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A Friend Vanishes. Now what?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media 18 Comments

Police officersAbout a week ago, my good friend Mark left his home early in the morning to go to work.

There was nothing unusual about that, except for one thing.

He never arrived.

That day, Mark did not come home either, and he did not respond to increasingly desperate text and voice messages from his wife Maggie.

Mark disappeared without a trace.

As you can imagine, Maggie was at her wit’s end when she asked my wife and me to help look for her husband. But where to begin? Whom to call? And what would we tell their 11-year old daughter?

The police were notified. A missing persons report was filed. Hospitals were called. Again and again. It felt like we were part of some television drama. Except, this wasn’t scripted, and we weren’t acting out scenes. This was raw and real, and our friend was probably in danger.

Once we realized that Mark wasn’t coming back any time soon, we used social media to alert as many friends, colleagues, and family members as possible. The day after Mark disappeared, police forces in several states, church groups, girl scouts, teachers, and the news media were searching for our friend.

As the hours went by, we hoped for the best, and feared the worst. The hardest part was not knowing what was going on, and when and how it would end. 

Looking back at this time, I learned a few things I want share with you.

EVERYTHING CHANGES

For one, the definition of what’s important in life completely changes when one of your best friends goes missing. All of a sudden, the little things that seemed so annoying, aren’t worth fussing about anymore. 

As we were working around the clock to potentially save Mark’s life, I was also struck by the fact that so many people are pursuing things that are utterly trivial. It is the luxury of the careless and carefree. Until the day Mark left, I took that luxury very much for granted. 

Third, responses to Mark’s disappearance fell into two categories. One group of people told us they were “hoping and praying.” The other group asked us: “What can we do to help?” Both responses we much needed, and much appreciated!

Following that, I discovered something else. Getting help is not always easy, but if you need it, you have to ask for it. Shamelessly. Of course Mark’s wife felt uncomfortable having to share her husband’s disappearance with the world. But as soon as we started reaching out, people we didn’t even know existed began organizing search parties.

Friends of friends just happened to know police officers in the area where one of Mark’s phones was located. One person was friends with a producer for Dateline NBC. Perhaps we could take the story national! People also started making meals for us, so we could focus on our search. After all, time was ticking.

LOOKING IN THE WRONG PLACES

I also learned that it was very easy to waste precious time taking the right action in the wrong direction. Here’s one example. 

By pinging one of Mark’s cell phones, it was possible to locate the tower origin of the last signal his phone received. This turned out to be a rather bad neighborhood of a town in New Jersey. That’s where the police hoped to find Mark and his car. When nothing turned up, we got extremely worried.

Later on we learned that Mark was nowhere near that town, but that somebody had probably stolen one of his phones, and had taken it to that location.

With almost no leads, and no signs of life, imagine our response every time the home phone rang. At times, the uncertainty was unbearable. But throughout this ordeal we kept on believing that our friend would eventually be found, and be reunited with his family. Pessimism was another luxury we couldn’t afford.

AN UNEXPECTED CALL

Mark disappeared on a Wednesday morning. Friday night his wife came back from picking up their daughter, when she noticed that someone had left a message on her phone from an unknown number. When she listened to it, she shrieked. It was Mark. He asked to be picked up at a shopping mall in the area. He was exhausted but alive.

An hour later, Mark was home again, hugging his wife and daughter.

What prompted him to disappear for a few days, only Mark knows. There were a few problems in his life that he didn’t know how to solve, and he needed time to clear his mind and sort things out. He now knows that what he did was an act of desperation, and that he needs professional help (which he is already getting). 

Once he was back, he also realized that no matter how bad things seemed, and how lonely he may have felt, he was never alone. He was surrounded by people ready to lend a helping hand. 

At this point you may wonder why I am sharing Mark’s story on a blog about freelancing and voice-overs.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

My first reason is personal. Because I love what I do so much, I have a tendency to be obsessed with my work. I spend long hours in a small studio recording in solitude, and when I’m done, I write about it on these pages. Sometimes I even think that what I do has some significance.

Surely, it is a lot of fun, and it pays a few bills, but in the grand scheme of things it’s just a means to an end. All the battles I’ve been fighting on this blog about rates, reputation, and professionalism… those battles could wait until a friend was found.

Professionally speaking, Mark’s story demonstrates that it’s easy to waste time and energy taking action in the wrong direction, hoping and praying for something that is never going to be. I think of the many people who have been talked into a voice-over career who just don’t have what it takes (apart from a credit card). They throw money at online casting sites, and spend hours and hours auditioning for jobs they’ll never get.

No matter how hard you work and how much you invest, you’re not going to find what you’re searching for, if you’re looking in the wrong places.

CONNECTIONS

And finally, I have to talk about the importance of a support system. Whether we realize it or not, all of us are connected in many unexpected ways. Even when things seem dark and hopeless, there are people you may not even know, who care and who can help. Whether you have a problem with your business or it’s something personal… all you need to do is reach out, and ask.

There is a reason why we’re not on this planet by ourselves. Of course that’s both a blessing and a curse.

A journalist once asked a famous theologian why G-d would allow so much evil to happen.

The theologian answered:

“G-d is not in the evil action. G-d is in the loving response.”

Well, the response to Mark’s disappearance was heartwarming, and it gave us hope and the strength to continue our search. But it did more than that.

Somewhere on his lonely journey, Mark felt that something was pulling him back home. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he knew that he had to return, and that everything would be okay.

Eventually.

You see, what happens to us is something we can’t always control.

The one thing we have control over, is how we respond.

If you were one of “our” responders, I want you to know that you have made a difference, and Mark, his family, and his friends will be eternally grateful for what you did.

You’ve made this place a better world!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: gay celebration dolores park — dyke rally, pre pink saturday party : sfpd, police officers, dolores park, san francisco (2013) via photopin (license)

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Voices.com: Unethical and Greedy?

by Paul Strikwerda in Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 138 Comments

On October 15, 2014, Susan Truppe, the Canadian Member of Parliament for London North Centre, visited the offices of Voices.com for a second time. She did not come empty-handed.

That day she announced that “Voices” would be receiving $900,000 from the government “to go global by expanding its project management division and translating its products into additional languages.” (source)

She had some nice things to say to the owners of Voices:

“Taking a business idea and turning it into something that does well in commercial markets is something we need to see happen more and more in Canada. The founders of Voices.com have done this extremely well and I congratulate you, David and Stephanie Ciccarelli. (…) You have grown your business into a marketplace valued by radio and television stations, advertising agencies and Fortune 500 companies.”

Notice which category was missing?

Voice actors!

EXPANSION

$900,000 may seem a lot of money, but it’s not nearly enough if you have big plans.

In April 2015 it became clear that Voices had secured $2 million from BDC Capital, and according to Voices CEO David Ciccarelli, his company has raised $5 million so far, all of it debt financing. Talking to the Financial Post, Ciccarelli added that he estimates his company to make $15 million in gross revenue over the next 12 months, and that Voices will exceed $100 million in annual revenue within three years.

In June, Voices announced that it would open up shop in New York City. According to the website TechVibes, 85% of Voices.com’s customers are located in the US, and a majority of the company’s 125,000 voice talent are located there.

Did you know that voices.com had a database of 125.000 members?

Again according to TechVibes, the Canadian company is experiencing 400% year-over-year growth, and it expects its workforce to reach up to 200 employees by the end of 2016.

SUCCESS STORY

From a business perspective, Voices is a success story Canada can be proud of. By all accounts, the two owners are intelligent, hard-working people, who want their company to be the leading voice casting service on the planet.

There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but what an increasing number of members are concerned about, is how those ambitions are being realized. They know that without voice talent, the company would have nothing to offer. One might as well remove the word “voices” from Voices.com.

However, the very people who are at the center of the company’s growth, feel they’re being treated like second and third-rate citizens. The massive response to last week’s blog post, attests to that. The story has been viewed more than ten thousand eight hundred times, and if you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing, and read Voices.com Is Slapping Regular Members In The Face.

In the days after this article was published, we learned a lot more about the business practices of Voices.com, thanks to many colleagues who decided they’ve had enough. Here are some themes that emerged from hundreds of comments:

1. Voices.com is driving VO-rates down.

While the price of membership goes up and up, voice-over rates are going down and down. That should come as no surprise. Voices tells clients on their “About-page” that by using their services they can expect a “50% savings on voice talent and audio production and administrative costs.”

Big corporations and institutions that used to pay talent a decent rate, can now book a voice at a bargain. Good for them. Bad for us. Once clients are used to lower prices, why would they ever want to pay a penny more?

