Here were are in the last of four posts containing everything I can think to say about how to become a voice actor, right now. As always, take the advice here with a grain of salt, as this is only what works for me, and what I understand at this point in time. I may have an epiphany in the shower next Thursday and realise that only now do I really understand what’s going on. If that happens though, I promise to let you know.
In the final post, we’re going to talk about being a good freelancer. Because once you’ve built a process around your creative development, and you’re actively doing what you love, you’re going to get to a point where you need a solid approach for dealing with the people who want you to make great things for them.
It started fairly accidentally to begin with, but being a better freelancer is something that I’ve been working on for the last eight years. I’m sure it means very different things to very different people, but the core of it for me is a combination of attitude and building systems, the latter of which being where we started talking in the first post.
Now, I don’t want to derail this before we even get started, but before we go any further I would highly recommend checking out this amazing presentation by Mick Gordon at IGDA Melbourne. I was there for it live, and it not only blew my mind initially, but continues to shape how I think about freelancing.
Let’s talk about attitude first, because that’s not only the thing that is most under your control, but the most important constant people will pick up from dealing with you. I can’t recommend reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius enough. The most important thing I got from that book is a big reminder that while terrible, or even just inconvenient things can happen that are completely outside of your control, how you react to them is the one thing that is always under your control (putting aside disorders like depression, obviously) And the great thing about Meditations is that unlike modern self-help gurus where we get relationship advice from people who can’t keep their own marriages together, Marcus Aurelius’ observations are from living a life as the Emperor of Rome. So his advice is hard earned and battle-tested.
“Only worry about what you can control” is one of those pieces of advice that always sounds trite and inherently useless initially, but it’s worth the effort to wrap your head around. This is really where my whole journey started eight years ago, before I’d even considered voice acting as a profession. I was working on a rather unpleasant and chaotic project as an IT consultant, and the only thing I could control was my own work ethic and attitude, so I started going down the deep rabbit hole of personal productivity and adjusting my mindset.
At the risk of paraphrasing Fight Club, you are not other people’s perceptions of your own work. You are not other people’s unrealistic expectations. Buffering yourself from other people’s turmoil and tantrums allows you to act more rationally, and as the rather awesome Kristine Oller would phrase it, it plugs an energy leak. When an email lands in your inbox from a client or colleague that’s rude or downright unreasonable, instead of going into an escalating spiral of frustration and rage, if you can look at what’s going on from a more detached, rational perspective then first of all you’ll avoid building that giant emotional bonfire and throwing all that energy at someone else’s stupidity or thoughtlessness. On the most selfish level, you avoid losing hours or the rest of the day to stewing over someone else’s baggage. On a more pragmatic level, if you can respond more rationally, then it might help you see through to what someone is trying to say rather than the poor framing of the email.
So how do you get there? That’s the tough part. For me, it’s been a long process mostly driven by two factors: firstly making a deliberate shift from extrinsic motivation to internal motivation in my job as an IT consultant, after recognising that I wasn’t going to get the warm fuzzies I felt I needed from the people I was working with at the time. Secondly, from a series of life experiences that gave me perspective and broader shoulders. But that process is likely to be different for each person.
Another thing that will really help with attitude, and this is possibly even tougher, is to build an honest internal judgement of both your own work ethic, and the quality of your own work, project to project. If you’re going to shut yourself off from other people’s irrational criticism, you need to have an honest voice inside your own head you can rely on, along with the opinions of colleagues or mentors you do trust.
You need to be confident in your own abilities (without being arrogant) because that attitude will shape your interaction with clients, potential or existing. If you’re quietly assured in your dealings with clients, it reassures them and justifies both your professional opinion, and the rates you charge. If you’re comfortable with your own abilities, you won’t feel awkward in stating what you’re worth. (and the whole ‘get comfortable with your own rates’ conversation is a surprisingly difficult step to take.
Being able to clearly state what you can and can’t do, to silently evaluate where you’re stretching your current skills on a project; all of this will give you a quiet, confident core to rely on when interacting. If you’re acting from a place of desperation or insecurity, you may overstate what you can do within certain timeframes, in order to give the client the answer you think they want to hear.
Time and energy are two of your most precious resources as a freelancer, and you can’t afford to lose whole blocks of time to a bad mood brought on by someone else’s shenanigens. There’s a great podcast episode by Crispin Freeman about dealing with problematic booth directors, that provides a brilliant practical illustration of this, particularly in terms of empathising with someone else’s perspective.
It might sound a little abstract and woo-woo as something to think about, but to me the practical difference is between an argument leaving you upset for the rest of the day with your finger hovering over the send button for an irate email, or clearly communicating the parameters of how you’ll deal with a situation, and moving on from it emotionally. Or even the difference between walking out on a job in frustration with hostile circumstances, and managing to negotiate a successful outcome.
I’m not bulletproof on this, by any means. I ended up angry and frustrated the week before writing this post after someone I was dealing with in the day job ignored weeks of meticulous communication and backflipped on their expectations. But the bar has gotten a lot higher in what it takes to rattle me.
