The Imaginary Enemy

Toy Soldiers PicWhen it comes to the business of selling our services the biggest obstacle many of us face is one of our own creation.

(Reposting this post because I recently had the honor of working with the producer/creator of this film, Rick Beyer, on a documentary about the battle of Lexington and Concord!)

PBS recently aired a fascinating documentary called  The Ghost Army, about a fearsome and formidable US Army regiment deployed in Europe towards the end of WWII. Its mission was to turn back the mighty German forces, and the bravery and cunning of these few dozen American soldiers brought battlefield success time and again. That’s right, a few dozen valorous souls repeatedly turned back legions of enemy combatants; a remarkable record, especially when you consider that they were armed mainly with inflatable tanks, sound trucks, fake radio transmissions and performance skills.

You see, it was all a ruse, a sham, a supreme manifestation of fakery created to give the illusion of an opponent so fearsome that even a larger Army would think twice before engaging it.

It worked because the Germans imagined a calamitous outcome were they to confront this rubber army head on. Over and over again they changed course, altered their battle plans to avoid a confrontation that, had they taken it on, could have been won in seconds. The result was a waste of time and resources that undoubtedly contributed to the ultimate loss they would soon suffer.

What does this have to do with success as a voiceover actor? Simple, when it comes to doing the necessary work of promoting ourselves and our businesses it’s easy for us to fall into the same trap that the Germans did, to assume bad things will happen if we engage, to allow ourselves to be stymied by a similar paper tiger.

For those of us for whom anything resembling sales is akin to a self inflicted root canal, one tiny word can stifle an otherwise promising career, bring grown men to tears, lead strong women to weak drink. What is this tyrannical word?


Oh, what power we bestow upon these two little letters! From childhood we’re taught that baaaad things follow hot on the heels of that word! Whatever we were doing to elicit that response we’d better stop it, or else!

Don’t get me wrong, I think “no!” is a fine teaching tool that I sometimes wish was used more liberally by parents today. It’s when we carry the emotional reflex it prompts forward to our adult business interactions that it can become a hindrance to our success.

“But I’m a performer not a salesperson,” you say? Fine, call it promotion, client retention, customer service, PR or just the business of being in business, but at some point most of us will have to suck it up, put ourselves forward and ask for consideration of some sort in the marketplace. Whether it’s requesting agency representation, contacting production houses and studios that we hope to work with, asking for endorsements or referrals from existing clients, or simply requesting copies of completed spots or projects, we have to ask for what we need or we won’t get it, and when we do ask we run the risk of hearing that nasty little word!

So what can we do about it? In keeping with the battle metaphor:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu.

So let’s take a shot at defanging the serpent by considering a few truths about “no.”

In business a flat-out “no” is rarely the answer.

I once received a rejection letter from one of America’s preeminent theatre companies in response to a play that I had submitted. It said simply “never send us anything like this again.” That’s what “no” looks like. In most cases rejection is much more gentle than that. If an agent says “we don’t have room on our roster at this time” take it at face value, and don’t read more anything more into it – particularly not “your demos suck, your voice sucks, you suck!”

“No” can be temporary, if we let it be.

We often speak admiringly of people who refused to take “no” for an answer. More accurately it usually means they accepted “no” for only what it was: one answer to one question at one particular point in time. If the note says “not at this time” put a reminder on your calendar to submit or ask again at some point in the future.

Sometimes “no” really means, “I’m not authorized to say yes.”

In spite of legendary stories like Fred Astaire being dismissed early in his career by a hapless studio underling with a terse “Can’t act; slightly bald; can dance a little,” and the numerous rejections J.K. Rowling endured before landing a publishing deal for Harry Potter, generally speaking “no” is a much lower risk response to give than “yes,” and will rarely come back to bite the person who gives it. “Yes” takes time, consideration and often a commitment of financial outlay. That’s why gatekeepers are often empowered only to say “no,” and on rare occasions “maybe.” So spare a spot of sympathy for these well meaning folks as we deviously plot ways to get around them to the people can help our careers, those with the power to say “yes!”

Unless they state that no response equals a rejection, don’t assume that it does.

Things get lost, emails are overlooked, personnel changes over. If it’s a connection you need to make, try again, and maybe once more after a reasonable amount of time. Beyond that, it may be best to let it go until you have new demos, booked projects or some other career milestone to open your inquiry with.

Rejection from the little stuff stings just as much as from the larger stuff, so why not go big?

Confession: I was on the fence about including this one lest it encourage a newbie to hound a busy A list agent before he or she is ready (or a novice playwright to submit a rough one act to The Public Playhouse – see above.) Please don’t. However, discretion and fearlessness can coexist, and sometimes it’s better to shoot for the moon than to clutch a quiver full of lovely unshot arrows.

That’s probably about enough for now. If you’re shy about the outreach (dare I say sales?) aspect of running your voiceover business I hope you’ll find one or two of these mindset tweaks useful.

Talk at ya’ soon! – Tim

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