2. Voices.com may take more money than you make.

Let’s assume a client pays Voices $650 for their services. That doesn’t mean the talent will see or get $650 for a voice-over narration. Colleagues tell me that Voices will often show the job as paying much less, from which a 10% escrow fee will be deducted as part of their SurePay™ system that every member is forced to use.

This is not some random example. This actually happened to voice-over Andrew Randall. The client was already a contact of his, and told him how much they had paid Voices to get the job done. Andrew writes:

“The rate Voices.com originally posted on this job was $440. Deducting their 10% escrow fee, that would have left me $396. That means Voices.com was intending to keep $254 of the client’s voice-over talent budget of $650, or a staggering 39%.”

This particular job was handled by Voices’ Professional Services team. This division will cast the job on the client’s behalf, and more and more projects are handled this way. It seems fair that a client pays a bit extra for this service, but close to 40%? That’s a huge cut of which the voice talent will never see a dime.

A ticked off Andrew responds:

“Union agents are only legally allowed to take 10% of a talent’s fee, and even non-union agents never take more than 20%, and usually 10 to 15%. I wonder how much money I have lost over the years from previous jobs for which I was unaware that Voices.com was taking such a huge cut of my fee. I may seek legal advice to see if I have a case to request those exorbitant fees back.”

But there’s more.

One disgruntled Platinum member told me she booked a job through Voices for $400, not knowing who the client was because Voices didn’t list it. And since Voices explicitly forbids talent to contact clients directly, she couldn’t ask.

Once she got the script, she found out that it was for a MAJOR global brand. The video she ended up narrating has over 3 million hits and counting. She said she has a feeling that Voices charged the client a much higher fee, and pocketed the difference.

A fellow-voice-over agreed, and said:

“They do take $ and hide what the client is actually paying. Another talent mentioned earlier today that they had a friend who booked a job at $1500 (outside of the pay-to-plays) and Voices posted that same job as paying $250. I’ve heard several different accounts of this happening from different sources now.”

This practice doesn’t only insult talent. It also angers those who use Voices to hire talent. A producer just commented:

“I had a recent job where my offer was $250/voice, and the talent told me that they were told by Voices that the job was only $120. This pisses me off because it makes me look like a cheap bastard and some good talent probably passed on auditioning since they saw the job as too low budget for them but in reality, it wasn’t.”

3. Voices controls how much you can “play,” based on what you pay.

As a regular Premium member, you will never see all the jobs that are in the Voices.com system. That’s how it is set up.

As I reported last week, a select group of 100 Platinum and Platinum Unlimited members who pay $2500 or $5000 respectively, are invited to more public job postings, and will get more private invitations than any of the other 124,900 members. Not because they’re more talented or more experienced, but because they paid Voices to give them preferential treatment. They’ll also receive VIP customer service.

One voice talent responded:

“What about everyone else who cannot afford $2500 for a membership, let alone $5000? They are basically making those talents audition into the void and completely waste their time. It’s not about TALENT anymore with this system- it favors those who will put in the money. As someone who grew up very poor, this makes me incredibly sad- and truly outraged.”

Someone else added:

“If I could afford the $2500, I wouldn’t need Voices.com”

Of course Voices.com cannot guarantee any member at any level that they’ll ever get selected for any posted project. They may control the flow of auditions, but they can’t tell the client whom to hire. 

Since my story broke, I have heard from a number of Platinum members, all of whom have been in the business for many, many years. One of them was voice talent and coach Deb Munro. She commented:

“I received more private auditions and made my initial investment back, but not much more than that either. I am floored that they are offering another tier [The Platinum Unlimited membership, PS]. This will be the demise of the site in my opinion, once more exposed.”

Here’s another point most commentators seem to agree on:

4. Auditioning on Voices.com is pretty much a waste of time and money.

Just listen to what three experienced voice-overs had to say:

“I auditioned like crazy, got one gig. 95% of my auditions were never even listened to. I finally would only audition if it was a 90% or better match, and less than 25 people had already auditioned, still nothing. I don’t know what the secret code is, but I couldn’t crack it, and I get plenty of other work.”

“The count of my auditions at Voices.com is in the high hundreds, and I’ve landed a total of two jobs – both from the same employer. I’ve received quite a few “likes” on my work, but a large number of my auditions go unheard and many more projects get closed without any further action. Spend more for better treatment and more visibility? Can Voices.com guarantee I’ll earn my investment back? On both counts, I think not.”

“Wow! I swore off P2P years ago. I thought it was not for me. This new Platinum Unlimited membership level brings it to a whole new level of wasted effort! I know there are some talents who have landed spectacular clients and/ or ongoing gigs. But that seems to be a rarity.”

Can it get any worse? Well, here’s another conclusion many colleagues seem to share:

5. The business practices of Voices.com are unethical. The company exploits naïve beginners, and doesn’t care about voice talent.

Here’s a small selection of comments on that topic:

“Monetize all the things” seems to be the new business model. Even inventing things to monetize. Yeah, one year was enough.”

“I would come back with open arms if they stopped the bidding wars, stopped undercutting their talent, and started representing their talent honorably. They have essentially taken over the job of a talent agent, and are NOT treating their talent according to the principles true talent agencies do. In the process, they are putting real talent agencies at risk – the real workers who fight for the talent. It has to stop.”

“I hate the way they run the company now. They used to pretend to care about members. Now they don’t even pretend to care. They just show utter contempt. David and Stephanie can run their company how they like. I will no longer support it or recommend it to other actors.”

“The arrogance and abusiveness of this company is astounding.”

Voice talent Todd Schick does’t mince words on his website:

“Some people are devoid of ethics and morals; they simply can’t see the benefit – monetarily or otherwise – to treat others in a fair, ethical manner.
Indeed, I’ve heard personally from former employees at Voices.com who have been threatened….now in fear of coming forward. Those that work there are rumoured to have been told to toe the line or be fired. Further still, talent who make noise about this issue are blacklisted (…).”

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

You have read the critique. The question is: will it make a difference? Many colleagues are cynical:

“Paul rightly calls them on their tactics, but Voices.com knows VO-land is disorganized and that there will always be newbies willing to under-bid on a job to get a foothold in this job field. For every one subscriber who quits the P2P in disgust, three more step up with dollars in hand.”

“They’re making money hand over fist. That’s all they care about. They’ll ignore this until it dies down, and then continue to think of new ways to fill their coffers.”

I have blogged about Voices.com before, and whenever I do, it always seems to hit a raw nerve. People share these stories on social media, and comment like crazy. But this time, one thing was definitely different, and I’ll tell you what it is.

Normally, I would always get a few commentators who would come to Voices.com’s defense. They’d tell me how much they love the site, how much money they had made, and that business was booming thanks to this Canadian company. Some said I should stop being so mean to Stephanie and David.

This time around…. nothing.

What I heard instead was this:

“I’m done.”

“I called customer service, and cancelled my membership. I should have done it a long time ago.”

Time after time after time.

And you know what else? In the midst of all this bad publicity, the company isn’t even attempting to do any form of damage control. They’re not denying anything that has been said or written.

At their headquarters in London, Ontario, it has been quiet.

Disturbingly quiet.

Voices.com seems to have lost its voice.

Oh well…

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Voices.com Is Slapping Regular Members In The Face

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play 123 Comments

Voices.com is doing it again.

They are making it harder and harder for regular (Premium) members to audition for, and book jobs.

How does “Voices” do it?

By creating yet another exclusive membership level, limited to a group of very special people who get preferential treatment. But before I get to the new program, let’s talk about the current situation. 

As a voice-over blogger and coach, people often share their frustration about voice casting sites with me. One of my students wanted to know: “Why does it seem almost impossible to land a job on a site like voices.com? I pay them $399 per year, and I audition like crazy. This year I have yet to book a single job. What I am I doing wrong?”

I told him: “You might not be the problem. It’s the system that is rigged against you. On purpose.”

Voices.com writes:

“We’re all about empowering you and your voice in this world of opportunities. (…) The Premium membership is designed specifically with the voice-over professional in mind.”

What many “ordinary” voices-members don’t realize, is that they’re being treated like second-rate citizens. Their annual fee does not give them access to all the jobs and exposure the site has to offer. That privilege goes to 100 Platinum members who pay a whopping $2500 each per year.

What does that get you? Supposedly this: 

  • the highest rankings in the Voices.com search engine
  • a one-on-one consultation with your very own Success Manager
  • two press releases per year
  • being invited to audition for select Professional Services jobs
  • Google marketing
  • higher directory rankings
  • bonus eBooks available for download
  • VIP customer service

 

A GOOD INVESTMENT?

The question is: Is such a membership worth it?

Here’s the problem: no one knows, because we don’t have data that can be independently verified. All we have is anecdotal evidence, and a multitude of marketing messages. 

