Social NOTworking

Everybody feels the pressure — especially us entrepreneurial types, who can only benefit from as many people as possible knowing what we do and just how to get ahold of us: the pressure of social networking. The idea of someone not Twittering a few times an hour? Someone who’s not in the habit of checking their Facebook page several times daily? Someone actually walking around amongst us without a website? And someone who doesn’t write a blog..? Career suicide. It’s almost a *requirement* in order to do business. Much like someone without a cell phone now (and there are a few out there who still resist the call of a personal device which makes them always reachable, trackable, and connected) the idea of someone not participating in at least a *couple* of the better-known social networking arenas is completely incomprehensible to most of us.

They’re not paved with gold, however.

Let me recount my personal experiences with my attempts at staying perpetually connected and trying to keep an uninterrupted “newsfeed” going:

Facebook

I was a late and reluctant joiner of Facebook. The day I activated my Facebook account was perhaps one of the most surreal and mind-numbing days of recent history. Almost immediately upon sending my information out there, droves of people — business contacts both current and past, friends who have been pestering me to join, people who I watched consuming paste in elementary school, ex boyfriends — people from assorted chapters in my life all converging together in a big, overstuffed party; all chatting at once. Some of it interesting, some of it not. I actually had the feeling that this must be what it feels like to walk in on an orgy already in full swing. Everyone’s having a great time, and urging me to jump in. I have mixed feelings about FB: I stop by every morning for about 15 minutes and check on my “community”‘s updates; I send birthday greetings and add to threads only when I feel I have something germaine, pertinent, or comical to add. I only post things on my wall which I think will also start similar “intelligent” threads — and lately I’ve been lucky with great, cohesive, level-headed discussions. I have no interest in posting minutae like: “Allison has eaten too much cheese”, purchasing a pig for someone in Farmtown (or receiving same), or add to the clutter with incessant Fitocracy updates. As for Facebook being an adjunct or a helpful tool for my career: while I do link up with clients and business contacts, for me, it’s really not where deals get made. Having had my own business website for over ten years, I’ve always thought of myself as ultimately “reachable” — there have been some business contacts who have approached me with projects by private messaging me through FB — which I suppose is a straighter line (and often less effort) than digging up my URL or e-mail address in their personal contact lists. I’m one of the few people with an actual Fanpage on FB — one of the Asterisk guys set it up, but it’s a huge time committment to keep it current, and so it sits, as inert and outdated as the Bobby Sherman Fan Club. I have learned a valuable lesson, though: I once posted some frustration about a client (I was very cloaked about it and made sure they they *weren’t* FB friends) — I had a private message from another client who wrote: “I sure hope you don’t vent about us when we ask you for redos!” Message received loud and clear. This is *very* different than complaining to a friend about a bad day. I’m venting to 389 “friends”, to be exact — some of whom might be quite rightfully hurt if I expressed discord at having worked on their last project in such a open, public forum.

Twitter

Don’t get me started. Seriously, I won’t do it. Again, another well-meaning Asterisk wonk set up a Twitter account for me, convinced that it was unthinkable that I wouldn’t want to keep all my “followers” (Twitter’s word, not mine) up to date about my every move — I have such resistance at cluttering up…everything…with too much….everything. I don’t care when  people are “wheels up” and care even less about “wheels down.” I don’t care to see a map where you’re enjoying chicken wings (and I REALLY especially care even less to see iPhone pictures of everything you’re about to consume.) Again, it ties back to my wish to make my FB page full of only witty banter, intelligent back-and-forth, and never wasting people’s time with….minutae. When I have something profound to say in a limited number of characters, that I think will merit from a widespread airing, I’ll Tweet. Don’t hold your breath.

Linked In

I  consider this a major bullet which I dodged recently; a very astute colleague of mine recently talked me out of forming my own Linked In group, and Holy Cow, am I glad he did. I just managed to extricate myself from a mere *discussion* I started on a Voice and Speech group, which went on for weeks and almost took the stuffing out of me. I can’t imagine the work which must go into moderating and overseeing your own group. I posted the link to my recent blog I wrote for this blogspace: “I Wanna Go Tuh Cleveland” in which I discussed the commonly-held belief that the relaxed, lazy cadence of “new-style” IVR delivery actually compromises Speech Recognition “hits” — for a change, I decided not to pour lots of research into the blog article and make it into a term paper, as these articles can sometimes turn into: I wrote from personal experience from what my clients in Speech Rec have been telling me for years. Well, soon, I had Speech rec experts from all over asking to see the proof of my long division and to “show my work” — I and many others defended my viewpoint, all without white papers to back us up, and it all turned out well, but those are hours I’m never getting back. As for merely connecting with people on Linked In — all I can tell you is that I’m in a big Roll-o-Dex in the sky. I may eventually get approached to voice telephone systems by someone whom I’ve exchanged info with on Linked In — it’s yet to happen.

Wikipedia

I attended a breakfast while attending IT Expo in Miami last February in which a public relations expert was casually mentioning the “science” behind creating a Wikipedia entry for her clients, and the distinct, rigid steps which must be undertaken to create this article in such a way which won’t get you tazed and thrown to the floor by the Wiki Police — who are apparently omnipresent and just dying to yank well-meaning articles off their site. There’s a definite science to constructing the entry (lots of documentation, factual writing done by *not* the subject but by an impartial third-party; nothing that sounds even remotely promotional or like a commercial) — even the inclusion of a photo is an excercize which makes a Smithsonian jewel theft sound sloppy (it needs to be timed to appear several weeks after the article is done and definitely never on the heels of other recent changes being made to the page, so as not to arouse suspicion from those monitoring the pages.) It was actually my incredibly savant “web-skippy” who pointed out the obstacles involved in getting my own Wiki page: it needs to monitored continually, for any negative comments or sabotage, which *anyone* can do, and the subject is not entitled to clean it up; he also pointed out to me that entries almost always been to have media or press links — there needs to have been something written about the subject previously in the media; video links are essential; press links are a must. I got over ther sting of Skippy telling me I wasn’t quite famous enough for my own Wiki page. And now, I’m grateful that I didn’t push the issue.

Blogs

Here’s where I enthusiastically and whole-heartedly proclaim that Blogs are Amazing. They truly are. In the two years I’ve written this blog, I have been able to educate the unitiated about the telephony industry in anything but a technical way; I voice telephone prompts every day (in fact, I’ve been described as – if not *the* most — one of the top three most prevalently heard telephone voices working today), and this has been my perspective of my writing: not someone who will write week after week about “SIP GUI Interfaces” or “Clouds” or any number of articles which speak to the inner workings of telephony. I write articles which reflect my outlook as a voice talent working in telephony; my articles in this blogspace are a great resource for me to steer my own clients towards when they’re faltering about how to get in IVR script off the ground; how to avoid the common pitfalls when constructing their IVR call flow; how to streamline their systems into the easiest system for their callers to use. I have been an evangelist to anyone — in any industry — who wishes to attract a clientele; especially if your industry is slightly obscure — as is mine — to start a blog. Provide useful content, commit to doing it on a regular basis, invite comments (which you must commit to reply to) and — naturally — write about what you know. I think blogging looks great on a resume; providing useful content for your industry to benefit from is a definite feather in your cap — as well as being a therapeutic endeavor for you, and let’s just face it — a great deal of fun.

Which brings me to a logical point to announce that this will be my last blog article — I have enjoyed immensely writing it for the past two years, but I feel it’s time to wind it down. In retrospect, I would have paced myself a bit more: during the first year and a half, I was blogging every week, which significantly tapped me out. I have always wanted to keep it content-rich; informative; and of course: avoiding the navel-gazing or “incessant barking” — there’s enough of that out there. I promised myself that I’d stop when I ran out of things to say — and I’m there.

