voiceover

5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice-Over

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Pay-to-Play 106 Comments

voice talent“Millions of dollars paid out to voice actors globally.”

“Audition for your dream job now.”

“Instant access to amazing opportunities.”

“New job postings every day.”

It sure sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Especially when you’re young, idealistic, and impressionable. It’s the way online casting sites throw out their net, hoping that loquacious people will bite.

Well, bite they do, and day after day an ever-growing army of hopefuls is eagerly looking at their inbox, waiting for the next “amazing opportunity” to arrive. It comes at a price, though. 

If you’re taking part in these online cattle calls, be ready to be milked!

Of course these casting sites won’t tell you that you have to spend between $349 and $399 per year to take part in a crapshoot. They’ll feed you success stories about people who claim to make a six-figure income by winning audition after audition. Anecdotal evidence always trumps independently verified numbers, right?

Believe me: People believe what they want to believe.

So, today I’m not going to give you the golden formula to online voice-over success. Sorry to break the news, but it does not exist. Instead, I will give you a few reasons why you probably should stay clear of this business. I’ll start with the most important one. 

1. The world doesn’t need you.

Yes, you’ve heard me.

We have enough people talking into microphones, thank you very much. What this world needs is less talk and more action. We need teachers, doctors, nurses, and scientists. We need experts in conflict resolution; people who know how to fight global warming, and first responders to natural disasters.

If you want to make a real difference on this planet, don’t hide behind soundproof walls selling stuff no one needs. Get out there and start helping the poor, the homeless, and the ones without a voice. They need you more than Disney does.

2. There’s no money in voice-overs.

The cost of living goes up every year, while voice-over rates are in steady decline. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Even the union can’t stop it. Thanks to online casting services and ignorant amateurs, your voice has become a commodity, sold by the lowest bidder to the cheapest client.

VO has become a game of averages, and here’s how it works.

The bottom feeders choose lowball sites like Elance, Fiverr, and freelancer.com to sell their services for beer money. The top end of the market consists of A-list actors making millions voicing cartoons and commercials. If you’re average, you’re forever stuck in the middle. You have enough integrity to leave the crumbs to the idiots, but you won’t get the big gigs for the big money.

Don’t be fooled by voice-over veterans posting on Facebook how well they are doing. Some of them confided in me that they’re just keeping up appearances. No one wants to hire a loser, so you’ve got to tell the world you’re still an important player. Yay for social media! Everything people post is 100% true. 

3. You are a social being.

Unless you enjoy going to expensive conferences to hear VoiceVIP’s talk about themselves and plug their books, you’re pretty much on your own in this business. I mean, who likes being locked up between the four carpeted walls of a 3.5’ by 3.5’ whisper box all day long?

You have no one to talk to but yourself, and you’ll never see a response from the people you’re supposedly entertaining. If acknowledgment is what you’re secretly longing for, go to a nursing home and read to the residents. Tell stories to kids in the cancer ward. It will make their day, and yours!

The sedentary lifestyle of a typical voice-over is unhealthy for the mind, body, and soul. If you’re an extrovert, you crave contact, and you thrive in the company of others. I can tell you right now that you will curse the day you decided to isolate yourself from the world, just so you could narrate some third-rate novel for a royalty share that doesn’t even pay this month’s water bill. 

4. You’ll spend at least 80% of your time trying to get work, and 20% doing the work.

Voice-overs spend a lot of time being busy without being productive. How rewarding is that? Regardless of what voice casting sites want you to believe, most jobs you audition for will go to someone else, and you’ll never know why. Don’t you love it?

But what about agents, you may ask. Once you have an agent or two, things will get better, right?

No they won’t.

The pickings are slim, and these days, all the agents in North America will send the same Quilted Northern audition to every talent with a potty mouth. That really makes you feel part of an exclusive club, doesn’t it? (Quilted Northern is a type of bathroom tissue)

5. It may take many years before you see a return on your investment.

A voice-over career cannot be bought. It has to be conquered. Slowly.

You may think you’re going to be successful because of your unique sound. Dream on! The only way you’ll stand a chance is if you stop treating your pipe dream as a hobby. This means you’ve got to invest in professional gear and in a quiet place to record. Then you have to get yourself a few top-notch demos, plus a website to tell the world what you’re doing. And this is just the beginning.

Having all of that in place is no guarantee that you’ll make any money with your voice. Thousands of people all over the world are doing exactly what you do, and they are giving up within a year. The only money they’ll ever see is when they’re selling their stuff on eBay. At a loss. 

When you really think about it, you have to be a fool to become a voice-over.

I was foolish enough to choose that as my career, and guess what?

I’ve never been happier!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS If you believe I’m being negative for no reason, you should read 5 awful things nobody tells you about being an actor. Then we’ll talk, okay?

photo credit: Sound Design: ADR Recording via photopin (license)

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Filling In The Blanks

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal Leave a comment

bartender“It’s too risky, too challenging, too expensive, and you’ll be very lonely”.

That’s what people told me when I announced that I was going to become self-employed. This was many, many moons ago.

I’m sure these folks meant well, but what struck me most was the fact that these self-appointed business coaches were all working in some nine to five job, making money for someone else. They had no clue what it would be like, to be one’s own boss. The idea alone probably terrified them. I say “probably” because I’m not sure.

What happened in these conversations was something that is universally human, and universally flawed: people projecting their own life experiences, values, beliefs, fears, and attitudes onto the life of someone else. Not hindered with practical experience or specific knowledge, they’ll tell you:

“I know precisely what you mean. I know exactly how you feel. I totally get it.”

The question is: Is that really true?

UNDERSTANDING AND BEING UNDERSTOOD

When you hear a seemingly innocent phrase such as “I know how you must be feeling right now,” let me tell you what is actually going on. With a few simple words, your friend, colleague, or family member has become a mind reader, and has managed to shift the conversation away from you and onto them. Hence the prominent use of the pronoun “I.”

They have taken what you wanted to talk about, and used it as an opportunity to refocus the conversation. Perhaps not on purpose, but they did it nevertheless. 

By saying “I know exactly what you mean,” people are also comparing their personal situation to your unique circumstances, as if these two are equal. That is hardly ever the case. Even when situations seem very similar, they rarely are, and people respond to them in their own way. That’s what makes us so interesting, and at times unpredictable.

