Archive for November, 2009

When “Automated Me” Comes Back to Haunt Me

It was pretty early, and I was very groggy, but there was no mistaking it:  it was me on the phone. I was in Dallas, and scheduled a hotel wake-up call for 7:00 AM. When I picked up the receiver it was….me. Waking me up. About a year before that, I was working away at home one day and received an automated call from our local cable company, saying they were working in the area and that service might be disrupted — it was only after about a half an hour of resuming work did I realise that I had voiced that greeting a couple of weeks previous to that.

Friends and associates tell me all the time that they get automated calls from me regularly or encounter me while on hold — a Digium staffer recently came up to me at a convention and said: “Yes, Allison, I received my Yellow Pages! And no, I don’t need additional books!”

It’s only inevitable that I should encounter myself in my “automated form” at some point — and I find it hard to conceal my frustration in not knowing — any better than a lay person — how to maneuver efficiently through even IVR trees which I’ve voiced myself.

It’s particularly disconcerting when I’m trying to communicate with a voice-driven system (guided by the customer’s spoken requests) and they can’t understand me — and I’ve *voiced* the prompts for the system. Case in point: I call a large wine distributor in California to order a thank-you for a client. It’s *me* on the system, greeting me, and asking me what I can do for me today (it gets worse). I say — clear as day — because that’s hopefully what I’m good at — “PLACE ORDER.” There’s a dramatic pause, and then “I” say (to ME, mind you..): “I”m sorry, I didn’t quite get that. Let’s try again. You can say ‘Marketing’, ‘Warehouse’, “Accounts payab — ”

“PLACE ORDER!” I yelp. Another significant pause.

Automated me sounds slightly pleased when I come back on the line, as I say: “OK! I think you said: (pause) “Overseas Distribution”.

Gah!

Another well-documented incident in which my own voice totally let me down (and actually seemed like it was plotting against me) was when I voiced the IVR for Unwired Buyer, the feature of EBay which will call your cell phone to let you know when you’ve been outbid. It’s no secret that I’m a big EBay-er, and it was only a matter of time before I’d “get the call”. My cell went off one afternoon, and it was “me” telling “me” I’d been outbid on…probably a handbag. I quickly text in what I think will be a sufficient bid and smugly sit back. I come back on the line and say: “You’ve entered: seventy. five. dollars. and. fifty. cents……however, you are NOT the highest bidder!”

Did I just sound slightly…taunting? Perhaps evil? I know I didn’t have it in my mind to do it that way when I voiced it, but in this context, I sound positively lofty!

Frantically, I enter another bid — which is again shot down by me, this time with the admonishment: “Hurry! Your item is about to get away!” Trollop! Don’t pressure me! Exhausted, nerves shot, I enter what I’m convinced will be the victorious bid — until I come back on the line and say: “Sorry — bidding has closed for this item. You have been outbid. Better luck next time.”

Did I just sound….smug? Like I was — dare I say — dismissed? By me?  It’s like my telephone persona was rooting for this other woman to walk away with my handbag. (I even suggested to my client at Unwired Buyer that we re-record the “fail” prompts to sound gentler; more encouraging — he replied: “No! We LOVE them! People get mad and enter bids all day long!” 

My voice has almost become a separate entity — something that has an existence without me, and as I’ve illustrated, regularly comes back to bite me.

Next blog: I’ll write about the legendary Jane Barbe — the original omnipresent “Telephony Lady”; she set the tone for the rest of us!

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Is It Hot In Here — Or Is It Just IVR Hell?

It's not the Bat Phone -- It's Hell Phone

I recently stumbled upon a great article on the Destination CRM website by Natalee Dyke entitled: “IVR Hell” which definitely encapsulates everything amiss with mis-designed, mis-written, and just generally frustrating phone trees — give it a read at: http://bit.ly/1XQaoM and meet me back here.

She really brings a lot of great points home — and she’s coming strictly from a customer’s perspective, at that. IVR is the customer’s first point of contact — it’s crucial to set the tone at that all-important “meeting” point.

