voiceovers

Why I Have Disappeared

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 53 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

But that was just the beginning.

CHANGING MY LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

SIDE EFFECTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

GETTING BACK ON MY FEET

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAYING FOCUSED

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul ©nethervoice

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Becoming A Frugal Freelancer

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Gear, Money Matters Leave a comment

If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post without reading part one Would You Survive The Shark Tank? please stop. Click on the title above; read the story, and come back when you’re done.

By the way, as always, blue text on this blog indicates a hyperlink. 

Here’s one nugget from last week’s post you’ll remember:

“The way you manage your money is one of the most important indicators of success. You may have the most enchanting voice in the world, but if you don’t price for profit, and you spend more than you make without even knowing it, you may end up driving for Uber, instead of doing your dream job.”

A week ago we talked about investing in your business. You’ve got to spend money to make money, but you have to do it wisely. I call it “strategic splurging.”

BUSINESS 101

Today I’m going to talk about saving some cash, but before I get to that, let’s go over a few basics.

As a solopreneur, you have to ask yourself:

“What is the purpose of my business?”

Financially speaking, there can only be one answer:

It’s not to make money, but to turn a profit.

If I were a bank, and you’d come to me for a loan, I wouldn’t care about how well-respected you are in your community, or how much you love your job. I would not look at how many people read your blog, or how many friends you have on Facebook. I would look at your bottom line.

Your profit is the number one indicator of the health and success of your business. Here’s a simple formula:

Total Sales – Total Expenses = Profit

AMATEUR OR PRO

We often talk about the difference between doing voice-overs as a hobby, or as a business. What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional? In the end it doesn’t matter what you think, or what your coach tells you. You’ve got to convince the tax man!

Here’s what the IRS has to say about the difference between a hobby and a business: 

In order to make this determination, taxpayers should consider the following factors:

  • Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
  • Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?
  • If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?
  • Has the taxpayer changed methods of operation to improve profitability?
  • Does the taxpayer or his/her advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
  • Has the taxpayer made a profit in similar activities in the past?
  • Does the activity make a profit in some years?
  • Can the taxpayer expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?

 

The IRS presumes that an activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year.

SAVING MONEY

Healthy companies focus on two main things:

1. Increasing revenue
2. Decreasing expenses

Here’s what you should know: Curbing costs starts between your ears.

In Are Those Black Friday Deals Really Worth It?” I gave the following spending advice:

1Distinguish between a WANT and a NEED

Every time you’re tempted to make a major purchase, ask yourself: 

“Do I really need it right now, or is it just something I want?” “Is it a necessity, or a luxury?”

So, if you really, really want to buy a nice, new, shiny piece of equipment, ask yourself:

– Will it make me more professional, productive, and profitable?

– Will my clients experience an undeniable difference as a result of this purchase?

– Will this investment pay for itself within a reasonable period of time?

If you can answer these three questions with an emphatic YES, move on to the next level:

2. Find the product that best meets your needs and your budget

This applies to business expenses, but also to other purchases. You have to be a smart shopper across the board, to allow your business to grow. 

If you must make an investment, do your homework before you make an impulse buy. Determine how much you can afford to spend, and begin your research. Ask people you trust for suggestions. Look at what the pros are using.

Skip commercial copy, but pay close attention to independent reviews from reliable sources. For gadgets and certain pieces of gear, I will often turn to The Wirecutter website for extensive comparisons, reviews, and recommendations.

Here’s my rule of thumb: Always choose high quality over low price. You may pay a bit more today, but you will save money in the long run.

When you operate your own business, it’s so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day running of your shop. However, if you want to have staying power, you must think long-term, and plan accordingly. And speaking of time, here’s your next decision:

3. Determine the best moment to buy something 

Saving money has a lot to do with timing. For instance, the best time to buy a new television is right before the Super Bowl, and before new models hit the showroom. It can save you hundreds of dollars. 

One of my favorite sites is lifehacker. Lifehacker has a handy graphic, illustrating The Best Time to Buy Anything During the Year. You’ll see that February is great for buying cellphones and home theaters. August is best for office supplies.

Once you’ve found what you are looking for, and you know when to get it, you must make the following commitment:

4. Never pay full price

No one pays sticker price on a new car, right? That would be foolish. So, I want you to bring that same mindset to your next purchase. And just as you’d go from dealership to dealership to get the best price, I want you to use the same method online.

The first thing you need to find out is how much retailers are generally charging for what you want to buy. Otherwise you don’t know if you’re overpaying, or you’re getting a steal.

A simple way to do that, is to start a Google search for your product. Click on the shopping tab, and sort by price from low to high. Before you begin this process, always clean your disk space by clearing your cookies, cache, history, and footprints. Otherwise, your search history might reveal to online retailers that you’re interested in buying a certain product, and they’ll quote you a higher price.

If you’re an Amazon fan, I recommend installing the free camelcamelcamel price tracker. It monitors millions of products, and it gives you insightful price history charts. On top of that, this tracker can send you alerts via email and Twitter, notifying you of price drops.

The website Slickdeals also has a price tracker, tracking prices from 52 stores. You can install a bookmarklet, and add it to your browser’s bookmarks bar to check the price history of any item at a supported store as you browse the web.

Once you have a clear price point, the next decision you’ll have to make is whether to buy…

5. Refurbished or used

My biggest savings have come from purchasing previously loved equipment. Not everyone is comfortable with buying second-hand, but once you’ve had a few positive experiences, I think you’ll warm up to the idea.