When people say things like “I know exactly how you feel,” most of us don’t make a big deal about it, unless it concerns something very personal, and there’s a need to be understood. Let me give you an example.

WALKING IN SOMEONE’S SHOES

You may know that my wife has multiple sclerosis. It’s a nasty disease which manifests itself in different ways on different days. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue. Fatigue is different from being tired. It is often described as an acute lack of energy; an unusual and utterly overwhelming whole-body tiredness not relieved by sleep, which prevents a person from functioning normally.

So, when my wife told one of her friends that she was exhausted, and the friend (who doesn’t have MS) responded by saying “I know exactly how you feel,” my wife said:

“Actually, I’m glad you don’t. I would not want to wish this on anybody.”

I remember going to an event where friends and family members were educated about multiple sclerosis. To give me a sense of what it might feel like to experience MS symptoms, a facilitator put weights on my legs which affected my sense of balance.

Blurred vision is another MS symptom, so they had me wear strange goggles that made the world around me look distorted. I could not read a simple text they asked me to read. Then I had to wear thick gloves, and I was instructed to unbutton my shirt, which was totally impossible.

I still remember the frustrating feeling of helplessness as I was wearing this weird outfit. The things I had come to rely upon: my sense of balance, my eyesight, and my sense of touch, were seriously affected. I needed the help of other people to get around and get things done, and I hated losing my independence. For a moment.

Luckily, after a while I could take all these gadgets off, but I tell you: I never looked at my wife in the same way. Never again would I tell her: “I know exactly how you feel.” Even after my limited MS symptom simulation I can’t say I know what it’s like to have an incurable chronic disease. And I hope I’ll never find out.

PERCEPTION AND PROJECTION

Now, this may be an extreme example, but extremes can make things clear. As a human being it is hard not to compare and project. We constantly have to make sense of the world around us, and we use our own experiences as a frame of reference. Based on that I have a few questions for you:

• How often are you aware that your perception is based on projection? 

• How often do you really know what a client means or a what friend feels?

• What would happen if you’d stop filling in the blanks based on your model of the world?

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a personal or in a professional relationship. If you are using your own experience to interpret the world, you are severely limiting yourself, and you’re not doing the other person justice. You’re not even focused on the other person because you’re too busy working things out in your own head.

Or as they say in the East: “You cannot pour tea into a cup that is already full.”

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

When I give a voice-over student a script and ask him or her to read it as if they were hired to be the narrator, I can predict what is going to happen. The student just starts reading the text. A few paragraphs later I ask them:

“How did you know to read it the way you did? How did you choose the tone, the tempo, the volume, and the accent?”

And most of the time they tell me: “I thought it would sound good this way. That’s all.”

Then I ask:

“Is this what the client wanted?”

“I have no idea,” the student answers. “It’s just a guess. How was I supposed to know?”

“Well, did you ask?” is my response.

And then the coin drops.

You can’t give a client what s/he wants to hear, if you have no clue what it is. You might think you have some idea, but that perception is based on your projection. It’s like asking a bartender to fix you a drink, and he just starts mixing something. Unless you asked to be surprised, you might not like what you are getting, let alone pay for it.

“Am I making any sense?” I asked my student.

“Absolutely,” she said. And then she added:

“Believe me… I know exactly what you mean.”

“Believe me,” I answered.

“You absolutely don’t.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: via photopin (license)

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Is Your Client Driving You Crazy?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing 4 Comments
David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy

The other day, one of my readers wanted to know:

“Have you ever fired a client, and why? I have one customer who is driving me nuts, but I can’t afford to lose his business.”

First of all, that’s a horrible position to be in. Many freelancers choose to run their own business because they don’t want to depend on someone or something else. Having big spenders as clients may seem fantastic, but if you’re not careful, you end up being in their pocket, and they start pulling all the shots. 

David Ogilvy, the famous advertising guru, took great care in selecting his clients. That concept alone was revolutionary. If you’re a service provider, don’t clients choose you? Isn’t that how the game is played? Not in Ogilvy’s world. 

Ogilvy and his partner would turn down about sixty clients every year, and this was one of their rules:

“Never work for a client so big you can’t afford to lose them.”

They once turned down Ford because the iconic motor company would represent half of their total billing. 

So, to get back to my reader’s question: be selective in whom you want to work with, even if you’re just starting out. Don’t put all your eggs in one or two baskets. It makes you overly dependent, and very vulnerable. If that one big client pulls out, you’re toast. 

Have I ever fired a client? I sure have, and I’m happy I did. It wasn’t all about money. In fact, in many cases money had little to do with it. 

Here are a few clients I gladly gave the sack:

THE DICTATOR

Here’s the client who thinks he owns you twenty-four seven. He always knows best; he’s overly demanding, disrespectful, and never satisfied. These people are impossible to please. The more you try, the less you succeed.

Working for dictators made me hate myself and my job. I did everything I could to avoid contact with them because it was emotionally draining. No money in the world could make up for how lousy I felt working for these bullies. 

THE VIOLATOR

Some clients act as if the rules don’t apply to them. Even with a written agreement in place, they try to bend and break it as fast as they can: “Sorry, we can’t pay you within thirty days. We’ll cut a check as soon as the end-client pays us.” 

“Did the agreement say that we have to pay you even if we don’t use your recording? Well, that’s just too bad. We have switched gears, and don’t need your voice-over anymore.”

When you continue working for a client who is not paying your bill, you are sending the message that you are not worth the fee you charge. 

THE  CHEAPSKATE 

Stay away from clients with great ideas and no budget, and the ones that try to nickel-and-dime you from the get-go. I once fired a long-time client of mine that was locked into old rates. When I increased my fees across the board, she insisted I make an exception “for old times sake.” 

While it may seem like a “nice” gesture, deals like that hold your business back. Time spent on these small-budget clients prevents you from spending that time working for a client who respects your rate. Ogilvy was right when he said:

“Only work for clients who want you to make a profit.” 

THE UNETHICAL

When thinking of your clients, ask yourself these two questions:

“Do they sell a product or service I can be proud of?”

“Will I be able to do my very best work?”

Whether you’re a copywriter, a graphic designer, or a voice-over, you will be professionally associated with a product or service you helped promote. Your reputation is always on the line.

An advertising agency I had worked with in the past, asked me to voice a commercial for one of the world’s worst weed killers. I politely declined, and they understood. My voice is for hire, but my integrity is not for sale. 

