Sunday, March 23, 2008

Getting things done: Voice-over Edition

This is a follow-up to my previous post on success in voice-over. In order to be successful, we have to get things done. I think many of us become paralysed when a task seems too big and we just can’t find a way to get started on it. How can we overcome the obstacles of our own making that stand in the way of success?

A gazillion books have been written on productivity and we all have our individual approaches to it. I tend to clean my house as a sort of displacement activity and hope that a clean and uncluttered environment will set the stage for a serious look at what I’m trying to accomplish at higher levels. After a big project such as writing a paper and submitting it for publication, I always cleaned and organised my office and lab – lots of tasks of all sizes are neglected while one is working on something big, so that phase of regrouping was important for me and although I used to wish I could just jump right into the next big project, I came to accept this tidying behavior as inevitable and even necessary.

Recently, as I have gotten more and more busy with voice-over work and have been thinking of more and more projects I would like to do – some of which simply are not getting done – I’ve started looking at more systematic ways of organising both the creative and the mundane tasks of life. About a month ago I had a stack of reading material next to my bed that I was trying to get through. Much of this consisted of library books and most of them were overdue. Among them: “Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-free Productivity” by David Allen. Well, color me pink but I never did make it all the way through the book. I did get the gist of it though - Allen’s system requires that you get all your projects and tasks out of your head and onto paper or some other organisational venue (an electronic list). This is the basic premise, so that while you’re tackling one project you aren’t distracted by all the other ones that are still floating around in your mind. Get them all out, and focus on one at a time.

Now, one at a time does not mean, take one project, and do whatever it takes to complete it before moving on to the next. No, grasshopper!! It means, while you are focussed on that one project, you should not be thinking about all the other things you have to do. Getting everything out of your head and on paper (or in electrons) means your mind is free. You know you aren't going to forget all the other stuff, because you have captured it! So while you're working on one thing, you aren't distracted by the rest. More important than that, for me, is his recommendation that you think about each of your projects, and figure out what is needed to move that project forward. Sort of a this-is-the-house-that-Jack-built type of exercise, since the action that is needed to move it forward might well have its own thing that is required to move it forward.

For a whole detailed explanation of this productivity system you’ll have to read the book, and to help you decide if you want to read it, try this excellent summary by Trent at The Simple Dollar. You might also want to look into Kristine Oller’s Feeding Your Focus: How creative people can move forward faster and achieve sustained success – which might turn out to be a better bet for many of us since Allen’s system, however wonderful, is not for all personality types. Bobbin Beam has summarised Oller’s new book at her voice-over blog.

If you’re in the early stages of your voice-over career, one of your obstacles might be that you’re just not sure how to approach the whole thing. In my case, I was teaching molecular biology and doing research and suddenly started to think I needed to try something else. I was browsing books at Amazon and mentally auditioning careers, focussing initially on books about acting. A book about voice-acting popped up and I was transfixed. This was perfect because I was very interested in acting but too shy to be able to consider being on stage. Vocal mimicry was a tremendous interest since childhood, as was reading aloud.

I kept going at my academic job, continued to research voice-acting and discovered a voice-acting school in San Francisco. Well, I was just out of luck, wasn’t I? How could I attend a San Francisco school if I lived in New England? I finally stumbled upon Edge Studios in Connecticut and New York, then discovered The Learning Annex in New York and that led me to Charles Michel, the coach with whom I ultimately did my pivotal training and recorded my first demo. So it was at least a year between the time I first thought of voice acting and the time I officially hung out my shingle. If I had approached this a bit more systematically, asking, what do I need to do to move this project (of becoming a voice actor) forward, I might have proceeded with questions like these:

What is the first thing I need to do to get started?

Answers: read books on voice acting and see what they say about getting started, or, find an actual voice-over actor and ask them.

The books and the voice actor consultants will tell you that the quick answer to this question is: find a coach. You could also read aloud daily, watch TV and listen to all the commercials, record the ones you like, play them over and over, copy the styles you like, write down the script, and if you have a tape recorder or better yet, a Zoom H2 recorder, record it and then play it back and listen to what you’ve done. And although you should do all that anyway, the quickest way to launch your training is to find a good coach.

So, how do you find a good coach?

Again, you can ask other voice actors, if you have access to them – “ask” them indirectly by listening to demos at voicebank and identifying your favorites and finding out who coached that actor. You can visit Harlan Hogan’s wonderful resource and look at the list of coaches in your area and start looking them up and doing background research on them to see what other people have to say about them (because you certainly want to find out if the coach you have in mind can deliver the goods, give you seriously good training and direct you in the recording of your voice demo, and not just grab your money and leave you with dreck or nothing).

Later, after the demo has been recorded and reviewed and tweaked and you finally like it, a new obstacle will arise – how do you physically get it into the ears of those who need to hear it? Do you make CDs? People do still ask for them, especially in the big cities. So how do you make them into CDs? You need art work for the cover. Where do you get art work? You can design it yourself or hire a graphic designer – and so on.

The point here is not to tell you how to proceed each step of the way, but to suggest breaking everything into steps, especially if you find you are not moving forward with something that you really want to do. If you find yourself with a great demo and then months pass and you haven’t done anything with it - what’s the delay? What will it take to move ahead and how do you make that happen? Obstacles are by no means limited to people just getting started – all of us will come up against them as we proceed down the voice-over path, or any other path in life. That’s why it can be so helpful to do a brain dump and get all our goals and projects onto paper and examine what we need to do to make them happen. Maybe we decide we want to make a “niche” demo, one that showcases voice-over work in one sector of the business, such as eLearning - but for some reason, we aren’t doing anything to make that happen. What will it take? Get it on paper or in a Word document or a sticky – it might look like this:

To Make eLearning Demo
list clients for whom I’ve done eLearning jobs
find the audio files for those jobs and put them in one folder
review the files and choose ones that represent a variety of subject matter and styles
identify the scripts I like but for which I might see room for improvement in my delivery
re-record those scripts
select a 10-second segment from each of the chosen files/scripts
order the segments in a way that shows them to their best advantage
produce the demo (do it myself, or barter with a friend who can do it for me – whatever)
seek a critique from someone I trust, or trust my own judgement

Once it’s broken down into actionable steps, it just isn’t as daunting as it might have seemed when it was only floating around as “I should really make a new demo”. And most of the steps are no big deal! Even for bigger projects like, learn Spanish, or, get a role on a TV series, all of this can be broken down into small steps for which there is an action (some steps admittedly more challenging than others, but nevertheless, do-able!). It’s just so important to do this exercise because without it we may just have this vague unrest about the whole thing and become convinced that there is something beyond our control that is preventing us from achieving our goals. In most cases, that ‘something” is completely within our grasp, after all.

Now remember, all of this is part of success in voice-over. If you start doing this and discover you’re getting all kinds of stuff accomplished, just make sure you give some thought to how you’re going to deal with the success when it comes! Are you ready for it?

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