The safest way to buy used gear, is to get it from someone you know. The Facebook group VO Gear Exchange has over 1,500 members, and right now there are 123 items for sale. Online retailer Sweetwater has a Trading Post where you can buy and sell gear. You can also buy and sell used pro audio equipment from Guitar Center by clicking this link. 

As a buyer and seller, I’ve had mostly positive experiences with eBay. The trick is to do your homework before you start bidding. Know how much something is worth, and use the website Checkaflip to find out how much a certain product is usually selling for. 

Buyer beware! Only buy from sellers with overwhelmingly positive feedback, and look for auctions that end on hours very few people will be bidding (mornings and early afternoons). The fewer people bid on something, the better your deal will be. eBay has a money back guarantee if your item hasn’t arrived, or isn’t as described.

Amazon shoppers can also buy used or reconditioned products. Just click on the Used & New link below the description of the item you’re looking for. You might be surprised how much money you can save. 

Speaking of reconditioned or refurbished, that’s another great option for frugal freelancers. I recently bought an iPad Air 2 with 128 GB, Wireless & Cellular. You can find it at the Apple store for $629. I bought a factory refurbished model from BLINQ for $396.79 with free shipping (using a 20% off coupon for signing up for email alerts). Apple sells the same iPad refurbished for $529. Retailer Best Buy is selling the iPad Air 2 with similar specs as an Open Box item for $464.99.

My tablet didn’t arrive in Apple’s signature fancy packaging, but otherwise it looked and felt brand new, without any dents or scratches. Right now I’m using it as a second monitor, with the help of an app called Duet. The app is available for Mac and PC.

If you’re still not comfortable with getting a used or reconditioned product, you have to consider what to do when you’re… 

6. Buying new

Of course you’d start by using a shopbot like Pricegrabber, to find the best price. You can also look for deals on Retailmenot or a site like Overstock.

Rick Broida from website CNET, writes the Cheapskate Blog that’s written for bargain shoppers like me. Once I had ordered my iPad, I wanted to set up cellular service. The Cheapskate Blog told me about a free T-Mobile data plan for my tablet. All I had to do was buy a ten-dollar Sim card, install it, and BAM: I now have a 200MB monthly plan at no cost.

Rick also wrote about the Brenthaven Elliot Slim Brief with lifetime guarantee which normally retails for $79.95. I got it for $24.95, and it protects my iPad perfectly during my travels. This deal is no longer available. 

Apart from Rick’s blog, CNET has another deals & promotions page you might want to check regularly. You’ll find deals on anything from electronics, cruises, office equipment, to clothing.

There are at least four other deal aggregators I visit regularly: kinja Deals, BradsdealsWoot, and Tanga. Please do some window shopping to find out what they have to offer. You can thank me later!

Another money-saving concept is that of the Buyer’s Club. This is where a number of buyers commit to purchasing something to get a group discount. Groupon is probably one of the best examples. One of my favorites is MassDrop, which has a special Audiophile section. 

Whenever I’m shopping online, I make sure to activate my eBates account to earn cash back on my purchases. The Cash Back Button I’ve installed tells me how much cash back is being offered, and it reminds me to activate the discount. About 2,000 stores give cash back through eBates. The way I see it, it’s free money!

“But what about coupons?” you may ask. Well, I use a browser extension called Honey. Honey automatically finds and applies coupon codes at checkout on thousands of sites. Honey also finds better prices on Amazon, and offers cash bonuses on many stores. 

Once you have Honey installed, whenever you’re on a shopping site that Honey supports, you will see the Honey icon in the top right corner of your browser turn the color orange. This means that Honey supports that store.

Now, here’s my last money-saving tip for you: 

7. Get a good accountant who specializes in small businesses

Let’s face it: you didn’t become a freelancer so you could bury yourself in boring and time-consuming paperwork. Spare yourself the headaches, save yourself some time, and hire an expert. Your forms will be filled out correctly, and filed on time. A good accountant helps you maximize your deductions, lower your tax bills, and can be your financial sounding board.

When you’re ready to make your next purchase, remember this: it’s easy and lazy to pay full price. It’s also bad for business. 

It may take you some time to track down the best bargains, but you’ll learn a lot, and finding a bargain can be quite gratifying. 

The way you shop for your business will help you cut down your household expenses as well.

Small savings add up quickly. At the end of the day, you’ll have more money in the bank; money that’s going to be your security blanket.

Of course there are more ways to save, and if you have specific tips, I hope you’ll share them in the comment section.

Happy frugal shopping!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

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Debunking Bottom Feeders

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Book, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters 15 Comments

Lowest PriceSomething strange is happening in the voice-over world, and it scares me.

I know of no other profession where colleagues (and I use the word loosely) denigrate other colleagues simply because they’re advocating for decent rates.

Those who favor higher fees are regularly labeled as greedy, unrealisticelitist, old school, or as misguided union members.

Since when did it become uncool to want to make more money, or at least earn a living wage?

Is it bad for business? Would it tarnish our reputation? What are people afraid of?

Some voice-overs who operate on the lower end of the scale have even come forward to proudly defend why they’re charging next to nothing. People like Rebecca Schwab, who confessed in a blog post that bloggers like me sometimes make her feel like “a voice over fraud.”

She goes on to describe her method of breaking into the voice-over business: by selling her services at rock bottom prices. In another blog post Rebecca writes:

“Whether or not I was “undercutting” anyone was the last thing on my mind. It was simply a matter of economics.”

I’m not going to copy and paste her articles here, but I think Rebecca* needs to learn a thing or two about economics and collegiality.

