Voice Over Gains

Voice Over Gains

 CURL those headphones!

CURL those headphones!

During a typical week, the one excuse I always have to leave my studio is going to the gym. 

I know, that's pretty sad.

But it’s not entirely surprising that I’ve started to see parallels between my approach to exercise and my approach to voice over. 

I certainly don’t claim to be a veteran in either field, having switched to VO full-time just over a year ago, but I think there are some fundamental principles that the two share.  And if you read this and think ‘that’s crap’, please do comment or send me an email, as I’d really be interested in people’s thoughts!

Be clear on your goals

For years I went to the gym sporadically - hitting it hard for a few weeks and then not going for months.  And with voice over work, sometimes I would make it a priority; getting a new voice reel done, going to any classes that were running and reaching out to as many voice over agents as possible - but would then burn out relatively quickly when I didn’t get a response.

Training at the gym only got serious for me after a major life event forced me to take a look at who I was, who I wanted to be and where that disparity lay. My self esteem was at an all-time low, and as someone who liked having an element of control, I was struggling with the arbitrary, feast or famine nature of life as a professional actor.  

Getting serious about physical training started by setting out SPECIFIC short, medium and long term goals.  By setting them clearly, I could achieve the short ones, work my way gradually towards the medium ones and ultimately feel that the long term ones might one day happen.  Throughout, specificity was the key.  It was never just “I want to get stronger/faster/bigger/ smaller” - but that I needed to get to x weight/rep/speed by y date.

Similarly with voice over - being as specific as possible about your short, medium and long term goalsmeans progress can be measured and placed in the context of a body of work.  I started with the simple short term aim of booking my first professional voice over job - nice and general.  But from there, (advised by Guy Michaels), I set myself a financial target of what I wanted to earn ‘per hour’ over the next three months, and then gradually built expectations from there. Having this attitude isn’t revolutionary, but the short term satisfaction of winning the daily battles helped retain momentum, momentum that was fundamentalto contemplating bigger challenges.  

Get started today

I go to the gym four days a week now, but as I’ve mentioned before, there was a tendency to go ‘all in’ for a few weeks and then burn out.  When I started getting serious about exercise, I reset my mindset and asked myself what was the minimum I was willing to commit to consistently.  I started by going to the gym for no more than 40 minutes twice a week, and over time the workouts have got more frequent.  It was re-programming my attitude to make exercise just part of what I did every week, rather than an exceptional event,  that was key.  

In voice over, when you’re just starting out - take the pressure off!  Be honest about what you feel you can consistently commit to and say ‘This is the minimum I can do every week, but I will do it”.  After a few months, this ‘minimum’ isn’t charged with a desperate need to make stuff happen, but becomes the foundation to a methodical approach.  Incrementally,  two hours a week can become three or four, as you amass little victories and see small progressions starting to build up to actual, irrefutable results.

Pick an approach and COMMIT to it

The internet will overwhelm you by the amount of work out programmes.  Where do you start?  The answer is to not overthink, but pick a programme that interests you and commit to it for a sustained period of time.  I’d never properly got into weight training but it interested me, especially I was quite skinny.  As a result, I was sometimes seen for more geeky acting roles that I had no interest in playing. 

Starting out with a simple weights programme, based on body splits and progressive overload, gave me a structure and reference point from which I could build.  Rather than turning up to the gym and hoping I was doing the right thing, I committed to a programme that interested me and did it for twelve weeks straight, always making sure I did just that little bit more than the last time.  This is the simplest way of seeing progress happen, rather than spending time worrying if what your doing is 110% the most effective workout you could be doing, and ending up pinging from programme to programme as a result.  A great example of this in weight training is CT Fletcher, whose catchphrase "It's Still Your MotherF**king Set" cuts to the chase - when you do something, COMMIT TO KEEP DOING IT.