Ms. Dyke reiterates my previous rant of keeping menus as short as possible — the next time you’re listening to menu options, try to see if you can recall them after you hang up. Chances are the best you’ll be able to do it recall the last thing you heard. Call it a commentary on people’s attention spans, or a symptom of the pace at which we live; we have a shut-off valve after a surprisingly short stream on information coming at us.

I recently recorded a “joke” prompt for a prominent client which said: “You’ve pressed zero, which is clearly not a option you were given. As punishment, you will be forced to listen to the entire menu options again.”  As fun (and refreshing!) as it was to slip that whimsical prompt into an otherwise serious system, Ms. Dyke urges IVR writers to give people an opt-out option when they feel fairly confident that their question doesn’t really fit into the presented options. Think of the options menu serving as a “screen”, much like the FAQ section on a website — the “0” option for a live attendant should be offered if no other department seems applicable. Some callers will abuse this “out” — most won’t.

The “IVR Hell” article mentions the hamster-wheel effect of collecting caller’s account numbers while they’re waiting to be “sorted” to a department — very seldom have I ever seen that information speeding up the process or giving the agent heads-up info about you, the caller. It’s a waste of time — especially when the information is simply asked for again when the agent does come on the line.

All people saddled with the responsibility of writing the script for their company’s auto-attendant (or those whose j0b it is to design them for other firms) have the benefit of personally having to spend enough of your own time calling the cable company; the utility conglomerate; the behemoth warehouse store — you know what frustrates you. You know what doesn’t work. And you likely have an idea of how to streamline it to make the whole experience smoother for both caller and company.

Next blog: I’ve had some fairly comical experiences when my recorded voice comes back to haunt me — I’ll impart some amusing anecdotes when “automated me” meets “real me”!

Getting Started in Voice-Over: A Primer

clip_image002A few times a month, I’m e-mailed by people who are toying with the idea of getting into voice-over — they may have been told they have a great voice, or have become enamored with the idea of being the next Simpson-scale animation voice.

There’s no question that it’s a great way to earn a living — lots of variety, challenge, and if you reach a certain level — a respectable income. Many voice-over performers come from a radio background; others from the more linear channel with a degree in communications, and yet others — as in my case — come from a theatrical background and approached voice-over as an adjunct to acting (and a great way to pay the bills in-between acting jobs which didn’t involve balancing a tray — ask anyone who knows me; that wouldn’t have been a good fit).

Whatever your background, there are strategies you can adopt to venture into the world of being a voice performer in an informed and prepared fashion.

1. Take workshops

A search of sound studios and talent agencies in your area should reveal who is holding voice-over workshops — many sound studios hold them to broaden their talent banks and they’re frequently taught by working voice-over professionals. It’s a great way to get your feet wet; see how at ease your are in front of the mic; how receptive you are to taking direction; and how open you are to (hopefully well-placed) criticism. Many workshops will keep spots you’ve voiced, which can then be turned into demos.

2. Acting Classes Can’t Hurt Either

I attended a voice-over workshop years ago, and one of the students was quite a well-known DJ, who has his “sweet-spot”; his velvet tones, and the deep timbre that would allow him to read the Yellow Pages out loud and keep everyone hanging on his every word — he was handed copy for a very poignant Cancer Society PSA — a Dad telling his son that he has cancer — and he read it in his classic overblown “on-air”style — right down to the “Gary Owen” hand cupped over his ear. (Am I dating myself? That’s a reference from “Laugh In”!) The host of the workshop and the engineer tried their hardest to get him to just…talk. Imagine himself in that situation. Don’t….”intone”. Just talk. Act the part. He couldn’t do it. Acting lessons are an asset to voice-over for no other reason than it gets you out of your comfort “voice”. Worth looking into if you’re aiming for TV and radio work; essential if animation or gaming voice-over is your goal.