Thanks to all of you who have read it regularly; I have enjoyed the comments and the discussions which have followed, and always tried to write in the purest, most honest, and hopefully entertaining way I could. It’s been my honor, and I’m grateful to have had this forum in which to launch ideas, pay homage, and to share my world with you.

Health and Happiness to you all!

We *Really Are* Happy to Serve You…

I had the good fortune to be able to persuade Emily Yellin, internationally-recognized Customer Service expert, to agree to be interviewed for this blog – I loved her keynote address at SpeechTek two years ago, and devoured her best-selling book “Your Call is (Not That) Important To Us”. In addition to being an author and in-demand speaker, Emily was a longtime contributor to The New York Times and has also written for Time, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Smithsonian Magazine, and other publications.

Being an enthusiast of streamlining the whole caller experience from my perspective – that of someone who records telephone systems daily – I was thrilled when Emily and I were able to coordinate a time to have a short interview and drill deeper into this whole conundrum of customer service automation – at first, intended to be a way to simplify the interactions between companies and their customers; now often a sticking point in the customer experience. What was – at one time – a measure to organize and sort callers before they got to a human, IVR’s have become a completely isolating turnkey vortex where people are literally “minding the store” by themselves.

Here’s what Emily Yellin had to say about the customer service experience and ways that companies need to – once again – point their focus towards what best serves their customers:

AS: Emily, to what degree should a company use their automated greeting to impart, educate, inform, and generally take up the customer’s time? I voice some greetings which literally go on for upwards of 5-10 minutes, in which they discuss their company’s history, how their widgets are manufactured, and what makes *their* widgets better than their competitors – all before the caller has even heard which options they can choose from. How much information is too much? How much of the customer’s time should be sacrificed to this end?

EY: I probably haven’t thought about it in the depth that you have – generally, though, it’s a good thing to assume that any of the rules that apply to interacting with people in person also apply on the phone – and certainly apply when you’re on an IVR system. I spoke to an IVR designer who put it this way, and I thought it was really good. He said: “If you went to party and somebody walked up to you and spoke to you non-stop for a minute and half, and the minute you started to say something, he or she said: ‘Oh hang on second’ and walked away, that would not be considered to be socially correct.” And so, I think it’s a good rule for companies to think of these interactions as personal and look at how you would act in person, and replicate that. Most companies just look at it from just their own point of view, where they have a message they want to convey to the customer whether the customer wants to hear it or not. That is not an effective or considerate way to design an IVR system.

 AS: How about using the on-hold system for that purpose? At least they’re filling the customer’s time on hold with something content-rich and somewhat informative…

EY: If the company feels some great need to do that on their phone system, they might want to re-examine what their motives are. In this world now, we are all time-starved, — and the time of the customers calling is just as important as the time of your employees. It’s really important to recognize that the people calling in aren’t getting paid for the time they’re spending on the phone. Your employees are. And so, I, as a customer – and I know most other people – value efficiency and consideration above all else. That makes it really important for companies to think long and hard and really put themselves in the shoes of their customers and say: “If I were calling a company, would I want to hear all this?” I think we’ve all been in the position where we don’t want to. Nobody cares about your company history as much as you do. Honestly. If I want to know about your company history, I’m going to call your PR people or go to your website, I’m not going to be calling your  customer service line. I think that’s a good example of companies that really are not thinking about things from their customer’s point of view; they are only thinking about things from their own point of view. And we all know that that’s not a good stance to have in any relationship.

 AS: I’ve had clients who deliberately make up fake mailboxes or departments to make their company appear to be bigger. I even made it one of the “15 Commandments of IVR” on the Digium blogsite as what *not* to do – what is your opinion of using the IVR to create the illusion of a bigger company?

 EY: I think anything where you’re not being honest with your customers is not a good policy.  I’ll just keep saying this: anything that’s solely driven from your point of view – from the company’s point of view — without thinking about the customer as someone who’s intelligent and equal is just wrong.

 AS: In my last blog, I wrote about the “casual”, informal tone that a lot of IVR’s take on now – and how it may compromise the accuracy of Speech Recognition utilities. Technicalities aside, what is your opinion of IVR moving away from the robotic “telephone lady” sound and edging more towards a “real person” sound?

EY:  People don’t like to hear robotic voices. But when it comes to IVR’s, less is more, and thinking about it too much and working too hard to make it human is kind of a waste of time. I think you should just transfer people to a human being as quickly as possible. Messages with lots of words are frustrating and annoying. So three or four options, and one or two times that you have to press something – that’s about it. Anything else is lazy on the company’s part.

AS: Automation of phone systems is moving towards a completely turnkey approach, and using one doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have contact with an actual live human, the way it used to. Should IVR be thought of as a “replacement” for the live agent?

EY:  You need to be able to get to a human being at any time and be upfront about this and remind your callers. I see the value in something like Julie for Amtrak, who I wrote about. But to employ an IVR system solely to save money, and not to think about the repercussions of how it can go wrong and all the ways people can respond is a problem. When  you ask a question, what you want in response on your IVR system needs to be considered when the system is designed. I think companies have to spend a whole lot more time thinking this through.

When IVRs were initially employed, that lack of care is what made people so mad. So if you’re still going to present it that way, you’re going to make people mad. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try; no matter what. I understand the importance of having some sort of gate-keeper when people first call to direct them generally in the right direction, and that makes sense for the customer. But once it starts not making sense for the customer and only making sense for the company that’s when you have to stop and reconsider. At all turns, you have to ask: “is this what’s best for our customer?”  I can understand the argument that if it IVRs save money and they direct people to the right people immediately, that’s best for customer because they’re saving money that would go into the cost of their product or service. But what I don’t understand is when IVRs start asking the customer to work really hard just to get a something basic done. Then that becomes a way you’re going to lose customers – and the long-term effects of that are far-reaching.

AS: Is this revolutionary thinking for companies with whom you consult, or for your audiences when you speak?

EY: I maintain my stance as an outsider, and I can’t tell if you if it’s revolutionary or not. All I’m trying to do is be a really pure voice for the customer so that people in companies don’t lose sight of what they’re doing this for and the meaning behind what they’re doing.  And so, in everything that’s done in customer service, the more that it can be humanized and not be de-humanizing the better. Obviously, IVRs really, literally, *are* de-humanizing – because they’re not human beings. So anything you do that de-humanizes the interaction, the relationship with your customer, you have to be really, really careful. I don’t think that’s revolutionary. What is revolutionary is forcing low-quality and high-frustration IVRs on people. I think that’s pretty revolutionary, because it’s throwing away the humanity that is the point of any kind of relationship, either business or personal.

 When you look at the history of how customer service evolved, it evolved from the receptionist position, and so its status, or lack of status, within companies has come from those origins. One thing I try to say as strongly as I can is that it’s in everyone’s best interest to recognize the real value of the customer service function in your company. If you get it out of the ghetto of your corporate structure and make in front and center, you’re going to have something most companies don’t have: a real focus on your customer and what your customer’s needs are.

What if the head of customer service were paid second only to the CEO? How would your company change? And instead of saying “we’ve got to clear it through legal” or “we’ve got to clear it through finance.” They would say” What’s customer service going think of this?” That would be a revolution. That would be a change that I think would be very good for everyone, including for the bottom line of the company.”

Emily gives absolutely common-sense insight in an extraordinary way: she reminds companies where their focus should be — on the customer. Automated ways of “sorting” customers or creating a more turnkey aspect to a business must never be implemented at the cost of human frustration or the alienation of your customers.

Next blog article: I’ll be writing about the effectiveness — or lack of — in social networking.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment!

“I Wanna Go Tuh Cleveland…”

An interesting trend developed in telephony a few years back.

