By LaVarn Gordon, Student and Alumni Affairs Liaison and Vicki Liston, AMU Graduate
Life comes with many opportunities, obstacles, twists and turns. There are two ways we can approach life: we can let it spin out of control, or we can take control and guide the narrative of how we show ourselves to the world.
American Military University (AMU) alumna Vicki Liston chose the latter path. With the challenges she encountered, she took control of her life’s narrative and literally found her voice.
She eventually became an award-winning voice-over artist, writer, video producer and DIY expert. With her tenacity, dreams and goal setting, Vicki created the life she wanted for herself.
Overcoming Bullying with Good Grades and a Love of Music
Vicki was a child of the ’80s and learned problem solving and resiliency at an early age. Growing up, she had a tumultuous home life and was bullied relentlessly at school.
Because of this bullying, Vicki buried herself in her homework. Grades were one thing she figured she could control in her life.
Vicki also fell in love with music, which became a welcomed outlet. She learned to sing and compose, teaching herself to play the piano. All of this talent would serve her well later in life.
The love of music led Vicki to the University of Missouri Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music. She completed her undergraduate degree with a bachelor of arts in music.
Vicki spent the first half of her time at the Conservatory of Music studying composition until she discovered the audio engineering program. After learning audio engineering, Vicki spent the rest of her time there in the recording studio. She learned how to run a recording session, as well as microphone placement, production and other aspects of signal processing.
A week after Vicki completed her undergraduate degree, she gave birth to her son and spent two years solely on raising him. Vicki moved to Germany with her then-spouse and started working as a federal civilian as a secretary.
Eventually, she managed a Department of Defense Humanitarian Assistance Program. Vicki learned a lot about philanthropy in this position.
Continuing Her Studies at American Military University
Once her son started kindergarten, Vicki decided to go back to school and get her master’s degree. Being overseas made it a problem to find a school she could attend, however.
Vicki began researching accredited universities where she could attend no matter where she lived, and one of her military colleagues recommended AMU. The colleague noted that many military servicemembers went to AMU because they could continue their academic progress from duty station to duty station and did not have to change schools just because they changed locations. The program’s flexibility and reasonable tuition rates proved to be the perfect learning scenario for Vicki.
Vicki spent much of her undergraduate program balancing and scheduling work hours around her classes and studying, which at times could be utterly exhausting. When she started at AMU and enrolled in her first class, she prepared herself for the same level of exhaustion.
To Vicki’s surprise, her academic experience was completely different. The online class structure allowed her to pursue her studies around her work schedule and the raising of her young son.
When Vicki moved from Germany back to the States, she continued her AMU classes with no interruption. After her return to America, Vicki was presented with many “life hiccups,” as she calls them. Vicki had several moves and a divorce, and she also was raising a child by herself. AMU’s program gave her the flexibility she needed to continue her studies.
While pursuing her master’s, Vicki started working as a defense contractor and was able to apply the knowledge she was gaining in her coursework to her job. In February 2011, she earned her master of arts in management with honors from AMU.
Two of Vicki’s favorite courses were Critical Analytical Thinking and Strategic Management. Critical Analytical Thinking taught her how to look at problems and find creative solutions. Strategic Management taught her to look at the bigger picture with “Smart, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely” (SMART) goals. These classes and other courses at AMU would shape the next phase of her professional life.
Pursuing a Career in Voice-Over Work
As Vicki was pursuing her undergrad degree, she started seriously looking at voice-over work. In 2012, a year after her graduation from AMU, Vicki decided to study voice-over work professionally.
Vick went to New York and trained under Moneen Daley of Mo’Vibe Voice Overs and Susan Berkley of the Great Voice Company. She considered them to be successful voice-over artists who had the careers she wanted.
Vicki started to build a decent income doing voice-over work part-time. Vicki also signed with a talent agency while working a full-time day job as a defense contractor.
Becoming a Business Owner
While at AMU, Vicki did plenty of in-depth case studies of businesses, becoming familiar with both business successes and failures. With that foundation and encouragement from her then-boyfriend (now husband), Vicki took the leap and became a full-time business owner.
In December of 2019, Vicki started Smart Mouth Voice Overs LLC, where she is the CEO and the “Mouth of Smart Mouth Voice Overs.” This leap, however, coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Luckily, Vicki already had a fully functional, broadcast-level recording studio — complete with remote recording technology — before the pandemic started. Many professional voice-over actors scrambled to get set up when the pandemic hit, but she was ready.