The frightening thing is that she’s not alone. If you frequent certain Facebook voice-over groups, you’ll notice that even some moderators have become very defensive when the subject of rates comes up. What’s even worse, you can’t argue with these people because they will kick you out of a group if you try to start a dialogue about money.

So, rather than get into a discussion with people who are unwilling to listen, let me give you my take on some of the arguments that are being used to defend, excuse, or justify low rates. Even though we’re talking about voice-over services, you’ll find the same type of reasoning when other freelance rates are discussed.

Let’s start with something I hear almost every day:

1. There will always be a high end and a low end of the market. Accept it and move on.

That’s a given, and it’s not addressing the real issue. We all know that there’s a market for KIA and Rolls-Royce. The point is: how low is the KIA dealer willing to go to make a sale? Is he prepared to sell his cars at a loss, just to get his business going? How long can he keep that up before he goes bankrupt? It’s not a way to get loyal customers either. Next time, they’ll just buy from someone who’s willing to go even lower.

Bottom line: You need to cover your costs, and then factor in a profit. Once you get clients hooked on cheap fees, they will never pay full price again.

2. You may lose money on every sale, but you’ll make it up in volume!

That’s like buying ten melons for a dollar each, and then selling 12 for 10 bucks. Does that make any sense? No matter how many KIAs a dealer sells, if he sells them below cost, he’s not making any money. A small business owner once said: “Sales numbers feed egos. Profits feed families.”

It’s not how much you sell, but how much money you get to keep that matters. Business is a game of margins, not volume. Bargain airlines tried making money on volume. Guess what? They’re gone! Would you rather do less for more, or more for less?

3. Purchase decisions are primarily based on price.

If that’s the case, Mr. Client, I will send you your order in two years, okay? I’ll also make sure that it will fall apart in two weeks, and you won’t be getting your money back. Don’t bother calling me, because I just closed our customer service department.

Most people do not buy on price alone. They will talk about price, but what they really mean is that you haven’t offered enough value to justify paying the price you’re asking.

There’s this cartoon with a picture of a brother and sister each with their own lemonade stand side by side. The brother’s lemonade stand reads “Lemonade 25 cents.” The sister’s lemonade stand reads:

Lemonade 50 cents (clean water).

Do you want your service to be known for being the cheapest on the market, or for high quality? Competing on price is a losing battle.

Lawrence Steinmetz and William Brooks are the authors of How to sell at margins higher than your competitors. Winning every sale at full price, rate or fee. They say:

“If you want to earn a solid living in sales, you need to remember that you are going to face a consistent challenge to hang on to a higher price, because you will always find yourself competing with a fool who is going broke cutting prices.”

The key is adding value. If you don’t offer exceptional value, then your product or service becomes just another commodity. People buy commodities on price. If you’re just another web designer, voice-over artist, or car dealership, you’re in trouble.

Value means: offering more at a higher price.

4. Price does not influence the perception of a product.

If that were the case, why are people prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a Rolex, instead of buying a $50 Seiko? Most watchmakers agree that the Seiko is the better time piece.

Let’s talk about brain surgery. Why don’t people go to the cheapest surgeon in the area? Because low prices make people think he isn’t any good. Price makes a statement. Cheap = cheap. What does your rate tell the world about what you think you’re worth?

5. Some clients just can’t afford paying higher rates. I cannot change that.

How do you know they can’t pay you a better rate? Buyers lie in order to get you to lower your price. It’s the oldest trick in the book. If they could get it from someone else at a better price, why are they still talking to you?

Stop making excuses for those who don’t respect you enough to pay you a decent fee. Unless you’ve seen their balance sheet, you don’t know what they can or cannot afford. 

Know your bottom line. Add value. Don’t compromise so easily. Negotiate. Dare to say NO to a bad deal. Study the art of making the sale. It’s part of being a pro.

6. I don’t set the rates. The market does.

So, what you’re saying is that you don’t take responsibility for your prices? They are forced upon you at gunpoint? You’re just a helpless leaf in the wind?

Let me put it bluntly: The market doesn’t determine your price. Your client doesn’t set your fee. YOU do.

It’s just very convenient to tell the world that you don’t have any influence over your rate. If you can’t control it, you can’t change it. You’re a victim of circumstance. End of story. Now go feel sorry for yourself.

Market trends are the result of millions of individual decisions. Decisions you and I make, each and every day. Change the decisions, and you change the trends. 

Price-cutting is a self-inflicted wound. Should you decide that $5 for an eight paragraph voice-over script is fair compensation, so be it. Contract law states that parties must agree to enter into a contract freely, and must be of sound mind.

I’m not saying that you should ignore the competition or forget about the rate cards that are floating in cyberspace. It’s up to you if you want to look at Odesk, freelancer.com, or the $100 voices.com minimum rate, and decide that that’s what “the market” is willing to pay. After all, the only thing the client cares about is price, right?

Or you could decide to look at union rates, and make those the basis of your pricing structure.

Why not talk to a few agents? If you’re any good, they might want to represent you. They will fight for a decent rate because if you do well, they will do well.

7. I’m not a sales person. I’m an artist. I don’t know how to negotiate.

No, you’re a wimp, and you need a firm kick in the pants! Nobody is forcing you to be a full-time freelancer. But if you tell the world you are doing this to make a living, it automatically means that you’re the head of the sales department, whether you like it or not. Lawrence Steinmetz has this to add:

“The first thing you have to understand is that the selling price is a function of your ability to sell and nothing else.”

Any idiot can cave in at the first sign of buyer resistance, and offer a price cut. That’s not selling. That’s being lazy and fearful. It’s a sign that you don’t believe in the value of your product or service. Clients always pick up on that, and it will cost you dearly.

