If you are considering becoming a voice talent, there are some things you should assess before taking the plunge. I hear you right now: “Excuse me, kind and venerable sir whose wisdom cascades on billowy clouds of erudite prose, whatever could you intend by such a cautionary proclamation? Is not the deciphering of printed words and uttering them aloud not the essence of elementary ease? Wherefore, then, shouldn’t I, being a moderately intelligent and vocally experienced person, succeed greatly and that with harmonious tranquility?”
When I hear a question like that, I can’t help but wonder if you have some sort of mental aberration which causes you to talk that way. Who talks like that? For that matter, who writes like that? Who is writing this blog anyway? Oh, wait. Scratch that last question.
I also can’t help but wonder why so many people think being a voice talent is as easy as falling off a hog. The answer to the previous, unnecessarily flowery question is “no”. Nope, nu-uh, naw, negative. Nein, non, ne, nem, nyet, nee, cha. Not even a little bit.
The voice-over industry is populated with great resources and generous people as evidenced by my blog post last week. Go ahead, click the link and read it. I dare you. I double-dog dare you. Further, I earnestly promise you will find it less unpleasant than freezing your tongue to a metal pole. I’ll wait here until you get back.
*Pause for reading time*
Now that you’re back and all encouraged about the mounds of help you are about to receive from such a caring community, let me casually blindside you with the huge wooden mallet of Not-So-Fast. Yes, all of those things I said are true, but in no way should that be understood to mean your journey will be easy. It
Now, I feel obligated to inform you that I haven’t been in the business long myself. This discussion doesn’t come from many years of successful experience. What I am addressing here are the lessons I have been learning, and I believe you should learn, the earlier the better. The fact that my bruises are still fresh is it’s own validity.
Here are ten questions I suggest you ask yourself before you launch your bright, shiny new voice-over career.
How much money am I willing to spend?
Plan on $2500 just to get started. With that you may be able to get a reasonable sounding microphone and interface, a smidge of sound treatment for your recording space and a modicum of training if you pinch your pennies until they bleed. As a measure to go by, the more pinching and bleeding the better.
More training, which you will absolutely need, will add more cost, as will getting access to auditions. Your recording space may need more investment. Then there are business expenses.
Based on my personal experience, $5000 is more realistic. It is not uncommon to hear voice professionals say they spent more like $10,000 in their first year.
Do I have a quiet place to record?
Is there someplace where you live that is relatively quiet to work? Is it available to use without severely compromising domestic bliss? There are many options available to help deal with noise problems, but they all cost money and none of them are perfect. It will become a constant struggle to work if you can’t block out most of the traffic noise in front, the construction next door, or the mattress monkeys upstairs.
How much time do I have?
For a lot of people, continuing to work full time while you get started in voice-overs is a necessity, and can be a serious grind. My first year, I worked full time and did my VO work in the evenings and weekends, in total about 70 hours a week. How does a 70 hour work week sound to you?
Working a full time 9-5 job is a serious handicap in other ways. Auditions frequently arrive in your email in the morning or in the middle of the day. If you are one of the first small group of people to submit an audition, you have a good chance of at least getting listened to. If you can’t do auditions until the evening, most of those opportunities will be gone.
How good are my relationships at home?
Ask this question in light of my answer to the previous two questions. Especially if you are married or have a partner at home, ask yourself if they will support your dream. Of course they will, they love you, right?
Next, thoughtfully ask yourself if after six months they will continue to be supportive when you have spent a bunch of money with little or n return, you are working 70 hours a week, your together time has dwindled to a fraction of its former glory, you aren’t pulling your weight with the household chores, and there are next to no jobs coming in.
It is a huge ask of your partner to get on board and stay on board as the VO Express is barreling downhill and no one knows whether it will crash in a fiery ball of dashed hopes and devastated finances or whether it will softly glide into a luxury villa in Luxembourg.
How much do I like roller coasters?
Oh those exhilarating climbs, dives, swoops, swings and curls! How could you not like a roller coaster? Well, I’ll tell you how. Dizziness, vertigo, nausea and vomiting, that’s how.
When you start out, there will likely be a LOT of ups and downs. I mean from ecstatic, dancing-with-angels-on-rainbow-painted-clouds type of highs, to the wallowing-in-the-darkness-of-the-ocean-floor-covered-in-hundreds-of-years-of-crustacean-poop-while-getting-crawled-on-by-mollusks-who-leave-weird-red-marks-on-your-skin kind of lows. All in the same day. Here’s something to look forward to: you’ve got 364 more of those on the way my friend!
By the way, I have heard experienced people in the industry say that the roller coaster ride never ends. In light of this, you might want to add a lifetime supply of Pepto Bismol and airline style puke bags to your list of expenses.
Can I be humble enough to learn?