There was an active and vehement move away from the robotic, automaton sound of early voice recordings on telephones — recordings which seem to have been deliberately done that way, in order to eliminate any confusion as to whether or not the caller had reached an actual, live human being or a “machine” – and a move more towards a relaxed, natural, conversational cadence. A tone which says: “Yes, you’ve definitely reached a self-serve system — but think of me as just another fellow human being. I hate these things, too!” The thinking behind it is: if the caller feels the voice behind the system is welcoming without using up too much of their time; reassuring without being obsequious; and — all the better — if the voice can sound like the caller’s best friend or neighbor, the caller will “engage” the system, follow the instructions accurately, not hang up in frustration, and not have a whole new veneer of annoyance on top of the issue they’re calling in about, by the time they *do* make it to an actual rep. And even if they have managed to turnkey themselves into a solution (made a reservation, checked their Visa balance) and never had to actually speak to a live operator, their opinion of that company or the transaction can still be made or broken by that automated voice alone.

Solid thinking. And personally — having voiced telephone prompts for companies internationally, and for a wide variety of industries — I applauded, and still continue to applaud that trend. Rather than having to “put on” a voice which isn’t actually natural for me to speak in, I’m allowed — nay — encouraged to sound like an actual, real person (what luck! I happen to *be* one…) Real people hesitate slightly when they’re trying to think of just the right word; there’s a certain…pause…which seems normal in everyday conversational rhythms; and there’s almost a  “stumbling” effect which many clients want me to do when I’m voicing — so that I’ll sound like a real person. Actual speech is full of slurs, imperfections, and natural flaws which we all try to avoid in everyday conversation — it’s those natural “artifacts” which are big in IVR right now. (On the extreme end of that scale was a company who produced on-hold messages, who encouraged me — if at all possible — to come up with a yawn or sneeze in the middle of script, just to reinforce that a “real” person took the time to voice it — I talked them out of that. That’s just a little too “real”.)

However, consider this: humans — being quintessentially social – are infinitely comfortable in taking on the mannerisms, rhythms, and traits of those other human with which they’re interacting. Watch a pair of humans introducing themselves to one another, and the intricate ballet which ensues. They will — without even thinking about it — mirror the other’s mannerisms, the “rate” or speed at which they converse, and the innate need to “match” their conversational partner. It’s the reason why accents are irresistible to *not* absorb as you speak with a native of Scotland, for example. It’s why dating coaches actively encourage their clients to make a point of deliberately matching their prospective mate’s every mannerism move for move — that sympatico that mirroring creates is not only beneficial to our harmony with others — it’s automatic and almost impossible *not* to engage in.

How that relates to IVR is simple: whether or not you’re aware of it, you mirror the “tone” set by an IVR you call into. In many ways, that voice dictates the formality or informality of  the transaction. It tells you everything you need to know about the company and even gives you an idea of the level of service and attentiveness you can expect when your issue or problem is eventually dealt with. And the degree of “precision” apparent in the voice is likely how *you* will respond.

Think, for example of an IVR voice saying — in a no-frills, somewhat flat-toned delivery: “Please tell me — clearly and slowly — the city to where you’d like to travel. Please press pound when finished.” If you’re the caller, hoping to book a flight to Cleveland, you’ll probably take that instruction quite seriously and deliberately slow your roll as you enunciate — much more slowly and clearly than you’d normally be inclined to: “I’d like to travel to Cleveland, please.” (Even mirroring the two “pleases” which were in their command). Or — you might even just intone: “Cleveland.” In stark contrast would be the “modern” style of IVR: “Great. I can help you book your trip.” (Playfully) “Why don’t tell me where you wanna go..?”

Naturally, you’re going to reply (playfully) “I wanna go tuh Cleveland.”

Fun, yes? And while this style of recording is accessible, young, modern, and warm, it didn’t take long for data to surface which found fault in that casual, almost *too* relaxed call and reply: speech recognition software struggles to fit the biometrics of “informalspeak” and complains of a less than perfect hit-rate when callers match a “lazy” IVR’s cue. Also, where with “traditional” clipped, more severe IVR’s, the caller would be more likely to just say “Cleveland”, for example, than a chatty, off-the-cuff IVR might be inclined to make the callers respond in kind, or elaborate more than they would under the parameters of a “stiff” automated system. With less accuracy comes confusion, more time burned up, and a greater chance that the customer will either pull the plug on the call, or be so annoyed with the ongoing attempts to repeat their selection, they’ll be stoked with a refreshed supply of vitriol for the poor CSR to whom the call eventually gets transferred.

While I’m a fan of a more relaxed, conversational tone — both as a caller and as a voice of IVR systems – the dangers of “under-enunciating” are vast and very real. I like to strike a balance between the friendly and natural, and also being a clear enunciator (while I keep my diction as clear as possible when I’m working, anyone who has spoken to me over the phone after a long day in the booth can testify that I slur like Tom Brokaw). To be relaxed and conversational, and yet authoritative enough to make sure people “hit” the speech recognition utility is always my goal.

Perhaps — to maintain the integrity and accuracy of speech recognition utilities — a certain amount of formality is required in an IVR.  It could be argued that there’s no getting away from a steady, even-toned delivery, if it means a clean, well-running match-up of vocal input whose ultimate goal is getting callers to the right department.

I’m very excited about my next upcoming blog, where I interview the legendary Emily Yellin — arguably the world’s expert in customer relation metrics. We had a great chat about what companies desperately need to know about designing effective telephone systems, and I bring you that interview in about two week’s time.

As always, thanks for reading. If you have any comments or insights about what you’ve read, feel free to leave a comment!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

Obscenity Will *Never* Go Out of Style

"What type of pepper are you wear-....urm...snorting..?"

It was an obscene phone call so well cloaked; so incredibly subtly executed, that I didn’t even know I was into it until it was way too late. It was a Saturday morning, full of the usual hub-bub and rushing around that weekends usually bring, and we were on our way out of the house when the phone rang. It was a rep from an ad agency who was casting a radio spot for a cold and flu remedy, and he was on the prowl for a voice actress who could convincingly voice a spot sounding like she had an actual, real cold. 

No problem! This is what I do!

I proposed that he send me the script over the weekend, and I’d be happy to record a demo in my studio first thing Monday morning. Nope — that wouldn’t work: time was of the essence and he needed it right away. Not at all unusual for broadcast jobs. Instead of recording it, he asked me to just demonstrate over the phone right then and there that I could do it (red flag number one), and when I asked if he could send the script for the commercial via e-mail, he refused (red flag number two) — he just told me to grab whatever copy I had handy and just read from that. I located a script for a job I had done earlier that week and started reading it in what I thought sounded like a very believable, stuffed-up, sniffly fashion.

No good.

He explained that there’s a “cliche”, cartoon-y, “I can’t brede I’m sooo sdufffed up…” characterization, and he wanted to avoid that — he needed that distinct sound of a woman with actual, inflamed sinuses. The client’s very picky, he went on to explain — and the client hated everyone they’ve auditioned so far because they were giving him that “fake cold” sound.

(Nothing puts a bigger fire in a voice talent’s belly than the idea that all other talent before us has tried and failed, and that *I* must be the one they’re looking for! It’s like catnip to us.)

I really focus, and give him another take, which — in my estimation — sounded exactly like I do when I actually have a cold.

Again – it’s just not working for him.

Then, he asked a curious question.

“Do you have pepper in the house..?”

Urm….certainly. I am an inquisitive cook who has been influenced by every cooking magazine and blog out there to acquire each and every exotic, multi-colored breed of peppercorn on the market. My pantry practically groans with every variety of available pepper. What the Hell does that have to do with voicing the spot? What……oh HELL NO…..

This calm, apparently intelligent and ultimately normal-seeming man went on to request: “Grind up some pepper, and then snort it up both nostrils. That should give you the right ‘congested’ sound. Go ahead. I’ll hold on the line while you do that…”

And the Third Red Flag’s a Charm!

I hung up as fast as I could. Apart from telling my husband about it, I actually didn’t tell any other voice talent about it, until about a year later, when I read on a message board about the same thing happening to another female voice talent.

