Just about every week, I receive email from someone who is interested in starting a career in voiceover. Lately, I’ve noticed that more and more people are writing to me and asking for a mentor to help them get started.
While it’s certainly a flattering request, whenever the word mentor is mentioned in an introductory email, I am flooded with a torrent of not-so-kind thoughts:
- It’s all about their wants and not at all about me.
- They haven’t read a single one of my blog articles (2 good places to start would be So you want to get into voiceovers? and Thinking about starting a voiceover career?).
- I’m not sure why they think I am the right person to help them.
- I don’t know why they think I should want to help them.
- The person has no clue about what is involved in working as a voice talent.
- They want me to tell them everything I know about working in voiceover as quickly as possible.
- They expect me to invest my time in furthering their career, with my only form of compensation being my joy in helping them succeed.
- They want me to introduce or refer them to my contacts and launch their successful career, similar to how a debutante is presented to society.
- They want validation that they are doing the right thing, and all their dreams really will come true.
In short, the word mentor is so loaded with connotations that it makes me want to run in the opposite direction!
Of course, everybody needs help sometimes. It feels good to be able to help someone along the way and make a difference in their lives. I also know first-hand how fantastic it feels to receive key advice from someone whom you admire and respect. However, people are approaching the mentor question way too soon and in the wrong way.
After doing some research, here are 3 things to know about finding a mentor:
1) You first must assess the kind of help that you need.
In his excellent article for the Huffington Post, Steve Blank points out this important distinction between teachers, coaches, and mentors:
- If you want to learn a specific subject, find a teacher.
- If you want to hone specific skills or reach an exact goal, hire a coach.
- If you want to get smarter and better over your career, find someone who cares about you enough to be a mentor [my emphasis].
When newcomers write to me saying they are looking for a mentor, they really should be looking for a teacher.
My friend Bob Souer is one person in the voiceover world who is universally admired and respected. He is an exceptional voice talent who is unfailingly kind and generous to each person he meets. Since I knew he occasionally has chosen to mentor some people, I asked him how and why he decided to become a mentor. He quickly responded and graciously gave me permission to quote him here. His comments illustrate Blank’s 3rd point:
The people I’ve chosen to mentor have each had their own story.
Some have been people with whom I had an established friendship, then (when I saw them struggling and thought I might be able to help) I’ve offered that help. For a few others, they’ve approached me with a specific question and after answering that question and after some further conversation, I’ve chosen to continue the relationship in a mentoring capacity for a season.
Maybe the best way to describe the process for me is that right about the time someone reaches the point that they don’t need my help as much, someone else will come along who does. I have no formally established pattern and don’t plan to make one.
In the 25+ years that I’ve been doing voiceovers professionally, I’ve been offered help more times than I can count. I feel a strong sense of obligation to provide help to others I encounter along the way, who need it.
However, it does very little good to approach me and ask me to be a mentor because I turn down most of the people who ask.
Blank states that “a mentor relationship is a two-way street. To make it work, you have to bring something to the party… [be] “prepared to give as good as you get.”
2) You must identify your weaknesses and then research potential mentors in order to determine the person who is best able to provide the help you seek.
Steven K. Scott includes a terrific chapter about recruiting mentors in his book Simple Steps to Impossible Dreams: The 15 Power Secrets of the World’s Most Successful People. He gives a detailed, 10-step strategy for identifying and recruiting mentors. The strategy requires that you thoroughly research the potential mentors and be able to pinpoint qualities that you admire. When you approach the person, you will want to be able to explain how you would like to make their admired qualities a part of your life.
Yes, finding a good mentor in the traditional sense can be a very time-consuming proposition. However, you can be mentored by many people in a more passive sense. Often, a voiceover teacher or coach may provide informal and occasional mentoring by listening to a demo or answering questions.
3) You don’t have to meet or have a conversation with your mentor(s) in order to learn from them.
This thought may surprise you at first. Scott illustrated this point in a story about a woman who wanted to improve her marriage. She identified family counselor and best-selling author Gary Smalley at the top of her list of perfect mentors:
She recruited him by reading his books and viewing his tapes…Reading Gary’s books and viewing his tapes was in some ways even better than meeting with him because she could do them at her own pace, taking as much time as she wanted.
