Too Long, Didn’t Read

In the spirit of Random Act of Kindness Week, I have made this week’s entry very voice-over business-specific. This will hopefully serve as solid productive advice for anyone getting started, or considering getting started, in the business as well as shine a light on both the perks and the challenges that things like the internet and social media bring to our industry.

As I was going through various levels of corporate training in my early 20’s, one of the most enforced and drilled-down concepts of the curriculum was the act of utilizing one’s available resources first, before asking your coworkers or manager for help and answers.

This means that one would be required to do, and responsible for doing, their own research and seeking the available answers somewhere already within the company’s extensive database. There were already tons of documents, quick reference guides, frequently asked question pages, tutorials, and explainer videos pretty much everywhere and covered pretty much everything.

If you had a question, odds were that the answer could be found. At most, the answer you find would guide you to an ultimately more specific but different question than the one which started you on this path. And that secondary or tertiary question would be the acceptable one to ask.

For anyone who has worked in a corporate function anytime in the past 10 years or so, you already know that it isn’t like that anymore. Documents and materials aren’t quite written that way anymore as much as they used to be. That is mainly because the audience is simply not doing the reading anymore.

My last corporate job started out as the former but evolved into the latter over the years as the average employee age began to drop. The younger crew brought with them, it seems, this new doctrine of instant gratification and immediate return. At least when it comes to seeking info, anyway.

Research, note-taking, asking preliminary and secondary follow-up questions – all gone. Even the emails I was responsible for sending to the end-user as a reply to their inquiry had to be groomed and shortened because there were too many words. Literally, that was the reason I was given. It was “too long, they won’t read it”.

Attention spans plummeted and the desire to seek knowledge went extinct along with it. Seekers want their info delivered right to them, already organized and outlined, so they can skim and move on.

This much is evident online in focused groups and social media communities as well. I am a member of no small amount of said groups. On a near-daily basis, I’ll see an inquiry posted in one of the social media groups from new talent, asking “How does one get started in this business? Where do I begin? Where do I go for work?” etc.

One of the problems is that this question has been asked and answered thoroughly numerous times already. Entire threads filled with lengthy conversation and extensive banter are easily found. Existing pros have spent tremendous amounts of their valuable time laying out these details and their own experiences, for better or worse, all throughout these threads online.

In the time it takes a new member of the group to ask this question in a new active post to the members, they could have entered the same text into the search field and found pages and pages of data, already existing, from which they could mine for information. And this is my suggestion for the new talent out there, as it was also my own method as well (still is, actually, and remains very fruitful).

… Are you still reading? …Good!

By finding these existing conversations where long-time and very successful pros have laid out their info, experiences, and resources, I was able to go through each one slowly. All the comments, replies, debating, devil’s advocates, experiences, and takeaways from every established professional was all there in black and white. As I would read through, I would take copious notes.

Some provided details on their daily practices, such as warm-ups, business related tasks, and organizational tips. They would go back and forth about early mistakes they made in the business, where it led them, what they learned, and what they wished they had done instead.

Others would review their coaching teams or demo producers, and I would make lists of who to seek out for more information (and also who to avoid as well, which is often equally valuable knowledge to sponge up). Others still would talk about their equipment, what they started with and why, what they upgraded to and why, and all the pros and cons that came up along the way.

Agents, managers, producers, filmmakers, casting people, content makers, beneficial networking opportunities and methodology, methods of communication, guidance on direct marketing, and so so much more. It’s all in there.

To be successful in voice-over, one must become a student of the material. A LOT of material. It doesn’t begin and end with your performance or your determination. It actually begins with the homework you assign yourself, and the extra credit you choose to undertake as well.

I always recommend to people, when they ask how to get into it, that they google the statement itself. Put in “I want to be a voice-actor” and hit enter. There are more than a few detailed articles written already by established, working, big-name voice-over people. The articles provide some tough-love but also very accurate descriptions of the prerequisites to getting into this business as well as the joys and benefits.