I spoke to one Platinum member who asked to remain anonymous. She said:

“I have auditioned over 700 times in the past 12 months, and have been hired about 16 times. Out of those 700+ auditions, around 270 of them remained ‘closed’ with no action taken.”

By the way, these numbers are purposely vague to make sure the voice talent cannot be identified. What I can reveal is that she more or less broke even. In other words: she made as much as the cost of the Premium membership… by auditioning over 700 hundred times.

Imagine spending all that time trying to land a few jobs, and ending up making no money at all. Is that a good return on investment? Of course this is just one example of one member, so keep an open mind.

A NEW MEMBERSHIP PLAN

Now, are you ready for this?

The same person recently received a new offer from the Canadian company:

“I’m happy to tell you that we’re releasing a new membership called the Platinum Unlimited membership on September 1st, 2015. The Platinum Unlimited membership includes all of the features and benefits of a regular Platinum membership. (…) Additionally, the Platinum Unlimited membeship (sic) will include a Voices.com branding recording that would be provided to clients via email to give you excellent exposure while showing clients how impressive our talent can sound.

Currently, we have a system called VoiceMatch Invitations that controls the number of jobs you’re invited to. With the new Platinum Unlimited membership, we will essentially be turning this off. You will be invited to approximately twice as many public jobs postings. Our original Platinum membership gives you the opportunity to receive more private invitations because of the boost in your search ranking, while the Platinum Unlimited membership will allow you to choose from a larger amount of publicly posted jobs.

The Platinum Unlimited membership will only be available to our Platinum members. As always, we limit the Platinum membership to 100 people. This means that some people will have the Platinum membership, others will upgrade to the Platinum Unlimited membership, but in total between the two memberships we will never exceed 100 members.”

And how much is this Platinum Unlimited membership going to cost you?

How about five thousand dollars?!

No, I’m not kidding.

THE TRUTH COMES OUT

Here’s what I find particularly revealing.

In the invitation above, Voices.com admits that they are purposely controlling the number of auditions members get invited to, and they’re curtailing the number of public jobs their members receive. 

The only way to turn that system completely off, is to fork over five grand. As of September 1st, even Platinum members won’t be receiving all the job postings anymore. Remember, Platinum Unlimited members will receive “approximately twice as many public jobs postings.”

With this move, Premium members are relegated to a third tier position, making it even harder for them to compete with colleagues who get preferential treatment.

Talk about stacking the cards against you!

Let’s briefly look at a few other perks a Platinum and Platinum Unlimited plan have to offer. First off, there’s the highest voices.com search engine ranking, and higher directory ranking. 

This whole spiel about increased search engine ranking sounds very much like the snake oil sales people who are inundating my inbox with ridiculous claims and outrageous offers: “For only $500 a month we can get your website a top ranking on Google!” Everyone knows it’s bogus.

But let’s assume the creative minds at Voices can manipulate their search engine to give the Platinum & Platinum Unlimited members top spots. What this means is that neither competence nor experience matters if you want clients to see your name first. It’s all about how much you pay. 

In the world of Voices.com, money trumps talent. It’s a clear indicator of where their priorities are.

ARE YOU A VOICES-VIP?

Secondly, only Platinum and Platinum Unlimited members will receive VIP customer service, whatever that means.

I don’t know about you, but I teach my students to treat every client like a VIP, regardless of how much they’re paying. Why? 

Because it is the right thing to do. 

I believe these overpriced Platinum programs are a slap in the face of all the regular paying members who expect to get a fair shot at booking voice-over jobs. What’s more, these schemes are only guaranteed to fill the coffers of Voices.com. 

So, if you are in any way tempted to go Platinum Unlimited, take a moment and think of all the things you could do with 5K that would help your business right now. 

This is five thousand dollars YOU control, and not some greedy company in Canada.

I wonder what they will come up with next. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sure to read the follow-up story, and find out how colleagues and clients respond: Voices.com: Unethical and Greedy? 

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How To Become A Superhero

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Book, Career, Freelancing 13 Comments

The SuperfreelancerOkay, I admit it.

Last week’s post entitled Ten Things Clients Don’t Care About was pretty harsh. Yet, I felt it needed to be said, and many readers agreed with me.

You see, here’s the thing. 

Too many freelancers are too focused on themselves, and it is costing them business.

The way I see it, successful solopreneurs have one job, and one job only: To be a Superhero.

A superhero doesn’t think about him- or herself. A superhero answers a call of someone in need, and uses special powers to save the day. And once the job is done, the hero leaves the scene to tackle another problem.

Now, the very best superheroes have at least one thing in common: They know when they are needed.

To bring it back to my story, some of you said the following: “In your last blog post you’ve told us what clients don’t care about. I get that. Now, why don’t you tell us what clients really want?”

That’s a great question, and every sales person who has ever lived has asked that question many times. In order to answer that question, we have to take a step back, and answer another question: What motivates people to buy things?

Even though you and I are likely to have different clients with different needs, there are three factors that always play a role in every purchase decision. You might be selling a service or a product. It doesn’t matter. All buyers are influenced by the same three things:

Price, Benefits, and Perceptions

The price is what the customer pays in exchange for benefits received. It’s something your client has to give up in order to get something from you. Ideally, those benefits should outweigh or at least equal the cost.

Benefits are the positive effects derived from using your solution or service. It’s the pleasure people experience after getting rid of their inner emptiness, frustration, or pain.

Smart sales people sell benefits. Stupid sales people slash prices. Any idiot can close a sale by cutting the price (and go broke in the process). It takes brains to sell benefits.

Perceptions are the result of how people evaluate the benefits and price, the (initial) impression they get from your business, as well as the total experience of using your product or service.

In the end, perceptions matter most. Allow me to demonstrate.

EVALUATING VALUE

Let’s assume you’ve studied the market and you decide to charge $250 per hour for your services. Is that too much or not enough? Does it even matter what you think?

Client A will never hire you because she thinks you’re too cheap, and cheap equals crap. Client B will hire someone else because she thinks you’re overpriced. Client C will happily hire you because she believes your price is just right.

Your fee is just a number in a certain context. It is always evaluated in relation to something else. That “something else” is a matter of interpretation or perception.

People do things for their reasons. Not for yours. Get this:

An anonymous donor paid $3.5 million at a charity auction to have lunch with Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in the world. Is that too much for a few hours of conversation and a meal?

Hedge fund manager Ted Weschler spent about $5.3 million to win both the 2010 and 2011 auctions. To him, it was money well spent. Buffet ended up hiring him to manage an investment portfolio.

Perceptions are personal value judgments, and therefore highly subjective. This begs the question:

Can perceptions be influenced? Can we manipulate a client into buying from us?

Even though I believe that lasting change comes from within and cannot be forced upon someone, the fact is: people are impressionable. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be as open to social proof, and all advertising would be totally irrelevant.

Years of being a solopreneur have taught me that there are things you can do to get an interested client in your corner, as long as you play your cards right.

Here’s what I have learned:

1. First impressions are crucial

We all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but psychologists will tell you that it takes us only a few seconds to form an opinion of someone or something. That’s why companies spend billions on packaging, and people spend millions on make-up, clothing, and cosmetic surgery.

If you can’t pique a consumer’s interest or instill a level of trust right from the start, he or she will move on to whatever catches the eye next. So, ask yourself:

What is the very first thing new customers see or experience when they stumble upon my product or service? Is it the landing page of my website? Is it a cover of a book or a brochure? Is it… me?

This first impression is the all-important hook. It sets the tone and tells prospective clients enough about your level of professionalism and style, or lack thereof. If anything, this is where you should spend most of your marketing money. To do it right…

2. Your message needs to be clear, convincing, congruent, and consistent

If you want to play the part, you have to dress the part, and embody the part. That might seem obvious, yet, so many business owners undermine their own credibility by sending out conflicting signals. A few examples:

A translation and proofreading service emailed me: “Your welcome to visit our website.” When I pointed this out to them, they blamed this slip of the pen on the intern.

If you don’t proofread your own material, why would my legal translation be safe in your hands?

The sign in the front yard said: “Quality lawn care at a price anyone can afford.” Meanwhile, weeds were growing everywhere, and most trees needed pruning.

The owner of the local health food store looked like she was terminally ill. She must be friends with that overweight director of the fitness center.

See what I mean? Actions speak louder than words. Remember the four Cs when you craft you core message. You have to be Clear, Convincing, Congruent, and Consistent.

3. You have to be responsive

What clients hate more than anything is to be ignored. It gives them the feeling that their business isn’t important to you, and you know what? I think they’re right. Time happens to be something we all have the same amount of. How we choose to spend that time, gives us an inside look into someone’s priorities and planning skills.

