My New Automotive Retail VO Demo

TomTest_773_416_9374_Automotive-Retail

In the 1990’s, I did some monthly VO for a local car dealer. It was all very hard sell stuff – “club ‘em over the head and grab their wallets” is how I described it. It was sort of a guilty pleasure for me to do that style of work and I was very good at it.

But then one day, another regular retail client of mine (a sporting goods chain) dropped me as his voice. He had heard my hard sell auto dealer work on the local AM news radio station and told me “I don’t want my client being associated with that sort of thing.” My work for his client was so different in tone that I bet 99.7% of the listening public would not have realized it was the same guy. But my arguments did not sway him, and I lost the account. I felt burned by this experience and began to evaluate whether I should continue doing hard sell VOs, at least in the Chicago market where I was a well-known brand.

I made the choice around 2000 that I would stop doing automotive retail work in the Chicago market. What really made the decision for me was the realization that I was often cast in the “warm, authoritative” role for health care, banks, etc., and did a lot of well-paying gigs for those clients – and I did not want to take a chance at losing them like I lost the sporting goods account.

Fast forward to 2012 in Charlotte, NC, host to the amazing voice-over “un-conference” FaffCon 5 (which you can read about in an earlier blog entry). Here I met Cliff Zellman, a producer from RadioVision in Dallas, and one of the very top producers of automotive retail Radio/TV spots nationwide. I attended a breakout session that Cliff ran about improving your retail read. I walked in thinking “I’m damn good at this, I know what I’m doing with retail reads,” but boy did I learn a lot from Cliff. One of the things Cliff spoke about that impressed me was that he was trying to persuade his clients to move away from the stereotypical hard-sell style automotive dealer read.

I began to reconsider my ban on voicing car dealer spots. After all, way back when I lost that sporting goods account? I worked every month for my car dealer client, but only 2-4 times a year for the sporting goods account. Car dealer work is REGULAR work (a rare and valuable thing in the world of VO), and therefore can be quite lucrative – especially if you are fortunate enough to land a regional or national dealer account. I still think it might be a good idea to continue my ban on the hard-sell stuff in the Chicago area, but in parts of the country where I am not overexposed (as I sometimes am here at home), I have much more to gain than I do to lose!

A strategy that has served me very well these past 5 years or so has been to produce very specific demos, with the idea that it makes the casting decision easier for the producer (and especially, their client who signs off on a casting decision) if they hear demo clips that are as close as possible to the type of spot they are doing. While a generic “Retail” demo can get me some automotive dealer work, I am convinced that a “genre-specific” demo focusing on the Automotive read will significantly improve my chances of being cast. After my great experience with Cliff at FaffCon, and knowing his long track record of success in this niche, I took Cliff up on his offer to do an audition read for his critique. He even sent my critique read back to me as a fully-produced spot (it was a young-sounding, quirky real person script for Kia Rio). He liked what he heard, and I loved what Cliff produced, so we decided to make a demo together.

Cliff listened to my current Automotive Retail demo that I had self-produced from a mish-mash of actual spot clips and some clips that I recorded just for an interim demo – not bad, and it gave him a sense of my range – but it could not hold a candle to what we could do together. Based on his assessment of my particular skills and range of reads I was competitive with, Cliff wrote about a dozen script JUST FOR ME! They were all terrifically well-written and conceived, ranging from Soccer Dad to gritty to a smooth luxury read to quirky young guy to non-announcer to friendly guy to a simulated live event host, and yes, a “screamer” spot that I had a whale of a time recording. Over the span of about a month, we had 4 sessions from my home studio with Cliff directing me via Skype. Cliff is such a master at this, he knows exactly what he is looking for and has amazing vision for this sort of work. After we finished recording the raw VO tracks, Cliff did his magical production work and sent me his rough versions. In every case, I had only the most minor of tweaks. His music selections were *brilliant*. I could tell we had something incredible brewing.
My demo was just about finalized when Cliff played it in front of a VO gathering in Atlanta, including a “heavy-hitter” from LA who pronounced my Automotive Retail demo “THE best ‘genre-specific’ demo I have EVER heard!” Cliff excitedly called me on the spot to tell me the good news. The whole room was abuzz and upon request, he played it several more times.

My new Automotive demo was officially unveiled in early May. Since then, I’ve record 5 spots for Cliff for 2 different dealers (one a hard-sell spot, the rest were more “warm and authoritative”). I’ve already paid off 2/3 of the cost of making the demo in my first month!! Talk about ROI! So now I’ve added it to my Home Page and have even re-tooled my generic “Commercial” demo to include a few clips from the Automotive. This is the best demo of my 23 year career, and working with Cliff has been an amazing experience.

