“I did it my way.”
That’s likely to be etched on my tombstone for a number of reasons, some more laudable than others. Among them can be counted my voiceover career. From building it based on a radio background, (not the dreaded announcer!,) to embracing online casting in its infancy and defending the platform concept despite many controversies, to eschewing Los Angeles for Luxembourg, my career has been defined by the non-traditional……and there’s not much I would change.
One element that I look back on with some regret, however is the history of my own personal skill development as a talent, long before I became a coach myself.
As a self-starting entrepreneur first, and an artist second, I have always put the business of voiceover ahead of the more metaphysical performance side of the equation. I didn’t need a coach, by God, I was a natural. I could do it on my own, figure it out through trial and error, and develop by doing. Either you have talent or you don’t, and I didn’t need to pay someone hundreds or thousands of dollars to be taught how to read copy. I had it within me, I was quite sure. There was a time when I genuinely believed voiceover coaching was a scam, plain and simple, designed to separate wide-eyed newbies from their money, or to feed upon the dreams of those nibbling at the edges of the industry with promises of cash and glory. Not going to fall into that trap was I.
With regard to having the ability to learn and perfect my craft on my own, I was right. Over twenty years I slowly transitioned from a one-trick, big-voiced pony into a versatile voice actor capable of delivering just about any read from late-twenties hipster conversational to movie trailer to grizzled old cowboy, and pivoting on a dime between them. To this day I’ve never had an hour of coaching in my life, and I’m damn proud of what I’ve been able to teach myself over the years by doing, failing, and learning from my mistakes. I’m walking talking proof that no one needs a coach to be successful in this business.
I’m also a damn arrogant fool.
As I’ve become a part of the coaching and demo production community over the past eight years or so, I’ve been blessed to watch both talent I’ve coached personally and those taught by my colleagues build incredible careers often in a matter of just a few years. In a handful of cases, I’ve seen people go from zero to big league bookings and earnings in as little as a year with a well-planned strategy, intensive study, and the guidance of a coach who became a mentor. Seeing this magic at work has filled my heart with my joy, but it is also bittersweet.
It’s bittersweet because I now realize with absolute certainty that if I hadn’t been so mule-headed for the first ten years of my career, (when I was stuck in a lazy middle rung on the VO career ladder,) and had accepted the help and guidance of people with more experience who knew better, and who could have made me a better talent faster, I could have been where I am today far sooner. Indeed, I would be willing to bet that my rejection of coaching has cost me as much as a million dollars in lost earnings over the course of my career, simply because I thought I could do it all on my own. In the end, I did, but my wallet is a lot lighter because of it.
There is no doubt in my mind that any and all talent can benefit from the ear of a quality coach, and that newer talent can position themselves for success far earlier with such guidance than they can without it.
That said, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about what makes a good coach, and what to look out for as potential red flags when finding the right fit for you.
Personally, I believe the core definition of a quality coach is someone who possesses the background in the industry, knowledge of the marketplace, ear for nuance and subtlety in delivery, and the heart of a teacher, taking genuine joy in the development and success of their students.
This can take a lot of forms in our business. Some people prefer a coach who is also a successful, working talent. These people experience the life they are training their students for every day, and will always be on top of the latest trends and shifts in the marketplace, as they have to be aware of the lay of the land in order to compete in their own right. There’s a strong argument for learning from someone who has been there and done it, and continues to do it every day.
Of course, successful working talent by definition will have limited availability if they choose to move into coaching, as coaching rates, (however high they may seem to some,) will never match what a busy talent can earn from actually doing VO work. As such, you may have to approach several of this type of coach before finding one with an opening to take on a new student, or you may have to accept spending some time on a waiting list.
There are a handful of highly-respected coaches who have never been VO talent, but rather have come from backgrounds as casting directors and agents to develop followings as trainers of talent. These folks can offer the unique insight that comes with having been on the other side of the glass, and though they may not be performers themselves, as experienced buyers their ears are in tune with what the market expects.
Many successful talent turn to coaching late in their career in order to transition to a lifestyle where they have more control over their own scheduling. There are several well-known coaches who fit this mold, and who can offer the wisdom of accumulated experience to teach what it takes to build and sustain a career for the long run.
Finally, in recent years several credible organizations dedicated to training have emerged, often aggregating some of the top coaches in the industry under their banner to offer a wide variety of a la carte services to talent. These organizations will manage your VO education in a more classically academic manner, often laying out a series of classes and programs for you to complete in order to progress in your training.
All of these options are valid and can potentially help you build your career, but you also must be vigilant in protecting yourself from less ethical players who may simply be looking to make a quick buck by offering cookie-cutter services with questionable content to anyone with an active credit card.
Red flags you should consider include hard sell or high-pressure tactics, constant streams of spam or solicitations, emails shouting at you in all caps to SIGN UP NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE! Prices that are suspiciously low can be a warning sign as well. Successful coaches, especially those who are talent, don’t need to cut their rates to pay the bills. Watch out for programs that are over-long, or over-short. Voiceover isn’t nuclear physics; You aren’t going to get a degree, and you don’t need to study for years before you are marketable, (and if you do, your coach should be discussing whether this career is really the right fit for you, and maybe not taking your money.) On the other hand, a weekend intensive coaching package with a demo attached is usually a sure recipe for a waste of cash. Some months of training and a well-thought-out demo plan should be a standard expectation.
Moreover, the Internet is your friend, because the Internet never forgets. When checking out coaching options, do your homework! Google the name of the coach or organization and look for reviews, good bad and neutral. It will be hard to find complaints about the best coaching choices.
References are gold. Any coach should be able to give you at least a handful of verifiable references of people who will attribute part or all of their success to working with that coach. An even better test? Ask them to give you a reference of someone they have turned away because they didn’t think they could help them, or didn’t think it would be a good personality fit. An ethical coach doesn’t accept everyone who walks in the door.
Once you’ve done your research, make sure you and your coach mesh on a personal level. Different coaches have different styles of teaching. Some are shouters, screamers, and cursers. If tough love is what motivates you, you can find it out there. Some are nurturers, peppering constructive criticism with praise. Styles vary from energetic and performance driven to didactic and academic. Not all will be the right fit for everyone, so get a feel for whether you will be happy spending many hours of your life with this person.
Ultimately, though, however you do it, if you are considering coaching, don’t hesitate. I did for a long time, and I’m poorer for it. Learn from my mistake.