It’s up to you where you draw the line, but I would never want to be involved in something illegal, or help sell something I’m morally against. 

THE UNPROFESSIONAL

Some clients are completely unorganized and in over their heads. One day they want one thing. The next day all has changed. It’s something you find out once you start working with them. As a freelancer, you’re used to juggling many plates, but you’re not getting paid to help your clients juggle theirs. 

Sometimes clients become overly friendly. They start calling at night with some lame excuse. It turns out: they just want to talk about a personal issue, or they start gossiping about a colleague they’ve worked with. Before you know it, they’ll be asking you favors because of the perceived friendship. 

Take my word: keep things clean, and have clear boundaries. It’s painful to have to fire these clients, because you know they’ll start gossiping about you to the next professional they cling to. But if you give in because you want to be nice, they’ll suck up your time and tire you out.

THE HIDDEN MESSAGE

All the clients I just described have a few things in common: They keep you from growing your business. They drag you away from your goals. They also appear on your path as your teachers.

People who don’t respect you, are giving you a chance to learn to respect yourself.

People who distract you, are showing you the importance of being focused.

People who don’t pay you, are testing what you think of the value of your work.

People who are trying to manipulate your feelings, are helping you grow a pair. 

Now, if you are bound by a contract I’m not suggesting you break your word and fire these clients. Rather than cutting them loose, you’ve got to cut your losses, fulfill your obligation, and learn from the situation.

But should these clients contact you again for a project, respectfully decline their offer. All they would do is take the fun out of your job. And as Ogilvy said:

“Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

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Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It.

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

My Dad and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO YOU HAVE THE ANSWER

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t help.

It only hurts.

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

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

WHAT ABOUT YOUR CAREER

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

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

When we started our session, she sounded peeved.

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

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

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

THE MYTH OF OVERNIGHT SUCCESS

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

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

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

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

JUST BE FAIR

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW WHAT?

So, where does this leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last thing, if I may.

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

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

We take our good fortune for granted.

Think about it.

Is that really fair?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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What Were They Thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

1. Why should I hire a professional voice? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She used the F-word!

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

“What about them?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SELLING YOURSELF

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

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

Cheap is always more expensive. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Were You Thinking?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: Paula Satijn Bargain via photopin (license)

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Learn To Speak Like Your Clients

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 26 Comments

girl with purple hairOne of the boons of being a blogger is that I have a platform to parade all my pet peeves. I’m sure you have your favorites, and I hope you’ll share some of them in the comment section. 

As a lifelong lover of language (and alliteration), here’s one thing I can’t stand:

The use of clichés, particularly in public presentations. 

If you really want to see me cringe, take me to an event where the emcee introduces a celebrity speaker or a band with the following words:

“Without further ado…”

Give me a break! Couldn’t you come up with something a bit more original?

Unless we’re quoting Shakespeare, when do we ever use the word “ado”? The only time I’ve heard that word used, is when an American tries to say goodbye in French. 

Another expression that makes me swiftly search for a sick sack is:

“Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

The last time I heard those horrible words was when I was crammed into my seat like a sardine because the theater was so small. I could barely move my legs, let alone lean back into my chair because I would have ended up in someone’s lap. The show itself was thoroughly unenjoyable which made me feel very tense. 

For my latest and greatest pet peeve, I have to take you to the wacky world of customer service.

EATING OUT

A young nose-ringed waitress named Molly looked like she had spent most of her tip money on tattoos and purple hair color. 

That’s just an observation. Not a value judgment. Some of her tattoos were actually quite tasteful. Here’s what happened next.

When I thanked Molly for handing me the menu, she said:

“No problem.”

When I ordered the drinks, she said:

“No problem.”

When I asked her to repeat the specials, she said:

“No problem.”

When I asked if I could have the salad dressing on the side, she said:

.. ……. 

and always in the same way, stressing the “pro” in “problem.”

“Yes,” I joked. “It would be a bit of a problem if half a cup of that awful French dressing would end up all over my frozen iceberg lettuce, wouldn’t it?”

Without skipping a beat Molly robotically responded:

“No problem.”

I decided to have a little bit more fun with this poor girl, and asked:

“Molly, before you go… would it be okay if we order dessert after we’ve had the main course?”

“No problem,” said Molly, and she walked away.

Amazed I turned to my wife and said: “I bet you Molly has no idea that she sounds like a broken record. Her responses were completely automatic. It’s almost scary.”

Thankfully, we enjoyed a completely unproblematic meal that was quite delicious. At least our server was a woman of her word.

LINGUISTIC MANIPULATION

Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that Molly isn’t the only one who graduated from the school of customer service where nothing is ever a problem.

This trite “no problem” response is ridiculously rampant in retail, and I’ve witnessed countless clueless colleagues use it in speech and in writing.

If so many people are using it, why then do I make such a big deal about an innocent expression? Isn’t this Much ado about nothing? To tell you the truth, it isn’t, and I’ll prove it to you.

Language is manipulative in nature. Right at this very moment, the words that you are reading are creating sounds and images in your head. They determine what you focus on.

Let’s try something fun, shall we?

If I tell you: “Don’t think of a pink elephant,” what are you thinking of?

If I ask you: “Forget about what you had for dinner last night,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?

You see, even if I instruct you NOT to think of something, it pops up, doesn’t it? It has to do with the way our mind operates. It has a hard time processing negatives. It works like this:

We can’t think of what we don’t want to think about without thinking about it first.

Please repeat this last line five times before you proceed. 

Getting back to mysterious Molly, what did she force us to focus on with her repeated “No problem”?

It’s rather obvious, isn’t it?

And that’s precisely the problem. There was no problem in the first place, yet Molly’s words made us entertain the idea that something could be wrong. Now, why on earth would you want to do that, especially in a client-customer relationship?

If anything, wouldn’t you want your clients to focus on something perfectly positive and pleasant?

THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND

I am convinced that most people don’t make us focus on negative things on purpose. Like Molly, they probably don’t even realize that they’re doing it.  

As a professional communicator, I find this fascinating. The language we choose -consciously or unconsciously- reveals something about our thought processes. Words and sounds (and gestures) are external representations of what’s going on internally. The way people speak tells us something about how they think, and how they experience the world. Here’s an example.

You ask two people the same, simple question: “How are you doing today?”

Number one says: “I can’t complain.”

Number two answers: “I’m very well, thank you.”

What do these very different answers tell you?