Turned on by women who have colds? I’m not sure if that’s even in the DSM IV (soon to be V) catalogue of psychiatric disorders, but if it isn’t, it sure should be. And rather than trolling around doctor’s offices or working for a pharmaceutical company running test groups for Sudafed, he decided to mine voice talent, who might be considered somewhat expert at sounding any way they’re asked to sound. His payoff would obviously be  finding someone willing to “play” and indulge his predilection — and judging by my brief, split-second thought of travelling a few steps to the kitchen and actually reaching for a pepper grinder — others may not have had similar filters in place, and indulged him.

Not the usual heavy breathing “what are you wearing?”-type of obscene telephone caller, but it still made me think about the nature of obscene phone calls — and whether or not they would go the way of the buggy whip now that we have the entire world wide web to indulge the stuffed-up sinus devotees, or any other wide variety of arcane turn-ons which used to occupy phone lines and force women into listing their home numbers with only first initials “A”, “J” or “D”, for example.  With caller ID, instant traceability like *69 (which will call back the last incoming number), and call blocking features, one would think that the risk would be higher than the “payoff” and that our ability to float — featureless — in the ether of the internet — would all but eliminate the need for phone prowlers. There’s a transparency now that was previously unheard of. Phone tracing used to be time-consuming, expensive and used only in rare cases of kidnapping or treason. It’s now completely turn-key.

But let’s not forget what that “payoff” of the obscene call actually is, and the basis behind the admonitions from telecom companies to their customers for decades: it’s the startled, shocked, extreme reaction from the recipient of the call which delivers the goods for the obscene caller. It’s that real-time shock and surprise in the voice of the victim on the other end which is at the heart of the calls — an immediate and often highly charged response is what they’re after, and reason why a soft (non emphatic) hang-up is always recommended. A strong, even volatile reply in the form of a return e-mail cannot carry the same emotional weight as a real-time register of shock and disgust.

Are there fewer obscene calls now than there were twenty or thirty years ago? Stats are surprisingly hard to unearth; I did find a quote from a Pacific Bell rep who vouched for the instance of general harassment calls to “go in spurts” and that the trend in so-called “crank” calls (along the lines of Prince-Albert-in-a-Can pranks) still escalating around school break times. As to the instance of obscene calls falling as a direct result of other, more cloaked means of communication — we can only guess.

My take on it is that the gratification achieved by the obscene phone caller can never be replaced with keystrokes, and that the relative ease with which callers — whether it be from landlines or cellular networks — can be tracked and pinpointed, only adds to the risk and danger — and m ay heighten the conquest. Obscene messages have even become a growing phenomenon on Skype, with a cloaked protection of forwarded numbers and shared ID’s making the “messager”‘s identity difficult to trace.

I, for one, am thrilled that my exposure to a “phonoerotic” was limited to that one surreal Saturday morning, and I’m happy to report that my peppercorns are safe snd secure in the pantry, where they belong.

Join me here for my next article — in about two week’s time — when I delve into whether or not the casual, relaxed — even lazy — preference in IVR prompts is helping or hurting us.

Thanks for reading!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

Like a True Pro — He Makes it All Look So Easy

If you’re lucky, you have a colleague in your profession who sets the standard; one who acts as the vanguard of things untried, and who raises the bar for everyone else.

If you’re *really* lucky, this person does all that in such a way which inspires without alienating, who makes strides without gloating, and who is generous by unhesitatingly sharing what they know.

I have such a colleague in Paul Boucher.

Paul Boucher

Paul is an amazing voice talent, with a world-wide clientele and a seemingly non-stop schedule of projects for companies like NASA, Pratt & Whitney, Microsoft, Dell, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Disney Asia, among many others. Being a bilingual voice talent (acquiring French while growing up in Northern Ontario) makes him a double-threat and even more marketable. He is driven, motivated, and always seems to be several lengths ahead of the rest of us — and does all that without a hint of ego. In fact, I’ve frequently described him as one of nicest people in the business — a sentiment echoed by all who meet him.

Chance — and not a little bit of chutzpah — got him started in voiceover:

“In 1977, I was fired from my lifeguard position at 15 for insubordination”, recalls Paul, “and seeking fame and glory (and apparently desperately needing attention), I walked into the local radio station in Kapuskasing Ontario looking for a job as a DJ. Essentially the job requirements were being able to walk and talk at the same time, ’cause I got in.”

I think merely being able to say “Kapuskasing” nailed it.

Paul continues:

“Since then,  several important people and experiences helped to shape me as a voice performer. The first two jobs I had in radio – 4 years worth – we did everything on air, including assemble and read long 5 to 10 minute newscasts. I loved it! Also, we often had to write our own copy, and produce the commercials we aired on the radio station. It was a fantastic creative opportunity, and as you can imagine, some things worked, more didn’t, but every one was a learning experience.”

Not everyone would easily adapt to a job which involved so many skill sets — writing, producing, and speaking are very distinctly different disciplines. Undaunted, Paul dove in, as is his inclination when things get challenging or unfamiliar.

Paul further outlines his evolution as a voice artist:

” Norm Zanolli, (a producer in Grande Prairie, Alberta) was the first producer to ever show me how to work in a booth, surrender the mechanics and just “read” a spot in a separate voice booth. He was very patient, very kind, and very encouraging. We’ll zip ahead to Calgary and my other touchstone formative experience in voice:  working with Calgarian (now Toronto based) composer and producer, Amin Bhatia. Amin was restlessly creative, always looking for something a little “other”, a little “further”, a little “better”, and he stirred in me a desire to deliver a “performance” rather than a “read”. It was with Amin and the fabulous creative team at Lite 96 in Calgary of Janet Connerton and Chris Kennedy that I discovered what it was like to be in the moment, feel the words, and attain another plateau creatively. Importantly, like the newscasts from early in my radio career, I found I enjoyed the longer pieces, and so began a slowly evolving non-broadcast narration business.”

It must have been a solid and comprehensive training ground. Paul’s ease in front of the mic; his intelligence in assessing material; and his insistence of capturing and conveying the writer’s intention has made him a favorite among writers and producers.

But his curiosity and skills didn’t stop behind the mic.

“I was also a computer geek and not long after my introduction to Peter Temple, I was shopping my demo around studios in Calgary and came across a studio where they’d recorded a long instructional program teaching people how to use Outlook and the rest of the Microsoft Office 97 suite of applications. I heard the existing narration and suggested that they actually needed a professional to do this (arrogance can occasionally be perceived as chutzpah depending your perspective). I explained that I had the narration skill and the passion for the subject that they needed to make this come alive. “

( I assure the readers — arrogance would be the last word used to describe Paul.)

Paul continues: “The producer (also a pretty mean narrator herself, Edie Tusor) didn’t think that a broadcaster could sustain a read beyond 30 or 60 seconds, but I surprised her and that relationship led to some eLearning programs that were favourably reviewed in the magazine Technology Quarterly. I was in geek heaven with this stuff, and I started to look for this sort of work, and the work began to find me. I put up my first web site in May of 1997, and within weeks was working for clients all over North America. The first one was a Mexican Pharmaceutical company that was heading to Germany for a trade show. They wanted an ‘American’ sounding narrator on a kiosk presentation and so, I did it.”

Ahh, Mexican pharmaceuticals — where would I be today without them? But I digress.

I ran some questions past Paul, to get his position on what it’s like to be a freelance voice talent like myself; I also wanted to see if his experiences were similar to mine.

A: If you were to put a finger on the five aspects of your favorite clients, what would those be?

PB: They’re prepared. They’re professional and respectful of the time it takes to deliver a quality product. They have LOTS of work. (LOL)They trust me – which then encourages me to give them more reasons to trust me and so on, and so on, and so on. and they’re good, honest people with integrity. They help to reaffirm my view that most people are good, and that the glass is half full.