It is extremely rare that a newcomer to voice-over is so good they can jump in and set the world on fire. What you need to know is, no matter how good you think you are now, you will probably need to learn more. Probably a lot more.
I set off on my voice-over journey with an unrealistic impression of my ability and a naive lack of understanding about how complex the world of voice-over is. Oh, I had some skills. I used to be a radio personality. In that context I had recorded thousands of commercials, promos and even done some other VO on the side.
Well, let me tell you, the first thing I had to learn was how much I had to learn. If you can be humble, be honest with yourself, and be open to receiving good teaching and critique, you will be okay. Unless you are God’s Gift to Voice-over, if you enter this field with an overinflated ego or a closed mind, it will be a hard road.
Do I believe in myself?
This has been the hardest paragraph in this blog post for me to write because it hits so close to home. I have recordings that play in my head that have been there from childhood which tell me how futile it is for me to try to succeed. There are lies and misinformation which create negative narratives around pride, money, success and good old fashioned self-worth. If you can relate, those voices and ideas will impede your progress and you will need to find a way to grow past them.
I had a great coach tell me that he wants me to be an “arrogant S.O.B.” in front of the microphone. He was right. Do you have swagger when you step into the booth? You need to be unflappable in a live-directed session even though other people are listening to you, analyzing your every word. There needs to be confidence in the value you offer when reaching out to a potential client and when pricing your work. You need to know you can hit this VO thing out of the park. Which leads me to my next question.
Am I self-motivated?
Can you pick yourself up after getting rejected dozens, even hundreds of times? Will you force yourself to push through the discouragements? Are you dependent on others to tell you what to do or hold your hand when you’re hurting? We all need a helping hand and some compassion along the way, but it must be you that keeps things moving forward. Somewhere in your gut you need to be able to muster the determination to get up and take another punch when you feel like staying down.
Recently someone in a Facebook group asked for people to share the achievement they were most proud of in the past year. There were a lot of exciting accomplishments including getting a national ad campaign and eclipsing previous earnings records. Do you want to know how I responded? I said, “I kept going”. Although it would be my usual M.O., I wasn’t trying to be funny. Risking being vulnerable right now, I admit that I am getting choked up as I write this. I kept going. I. Kept. Going. That is what I was most proud of. And here I am today, still going. Can you?
Am I willing to work on myself, inside and out?
I was surprised to discover how much I learned about myself in my first year. For instance, while planning my branding I found that a lot of my concepts of who I am and how others perceive me are flawed. This realization sent me down a rabbit hole of self examination and self discovery. It wasn’t easy, at all. I needed to get the old cat o’ nine tails out of the drawer in the bedroom (don’t ask) and metaphorically flail myself until I was left with bloody, stringy strips of mental flesh clinging to bare emotional bone to get deep enough to where I could see myself more objectively. Nobody tells you about that kind of work before you start out! Until now of course, because I just did, which negates the meaning of the sentence about nobody telling you. I know. I confuse myself sometimes.
Here is something you need to be ready for. (Cue the whirling, ethereal sound effects and a terrifying, disembodied voice). “The microphone reveals all!” Ever heard of mouth noise? Previously unbeknownst to me, I commonly sound like a burbling, splashing, smacking, splattering fountain of liquid oral funk. And that is just from opening my mouth before I actually speak. Hunting dogs have begun to come study at my feet to learn how they can slobber more. And my nose randomly clicks. Frequently. WTF is up with that? I didn’t know any of this before I started recording myself talking.
It also turns out I don’t sound to other people like I sound to myself, I’ve been using my voice incorrectly all my life, and I’ve needed to learn how to breathe. Are you kidding me? Breathing? I thought I could at least do that one thing properly, but noooo.
Interpersonal skills are another issue. I am a natural introvert with the pre-programmed social skills of a banana slug. A banana slug with poor social skills. This is an industry which requires social contact on a regular basis, both personally and professionally. “Hiding behind the mic” really isn’t a viable option.
You need to be willing to to embrace all kinds of self discovery, knowing full well that it might get messy. Pass me that napkin, will you? I need to wipe my mouth.
How much do I like doing paperwork?
Does this question surprise you? Reportedly, most voice talent spend 90% of their available time doing marketing and other business related tasks, not playing around in the booth and counting money. Who knew? Being a voice-over is being an entrepreneur. A business owner. A software learning, social media mastering, lead generating, email sending, phone calling, record keeping, contract creating, invoice sending, tax return preparing, tireless monster of organization.
Is this you? Can you become this? Will you be willing to do this six months from now? A year? Five years? In the interest of full disclosure, “business me” and “creative me” are still working out their relationship. It is not a rom-com kind of romance.
How is my sense of humor?