I’ve walked out of a fancy restaurant because the wait staff couldn’t be bothered to serve my table in a timely way. I don’t care if you’re known for the best food in town. If your service sucks, you’re screwed.

I read on your website’s Contact page that you’ll get back to me within 24 hours. I sent you a message three days ago and I have yet to hear from you. What other promises aren’t you going to keep? My project has a strict deadline. If you can’t meet your own, how can I be sure you’ll meet mine?

Being responsive also means: giving your client concise progress reports. It’s a way to reassure them that they’re in good hands. If you’re right on track, let your client know. If you’re experiencing an unexpected delay, you have to let your client know. Don’t wait until they send you an email wondering why they haven’t heard from you in days.

Communication is key, as long as you’re to the point. Anticipate and answer client’s questions. Be an open book. Stay in touch. Make it a breeze to do business with you. You want your clients to smile when they think of you. That will happen when you…

4. Go out of your way to be helpful

Not all inquiries lead to a sale. Sometimes what you have to offer is not what a client is looking for. In my case they might want to hire a female voice actor or someone with an older sound or a different accent. Does that mean that all my efforts were wasted? On the contrary.

If you cut off contact because you can’t make an immediate sale, you’re thinking about yourself and you’re thinking short term. Everything is marketing. Any contact with a client, no matter how brief, is a golden opportunity to start building a relationship. A healthy relationship is a two-way street and takes time to evolve. It’s about giving and receiving.

So, how do you give to a client who doesn’t need your services?

It’s simple: Be a resource.

If you’re not right for the job, recommend a few colleagues who are. I’m sure they won’t mind. Show your expertise. Build some goodwill. You’re sowing seeds, and who knows when they might bloom? There are always new projects in the pipeline that might be a better fit for you.

Here’s the thing about giving, though. Don’t just do it for future rewards. That’s not a gift. That’s a bribe. Do it because it’s a decent thing to do.

It’s all a matter of perception.

Even superheroes are aware of that!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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PPS The above article is a chapter from my book Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs. It’s available in paperback, and as a digital download. 

photo credit: A Is For Aquaman via photopin (license)

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The Most Embarrassing Moment of my Voice-Over Career

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Gear, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Studio 8 Comments

Crazy MinionThis week I decided to do something different.

Instead of telling you a story, or giving you some kind of Top Ten, I will answer three seemingly simple questions I get asked a lot.

I’ll start off with some career advice, then I’ll talk about gear, and I will finish with my most embarrassing moment in this business.

Why not save the best for last?

As a voice-over coach, I work with experienced people and absolute beginners. This is what many want to know:

How do I become a top-earning voice talent?

This is actually easy to answer:

By not becoming a full-time voice actor.

Just look at the evidence. I’m sure you’ve seen a few lists of the best paid voice-overs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are usually on those lists. They are the creators of South Park, and they wrote The Book of Mormon musical. Matt and Trey are screenwriters, producers. directors…. and they do voices for the cartoons they created.

Seth MacFarlane, Harry Shearer, and Hank Azaria are also on that list. All three are multi-talented multimillionaires. Hank is a stage actor, director and comedian. Seth created Family Guy and co-created American Dad. He’s a writer, a producer, actor, and singer. Shearer hosts his own weekly radio show, and stars in many movies.

On July 10th, 2015, Minions hit American movie theaters. The voices of these cute yellow fellows don’t come from a professional voice actor, but from French animator Pierre-Louis Padang Coffi. In the Despicable Me movies, fellow director Chris Renaud voiced a few minions too. 

So, if your goal is to make a ton of money doing voice-overs, the sure-fire road to success does not lead to the VO studio, but to a film set, a Broadway stage, or to a comedy club. There are exceptions, but the people for whom voice acting is just something they do on the side (among many other things), tend to be the highest earners.

My advice: Get famous doing something else first, and before you know it, the voice-over offers will start pouring in!

What Equipment do you recommend for the voice-over studio?

First off, even the best gear sounds crappy in a bad environment. I strongly urge you to spend most of your money on creating a semi-soundproof and acoustically treated recording space before you blow it all on a Neumann mic.

When it comes to selecting equipment, I find that a lot of people go for familiar brand names without looking any further, and they spend way too much money.

When in 2012 I introduced the voice-over community to one of my favorite microphones, many colleagues said: “Conneaut Audio Devices, what kind of brand name is that?” Yet, I still believe that their E100S model is one of the best values for money. Click here to find out why. 

It is probably time for me to change the headline of this review, because the CAD E100S (retailing for about $350) has earned quite a reputation. Whenever someone asks for microphone advice, you’ll always find a happy CAD convert chiming in on social media, and for very good reasons.

Now, it takes a good preamp to make a microphone shine. Audient might not be the first brand you think of when it comes to voice-over gear. Yet, this British company is known throughout the recording industry for their pristine preamps. If you’re looking for a pre with top-of-the-line AD/DA converters, a monitor controller, and lots of connectivity, the iD22 ($599) is an excellent choice. I use it in my voice-over studio, and you can click here to read my review.

Audient iD14

click to enlarge

A few months ago, the iD22 got a little brother: the iD14. It’s a compact, robust, portable plug and play solution. At $299, this stylish all-metal powerhouse is hard to beat in the studio and on the road.

What was the most embarrassing moment of your voice-over career?

Let me preframe my answer by saying that I firmly believe that people make decisions based on the information that is available at the deciding moment. This information is always insufficient, and it is colored by many factors such as our emotions. Looking back, some of the decisions you and I have made may seem silly or stupid now, but had we known better, we would have made better choices.

Here’s one decision I later came to regret.

Back in 2009 I was launching my voice-over career in the United States, and I signed up for voices.com. That turned out to be a pretty good move, because straight away I started booking a handful of lucrative jobs.

A few months later, Voices held a contest called “The Ultimate Success Story,” asking their members to write a few words about how well they did using the online voice casting service. The grand prize was a $500 gift certificate to pro audio retailer Sweetwater.

I think you can guess what happened next: my glowing testimonial turned out to be the top pick. Last time I checked, it is still used for promotional purposes.

Why was winning the grand prize so embarrassing?

Well, right after claiming my reward, my luck on Voices ran out, and after a few years I started to dislike the whole Pay-to-Play model. As I wrote in my book Making Money In Your PJs:

“In 2013 I had a five-star rating, 5445 listens on voices.com (more than any other Dutch talent), and I landed a total of… (are you ready?) TEN jobs, earning me a whopping $2,740.89. God only knows how many auditions I have had to submit before being selected.

This can only mean one of two things. Either, I stink at playing the Pay-to-Play game, or I’m a talentless, misguided soul who should be doing something useful with his life.”

That year I left voices.com, and I never looked back. I no longer believe that a site like Voices benefits my career or my community. As I wrote in my article Leaving Voices.com:

“Today, I’d rather work for agents who have an incentive to send me quality leads with decent rates. There are no upfront fees. When I get paid, they get paid. When they negotiate a better deal, they make more money too. That’s only fair. I only pay when I actually get to play.”

Every now and then I still run into people who have read my prize-winning endorsement. They also know of my overall disenchantment with online casting mills. And when they bring up my old testimonial, I get very uncomfortable.

It is the unfortunate price I pay for my Sweetwater shopping spree!

But don’t feel sorry for me.

I may not make as much as Trey, Matt, Hank or Harry, but I’m doing quite alright. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Happy Meal Minion Toys via photopin (license)

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The Ministry of Silly Voice-Overs

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Pay-to-Play, Personal 19 Comments

Lumberjack SongLast week it happened again.

In my dreams.

I got a phone call from a potential student who wanted to know how long it would take to break into the voice-over business.

He had no training, no equipment, no experience, and no patience. When I asked him how much he was willing to invest, it turned out he had no money either.

What a brilliant start!

“But I have a profile on voices.com,” he said proudly.

“How did you pull that off?” I wondered.

“I just recorded a few things on my friend’s computer so I would have some demos, and they accepted me straight away. They must think I have potential, right?”

“Listen carefully,” I said, “these people would accept a talking parrot for a new member as long as it presented a credit card that wasn’t expired. In fact, I believe I’ve heard a few of our feathered friends on that site, and they all sound very much like Gilbert Gottfried.”

“Oh, I can do a Gilbert Gottfried for you,” said my aspiring voice-over enthusiastically. “Just give me a few seconds to get into character.”

“Please don’t,” I begged, but it was too late. I had to hold the phone a mile away from my ear in order to avoid permanent hearing loss.

After one of the most painful minutes of my life listening to the sound of an Aflac duck being strangled, I had had enough, and shouted:

GILBERT, YOU’RE FIRED!”