Let’s assume someone wants to ask you for a favor. There are a million ways to pop the question, but let’s look at the following ways to introduce that request:

“I know it’s a pain, but…”

“Can I trouble you?”

“Sorry to bother you…”

“You wouldn’t mind, would you?”

“I realize it’s a lot to ask, but…”

Now, why would someone pick one of the above expressions versus:

“Is it okay if I…?”

“Could you please give me a hand?”

“Do you have a moment?”

“I could use some help…”

“You seem really good at this. Could you…”

The first five lines assume the worst. The words that stick out are pain, trouble, and bother. They tell us what the speaker wants to avoid. People who use this negative approach tend to focus on what they don’t want. They’re more driven by fear and perceived limitations.

The next five lines come from people who are more likely to focus on a positive outcome. They tend to think in possibilities instead of in problems, and they focus on what they want.

TURNING THE TABLES

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Those who habitually use more negative or more positive language while communicating with others, will use the same language when talking to themselves. This gives us some insight into how people motivate themselves, and how we can best motivate them.

The real clash in communication comes when you have a  service provider (like a voice talent) with a positive outlook, talking to a client who tends to focus on all the things that could go wrong. How would you convince such a client that you’re the right person for the job?

The mistake many people make is that they keep on using the language they are used to using. What they should do instead, is frame their proposition in a way that would appeal to the clients’ model of the world. They could start by saying something like this:

“Don’t worry. There’s no reason why this wouldn’t work out. Would you mind telling me what your deadline is?”

And what would you say when the client gives you his deadline?

Precisely! You’d say:

“No problem.”

At that moment your client will probably thank his lucky stars that he finally found someone who won’t mess his project up!

As far as I’m concerned, that is one of the only occasions it pays off to use negative language. It is a subtle way of telling your clients that you think alike. People who are like each other, have a tendency to like each other. 

It won’t surprise you that the more successful people in life are naturally good at focusing on what they want. Their self-talk is more upbeat and positive, and they exude confidence. They’ve discovered that what they’re focusing on consistently, is more likely to materialize. That’s why they concentrate on positive outcomes. You can clearly hear it in the way they speak.

Instead of saying “This will probably never work,” they say: “I believe I can do this!”

A SHIFT IN THINKING

Why don’t we go back to the restaurant to see what happened with Molly? Did she finally realize what she was doing?

Well, it took her a while, but I think she eventually did.

When we had finished our meal, I asked Molly for the dessert menu.

“No problem”

“A strawberry sorbet for my wife, and a tiramisu for me, please.”

“No problem.”

“Molly, when you have a chance, could you bring me the check?”

“No problem.”

“I guess it’s alright if I don’t include a tip today?”

“No prob…”

Molly stopped in mid-sentence, and I could see the wheels starting to spin slowly but surely.

“Well, Sir, I’m afraid that would be a bit of a problem.”

I smiled at her, and said: “I was only joking. You did a terrific job. Of course I’ll include a tip!”

A few weeks later we returned to the same restaurant, and there was Molly.

“Nice to see you again!” I said. “Could you perhaps start us off with two ice teas?”

Molly laughed, and said:

“My pleasure!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: San Diego Comic-Con International 2012: It’s a purple hair day via photopin (license)

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Do Nice People Always Finish Last?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 15 Comments

smiling girl in a princess dress“Why do clients always think they can play me?” said one of my students. Let’s call her Ella.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, first they try to nickel and dime me, and then they expect me to record a major revision of a script for free. After going above and beyond to keep them happy, they wait months and months to pay me. I’m sick of it! Who do they think I am? Some kind of doormat?”

“If anything, you’re a goody two-shoes,” I said, “and that might be part of your problem.”

“How so?” my student wanted to know.

“I’ll get to that in a moment,” I responded. “First you have to acknowledge something I had to learn the hard way.”

“And what is that?”

“It’s the fact that it’s virtually impossible to change other people. You can only change yourself. So, if you want a different response from a client, you have to change the way you respond to them. That’s the way it works in any type of relationship. And when you act differently, your environment might start to treat you differently.”

“Can you give me an example?” Ella asked intrigued.

“Sure. Here’s one thing I noticed when we started working together,” I said. “You’re a very friendly person who will go out of her way to please people. You also have a tendency to become very informal very quickly.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a kind and open person. However, you can be friendly and business-like at the same time. There’s no need to share all kinds of personal details with someone you know professionally. You work together to get a job done. You don’t have to become best buddies. In fact, I think it’s often best to keep your personal life out of it.

Because you tend to be so informal with everybody, some clients might get the impression that you’re not very professional. It’s a lot easier to push people around who don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Do you know what I mean?”

“I totally get it,” Ella said. “I probably come across as someone who is very naive and inexperienced.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, Ella, and part of this business is all about perceptions. If people perceive you to be weak in one area, they’ll take advantage of it.”

“So what do I do?” Ella asked.

“Use your secret weapon,” I said. “Use your voice!

I have noticed that your voice has a tendency to go up at the end of most sentences. You might not even be aware of it, but it sounds like you’re not very certain of yourself. Everything ends in a question. It makes you sound insecure. And if you seem insecure, clients won’t trust you. We’ve got to work on that.”

“Perhaps I am insecure,” said Ella. “I don’t have a lot of experience, and I don’t want to lose a client because he doesn’t like me.”

“Thanks for bringing that up,” I said. “Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that you are rather inclined to take things personally. Is that true?”

Ella nodded.

“That’s going to be tough in this business. Very tough. In any given week you’ll hear a lot of no’s, and very few yeses. If you take every single no as a personal rejection, you’ll be absolutely miserable. And I don’t want that to happen. You’re too talented.

Unless you completely messed up, or the quality of your recording was abysmal, it is never about you. It is all about the subjective opinion of the person casting the job. Emphasis on subjective.

Now, back to using your voice.

If you end your sentences with a period instead of with a question mark, you’ll sound a lot more confident. Period. You might not feel entirely confident, but the client doesn’t know that. You also have to work on your breathing, but that’s for another day.

Secondly, keep things strictly business. Remember, you are the expert. That’s why they’re thinking of hiring you. They’re not looking for a new friend. 

Take charge of the conversation, and -if it is a new client- explain how you usually work. Let the client know they’re in good hands. And one more thing: stop apologizing all the time. You came in seven minutes ago, and you’ve already apologized ten times for things that weren’t even your fault. Why?