Cliff Zellman has just recently unveiled a unique new concept in demo production called “Done By Six.” Visit the website to learn more: http://www.donebysixproductions.com/ FaffCon was really opened my eyes to the incredible value to collaborating with other VO talent and producers across the country and beyond. Moving outside my comfortable abode in Chicago has certainly been a life-changing experience for me!

Revamped TomTest.com Now Features VoiceZam and Video

I’ve just completed some major changes on www.tomtest.com that I am very excited about.

First, I have decided to replace my “Featured Clients” graphic (with logos of my most famous clients) with a space to play featured videos that I have narrated. For quite some time I’ve been intrigued by the advantages of using video to show off my voice-over skill. I’ve read that most talent seekers who will come to a VO talent’s site are very likely to watch at least part of any video footage, even if only out of curiosity. I think that, quite simply, hearing a voice that is attached to interesting visual elements makes a deeper impression than voice alone. I’ve been able to track down many videos on YouTube  that I have narrated, and adding them to my Home Page was very simple. I’m interested to hear whatever feedback I get about this.

Second, and more significantly, I have now incorporated the media player VoiceZam onto my site. I am extremely excited about this innovation, as I think it offers compelling advantages both for the talent seeker AND for the talent.

With VoiceZam, when a talent seeker visits my site, they click on my Demo links and the VoiceZam player pops up. Instead of simply clicking “play” and listening to the demo – probably fast-forwarding through to try and find exactly the read they need – with VoiceZam, they can quickly jump from track to track, each of which are individually listed and titled. The seeker can then download the entire demo, or download individual read(s). So when they go back to their client to review their chosen talents, it’s much easier for everybody to only listen to the relevant reads – rather than scrolling through full-length demos. It’s a simpler, faster, and more effective way for producers to find the right talent for their project.

As VoiceZam developer Bob Merkel puts it: “When I was a producer, I would listen to demos for hours on end. And like most in my industry, I would give up listening to each demo after the third or fourth track. But if there was a way to jump from track to track, I would have definitely listened to them all—as any good producer would….. That’s why I created VoiceZam. My engineering background led me to analyze the frustrations and barriers involved in making demos, and work to develop a more elegant solution. I set out to design a demo player system that would be an invaluable marketing tool for talent, while offering incredible features for producers. It’s a player that encourages listeners to remain engaged until the very end, as a tool where every track has its moment to be heard.”

For the VO talent, VoiceZam offers some compelling advantages. I am able to track listeners and get some great data about which clips are listened to in their entirety and which are quickly skipped. This is important feedback about which clips are the most attractive to my clients, and I can use this info to delete ineffective clips and replace them with better ones. Also, I can employ links in my email marketing which I can then use to track visitors to my site. For example, say I have a link in my email signature that is unique to a certain version of an email pitch, and say that I have 5 different versions which each use various strategies (different writing hooks, shorter or longer messages, etc). I can give each of the 5 versions their own unique VoiceZam link to my site, and I can tell how effective each version is in getting hits to my site! So I can use this data to fine-tune my message and make it most effective.

Also, according to the developer of VoiceZam, Bob Merkel (who offers FANTASTIC customer service!), his data shows that talent seekers – perhaps simply out of curiosity due to the innovative nature of this media player – will spend much more time listening to ALL the demos on a talent site using VoiceZam than a site which uses traditional media players. This is a great advantage to the talent because it enables me to demonstrate the full range of types of reads that I am competitive in. So if a seeker comes to my site looking for e.g., a warm-authoritative health-care or bank sort of read, they are likely to stick around after finding that particular read and play more clips. Maybe they’ll hear my snarky read, my quirky read, my friendly energetic retail read, and remember it next time they need something like that for another project.

VoiceZam is so useful on so many levels, I think this sort of technology should be used by every VO talent and every talent agency site.  Check it out at http://www.voicezam.com/

Getting More Political Voice Work

With the Citizens United ruling, the floodgates have opened to even more spending on political campaigns. Whether or not this is good news for our democracy… it sure can be good news for voice talent! I did a fair amount of VO for campaigns across the country in the 2010 midterm elections – candidates in MI, CA, OH, SD, OR among others – and my biggest goal for 2012 is to get a lot more of this type of work.

Political voice-over work is a different animal from the usual radio/TV and corporate work that is always available. It is mostly seasonal, happening every two years (except for special elections). Also, I’ve come to realize that political VO work is mostly driven by consultants, rather than by ad agency people. Which is part of the reason political ads are such cookie-cutter affairs. These consultants are mostly based in New York, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. The people who produce political radio and TV spots often require extremely quick turnaround. Something a candidate says in a debate, or a major gaffe on the campaign trail can be turned around into an ad in very short time – strike while the iron is hot!

If a talent wishes to get into this field, the first thing they must decide is: who will I work for? Many (if not most) talent have a mercenary philosophy about it – they’ll work for anyone whose check doesn’t bounce. I don’t mean to disparage that philosophy by terming it “mercenary.” Many people are indifferent, even jaded about politics, and it does not bother them to do work for a candidate that they wouldn’t vote for.