A: We’ve all had less than perfect experiences with clients. What would you say are the five warning signs that a client is going to be ‘trouble’?

PB: BIG FLAG: starting the relationship with a “favor”. It usually goes something like this: “So, we’ve got this client, and they have TONS of work, but they’d like to get this small project produced at no cost first to: insert your own lie here: get a  feel for your voice and how it sounds with our product, see if it works, try to sell the stakeholders…blah blah blah. If you don’t value your talent/product, and hold a client accountable for SOME SORT of compensation, even the 1st time, then the client won’t either. Fortunately, I’ve only had to learn and re-learn that lesson a couple of times.

NOT WANTING TO HEAR THE DETAILS OF THE PROCESS BEFOREHAND: including revision fee structures etc. They typically put in an oscar-winning wounded dog performance when you tell them there’ll be a revision charge.

WANTING A HANDSHAKE AGREEMENT when, in actual fact, something written would be a good idea.

MAKING EXCUSES BEFORE STARTING about money and budgets being tight and how they’ll pay you when the client pays them, “but they can be slow”. Me to them: I’m not your bank, and your inability to collect from your clients is simply not my problem. 

LOW BUDGET CLIENTS WITH EXPECTATIONS worthy of stage riders by rock bands. I stay away from them. 

A: What do you do better than your competition?

PB: Hmm. One of my biggest advantages has been technological. I’ve been able to leverage technology to help me be proactive and consistent with communication to build relationships with clients. Once I have those relationships, I’ll move heaven and earth to make sure they’re super-served. I’m under no illusion that I’m the “best” at anything. There’s always someone who’s at least “as good” as you are at anything. My hope is that by consistently helping clients to realize their projects in a way that exceeds their expectations, then I’ll continue to enjoy privileged relationships with them. Technology has helped me to always be slightly ahead of the curve helping clients that way. I’m able to respond faster, get product to them faster, at a higher quality than many of our peers. I offer several distinct advantages, from secure permanent digital archiving of studio sessions (you’d be amazed at how often clients need to re-use something from 4-10 years back), to secure shredding and recycling, enterprise level security on my network so client files aren’t at risk, and more. I’ve helped clients evolve their own best practices at work, and also welcomed their input into my business to make it even more able to serve them.

One other important factor in my success is my peers. I proactively seek to mentor and share as many good things as possible with my peers in Calgary. I have always maintained that it’s better to share information and mentor each other forward into more successes than it is to remain “siloed” and isolated and protective of turf. I’ve learned a ton from the people around me, and hopefully, by reciprocating when I can I’ve helped them too. As an example – and I’ve said this plenty of times in conversation away from your blog, many of us have looked upon you as the queen of marketing in our business in Calgary. Your inventiveness, consistency and professionalism have been hugely influential in our small community. You still set the bar in our market. 

A: Blush! Thanks. You and I have discussed how insular it can feel being a voice talent with your own studio. We do less mingling with other talent; meet fewer clients face to face, and can pretty much keep our head down and do our work in own little inner “sanctums”. What are the positives (and negatives) of working in such a solo trajectory? Speaking for myself: sometimes I occasionally miss the hum of people around me, but for the most part, I enjoy the solitude.

PB: You’ve hit on something very important there. I wouldn’t trade the autonomy and independence of working from home anymore, but I know I’m vulnerable to “hunkering down”, being a homebody and what not, and I think that process can lead to a sort of sameness to thinking that’s applied to the business and even relationships and conversations. I have an external business manager who is a huge influence. She brings her wealth of experience and outside input into my life every day. We can confidentially discuss almost anything to do with the business and life. I sought out a business coach for a few years for very similar reasons and can recommend that experience almost unconditionally. You may be king/queen of your castle, but it’s good to have someone challenge your thinking from time to time just to remind you that you don’t have all the answers. :-) This isolation is a seismic shift in how the industry works, especially away from the big 3 markets in both the US and Canada. L.A., New York, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver all have much more structured industries with casting directors, ad agencies and thriving segments of the industry that require talent to go to studios to audition and record paying gigs. In Calgary, if we’re working full time in our business, we typically have quite a bit of work from out of the market, and we develop decades long relationships with people we’re probably never going to meet. We typically have evolved our home studios to serve a couple of original clients and it’s grown in sophistication pretty organically from there as the business has grown. We’re pretty much able to work from anywhere with a broadband connection. Alone. Disconnected. It can all be pretty isolating, and even demoralizing if you’re the sort of person that thrives on social contact. I know that sensing the possible negative aspect you mentioned, I enthusiastically accepted an invitation to be part of a business breakfast club in town several years ago (Early Birds – oldest business breakfast club in Calgary). We meet face to face once weekly. The variety of business experience, perspectives and accumulated wisdom of some of these people honestly blows me away from week to week. That experience taught me to make a point of meeting up with people on a rotating basis a couple of times a month. I’m now very conscious of my lack of contact with the industry, and face time is important. Finally, I think (although I’ve found this harder to put into practice), that it’s important to “touch the industry” in as many ways as possible:  attend as many local industry functions as possible to let people know you exist. Show up for those things, flex your “schmooze” muscles and let people see you in/out of a strict work context. With all our skill at virtual contact, there is still no real substitute as powerful as “face time” with someone. Join associations, travel to get coaching, whatever works for you, but get out of the bubble. Secure and lovely as it is, it’s a bit of an illusion, and getting out there can do nothing but make your relationships richer, more interesting, and ultimately from a business standpoint, more productive.

As you can see: Mr. Boucher is self-effacing, without pretense, and simply matter-of-fact about his considerable  success. His velvet voice is something any voice talent would kill for; but in addition to that considerable gift, his business sense is acute, his groundedness is enviable, and his accessibility and openness in assisting others in the industry is something we should all study and emulate.

And like a true pro: he makes it all look so easy.

Visit him at www.paulboucher.com.

In two week’s time, I’ll explore another aspect of telephony which is slowly falling by the wayside: obscene phone calls. Call them another casualty of the internet!

Thanks for reading…

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

I Don’t Really Sound Like That….Do I…?

When  people find out that I voice for a living, I will commonly get the confession: “I hate the way I sound in recordings. I sound terrible!”

Some will even go so far as to ask: “How can you stand to edit your sound files and listen to yourself all day..?”

I try not to take that one personally — they’re simply expressing an almost universal perception that virtually everyone comes to when they hear their own recorded voice: That’s not me. I sound completely different than that….

Actually, they’re absolutely correct.

Plainly put: your head resonates. It vibrates.

Inside your ears is an organ called the cochlea, a structure which converts vibrations of sounds in the air into electrical signals which the brain can understand. The cochlea gets stimulated by the air pressure waves caused by sounds in the air, but at the same time, it picks up vibrations of the bones in your skull. Listening to sound in the environment, the chief source of those sounds is coming through the air. When you’re speaking, the cochlea gets stimulated by the skull vibrating, as well as the sound coming out of your mouth and going through the air to your ears. Another way to look at it is that air-conducted sound is transmitted from the environment through the external auditory canal, eardrum, and middle ear to the fluid-filled spiral of the cochlea; Bone-conducted sound (your voice) reaches the cochlea directly through the tissues in the head.

You are — in essence — benefitting from a network of bones, tissue, and muscle, providing a soothing network of baffling which softly muffles your voice until it actually takes on a “persona” of its own — vastly different from the voice which others hear, and which ends up on your voice memos or your voice mailbox outbound greeting.

For myself — I have long since surrendered any self-consciousness about the sound of my voice and have long ago given up any of the shock which often comes from hearing one’s own voice played back to them — I have listened to my own voice broadcasted back to me via radio, TV, and telephone systems for over twenty years; I have been recording and editing my own sound files professionally for greater than a dozen years. Day in and day out – the navy blue waveforms on a white background are the visual representations of the sound files I record for my clients, and I’m as objective and clinical about editing them as a writer red-lining their own writings. My voice files have merely become my “product”.