We live in the Information Age. No matter what your interest, at least one on-line forum exists to discuss it. Voice talent can join a plethora of on-line communities dedicated to voice-over, segments of voice work like audiobook narration or character acting, audio engineering, etc. These forums are populated with people having all levels of experience and are great places to sit at the virtual feet of masters.
If sitting at their virtual feet is good, listening to them is even better. Whatever category of voiceover work (audiobooks, video games, cartoons, telephony, documentary, etc.) mosts interests you, you need to be a listener of that category.
In her excellent article The Company You Keep, Barbara Winter points out that you should “study those who have done what you want to do” in order to meet with the greatest success. I had an epiphany when reading her wise words and wrote in my journal:
With that in mind, I realize I need and want to be an active audiobook listener. I think the last one I heard was in Hawaii last year. [I immediately downloaded a book from the library and] will be listening to the phrasing and pauses as much or more than the accent.
I will listen to an audiobook every day…It’s another good way to prepare for the audiobook success and constant work that is coming to me.
Since that day in May 2011, I have listened to audiobooks while I walk my dog or swim. I have heard 14 audiobooks and substantial parts of several more. Not only have I been studying and learning from the technical aspects of each narrator and production, but the avid reader in me is thrilled to be even more immersed in books!
Whether you’re new to voiceover or have been in the industry for years, I hope these 3 tips will help you find the people who can help you move toward your destiny! I’d love to get your thoughts about the mentors you have had, so please leave a comment on the blog.
Photo: iStockPhoto/Shane O’Brien
A lot of people waste time not thinking about what they really need before asking about having a mentor. While there are certainly people willing to mentor (like you), there are resources available: books, videos, recordings, blogs, etc. they should seek first.
Greetings, Tim! I see the quest for mentors as a symptom of an expectation of instant gratification. However, careers are built and mentor relationships are formed over time. Hopefully, this article will help guide people along their path.
Thanks for your comment.
David Sigmon says
Karen, This is advice that I wish I could have come across 5 years ago, when I first began this voice acting adventure. Self-guidance and self-management without having someone looking over my shoulder as a navigator is the longer slower path to success. Thank you for the clarity of message. I will be sharing this with those that seek my help.
Thanks so much for this particular blog post on VO mentorship. It really helped me with a conversation I had with a prospective coach/mentor. These are great points you have in your post here as it really helped remind me what I needed from a coach/mentor and why. That was the most important point for me, the why. Ask yourself why you are reaching out to certain people and for what reasons? Maybe it’s nice to make a connection but maybe that’s all you really want to do, and you just think you need someone to be your coach/mentor because you think they are going to “give” you something. I totally agree with your last point that newer VO folks feel a need for validation, and that’s the reason they reach out. As someone who is in the early stages of the VO world, I have been very conscious (especially after reading your blog post) of not doing this when making new connections. Trust yourself. Get coaching when you need it. Always be moving forward (no matter how small) everyday on your VO journey.
Thanks for your website and blog. It’s an immense amount of valuable information.
Karen Commins says
Greetings, Todd! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and kind words about my blog.
I’ve also noticed that people new to VO or audiobooks will join an on-line group and immediately ask a question that has been asked and answered 100 times in the past. I’m a firm believer in doing your own research, especially since we live in the Information Age.
If you or anyone were thinking of getting a coach, here are 2 related articles that should be helpful:
Beware of 5 Techniques of the “Information Marketer”: http://www.karencommins.com/2010/12/beware_of_5_techniques_of_the.html
10 questions to ask coaches and demo producers: http://www.karencommins.com/2008/03/10_questions_to_ask_coaches_an.html
And since you mentioned moving forward everyday, I thought you might enjoy a short related post with a story about WHY it’s important to do something every day: http://www.karencommins.com/2009/01/do_one_thing_each_day_toward_v.html
Thanks again for stopping by, and best wishes for your continued health, prosperity, and success!