For better and for worse, I’m enough of a political junkie that where a candidate stands on the issues does matter to me. In my personal life, I’ve voted for Democrat, Republican, even a Green Party candidate once (I sure as heck wasn’t going to vote for Illinois Governor Blago, who is now in jail for corruption!). I describe myself as socially liberal and fiscally moderate. I am not a knee-jerk Democrat. However, I’ve decided to limit myself to working only for Democratic candidates.

My reasoning is that I expect that I would find too many spots for Republican candidates objectionable, and that an agency that works for (R) candidates would not be willing to let me “cherry pick” those scripts that I find acceptable. This is not an easy decision. I’ll be passing down opportunities for well-paying jobs. For example, I got a call recently from an agency that works with Republican candidates. I checked out their website and found that they represent Gov. Christie (R-NJ), whom I do like quite a lot (socially moderate, fiscally conservative). But they also represent a lot of far-right politicians that I would not feel comfortable working for. Since I cannot cherry pick, I had to reluctantly turn down their offer to be on their roster of talent.

I am sure that I will come across some ads for Democrats that will make me want to take a long shower after reading for them. I expect that I would have the freedom to turn down *some* of those ads without repercussion, but if I turn down too many, the agency will stop calling on me. But when I consider all the factors that are important to me, while I do have mixed feelings about limiting myself to Democrats, I think it is a very practical strategy for me. I can live with it and still sleep well at night.

Once that decision is out of the way, the next step is to produce a specialized Political VO demo. Relying on one’s Commercial VO demo is probably not good enough. In my case, that meant finding good scripts – including writing my own. I decided to re-record several scripts that I had voiced from 2010, since I’ve upgraded my studio considerably since then. But I also wrote a few of my own scripts. For inspiration, I listened to as many political spots as I could bear (and believe me, there IS a limit!). I looked at a large collection of contemporary spots found on political blogs, plus other talents’ political demos (of course, I did not use their scripts, but I used some as sort of a template for my own version).

There is a fair amount of diversity in the reads, enough to make a :60 demo not sound like the same thing over and over again. There is the “folksy story-telling” style when relating the life story of a candidate. There is the “inspirational” read. The darkly negative read. The sarcastic negative read. Then there are TV spots where the copy speaks for itself so strongly that the narrator really pulls back and lets the words do the work.

So after my research, I gathered enough scripts to record 3 versions: a 60 second generic Political VO demo for may agents, composed of both positive and negative spots, and also versions that are strictly Positive and Negative which will appear on my own website, plus my online profiles for Voice123.com, Voices.com, etc. I little tip: I make the file name for my demo something like “TomTest_DemocraticOnly_7734169374” and I label my demos “Democratic Political VO.” That way I don’t waste anyone’s time, and they can do a word search to find me more easily.

Armin Heirstetter interview, Part 2

Getting More Voice-over Work in Europe: Interview with Armin Hierstetter of Bodalgo.com, Part Two

TT: How can we tailor our demos to suit the needs and tastes of European talent buyers? Most American narration voice-over demos from the major markets (LA/NYC/Chicago) are about 60 seconds, have 4-8 clips of 6-12 seconds length each, usually with sophisticated music tracks and production values. Is this what your talent buyers need and want?

AH: Talking about non-custom demos I have one word for you: KISS. Keep It Short and Simple. In an ideal world you’d have a set of standard demos for different types of jobs, for example: There is one where you cut through some commercials, another one featured narrative stuff, a third one is IVRs/announcements, next in the line is training/elearning and one that combines the other four.

An ideal demo (in my opinion) starts with slating the talent’s name, followed by a voice only clip (no music, sound f/x) blending into produced stuff with music, sound f/x (where appropriate). Length: no longer than 30 to 45 seconds maximum. Why that short? Because: I am a firm believer that a voice seeker decides within seconds whether she/he likes the voice or not. There is no need for long demos as probably nobody will hear them until the end. That’s not because voice seekers don’t appreciate the effort one puts in her/his demo, but simply because it does not take that long to judge whether a voice could be right for a job or not if the demo is produced well.

AH: This one is especially for talents starting their career: NEVER EVER record demos using brand names you have never actually worked for! Apart from the fact that you risk to infringe the rights of others, you also risk to be seen in a negative light to say the least.

