Archive for October, 2009

Punctuation is Your Best Friend With IVR Writing

Allison Smith_RR_High Res 1_NOWCASTQuite often, I get Asterisk prompt orders through the Digium site in which the client has written something like: “….this phrase comes after ‘Please enter your..’ and before ‘followed by pound.'” It’s a lot of effort to explain where the prompt will occur — especially when I have such an amazingly simple remedy — and it has everything to do with the correct use of punctuation. At the risk of making this entry sound like an lost episode of “Schoolhouse Rock”,  the proper use of eclipses, commas, and periods will save you a lot of time, and ensure that you get the right inflection from your announcer.

Take the phrase: “your pin number”.  When it’s “free-floating” (no punctuation anywhere around it),

your pin number


one gets no idea of where you intend the prompt to be placed in the sequence. However, with eclipses at the beginning and a period at the end:

…your pin number.


…we know that a phrase has preceded it (such as “Please re-enter..”) and that this phrase caps off the sentence. Similarly:

Your pin number…


(Capitalized; eclipses at the end) tells us that its’ beginning a thought and will likely be followed by something like: “….is incorrect. Please re-enter your pin number.”

Along that same line, ellipses on either end:

…your pin number…

…is wedged into the middle of a sequence which might flow like: “Please enter…your pin number…followed by the pound sign.

It seems persnickety — but it will tell someone like myself — whose job it is to make these prompts concatenate as smoothly as possible — exactly where you need this phrase to fall into the sequence you intend. (And no, writing them all “neutral” — with no discernible beginning or ending — will not solve the problem… actually leads to the lifeless, android IVR automaton which everyone is — thankfully — moving away from.)

IVR writers: let me know if this was helpful! Any other tips you’ve found to be helpful in IVR phraseology? Let me know!

Next entry: I’ll be talking about Spanish, Hebrew, Somali,  even Tagalog — among the many languages I *don’t* speak — but that doesn’t stop me getting hired to voice prompts in them!


Post-Astricon Wrap Up

I was fully intending to blog from Phoenix during Astricon (The Open Source Telephony Conference and Exhibition — Oct 13-15) but found myself on such a social whirlwind and marketing juggernaut that time did not permit. Suffice it to say: it was an amazing event — a huge gathering of developers, coders, resellers, and enthusiasts of Asterisk — a telephony system which stands as one of my biggest voice-over credits, and clearly the reason I’m so recognizable in the world of IVR.

JR Richardson, Me, "Gord" Gillespie, and Kevin Broadfoot

JR Richardson, Me, "Gord" Gillespie, and Kevin Broadfoot

Among  the more amazing talks was a Tutorial on Local number Portability by Jim Dalton of TransNexus; Open SIPS — Clustering and Balancing Asterisk by Bogdan Andrei-Iancu of the Open SIPS Project, and a great presentation about the use of the Asterisk trademarks by the always wry and entertaining Digium in-house counsel, Michelle Petrone-Fleming.

To be honest — many of the talks are hugely technical, and go way over the heads of lots of us — especially those whose job it is to simply make the IVR prompts sound as good as possible. But I do derive a great sense of satisfaction from hearing discussions from people who are passionate about what they’re presenting, and feel so fortunate to be included in this amazing community of people who are scary-bright — and yet still so completely affable and often kooky.

Mark Spencer and Chris DiBona (Google Open Source Project) share a cocktail

Mark Spencer and Chris DiBona (Google Open Source Project) share a smart cocktail

I brought with me a fun promotion item which proved to be a big hit: a wristband (in Asterisk Orange) with my logo and a USB clasp — loaded onto the USB was my voice-over demo and a limited-time promotional offer for a discount on customized recordings — which many people have taken advantage of.

If you attended this year’s Astricon, feel free to post a comment with anecdotes or opinions of how you thought it went over! I personally thought it was the best one yet.

Pimp hats, Mardi-Gras beads, and leis were required attire at the All-Conference Party. as Mathew Nikasch and I illustrate!

Pimp hats, Mardi-Gras beads, and leis were required attire at the All-Conference Party. as Mathew Nikasch and I illustrate!

Next blog: back to business: some simple grammar tricks to *always ensure* you get the inflection you want in your IVR prompts!

Astricon: The High Holy Days of Telephony!

In a mere four days, developers and code gurus from around the world who have discovered the unlimited potential and versatility of Asterisk — the fastest-growing telephony platform in the world today — will gather in beautiful Glendale, Arizona October 13-15 for a concentrated three days of amazing talks, demonstrations, and networking about this product which is a phenom in the world of telecommunications, and which has set the standard for open-source VoIP telephony.

Little did I realise — when I was contacted in 2002 to voice the initial set of prompts for Asterisk — that it would take the world by storm in quite the way it did. I seriously thought it was a one-off job, voicing some (sometimes) offbeat prompts for some very hyperactive guys in Alabama. When I was invited to the first Astricon in Atlanta iDSC00927_en 2004, I gave myself a pep talk beforehand, reminding myself to overcome my shyness and introduce myself to everyone — little expecting to be mobbed. Apparently, the hundreds of attendees there not only were eager to talk to one of only five women there — they were all looking forward to meeting “The Voice of Asterisk” — the living person behind the prompts they had been working with and deploying for years. Even after attending Astricon every year since then, (and with me being now known to most of the community) — it still gives me such a thrill to meet clients face-to-face and hopefully personify the sound of Asterisk to them.