“I’m sorry,” said Ella…

And then she realized what she was doing. She blushed, and said: “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“I know you’re not doing it on purpose, but it’s not doing you any favors. Did you have a Catholic upbringing?”

“No, said Ella. “I’m Jewish.”

I laughed.

“Now, let’s get back to what we were talking about. I was giving you some advice, so here’s another thing I want you to consider: only take on a job you know you can handle. Be clear about your policies and procedures, and be firm about your rates. Never negotiate a rate after the fact. Get to an agreement before you go into the studio, and confirm things in writing ahead of time. Are you following me?”

“I’m listening,” said Ella, “and it all makes sense. I just don’t know if I can come across as someone who has been doing this for years. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not. That’s not who I am.”

“I understand that” I said, “but here’s the good news:

In this business you get paid to pretend.

I just recorded a voice-over for a pharmaceutical company, and I played the part of a neurologist. The day before I worked on a guided tour for a museum, and I was cast as a historian. Who knows what they want me to be tomorrow? A mad scientist? A cartoon character? A Flying Dutchman? That’s the fun of this job! You can pretend to be anyone you want, and make some money too! The better you are at pretending, the more in-demand you’ll be as a voice-over.

If you can convince the client you mean business, you are in business.”

Ella looked at me, and I could see that my words had ignited a spark. 

“Ella, listen to me. You know that as soon as you get a script that reads like it’s been written for you, you’ll knock it out of the park, right? In other words: it’s not even a matter of being qualified or not. It’s a matter of you believing in yourself. Don’t you agree?

A wise teacher once said: You can pretend anything, and master it.

So, let’s start this coaching session by “pretending” you know the ropes, okay? We’ll do a mock conversation with a potential customer. I’ll be the obnoxious client, and you’ll be the brilliant voice talent. It is your job to convince me that you are the right person for the job. 

Are you game?”

Ella smiled.

“As in voice acting, you might need a few takes before you hit the nail on the head, but by the time we’re done, you’ll know how to respond like a pro, and you’ll never be played again.

How does that sound?”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Wanderin’ free | Part of your world via photopin (license)

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Stop Selling Yourself Short

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 10 Comments

Famous Dave’s Signature Spicy Pickle SpearsA while ago it happened again.

One of my contacts sent me the following message:

“Paul, my client would like you to voice two animations. Both advertise the same product on the same platform, but each one appeals to a different audience. Both scripts are no longer than 125 words. Normally we’d pay you €250 per video, but the client was wondering if you’d record both videos for €250. After all, these things are very short, and this is for the same product on the same platform. Another option would be to offer the client a $150 discount. Let me know how you’d like to proceed.”

What do you think I should do? Should I voice these two videos for €250 or $350? Should I charge the full €500, or even more?

Well, the answer depends on your pricing strategy, and on how you position yourself in the market place.

Let me explain.

A TALE OF TWO PICKLES

In front of me I have two 24 ounce jars filled with pickle spears. One is a store brand retailing for about two dollars. The other is a jar of Famous Dave’s Signature Spicy Pickle Spears, selling for about five bucks. Both jars contain the same basic ingredient: crunchy cucumbers immersed in an acidic solution.

Why would people pay five dollars instead of two, for ten to twelve pickles, you may ask. The answer is simple. Dave’s spears are distinctly different. His spicy cucumbers tingle your tongue with a signature blend of sweet and heat. They are addictively delicious.

Last weekend I was entertaining guests, and I served Dave’s pickles without telling them. I just put them on a plate. After the first guest took a bite his whole face lit up and he said: “Wow, where did you get these pickles? They are incredible!” Two minutes later everyone in the room was crunching away, and wanted to know where they could buy these special spears.

Yesterday I talked to one of my friends who was with us that evening, and he said: “I had so much fun last weekend. And by the way… those pickles were amazing!”

So, let me ask you this:

Would you rather be an ordinary pickle, or one of Famous Dave’s Spicy Spears?

MAKE A CHOICE

Are you a dime a dozen, or do you have something unique to offer? If you fall into the last category, in what way do you distinguish yourself, and how do you convey that to your clients? You see, believing that you’re special doesn’t get you anywhere. You need to prove it.

Famous Dave is a smart guy. He knows he’s got something awesome going, and that’s why he’s not competing on price. He is competing on added value. Added value can be defined as “an improvement or addition to a product or service that makes it worth more.”

As a voice-over, you add value to a video, a computer game, an ad campaign, an e-Learning program, a bestseller, or a major brand. The right voice can bring credibility and authenticity to a message. That alone can be worth millions of dollars, and advertising agencies know it.

You will never see those millions, but I happen to think that you deserve to be well compensated for your contribution. That will only happen if and when YOU value what you have to offer in terms of your expertise, and your experience.

PRICE LIKE A PRO

One way to convince a client that what you’re offering is valuable, is by using the link between price and professionalism. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Your rate is more than a number. It is a powerful statement. It says: This is what I believe I’m worth. It is also a way to prequalify your clients.

My rate sheet tells them: I take my job seriously. Lowballers better stay away. Quality clients are welcome. I will treat you with respect, and I will do the best job I can.

Like Famous Dave, I know that what I have to offer is different. My English has a European quality that adds a special flavor to a script. Those who like that flavor have no reason to haggle.

WHY COMPROMISE?

Now, let’s discuss that discount I talked about in the beginning of this blog post. Here’s my take on reducing a fee.

1. Discounts are for people who compete on price only, and for clients for whom price is the determining factor.

Here’s a hint: price is rarely the sole determining factor in a purchasing decision.

If clients would buy based on price alone, it would be perfectly fine to take months to send them a poorly made product, right? They wouldn’t dare to complain because you were the cheapest.

2. But Paul, didn’t the client say that these two jobs combined would be no more than 250 words? Why not give in a little?

Well, there are two hidden assumptions behind that argument. One: This job is something I could record in a heartbeat. Two: Clients pay me for my time. Both assumptions are false.

We all know that most clients have no idea how long it takes to deliver any length of finished audio. Secondly, I don’t charge clients for my time. They pay for my talent, my skills, and for my experience. They pay me for the added value I bring to their production.

3. If I were an on-camera actor, and I’d be featured in two videos targeting different audiences, wouldn’t I get paid in full for both? Then why should a voice actor accept a huge pay cut? Does that make any sense? Just because we’re invisible, doesn’t mean people should take advantage of us.

