Invest in your Voice
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Not long ago, I heard a piece of pithy advice from none other than Ben Feingold, the CEO of Samuel Goldwyn Films. He offered this nugget of wisdom during a virtual panel discussion of film/TV executives. I had helped organize the event with the Brandeis Alumni Arts Network, and had the honor of presiding over the Q&A. The question that I posed to the panelists was about how to reach them. What's the right way (and what are the wrong ways) for an aspiring writer, director, actor, producer, etc. to get their attention? Among the various responses was Feingold's:
"Invest in your voice!"
Although Feingold didn't elaborate much, the basic idea was this: when you talk to the folks in power, make sure you can show them why you're worth their time and attention. And the thing that makes you worth more than anyone else is whatever makes you you. The particular constellation of perspectives and experiences and attitudes and approaches that differentiate you from anyone else.
This line struck me like a thunderbolt. For the last several years (and particularly during the COVID era), I've spent a lot of time writing new screenplays, refining my 'brand' and updating my website and social media to reflect an image - an image that I first had to grapple with and unpack. At the heart of much of this work was an effort to clarify - both to myself and to others - my "voice". Until I heard Feingold's advice, I didn't really have a way to name all the work I had done. Now I do: "Investment".
"Invest in your Voice" is advice I wish I had received two decades ago. I'm sharing it here in the hopes that it reaches some of you earlier in your careers - early enough to make the greatest possible difference. Of course, such a short phrase can mean many things to many people. Here's how I understand what "Invest in your Voice" means.
The Raw Materials
What is "Voice"? For a screenwriter, it might be the way that you unpack a scene or reveal characters - a way that is unmistakably your own. For a director, it might be the way you frame a certain type of scene, or the way you light your characters. Whatever it is, it's the thing that makes it possible for people to recognize you in your work.
It can be very difficult to figure out your voice. I was only able to do it for myself after making dozens of films and writing a whole bunch of screenplays, and then asking the question, "why did I tell all those stories? What was I trying to achieve?" The common denominator, the thin thread that strung all of my work together? That's voice.
So what does it mean to "Invest" in this type of voice? To invest in the raw materials? It means digging. Mining. Delving into yourself with as much honesty as you can muster and finding a way to articulate what you find. For some of you, it might mean writing a lot, creating a lot, and then stepping back and evaluating what the common threads are.
This takes time, and it might even take money. Therapy can be helpful here, as can some creative coaches, workshops, books, etc. That's what it means to invest. Don't assume it'll just hit you one day. Go looking for it.
If Feingold's advice isn't strong enough for you, consider something Steven Spielberg once said (I believe it was at a commencement address, but might have been another context). He said that the most important thing a creative person can do is to know his or herself very, very well. Know who you are! That's what makes you unique! That's what will make your work valuable!
Craft and Creation
Knowing your Voice isn't enough. You've got to use it, to draw it out, to express it through your work. For a writer, this means writing. A lot. Every day, if you can manage it. For a director, it means directing - in any way you can. More importantly, it means creating with your voice in mind - don't just tell stories, tell your stories.
This is why investment is important. When we start out, we're lucky to get hired to tell any story at all. It's tempting to hop from job to job, from gig to gig, picking up scraps and experience along the way... but these gigs rarely give you an opportunity to really express yourself.
To apply your voice. You need to create opportunities for your voice to be used. This might mean writing your own spec screenplays - not with the goal of writing something "marketable", but with the goal of writing something that channels and fully realizes the power of your voice - the uniqueness of you. It might mean making your own films - short films, webseries, even features. This is investment. It takes time. Very likely it'll cost you money. But you must, must invest in your voice. If you do not create things that reflect your voice, no one will know what makes you worth hiring!
This investment serves an additional function: it helps you refine your craft. The more work you do, the better at it you become. So don't shy away from taking classes, joining workshops, or (if you're lucky) going back to school. But use those opportunities not just to refine your craft, but to refine the way you use your craft to project your voice.
Your voice carries only as far as you push it. I've known some wonderful filmmakers over the years who've done great work but who only made halfhearted attempts to push it out to the world. An important component of investing in your voice is making sure it's amplified.
This really means two things:
It means putting your work out there. If you write screenplays, submit them to contests and share them with friends. Hire actors to do a table read and invite your industry contacts. Your voice is in those pages - amplify it! If you're a filmmaker, do whatever you can to get your work seen. Film festivals, private screenings, streaming platforms - whatever you need to do. Invest in this! Don't simply assume that 'if it's good, people will see it'.
It also means putting yourself out there. Your voice is your brand. Bring it into your social media - your tweets, Instagram posts, website, etc. Invest in your public image, even when you don't have much of a public.
Having turned my attention to my own professional 'brand' only recently, I can say that the results are startlingly positive. Just this past year alone, I've been hired to write two feature screenplays (which had never happened to me before) and I've gotten interest and traction with multiple specs that had been out in circulation (in some cases) for several years. Almost immediately, when I began to invest in myself, and specifically in my 'voice', I saw a return on my investment.
I hope you're able to see the same results, too. It's a lot of work, and it can be a scary plunge (especially when you start actually spending money - that's terrifying!) but it's more than worth it.
What does "invest in your voice" mean to you? Have you tried it? Is it working? I'd love to read your success stories in the comments!
To get you started, here are some resources I've found useful:
RAW MATERIALS: Carole Kirschner's fantastic (and free) e-book: "Telling your Story in 60 Seconds" - A simple and straightforward guide to digging into yourself and figuring out what you stand for. Going through the steps in this book has informed a lot of my writing in recent months, not to mention the website and social media overhaul.
CRAFT AND CREATION: Take advantage of the resources available online to learn more about the work you do. In addition to plying your craft and creating new content, check out the courses offered on Stage32.com or the great blog and video content on sites like studiobinder.com (to which I occasionally contribute).
AMPLIFICATION: It's not just about the usual social media sites. If you're a screenwriter, use platforms like coverfly.com to manage your contest submissions (Coverfly will actually reward you for high-performing screenplays by promoting them further to their industry network - they can amplify your voice!) Filmmakers can use services like filmhub.com to get their work (even short films!) out to more platforms. When you're ready to revamp your web presence and social media strategy, consider hiring a branding/marketing consultant (Kate den Rooijen was very helpful to me with this!)