TT: I want to address the very important issue of “intellectual property rights” right away. Upon reading your statement about not using brand names and scripts unless the talent has actually performed them, I was struck immediately with the realization that the US has very different accepted business practices from Europe when it comes to using actual commercial scripts that have been broadcast on TV or radio. In our market, we commonly will use scripts on our standard demos for products or companies that we have NOT actually been hired to perform in real life. It is understood by any knowledgeable casting agent or producer here that when they listen to an American demo, the talent has not necessarily performed every clip on their demo in the real world – much of it was “borrowed” and then recorded in a studio. Nor is the talent claiming to have actually performed this work simply by having it on their demo (falsely claiming a credit on a resume or cover letter is a different matter, though). This practice is accepted in every major US market. Yes this is unauthorized usage, but because our demos are not being sold, there is no legal or ethical conflict in our system.

Your standards, if I understand you correctly, are much more strict in this regard, and I am sure that most if not all of your American talent are unaware of this. So what script options do American talents have for their standard demos? Can we write new scripts that have fake company names on them (i.e., “Superior Motors” instead of Volkswagen?). Can I use a portion of an actual script which I did not perform, as long as a company name isn’t mentioned? Or can I only use clips from actual jobs I have been hired to perform?

AH: Regarding demos using real brand names that the talent has not worked for – this is infringing copyright. You can’t go out using the name BMW if you never worked for them. And if talents use those demos to get work they ARE actually using it in a commercial way. But what disturbs me more is the fact that a talent using brand names gives the voice seekers the impression that he already has references he never really had (if you have it in your demo the seeker can’t but think you actually voiced for them). Imagine how YOU would feel as the talent originally in charge of the clip when you hear somebody else performing “your” clip …
(However), I appreciate that America has a different approach on that and won’t ban talents who use this practice (of using scripts they have not actually worked on). The rules indicated will not apply to American talents.

(Also, in a further e-mail exchange Armin said that using fake scripts and brand names was the ideal way to bypass the rights issue. Using a portion of an actual script that doesn’t mention a brand name is still a problem, since it does not address the issue of securing the permission of the owner of the script. Personally, I am going to revise my demos for the European market so that I am only using scripts that I have actually performed in real life. My philosophy is to conform to the standards and expectations of the market I am trying to approach).

AH: And – MOST IMPORTANT AND I CAN NOT STRESS THIS POINT ENOUGH: LISTEN TO YOUR AUDITIONS USING HEADPHONES!!! I know that many people think their auditions sound great, but I listen to many, many, many, many audiitons that are of poorest quality in my opinion. Many talents don’t seem to hear that ALL of their recordings have background hiss. And if you, the reader, now think “he is not talking to me” you are probably wrong. You cannot judge the quality of your demos with normal speakers. You need to put up a decent set of headphones to be absolutely sure about the quality.

Here is a “How to test recordings for dummies” (this works best with a demo with a few seconds of silence before the voice kicks in): Put up headphones. DONT PRESS PLAY YET! Before you play your demo, check if you already hear hiss (depending on the quality of your gear you might hear a bit of hiss – that’s fine because that’s the hiss of your equipment, not of your recording. Then press play and listen closely to your recording BEFORE your voice kicks in. Did the amount of hiss change? Are there any other backgournd noises? If you ticked yes you got a problem. Not an unsolvable one but you need to learn how a noise gate works and maybe invest in better equipment if a gate does not do the trick (and a gate set up wrongly can even worsen your recording – you need to work on your technical skills).

“Modern” voice talents need to be able to cope with two tasks: Apart from keeping your voice in shape, you need to be willing to gain technical skills, too, to be able to live up to client demands.

Getting More Voice-over Work in Europe – interview with Armin Hierstetter, Pt 1

At the recent FaffCon 3 “unconference” (Sept. 23-25 in Hershey, PA), I was spontaneously moved to lead a discussion on “How American Talent Can Find More Work Internationally.” It is not a topic I am an expert on, but there was enough collective wisdom in the room that a great deal of useful information was shared. It became apparent that there are real differences in business customs, etiquette, etc., between the U.S. market and global markets.

Hungry for more information, I realized that the perfect person to give advice on this issue was Armin Hierstetter, owner of bodalgo.com. This is a European P2P online voice over casting site, a counterpart to North American companies such as Voices.com and Voice123.com. And bodalgo carefully screens talent before inviting them to be represented. Armin was very generous with his time to answer my emailed questions, and passed along a great number of insightful and helpful tips, which I’d like to share with you now.

TT: Armin, what sorts of European projects have a need for American-accented voices? Is there much demand for American voices for radio and TV spots? What sorts of industries need American voices for their sales-related scripts? And is there demand for more niche markets such as animation, telephony, live events, kiosks, etc.?

AH: I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding here. US talents tend to think – at least, I feel this is the case – that Eurozone clients don’t want US voices or favor UK voices over US voices. Clearly, this is not the case.

Sure enough, a UK-based client will want a UK voice most of the time. But continental Europe differs from this big time. Clients just want a “native English voice.” Very often they don’t even think about the fact that there are many different ways of English out there. This is where the term “neutral/mid-Atlantic English” comes into play. Wikipedia defines this as “a cultivated or acquired version of the English language that is not a typical idiom of any location. It blends American and British without being predominantly either.”