“That’s so funny,” giggled the voice on the other end of the line. “Gottfried lost his job after making a tsunami joke. I must have sounded pretty convincing.”

“To tell you the truth, you sounded more like a dead parrot to me, my friend. Had you gone on for much longer, my neighbors would have reported me to the police for cruelty to animals. I’m sure they could hear every wretched noise you just made.”

“Speaking of dead parrots,” the aspiring student continued unabashed, “I can also do a mean John Cleese impression. And without skipping a beat he yelled:

‘Ello, Miss, I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.’

“Before you go any further, Mr. Cleese,” I interrupted, “I have an admission to make.”

‘ELLO POLLY!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing!’ the guy continued, but the moment he took a breath I seized the opportunity and said:

“You are extremely talented…”

The blissful silence that followed these glorious words lasted precisely two seconds.

“Do you really think so?” the impersonator whispered.

“Extremely talented…

at pissing people off, Pet Shop man,” I continued. “Let me give it to you plain and simple: 

If you go on like this, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression. Right now, your voice-over career is as dead in the water as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue. It’s stone dead. It has ceased to be. It’s expired, and gone to meet its maker. Bereft of life. It’s kicked the bucket, and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible…”

“Alright, alright… I get it,” said the voice-over wannabe. “But you have to help me out here. I came to you for some coaching. Not to have an argument. I told you that at the beginning.”

“No you didn’t” I said.

“Yes I did,” he said.

“You did not!”

“I’m telling you I did!”

“You did not!”

“Oh this is futile,” he said.”

“At last we agree on something,” I replied. “From what I’ve heard so far, you’re as good at doing voice-overs as Basil Fawlty was at running a hotel.”

“Coming from you, that means a lot,” the guy said. “I appreciate your honesty. Will you be my coach?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I exclaimed. “I just insulted you, and you want to be my student? What are you? A masochist? I don’t think you’re cut out for this sort of work.”

“But for the past few months this has been my dream,” he stammered. “Right now I work at Holiday Hair, and I hate it. I have this terrible un-un-uncontrollable fear whenever I see hair. When I was a kid I used to hate the sight of hair being cut. My mother said I was a fool. She said the only way to cure it was to become a hairdresser. Guess what? It didn’t work.”

He let out a deep, sad sigh.

“Mr. Strikwerda, If I can’t do voice-overs, what else am I to do?”

I knew I couldn’t leave the guy hanging. He had a good sense of humor, and I wanted him to get something out of our conversation. What was I to do? All of a sudden I knew the perfect answer.

“Listen, I said… why don’t you…  why don’t you become a… LUMBERJACK!” 

“Leaping from tree to tree as they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia,” he continued.

“The giant redwood, the larch, the fir, the mighty scots pine…”

“If I ever want to get rid of this lad, I have to stop feeding him lines,” I said to myself. After taking a sip of water I got back into the conversation.

“You know my name. What’s yours?” I asked.

“Michael,” he said. “I was named after Michael Palin.” 

“How surprising,” I thought. 

“Well, Michael, I tell you what. Why don’t you take one of your demos, and send it to the Voice Arts™ Awards. If you win, I’ll give you five free coaching sessions. How does that sound?”

“Are you serious?” he asked. “That’s amazing! Thank you. Now I feel much more optimistic.”

“That’s the spirit!” I said. “You know what they say: ‘Always look on the bright side of life.'”

Michael laughed, and replied on cue:

“Nudge, nudge. Say no more!”

Paul Strikwerda (and Monty Pyton) ©nethervoice

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photo credit: Photo 02-07-14 11 21 31 via photopin (license)

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How Vocal Coach Elissa Weinzimmer Lost Her Voice and Found Herself

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 14 Comments
Elissa Weinzimmer, vocal coach

Elissa Weinzimmer

Okay. I’m going to do the decent thing, and not start with how a simple sex toy could benefit your (voice) acting career.

That would be a cheesy way to pique your interest, and I’m not going there.

Besides, it’s just a small part of a much bigger story, and it has been covered before

Don’t worry. I’ll get to it eventually, but you have to be patient.

Instead, I’d like your mind to go somewhere else…

Imagine for a moment that you’re young, and your voice is your life. 

You love it so much that you want to make a living using that voice.

You take every opportunity to speak, sing and perform in public.

You dream of a career on stage, and you work very hard to make it a reality. 

And then, all of a sudden, you lose the one thing you trust and rely on most.

How would you feel?

This is not some sort of hypothetical scenario. This actually happened to vocal coach Elissa Weinzimmer. She told me her story, and today I’m going to share it with you. Here’s Elissa, recounting the events that took place some eight years ago.

“Simply put, I lost my voice in 2007. It was due to a combination of factors… I was really pushing to belt a solo in my a cappella group (USC Reverse Osmosis), and I was also drinking almost every day because I was trying to enjoy my remaining months in college (!). The drinking part was quite out of character, so it only lasted about a month before my body reacted. One morning I woke up, and felt like I had shards of glass in my throat. It hurt to swallow and speak. Later on that day, I spat up blood.

I rushed myself to the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist that week to have my vocal cords scoped, and I was told I had severe onset of acid reflux, and had experienced vocal “trauma” from overuse. I was put on vocal rest for a month… I had to walk around with a little notepad to communicate my thoughts. After that, I was sent to speech therapy. The whole experience was a major turning point for me. I stopped performing. I even stopped singing much in the car or the shower, places where I usually rocked out. Recently, I’ve started to call the seven years after losing my voice my silent years.”

When your voice is such a part of your identity, what did it do to you psychologically, when you could no longer rely on it?

“It was really emotional, of course. My confidence took a hit because I felt like I couldn’t rely on my voice. When I talk about it in yogi terms, I say that I spent years shutting down my fifth chakra, the center of energy in my throat. The fifth chakra is all about creativity and expression, so I felt stifled. Opening back up to my expressiveness has been a challenging but joyful process.”

How did losing your voice change a possible career path you had set out for yourself at that time? 

“Well, I’d spent most of my life believing that I was going to pursue a career in acting – that I was going to sing on Broadway. Interestingly enough though, a few months before I lost my voice I directed my first full length show, the musical Cabaret. So I was already intrigued and exhilarated by the idea of pursuing a career in directing. When I couldn’t rely on my voice anymore, it was a no-brainer that I would focus my efforts on directing instead. The idea to teach voice didn’t arise until a year or so later.”

Some people look at unfortunate events as blessings in disguise. Was losing your voice such a blessing, and in what way?

“Eight years later, I absolutely believe that it was a blessing. My story fits the archetype of the person who enters a healing or helping profession because of their own challenges. Losing my voice redirected my course in life, and I deeply love what I do now. So, in some ways I’m very grateful to have gone through the experience.”

What surprising things did you discover in the process of getting your voice back, and how has that changed you as a person, and as a professional?

“By the time I was ready to start reclaiming my voice I was already teaching voice to others quite a lot. It became clear to me that it was time to start walking the walk rather than just talking the talk. After all, it’s one thing to tell people to express themselves fully, and it’s entirely something else to be a model of that. I have to admit, a lot of my motivation for performing again was selfish – I needed to do it for me. Yet in pursuing my passion and my truth, I hope I offer a model that encourages other people to do the same in their own way. I believe the world will get really exciting when a critical mass of people start pursuing their true passions and desires, and I feel very strongly about being part of that movement.”

You have used a few methods to restore your voice, to strengthen your vocal folds, and to deal with vocal fatigue. One is called Fitzmaurice Voicework®. In a nutshell, what did you learn from using this technique that was new to you?

“It wasn’t what I expected. I encountered Fitzmaurice Voicework® in my theatre voice class when I was a senior at the University of Southern California. After I lost my voice I began to study the technique more deeply. Fitzmaurice is a beautiful and unique full body approach to making sound, but the exercises weren’t the thing that provided the biggest change for me. The huge change came from encountering a mindset shift inherent in that work: that instead of needing to have the best voice or a perfect voice, I could focus on having my voice.

I showed up at Fitzmaurice lessons wanting to get better and fix my voice. Of course that makes sense, I had spent my whole life up to that point trying to be a good singer and trying to make a good sound. But I learned that improving the voice is a paradox, because in order to get “better,” we have to uncover what’s already there. It’s not about adding stuff, it’s about peeling the extra junk away. In this new way of thinking I could let go of judging myself as good or bad/right or wrong, and I could instead ask myself: “What might this way of making sound be good for?” or “What might this way of breathing be right for?”

This paradigm shift changed everything for me. Once it sunk in, I was immediately committed to the idea of becoming a voice teacher, and sharing this way of thinking with others.”

You say the whole body is involved in creating sound. Many voice-overs lead very sedentary lives. They lock themselves up in a small, soundproof box, and sit all day, reading long scripts. What advice do you have for them?

