Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 3

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

One thing I am sure of.

Human beings have a hard time dealing with uncertainty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what kind of uncertainty am I talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck with that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many are interested. Very few are committed.

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

And then there’s this.

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

Then I had a stroke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerdain Articles, Career, Personal

13 Responses to Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 3

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    In my business we call Jack a pantser (he would write by the seat of his pants, going as inspiration strikes him), and John is a plotter (he plans and works out at least the structure and the basics beforehand).

    I’m an extreme plotter – I know where my story is going, and I don’t end up having to toss thousands of words that didn’t advance it.

    I also write hundreds or thousands of words of preparation before and around the thousand or two of fiction for each scene – but I know those will get me ready to do my best work, because I can measure what I produce against what I planned.

    I think Jack leads an interesting life, but this is the only way I can actually accomplish goals.

    There ARE uncertainties in life, and illness is one of them. But there are also a whole lot of things you CAN pin down and prepare for. Those will rescue you when inspiration falters.


  2. Philip Banks

    Life changing problems for the so-called VO community are not really problems, let alone life changing ones.

    “Voice over is my life” said a young lady upon meeting me at a gathering of the mediocre in the USA.

    My response was predictable.

    “I really hope not”

    Earlier I read that a voice over “pay to play” site has changed the way it … At that point I lost interest.

    Pay to play sites? Oh yes. There are two, right? One that is used to launder money from South American drug cartels and another that doesn’t know yet how an investment bank is screwing them. They both have web sites.

    In order to combat the above. The Union in the US is selling cup cakes and selling out its members, A VO organisation has set up a web site for VOs so they may get hired, a group of agents have set up a web site so that they can get auditions to forward to VO people so they may get hired, we have VO managers in LA who charge actors because the manager knows someone who may send the actor an audition, VO managers in NYC who invent auditions in order to entrap VO people into signing away their parent’s IRA, high profile people in the VO business have set themselves up as experts in Coaching to combat the problem of a completely saturated market and an award winning voice is anyone able to sign a cheque (UK English) to the value of 3 times their IQ, who looks good in something off the shoulder AND does not DARE challenge the Messiah, the Madonna or any of the tithing disciples.

    Be a smart voice. Set yourself apart from the people who will believe anything and believe instead only the evidence.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Too many people believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts. That’s how the current US president was elected. Too many people are also too lazy to do their homework, and they want to make it without putting in any effort. What could be easier than to become a member of a casting site that sends you auditions every day. No cold calling required?

    I agree with you that doing VO’s is a means to an end, and that the work we do is only one aspect of our identity.


  3. Debbie Grattan

    Wow, it’s clear your brain and fingers typing on a keyboard are working just fine Paul. No stroke can stop you! Another impressive blog, with incredible insight into the psyche of a freelancer. You’re amazing! Someday, if we ever get to meet, I will give you the biggest hug!!


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you for sharing my musings on social media, Debbie. I look forward to the day of our meeting. Hugs are appreciated!


  4. Paul Garner

    Great series, Paul. Thanks so much, again, for your insight and willingness to “lay it all out there.” Blessings on you and your wonderful wife! You are in our prayers.


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I appreciate that very much, Paul. All the best to you and yours!


  5. Joe Lewis

    And again, you hit it right on the head Paul!!

    Thank you SO much for your inspirational “coining it just like it is”, and in such a humble and timely manner at that.

    So interesting about NYC… I wonder how that concept could be internationalized and exported galore.

    Bless your well-deserved partner in helping you reconstruct and refurvish your biz – it must have been REAL tough to become practically indispensable through A1 class service and added value, only to be shun at the lightest instance of unavailability.

    I feel for you and energetically applaud your getting up on your feet with this level of candor and insight… you made me feel instantly better about my petty issues today!!

    Big hug form Barcelona,


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thanks for making my day with your kind words!

    Being in Spain, you might want to look into the Late Payment Directive of the European Commission. It’s put in place to protect small and mid-size businesses and is now EU country law.


  6. Christopher Thorn


    Thank you so much for this article. It is even harder doing it alone. God bless your better half!

    My Best,



    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I couldn’t have done this by myself. That’s for sure. Every day I realize how lucky I am to have a partner I can count on when the body is weak and the mind is foggy.


  7. Lynda Kluck

    Thank you so much for your articles, Paul. This three-part series is especially relevant at this time in my life (laid-off from corporate job three months ago and decided to focus on my VO business full-time). I’ll admit, I am more like “Jack” in this scenario, but even so, getting used to the level of uncertainty in VO can be challenging. I am constantly reminding myself that there are really no certainties in life and far more to be gained in risking then not, but the fear, insecurity and overall discomfort is still there. Perhaps all entrepreneurs feel this?


    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I’m sure many feel the pressure. That’s why we need many eggs in many baskets so we can spread the risk. The best way to deal with this nervous feeling of uncertainty, is to be prepared.


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