 I have the detachment of the ballerina who sees not her form in a total, encompassing way; she sees “leg not straight enough” or “pleie needs to be deeper.” I hear, with my detached, analytical ear: “breath strong throughout that sentence but diminishes too fast towards the end” or “too gravelly”. I self-edit on the spot — I monitor closely each intonation and decide on the fly which needs to be re-attempted, and which is “up to standard.” I can hear the ranch dressing I shouldn’t have had with lunch; I can hear that my head cold is *almost* gone – but not quite; I can hear the effects from having enjoyed a couple of drinks in a noisy environment and strained to speak over the noise the night before — I even redo a prompt simply because of an inflection sounding…”off”. Like a model who doesn’t self-consciously recoil at photos of herself (like most of us do) — she will, instead, eliminate a shot because the angle of her chin was too high; her shoulder was too parallel to the camera, or any manner of other technical aspects by which she critiques her work.

Similar to catching an unexpected reflection of yourself, we have a tendency to shrink away when we hear our voices captured unexpectedly on a home-shot video recording or even when someone plays a message back which we’ve recorded — understanding the biomechanics of why our voice sounds different to us than to anyone else merely accounts for the difference — but doesn’t help us to fully bridge the chasm between how we sound to “us” and how we sound to everyone else. Our voices are an aspect of our beings which have a mysterious double-life and that’s difficult — if not impossible — for us to reconcile. I think our “real”, “authentic” voice is heard when we verbalize in our dreams; when we tell those close to us that we love them — even the gentle patter when we talk to ourselves *must* be more “authentic” than our voice left on a voicemail system or even in the form of a coffee order which falls on a barrista’s ears.

In my next blog — in about two week’s time — I’ll feature a brilliant colleague of mine: voice talent Paul Boucher, who is a force of nature in the voice-over industry, and also happens to be one of the nicest people in the business.

Thanks for reading!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

The Miracle of Career Coaching

Why would *I* need coaching?

I’m busy (sometimes busier than I can handle); I’m working in a fun and unusual career — voicing telephone prompts — and completely fulfilled doing so. I’m well-known and respected in my industry, and well paid. Some might question why anyone who appears to have everything aligned needs…well…realignment.

But let’s look closer: yes, I am recording from sun-up to sun-down. Every voice talent’s dream! But as constant as the work is, I’m always aspiring to add bigger, long-term, and more high-profile contracts to my list of credentials. While I have amassed a great roster of fabulous clients, (and am hugely grateful for them all..)  I was undercutting myself by offering a “per-prompt” rate for anyone who had one or two prompts to record at a time — that discounted rate was creating and inviting time-consuming “piecemeal” work — and it went even deeper: the kind of customer who only needs a couple of prompts and then is never seen again, runs counter to my ultimate goal of high-volume, ongoing client relationship-building which I already have in place with many clients — but needed more of. Or rather, I could clearly see the day where I *only* work for my current long-term clients — and only attract others who are similarly interested in on-going service. I want to be the voice of AT & T. I want to be the voice of Cisco. What’s standing in my way? A photographer colleague of mine made the analogy of the “grunt work” he needed to do to make a living (passport photos, and yes — even wedding photos) as being the “wiener meat” of his diet. He wanted more filet mignon.

Enter a pert, blonde dynamo from Nova Scotia named Jacqui McNeil.

Jacqui was recommended by a friend who used her services as a “tune-up” as she transitioned from a less-than-fulfilling career to following her dream — and Jac was the catalyst to give her the courage to make such a move and to facilitate her along the way. I expressed to my friend a feeling of “blockage” (I called it “career constipation” in a less-than-eloquent moment) and wondered if this highly-recommended career coach could help in “un-sticking” me and assist at me grabbing that higher-hanging fruit — or the filet mignon (OK — too many mixed metaphors, and most of them dealing with food — I must be hungry…)

Jac and I had an initial consultation via Skype — primarily to assess how good of a “fit” we’d be, and for me to be frank with her: I have voiced IVR and conference platforms for career & life coaches who blatantly struck me as gigantic flakes. Diabolically airy, even unapologetically witchy, and perhaps most vexing: never *ever* capable of proving — tangibly — just what it is they profess to do.

Jacqui met my skepticism with  complete understanding; totally getting that someone new to the process would be leery — even doubtful — of jumping right into a coaching relationship, and she completely understood my low tolerance for what we both got into the habit of referring to as: “Woo-woo” (any type of ethereal smokescreen or even a hint of cliche incense-infused wim-wam.) I’m a down-to-earth, pragmatic person, who likes seeing measurable, empirical results. She welcomed that candor, and I knew instantly that she was going to be similarly “real” with me.

Throughout our Skype sessions — which spanned six months — we connected on a very visceral level. I took all homework and assignments seriously (even asked for extra); I wanted to optimize our sessions together, and it was important for me to bring out of the sessions a very strong, tangible take-away: retain what I already have, but improve on it. Keep the incredible “regulars” I have; be better at screening out those whose need for my services are minimal. Get closer to my goal of filet mignon, and more clearly see the roadblocks which I had been unaware of — or unwilling to acknowledge — which were impeding my way to the buffet (seriously: I have to find something to eat..)

I interviewed Jac for this blog largely out of curiosity: I wanted to see if other people’s experiences were similar to mine; I also wanted to dig into where this skepticism about life/career coaching comes from.

1. I made it clear — from the get-go — that I thought “life coaches” and “career coaches” were synonymous with “charlatans”. I slowly came around to the idea — largely influenced by our mutual friend who we both hold in very high esteem – but it was after a bit of hesitation. Do you encounter that kind of resistance often? Where does it come from? Do you think there are charlatans and imposters in your business?

JM: Typically, by the time a client decides to contact me they’re pretty convinced that they’re ready to work with me.  They’ve read my website and maybe heard about me from a friend {like you did!} but that doesn’t mean they don’t have questions.  It’s critical that both my clients and I are 100% clear that we’d be a great fit for each other.  Having that initial chat to share their concerns and to get an even better sense of my style is a very important part of the decision-making process {for them and for me.}  I never say yes to working with someone unless I believe that we’d be a great fit.

In regards to whether I believe there are a lot of charlatans and imposters in the coaching biz–now that’s a juicy question!  I believe that within any profession there are a few folks who lack integrity.  But there are definitely a couple of trends that I see that feed into the whole charlatan—or hokey vibe that some people feel when they hear the term life or business coach.  The first trend is that some very well trained coaches have not found a way to talk about what they do in a  relatable way to everyday people.  They use a whole bunch of self-actualization words and language like:  ignite your passion, be more authentic, follow your dream, work with me and you’ll be more fulfilled etc etc.  That kind of language doesn’t translate to most people.  It sounds airy-fairy, woowoo—even cheesy.  The problem is, the work that these well trained coaches are doing is really fantastic—the way they talk about what they’re doing isn’t.  Nobody I know would put money down for hokey or cheesy.  However, if these talented coaches changed the way they communicated what they do into more tangible, results oriented outcomes—more people would sit up and take notice.

2. I’m your first voice talent, but I soon realised that this fact was inconsequential — you deal with women solopreneurs in a wide array of professions and the actual “parameters” of what they do is almost irrelevant – we all face the same challenges, fears, and blockages. How do you go about breaking down what a client needs from you?

JM: I have an initial discussion via email or phone with all new clients to understand what they’re looking for in a coach and from the coaching partnership—after that they complete a  comprehensive foundation package which is an opportunity for them to dig deep into where they are and where they want to be.  These provocative questions help get their creative juices flowing and ground them in what they want most from the coaching  experience.  Then we schedule a 90-minute Foundation Session over Skype, phone or face-to-face to design our partnership alliance, lay the groundwork, peel back the layers of where they’re at and where they’re headed.  We focus on their strengths and begin to “out” those sneaky, slippery areas of self-doubt.  My clients consistently tell me that this power-packed session has left them feeling inspired, clear and energized—with the inner-confidence to dig into what’s next.  After that, we schedule 60-minute sessions every two weeks.  Because I listen really deeply I’m able to move from full-fledged business mentoring into deep process coaching– and back again, meeting my clients exactly where they are in each moment.  I believe this unique approach brings depth to my client’s experience.

