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CAREER
Experiences Of A Full-Time Voice Actress:
'Living My Dream ... And Years Of Hard Work'

By Debbie Irwin
Voice Actress

It seems like the whole world wants to "do voice over." 

When people find out that I actually make a living doing voice overs, they inevitably say,

"My friends tell me I have a great voice and I should become a voice over artist. Can you tell me how to get into the business?"

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I could retire - but I wouldn't because I love my work. So - what's it like to be a full-time voice over actress? 

Let me share some recent experiences. 

IT HAPPENED ONE SUNDAY

It was a Sunday afternoon this past May. I was out of town in DC at my son's college graduation and my cell phone rang. 

A guy I worked with four years ago was calling. We hadn't been in touch other than the occasional Facebook comment. 

As we spoke he mentioned that he had a Debbie Irwin Voiceovers pen in his hand - a "happy-happy" I gave him as a thanks-for-hiring me-please-don't forget-me branded gift. Clearly the marketing worked, even years later.

HELP WANTED

He was producing the FiFi Awards ceremony - the Oscars of the International Fragrance Industry. Ok! I was needed for a "live announce" job. That's where you're announcing at a live event (broadcast or not), rather than prerecording the audio for a commercial, audiobook, etc. in a studio.

In the voice over industry, there are few opportunities to get your face out there. I always jump at the chance to be in-person and to meet clients - and potential clients - face-to-face. After all, my voice is only one aspect of my business. 

What I offer a client is an upbeat solution. 

SERVICES WITH A SMILE

I provide the voice - for narrations, commercials, medical animations, explainer videos, phone messaging, etc. - but equally important is my interpretation of their script, my ability to wrap my mouth around complicated multi-syllabic terms and make them roll off the tongue, my ability to edit and deliver files with ease and, of course, my flexibility and enthusiasm toward the inevitable last-minute changes - all with a smile.

There was a flurry of emails, and finally the decision was made to prerecord the "live" announcements, which I would do as soon as I arrived home after the five-hour drive back to New York City. 

I began recording in my studio at 9 p.m. and sent them fully edited audio files by 11 p.m. They also wanted me at the show the next evening, in case there were changes that needed to be announced, which would have to be done live. 

My task was to introduce the presenters: Jane Lynch (the host and known by many as Sue Sylvester from Glee) Chaka Kahn, Nicole Richie, Martha Stewart, Mariska Hargitay, (Olivia Benson from Law & Order), and Tyson Chandler of the New York Knicks, among others. 

AND THE WINNER IS ...

The presenters then introduced the nominees in each category and announced the winners. (Justin Bieber won the celebrity scent for 2012.) 

The event was awesome - Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center - the red carpet crowd was über glamorous and I was quickly ushered up to the projectionist's booth, where a flurry of tech activity was happening in preparation for the show. 

Turns out, there was a change to the script, so in addition to having to announce many times, "Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats. The show is about to begin!" I also had to introduce Martha Stewart when the time came.

OVERCOMING TECHNICAL ISSUES

There were some technical issues. The computer, which ran the videos highlighting the nominees, crashed, requiring the presenters to ad-lib for what felt like an eternity, and there was ear-piercing feedback from the microphone before one of my announcements unfortunately, but that's the nature of live entertainment. 

Nevertheless, the show was beautifully executed. Plus, I met some awesome production people from SenovvA, and attended a fun after-party, too. 

Through the exchange of business cards, I quietly spread the name "Debbie Irwin Voiceovers," facilitating the possibility of future work. You can never have too many contacts.

FLASHBACK TO APRIL

Flashback to April 1, 2012 at 6:30 a.m. My phone rang.

It was way too early for me to get up since I'd been working until 1 a.m. on administrative tasks, and although I heard the phone, I rolled over and went back to sleep. 

7:30 a.m. My phone rang again.

This time I fumbled to see the caller ID. Couldn't identify it, as it was just a long string of numbers - no dashes or parenthesis to indicate an area code. Could have been a foreign number or a hoax. 

Tried to get back to sleep, unsuccessfully. I wondered who wanted to talk to me.

8 a.m. The phone rang a third time.

There was a message. A deep, accented voice indicated that he was someone in Kuwait that I had auditioned for. He wanted to hire me for a corporate narration. Cool, I thought, I get to put another pin in my world map.

Out of bed and off to my computer I went. 

ORGANIZE YOUR CONTACTS

With a database of over 700 business contacts and thousands of audio files - it's critically important to be a vigilant record-keeper. 

Between auditions, proposals, projects and day-to-day correspondence, it can be easy to lose track of details that might make or break a booking. Staying organized can be excruciating at times, but with the help of software programs like Batchbook and Freshbooks - and my part-time assistant - I've been able to manage my data, although admittedly it's a whole lot of work.

FIND THE RIGHT FILE

So when this call came in, I was prepared to search my archives for the exact audio file I had sent, the note I had included with my audition, and the project details he had provided way back when. 

Staying one step ahead of my business interactions is always important, firstly because being more informed facilitates a smoother conversation, but more importantly because everybody likes to be remembered.

The phone rang a fourth time, and having had a half-cup of coffee and gotten the sleep out of my eyes, I was now prepared to greet him properly.

We chatted and quickly began the discussion of details, the talking of terms, the dance of dollars. 