I tell people “read one of those articles two times and take notes, then if you still think you want to try this, send me the new questions you have and we’ll go from there”.

Mining the data from LinkedIn and Facebook groups has been essential on my path into professional voice-over. For one thing, the information is abundant to say the least. Gem after gem of solid gold info, complete with the strong perspective and sincere hindsight of the person providing it.

For another thing, it is free. The only cost is the time it takes to read through it all and take notes (and that’s normally where we lose people). It allows me to educate myself and put myself through the punches that someone else already endured, but without having to take the beating myself. It also enables me to cross off many of my existing questions and come up with pages of new ones that I can now search for as well, all without actually having to ask anyone anything (yet).

Over the years I have made this a hard and fast rule of my own. Before I ask an active question in a group or to an individual, I first enter that exact same question into the search field and see what posts I can find on the subject with comments. Almost 100% of the time I find my answer, plus the answers to the next handful of questions too.

The only questions I will tend to ask in a live forum are the ones I myself was unable to answer for myself in research. The depth of detail found online is considerable, so I view it as my responsibility to use what’s already there and not take someone else’s time until/unless I have something I cannot find on my own first.

We are forever challenged in this industry to stand-out, to differentiate, amidst an ever-growing field of “competitors”. There are many subtle ways to accomplish this, and one of those ways is to be the person who does the work. Don’t be the person who wants it all laid out in front of them to follow blindly, but rather be the person who rolls up their sleeves and starts digging.

I am personally more impressed with the person who doesn’t ask the first question, but rather asks the third or fourth after having found the previous answers themselves. That person is a forward-thinker who shows intelligence, drive, and respect.

Respect for the industry itself.
Respect for the steps necessary to success.
Respect for the people, their time, and their expertise.

“So, how did you get into voice-over?”

This is a question I get asked a lot. I’m sure many of my peers in the business hear it often as well. Some of these questions come from people who have an interest in VO, or in the arts in general perhaps. Some come from those who want to break in and are struggling to find that point of entry (as it is a narrow one).

There are others though who, in the midst of the discussion, reveal to me that their question was based on an assumption. Meaning that I either must have “known someone”, or got handed a unique opportunity and tried to run with it, or some other unearned short-cut which led me to an unintended career. It’s usually pretty clear that one of the next questions they want to ask is “can you do that for me, too?”

When I give them my answer though, and tell them the abbreviated story of how and why, many change their tune fairly quickly.

The truth is this is a fantastic job to be fortunate enough to be doing, but it in no way gets handed to anyone. No one gets bubbled up or fast-tracked. There are no short-cuts on which you can plot a reliable course. There’s no side-doors or secret passwords to the upper levels. There isn’t anyone for us “to talk to you for you” or anything like that.

Even in the extremely rare instances where unexpecting talent gets handed a large opportunity to voice something, it rarely goes anywhere after that unless/until said talent puts in the rest of the work required.

So, how did I actually get into it? Simple. I decided to.

I made the choice, did the homework, paid the dues, did the diligence, and started kicking doors open myself. That’s it. I’m sorry the answer wasn’t more romantic, or more Rocky-movie-esque or whatever. But that’s the deal. I just freakin’ went for it.

Where it really started, though? Acting.

I have been an actor since I was 18, and an acting-hopeful prior to that. In 1998 I took a bit of an unintended hiatus and started a corporate job at 22 years old. This turned into 9 years away from acting entirely, and a geographic change of 650 miles away from my New York home. That became too long, and too far for my taste. So I started up again. I’m sure many of ushave something we did in our youth that eventually phased out or fell by the wayside. But how many of us have the guts to go back to it and re-commit to it?

I began auditioning for local productions and got my chops back pretty quickly by doing several great plays with excellent people all over town. Even after my first audition in phase ‘Steve 2.0’, I knew I was back where I belonged. The feelings of elation and exuberance were familiar and undeniable. I had found home. I had found North again. And this time I had no intention of losing my way.

