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Yin and Yang of Voice Overs:
Coping With Contrary Forces

By Paul Strikwerda
Voice Actor
Some psychologists say that the fact that we humans are able to hold two diametrically opposed ideas in our mind at the same time, is a true sign of intelligence.
Part of me wants to believe that this is indeed correct.
The other part thinks it’s utter hogwash. Does this theory imply that we have to develop a split personality in order to be perspicacious?
Well, I’m more than torn about that, too.
On one hand it seems kind of dim to define intelligence in such a limited way. On the other hand, aren’t most eternal truths simple and succinct in nature?
I recently celebrated the official launch of my company, Nethervoice, one year ago.
To mark the moment, I started to reflect on the dichotomies of freelance life. I make a living as a full-time voice over professional.
Day in day out, we’re dealing with seemingly contrary forces that are interconnected and interdependent, that - somehow - give rise to each other.
Taoists already know what I’m talking about: the ancient concept of Yin and Yang.
Here are examples of concepts that seem mutually exclusive or at least contradictory ...

Marketing gurus tell us that you can’t be a Jack of all trades.
Don’t do what everybody else does. Find your niche. Create, don’t imitate. Lead, don’t follow. Distinguish yourself.
Here’s the problem:
By narrowing your niche, you could be narrowing your market, and you run the risk of becoming a one-dimensional, one-trick pony.
However, if you don’t differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack, you could become a dime a dozen.
Why should a client hire Mr. or Mrs. More of the Same?
This is your challenge: you have to find your own voice and be flexible. Great inventors come up with a product that:
  • solves a common problem,
  • is totally unique, and
  • appeals to a wide audience

Most people embrace the the familiar and fear the unknown.
But if you wish to grow on a personal and professional level, you must step into unchartered territory and invite the unpredictable.
During one of my voice over coaching sessions, I asked a rather stuck-up student to read part of the Declaration of Independence … in a pirate voice.
I ran into resistance from the get-go.
I can’t do a pirate voice,” he said emphatically.
“Why not?” I asked.
“First off, it’s disrespectful. Secondly, I’m not going to make a fool of myself,” he replied.
I said: “You want to be a voice over actor, don’t you? Actors have the ultimate excuse to be ridiculous. How are you ever going to expand your range, if you’re not willing to try something new? Were you one of those kids that only ate Mac & Cheese?”
Well, I didn’t really say that last thing, but it crossed my mind.
Reluctantly, my student became Bad-Rum Ronny and started:
“Arrrr … When, in the course of human events…”
And just as he was getting more comfortable with his new found identity, I said: “That was fantastic! Now, please take it from the beginning, but this time, I want you to be a female pirate. Pretend you’re Johnny Depp’s big sister…”
My student looked at me as if I had lost my sanity.
“You’re really pushing the envelope,” he said.
“Oh, come on,” I pleaded. “The Founding Mothers would be so proud of you. And if you do it, I promise to write about it in my blog.”
That apparently worked, because this time he sounded more like Geena Davis in Cutthroat Island.
“Wow,” he said. “I never knew I had that in me. That’s kind-of scary.”
Some people avoid taking risks because they’re afraid of what the world might think of them.
But playing it safe won’t get you very far.
One day, you’ll have a client that will ask you to do something you’ve never done before. Something that might scare the living daylights out of you.
Do it anyway. You have to be comfortable with who you are, in order to allow yourself to break out of your comfort zone.
In other words: be comfortable being uncomfortable. It means you’re growing!”

As a professional performer, this is another oxymoron you have to live with. You have to learn how to be natural in unnatural situations.
It comes in different variations:
  • Act, but don’t make it look like you’re acting.
  • Read, but don’t sound like you’re reading.
  • Pretend not to pretend.
  • Deliver a meticulously prepared and polished performance that seems spontaneous.
  • Give it your all, but make it seem effortless.
  • Don’t try it. Just do it.
  • Be yourself.
It’s great advice, but nobody ever tells you how to get there, right?
It all goes back to the Four Stages of Learning, a theory posited by psychologist Abraham Maslow.
He coined four psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill:
  • Unconsciously incompetent: you’re not aware that you can’t do something
  • Consciously incompetent: you know that you are incompetent at something
  • Consciously competent: you’re developing the skill, but you constantly have to think about what you’re doing
  • Unconsciously competent: you’ve become so good at it, that it has become second nature
All of us go through these phases when we’re learning how to drive, how to type and how to walk.
Only when we’ve reached the level of unconscious competence are we able to Act Natural.
In a world that revolves around instant gratification, quick fixes, easy answers and immediate results, this is a very unpopular 4-step process.
We want it all and we want it now! Why is it so hard to find gratification in delayed gratification?