IT'S DUE TODAY

He was producing an internal marketing video for his client and they wanted the voice over to sound "professional / corporate  /warm / intelligent," and they needed it delivered ASAP - same day kind of ASAP. This meant rearranging other projects in order to accommodate their request. 

New client or old client, naturally you want to do all that you can.

We agreed to terms and I began work on the project, providing multiple recordings with different versions of the copy (the script), changing the tone and tempo to give the client options to work with. 

Mr. Kuwait loved the recording. But we had to wait for final approval from his client. 

No go. The client now wanted a "brighter / peppier / more enthusiastic" read - directions that would have been helpful to get before I began recording. 

READ IT THIS WAY

To communicate what they meant, they sent me a sped-up version of the audio I sent them. Imagine the sound of a recording being sped-up-to-the-point-of-high-pitched-unintelligible-cartoon-voices fast. 

That was a new one to me (getting direction in that format), but I told them I understood perfectly what they were after! After I sent the new recording, the client was happy and the project was a wrap.

Do I mind being a disembodied voice most of the time? Not at all. The job, which is voice acting, allows me to perform and that's my passion. 

IT'S NOT EASY

Is the work hard? It's "simple but it's not easy," to quote a colleague and awesome talent, J.S. Gilbert. So many skills go into being a successful "VO" talent. 

You have to be able to act, be a strong cold reader (reading aloud fluidly that which you've never seen before), interpret text, take direction well, understand how to "work the mic," understand proper breathing and timing, just to name a few. 

These days, many voice over artists have their own studio, which means they have to edit all the audio they're creating, which is a huge job unto itself. 

Outside of the recording booth, you're running a business, like any other solopreneur. You've got to handle sales, marketing, client relationships, your website, social media, analytics, billing, accounting, etc. 

I'm reminded of the years I spent as a stock broker on Wall Street. Young brokers had the impression that it was a job where you could get rich quick. Sadly, it wasn't true then and it's not true now. 

Ironically, my work as a broker - building a business and a strong client base of people who know me, trust me and like working with me - prepared me well for my voice over career. 

FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS

Nevertheless, so many people toy with the idea of "doing voice overs." I fully support anyone following their dreams - Lord knows, I'm living mine. I just didn't know it was going to look like this. 

But as with any dream, the only way to make it a reality is through hours, days, weeks, months and years, yes years, of hard work. Perhaps it does seem easy to the outside world - all we're doing is talking and that's what we all do anyway, right? 

Yes and no. 

Are you fortunate enough to love your work? Please share your story!

ABOUT DEBBIE ...

Debbie Irwin got her start in voice overs nearly a decade ago when she found a new outlet for an old passion: acting. She took her stage skills and transformed them into studio skills. Today her work encompasses commercials, eLearning, corporate videos, Internet audio, audiobooks, audio tours, medical narrations, product demos, video game narrations and telephone messaging - sometimes in Spanish and Italian. She has traveled the world from her recording booth in NYC, voicing projects for major corporations and organizations. She is also the voice of the Statue Of Liberty, and voiced the Telly Award-winning video for the Orange County Performing Arts Center (OCPAC), now called The Segerstrom Center for the Arts. She’s worked on Wall Street, at the Guggenheim Museum and has raised three kids with her husband in NYC.

Email: Debbie@DebbieIrwin.com
Web: www.DebbieIrwin.com

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Comments (7)
Rudy Gaskins
7/23/2012 at 11:54 AM
For anyone thinking about starting a voice acting career, Debbie's story is one more great example of what it can look like to get up and running, not to mention the ongoing twists and turns as you work to get to the point of being a "working" actor.

As one who knows Debbie personally, I would add that few people bring the drive and dedication she brings to the table. It's not that people don't have it, but they don't "bring it." They often caught off guard to discover that a career in voiceover, as with any career, will require hard work, focus, training, practice and then more hard work. Debbie, because she has a realistic point of view and and the chutzpah to put herself out there in the world, can expect to see her career grow an many ways over time.

Rudy Gaskins
Chief Creative Office of Push Creative
Co-founder of www.ThatsVoiceover.com
Alex Rain
7/17/2012 at 6:39 PM
Excellent article, Debbie. Reminds me of something I told a friend of mine about what I do: The cool thing is that I don't have set hours I have to work. The bad thing about it is that I don't have set hours. You always have to be ready to roll. Thanks for posting!
Barbara Logan
7/14/2012 at 2:53 PM
So inspiring, Debbie, thank you!
Bill Anciaux
7/14/2012 at 7:50 AM
Thank you for sharing your story and taking the time to write such an inspiring and honest article. Anyone considering a career in VO should start right here!
Jane Ingalls
7/13/2012 at 11:18 AM
Thanks for the glimpse into your successful work life, Debbie! It always helps to read about how to handle things with grace.

Definition:
VO: 1.Versatile and Organized; 2.Debbie Irwin.
Paul Strikwerda
7/13/2012 at 8:38 AM
This is one of the best voice-over stories I have read in a long time. It's great to be able to step outside of the study every once in a while and do live announcing. It's a very different energy and I'm sure you lived unto the challenge.

Thank you for emphasizing the business aspect of what we're doing. I've seen great voices going broke because they treated their profession as a hobby. I've seen not-so-great voices do very well because they treated it as a business.

For you, Debbie, I see a whole new career: writer.
Dawn Harvey
7/12/2012 at 11:16 PM
Great article Deb. Thanks for sharing!
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