Vicki has done voice-over work for national-level companies such as AT&T, Pizza Hut, Chevron, Delta Dental, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr, CKE Restaurants and the LPGA Golf Association. She has also done work for regional-level companies such as the Dallas Morning News, small businesses, start-ups, and nonprofits.
The Day-to-Day Work Life and Challenges of Voice-Over Work
The day-to-day work life for Vicki is different each day. She works with five different talent agencies across the country, so regular auditioning is a part of every day.
Networking is an essential step in booking work, so Vicki attends at least one networking event each week. She also spends time following up with new contacts to build meaningful relationships.
Smart Mouth Voice Overs is an approved government contract provider and a certified Woman-Owned Small Business. During other parts of her day, she does research and reaches out to potential new clients who are also approved government contractors looking for these specific accreditations.
One of the biggest challenges for Vicki in voice-over work is negotiating her rate with a new client who does not understand industry rates for voice-over work. Clients may not always understand what it truly costs for her to do what she does. For example, Vicki has trained with some of the best voices in the industry, uses top-of-the-line technology to record her work and has an education, all of which costs money.
Other services have unknowingly taken advantage of struggling creative professionals and many businesses by setting unfair rates. Vicki used to think that she needed to grasp every job thrown at her, even if the rates were grossly substandard.
Now, Vicki sticks to her rate sheet or brings in one of her agents to negotiate the booking. She says, “Trained creatives must insist that they are worth the insane number of hours they have put into their skills, education and training.”
Career Advice for Other Voice-Over Artists
During Vicki’s career journey, she has received much great advice and says that the best advice she has received came from her career strategist, Sandra Lord. Sandra told Vicki to set goals that she could control.
For example, one of her early goals with Sandra was to book more work and increase her income. Sandra pointed out that Vicki was not in control of who booked her, causing Vicki to feel frustrated and helpless.
As a result, Vicki decided to set SMART goals that she could control and complete. The increased income would be a by-product of those efforts.
Vicki recommends using SMART goals for anyone looking to get into voice-over work. Vicki also suggests studying the work of other successful voice-over artists to see what steps those artists took during their career path and emulate them.
She highly recommends investing in a coach. Vicki points out, “Successful athletes, actors, and entrepreneurs have coaches – mirror what they did and find a coach that’s doing what you want to do.” Vicki believes in researching potential coaches to ensure they have been where you want to go. The idea is to make sure that those coaches have already navigated their obstacles so they can help you do the same.
Receiving Awards and Spotlighting Her Talents
Vicki is very proud of her career successes and accomplishments. In May 2021, the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts (AIVA) announced that Vicki had won the Award of Distinction for her voice-over in AT&T’s “Motorola Razr 5G” commercial.
She also received the Award of Excellence, AIVA’s highest award, for the voice-over, filming, and production work of her video for the St. Louis non-profit, “Pound Pals Nooterville.” In addition to the AIVA’s awards, her “Pound Pals Nooterville” video won a Telly Award in the Social Video category at the end of May.
Vicki’s proudest moments come when aspiring creative professionals ask for her advice. She loves when they apply that career advice and follow up later to let her know about the fantastic things they have achieved.
Nothing thrills Vicki more than a short email or quick note of thanks and to see people excel. Vicki says, “We are all here to help each other, to be nice and to co-exist. There are more than enough opportunities and creative work for everyone.”
Outside of her voice-over work, Vicki has many other talents and hobbies. For the last six years, she has been singing and studying opera with a world-renowned baritone, Garrett Liam States. She is a professional actor and has been booked in various major motion pictures, films, and commercials.
Also, Vicki has a YouTube channel called “On The Fly…DIY,” which is her passion project. She donates all the proceeds earned from the series to no-kill animal shelters and rescue organizations.
Most importantly, her husband Lee and her family mean the world to her. Spending time with them and her rescue pup, Bailey Bobcat, is always welcome after a busy day.
Vicki Liston is a shining example of how taking control of your voice can lead to living out your passions. She has turned every obstacle into an opportunity.
Through every step of her journey, her philosophies have served her well, and she is not done yet. This AMU alumna has an even brighter future ahead of her. There is no doubt that her voice will continue to break barriers and achieve even more professional heights.
About the Author
LaVarn Gordon is a Student and Alumni Affairs Liaison. He is originally from Portsmouth, Virginia, but currently resides in Charles Town, West Virginia. LaVarn has been with the university since May 2017. His greatest joy is engaging and supporting the student and alumni body. LaVarn has an undergraduate degree in religious studies from Shenandoah University and is also a lover of music.