3. What’s the most common roadblock you uncover with clients which stands in the way of their success?

JM: It’s always the voice of their saboteur—that inner voice of doubt, the “what-ifer”, the “who do you think you are to…”, the seemingly rational “you can do that but just not yet, you have to have more training, or more experience, or more money” etc.–you know the voice right??!!  So, right off the bat we’re talking about the saboteur—understanding how it shows up in their life, shining a big ol’ light on it so it can’t hide.  I offer my clients lots of tangible tools and strategies to deal with that voice and minimize its hold on them.

 4. We got along famously — in fact, our mutual friend predicted we’d take over the world — that’s still currently in the planning stages. Describe why our sessions were so productive, and so amazingly paradigm-shifting right off the bat. (I believe the credit lies primarily on your shoulders, BTW…)

JM: You are too kind, woman!  I love our connection.  I know that we both showed up being ourselves at every single session.  We were honest, real, open.  We decided right off the bat to trust the process.  I believe that the power is in the relationship—that third entity if you will {sounding too woo woo?!!}  When it comes to my approach, I’m a natural-born truth-seeker.  I approach the questions I ask from a genuine interest in helping you get clear on your own truth—who you really are and who you’re becoming.  I’m always listening to what you say and what’s underneath that.  Plus I blurt my intuition which is a fabulous tool for deeper exploration.  Even though you’re not a woo-woo kinda girl you allowed me to take you into some powerful visualizations—we used cool metaphors and found new ways to talk about what you were feeling and what was important to you.  I think at the heart of it, you had the time and space to have a new experience of yourself.  That in and of itself is paradigm-shifting, non?  And let’s not forget about accountability—such a cornerstone for coaching.  Holding you accountable for the things you said were important to you {that helped with the productivity too!!}

The tangibles which came out of my sessions with Jacqui? I identified my “saboteur” — an uptight, librarian-esque character in a tight bun and cheap shoes who appeared somewhat regularly over my shoulder, telling me what a fraud I was, disguising her predictions of how badly things were going to go whenever I attempted a new endeavor under the guise of “protecting” me. Jacqui did a visualization exercise with me in which I clearly saw the “future Allison” : it was actually a very short-lived exercise which I did with committment, but didn’t fully realise how prevalent or recurring that image was going to be – the “future Allison” guides almost all of my decisions now, and became the “barometer” of what decisions I currently make, and influences what I will or will not tolerate now.

I’m still not the voice of AT & T or Cisco. But the paradigm shift which happened with regards to my clientele and the rates they pay me occurred – literally — after our first session. Current clients accept my hourly rate without question or hesitation. There’s only been a couple who have fallen by the wayside. But without any fanfare or explanation, I announce my rates unflinchingly to prospective clients, who are a much more serious — and yes, upscale — clientele, and I am much better at weeding out the no pays/slow pays earlier.

Career Coaching is not for the broken. It’s actually for those who are doing well; they just need to take it to the next level, or are feeling a blockage or resistance from getting to that next level. I told Jac in my wrap-up evaluation that she’s not really in the business of tending little saplings (although she does and can coach people who are just starting out); where she excels is in tending Bonsais. Trimming and gently re-directing those of us who are established and well on our way. Jacqui specializes in Women Soloprenuers – women forging their own way and managing their own careers, and I urge anyone feeling in need of a tune up to contact Jacqui — it’s been an invaluable tool for me, and I count it as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Jacqui’s website is www.highlandcoaching.com.

No Woo Woo, charlatanism, or wim wam. I promise.

Join me back here in about two week’s time, where I’ll dig into the age-old question: “Why Does My Voice Sound So Different When It’s Recorded..?”

Thank for reading! Comments make me happy, so feel free to leave a comment!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

Adventures in GPS

I wrote a blog not that long ago about my first experience with a GPS voice while trying to make it to Astricon one year, which was held in idyllic – but remote – Carefree, Arizona. My mind was too focused on the memo I was writing in my head (“must get voice-over demo to Garmin ASAP!”) to really pay much heed to turns, off ramps, or other recommendations the voice was giving me, until the cacti started disappearing along with any hope of ever making it to the resort by dinnertime. Part of my problem — being new to GPS systems – was being unfamiliar with the directional arrows or how literal (or figurative) the voice was being when suggesting routes and various turns. (“She says: Turn right on Saguaro, but…is *this* Saguaro? It’s not marked…”) Also, I had been given general directions by a client who knew the Sonoran Desert well, and his directions seemed…well…at odds with what “Trixie Garmin” was telling me. (Strangely enough, the establishment I finally turned into to get “re-coordinated” was a PetSmart store, for whom I voice the store finder system.)  I had gotten completely off course but I — and the GPS — were “recalibrated” and Trixie kept largely silent while I drove in an almost straight (but lengthy) line to my destination.

The issue of what *kind* of voice in a GPS system elicits a more compliant and “obedient” (for lack of a better word) response has been debated ad nauseum. Dr. Clifford I. Nass, a communications professor at Stamford University (and a consultant to many car companies), explains: “When the key dimension is competence, the male voice is better; when the key dimension is likability, the female voice is better.” 

(I’m not too sure why competence and likability need to fly free of each other, but I’ll retract my hackles and respect what he’s saying).

Female voices were originally used in auditory warnings  in military aircraft because they stood out among male aviator’s verbalizations — men were most likely to pay heed to the female voices in combat situations because there was minimal chance of them being mistaken from ambient male voices.

Dr. Nass continues: “The main reason you have female voices in cars in not the technical qualifications like hearability. It’s that finding a female voice that is pleasing to almost everyone is infinitely easier than finding a male voice.”

There you go. That’s more like it.

There’s been much written about which is more functional in a car’s on-board GPS system: sexy might be too distracting; too strident and authoritarian can be an alienating “naxigatrix” (word I cannot take credit for: coined this time last year in a New York Times article by Bruce Feiler.) Do men, in particular, appreciate getting direction — however sattelite-guided or well-founded — from someone who sometimes urges them to pull into the next gas station and recommend anathema to their ears: Ask For Directions?

Personally — and I am anything but an Apple evangelist (witnessed by my cadre of people on Facebook who responded with dozens of suggestions/admonitions/cheerings on when I threatened to run over the device repeatedly with my car if I got *one more* message saying there’s wasn’t a SIM card installed) — I have to say that the GPS utility in the iPhone pretty much makes me feel like Magellan. Taking into consideration that I make my living voicing automated platforms, and never denying that I am forever encouraging people to hire professional voices for their automation — I quite prefer me (or my auto) being represented by a pulsating, blinking blue dot, edging ever closer  to (or in some instances, away from) my destination. I have no natural sense of direction (I always presume that North is straight ahead of me; South is where I’ve just been…..you get the idea) — so to be able to look up an address on the iPhone and have me and my destination clearly situated on a map, me blinking all bright and blue (and heavy traffic areas strobing angrily in red) — pure simplistic and reliable heaven. I don’t even mind that I don’t have a human voice guiding me around (sounding profoundly irritated and exasperated as she says: “REcalculating!” or particularly getting my goat when she says “Turn left on Memorial Doctor.” Really? Doctor?…You do mean….Drive…right, lamby?)

Your GPS voice is a highly personalized issue — it’s completely your call as to who sounds more “convincing” in your GPS be it Snoop Dogg or your own child’s voice doing the prompts. Personally — for me — nothing makes me happier than to enjoy the quiet while I safely sneak peeks at the blue dot perfectly intersecting with the magical red destination dot.