A MATTER OF TRUST

4. The client promised that both videos would be for the same platform, but how can I trust a claim made by someone I’ve never worked with? Clients will tell you anything to bring your price down. What guarantees do I have that these two videos won’t end up on different platforms? Who’s going to check that?

5. In the beginning of a relationship with a new client you set the parameters. If you accept a certain fee for whatever reason, that becomes your going rate. Don’t blame it on the client. That’s what you’ve trained them to expect.

So, the next time you ask for more money, don’t be surprised if your client comes back with: “But last week you did a similar job for X amount of dollars. Why should we pay you a penny extra?” And you know what? They’re right!

6. If you accept doing two jobs for the price of one (or even less), you’ve just stabbed your colleagues in the back. We are not independent contractors. We’re interdependent contractors. We are connected. A going rate is nothing but the prevailing market price. Every individual pricing decision -big or small- impacts that market. Before you know it, you’re contributing to a downward trend.

RATE REDUCTION

Having said that, here’s where I’m willing to give a discount:

A. When a client commits to a long-term working relationship, and a high volume of jobs.

B. As an incentive for a client to pay in full upon receipt of the invoice.

Some colleagues are in the bad habit of giving discounts to all charities, but I make that determination on a case-by-case basis. More about voice-overs and charities in my article “Work For Free For Charity?

STICK TO YOUR GUNS

Listen carefully. You don’t have to agree with me when it comes to discounts. In fact, you don’t have to agree with anything I’m saying in this blog. It’s just my opinion. But if you haven’t thought about your value, your pricing, and about your position on discounts, simple questions like the one from my contact can get you in a pickle.

I decided to charge full price for those two animations, and I told my contact why. Taking a stance means taking a risk, and I ended up losing the animation job to a colleague who was willing to do it for less. But the story doesn’t end there.

Two weeks later my contact called me again. Working with the cheaper voice-over had left a bitter taste in the mouth of the client, and they wanted me to step in.

“At full price?,” I asked.

“At full price,” he said.

Being cheap often costs more, but some people have to learn that lesson the hard way. Don’t be one of them.

That day I went to the post office to send my contact a small thank you gift.

“Does this parcel contain anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous, including lithium batteries and perfume?” the woman behind the counter wanted to know.

“Yes it does,” I said.

“What’s in it?” she asked.

“It’s a jar of Famous Dave’s Signature Spicy Pickle Spears!”

“Oh, those are the best,” she said. “Not cheap, but so worth it!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please subscribe &retweet!

PPS The word ‘pickle‘ comes from the Dutch word ‘pekel,’ meaning ‘something piquant,’ and originally referred to a spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative (source.) You should know that I am in no way compensated to promote Famous Dave’s delicious pickles.

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Picking the Perfect Voice-Over Microphone

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Studio 20 Comments

JZ STudio MicrophonesGuilty as charged: In the past few years I’ve become a hopeless gearhead.

I like to look at new audio equipment; I like to read about it, and I like listening to sound samples.

On any given day, I have to spend at least a few minutes studying reviews, gazing at pictures and drooling over obscure objects with buttons, switches, cables and meters.

Dear Abby: Is this weird and should I be worried? I mean, my equipment is fine. There’s nothing wrong with my microphone and I don’t need another preamp. For a voice actor like myself, a simple studio setup will suffice, so why am I staring at all this stuff?

I know I’m not alone.

My photographer friends are always looking for the latest cameras, the best lenses, or software that will revolutionize the industry. Musicians wonder what they would sound like on a new instrument. Professional chefs can’t wait to get their hands on a new set of sharp-looking knives. Even quilters go gaga over new gadgets.

Why is that?

WANTS AND NEEDS

There’s a constant battle in our brain between our wants and our needs. It’s scary how good most of us have become at justifying purchases that make no logical sense whatsoever. All of this to answer the basic question: What If? 
 
What if I bought this new guitar? What would it do for my sound, my creative abilities – my career? 
 
What would this new high-tech camera allow me to do? Would I finally be able to take those impossible shots? And what about this new editing software? Could it save me time? Would it make my colleagues green with envy? 
 
All these questions and unfulfilled desires can create massive tension inside an otherwise rational mind. No longer happy with what we already have, we start looking for the next best thing. 
 
And trust me. As long as we’re alive, there will always be a next best thing. 
 
The industry feeds on our never-ending desire for new and improved products, and brands big and small are masterful at pushing all the right buttons at the wrong time. 
 
When it comes to selecting the perfect audio equipment, I have a hard time answering the following question: 
 
Having decided on a budget, how do I know a certain product is right for me? 
 
Let’s say I’m in the market for a new microphone. Is staring at pictures, reading reviews, and listening to audio samples helpful? The answer may surprise you.
 
DON’T JUDGE BOOK BY ITS COVER
 
Ultimately, it shouldn’t really matter what a microphone looks like. Clients are paying us for our sound, not because our JZ BH3 microphone has a hole in it. 
 
So, if we forget about looks for a moment, are descriptions – whether from critics or manufacturers – actually helpful? 
 
Take a JZ Black Hole mic as an example. The maker writes:

“Fantastic vocal mic, is great on every application it is used. Unbelievable clarity and definition, smoothness and full transparency.”

Be honest: Does that help you make a $1,599 investment? 
 
Once you start reading up on microphones, you’ll be amazed at how many makers call their mic “great on every application.” It might be a true statement, but it doesn’t say much, does it? It only tells us that the maker is trying to sell his gadget to a wide audience.
 
Here’s a quote from the Sound On Sound review of the JZ Black Hole. You can usually count on them for an unhyped writeup.
 
Tests with spoken word revealed a clear, well-focused sound that balances low-end warmth with high-end clarity, and because there isn’t much in the way of coloration, the Black Hole should work well as a general-purpose studio vocal mic …”

Tell me, did that sell you on this pricey microphone?
 
USELESS LINGO 
 
The problem with words is that they are inadequate. They attempt to describe an experience or object, but they are not the experience/object itself. Words are always open to interpretation. That’s where the trouble starts.
 
What I describe as a “smooth” or “warm” sound is colored by my personal biases. If anything, it probably tells you more about me. This so-called “warm” sound might be perceived by someone else as “muddy” or “dark.” 
 
So, if words can’t properly describe a specific sound, and if looks don’t matter, wouldn’t it be helpful to listen to some recorded audio? Surely, that must be the best way to select a microphone online!