Being extraordinarily talented in what you do, doesn’t guarantee instant success. Life might have dealt you a pretty good hand, but if you don’t know how to play the game, even the best cards are useless. We all know starving geniuses.

The way I see it, you have two choices. You either learn the rules and become good at playing the game, or you stay out of it. Remember: experience is the slowest teacher.

8. Low-end rates do not affect high-end rates.

If that were the case, why aren’t rates going up, instead of down? Why have so many auditions turned into a bidding war? Actor, writer and producer J.S. Gilbert:

“While it’s not being broadcast, I’m seeing people I know who have made six-figure+ incomes at voice-over for years now, looking at incomes that are fractions of what they were a few years ago.”

I understand that we’ll never get back to the golden days of Don LaFontaine (a.k.a. “The Voice of G-d”) and his limo. Thanks to the internet, the rise in home studios, and online job boards, clients no longer have to book union talent at union rates through an agent. Talk has become a lot cheaper.

As Gilbert pointed out to me, a job that used to cost the client $1000, is now offered at $250. But why pay $250 if some fool is willing to do it for $25?

As I said before, once clients are taught they can get it for less, why should they pay a penny more? Give me one reason why this trend does not impact today’s prices, and has never done so in the past. 

9. But I’m just getting started. I can’t possibly ask full price.

Some beginners admitted to me that they’ve offered their services for free, just to be able to build a portfolio. Mind you: they were not talking about doing stuff for charity.

I think a freebie only makes sense if you have something else to sell. That’s why a baker hands out samples, and that’s why my custom demos are free of charge. But if you’re giving 500 dollars worth of services away for free, you’re not only creating expectations, you’re in fact saying: “This is what I think my work is worth.” Meanwhile, you’re robbing a colleague of the chance to make five hundred bucks.

Jason Fried is the co-founder and President of software solution provider Basecamp. He recommends you practice charging a reasonable rate from day one. But what he said next was a real eye-opener to me:

“It’s very safe to charge low rates, because you don’t have to prove anything. But as soon as you charge a customer a good price, it gives them the power to demand something from you, such as good quality and great service. Those are the types of pressures you want on you as a small business owner. You want to be forced to be good. Charging for something forces you to be good.”

10. I don’t need to make a full-time income. It’s only a hobby.

If it’s only a hobby, then why are you advertising yourself as a voice-over professional? I play the piano, but I don’t market myself as a concert pianist.

If you enjoy reading to other people, go volunteer at your local children’s hospital or elder care facility. You will probably get more appreciation for doing this, than for anything you’ve ever done before.

Most talents I know are only freelancing part-time, because they’re still building what they hope will become a full-time business. A part-time teacher only gets paid less because she puts in fewer hours. Does a part-time cab driver fix the meter so he can drive you around at half-price? So, why should you offer your services at bottom dollar?

Oh… I see. Your partner has a steady job, and the money you make doing the occasional voice-over doesn’t have to pay the mortgage, right?

Guess what? In this economy there’s no such thing as a steady job anymore. What would happen if your partner gets laid off and you become the sole breadwinner? Can your beer money pay the bills? Do you really think you could raise your rates to make ends meet?

Price buyers are the first to look elsewhere. They don’t care about your personal situation. They care about cutting costs. But stop thinking about your own situation for a moment.

There are people who depend on doing this for a living right now, and they think your price dumping is nothing but unfair competition. I must admit: you’re quite talented, and by charging these low rates you are making it harder and harder for them to justify their fees.

I think it’s time for you to think about the bigger picture.

Asking for a reasonable rate is not about shameless greed or about becoming filthy rich and famous. This is about being able to provide for your family; being able to send your kids to college, and save some money for a rainy day.

Your voice could help sell millions of dollars worth of product. It can introduce people to brilliant books that enrich their lives. Your voice can be the voice of a mentor, teaching valuable skills to e-learners across the globe. Your voice can inform, entertain, sell, and assist. Surely, that must be worth something?

However…

Those who fail to build value, have nothing left but to compete on price.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

*since the publication of this article, Rebecca’s blog posts are no longer available

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS The above article is an excerpt from my book “Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing For Voice-Overs And Other Solopreneurs.” Click on one of the buttons below to get your copy.

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Are Clients Walking All Over You?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters, Personal 18 Comments

Angry manAs a freelancer, I’ve had to learn many lessons.

Some of these lessons came easy. Others were excruciating.

Out of all the things I picked up along the way, these two were perhaps the hardest:

1. How to deal with conflict.

2. How to stand up for myself.

I grew up in a very protective environment, and was taught never to raise my voice. The main philosophy in our house was this:

Most people have good intentions. If you treat them with kindness and understanding, they will treat you in a similar way.

So, when my best friend asked if he could borrow some money, I immediately gave it to him. I think I was eight years old at that time, and I had earned a few bucks by helping out around the house. “You’ll get it back tomorrow,” he said, and I totally believed him.

Of course he never returned a penny, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it something I had said? Was it something I had done? You see, that was one of my patterns. Whenever something negative would happen to me, I started questioning myself.

This made it harder for me to confront my friend and ask for my money. Part of me didn’t want to risk losing him as my best buddy. Part of me was just too scared to challenge him. “Don’t cause conflicts,” said that little voice in the back of my head that sounded very much like my mother. “People might not like you when you start arguing with them.”

A LOSING STRATEGY

I have to tell you right now: this approach didn’t work for me as a child, and it didn’t work for me as an adult. It left me with no backbone, and it made me vulnerable. Yet, when I started my own business, I did everything I could to avoid conflict by becoming a people-pleaser.