Join me here in about two weeks time, when I’ll blog about a service which I recently engaged in — actually one of the last services you’d think I’d participate in — which turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done for me or my career: the sometimes dark science and occasionally nebulous world of career coaching!

Thanks for reading…

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

Text To Speech

I was thrilled a couple of years ago when I was approached by Cepstral – one of the premiere architects of high quality, natural sounding voice synthesis products — to be one of their text-to speech voices….and I was even thrilled by their very public “proposal”. They did a presentation at Astricon one year, and while discussing their range of voices available, a slide appeared on the screen which read: “Coming soon: The Allison Voice!”

Geez, give a girl some notice. At least we’re not capturing the event on a jumbotron.

A Text to Speech (TTS) synthesis is basically the artificial production of human speech — most people’s first thought will gravitate immediately to Stephen Hawking, whose Text to Speech voice has become a part of his persona; legend has it that Cepstral – who designed his initial TTS utility has offered him numerous “upgrades” and more current and evolved versions throughout the years for him to experiment with. He has turned them all down. His early, rudimentary “voice” works well; it is recognizable, and most signficantly, it has practically become a part of who he is. Text to Speech products immeasurably enhance the lives those unable to speak, and it’s imperative that the user and voice connect on a visceral level.

A Text to Speech system converts normal language text into speech, by concatenating pieces of recorded speech which are stored in a database. Phonemes and graphemes are simply broken-down sound “fragments” which the system recognizes, and assigns those sounds to what it recognizes the typed word to which it should  correspond. The storage of entire words and even sentences allows for high-quality output, but is laborious and time-intensive to record.

Tell me about it.

Cepstral’s goal, when they proposed the idea of working together, was to build a very robust TTS engine — possibly the most robust they’d ever designed. Due to the prevalence of my voice not only on the Asterisk Open Source PBX but with many other telephony platforms, they saw the advantages in recording volumes more “sounds” than usually required to build a typical TTS system, so as to create as seamless as possible an interface which would dovetail well with pre-installed stock prompts and custom-recorded prompts alike – all voiced by me. As a way of achieving that, a script arrived which had the breadth (and thickness) of a typical major-city white pages telephone book. No problem!

In this script, I found thousands upon thousands of single words — and just as many pages of random, and often non-sensical sentences (“During the period, the company continued to benefit from favorable tax effects”, or “But oh what a hit it could be”, as examples). From larger sentences, phonemes can be farmed (think of the single sounds and combinations of sounds which could be extracted from the sentence: “Julie put on her red coat and made it to the train station by nine”) and stored for retrieval when the system perceives that the “fragment” is needed (although it’s not flawless: at a subsequent Astricon after the Allison TTS Voice was launched,  one of the Digium staffers was very eager to unveil the Cepstral Allison Voice; he typed in “Hi! I’m Allison Smith!” and out of the computer I spoke: “Hi! I’m Allison Smeeeeth!”) I find it hard to believe we didn’t capture the “ih” sound that the “I” in “Smith” makes, but there you have it. (One of the most difficult sounds to capture in a TTS application is — oddly enough — the word: “of” — widely used in the English language; it’s one of the few words where “f” is pronounced “v”. naturally, this creates problems for TTS utilities.)

I devoted about three hours a day for several weeks to getting the project recorded, and managed to soldier through it — not only voicing all words and sentences, but editing them into individual sound files. Apparently it was worth it — the Cepstral Allison TTS voice is the number one selling voice for Cepstral, and is offered as a very useful add-on for purchasers of the Asterisk PBX.  The uses of TTS for the speaking-disabled allow for clear, real-time communication for those with challenges; other applications in the area of transcription  of the written word to audio format are immeasurably vast and key to its growth and evolution. While it will never “replace” me (I’ve had a few clients who have tried doing longer paragraphs and one client who even tried to “forge together” an entire on-hold system using strictly my TTS voice — unsuccessfully), the text-to-speech utility is ideal for filling in gaps, smithing together proper and place names, or simply bridging together prompts which need integration. While the Allison TTS voice — just by the volume of material which built it — is a formidable and extensive TTS utility, it will always be identifiable as “mechanized” and never apt to be mistaken from an organic recording.

Check out the Cepstral Allison Voice at: www.cepstral.com/demos

…type anything in, and I’ll say it. Yes, anything. My husband if prone to typing in things like: “You are correct 100% of the time!” or “There are no chores for you today!”; hearing them in a slightly robotic, manufactured style is better than not hearing them at all….

Thanks for reading! Next blog, I’ll dig deeper into the voices which tell you when to turn — the occasionally vexing world of GPS voices!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

The Voices Behind the Consoles

There are certain TV shows and films which feature unseen, automated, mechanical “voices” which never materialize into human form; they usually occupy a mechanized “framework” instead of a body, and are characters who become all the more fascinating and alluring to us *because* of their mystique of being “unseen”.

One of the most legendary “Voices Behind the Consoles” is HAL 9000, the computer — and major antagonist — in Arthur C. Clarke’s saga and immortalized in the 1968 film2001: A Space Odyssey and its 1984 sequel, 2010. HAL (Heuristically ALgorithmic Computer) was an artificial intelligence which interacted with the crew, usually only represented by a red television camera “eye”. Speaking in a soft, conversational style, HAL was portrayed with understated slyness and with a surprising level of depth by Canadian actor Douglas Rain.

HAL was capable of not only speech, but speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing and lip-reading (discovered when Bowman and Poole — crew members who doubted HAL’s reliability and discussed replacing him in what they thought was a private conversation in the one of the EVA pods) and playing chess - skills which have come to be almost “expected” in automated forms. What placed HAL way ahead of his time were skills far outside the realm of what is within an automaton’s typical reach — (apparent) art appreciation, reasoning — and even more staggering: interpreting and reproducing human behavior; aspects which are still considered too arcane and subjective to be accomplished with consistency by a computer.

With some memorable quotes like: “It can only be attributable to human error” (regarding the supposed failure of the parabolic antenna on the ship — which HAL *himself* falsified) , some classic HAL sound clips best illustrate the wry, unflappable style of HAL, and what made him one of AFI’s greatest film villains of all time: (click the links below):

error

feelit

decision

Capable of malice and diabolical revenge (severing Poole’s oxygen and setting him adrift and suspending life functions for those crew members in suspended animation, to name just a few), HAL was an ever-present, ominous….*force*, made all the more compelling by being seen as only an unflinching, staring red “eye”.

Considerably less ominous was the voice of the computer interface in Star Trek — voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Largely uncredited as the voice of the computer, Majel Roddenberry also played the role of nurse Christine Chapel in the original series. Roddenberry’s (no pun intended) stellar delivery of the prompts — with just the right flavor of detachment, efficiency, and all-business demeanor, made for a solid and unwaveringly steady computer voice; reassuring mixed with just the right amount of clinical properness – and completely devoid of the trickery and malice of HAL: (click the links below):

allnesc

autoshut

cali

Always present; continuously watching; and never registering any emotional investiture into the outcome of situations the crew may have found themselves in, Majel Roddenberry’s computer voice provided wonderful continuity throughout the episodes and well into the movie franchises — during the last of which — the 11th movie in the series — she completed voicing her computer lines mere weeks before she passed away from leukemia in 2008.

Whether they become the conscience of the spacecraft, or merely keep everyone on kilter with gentle adjustments or admonishments, the characters of the automated computer genre appeal so widely because they never fully make an entrance. Without being over-the-top droll — as in Kit, the Night Rider car on-board voice, or outright smarmy, as in the unseen “Charlie” intercom voice in Charlie’s Angels, HAL and Majel Roddenberry’s computer voice provided intriguing characters who were omnipresent, all-knowing, and infinitely more engaging for their invisibility.

Next blog — in about two week’s time — I”ll discuss the infinite possibilities and amazing advancements made in the area of text-to-speech.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

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