“An ongoing struggle that I’ve had in my own vocal practice is to actually do my warm ups and take good care of myself. I will be the first to admit that that’s challenging! I have often felt like I’m not doing enough, and when I start working without warming up I feel guilty. However I’m lucky to be curious – fascinated in fact – with how the voice works and the connection between the voice and the body. At this point I’ve spent years experiencing and teaching warm ups and exercises. In the process I have come to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that having a vocal practice works. Doing vocal warm ups and keeping ourselves in shape makes a difference.

So, for those of us who are really committed to using our voices as an instrument, I suggest this:

Get curious about how your voice works. We would never hop on a motorcycle without first learning how it works, so why would we ever presume to use our voice every day if we don’t understand it? Pick up a book and read. Joanna Cazden’s “Everyday Voice Care” is a great place to start. Create accountability and support. Sign up for a class. Go to yoga or the gym regularly. Create a practice.

Professor David Ley

Professor David Ley (left)

In 2012 you moved to Edmonton, Canada, to earn an MFA in Theatre Voice Pedagogy at the University of Alberta. That’s where you met one of your mentors, professor David Ley. One of the things he has developed is called the “Vibrant Voice Technique.” Tell me about it, and in particular how this technique could be beneficial to voice actors.

“Vibrant Voice Technique is based on this outside-the-box idea that David had to use a vibrator for your voice. He had a client suffering from extreme vocal fatigue. She’d been to the Ear Nose and Throat doctor, and she’d been scoped, but there was no damage. That being said, she was having ongoing difficulty making sound due to muscle tension. She had trouble giving herself a manual throat massage to release the tension, so David thought to himself… “Hmm, what’s small and vibrates?” The subsequent lightbulb moment led to a trip to the “love shop” to purchase a pocket-sized vibrator, and sure enough it worked!

Essentially, with Vibrant Voice Technique we use external vibration to reduce muscular tension, and enhance resonance. The technique can be incredibly beneficial to voice actors because it makes vocal exercises quick, easy, and highly effective. You don’t have to have a long regimen of exercises that you feel guilty about not doing. Quite honestly, Vibrant Voice is a shortcut to staying in vocal shape. So for voice actors who deal with issues of duration and overuse it can be extremely helpful.”

You’ve taught this technique to stage actors, on-camera actors, and professional singers. What’s the response when they found out they’re about to use a sex toy?

“There’s this very funny moment that happens when I say to someone: “I teach people to use a vibrator for their voice.” Almost always it goes like this: a blank stare, followed by a slow smile, then a vigorous nod. Sure the idea is surprising, but it makes sense to most people as soon as they think about it! Obviously many media outlets have capitalized on the sex toy angle because it’s sensational. Yet we continue to teach and do what we’re doing because the technique really works.”

Right now you’re recommending a “sensual personal massager” made by a Swedish company, but you’re developing a custom-made voice vibrator, aren’t you? What’s the word on that?

“Yes, we are in the process of developing our own vibrator. Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about that at the moment. However, if anyone reading this is interested in getting involved with the fundraising or research process, they are welcome to email us! You can find our contact info at Vibrant Voice Technique.

Apart from being the managing director of Vibrant Voice Technique, you run your own business called “Voice Body Connection.” What do you offer, and who are your clients?

“Voice Body Connection is based in New York City where I live. The business is all about helping people tune into the connection between their voice and body (as the name suggests). My mission is to help performers and public speakers communicate with more confidence and ease. I work in many ways: I coach clients privately in person, and over the internet. I teach actors at a studio in New York called Anthony Meindl’s Actors Workshop. I also teach an online Speak With Confidence class for public speakers. I’d love to develop a class for voice-over actors too!

In whatever format I’m teaching, the work starts with examining and shifting our mindset about how we communicate, and progresses to techniques and practices to create sound with more expression and less effort.”

I’m particularly intrigued by something you offer called Yoga for the Voice.

“I think there are many voice teachers now who are playing with combining vocal exercises and yoga. In a lot of ways the practices are complementary. So, I certainly can’t claim to have invented Yoga for the Voice. However I love exploring the interplay of how we might make sound while we do yoga, or how we might carry yoga concepts into voice work. It’s an exciting area of exploration for me, and I think for my students too!”

You also prep people for auditions. What are some of the common mistakes you help people correct?

“Well, I think the greatest challenge for a performer is that we’re usually given a script, and that maps out our impulses for us. It is so easy, when we’re being told what our impulses should be, to plan and make logical decisions about how we’ll perform. However the real goal is to allow impulses to bubble up creatively from our right brain, the same way impromptu speech pours out of us. So, the biggest thing I find I spend my time doing when I’m coaching people for auditions or performance, is helping them find a way to marry their own impulses with the impulses that have been provided in the script.”

Quite a few voice actors suffer from vocal fatigue. They got into the business because they loved to read out loud, and because they could do “funny voices.” Not everyone has had professional voice training. What advice do you have for an audio book narrator who records five hours a day, or for a voice actor who has to scream his head off while recording video games or cartoons?

“So, you’ve just brought up two issues: the duration issue (length of time doing the work) and the use issue (are we using healthy practices?). In either case, I highly recommend a warm up and a cool down.

Now, we’re doing the warm up not just to go through the motions. We’re doing it because it’s an opportunity to let our voice know: “This is how I’d like you to behave as I move through my work.” It sets us up for success. After you’ve done a warm up you can do whatever you want within reason – you can scream, cry, and make crazy sounds.

At the end of your session, you want to reset by doing a cool down. You’ve done a lot of work and potentially used extreme effort, so you want to come back down to a more healthy, neutral resting place. The primary reason actors get into trouble with fatigue is because they carry their overuse or misuse into the rest of their day or into the bar that night. So the biggest piece of advice I can offer is: Warm up and cool down! Even thirty seconds of humming will do.

Elissa Weinzimmer, performing "Home."

Elissa, performing her show “Home.”

And finally, back to you. Helping all these performers, don’t you feel the pull of the stage? Will you be coaching in the background, or is there a chance we could see you perform in public again?

“The answer to both is yes! I love coaching. I love helping facilitate people’s art. However, now that I’ve broken the seal, so to speak, I’m back, and I’m going to continue performing!

What do you mean?

I recently sang a cabaret show for my 30th birthday! It was an incredible experience. The theme of the show was “Home.” I’ve been moving around a lot over the last couple years, so it’s about finding home wherever I am. But it’s also about coming home to my voice. You can read about my three performances on a special website I just created.

I don’t know what my next project will be, but I’m very much open to the possibility and opportunity to perform again.”

SPECIAL OFFER

Elissa has developed an online training on how the voice works, and she offers online voice coaching. She also teaches one-on-one sessions in Vibrant Voice Technique via Zoom (online), or in-person in New York City. Check out her website for details.

She’s kindly offering readers of this blog 10% off of any of her sessions when you mention Nethervoice. If you’re unsure how to properly use your voice, or if you’re suffering from vocal fatigue, one or more sessions could very well save your career. 

Thank you, Elissa!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Causing A Ruckus. Again.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Internet, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Promotion 45 Comments

Sweet watchdog.Oh dear, I think I stepped on some very sensitive toes, last week.

And I’m not at all sorry.

If you weren’t part of the now 8,500 strong group that has read last week’s story, click here to catch up on what you missed. It will take you to:

5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice-Over.

Some of the folks who read it, kindly called me:

“Disheartening and rude.”

“Snarky, mean-spirited, and quite arrogant.”

“Negative, pompous and absolute.”

Another commentator wrote:

“Seems like a severe case of sour grapes and he/she really needs to seek out a career change…”

People know me so well, don’t they? They haven’t got the faintest idea whether I’m a man or a woman, but they sure know my deepest motivations, and darkest desires.

Listen up people. There are psychics among us, and they know exactly what drives us!

If you’ve read all the comments, you know there were other opinions:

“A little reality check is always a good thing. And, as Paul pointed out at the end, if you’re a fool and passionate about it, then you’ll love every lonely, frustrating, fabulous minute of it!”

“As one of the doe-eyed hopefuls making these same mistakes and assumptions, I respect his perspective.”

“Knowing these truths and being aware of the harsh realities of the business is what helped me survive and get work.”

IT COULD BE WORSE

Should you belong to the group that believes I was impudent and impertinent, you must read a blog post entitled:

Five Reasons You Won’t Make It As A Writer,” by John Hartness.