If you’re offering a professional service like I do, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You want your clients to be happy, and their wish is your command, but there are limits. I found it very hard to say “No,” even when clients made unreasonable demands.

“Could you cancel all your plans and come to our studio for an audition tomorrow? Let’s make it nine o’ clock.”

The next day I cursed rush hour traffic on my way to New York for a cattle call in some obscure basement. I would spend half a day on the highway, and a small fortune in parking fees to audition for a $250 job. It was madness.

“Since you’re a Dutch native speaker, could you check the translation of the script we sent you, just to make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be?”

Unable to refuse, I would spend the next two hours proofing and correcting a horrible script that had been translated by stupid software. All of this for a cheap client who never said “please,” or “thank you,” and who expected me to do this at the drop of a hat, and for free.

“If I don’t do it, I might lose the job,” I told myself in those days.

Five minutes later, the phone would ring. It was one of my late-paying clients.

“Paul, we’re having some cashflow problems. Is it okay if we pay you in about… six weeks?”

“I’d rather get paid in six weeks than not being paid at all,” I said to myself, and I told the client not to worry. I was going to be the easiest freelancer they would ever work with!

MR. DOORMAT

Looking back, I had all sorts of people walk over me, and I found it increasingly difficult to put on a professional smile, and be okay with being treated like a dirty disposable doormat. Even though I began to resent being disrespected, there were three things I forgot.

1. Ultimately, my ultra-accommodating behavior gave me something I wanted: a way to avoid conflict. I would be seen as the amiable hired helper who always went above and beyond. Who wouldn’t want to work with me?

2. I wasn’t a powerless victim of those who took advantage of me. I was an active participant in the process by allowing people to walk all over me.

3. By behaving the way I did, I created certain expectations. I taught my clients how to treat me.

At the time, I didn’t see it that way. I saw myself as the always accommodating Mr. Nice Guy, smiling on the outside, but suffering in silence on the inside. It was only a matter of time before the last drop landed in the bucket.

PUSHING MY BUTTONS

I had finished recording a technical script for a high-maintenance, unorganized client who always needed everything yesterday. Even though I was swamped, I managed to meet his deadline. Two days later I was getting ready to go to a wedding, when he called me with some drastic changes to the script.

“Don’t blame me,” he said. “I don’t control the people I work for.”

He basically expected me to drop everything and help him out, and here’s the worst part: he wanted me to do it at no charge.

Already in my tuxedo, my frustration finally reached a boiling point, and I snapped at this man with an indignation that had been building up for years. I’ll tell you: when I was done, I felt so relieved!

My client, on the other hand, was speechless. Once he composed himself, he just said a few words:

“I wouldn’t want you to miss that wedding. We’ll go over everything tomorrow, and I’ll make sure you get paid for your time.”

Just like that!

I was stunned.

I looked in the mirror and thought:

“So, that’s what happens when you put your foot down!”

I later apologized to the client for losing my temper, and I thanked him for teaching me a valuable lesson.

BOUNDARIES

This all happened quite some time ago. Eventually, I came to realize that I had to set some professional boundaries. Now, if you’re going through the same things I experienced, you might wonder:

How do you know where these boundaries are? They’re pretty much invisible.

It’s simple, really. You know where your boundaries are by the amount of BS you’re willing to put up with in your life.

As long as you’re okay, no lines are crossed. But if someone or something makes you angry or upset, it’s probably a sign that your boundaries have been violated. You’re likely to find out during some kind of crisis. That’s when you discover who you are, and what’s important to you.

Over the years I have developed very strong boundaries when it comes to rates, professional standards, and the terms and conditions under which I am willing to work with a client or a student.

I no longer drive to New York if a job pays less than $500. My agents know that, and they understand. Most of them will ask a producer if it’s okay for me to send an MP3 audition, instead of making me go to a cattle call. Usually, that’s no problem either.

If clients want me to translate or proof a script, they’ll have to pay me to do it, and payment is expected within 30 days after the invoice is received. I’m happy to record changes to the script after the initial, approved text was recorded, but not for free. 

NEW RESPECT

Did I lose a couple of clients because I refused to put up with their BS? Of course I did, but I was glad to get rid of them. Now here’s the kicker…

Because I was putting my foot down (ever so gently, of course), people started to respect me more.

As my self-confidence increased, their confidence in me increased as well. To my surprise I discovered that being clear about my boundaries lead to less conflict. 

My rate was no longer seen as expensive, but as a sign of professionalism. These days, many clients are willing to do a lot to accommodate me, instead of the other way around.

All in all I’d say that standing up for myself has made me feel better about myself in general, and it has brought more clients to my business.

However, there’s one thing that keeps on bugging me.

Not long ago, the childhood friend I told you about in the beginning, found me on Facebook, and now he wants to connect. It’s been more than forty years since we last spoke, and I’m curious to find out how he is doing. However, I’m reluctant to honor his request.

After all, the guy still owes me money!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: la colérica e inmediata respuesta gestual via photopin (license)

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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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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

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Turning Resistance Into Results

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

push upEvery January I see them walk in.

The men and women who told themselves: “I can do this!”

They’re sporting brand new workout clothes, and are wearing fancy gym sneakers that have yet to be broken in. Water bottles in hand, they flock to the eight o’ clock spinning class lead by Helga, a platinum blonde transplant from Germany. Her voice is as muscular as her thighs.

As the newbies adjust their exercise bikes, the regulars look at each other knowingly. We’ve seen this sad ritual many times. Give it a few weeks, and it will all be over. 