In other words: You can’t really tell where the talent speaking mid-Atlantic is from. And that’s exactly what somebody wants that needs a voice over made for products with a very wide target group – for example, online videos. The viewers/listeners may come from all around the world, so it’s best to have an English voice that sounds like it could be from anywhere, still native, though.

But like I said earlier, most of the time, voice seekers in Europe don’t care about the nature of the English as long as it’s native. When it comes to TV and/or radio advertising, voice seekers want a voice from the region in which the spot airs, of course. A strictly US business would probably not go for an Aussie talent, nor would the Brits look into a Texas talent most of the time.

TT: In addition to working with bodalgo, how can we connect with the producers who are looking for native American voice talent? Is there some central source to discover European advertising agencies, productions companies, etc? Is it proper to approach such companies without a personal introduction? We call this “cold-calling.”

AH: Regarding lists of agencies, etc., I am not sure whether researching and contacting them will do any good.
Most of the time, agencies don’t even respond – or already have enough talents of your kind. My gut feeling tells me it’d be a waste of time compared to other ways of marketing your voice, including sites like bodalgo. And I would like to take the chance to say “Hello” to the folks at voices.com – keep up the good work.

TT: What about expanding our reach into emerging markets such as Russia, Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, etc.? What sort of opportunities are there?

AH: English is spoken in more countries than any other language, so reaching out to other markets is a good idea in general. And, of course, bodalgo tries its best to open up those markets for our talents to be more successful, in order to be more successful ourselves, sure.

Another way of getting your teeth into those markets could be running campaigns on Google in those regions linking to your services. But that’s a field too wide to open here. Bodalgo will offer tutorials in the very near future that will cover many aspects of the voice over world, one being “how to market yourself as a talent.”

TT: What are the cultural and business etiquette differences that Americans need to be aware of, so as not to offend or disappoint European potential clients? Does your answer change depending on the particular nation in question, or do all these tips generally apply equally well across all European nations?

AH: I wouldn’t think too much about differences, as there is one guideline that is valid no matter where you go: Be friendly, proactive, and good to work with and you will be just fine. No client that you actually want to work with will feel insulted if you begin a letter with “Dear Armin” instead of “Dear Mr. Hierstetter.” To be on the safe side, you might want to use their last name, but I really don’t think that matters in the end.

Far more important: Keep your letter like your demos: Keep it short and simple. Always communicate a unique benefit for the client choosing your voice. This could be your above-the-average studio equipment, your references from clients with same needs, a fast turnaround, or even the fact that you happen to live just around the corner of the client’s offices.

TT:What is the best method for payment for VO services, with the best qualities of reliability, wide acceptance, and low fees?

AH: That’s an easy one: PayPal. Opening an account is free, the transfer of money works fast and flawless, and their fees are highly competitive. I know there are people out there that have no good feeling about PayPal, but for the purpose it has been created, I believe they are the best option by far. I also experienced that more and more voice seekers are willing to pay using PayPal.

TT: What is the best way to connect with clients who wish to direct me while recording? ISDN? Skype? Source Connect or Audio TX?

AH: In Europe, SourceConnect is rather unknown. They use ISDN codecs over here, with Maya/APTX leading the charts. I am not sure whether those ISDN codecs are compatible, and to be honest, I don’t care, because the absolute majority of clients don’t have ISDN themselves as they are simply mid-sized companies looking for a voice and not studios. So the good old telephone or Skype would be the normal option if the client wants to follow the recording. And that’s hardly the case at all.

Still, having a practical solution to have telephone and/or Skype to be integrated in your recording setup is a nice add-on, but not a must in my opinion.

TT: How can we tailor our demos to suit the needs and tastes of European talent buyers? Most American narration voice over demos from the major markets (LA/NYC/Chicago) are about 60 seconds, have 4-8 clips of 6-12 seconds length each, usually with sophisticated music tracks and production values. Is this what your talent buyers need and want?

AH: Talking about non-custom demos, I have one word for you: KISS. Keep It Short and Simple. In an ideal world, you’d have a set of standard demos for different types of jobs. For example, there is one where you cut through some commercials, another one features narrative stuff, a third one is IVRs/announcements.

Next in the line is training/e-learning and one that combines the other four.

An ideal demo, in my opinion, starts with slating the talent’s name, followed by a voice only clip – no music, sound f/x – blending into produced stuff with music, sound f/x where appropriate.

Length: no longer than 30 to 45 seconds maximum.

Why that short? Because I am a firm believer that a voice seeker decides within seconds whether she/he likes the voice or not. There is no need for long demos, as probably nobody will hear them until the end. That’s not because voice seekers don’t appreciate the effort one puts in her/his demo, but simply because it does not take that long to judge whether a voice could be right for a job or not if the demo is produced well.