With attendees arriving from 35 countires, this year’s Astricon promises to be a bigger, better and more diverse Geekosystem than ever!

I’ll be blogging from Astricon next week, so stay tuned!

PS: That’s me and the “Father of Asterisk” — and one of my favorite people in the world — Mark Spencer, taken at Astricon 2008. That’s the first incarnation of the now famous “Asterisk Dress” — this year, I’ll be unveiling a new version, which puts the old one to shame….

Top 10 IVR Mistakes

I have a few years under my belt voicing telephony platforms, and I can tell you that there are some universal mistakes that I see on a consistent basis  — and most make sense if you simply think back to the last frustrating IVR you found yourself trying to navigate. Here they are — in no particular order:


1. You Try To Make Your Company Sound Bigger

I have voiced intro messages which sometimes exceed 15-20 options — and most of them just re-route back to a single point of contact. You press accounts receivable, payable, tech support — it all ends up at the same friendly CEO/accountant/chief bottle washer. I’m a one-person company, too — so I understand the necessity in wearing numerous hats. Just be aware that too many options point to an obvious attempt to sound bigger.

2. Your Most Critical Information is Buried at the Bottom

I recently voiced a system for a heart clinic with — see above — 12 different options to choose from, and the very last option said: “If this is a medical emergency, please hang up, and dial 911.” I’d put that first and foremost. If you were having crushing chest pains and happened to dial your cardiologist’s office instead of 911, wouldn’t you want to be set straight — sooner than later? That goes for customers who are having technical support issues with the internet service you provide/support — let’s give those people with an emergent need a gateway to get to a person — fast.

3. You Give Lengthy Directions to Your Office/Facility

If you must provide an option with driving directions — and I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a good or necessary thing, especially with the prevalence of GPS systems — keep them as short, succinct, and as pertinent as possible. (“Turn left. You’ll see a war memorial on your left, and a Piggly Wiggly on the right..” is probably too much detail to give.)

4. You Over-Estimate People’s Attention Spans

They’re shorter than you think. All previous points I’ve made so far point towards this basic fact: keep it short. Front-load it with the most crucial info at the top — announcers and voice-over professionals have known for years that secret to a good demo is to put your best stuff at the beginning — front-load it the most impressive stuff. And don’t inundate people with more information than they need — especially at the all-important point of entry.

5. You Want Me to Voice It at a Slow Pace

I suppose this is open to interpretation, and can be more of a judgement call than anything else — if I’m voicing a pharmaceutical information line geared at seniors, I’ve been asked to take a more meticulous, exacting pace — taking into consideration hearing issues and reaction time. Fair enough. For practically any other industry — particularly those dealing with high-tech, industry-forward aspects — especially if there’s a high chance of repeat callers — let’s fly through your phone options at a fairly energetic pace. People’s time is valuable; and their frustration levels can be exacerbated by a plodding, leisurely pace.

6. You Haven’t Told Me How to Pronounce Your Staff’s Names

I’m pretty good at pronouncing place names (even those unfamiliar to me), and I’m pretty intuitive and a great guesser, but nowhere is there a greater chance of mis-pronouncing than with proper names — and it’s surprising how little direction I get with that. If you’re having someone voice a phone tree with *any* names where you think there might be multiple pronunciations or there’s a name that is often botched, please provide a pronunciation guide.

7. You Go Overboard With Niceties

There isn’t a person who has been on hold in the last twenty years who hasn’t been thanked profusely for their patience, told that their business is appreciated, or that our time is valuable. We hear it so often, if fact, that it frequently comes across as disingenuous. I try my hardest to sound as sincere and earnest as possible when voicing such platitudes; I implore the writers of IVR and on-hold systems to re-think the over-peppering of scripts with too many niceties. People get it. They know you’re busy giving someone else the same legendary service that you look forward to giving them — just keep the glad-handling to a minimum.

8. Your Company Name is Impossible to Pronounce

I ran into an interesting dilemma after I chose the name for my company — The when looking at the web address or e-mail address: , for example, scores of people have said: “Oh! It’s…..THEIR” Umm, not exactly. It really has to be carefully dissected if you hope to have someone type it in correctly — and people need to understand the acronym IVR — for it to make sense. That’s visual. I encounter *many* firms who have an unusual company name, which I have frequently gotten wrong until I was educated about the correct way to pronounce it. If I — a professional voice — gets it wrong, how often does the general public mis-pronounce it? Think  very carefully when naming your company about how the name *sounds* — and what the margin of error would be for mis-pronouncing it.

9.  You Impart Too Much Company Information in the Opening Greeting

Save all but a brief company description for your on-hold component — in your opening message, saying the briefest of blurbs about what the company does is sufficient. I voiced an opening message that talked about the company’s history, how long they’ve been in business, the products they offer, and why they’re better than their competitors. All that would be great to play while someone’s on hold — not before any department options have been given.

10. You Haven’t Read Your Copy Out Loud

Many glitches in awkward wording don’t make themselves evident when you’re simply scanning them visually — it’s really important to read your IVR script out loud to catch any odd phrasing and redundancies.

Have I missed any? Have you encountered any strange aspects to a phone tree you’re recently heard which you’d like to share? Feel free to leave a comment…..and believe me when I tell you this: You *are* the next caller in line. I value your patience. I know your time is valuable….

Next blog: I’ll be writing about the upcoming Astricon convention, Oct 13-15 , in Phoenix — the High Holy Days of Telephony!