Not necessarily. 
 
In my review of the Microtech Gefell M 930 Ts (the voice-over mic I use), I wrote:

It is easy to forget that any microphone is part of a recording chain, and when you change one link in that chain, everything changes. Of course, the source of the sound is very much part of that chain.

IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS
 
Let’s examine the variables in more detail:
 
• The person recording the track. Does s/he have a decent mic technique? Some mics are known for their proximity effect (bass boost) if you get too close. At the right distance, a mic might sound clear and open, but when you’re almost eating the thing up, listeners could get the wrong impression. If you’re not careful, your microphone might also produce a sharp s-sound (sibilance). Most of the time the narrator’s lack of technique is to blame.
 
• Was a pop filter used? A pop filter keeps a mic nice and dry and it softens plosives, but some filters muffle the sound like a dirty old sock. 
 
• If a microphone has multiple settings, which setting was used during the test recording? Omni, cardioid, figure-8, or another setting?

Some mics have a low-cut switch which activates a high-pass filter that reduces the amount of low frequencies in the output signal from the microphone. This obviously alters the sound. Some mics even come with multiple capsules. 
 
• Where was the track recorded? In Carnegie Hall, at 3 Abbey Road, or in a Studiobricks booth? How was the microphone placed in relation to the narrator? The sound of a microphone differs depending on the acoustic environment. Microphone tests recorded in a manufacturer’s lab don’t reflect how that same mic will sound in your walk-in closet slash home studio. 
 
• Two mics of a kind don’t necessarily sound the same, either. Especially classic microphones go through some remodeling over time.

The famous Neumann U87 has a vintage model, the U87i, and the current production version, the U87Ai. Some engineers will even tell you that the two U87Ai’s they own, do not sound the same. There’s a reason most manufacturers will sell you “matched pairs” of microphones for stereo recording. 
 
• True audiophiles claim that the quality of the cables used to connect various pieces of equipment can make a difference in the quality of the signal and ultimately the sound. Others believe we might as well send a signal through a coat hanger wire and save ourselves a lot of money. 
 
• Preamplifiers used to bring the low-level microphone signal up to line-level, may add a subtle signature sound to the signal, too. You’ll often read that tube preamps are supposed to add “warmth” to the sound, whatever that means.

Of course, we also know that audio engineers use a bag of tricks to alter the sound of a mic, such as compression, equalization and all kinds of fancy filters to manipulate what comes out of the loudspeakers. 
 
FROM RECORDING TO LISTENING 
 
All those things happen in the recording studio. Now let’s look at how we receive the sound of that microphone we’re evaluating. What variables are we dealing with on that end? 
 

• Is the sound file you’re listening to a lossless sound file such as FLAC, or is it compressed, such as an MP3? Compressed files take up a lot less space for faster downloads, but in order to achieve that, a lot of data needs to be deleted. Compression leads to loss of quality and clarity. Hint: all audio on YouTube is compressed. When’s the last time you watched a microphone shootout on YouTube?

• Are we listening on cheap computer speakers, high-end studio monitors, or are we using headphones? The quality of these devices is in part responsible for the character of the sound we’re evaluating.

Compare listening to a track on your iPhone through cheap earplugs, to hearing it in a soundproof recording studio equipped with Genelec 8260A 390W Active Tri-amped studio monitors that cost over $5,000 each. Even the position of the speakers, as well as the position of the listener in relation to those speakers, needs to be factored in. 
 
• In which acoustic environment are you listening? Sounds bounce off the walls and resonate differently depending on the shape, size and treatment of the room. Are you focused or distracted as you’re listening? That, too, can play a role in how you evaluate the sound. 
 
• Hearing in and of itself is a subjective experience. It’s an attempt to understand the world around us. Mechanical sound waves are converted into electrical impulses and sent to the brain for processing. Once in our brain, the hearing centers go to the memory banks to localize and identify the sound.

Think about someone’s tone of voice. Whether a sound is labeled as “pleasant” or “warm” is a matter of personal taste. 
 
• Then there’s the issue of hearing loss. In a world that seems to get noisier and noisier, hearing loss is on the rise among young and old. It’s hard to make a precise measurement with faulty equipment.

We all suffer from selective thinking and hearing, which allows us to notice and look for information confirming our personal beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. 
 
One such belief could be that all microphones under $300, especially those made in China, are rubbish. Another belief could be that Neumann is the best brand in the world. Imagine listening to a mic test, knowing in advance which mic you’re going to hear. Do you honestly think it’s even remotely possible to be completely objective? 
 
COMPARING MICROPHONES 
 
The other day I was watching a video comparing the Prodipe Lamp Studio Pro ($299), the M-Audio Sputnik ($679) and the Neumann U47 ($1,599.95). As I watched the video, it told me when the engineer switched from one mic to the other. Click here to access the video.
 
I don’t know about you, but I found the differences between these mics to be very subtle. 
 
I listened on my Beyerdynamic  DT 880 Studio headphones, and when I closed my eyes, I often didn’t even hear when they moved from one mic to to the other. Perhaps this unmasks me as a complete audio ignoramus. Perhaps it demonstrates that you don’t need a sixteen-hundred-dollar microphone to produce a decent sound. You be the judge.
 
The question that remains is this:

How on earth do you find out which microphone is right for you? Do you really need a big brand name to play the game? Is expensive always better? Do clients even care?

TOUGH CHOICES
 
This I can tell you: Making a wise choice based on online info only is virtually impossible and silly. When you change just one of the fifteen variables mentioned above, you change everything.  
 
Factory specs tell you a lot about pickup patterns, output impedance, frequency response, and the self-noise of a mic. However, no specs can ever reveal the microphone that most flatters your voice in your recording environment with your recording setup.
 
When researching your next mic, it might be tempting to listen to the snobs and self-proclaimed experts on the gearhead message boards. That can be a frustrating and intimidating experience. 
 
Should you always trust the dot-com critics that give a mic four out of five stars? Too many online reviews are actually written by people who are paid to say nice things about a product. Even some veteran voice-over colleagues you may trust, are compensated to endorse a brand. I’m not going to name names. Click here instead.
 
At the end of the day, you have to rely on your own judgment in your own studio, and ask a few professionals.
 