******
See Part 2: Standards more strict for copyrighted material on demos; audition recording quality must be top notch.

FaffCon 3: the Voice-Over “Un-Conference”

This weekend, I attended the voice-over “unconference,” FaffCon 3 in Harrisburg, PA, along with 100 other professional voice talents from the US and Canada, plus Scotland, Tokyo, and Australia. Now, if you look at the dates of my blog posts you will notice that I haven’t posted since April. Honestly I have been very busy with work (I’m not complaining). FaffCon 3 was just what I needed to get myself “unstuck.” It was THE best thing I have done to improve my business in years.

An “unconference” is a relatively new concept. Rather than having paid guest speakers (who usually have a book and DVD set to hawk…), this was “By the Talent, For the Talent.” Anyone could sign up to lead a breakout session on the topic of their choice, even if they were not an expert on it. So some sessions, for example “Branding and Marketing” were led by a VO marketing genius like Doug Turkel (“The Unnouncer”), others were led by someone who was simply willing to lead the conversation. This was a very talented, generous, and intelligent group of voice talent who were able to check their egos at the door, and the result was a veritable treasure trove of knowledge that was shared freely by all. I am leaving FaffCon 3 with page after page of “Golden Nuggets,” tidbits of advice that will help improve my business and performance TOMORROW!

So many nuggets – SoundCloud, QR (Quick Response) Codes, how to optimize my efforts on LinkedIn, the best place to buy promotional pens, IABC, SBA, Action Plans, my Mission Statement – I’m still sorting through all of my chicken-scratched notes!

I decided to take the plunge and stepped forward myself and agreed to lead a discussion about how American voice talent can get more work internationally. The collective wisdom of the 20 or so talent who participated was eye-opening. I was left with many unanswered questions (such as “do we need to re-tool our American-style VO demos to suit the needs and tastes of international clients? And if so, how?”). I hope to find a lot of answers to those questions by approaching international agents and producers, and I will share my findings here and with other blogs and VO-related websites.

Near the end of the day on Sunday, I was asked my thoughts about the weekend as an audience member on the live “East-West Audio Body Shop” filmed by Dan Lenard and George Whittam. I pondered why some very talented people never make it in the voice-over world, while a fortunate handful of other do? For me, the key was NOT trying to do it all myself. I scuffled along the first 5 years of my voice career until I began working out with other talent through regular practice groups that I took the initiative to organize. The skills I learned from several years of these groups, along with the advice, feedback, emotional support, and accountability partnering is what made all the difference for me. FaffCon is a natural extension of that philosophy.

Visit faffcon.com/ for more information. FaffCon 4 is coming March 22-24, 2012, in Ventura Beach, California. If you are a professional voice talent who wishes to improve your business and connect with a wonderful community of fellow talent, do whatever it takes to get there.

Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt

Part of the stereotype of the actor is that they tend to have fragile egos. I like to think that I have a healthier ego than that stereotype, as a result of being a pretty secure person who is well-loved by his family and friends. Yeah, if you saw my collection of 750+ airplane models, you might conclude a mild case of OCD – and I wouldn’t argue – but I’m not a neurotic, narcissistic drama queen either. So I surprised myself when I recently had my own mini-crisis of fear and doubt.

It happened last week, when I started recording VO tracks for my new narrations demo. This major project is the last duck I need to get in a row before I can really begin my next big marketing push of contacting both out-of-state and international talent buyers. So there is a lot at stake here for my career. A LOT.

Well, the results of my recording session that first day left me very disappointed. When I listened back to my tracks, nothing was bad by any means, but there was certainly no spark at all. I knew exactly what was happening: I was having feelings of fear and doubt, and those feelings had crept into my performance. And that is how performance works – whatever is true inside of you emotionally will come through in your read. No matter how good your voice quality is, you cannot fake this – it must be dealt with for anything “magic” to happen.

I actually had the thought, “maybe I’m a hack! Maybe I’m really not that good,” which is not the sort of feelings I have on a regular basis. I was feeling the pressure of my expectations, big-time. It was not just a lack of confidence behind the mic, it was my fear of rejection which certainly lies ahead of me as I try to build relationships with new people who can hire me as a talent. It’s not fun to make cold calls, to get “thanks, but no thanks” replies – even IF the people I approach bother to reply (typically in my business, it is acceptable for them NOT to reply at all, as they are inundated with pitches from talent). I hate to admit it, but that prospect is scary to me, and it is one of the factors explaining why it took so long for me to get started on re-inventing myself.

I’m hoping you have read this far, because now I’m going to tell you how I got myself out of this rut. My techniques should apply to people who are not performers, too. I think my plan will help anybody who finds themselves in a crisis of confidence.