MARKETING AND BRANDING AND IRONY
One of the strange flipsides of the freedom of being your own boss and doing the thing you love as a freelancer is that in return for that self-determination, large chunks of your time now go to things that are tangential to what you love. Email communication. Invoice management. Tracking leads on projects. And the marketing. OH, THE MARKETING.
There was a great presentation at a New Zealand IGDA meetup a few years ago on the distribution of time for successful game development studios. I wish I could find it to share it with you, but the key thing the graph communicated is that the vast bulk of time for successful studios was spent in marketing. Market early, market often. I think that stands just as much for freelancers, too. Especially voice actors, given both the challenge inherent in the work, and the difficulties in becoming known to the right people in such a vast field of talent.
It’s important to state the difference between marketing and advertising here, too: by marketing, you’re communicating who you are and what you can do to the right people. As distinct from selling an unrealistic image to people. Marketing in its most well-intentioned form (at least to me, as a layman) is just having conversations with people. And to prepare for that, there’s a separate set of decisions to make around branding, which is another one of those words that conjures business double-speak, and hordes of business-suited bland clones.
To me (again, as a relative layman to the deeper complexities of it all) branding is, along with more technical decisions like logos and colour schemes and whatnot, deciding what facets of yourself you want to present as an image, and how you want to converse with people. How much of your personality and personal life you let through. Along with whatever decision you make there, I’d argue an important universal constant is still keeping a calm perspective on situations, and beng able to react intellectually rather than emotionally.
So as a freelancer, you need to be getting your message out there. And that means at the least deciding where you sit in terms of social media, blogging and the like. At a bare minimum, people should be able to find you online either via a website, Facebook or LinkedIn, and have some way of getting in contact with you.
My personal take on marketing is using a personal website, Twitter, and a quarterly newsletter. I’ve also started a Facebook page recently, and I have a presence on LinkedIn, but the usefulness of it is arguable.
Mick Gordon’s freelancing presentation (link in the opening paragraphs) has a great suggestion around structuring your freelancing day. Boiled down to the essentials, he suggests that each day should include:
- working on current projects (2-3 per day)
- professional development
Mick’s days are longer than mine, as he’s able to survive somehow on much less sleep than I am, but how you structure your day is a personal thing. And this is where knowing your own rhythms becomes super-important. Understanding what kind of work fits best in the day in which points, and ensuring that you give yourself time to decompress and come up for air as part of your schedule.
The people I know and respect the most when it comes to work ethic are people like the awesome Epona Schweer, who understand their own minds and structure their days accordingly, rather than just trying to throw themselves high speed at ‘doing work’. You need to understand how you work in order to do your best work. Develop a consistent, regular routine that eliminates the need to think too much about what you’re doing next, and evolve it over time.
Speaking of time, tracking your time as a freelancer is super-important. Whatever you end up using, you need a relatively painless system that allows you to track hours against individual projects, especially if you’re billing by the hour. While you’re likely to find whatever works for you, at the moment I’m finding Pancake to be a pretty good free system for that, and my invoicing.
There’s a few other things I’d recommend tracking as well. Your solutions can be as simple or as complex as you like, but as per the first post in this series, I’d highly recommend evolving your solutions as you need to track more information. I’m more than a little skeptical when people maintain that they can manage any amount of information via a spreadsheet. every system has its upper limits.
Contacts – who you meet, and how. Context around conversations you have with them, and how you might be able to help them out. Personally, I’m finding Contactually a good free solution for this at the moment. It’s great for prompting you regularly to interact with people, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what it can do with opportunity tracking.
Invoicing – invoicing, as the lifeblood of your freelancing, needs to be as simple as possible. Issuing invoices, facilitating payment, and tracking overdue invoices all need to be relatively painless. There’s a myriad of options around invoicing, and depending on the number of clients you’re dealing with and volume of invoices, it may well be worth looking at paid options that provide automated payment gateways. At the moment I’m using a relatively simple a personal installation of Pancake, which does everything I need for now.
Calendaring – any commitments that happen at a specific time and date should go into a calendar you can access conveniently from anywhere. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to think about your calendar except when scheduling appointments. It should tell you what you’re doing, and when.
Projects and plans – ideas for projects, things on your to-do list or household chores need a place to live. Personally, I store pretty much everything around my life in Omnifocus 2 on the iPad and iPhone, so I can refer to it wherever I am. I’m staring at my current task list on the iPad as I write this.
So that’s the last of our posts, looking at freelancing. Start with setting the right attitude for dealing with clients and coworkers, and develop an intrinsic motivation and judgement of the quality of your own work to help keep on track.
Whatever you decide is right for you for marketing, make sure that the people you want to work with can find you easily enough. And implement solutions that make life easier for you for tracking crucial information, so you’re not spending all of your time in your back office rather than doing what you love.
Thank you for coming along through this conversation. I hope some part of what we talked about is useful to you, and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments, or by dropping me an email.