My inner voice was now shouting at me, desperately trying to get my attention to make sure I didn’t derail again. Even as I left that first audition in 9 years, I walked down the sidewalk on Second Street in Wilmington back towards my car with a literal spring in my step. At that moment, I was speaking out loud to myself with no one around, saying “Yes! YES!! That was awesome! You did it! You’re back now!” For the first time, my real voice and my inner voice were in perfect sync with each other. They were one voice. I’ll never forget that night.

After a few years of this I had racked up a solid resume, a couple nods for best actor, an agent, some commercials, and film work. Two primary goals emerged out of this. The first? Get back to New York somehow some way. The second? Find a way to unload the day job I had at the time.

As many people know, but maybe not everyone, having those pesky 40hr/wk scheduling issues makes it near impossible to get traction and make progress as a serious professional actor. The conflict is too great and the powers-that-be within the industry do not have the time nor the inclination to deal with whether or not you can get the time off work. It’s viewed as a metric of your seriousness. Yes, it sucks. But that’s how it is.

So how do you keep the lights on and food on the table without a survival job?

Answer: You make a new one for yourself.

People start businesses from home all the time. Etsy. Ebay. Making and selling products online. Apparel. Jewelry. Customs artwork, graphics, photography, etc. So many possibilities.

For me the answer was obvious. Voice-over was something I had always been interested in doing but didn’t know how. Yet. However, it was cut directly from the very same cloth of my acting training and experience. It did not require me to reinvent any wheels and start learning to make coffee mugs or anklets to sell online. It did not require me to embark on any new ventures in learning, equipment, or fabrication of any kind that was UNrelated to my career goals.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a huge learning curve and I most definitely had to embark on a research and development mission. There was training, yes. Equipment needed, most definitely. But all of this was under the acting umbrella, which made it easier for one thing, but more importantly it made it obvious. A no-brainer.

It wasn’t the same as starting something brand new and unfamiliar completely from scratch. It wasn’t the same as going all the way back to formula. It was more like “what can I do with what I already have, what I already know, and what I’m already pretty damn good at?”.

I worked long and hard to turn myself into a trained professional with knowledge of and respect for the many, many facets of this business. Through homework and humble questions, I started sponging up as much data as I could (and a future blog entry will explain how and where I mined much this data).

There were no favors done or hands-out given. I didn’t get bubbled-up or fast-tracked. I didn’t stumble into this blindly or accidentally. There was deliberate planning and action. Phases. First this, then that. Preparation. Budgeting. Spending. Patience.

Think of a rocket. Before they put any two pieces together, there’s countless months of drawing board work. Then, countless more months building inside the hangar where no one can see the progress.

The first items built are the tools. Then using those custom tools, they build machines. Then using those machines, they build the parts of the rocket and begin assembly. After that, the rocket gets rolled out to the pad. Not for launch, yet, but for more months of work. Tests. Adjustments. Improvements. It takes time. Lots and lots of time. Take it apart, change it, put it back together, test it again. Over and over.

“The more time at the drawing board and in the shop, the more powerful and perfect the launch will be.”

Like I said, I kicked the door in, but not on day one. Nobody came to me and said “Hey you, handsome man, wanna fly this rocket for us?” No. I built it myself with the help and guidance of others who built theirs as well. I came to the party with my own tools and machines, my own rocket, my own mission control, my own crew, and my own flight suit.

Most importantly, I arrived with my own mission. The same mission as it has been since inception.

This information is frequently off-putting to those who make the inquiry and/or seek entry into the business but don’t know how or where to find it. Of course it would be much easier if we all had Uncles who work in the business or people who vouch for us with their connections. It would be lovely to ask the question today and have the job tomorrow. But that isn’t reality. The people who ask the first question will sometimes ask a follow-up such as “but isn’t there a faster way for me to do it? I don’t have that kind of time or money to do it that way. I’m looking to earn money sooner than that.”

What else can I say except,, “if there were an easier, faster, cheaper, more effective way, I would have found it already and gone that way myself.” But in the end I know full-well, it can’t be achieved without the struggle, without the work.