The first thing I did was to PREPARE myself better. I got a good night’s sleep. After I showered, I used my Neti Pot to clear out my sinuses (works like a charm, and really improves the resonance in my voice). Then, I spent less than 10 minutes doing some Chi-Kung moves. Chi Kung is a form of Tai Chi, and it has an amazing ability to calm me and help me feel grounded and present. Then I did a few Yoga stretches a friend had taught me that helped to loosen up my chest muscles – which also helps make my voice more resonant. So physically, I was now well prepared.

Next, I prepared myself emotionally. To drown out that old tape of “you’re not good enough,” I thought of times in my career when I was well praised for my performance. I thought of the time early in my career when a studio owner said “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and you are one of the top three I have EVER worked with. And I have worked with a lot of ‘heavy hitters’ in the biz.” I remembered more such feedback, ending with a session I had just THREE DAYS AGO (!) when I was in a session at the top studio in Chicago with a roomful of young creatives who weren’t all on the same page direction-wise. At one point, after proving myself a VO Gumby by taking all of their conflicting directions, the lead producer opened up his mic and said, “were all just shaking our heads in here at just how damn good you are at this.” As I remembered each of these very positive events, I could feel my doubt fading away. And then it was gone.

The last thing I did was a technique that is specific to VO, though it would also work for any public speaking. It’s a simple technique that I was taught by my voice-over guru, Marice Tobias. Basically, I read each sentence in a script as it is written, then I put it in my own words and paraphrase it out loud. I’ll go deeper in to the meaning by explaining in greater detail every claim I am making (even if I have to make the details up). This technique is a terrific way to “sell myself” on the ideas in the script, and to communicate with meaning and intention – which a whole other level above merely “reading with words in a pleasant voice.” This strategy always works like a charm, and if you could hear the “before” and “after” of doing this technique, you might be amazed at what a difference it makes. I repeated this before I began reading each new script.

The end result of my second session, after all this preparation, was simply wonderful. It felt totally “on,” and every script I recorded was just terrific! I felt that was actually performing up to my full potential. The contrast to the tracks I recorded the day before, when I was in self-doubt mode, was stunning.

So if you ever find yourself in a state of fear and self-doubt, know that you CAN get yourself out of it! I hope you will find some of these techniques useful in doing so. Thanks for listening!

Recording VO while on “vacation”

Last month I took a much-needed out-of-state family vacation. My wife also freelances, so we don’t get paid vacations, and it’s very difficult to take time off. And of course, whenever I do go away, I miss out on the jobs I would have had the week that I am gone – AND – I can’t audition while I’m away, so things are slow the week after I return. It’s a Double Whammy.

Or… it *used* to be. You see, with the advent of excellent quality portable gear, I can now take my studio on the road with me. I use a little 10-inch screen Acer netbook (don’t need much processing power for audio editing), a MicPort Pro (a tiny little USB preamp and analog/digital converter), and an AT2050 mic with a desktop stand. The whole package cost only about $450.

While I was vacationing in Palm Desert, CA with my family, I had a request from a regular client to record an 8 minute script. I was a bit nervous about this request. I had only expected to record auditions with my travel gear, not actual sessions. I wasn’t sure my audio quality would be good enough, so before I accepted the job, I sent them a sample that I recorded on-site. Happily, the client was satisfied with the results (it helps that the video I was narrating would most likely be listened to through crappy laptop or PC speakers).

I got the gig! I arranged heavy quilts in the walk-in closet of our condo bedroom, which did a great job of treating the room. I didn’t have a desk or a copy stand, which did make things tricky. I had to balance my netbook and mic on a pile of folded blankets and quilts, which was a bit unstable. It wasn’t high enough, so I had to sit uncomfortably with my head hunched over. But it only took about 20 minutes to do, so I could bear it. Another factor that made it bearable was the unexpected additional income while on “vacation,” that was enough to pay for a romantic dinner and evening at a resort with my wife!

So it was a success – it didn’t sound anywhere near as good as the audio quality of my home studio of course, but it was “good enough” for the end user’s needs. I’m happy about making the money, but I’m not happy about the intrusion to my vacation. I guess the trade-off of the portable studio rig is that I may never really be on vacation again, which makes me sad since my vacation time is so fleeting and precious as it is. Unless I go back to the mountains of Oregon, strap on a backpack and go deep in the woods – yeah, THAT’S the ticket!

Working on Long-Form Narration Projects

I’ve been extremely busy lately, working on three large long-form narration projects. One is Project Management training for a large construction firm, another is materials to help prepare students for college and their post-graduation job search, and the newest project is narrating World Book Encyclopedia materials for web use.

One of the cool things about doing narration projects like these is how much I learn about a huge variety of industries and occupations.  I’ve learned a lot about ladder safety, accounting, how large contractors do business, even how to spot all types of insurance fraud.  After doing this for 20 years, I’d be a kick-ass contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire!”

