroughly gratifying to see that more and more people are getting sick and tired of being milked by a greedy company that made double and triple dipping the new norm in online casting.

AMPLE AMBITION

A while ago, the website Success Harbor asked David Ciccarelli: “Where do you see “Voices” in the next 5 years, what is your ultimate goal?” This is part of his reply: 

“It comes down to this: we really do want to dominate the industry. Meaning, be that kind of dominant player for good but the one that everyone thinks voice-overs is synonymous with, like oh yeah, I go to voices.com for that. So that means speaking to every potential customer that’s out there, having every single voice talent that practices the art and craft of voice acting, they should be on the platform as well. It’s having that omnipresence is really what we’re aiming for.”

Right now, Ciccarelli is finding out that not everyone in the industry wants to help him achieve world domination.

In a time of increased global competition, the strength of a service is determined by the quality of what’s being offered. Voices dot com has to remember that the company is only as strong and valuable as the talent it has on tap. Without acrobats, contortionists, lion tamers, and clowns, a circus is just a tent. 

Ciccarelli will need to do a lot of juggling to convince people to pay in order to play under his roof. 

He’s certainly not going to charm his way back into my business. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Thanks to the inimitable Terry Daniel for the title suggestion.

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The ONE Thing Every Client Is Listening For

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media 24 Comments

Senator Bernie SandersFor once the pundits and the public agree.

Donald Trump has it, and so does Bernie Sanders.

But Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton definitely do not.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about what separates the pretenders from the real deal. It could determine the outcome of the presidential election, as well as the future of your career.

It is what clients are listening for when they make the decision to hire you or not. It’s something you cannot buy, and it’s almost impossible to fake.

What is it?

Authenticity.

Some dictionaries define it as “being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”

Authenticity is often linked to being truthful and sincere. Presidential candidates need to convey to the electorate that they genuinely care, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum.

If politicians pick positions just to score points, or if they flip-flop in the hopes of becoming more electable, people get extremely suspicious. Commentators say it’s one of Hillary Clinton’s stumbling blocks on the road to the White House. Some voters feel that she is distant, calculated, and disingenuous.

Sanders and Trump, on the other hand, are seen as principled, passionate, and authentic.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

Authenticity also has to do with how well you hold up under external pressure. Some people prefer to conform to certain trends in society to live a more comfortable life. Others stand up for what they believe in, and fight for the truths they hold dear.

When I became a vegetarian in my mid teens, friends and classmates never wasted an opportunity to make fun of me. While I was asked to defend my choice over and over again, the meat eaters at the table never had to explain themselves. I still get comments from those who love beef and bacon about wearing leather shoes, and why that’s supposedly inconsistent with a vegetarian lifestyle.

Going against the grain is never easy, but at some point all of us need to answer this question:

Do I want to live a life of conviction, or a life of compromise?

The question is deceptively simple, but the answer is not. It depends on the context, and on one’s personality. In certain areas it is easier to give in and be flexible. But in other areas you and I are morally obliged to draw a line so we can stay true to ourselves.

SMOKE SCREENS

For instance, one of my voice-over colleagues was asked to do a cigarette commercial. The money was very good, and he could certainly use it to pay off some of his mounting credit card debt. Yet, as a staunch non-smoker, he had serious reservations about promoting an unhealthy product.

Colleagues told him not to worry. “Just because you’re lending them your voice doesn’t mean you are endorsing their brand,” they said. “Work is work. What you choose to do privately has nothing to do with it. Most people won’t even know that it’s your voice in the commercial.”

“But,” answered my colleague, “how could I possibly persuade others to buy tobacco products I so much despise? It would be one big lie.”

“Oh, come on,” said one of his closest friends. “You’re an actor. Actors lie. That’s what they do. And the best liars become millionaires and win Oscars. That is how the game is played.”

In the end my colleague decided not to take the job because it would feel hypocritical, as he put it, to help sell a product he hated, and that had killed his father and grandfather. But the story doesn’t end there.

Two days later he got an offer for an on-camera job. A new client wanted him to appear in a short video for a chain of health food stores.

“Any conflicts?” he asked.

“Well,” said the producer, “because the video is promoting a healthy lifestyle, they want to make sure that the actors they hire are not associated with campaigns endorsing alcohol and tobacco products. Are we good on that?”

“You bet,” said my colleague with a smile. “You bet!”

FINDING REPRESENTATION

There is another way in which the word “authentic” is often used in our business. One of my voice-over students wanted to know what she had to do in order to get an agent. What would a typical agent be looking and listening for?

“Definitively someone with an authentic sound,” I said.

“But what does that mean?” she asked. “How do I know I sound authentic?”

“Well,” I responded, “You’ve probably noticed that many people who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, believe they stand a chance because they’re good at impersonations. Others come to me doing an impression of what they think a voice actor should sound like. It’s usually a version of a stereotypical movie trailer voice. That’s not what agents want to hear. They’re not interested in a cliché.

Agents want to hear the real, unvarnished YOU. It’s the YOU only you can bring to the table.”

“But how do they know it’s me?” my student wanted to know. “They don’t know me.”

“Trust me, they know,” I said. “They know because when you’re authentic, you sound believable and honest. You’re not pretending to be someone else.

Most people try too hard to sound good. They overact. They over articulate. They fix the mix a million times until they sound unnatural. You now what I mean, don’t you?

Of course you need to be easily understood in order to do this job. Your plosives can’t pop, and you have to tame your sibilance. But that’s technique. Just as in music, a technically perfect performance can fail to move people because there’s no personality behind it. No heart. A true artist uses technique to support the creation of something magical and vulnerable. Something real.”

A SIMPLE REVELATION

“That’s easier said than done,” responded my student. “Where do I even begin? Since I started these coaching sessions I’ve become so self-conscious. I find it hard to read a script and not evaluate myself as I’m reading it. It’s very unhelpful, and I feel like a fake.”

“Wow,” I said. “If only you could hear yourself right now. That was phenomenal.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“This is the YOU I have been wanting to hear for quite a while now. This is the YOU I had hoped would come out.”

“But I wasn’t acting,” she said. “I was just talking to you.”

“Exactly,” I said. “You hit the nail on the head. You were not acting.

You’ve been trying way too hard for way too long. Relax! Take a deep breath. Soften the muscles in your face and in your neck. Smile for Pete’s sake. You’re taking this way too seriously.”

She looked at me as if I’d said something inappropriate. Then I continued:

“I want you to stop the internal dialogue, so you can focus on the external dialogue. Can you do that for a minute or two?”

She nodded.

“Let’s take a look at the first few lines of the script we’ve been working on, and TALK to me. Pretend it’s just you and me having a conversation.”

THE REAL YOU

After a while my student stopped and said: ”I don’t think this is working. I feel like I’m just phoning it in without making any effort. I don’t think I sound good at all.”

“How you think you sound, and how you actually sound, are two different things,” I said. “You can’t hear yourself the way I’m hearing you. That’s the problem. Shall I play the audio back to you?”

When she listened to herself for a moment, her mouth fell open. Literally.

“This DOES sound like me,” she admitted. “I had no idea… This is pretty amazing!”

“Allow me to let you in on a little secret,” I said.

“Great (voice) acting has nothing to do with acting. It has more to do with being. If you want to do this type of work and do it well, you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself. If you’re not, people are going to pick up on that, just as they can tell when a politician is blowing smoke.”

“Oh, let’s not talk about politics,” said my student. “My authentic self doesn’t want to hear about that.”

“Fine by me,” I said. “I vote to continue this session at another time.”

“I’m not going to debate that,” my student replied.

“See you next week!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Bernie Sanders via photopin (license)

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