Desales University - Theater Arts Degree
Jeannie Stith wants to be the voice you hear in your head when you think of Trident, Neutrogena or a handful of other major brands. As a voice actor and voice-over coach, Jeannie’s cheery, light expressions can be heard on everything from commercials to audio books. And while it’s a career she never expected, Jeannie has developed a real passion for vocal work.
It’s that same passion that keeps Jeannie constantly seeking self-improvement, both professionally and personally. She's not afraid to dream big. Jeannie’s work has taught her “that having a big dream, a vision … is really important.” She'll even tell you that sometimes you can achieve a dream without even realizing it. It’s all part of the airy, fun attitude Jeannie brings to every aspect of her life.
I've learned that knowing your niche is vitally important to growing your career.
Life as a voice-over artist must be pretty cool. How did you get into a job like this?
In 1998, I was fresh out of college, working as an actress and waitressing in the evenings to make extra money. A friend of mine who had been working in voice-overs called me in a panic. The woman he was supposed to read a radio commercial with had cancelled at the last minute. He was calling to ask if I could be at the studio in a half an hour to fill in for her. I was a little intimidated, but half an hour later, I was doing my first voice-over for a jewelry company in Philadelphia. Little did I know that it would lead to a very fulfilling 14-year (and counting) career!
What does your typical job schedule and day look like? Does that change at any point during the year?
The best thing about the voice-over world is the light schedule. Most of the time, I'm recording radio and TV commercials, so my clients book me by the hour. On a typical week, I tend to work about eight hours total in the booth. I also spend about four hours per week coaching voice-over students in my home studio or over Skype.
A few times a year, I take on an audio book project. The audio book work is so satisfying; I love being the storyteller and sinking into a good work of fiction. But audio books take a lot of time. First, I read the book to myself, play around with how the character voices should sound (it's not unusual to have 40 character voices in one audio book!) and research any pronunciations/accents that might be needed. Then I typically record for seven hours per day until the audio book is complete. It's quite a challenge; it really stretches me as a voice-over artist and I just love it.
What is your niche in the voice-over world?
Over the years, I've learned that knowing your niche is vitally important to growing your career. For a long time, I fought my niche. The sound I do best is cheery, friendly, light, fresh. Think minty gum, dryer sheets, kids toys, you get the idea. For a long time, I tried to be something I wasn't: the sexy girl. I wanted to have a sexy voice, I really did, but guess what? I do NOT have a sexy voice! Or at least, there are other women who do it much better than I do. Once I surrendered to being my wholesome, perky self, the work flowed in so much more easily.
I may never be the voice of a perfume -- unless it's a Disney princess scent -- but that's okay. Now, even my website reflects my niche: it has a bright, cheery, fresh look to it. It helps clients cast me easily for what I do best.
I really encourage my students to find their niche early, but the interesting thing is that it often takes a little wrestling with. At first, many of my students feel uncomfortable with the very thing they're best at. So much of "you" comes through your voice that it sometimes brings to your attention truths about yourself you may not want to face. But, that's what listeners want. Truth. They want to hear genuine, relatable truth coming from a real person. If you try to hide who you really are when you're in the booth, your listeners will hear "the fake" immediately and tune you out. I love the Oscar Wilde quote "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." It's true in life as well as voice-overs.
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!”? What was it?
I signed on to be "the voice" of the Sprout Network about six years ago and have been working with Sprout ever since. You'll hear me in between shows on Sprout announcing what's coming up next, holiday specials, etc. My voice matched the network so well and the people at Sprout are so wonderful to work with that it just felt like a match made in heaven. Also, the work is very consistent. When you're a freelancer, so much time is spent looking for your next job that finding a regular client who uses you for six years and counting is like striking gold.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
I take my coaching practice seriously. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to give my students the very best training possible. Voice-over work is a subtle craft and sometimes the slightest little nuance in the voice can make a huge difference in the overall read. Guiding someone into hearing the nuances is a very interesting and sometimes challenging process. I only take on highly-motivated students who are really ready to delve into the work. In the end, they often end up inspiring me with their passion and creativity.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Even though my actual work schedule is light, I'm always working on improving my craft. I still take classes and spend a lot of time listening to voice-over artists and audio book narrators I admire. Since I don't have a 9 to 5 schedule, it can be easy for me to work into the evenings and lose myself in "self-improvement" mode. However, the tactic I've taken to avoid this is by adhering to my husband's work schedule. He has a 9 to 5 job, so when he gets home, that's my "call it quits" time, too.
What are some of the rules you live by?
I'm also a certified life coach and I've learned through coaching that having a big dream -- a vision for where I want my life and career to go -- is really important to me. I write down my dreams in detail just for the fun of it. I'm also very visual, so I love cutting photos out of magazines that inspire me and align with my dream life. I don't put a lot of pressure on myself to make any of it happen or worry about how it will happen, I just keep it light and fun. But I keep dreaming big. Years ago, I wrote down a dream vacation and totally forgot about it. Three years later, I got chills on the plane home from Italy when I realized I'd just taken the exact vacation I'd written down three years prior without even realizing it.
Also, I choose not to believe in "competition" in a traditional sense. I have no interest in being a cutthroat competitor. If I can't take a job for whatever reason, I'll recommend another voice talent who I think does great work. If the client continues to hire that person, I'm grateful that I could be part of their success. Practices like that help me grow into the person I want to be.
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful as a voice-over artist?
One of the big misconceptions about voice-over work is that you have to have a "special sounding" voice, like James Earl Jones, but it isn't true. In fact, no one comments on the "specialness" of my voice when I'm not in the booth! A great sounding voice certainly won't hurt you, but you need a lot more than that to make a career in voice-over work happen.
A great voice-over artist needs acting skill. You need to be able to take direction easily, create characters quickly, have the ability to read the same script 20 different ways, make the writer's words sound natural, have a good ear for subtle nuance and have a strong sense of timing.
What advice do you have for women who aspire to walk in your shoes?
If you don't have an acting background, acting classes or private voice-over classes are a must for getting started. Improv classes are especially helpful since much of voice-over work requires you to make quick choices on the spot.
Also, don't give up. Breaking into voice-over can take some time, but if you've developed your skills and have passion for the work, the career potential and lifestyle is worth the wait!
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I just love commercial work, so in five years, I'd like to be the voice of a few major household brands. I'd be a great voice of PetSmart, Trident gum or Neutrogena. So, hopefully the ad agents for those companies are reading this right now!