Here’s how it starts:

“I’ve decided to just embrace my role as the Simon Cowell of the writing world. I’m honestly tired of being nice and supportive to everyone who comes up to me with a half-baked idea or worse, a half-baked product, and asks what I think. Because they don’t want to know what I think. They want to hear how awesome they are. And most of the time they aren’t awesome. Most of the time I’d be better off trimming my toenails than reading their godawful attempts at a book or story, because at least that can get exciting if I trim a little too closely. So here goes – unexpurgated Hartness on why you’re not going to make it as a writer.”

And that’s only the beginning…

If, after reading that tirade you still believe I’m the rudest man in the voice-over universe, your skin is way too thin. That’s a serious problem, because -just as the life of a writer- the life of an average voice talent revolves around rejection. And if you’re not rejected enough, you’re not auditioning enough.

Now, is this me being negative and bitter again?

Hell no!

I’m not saying anything new. I’m merely stating a fact, and if you can’t handle that, you are being bitter. Not me.

RULES AND EXCEPTIONS

Here’s what most of my critics pointed out (and I paraphrase here):

While there is some truth to Paul’s five points, there are exceptions to his rules. Quite a few people are making a good living as a voice-over. Some are doing very useful work. It is possible to be social and productive as a VO.

To that I say: Big whoop!

I know a few actors who aren’t waiting tables in NYC or LA, but what does that prove?

Of course I’m generalizing. Anyone who has been in this industry for longer than a year recognizes that. But that doesn’t mean there’s no validity to my point of view. Here’s a quick recap:

– This world needs less talk, and more action.

– VO rates have been steadily eroding.

– Being a voice-over can be unhealthy, and lonely.

– Finding the work often takes more time than doing the work.

– It may take years before you make some serious money.

WHAT’S MY OBJECTIVE

Let’s be honest. Are these really the statements of some disenchanted, fearful soul, meant to scare newcomers off his lawn? Or am I simply restating a few arguments countless colleagues have made for many, many years?

If you have a problem with these conclusions, why shoot the messenger? Why not write to that online casting site you paid good money to, and ask them to raise the minimum rate, and to do some decent quality control? You’re an esteemed member. Shouldn’t you have a say in these matters?

And to commentator Scott Spaulding I’d like to say this:

You claim that there is money in voice-overs, and that’s fine. Your profile on Elance/Odesk tells me that your minimum hourly rate is $38. You voiced an animated infographic for $82! And you’re telling me that you’re “not working for beer money?”

Are you serious?

You wrote:

“(…) just because you work as a voice talent, doesn’t mean you don’t have any interaction with anyone. You can still pick up the phone and call a client directly to try to build a relationship that way. As well as cold-calling potential clients and try to build a report with someone other than through email.”

Yeah, let’s cold call a client to break the social isolation, and build a relationship. I’m sure that’ll go over really well. We all know how much people love to get a cold call. I haven’t had one in a while, and I really miss it.

WHO’S HYPOCRITICAL

I do have to commend you for your honesty, Scott. You said:

“I did find your comment about the voice conference speakers a little bit hypocritical though. You make a snarky remark about the VoiceVIP’s talking about themselves and plugging their own books at these conferences… when you’re doing the same thing on this blog! You have a link to your book on this page that says “Buy the book!” They’re using the conferences to help advertise and sell their book and you use this blog to help advertise and sell your book. You even plugged your book in one of your replies to someone who posted a comment.”

Are you saying that I shouldn’t promote my own work on my own website? What school of business did you go to? You’re on my turf, and the number one goal of this site is to generate an income. How is that hypocritical? You have samples of your work on your website, don’t you? 

There’a big difference between landing on my site, and going to a VO conference. The 5,000+ people who visit my site every month pay zero dollars. What do they get for that? Over 120 blog posts that many visitors find informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Unlike some VO-conferences, I’m not asking people to pay a hefty fee for my privilege to plug my products.

BEING PRODUCTIVE

Scott, I totally disagree with you on your definition of “productive.” You said:

“Whatever you’re doing that is helping build your VO business IS being productive. Whether it’s looking up places to contact, working on a new demo, emailing potential clients, looking up new marketing ideas… it’s all part of working towards your goal of getting business!”

Being busy does not equal being productive. 

In any business, input leads to output. Input can be anything used to produce a product or a service (such as writing newsletters and emails, producing demos, making calls). Productivity is measured by the result of those actions. It’s the output that matters.

When you’re delivering services at a more rapid rate than before, you’re being more productive. Not when you’re making more calls, or when you’re doing market research.

MY MOTIVATION

As an envelope-pushing, pot-stirring blogger I accept the fact that people will criticize and ridicule me. Different opinions and dialogue are welcome, as long as we can have a civilized discussion. 

I also realize that not everyone gets my tongue-in-cheek style. People tend to take the written word more literally, and snarcasm is not for everyone.

I never ask my readers to agree with anything I’m suggesting, but here’s the thing. I don’t provoke for the sake of provocation. The aim of last week’s piece was to provide a counterweight to all the propaganda from companies that are still trying to sell the same old story to a new, naive audience. If anything, I had expected a firm response from those companies. Instead, some colleagues accused me of dissuading newbies to join my club.

“If you don’t have anything positive to say, then perhaps you shouldn’t say it,” is their advice.

Sorry, but that’s not how I was raised.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know I do more than complain and campaign. And when I spot things in my industry that seem unfair or downright wrong, I speak up. I don’t care if that makes a few people uncomfortable. As long as things are comfortable, nothing will change.

So, allow me to be that self-appointed watchdog. I may step on a few toes here and there, but my bark is worse than my bite.

You see… I told you so:

This industry is going to the dogs!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet. 

photo credit: Miss Olive via photopin (license)

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The Easiest Way To Shoot Yourself In The Foot

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 20 Comments

Pointing fingersBeing judged.

For some people, it is the worst feeling in the world.

Not only that, it can be totally paralyzing.

We all have friends or family members who are really good at something they do. Perhaps they play an instrument, or they write funny little poems. But as soon as you ask them to play or read something in public, they come up with all kinds of excuses:

“I don’t think I’m ready.”

“I’m not that special.”

“What if I mess up?”

“What will people think of me?”

Here’s what’s so remarkable about these statements. They’re all based on self-doubt; on the assumption that things will go badly, and on the idea that the audience consists of critics.

This fearful attitude reminds me of children who refuse to eat something they’ve never eaten before. They always expect the worst. When asked why they’re not willing to try this new food, they all say:

“I’m not sure I’m going to like it.”

Perhaps that’s where this unadventurous, negative attitude starts. With whiny kids and overprotective parents.

THE ICE CREAM STORY

One of my young nieces is a very picky eater who only eats things she’s familiar with: mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. One day I took her to the ice cream parlor for dessert. Her eyes lit up when she saw the sixty plus flavors in the freezer window.

“I want ice cream, Uncle Paul,” she said. “I think I’ll have two scoops.”

I looked at her, knowing this would be the perfect learning opportunity.

“Are you going to treat me?” I asked playfully. “What a nice surprise!”

“No silly,” she laughed. “I don’t have any money. I’m just a kid. But I do want ice cream.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think I heard a question. Is that how your mother raised you?”

“No,” she answered sheepishly. I could tell she was a bit surprised that she didn’t get her way immediately.

A few seconds later she tried:

“Can I have some ice cream, Uncle Paul?”

This wasn’t the time to talk about the difference between “can and “may,” so I said:

“That’s much better, but I think I’m still missing the magic word. Do you want to ask me again?”

My niece was getting a bit frustrated, but her desire for ice cream was greater, so she said:

“Can I have some ice cream, PLEASE?”

“That’s more like it,” I said. “Now, let me ask YOU a question: Have you ever had ice cream from this place before?”

“No,” she answered.

“Oh dear,” I said. “In that case I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“Why is that?” she said surprised.

“At lunch, when I asked you to eat your broccoli, you refused, because you said you never had it before. You didn’t think you would like it. So, how do you know you are going to like this ice cream?”

I could see that my niece’s wheels were turning for a moment or two, and while staring at the many colorful flavors, she let out a big sigh.

Then she looked up at me and said:

“Uncle Paul, I guess I’ll just have to try.”

“That’s great,” I responded, and we walked inside. I knew the owner of the store, and as I pointed to my niece, I said:

“This young lady would like to have some broccoli ice cream please.”

The owner winked, and he gave her a big scoop of pistachio gelato.

My niece took one big lick, and said she loved it.

“See, had you not tried it, you would have been missing out,” I said. “I’m proud of you!”

After a while I explained to her that this wasn’t really broccoli ice cream, but I don’t think she cared one way or the other.

The next day, I got a phone call. It was her mother, and she had a question.

“I don’t know what you did, Paul, but my daughter just asked for broccoli. How do you prepare that?”

BACK TO YOU

Here’s the point I want to make.