Ideally, try to get hold of a couple of microphones in your price range and take them for a spin. Maybe a colleague in the area is willing to lend you some of his or her gear. Maybe you’re a member of a voice-over meetup group. Perhaps you can find a maker or a pro audio store willing to send you something on a trial basis.  
 
Kam Instruments, for instance, gives you seven-day inspection period. If you decide to send the mic back, you’ll pay for shipping, insurance and a 15 percent restocking fee. It’s better than wasting a whole lot of money on something that doesn’t meet your expectations. 
 
Harlan Hogan’s VO: 1-A mic is sold with a no-questions-asked money-back guarantee. 

LET EXPERTS HEAR YOU

Once you’ve recorded a few audio samples with your small collection, send them to an expert such as Dan Lenard, George Whittam, Dan Friedman, or Roy Yokelson for evaluation. Take their feedback into account, and then make your choice. 
 
I have to warn you, though. Playing around with gear can be way too much fun!
 
Eventually, you might end up like me – a hopeless gearhead for life.
 
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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4 Ways To Get From Good To Great

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 15 Comments
the author singing in a choir

The author singing in a choir

Being a successful voice-over.

It has a little bit to do with having pleasant pipes, and lot with other factors. Some of those factors can be influenced. Others are beyond our control.

A few weeks ago, one of my students had an interesting question for me. Professionally speaking (pun intended, always), she was doing okay. Clients loved working with her. Business was getting better every year. Yet, she felt that something was preventing her from reaching that proverbial “next level,” and she couldn’t figure out what to do.

“Paul,” she said, “I’ve read all the books on voice-over I could find, including yours. I follow the best bloggers. I listen to podcasts, and I watch videos on VO. What am I missing? I seem to be stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results. How do I move forward from here?”

“What you’re really asking,” I said, “is how to get from good to great. Am I right?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, the first thing you have to realize is that growth is a gradual process. You don’t expect a seed to bloom the next day, do you? We all grow in different ways at different speeds. 

People can teach you new techniques, but it may take a while before those techniques become second nature. However, at your level, techniques are usually not the issue. Other things are holding you back. One of the main obstacles to growth is familiarity. You said it yourself.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“You can call it coasting, if you like. You just told me that you were stuck doing the same thing the same way, getting the same results.

Secondly, you seem to be looking for inspiration and guidance within your field. Again: you’re focusing on the familiar. You already know how to interpret a script. I think you can handle a microphone. You don’t better yourself by doing things that are easy and predictable. That’s like working out without weights.

If you really want to grow as a person and as a professional, you’ve got to look elsewhere. That’s where the challenges will be, and challenges will help you grow. Now, here’s the amazing thing: growth in one area of your life will positively influence growth in other areas of your life.”

“Any suggestions as to what I should do?” my student asked.

“Plenty,” I said. “Here’s one:

1. Start leading a healthy life.

A year ago, one of my students was in bad shape. He was overweight, he sat in his recording booth for long periods of time, and his diet had way too much sugar, fat and salt in it. It affected his mood, his self-image, and his self-confidence. I could hear it in his voice. His breathing was very shallow, and he sounded insecure.

One day, he decided he had had enough, and he joined a gym. He exercised at least five times a week, and started shedding pounds. In the kitchen he began using fresh, organic ingredients, and he filled his plate with fruits and vegetables. Within two months, he felt more energetic and alive, and people told him he looked better.

His renewed energy and enthusiasm could be heard in the way he spoke when the mic was on, and when the mic was off. Because he felt better, he performed better, and he began booking more and more jobs. For him, leading a healthy lifestyle was the key that brought him to the next level.

Here’s another thing you can do:

2. Learn a foreign language.

Forget tongue twisters and other vocal exercises. Start studying that language you’ve always wanted to learn! A new language is a doorway to a different culture. Every language has its own rhythm and melody. You’ll even start thinking differently when speaking a foreign language.

Becoming bilingual benefits the brain. It improves cognitive skills that don’t even have to do with language. Bilinguals are better at solving puzzles, better at staying on task, and being bilingual can even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

One of my students decided to learn Italian at a later point in life. It took her a couple of years, but after a few vacations near Florence, she was almost fluent. As a bilingual voice talent, a whole new market opened up. She claims that she feels much more flexible, vocally speaking, and that it has become easier to do all sorts of accents and character voices.

But there’s more you can do to take your career to the next level:

3. Join a community theater or improv group.

Voice-overs are usually so stuck to their scripts… they have a hard time letting it go, and letting it flow. When you’re forced to memorize your words to perform on stage, you not only train your brain. You also learn how to speak your lines, instead of reading them. It’s also a very physical experience.

Rather than talking into a microphone, you get to inter-act with real people who re-act to what you’re saying. You get instant feedback on how you land your lines, not only from your fellow-actors but from the audience. You have a whole new way of getting into character.

Improv classes are a great way to learn to loosen up, and become conversational. Name one client who doesn’t ask for a “conversational read”?

I remember an audio book narrator who was stuck in his studio most of the time. Some people thought he was anti-social. When he finally joined an improv group, he made new friends who thought he was witty, funny, and charming. Two years later, the introvert has become quite extroverted, and his loyal listeners love the way his audio book characters bounce off the page like never before.”

“Those are some great suggestions,” said my student. “Is there anything else you’d recommend?”

“Well, how about you…

4. Take singing lessons, and join a choir.

Voice-overs talk for a living, yet too many of them have no clue how to use their voice. Their range is limited, their diction is off, and after half an hour, vocal fatigue sets in. Using your voice means using muscles, the thyroarytenoid muscles and the cricothyroid muscles to be exact.

Taking singing lessons is like going to the gym for your voice. You’ll learn effective warm-ups, proper pronunciation and projection, and you’ll train the muscles needed to produce sound. After a while, your voice will become stronger, clearer, more resonant and more flexible. Your listening skills and timing will improve, and you’ll be able to infuse your scripts with musicality.

On top of that, you’ll have yet another reason to get off your behind, and rehearse with your choir. There’s nothing like the sweet sensation of voices blending, creating harmonies and melodies that soothe the soul.

The main thing to remember is that everything is connected. The change you make in one area of your life is likely to affect other areas of your life.

Whatever you decide to do, you are the goose with the golden eggs, so you had better take good care of yourself.

Step out of your comfort zone, but be patient. It might take a while before you see the payoff of your pursuits.

Eventually, things will fall into place in a most surprising and delightful way. 

Take it from me, the exercising, multilingual, singing amateur stage actor!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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