The Jiu Jitsu of Voice Over: Tips from an Audiobook Actor

Brian Wiggins

I never thought that my years of Brazilian jiu jitsu would ever intersect with my voice over career…and yet, it has, and in a very profound way. But perhaps I should start this story at the beginning…

February 2022 was a rough month.

I knew it was going to be slow. February historically has been a slow month for me on this front.  But on February 2, I got an email: the one audiobook I had under contract was indefinitely delayed.

For the first time in three years, I had no audiobook projects under contract.

The great thing about audiobooks is that there are so many projects out there; there’s more than enough for everyone to eat, regardless of where they are in their voiceover career. 

The hard thing about audiobooks is that they take a long time. And at a certain point, taking the royalty share or $80 PFH gigs on ACX doesn’t cut it when audiobook narration becomes a primary source of income. I can’t take the risk that the Audible sales will pay my mortgage.

And the pressure was on: my voiceover work, in the last year, had become my main source of income (yay!), and as is the nature of freelance work, at the moment I had nothing booked (boo!).

That pressure started to lead to some self-doubts. Should I keep doing this? Am I any good at this?

But if it’s one thing I’ve learned to deal with, it’s pressure.  It’s simply a mental muscle that requires training.  And with over nine years of training in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and about ten years of rock climbing before that, I’ve had ample opportunities to learn how to train my brain to react to pressure.

But how does the pressure to make it through a dry patch relate to, say, having someone try to rip your shoulder out of its socket?

Simple: mental pressure is the same, regardless of the source. The source is merely the trigger, something I can’t control. I can control how I react.

Our brains have layers, of which one of the oldest is the amygdala, the part that controls our fight-or-flight response, our basic survival instincts.  When this gets triggered, cognitive function drops and we focus almost entirely on the problem in front of us, and filter out all other stimuli and input.

Most of the time, simple things, like stubbing a toe, don’t trigger this. Our brains know that we aren’t in mortal danger.  But any unfamiliar stimulus that could be perceived as a threat (like not being able to afford rent or the grocery bill) can trigger this reaction.

When this happens, we tend to start reacting emotionally (the amygdala is the emotional response center as well), we don’t use logic in decision-making, and we often miss opportunities to find alternative solutions to problems.

Here are three tactics that can help train our brains to overcome this response so that our higher, more evolved, cognitive thinking kicks in, and mentally weather the storm.

1) Expose yourself to it.

There’s a maneuver in Brazilian jiu jitsu called “knee on belly”, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. I’ve had grown men (including the #8 ranked UFC welterweight Sean Brady) who outweigh me by 50+ pounds drive the point of their knee into my sternum as I lay on the ground and try to bend me in two. That’s pressure.

By exposing myself to this kind of physical pressure regularly, I can start to train my brain to not react with panic, regardless of the trigger. If I’m not panicking, I can see the options in front of me to escape the uncomfortable position and take action to alleviate the pressure, even a little bit.

I won’t say it’s always easy…it isn’t. But having that tool in the mental toolbelt made it a lot easier to talk myself into a better frame of mind as the month wore on.

2) What do I have? What do I need?

I teach this constantly as an underlying principle in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and it applies to my voiceover work as well.  If I need to escape from someone holding me down, or if I want to submit someone, I need to know two things: what do I need to do it, and what do I have right now? From there, I can figure out the route to get from where I am to where I want to be.

This mindset lets me focus on what I have (potential tools and solutions) rather than what I don’t have (a nail and no hammer, for example).  When you look at a problem this way, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a hammer; with the right thinking, to steal a phrase from Adam Savage, every tool is a hammer.

In the dearth that was February, I knew what I had: savings to get me through the month and longer, and two audiobook contracts for projects that would start in March. All was not lost.

3) Ask for help.

No one gets good at anything without help from someone who knows what they are doing. I would never have figured out how to execute a flawless armbar without having great coaches (like Julio Rosario (SSGT USMC, ret.) and Danny Gonzalez, both of Semper Fi MMA Academy here in Philly), and now as a black belt myself, I have the privilege of paying that forward. 

(For the record, my armbar is not flawless.)

I took the opportunity that the “downtime” that not narrating an audiobook afforded me to book a session with James Andrews, who coached me for my narration demo. It was exactly the pick-me-up I needed. He was equal parts uplifting (“You can do this!”) and blunt (“…so why the $%#@ aren’t you?!”). He was able to help me see what I was doing right and wrong, and more importantly, reminded me that I wasn’t alone and that this was just a normal part of the life of a voice actor. I could do this.

Epilogue

As I write this, I just wrapped up an audiobook, am starting the next one in my queue, and have two more in the pipeline, one of which I was offered just this morning, so I’m booked through at least mid-April.  Feast or famine, right? 

Now the pressure’s on to deliver some great audio for my authors…