This isn’t on the Approved List of Standard Advice to Give to Newcomers, but it should be. Nurturing a sense of humor will pay dividends every day of your voice-over career. Laughter relieves stress, and hopefully by now you are getting the idea that there will be a lot of stress. It will be easier if you are able to laugh at the absurdity of not being able to say “regularly grasped specific statistics” after twenty tries. Or ever. Laughing will help to keep your spirits up when jobs aren’t coming in. It will especially help to be able to laugh at the insanity that you once thought spending a huge amount of money, time and relationship capital on doing voice-overs was a good idea.
There is a reason why I let my rather unconventional sense of humor come out to play when I write my blog. I mean, other than the fact that if I don’t, he (my sense of humor) whispers threats inside my mind having to do with choking me to death while I sleep. Sure, I want to survive through the night, but it isn’t only that. I also hope to add a smile or a laugh to your day—I know how powerful it can be. Even if you are laughing at me instead of with me.
Oh, and to those of you who are feigning shock at the revelation that my writing is intended to contain humor: I am choosing to ignore your looks of incredulous amazement and your derisive smirks. I forgive you.
And the answer is. . .
Now we get down to brass tacks, where the rubber meets the road and other trite idioms that I can’t remember right now. The point of all this. If you have read all the way through to this point and have you taken an honest look at yourself through the lens of the questions I have posed, I’m sorry. And congratulations! Chalk that up to positive evidence of your keen level of interest. Or evidence of your masochistic tendencies; whichever. I’m not judging.
Has any of this discouraged you? That is not what I intend. If you know you will love working as a voice talent, that it fits who you are, where you are, and where you want to be, then welcome to the club! If you have a voice-over fire in the belly, go for it! It can be an incredibly rewarding endeavor that pays dividends in far more than just money. If you look honestly at yourself and your situation and decide this path isn’t for you, that is a good thing too! Just think of all the money you’ll save and the emotional and relational turbulence you will avoid. As a bonus, you won’t have to explain to anyone why you have a closet full of vomit bags.
What I do intend is for you is to be more informed about what this business entails before you take the plunge. If it were as easy as being able to read out loud, everyone would do it. And, incidentally, nobody would be successful because there wouldn’t be enough jobs to go around. I want you to have your eyes wide open so you can make an informed decision about dipping your toes into this pool.
If you do, you will find a very open community which embraces
fresh meat, *ahem* I mean, new talent. You will be hard pressed to find another professional community which is more supportive.
Earlier, when you impertinently interrupted my opening paragraph to ask the question which prompted this whole discussion, I answered “no”. I don’t enjoy bursting anyone’s bubble, but there is no easy, cheap, trouble free entrance path to being a successful, professional voice talent. A better question? Is it worth it? For me the answer is yes. That’s why I keep going.
Whatever your journey, don’t forget to laugh.
What’s a banana slug? Do I even want to know???
Also love the bit about being humble. I have acted all my life, even have a degree in it, so I thought voice acting would be easy-peasy. Um, nope. Love learning, though! So that helps. 🙂
Thanks for reading Sumara! Please look up banana slug on the internet and look at the pictures. I am certain you will note that they never appear to be speaking to others.
I love learning also. It is the width and breadth of the learning necessary that has been a surprise to me.
Lifetime supply of Pepto Bismol and airline style puke bags – CHECK!
Jon, seriously, this was my favorite blog of yours. Now, you might ask, “shucks, Josh, what about the blog with your name in it, ‘Joshua Alexander is not my friend’?” And you would be right to posit such a query, because a person’s name is to that person the most beautiful sound in the whole world, according to His Amway-Friendly Holy Reverendness Dale Carnegie. That blog was great – and flattering to boot! But THIS was blog gold: funny, insightful, comprehensive, and vulnerable. I loved it. I LOVE that you kept going, and that you mark that as your greatest achievement of 2020, aka The Year That Blew Chunks.
I’m very proud of you! KEEP AT IT! You’re an inspiration, and I’m glad to call you friend, despite what your other blog might say.
Love ya buddy. Keep going. 😛👍🏻❤️
Thanks Josh. I always appreciate your support, your encouragement and your willingness to risk your mental health to read all the way to the end. Thank you!
” I commonly sound like a burbling, splashing, smacking, splattering fountain of liquid oral funk. And that is just from opening my mouth before I actually speak. Hunting dogs have begun to come study at my feet to learn how they can slobber more. And my nose randomly clicks. Frequently. WTF is up with that?”
This is me to the 11th degree. Try as I might, I can’t quiet the gremlins that live in my mouth. I know there is no magic bullet, no secret sauce, but in simple terms, what worked for you? (Besides hydrating, please.)
I understand about the hydration thing. It helps, but it is not a cure-all. Debi Derryberry told me she eats barbecue potato chips to cure her mouth noise, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. For me, rushing my teeth and gums and cheeks right before recording helps. I will also use a scraper on my tongue. Mouthwash after if I remember. Being careful about what I eat is also important, especially dairy and spicy stuff. I still fight it.