3. HIre a Pro To Put Together a Spectacular Demo For You

If you clicked with the engineer from the workshop, enquire about his rates for putting together a demo for you — demos can be snippets of actual spots you’ve done; they can be a mix of scripts the engineer has selected for you to read — I’ve even found great script “fragments” from magazine print ads. Voice material that you’re comfortable with; which you understand; and which highlight you at your best. Only attempt characters or accents if you are masterful at them. They should be a montage of your best stuff, as opposed to entire spots, and front-load the demo with your most impressive material first — you’d like to think that people are going to take the time to listen to the whole thing in it’s entirety, but that’s sadly not the case — especially when ad execs are trying to zero in on…someone. Wow them right off the top with your best stuff. Here’s a link to my commercial demo, if it helps: http://bit.ly/z6R1B

4. Build a Home Studio

It’s not as daunting as it sounds — my first “booth” was inside an actual closet. (I tried to convince my accountant that Armani is — by far — the best soundproofing.) A good friend and colleague of mine had her first “booth” in the cold room of her basement. (Jars of blueberry preserves are great noise baffling!) Select a quiet room away from both household and external noise; separate the mic from the noise from the computer (my hard drive is in the basement; only my monitor and keyboard are in my studio), experiment with mics that suit you, get a good pre-amp, and don’t scrimp on the sound card in your computer. Elaborate sound editing programs such as Pro Tools are frustrating and likely more technology than you need; go for one of the more pro-sumer friendly set-ups like Sony Sound Forge, Adobe Audition or GoldWave. I’m glossing over this section, as there are true authorities on the issue of home studios who can enlighten you: I recommend reading “The Voice Actor’s Guide to Home Recording” by Jeffrey P. Fisher and Harlan Hogan.

5. Get a Website

This is truism for *anyone* — florist or taxidermist; mechanic or tango instructor. Next to word of mouth, I get more “walk-in” traffic from my website (www.theivrvoice.com) than from any other source. You can spend thousands on it; you can part with $75 and buy a very slick template and hire a junior designer to figure out the layers of flash. However you do it — you must have a website.

6. Approach On-Line Casting Agencies With Caution

They’re prevalent, and the idea is tempting: for no — or very little– money, these folks will put your demo up on their site, and market you to clients who have the ability to hire you to voice their spots! The only problem is that literally hundreds of other talent are also submitting auditions for the same jobs. It means one of two things: the voice talent who is in the time-zone advantage position (or who have nothing but time on their hands) will be able to submit their audition ahead of anyone; and the person who “bids” the lowest price is likely to land job. Even more insidious are the agencies who charge a “premium” fee to be in their “elite” top level of talent (with the implication that the pool is smaller and of higher-calibre performers, and the jobs themselves are tonier) — I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum (went as a free member for awhile; paid to be in the “elite” group) — I had the same (lousy) batting average. I am now represented by two voice-over agencies — who charged me nothing (and who screened me carefully) — and things seem to be on a more even keel.

I was hoping to shape this article to getting started as a voice talent specifically *in IVR* — the whole mandate of this blog, after all — that’s a whole other article, which I promise to delve into soon.

Are you a voice talent just starting out? Let me know if you found this blog post helpful. Have you had similar experiences with online agencies? I’m particluarly intersted in hearing about your experiences…..just conceal the names of the agencies/agents to keep things friendly.

Next blog: I’ll discuss a recent article I found on Destination CRM entitled: “IVR Hell” — we’ve all been there!

Thanks for reading!

What *Won’t* You Say?

It’s generally well known — by clients of mine whom I’ve worked with for awhile — that I am game to voice pretty much anything. In fact, I encourage offbeat, parody, and “joke” prompts — they provide a welcome respite from the run-of-the-mill (but highly necessary) IVR stock prompts. It’s especially fun when some of these “oddball” prompts are wedged in-between serious ones…in the midst of serious prompts might be a prompt which says: “Are you still listening?” I love it.

However, there are limits. I have backed off a few projects which brought up such feeling of discomfort, that I respectfully passed on them — I recently blogged about  politely declining to voice the call-girl’s information line (I’m still trying to figure out what the “Swedish Butterfly” is..) but here is a list of other areas in which I’m just not comfortable lending my voiceprint to:

1. Profanity

A well-placed expletive in humorous copy where it makes sense and carries some comic weight — no problem. An excessive amount of gratuitous potty-mouth — not interested in doing it.