With long-form narration, of course consistency in energy and clarity of read are both important, but bottom line: efficiency is the key. Companies won’t directly make money off of training, though in the long-run, superior training will improve productivity and improve worker safety, among other benefits. But unfortunately, training materials are considered a “cost” rather than an “investment” by many companies, so budgets are tight on most of these projects. So this means that a voice talent who can work very efficiently will make the producers who hire them very happy clients!

Part of what I mean by the term “efficiency,” is that the voice talent will make relatively few flubs while reading. But it also means that the read will be right the first time as much as possible, in terms of inflections and highlighting the appropriate phrases. One strategy that helps is to have my eyes and brain be several words ahead of my mouth. Reading forward like this enables my brain to have an extra split second to see where the sentence is going and decide how to read it before my mouth actually does the talking. This will minimize re-reads and save much time.

Also, my experience as an audio engineer on projects I record from my own studio have helped me to discover little tricks I can do to make editing out flubs, breaths, etc. much easier and quicker. For example, if I make a flub in mid-sentence, I will take a deep breath then pause several seconds before I start again. When I go back to edit the audio file, I can look at the waveforms and determine by sight exactly where I’ve made flubs (otherwise, I’d have to listen to the whole thing to find flubs, which takes much more time). I’m going to listen to the entire file after editing anyhow for a final check, but I’d rather listen to the entire thing once rather than twice!

This engineering experience has made me very popular with producers who have long-form narration clients, including work I voice outside of my own studio. The less time I make them spend in their studio cleaning up my reads, the lower their costs and the better their profit on the project. So every little thing I can do to speed things up while maintaining quality will be of enormous help in making the project profitable for my client. If I’m paid by the hour, in the short run it means I’ll make less money by being more efficient, but that’s okay – if I can help my clients’ bottom lines, they will call me back again and again. And they do!

My Strategy for My New Commercial VO Demo

My latest news is that I am currently in the midst of a fair amount of angst over the production of my newest voice-over demo, the first one I have hired an outside producer to engineer in over a decade.  There is a great deal of controversy on my favorite voice-over forum, www.vo-bb.com, over how quickly the first draft of my new demo is edited.  I have 14 clips in 60 seconds, which is a lot!  Most contemporary demos have from 8-12 clips in that time frame.

The central issue in the debate, as I see it, is “how will this demo be listened to?”  My fellow voice actors feel the individual clips are far too short to get a sense of a complete performance or even a complete thought.  However, my take is that actors are listening primarily to hear the enjoyment of the performance – which is a different goal than that of the casting directors, talent agents, and producers my demo is aimed at (the people who can actually hire me).  They are looking to find the right voice for a project, and to do it quickly.

My belief, reinforced by my demo producer as well as what I recall being advised by Marice Tobias many years ago, is that the folks who are listening with an eye towards casting listen to so many demos – week in and week out – that they “get” what it is I am trying to demonstrate in each clip very quickly.  Once the “get it,” they want to move on.  If the clips go on for too long, they may begin to advance the demo to skip ahead.  Editing a demo with many short clips may encourage this type of listener to actually take in the entire demo without fast-forwarding.  If this strategy of quick, short clips succeeds, it will be more effective at representing what I can do than a demo with fewer, longer clips.  I think my fellow actors who are advising me to lengthen my clips are finding it hard to stand in the shoes of people who listen to demos by the hundreds.  It is tough to ignore the advice of the fellow talent on this forum whom I respect so much.  But they can’t hire me.

There are a few lessons one can take from this experience.  First, make your voice-over demo to please the people who can actually hire you.  And keep in mind that what THEY like may not be exactly what YOU like to hear!  I actually agree with my fellow actors in that, personally, I also prefer listening to a demo with fewer, longer clips – but sadly, I cannot cast myself.  Second, there is no one strategy for making a demo that will make everyone happy.  Evaluating a voice-over demo is a very subjective process.  I’m sure I’ll also find casting directors, talent agents and producers who will prefer longer clips vs quick edits. I cannot make everyone happy, nor should I try.

Which brings up another point – is it better to make a demo that the majority of people like a lot, or is it better to make a demo that a minority of people really LOVE?  I am reminded of the challenge of automotive stylists.  They can pursue a styling strategy similar to Toyota’s, which is to make a design that the masses will like (or at least, not hate), versus the strategy of the stylists who designed, say, the Kia Soul cube car”.  It looks like a funky clown car to my generation, but the younger generation loves it!

I’ve got to find my personal niches in the marketplace, represent the types of reads I can do as a talent really, really well on my demo, and then “market the hell out of it.” I’d rather be loved by a few than liked by many.  The voice-over business is too competitive, and being “liked” isn’t good enough.