Do the following scenarios ring a bell?
  • You’re trying to break into the business, but you don’t want to come across as an absolute beginner.
  • You have years of experience, but you don’t want them to think of you as yesterday’s news.
It’s an impossible situation, isn’t it? Here are a few more stereotypes:
  • Veterans are old school and too expensive.
  • Rookies are wild cards and need a lot of hand-holding.
  • Veterans are rigid, arrogant and demanding.
  • Newbies are unpredictable and have yet to hone their skills.
This black-and-white thinking is nothing but a distortion of reality.
Do not fall for these false dilemmas. Challenge them instead.
You might have years of experience, but does that mean that you have lost your Mojo? Is a beginner by definition always new, fresh and exciting, or is he just a copycat? Are clients paying more because your rate is higher, or is it more expensive to hire an amateur?

As a voice actor, you have to be able to deal with two diametrically different ideas at the same time.
Don’t worry. You’re intelligent. You can handle it!
Let me leave you with some more freelance Yin and Yang:
  • Have a strong backbone, but dare to be vulnerable.
  • Be personable and keep things strictly business.
Paul Strikwerda is a 25-year veteran of the voice-over industry whose Nethervoice service features German and Dutch voice-overs, translation and evaluation services. Born in Holland, he has worked for Dutch national and international radio, the BBC and American Public Radio. Although 90% of his work is in English, Strikwerda also records in Dutch, German and French. Clients include Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, and the Discovery Channel. He also publishes an informative and entertaining blog, Double Dutch.


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Comments (8)
BP Smyth, Narrator
8/5/2010 at 9:48 AM

Yes, Claire is absolutely correct in her assessment. Being a V.O. talent isn't easy and takes constant attention to practice and marketing. It takes, usually, several years to attain some sort of recognition. When one is labeled in a positive way, such as what one of my clients wrote about me - "the Norman Rockwell of Narrators" - market it. Like all artists, whether by voice or paint, we need all the positive help we can get.

V.O. is a tough business, though pleasurable when one gets a gig. Again, thanks for sharing your professional opinions, they help us.
Randye Kaye
7/31/2010 at 8:26 AM
Hey, Paul -

Wonderful article! I'm proud to be in the same VoiceoverXtra issue as you! Now I can tweet about both of our contributions.

At the last "Investigate Voice-over" class I ran, one student asked, "Tell me what's good about this business?" Great question.

A huge part of my answer was that the VO Community is unlike almost any other: giving, caring, always willing to help the newbies and share valuable info, experience, tips and stories. There is so much wisdom and wit available on the net, for free.

The business is fun (ok, except maybe for some of the marketing) - and friendly. Your article, for instance - golden!

Thanks for a great - and true - read

Randye Kaye, fellow VO Talent/Coach
Paul Strikwerda
7/30/2010 at 1:24 PM
B.P., rumor has it that you're the 'Norman Rockwell of Narrators'. That's why you might like what bi-lingual voice-over Claire Dodin had to say, when I interviewed her this week for Internet Voice Coach.

I asked her: What do you tell people who think that voice-over work is easy money, and that basically anyone with a good voice could do this?

This is what she said:

"Voice-over acting is an art and the voice is the tool. You might have a fabulous canvas, great paints and a brush, but how easy is it to paint something that will sell for a few hundreds or thousands of dollars and be exhibited in a museum? Hmmm… But if you work hard, learn skills and have talent, maybe you’ll make a living as a painter. Same thing for voice-overs. And a few gifted ones will make it to the top."

Dennis: it takes one to know one! You're as Goode as it gets!

Darla: welcome to our wonderful and wacky profession! Diction is important for any vo-pro. Contradiction is what makes life interesting. It's undeniable. I am blessed to do what I love and to love what I do. That's a benediction.

Linda: some say that not taking risks is a risky business. Any great narrator can make time stand still, drawing the listener in to a new and different reality.

Herb: Congrats on your History Channel job. It's a historic achievement! Glad I could make some sense out of the nonsensical things that are part of being in this business! Your musings are always amusing!
BP Smyth, Narrator
7/28/2010 at 11:06 PM
Paul, you give some great insight into this fickle business of voice-over. The bottom line is that it's all about "opinion". People have different tastes when it comes to artistic "stuff". And, we in this business are artists, using our voices as the paint brush and paint. Some are going to like what we paint, and some are not. We can't possibly please everyone. So, I would say brand yourself honestly and let the chips fall where they may.
DC Goode
7/28/2010 at 5:15 PM
Genius Paul. Pure, concise genius.
Darla Middlebrook
7/28/2010 at 10:57 AM
Boy, does this article "speak" to those of us who are just starting out. Or at least it speaks to me. There are some days when I think that this new career is just chuck full of contradictary advice (instructions, statements). Thanks for putting this in writing, Paul.
Linda Ristig
7/28/2010 at 10:07 AM
Loved the article, Paul. Who knows what any of us can accomplish unless we are open to new challenges, summon our inner strength, accept the risk, and just go for it in the world of VO? The beauty of this career is that any age can reach the unconsciously competent level. Isn't that a lovely thing to know?
Herb Merriweather
7/27/2010 at 4:59 PM
Great stuff, Paul ... It's veterans like you who help make sense out of this crazy, wonderful business of voice over. Thanks for your insight.
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