BAILING OUT

February has barely begun, and half of the new recruits have already given up. “It wasn’t really my thing” they tell their friends with a faint smile. “But at least I tried, and that’s worth something, right?”

Luckily for them, they only paid for a trial membership. It’s the ultimate cop-out for those who can’t or won’t commit. How do I know?

A few years ago, I belonged to this group of dropouts, and I’m not proud of it. But last year I made a courageous comeback, and today I feel like I’m part of the LA Fitness furniture. To me, a gym workout is the ultimate stress-busting, fat-burning, energy-boosting experience. Here’s something else I discovered along the way.

The microcosm of the gym is a powerful metaphor for the real world. In fact, there are lots of parallels between my professional life as a voice-over, and what’s happening on the gym floor. Do you think this is a stretch? Let’s talk about machines!

1. The best equipment does not guarantee results. It’s how you use it that matters.

People hurt themselves on the gym floor all the time, because they don’t know how to use the equipment. They start lifting, pushing or pulling, without adjusting the machines first.

Willful ignorance leads to lack of results and could be damaging.

This is true in so many contexts. Whether you’re a professional photographer, a graphic designer, or a musician, you need good tools to get the job done. But owning a million-dollar violin means nothing if you don’t know how to play it well. 

In our tiny voice-over bubble, we love to talk gear. Some colleagues seem to be forever searching for the Holy Grail of microphones or preamps. What they’re currently using is perfectly fine, but somehow they think that getting that shiny new mic will give them a tremendous leg up over the competition. 

In my opinion, it’s much wiser to spend your money on a coach who can help you get the most out of your equipment and your performance. But how do you know which coach is right for you? 

2. Effective coaches are role models who practice what they preach.

Let me ask you a question. While you’re at the gym, would you want to be guided by an overweight, uninterested, uninspiring coach? 

Of course not!

I’m sorry to say that many “personal trainers” at my gym just seem to phone their sessions in. There’s no enthusiasm. No encouragement. No pride in the work they do. They’re merely going through the motions, counting the hours until their shift is over. Some seem way too young and inexperienced. That’s probably because they are.

The word “mentor” means “wise advisor.” It comes from the Greek noun “mentos” meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, and passion.” A great coach or mentor embodies all these notions. Wise people are much more than an experienced source of information. They know how to apply that information with purpose and with passion. And they’re not afraid to give you a hard time and hold you accountable for your progress, or lack thereof! Here’s why:

3. Resistance makes you stronger.

Fans of the diving board know that they need the resistance it offers to jump to the right height. In the gym, resistance training increases muscle strength by making the muscles work against a weight or force.  

If you’ve ever tried to get into shape, you know that you sometimes get to a point where you run up against the limits of what you believe is possible. Your body cries out: “no more,” and your mind tells you to quit. Those moments are critical. During those times you need to push through what feels uncomfortable in order to gain strength and grow. Otherwise you’ll always remain in your comfort zone and coast.

Success doesn’t come naturally to those who are always playing it safe. 

Now, as you’re reading these words, something in your personal or professional life may seem to work against you. This leaves you with a choice. You can see these moments as threats, or as opportunities. Obstacles can become stepping stones, although you might not directly see it that way. Here’s some good news.

At certain times you don’t necessarily need to feel discomfort to know it’s time to up your game and go to a higher level. Here’s my rule of thumb (and I use this in the gym as well):

If it becomes too easy, it’s time for a new challenge, and time to raise the bar.

There’s one last thing I learned from going to the gym:

4. Use others as your inspiration, but never as the measure of your success.

It’s human nature to contrast and compare. When I first entered the gym, I was a bit intimidated by all these lean bodies pumping iron. I wondered how long it would take me to get into shape. I had no desire to look like a bodybuilder, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more muscular definition, and a lower number on the scale.

Then I realized that these guys and gals were once just like me. Over time they developed a routine that worked for them, to get into the shape they wanted to be in. They made changes in their diet and lifestyle, and they had trainers who held them accountable.

Above all, they consistently kept coming, rain or shine. They used persistence and resistance in combination with the right equipment and the best mentors.

If they could do it, I could do it.

And I’ll tell you what:

If I can do it, you can do it!

There’s only one question:

How soon are you going to start?

Or will you be walking out the door within a month?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Interested in working out? My colleague Rick Lance has published a series of “Fitness Tips from a 32 Year Fitness Novice.”
photo credit: Zac Aynsley Natural Fitness Models 1 via photopin (license)

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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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The Perfectionism Trap

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal 9 Comments

Drummer“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s one of my least favorite sayings in the English language. Yet, last year, this expression topped a poll of words of wisdom Britons picked up in childhood, and continue to use well into their older years.

It did better than “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and “good things come to those who wait.”

Why do I dislike “practice makes perfect” so much?

First of all, as is true for most clichés, it is a broad generalization. Secondly, perfection is a very loaded notion. Some people believe we should reserve that qualification to describe the divine. 

“Practice makes perfect” assumes that those who work hard will be rewarded. If only that were the case! Life isn’t fair, and hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success. The millions of Americans who are working their butts off for minimum wage can attest to that.

And finally, I don’t believe we are created equal. Not everyone was born to win Wimbledon, or write a best-selling novel, no matter how hard and how often they may try.

But let’s start at the beginning by looking at the notion of practice.

GOOD INTENTIONS. BAD ADVICE.

People who tell you “practice makes perfect,” are usually trying to be encouraging, but they rarely define what they mean by “practice.” Of course the general idea is that the more one does something, the better one gets at it. As if repetition alone will lead to positive results.