So, with VO.  If you’re going to try out the pay-to-play sites, properly commit to updating your profile, to actually doing all those auditions, to offering alternative reads and learning the intricacies of clip-based auditioning.  If you’re going to try cold calling, then collate a list of leads at the beginning of every week and commit to calling at least ten every day for a few months.  If you’re going to try freelancing sites, do the research on how to make your ‘gig’ as inviting as possible, how you can best upsell your work and making sure that you get those positive reviews that will lead to more orders.  But don’t get stuck in the middle, trying to do all three to little or no effect.  Only by properlycommitting can you see how an approach works for you, what the results are going to be like over a sustained period of time, and whether that programme is the best personal fit.

Work on your technique

In weight lifting, there’s a lot written on the perils of momentum - ‘cheating’ the weight in the concentric part of the exercise, which in turn reduces the strain actually placed on the body part being exercised.  Only by being taught, understanding and observing proper formwill all that time in the gym actually lead to results.  So it wasn’t a coincidence that my most productive period of training started by working on such fundamentals with a personal trainer.  She observed all the little things I was doing wrong and helped me to become aware and address them - basically, to self-direct.

In voice over, everyone will tell you that it doesn’t really matter if you have a good voice - it’s how you utilise it that counts.  Appreciate that different reads (narrative, corporate, commercial etc) require different approaches and techniques.  You may be able to obtain a certain level of success through pure instinct - and with the number of professional actors that transfer seamlessly into VO work, you’d like to think that that skill set was entirely transferable.  But only by working with a good voice over coach can you be truly aware of your strengths and weaknesses, obtaining an objective perspective on your skill set.  Just like with the personal trainer, me hiring a VO coach wasn’t because I wasn’t making progress - it was because I knew I could be more efficient, but didn’t know how to get there.  Getting the job or executing it efficiently depends on being able to ‘self-direct’, but that is a skill that needs to be cultivated .

Think investment rather than cost

We’ve all heard of (or been) the person who signs up to a gym with the best of intentions, only to visit a handful of times before hastily cancelling the direct debit, usually down to a combination of guilt, frustration and “just not having time”.  It was only when I started to think of my monthly gym fee as an investment in myself (both in terms of health and self-confidence), that the money I paid ceased to become an exorbitant amount I struggled to justify, but rather an investment in my general well-being.

In voice over - the purchase of decent equipment, tuition, marketing etc needs to be thought of as investments in your VO career.  You can still be canny with those investments - I’ve blogged before about how my original home start-up came in at under £400 - but you need to be conscious of when it’s useful to budget, and when it’s best to invest.  I could pay less and go to a cheaper, more basic gym - but I know that this will demotivate me spending any time there if there’s going to be long waits for equipment, I’m going to feel rushed and the environment is horrible - so its justifiable to invest in a nicer environment.  

You don’t need to rush out and buy a £1000 mic, but neither should you rely on a bargain basement USB to do your pro work.  Lots of working VO’s love using Audacity to record and edit, especially as it’s free - but I chose to switch to Adobe Audition because the interface is clearer and nicer and I’m spending hours looking at the programme every day.  Even with tuition - yes, some of the best VO’s tutors charge ostensibly large rates, but the improvement you will see and likelihood of being able to pitch for better paid jobs increases.  It’s all down to a subtle but necessary change in outlook.

Keep track of progress

I mentioned previously the importance of having a programme while at the gym - and a vital part of every programme is making sure you log and assess your progress.  If I find that I’ve reached a ‘plateau’ on a certain exercise (when I’m lifting the same weight for the same number of repetitions), I need to identify that plateau so I can stratergise how to overcome it.

In voice over work, when you’ve committed to a particular task, make sure you keep tracking your progress.  If you’re hitting the pay to play sites hard, then how many auditions are converting to bookings and is this ratio going up, down or stabilising?  If you’re cold calling, how many leads are turning into bookings?  How many bookings are turning into referrals?  You need to have a handle on these numbers so you can make objective assessments on your progress, not just blindly put the hours in and hope things steadily improve.  If something isn’t working, or isn’t working as effectively as you think it could, you need to be aware of it.