All of us are born with an amazing tool: our imagination. It allows us to create all kinds of scenarios, some of them more uplifting than others. Sometimes we form opinions about food we’ve never tasted. Other times we imagine what it would be like to perform in front of an audience.

What many people don’t realize is that we choose what we want to focus on, and what it means to us. We’re in the driver’s seat.

Are we going to tell ourselves:

“This new vegetable is probably not going to be very tasty,”

or

“This green leafy thing could be surprisingly delicious?”

When asked to step onto a stage, are we afraid that we’re going to embarrass ourselves, or do we see ourselves entertaining a delighted crowd?

No matter what we choose, we are programming ourselves for a certain outcome, based on a hallucination. That’s all it is. And parents pass these hallucinations onto their children.

I just heard a mother say to her son: “You’re probably not going to like these Brussels sprouts, but I want you to try at least one.”

What a setup! No wonder the boy didn’t want to take a bite. 

The biggest disappointments are usually well-prepared.

ALTERING ASSUMPTIONS

I work in a competitive industry where many are invited, and very few are chosen. Every day I send voice-over auditions into the world that will be evaluated by total strangers. If they’re kind, they’ll give me between five and ten seconds to make my mark. Most jobs will go to other people, and I’ll never know why. 

As a coach, it is my job to prepare my students for this highly subjective and uncertain process. Before they hit “record,” I want them to have the right mindset. So, this is what I tell them:

“People will form opinions no matter what, but it’s not the judgment of others that may or may not hold you back. It is your own judgment that may help or hurt you.

After all, you don’t really know what others are thinking. You have no idea how you’ll be perceived. It’s a waste of energy to be concerned about things you can’t control. 

There are four things you can influence:

* your attitude,

* the way you cultivate your talent,

your level of preparedness, and

* your performance.

Always put your best foot forward. Record that demo, and send it on its way.

After that, there’s only one thing you can do:

Let it go!

Enjoy the feeling that you put yourself out there; that you gave yourself a chance. And if that puts you in a good mood, perhaps you deserve a small but cool reward.

How about a scoop of ice cream?

Broccoli-flavored, of course!

Paul Strikwerda

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Rosario speaks via photopin (license)

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The Window To The Soul

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, International, Internet, Journalism & Media 6 Comments

Young mother & babyThe person who coined the phrase:

“Eyes are the window to the soul”

was wrong.

If anything can offer us a unique insight into someone’s soul, it is the human voice. The voice tells us something about someone’s mood, someone’s mind, and someone’s history.

Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it cries out to you.

The voice is an example of how mind and body are clearly connected. Our tone and texture changes when we’re in love, when we’re angry, when we’re feeling insecure, and when we’re sick.

The way someone speaks can tell us where he or she is from, how (and where) someone was educated, and it reveals something about someone’s (desired) social status.

By listening to someone’s voice, experts can diagnose certain health problems. A croaky voice may indicate acid reflux. A head cold voice can point to chronic sinusitis. A hoarse voice could be a sign of laryngeal cancer.

But there’s more.

We can change the meaning of words, simply by changing our tonality.  When our body language, the words we speak, and our tone of voice don’t match, we won’t be taken seriously. 

People can hear we’re not sincere. In fact, sincerity is so hard to hard fake that only pros can pull it off.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT

You and I have been touched by certain voices. For better, or for worse. Can you think of a few?

As kids, we’ve all experienced that when our mom or dad called us with that special tone of voice, we knew we were in trouble.

Certain teachers had the uncanny ability to terrify us, because of what they said, and how they said it. So much so, that years later, we can still recall their voices, and get an instantaneous physical reaction.

Someone’s voice can also induce a very positive mood.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I could never fall in love with someone who has a horrible voice. When our beloved whispers our name in that very special way, our heart melts, and we’re almost hypnotized. 

When a charismatic public speaker rallies the troops, we feel energized and inspired.

That first word from a child we brought into the world, is something we’ll always remember.

Our sensitivity to tonality comes from the time we were infants, when we learned to attribute feelings to certain words through the way they were spoken. 

UNIQUE OR UNIVERSAL

Now, there’s one thing I’ve always wondered. With so many cultures, languages, and dialects in the world, are certain vocal inflections universal, or limited to one geographic area? More importantly, do they mean the same thing?

Take the tonality of love, for instance. Is that something we have in common with every person on this planet? Does “angry” sound the same, wherever we go?

Yuval Mor and Yoram Levanon spent eighteen years researching more than sixty-thousand test subjects speaking twenty-six different languages. What they found was surprising: language and culture make little difference in what they call “emotion analysis.”

Emotional Analytics is a new scientific field that focuses on identifying and analyzing the full spectrum of human emotions and personality. Yuval and Yoram’s company Beyond Verbal, has developed a way to decode vocal intonations into their underlying emotions in real-time.

It’s all based on the notion that what we say is not as important as how we say it.

THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

In 2013, Beyond Verbal launched a free app called Moodies to extract, decode, and interpret human emotions from voice samples that are as short as twenty seconds. The app claims to give information on the speaker’s mood, his or her attitude, and on someone’s personality.

Here’s how it works.

The software examines how we speak, and listens for specific patterns. It analyzes things like pitch, tempo, pauses, and the volume of the voice. It then compares these patterns to a database of research. The ongoing analysis on the screen, is presented in clusters as the subject speaks. 

To see this in action, here’s a short clip from an interview with whistleblower Edward Snowdon. Be sure to select HD in the YouTube settings before you start watching.

Beyond Verbal has an interesting YouTube channel with voice analysis of people like Steve Jobs, Jeb Bush, and Winston Churchill. 

It’s important to note that analyzing emotions is very different from detecting lies. That is something the software cannot do.

Currently, the program can recognize about four hundred different emotions. The makers say it’s about eighty percent accurate.

PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

If Beyond Verbal’s method is correct, we now have a way to find out what people really feel, in spite of what they’re saying. That information could be useful in at least three areas:

1. Person to person interaction.

Beyond Verbal software is already used in call centers. It helps market researchers to find out how people genuinely feel about products, promotions, and… politicians. Researchers can get past the socially acceptable answers, and go with the emotional response.

Voice analysis is also used in job interviews and sales meetings. It can answer questions like: “Is the client truly receptive to our offer, or merely being polite? Is this applicant really confident, or is he putting on a show?”

It turns out that it’s easier to fool people than to mislead computers. 

2. Allowing machines to understand us better, and improve interaction.

At the moment, virtual assistants such as Siri and S Voice base their response on what we say, and not on how we say it. If they could read our mood, this could influence their answers. Beyond Verbal has already made their platform available to other developers to make the devices of the future more intuitive.

Let’s say we’d use voice control for a service like Netflix. Based on our intonation, Netflix could recommend movies that would fit the mood we’re in. iTunes could work the same way. Some video game controllers already respond to subtle pressure and body heat. What if they could hear our fear, and change the progress of the game accordingly?

What if voice analysis software in a car could pick up if a driver was under the influence of alcohol, or suffering from road rage? Based on that, it could start making adjustments, and e.g. slow the vehicle down.

3. Self-improvement; getting a better understanding of ourselves.

This is particularly interesting to me as a professional communicator. Quite often, there’s a disconnect between how we think we come across, and how our communication is perceived. Let’s say you have a piece of copy that needs to be read in a friendly, but convincing way. How do you know you hit the nail on the head? Do you call your coach, a friend or a colleague?

Moodies app

click to enlarge

I took my iPhone, opened up the Moodies app, pressed the mic button, and started reading the script. After about fifteen seconds, I got my feedback in three layers (see picture on the left). The app keeps refreshing, so you can see if your adjustments have the desired effect.

When you’re done, and you concur with the analysis, you can click “Agree,” helping the software to be more accurate in the future.

I have to admit, before I tried Moodies I was very sceptical. I mean, can a machine really detect emotions? It’s hard enough for us, humans. But when I started using it, I was surprised by the results. Whether I was speaking Dutch (my first language), or English, it was quite accurate.

Moodies didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, like horoscopes do. It told me what I needed to hear. Based on that, I changed my tonality to match the specs of the script. Getting this type of instantaneous feedback was refreshing!

LOOKING AHEAD

Beyond Verbal was launched in May 2013, with a 3.8 million dollar investment, and has about twenty employees. 

Examiner.com named Moodies the best iPhone app of 2014, and Forbes listed it as one of the five innovative marketing solutions that can help a business grow.

This Tel Aviv-based company is definitively onto something, and it seems they’ve only scratched the surface. 

Even though I believe a computer can never penetrate the depths of the human soul, it can certainly open a window to our emotions.

Today, it seems that one of the best ways to unlock that window, actually speaks for itself.

Our voice.

Paul Strikwerda

Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Mother via photopin (license)

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