Practicing can be very helpful, but it won’t make you a gold medal winner, or a world-famous musician. There’s one thing that consistent rehearsal will do, though. 

Practice tends to make permanent, but is that always beneficial?

If you practice the wrong things over and over again, you’ll only become better at what you’re not good at. It’s hard to unlearn bad habits.

If you really want to master something, you have to have a natural talent; you have to develop that talent from an early age, and you need what Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is a type of practice that’s rich on feedback, aimed at correcting mistakes. Ericsson says it’s the only factor that explains differences in performance in sports, arts, sciences, and intellectual games. Deliberate practice is not something you can do just by yourself. You need precise guidance, evaluation, and accountability.

MORE THAN REPETITION

Guillermo Campitelli is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. He investigates individual differences in performance, judgements and decisions.

Campitelli has been involved in a study that re-analyzed previous research in the fields of chess and music, including data from Ericsson’s original deliberate practice study.

Campitelli’s research in chess expertise has shown that there is a huge variability in the numbers of hours of individual practice required to become a national master. One player he studied achieved that level after 800 hours (or 2 years). Another did it after 24,000 hours (or 26 years). A significant number of players dedicated more than 10,000 hours of individual practice, and never achieved that level.

His re-analysis showed that, on average, practice only accounts for 30% of the skill differences in music, and 34% of skill differences in chess. Campitelli concluded that deliberate practice is important, but other factors should be taken into account as well. Factors, such as our working memory capacity.

Our working memory capacity or executive functioning, is the ability to store and process information at the same time. Some of us are better at it than others, depending on the gene pool we came from.

People with high levels of working memory, outperformed those with lower working memory capacity in tasks such as piano sight reading, even when the latter group had extensive experience and knowledge of the task (source).

THE FLAW OF FLAWLESS

Practice isn’t all it’s cooked up to be, so let’s now turn to the notion of perfection. I think striving for perfection puts unnecessary pressure on people to achieve something that isn’t necessarily humanly possible, or even desirable.

One way to achieve perfection is to avoid errors. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, avoiding errors can lead to people sticking to what they already know by playing it safe. That’s boring, and it stifles growth and creativity. Those who are trying to avoid something are usually motivated by fear, which can take away the pleasure of accomplishment. 

If we really wish to make progress, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, take risks, and accept that we will make mistakes along the way, from which we will (hopefully) learn. To me, steady progress is a better and more enjoyable outcome than perfection.

There’s one last reason why perfection isn’t such a great goal.

LISTEN TO THE BEAT

In a lot of popular music, live drummers are being replaced by drum machines. These machines don’t make any mistakes. They’ll give you a consistent, perfect beat every single time. That’s something professional drummers cannot do.

Professional drummers aren’t robots. Even when playing to a super steady metronomic beat, they tend to fluctuate slightly. According to researcher Holger Henning, these variations are typically small, perhaps 10 to 20 milliseconds. Yet, listeners can tell the difference. Not only that, research has shown that these human variations are more pleasing to the ear.

Many electronic music programs now have “randomizing” functions to help producers add imperfections back into the music to give it a more human feel. However, they cannot produce the same rhythmic variety that people subconsciously recognize and prefer. There’s is no improvisation, spontaneity, or heart and soul in software. 

Musician Jojo Mayer says in his mini-documentary Between Zero and One:

“Digital computers are binary machines, which means they compute tasks making decisions between zero and one — yes or no. When we play music and generate it in real-time, when we improvise, that decision-making process gets condensed to a degree where it surpasses our capability to make conscious decisions anymore. When that happens, I am entering that zone beyond zero and one, beyond yes and no, which is a space that machines cannot access yet. That’s the human experience — right between zero and one.”

To put it differently: It’s the imperfections, that make a performance perfect.”

Think about that, if you’re a perfectionist.

Keep it in mind, the next time you wonder if voice actors will ever be completely replaced by text-to-speech software.

Take it from me: It will never happen!

Deliberate practice helps you prepare and perform better, but it doesn’t make you perfect.

And that’s perfectly fine with me.

Paul Strikwerda

PS Be sweet. Please retweet.

photo credit: Drummer with the cut outs at Oswestry Music Live 2008 via photopin (license)

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The Book and the Cover

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 2 Comments

woman wearing a mask“Leave your ego at the door.”

That’s one of the first commandments of many voice-over conferences that are being held throughout the year.

In a world filled with helpful, humble and caring colleagues, why would such a warning even be necessary, you might ask?

I’ll tell you why.

Because no matter where you go, you’ll always find a contingent of pompous, pretentious, big-headed individuals, ready to put you in your place. Even in voice-over circles.

These people will never come to you. They want you to come to them. They love to talk and hate to listen. They’ll interrupt you to change the subject because they’re easily bored. Dropping names is one of their favorite games. They’re eager to criticize and hard-pressed to praise. They specialize in being condescending and cocky because they’ve figured it all out. For them, there’s nothing more to learn.

You’ll find them at universities, hospitals, conservatories, in politics, in business and in places of worship. You’ll find them on Facebook, LinkedIn, on Twitter and in the blogosphere. No matter where you look, you’ll probably spot an emperor wearing very few clothes.

INFLATED EGOS

When I was seventeen, I first entered the world of broadcasting. It’s a world that seems to attract inflated egos and awful attitudes. Fame can turn reasonable men and women into narcissistic fools. Just because their smooth voices were heard on the radio or their plastic faces were on TV, some of them became utterly unbearable.