Embrace alternative methods

As a follow on from tracking progress - you need to research alternative methodologies, to grow your reference of problem solving strategies.  When I hit a plateau in the gym and identified it, I started to research more advanced techniques and began incorporating them into my work outs.  Pyramid sets, super-sets and negative reps are all different ways of pushing through boundaries, which might be overwhelming for a beginner to incorporate but are vital to continual improvement.

The VO marketplace is rapidly expanding and evolving, where traditional points of reference on best practise are subject to alteration even more than changing styles in vocal delivery.  You need to be aware of what other VO’s are doing so you have as many tools in your armoury as possible.  There are large numbers of VO’s out there waxing lyrical about subjects as varied as social media marketing to cold calling, from great portable set-ups to the intricacies of email marketing.  It’s your responsibility to get as educated about these subjects as possible, so that you can be adaptable in a competitive market.

Acknowledge the fallacy of comparison

VoiceOverGymPhotoShop.jpg

Combining exercise and social media is pretty much a one-way ticket to body dysmorphia, especially when photo-shopping seems to be increasingly prevalent in widening the gap between appearance and reality.  

As an actor too, I’ve long learnt about the dangers in comparing yourself with others - it’s an exercise that can prove just as self-destructive as it is inspiring.  Social media amplifies these disparities - when you become overly conscious of other people’s achievements and simultaneously oblivious to their struggles.  So while social media can be a vital tool for marketing purposes, be sure to take it all with a substantial amount of salt.  I’ll tweet about booking a triple A video game, but I won’t tell you anything about the five pretty low-rate explainers I managed not to book the day before.  So be careful who you follow, and if you do follow fellow VO’s in an effort to forge relationshipsand foster support, don’t underestimate the value of the ‘mute’ button when necessary.

Take gurus with a pinch of salt

As the online fitness market has expanded immensely through platforms such as Youtube, so has the number of self-styled fitness gurus generating questionable content.  Magical programmes offering a ‘six-pack shortcut’ or a revolutionary supplement (clinically tested by… no-one) are aimed squarely at the newbie market looking for a quick fix.

I’ve already alluded to the wealth of free voice over content available - both on youtube and elsewhere.  A lot of it is extremely useful.  But as the demand for such content grows, so have ways in which it has been monetised.  Exclusive webinars, Facebook groups and voice sprays continue to emerge, and while a lot of these things can be useful, it’s healthy to be sceptical and do as much research as possible.  Talk to other people about their experiences and what they would personally vouch for.  Do your due diligence and research.  Work out what you can afford, and ask if your money can be more safely invested elsewhere.  Be aware that there are people out there looking to exploit a rapidly growing market, and nothing should be taken at face value - including this blog ;)

Know the importance of rest

As the gym bug truly started to bite and I actually started looking forward to working out, I began to struggle with the concept of ‘resting’.  It wasn’t until I scaled back from five workouts to four, under the advice of a personal trainer,  and saw my results improve, that I had to believe it.  Unsurprisingly, the body needs time to properly rest and recover - indeed with weight training, it is while ‘resting’ that any gains or improvements actually have a chance to develop.  You physically need time to heal after a proper workout (around 48 hours for specific body parts), otherwise you will get diminished results.

A huge problem with working from home is that it can prove impossible to truly ever disconnect.  There could always be another take to record, email to send or Instagram hashtag to mine.  Though this can sometimes be wonderful for a workaholic like myself, you still only have a finite level of stamina - and the quality of work will ultimately suffer over time, let alone your personal relationships and actual life.  So set some ground rules for yourself about working - whether that’s weekends being completely sacred, no email checking after 6pm or whatever.  Decide on a structure and stick to it - it will benefit you in the long term.

Apologies for the rambling nature of the blog - I appreciate that none of these points are particularly new.  But I think it can be valuable to touch base with these ideas in a slightly different way, and hopefully it's provided a little food for thought - wherever you are in your own voiceover journey.  To conclude, I'd recommend one final post by Jamie Varon that fellow VO Esther Wane recently shared.  It's about being fine about where you are, and not letting the to-do lists and competing motivation quotes overwhelm you.   

Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

Voice Over Network - Game Jam

Voice Over Network - Game Jam

Wearing my actor hat, I've increasingly become sceptical about organisations that offer workshops.  They seem to roughly divide into two categories - ones which are basically an opportunity to introduce yourself to a director or casting director, but are billed as tuition (usually in something like camera, audition or cold reading technique which you really should have learnt already if you trained), or exploratory workshops on a given text or technique (in which the learning is primarily incidental, the barrier for entry is non-existent, and therefore the quality is variable).  This is a gross generalisation (some of the stuff offered to actors via the Actors Guild and directors such as Bruce Guthrie are definitely worth checking out) - but the exceptions tend to prove the rule.

And so it was with some hesitation that I originally signed up to the Voice Over Network about nine months ago.  I knew I had a lot to learn, but having felt, after countless actor workshops, that the transaction had really only been for a certain casting director's email address, I was wary.  Or basically, cynical.

Gradually, the balance shifted as I started to imbibe the considerable amount of content that VON produces for its members.  The weekly webinars it holds gave me a lot of valuable information on a number of topics, spread across the 'core' skills of performance, technical expertise and marketing.  But I still held out on booking for any of the workshops, having been somewhat chastened by my actor experiences.

VON's second 'Get Your Game On' event was a way of easing that transition.    A day of talks and workshops which offered the opportunity for some networking, but was as much if not more about educating all of the participants and fostering an environment of mutual support.  This was neatly combined with VON's first 'Voice Over Jam' event - where teams of VO's would devise a one minute game trailer in response to a breakdown over a 48 hour period the week before.  And then there was an opportunity to spend a weekend learning from Dave Fennoy - one of the standout leading VO's in interactive entertainment today.

The experience as a whole - from my first Skype meeting with my other Game Jam comrades all the way through to wrapping a recording session at Coda Studios - was an absolute joy.  The talks - from Yvonne Morley, Adele Cutting, Mark Estdale, Steve Brown and Dave Fennoy - covered a myriad of subjects much more articulately summed up by Sam Hughes (aka The Sound Architect) .  The workshops (I chose Stephane Cornicard’s character workshop and a talk with Mark because I'm a huge Horizon Zero Dawn fanboy), offered valuable insights into character work and marketing yourself to game devs respectively.  The results of the Game Jam (which fellow teammate Katie Flamman brilliantly reports on here) saw the victory of my team Gataroto despite an exceptionally high standard from all the teams involved.  And then I spent two days properly learning from Mr Fennoy.  What was great about that weekend was the shear amount of subjects he covered, from the history of video game performance to where it is now, what makes a good gaming reel, seeing other members of the group tackle a huge variety of genres and characters, and then actually working in a proper studio on pieces where every take you did was professionally recorded.

Fundamentally, what struck me most was the atmosphere of support and encouragement that infused the three days.  People were never in competition, and were full and frank in their opinions almost immediately.  There was rarely a sense of anyone 'playing the game', partly because of the aforesaid atmosphere and also because the hierarchy that seems to overshadow so many acting workshops I've done was almost non-existent.  

Perversely, this may come down to the nature of the work.  Whereas actors generally need other actors in order to work, the career itself is fundamentally nomadic.  You spring from temporary surrogate family to temporary surrogate family, with indeterminate periods of unemployment in-between.  People you've never met become best friends, and then (if your as poor at socialising as I am), can disappear for years.  Conversely, voiceover is (on a day to day basis), quite a lonely profession.  Having spent the majority of the day talking to yourself, there seems a greater pull to counterbalance this by fostering the feelings of a true community whenever there's an opportunity to be in the same room.  Any feelings of competition are dispelled by the principle that what 'sells best' in voiceover is simply your unique authenticity, while with acting that same principle can only be held up to a point (how your look, your agent, your connections and your number of Twitter followers start properly coming into play).  Maybe as a comparatively fledgling growth area, this feeling is bolstered by some naivety - but I doubt it.  VON gave me the most wonderful experience a few weeks ago, and emboldened me to do better like no other event - for which I must give special thanks to Rachael Naylor and Leisa Fisicaro, who made it all possible.

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