Professional voiceover artist Liz Drury talks to Sam Hawcroft.
It’s always a bit of a worry in the back of my mind, ahead of talking to people for this magazine, whether they’ll talk back. The monosyllabic interviewee is the journalist’s worst nightmare. Now, I hasten to add that there really haven’t been many of these as entrepreneurs tend to have the gift of the gab, but I knew I was on solid ground with voiceover artist Liz Drury – a woman who talks for a living.
Liz, who lives in North Lincolnshire, had dabbled in voiceover work while studying for a degree in natural sciences, and later a PhD in archaeological sciences, and in 1998 she began working as a presenter for a local cable TV channel. Through the odd advert or bit of documentary work she discovered her natural flair for voiceovers – but it wasn’t until 2013 that her career began in earnest.
Her husband, who worked in the chemicals industry, had been asked to take up a position in the USA for a couple of years, so the whole family moved across the pond to Maryland. “He was going to work, the kids were going to school, and I was thinking, well, what am I going to do?” says Liz. “I had the kind of visa that meant that I had to live there three months before I could apply for a work permit. I didn't even bother to do that because I thought, well, I’m only here temporarily. I'd got no childcare, no family or friends there, and the kids had almost three months off in the summer, when we’d go home to visit family. I didn't really think I was much of a good bet for anybody to take on as an employee.”
Instead, Liz decided to attend college, signing up for acting and singing courses, one of which was called “Acting for the camera”. Owing to the small numbers in the group, the tutor offered to tailor the course to individual participants. Liz told her she’d had lots of experience in voiceover, but no idea how to make a career out of it. As luck would have it, the tutor was an actress who had also done voiceover work, and she put Liz in touch with a friend who ran a recording studio.
However, Liz realised she was only going to get regular work if she had a professionally produced demo, so she did a bit of research and found New York-based Edge Studio, which had a satellite studio in Washington DC, not far from where she was living. “What I really liked about Edge was that they wouldn't just train anybody,” she says. “They assessed everyone first, and then told you whether it was worth their time and your money for you to go through the training programme.” A rigorous audition session with about 10 other hopefuls followed, and the next day the tutor got in touch with his feedback. “He said to me, ‘I have a checklist of about 50 common mistakes people make when they're starting out in voiceover – I actually haven't ticked any of them for you! This is definitely something you could do.’”
Liz began six months of training, after which she recorded her first set of professional demos, and in 2014 she came back to the UK. On her return, the job she’d had at a sixth-form college had been kept open for her, and as she was only working 15 hours a week she was able to build up her voiceover work in her spare time. But in 2017, the college made her role redundant. “I thought, that's the kick up the backside,” says Liz. “I need to grow this and do it properly.”
The first thing Liz invested in was a professional recording booth. She then registered on so-called “pay to play” websites, which charge voiceover artists subscriptions to host their profiles and audition for clients, and through those picked up a lot of initial work – but if one of Liz’s natural talents is voiceover, another is promoting her business. “It's been a case of just constantly marketing myself. I'm pretty active on LinkedIn and other social media platforms, and I do a lot of cold emailing people, just telling them that I'm there, really, and sending my demos out. I do have a few agents as well, in London, and in Italy and France, and I get jobs from them – but it’s mostly through my own effort.”
Liz has also tapped into the funding that’s out there for small businesses; knowing where to find grants and successfully applying for them is a skill in itself, of course. “When I did my PhD,” she says, “I needed to go to Scandinavia to collect samples for my work. And the only way I could do it was to find funding. And since then I've realised that there is money out there. The other day I was counting up all the things I've ever received money for, and I think it was about £34,000!”
Some of the grant funding went towards a professionally built website – and, having had a good look at Liz’s online presence, I tell her this was money well spent. It’s an excellent ‘shop window’ that’s crisply designed and very easy to navigate. You almost feel as though you know her after reading her bio, listening to her demos and putting the face to the voice courtesy of some good photography. Back in the day, this wasn’t really the “done thing” for a voiceover artist, though. “When I first started out,” says Liz, “the sort of received wisdom was that you shouldn't have your picture on your website because when you only hear someone's voice on the radio, you get a picture in your head of what they look like, and when you see them, you think, ‘Oh, I didn't expect them to look like that.’ So there is a lot of sense in not having your picture on there, because you don't necessarily sound like you look – but now it's kind of turned around, and people buy into people, they want to see who you are.”
When you work for yourself – by yourself, indeed – it can be a lonely world if you let it. But Liz is absolutely on top of her industry, and she maximises every opportunity she can to connect and share with others, as well as gaining recognition in her field. Industry awards are a great way of doing this – you’ve got to be in it to win it, and you have nothing to lose by trying. Liz put herself forward for the Top 100 Small Business Awards, which are organised by the Small Business Saturday team, and she was selected as one of 2017’s winners, receiving valuable social media promotion as well as an invitation to a Downing Street reception. “It's a great thing to put on your social media and you get to go along to an awards ceremony, and your name appears on the big screen,” says Liz. “In 2017 when I was a runner-up in the Northern Lincolnshire Business Awards, all the people shortlisted had a little video made about their business, which was brilliant when it got shown to the whole room on the night. And then of course I had the video to use for promotion afterwards.”
In the past couple of years, Liz has been a regional finalist in the Rural Business Awards, and twice shortlisted in the One Voice Awards. “I haven't won, but this year, just to be shortlisted meant you were in the top 6% of entrants, and there were a lot of entrants. So I thought, well, I'll take that!” Indeed, the real prize of entering industry awards is the process itself – they drive you to make sure you’re at the top of your game, and offer priceless networking and marketing opportunities.
In the past few years, Liz has provided voiceover work for blue-chip companies around the world, from Siemens and Stockholm University to Heineken and Hilton. Although she describes herself as having a “neutral British accent”, listening to the demos on her website it’s clear she’s incredibly versatile – she’s done everything from telephony systems to Miss Moneypenny. She’s very clear on what she can offer, and also on what she can’t. “The thing is with voiceover is everybody's voice is unique,” says Liz. “There's not really much competition because nobody else sounds like you. And if a company decides that your voice represents their business, then nobody else can do what you do. I’ve worked quite closely with a couple of male colleagues because we're not really in competition at all, and usually people know if they want a female or a male. There’s one guy in particular – we’ve shared contacts, he’s had work from my clients and I’ve had work from his; we could have both kept everything to ourselves, but it works better to share things.”
The only thing Liz really doesn’t want to share are the germs that do the rounds at this time of year. When I spoke to her she was struggling with a persistent tickly cough – which must be one of the biggest risks to a voiceover artist’s career. There have been times when she’s had to work around a cold, but, as she writes in her informative blog, she takes a raft of preventative measures and natural remedies – and she also makes sure she looks after herself, too. She takes her dog, Marble, a whippet lurcher, for daily walks, which are a great tonic after hours spent in the recording booth. “Being self-employed and working from home gave me the opportunity to get a dog - it’s a great start to the day to get out in the fields with him,” says Liz. “When you work for yourself if you get sick then you don’t get paid, so it’s definitely worthwhile trying to keep as fit and healthy as possible. Luckily I’ve always enjoyed exercise, so it’s never been a new year’s resolution that gets discarded after a few weeks!
That’s advice we’d all do well to take heed of, whatever industry we’re in.