I remember seeing a cartoon in a British newspaper depicting the Queen opening a new fire station. As she proceeds down a line of firefighters in uniform, she shakes one officer's hand and says to him "so what do you do?"
Of course in real life Her Majesty would know exactly what her subjects do for a living, but voice actors often find it difficult to explain their work to the uninitiated. In fact my heart sinks when I meet someone new and they ask about my occupation... and I know it is me that has the problem.
By definition we are voice only and so invisible to the general public. Who can blame a stranger being bemused by someone sitting in a soundproof room talking to themselves all day? It's hardly normal is it? But are we doing ourselves a disservice? Should we flag wave more and raise the profile of the beleaguered voice over artist and how should we respond to that question?
Someone's got to do it
"I do voice overs" I said, expecting the usual follow-up questions such as 'what's that all about then?' and 'does it pay well?' Instead my new friend paused a while and replied 'I s'ppose you don't get yer 'ands mucky doin' that'. He was right; my palms were pristine and embarrassingly smooth. No hard work-induced horny pads for me.
It was a rather refreshing response, I thought, and a couple of hearty ales later we had forgotten all about my unusual occupation. However not every encounter is like that. Sometimes you are left lost for words.
You do what?
Unfortunately we tend to define people by what they do - "she works in computers" or "he's a teacher" and we build up assumptions based on our preconceived ideas about these occupations. In reality it tells us little about the person. The software engineer isn't necessarily a geek, nor is an accountant a crushing bore.
Stereotypes abound - and even in our business we get our fair share of nerds and level-headed folks along with the occasional 'luvvie'.
That said, we live in a society where vocation is important and sadly we have to live with that.
In my own case, explaining what I do to earn a buck has got worse - as a voice over coach I spend seven days a week advising students, helping them negotiate fees, critiquing their auditions etc and yet I've had people say to me "yes, but what do you do for a job?" as if I was playing at it.
You may find the same with your voiceover career - even friends and family may regard all your hard endeavours as being nothing more than a harmless pastime.
The tendency is to become angry at this, but I recommend turning the situation to your advantage.
Loud 'n proud
The key is to present yourself as a professional and help explain what you do intriguingly and with panache. "I use my voice to help businesses increase their bottom line" is a more thought-provoking way to say "I record voice overs for commercials". Similarly "I narrate audiobooks" could sound more exciting if instead you said "I tell stories for a living".
These are alternative ways to draw the interlocutor into your voice over world so you can then explain in detail what you do and how you do it.
Let's face it, at the end of the day, it is not important that someone doesn't understand what you do, but explaining your profession with clarity in an assured manner will help you be more confident about your somewhat idiosyncratic career choice.
Being a voice actor really is out of this world.
What do you say to people who don't understand your love of voice overs?
Gary Terzza specialises in helping beginners enter the voice over industry. VoMasterClass.com