I’ve never been impressed with self-proclaimed authorities. I have to thank my upbringing for that. As a minister, my Dad was supposed to be one of those authorities. To me, he was just my Dad who put his teeth in a glass on the nightstand before he went to bed. One of his best friends ran a multi-million dollar corporation. I only knew him as uncle Joe who liked to break wind after a good meal. Nothing like a flatulent captain of industry to put things in perspective.

“Money doesn’t buy you manners,” my mother used to say. And she said something else that always stuck with me:

“If you’re full of yourself, there’s little room for others.”

I guess that’s why people say it’s lonely at the top.

Then, one day, I got to meet one of those people at the top. Not only that. I was asked to work with her. Together, we would present a radio program that already had a huge following.

MY BIG BREAK

A nationwide audience adored her, but colleagues called her the “Ice Princess” due to her standoffish demeanor. People warned me that she would likely give me the cold shoulder. After all, I was young, ambitious and very inexperienced. To the network, I was cheap labor who -one day- might replace this expensive, icy icon.

“Now, in order to work with her,” one of the executives told me, “you have to do as you are told. Never question her decisions. Always act interested -even when you’re not- and treat her like royalty. She is the star of the show and you are the sidekick. Remember your place. Then and only then you will stand a chance. Good luck. You’ll need it!”

I still remember the first day I went to work. Friends and family thought it was a dream come true. They were right. It was a tremendous opportunity. It could be the official launch of my career. Yet, part of me was very apprehensive.

On the way to the studio I forced myself to think of uncle Joe and his digestive system. He particularly enjoyed leaving silent surprises in crowded elevators. It worked, because I immediately felt less anxious.

When I entered the hallway, a familiar voice was telling a producer off, while smoking a cigarette. It was her!

“Oh boy,” I said to myself. “Here we go.”

Then the strangest thing happened.

SEEING A GHOST

While the argument with the producer was heating up, my soon-to-be mentor spotted me. As soon as she did, all color disappeared from her face. Undaunted, I began to introduce myself the way I had practiced many times in the mirror. After my first few words she interrupted me and then she disappeared into the studio, slamming the heavy door shut.

Five long minutes later she reemerged with a tissue in hand. Her eyes were red and teary.

“I can’t do this right now,” she said to me. “I really can’t. You have to go now.”

Was this some kind of bizarre test, I wondered? Should I leave or should I stay? Then I remembered the words from the network executive:

“Do as you are told. Never question her decisions.”

That afternoon the phone rang. It was the producer of the radio show.

“Paul,” he said, “I owe you an explanation. It was the weirdest thing. I have known this woman for many, many years, and not once have I seen her like that. She’s usually as tough as nails and distant, but when she saw you, she became overwhelmed with emotion.”

“What happened?” I asked. “Did I do something wrong?”

“I’ll tell you what she told me,” said the producer. “She said you looked like her son.”

“Well, is that a bad thing? I asked.

“She loved her son more than anything in the world,” said the producer, “but there’s something you should know. Ten years ago he was killed by a drunk driver. He was seventeen. Your age. She showed me one of his pictures and the resemblance is striking.”

I was stunned.

A SECOND CHANCE

“Now, here’s the good news,” he said. “She wants you to come back next week.”

“Are you sure that’s such a great idea?” I asked. “How are we going to work together if I all I do is open up a wound?”

The producer thought about it for a moment and said: “I think this might actually be good for her. She wants this. Let’s just see how it goes.”

A week later I came back to the studio and I introduced myself again. This time, she held it together. It was the beginning of something I will never forget. The person some people called the “Ice Princess,” turned out to be one of the warmest and most wonderful people I’d ever met. She took me under her wing, and the many things I learned from her I still use today.

One time after work, we got to talk about her son. She said:

“The day my son died, part of me died, and I became bitter and angry at the world. People who didn’t know me must have thought that I was a self-involved, stuck-up b*tch because I didn’t let anyone in. There still are people who believe I’m rather pretentious and cold. I know I can come across that way. I now realize that this is a mask I wear to protect myself. I need to be strong in order to survive. Ten years after my son’s death there’s still a huge hole in my heart.”

Although I knew I could never replace the son she had lost, I slowly realized that my presence might have a positive effect on her. Other people started noticing it as well.

TRANSFORMATION

Two years later, the network executive who had teamed me up with her, wanted to see me in his office. 

“Ah, there’s the man who made the Ice Princess melt,” he said when I came in. “I knew it would work.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, haven’t you seen the changes in the star of our show?” answered the executive. 

“Ever since you began working with her, she gradually opened up and has become more of the person I used to know. She started smiling again. The transformation is pretty amazing, don’t you think? I want to thank you for that.” 

“I don’t think I did much,” I said. “I mainly listened and tried to be there. But I’m curious. How did you know it would work? For one, did you have any idea I looked like her son?” 

“Of course,” the executive responded. “How could I not?

I’m her husband!”

COVERING UP THE PAIN

This wondrous world of ours is filled with all sorts of people. We all have stories to tell. Stories of courage, stories of despair, of jubilation and of grief. Those stories have shaped us into who we are and determine how we respond. We know the chapters that make up our lives intimately. But those who do not know us, often judge us by the cover and not by the book.

I still don’t feel drawn to pretentious people, but over time I’ve learned to get along. For most of them, their attitude is a mask, supposedly protecting them from pain and insecurity. Deep down, they long for recognition, companionship and validation. That’s my theory. And if you take the time to find out what really goes on behind that mask, you may find someone who’s vulnerable, alone and afraid.

Someone with a story.

And then there are people who are just like my uncle Joe.

Eccentric, and full of hot air. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
photo credit: pareeerica via photopin cc

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