2. Religious Content

Everyone’s personal beliefs and convictions are intimate and should be a private thing. I’m always taken a bit aback when I voice a very straightforward and business-like phone tree, and the last line says something like: “Thank you for calling and go forth with the Light of Jesus!” I struggle with the appropriateness of introducing that into a clearly business context. I also voice a large amount of conference intro prompts and many are from religious groups — not problematic if they simply wanted me to welcome their callers and instruct them on how to mute and unmute their line; instead I’m actually often asked to evangelize and quote scripture — almost like a warm-up act for the minister or church leader hosting the call. Let’s just say that I am religiously….neutral. Would prefer to not be put in the position of imparting rhetoric for which I have no strong feeling.

3. Slandering Groups

This seems pretty self-evident, but I found myself in the midst of a conference call a few years ago, with an ad agency in one city, and the client in another, and all I knew about the project was that they needed an extensive national auto-dialer recorded for a political bill they needed passed. My daydreams of what Louis Vuitton bag I was going to purchase with the windfall from this latest project was cruelly disrupted by the client talking about “making sure this gay marriage bill didn’t get passed!” Yep — I was smack in the middle of having committed myself to voicing a dialer that would drum up support for squashing the gay marriage bill —  a project that I absolutely could not voice with any conscience. After the call, I spoke with the ad agent and recused myself — to my detriment. Haven’t heard from them since.

4. You Using My Voice

This one surprises many people, but if copy is written in the first person: “Hi, this is Theresa, and welcome to my conference”, I will automatically change it to: “Hi, and welcome to Theresa’s conference.” Theresa is not me, and may not create the image that she has my voice. I’m totally OK with me being “cast” in a character: “Hi, this is Liz from Victoria’s Secret, and if you have a second, I’d like to follow up on your last purchase.” But I will not “impersonate” or “personify” a real person with my voice.

The list is pretty short. There’s a greater sense of appropriateness now than there used to be; years ago, I voiced a radio spot for a fast-food chain that was so sexist, that the male voice in the spot stopped the session and complained about the content to the ad agency, while I — all of 22 — stood mutely, secretly hoping he wouldn’t blow the job for both of us. Hopefully, we have a greater awareness of what’s kosher and what likely isn’t — and I do a better job of listening to that “no” voice which tells me to pass.ali-webcam1

Next post: I’m approached a lot by voice talent about how to get into voice-over in general, and into IVR voicing, specifically — next post, I’ll give some tips to those hoping to get started!

Languages I Don’t Speak — But I’m Happy Voice In Them!

rodeDespite me recording prompts in Spanish almost every day, I don’t technically speak Spanish. Or Hebrew, Tagalog (an Austranesian language spoken in the Philippines) or a host of other languages which I’m urged, cajoled, or persuaded into voicing.

I studied Spanish for two years at the University of Calgary, out of a necessity to accomodate American clients requiring bilingual prompts. I soon tired of the academic, formalized approach (who’s up for conjugating verbos?) and looked into other venues of instruction — all the while, working with a Spanish vocal coach who was incredibly helpful in honing a fairly convincing accent. I looked into Berlitz (the right one-on-one approach based in a conversational style; prohibitively expensive.) I’m continuing self-study until I find a program that fits.

And as for French — which I’m commonly asked about — it was mandatory for a fragment of grade school, and after that — much to my chagrin — I never pursued that elective. It’s not widely spoken here in Western Canada, but the demand for me voice prompts in it is frequent, and it’s one of my big regrets that I never picked it up.

In the meantime, I did some prompts in Hebrew for a wonderful charitable food distrbution company — it took a couple of phone patch sessions to Jerusalem, but I managed to nail the often tricky pronunciations — that rolling “CCCHaaa!” sound from the back of throat is not commonly used here on the Canadian prairies. A conferencing company hires me to voice prompts in Somali almost daily, and with the right pronunciations guides (and the occasional sound file of the client intoning it to me), I’m happy to say that I’m capable of pulling off a lot more than I thought I could. Like an opera singer, required to sing in languages in which they are not necessarily fluent, it is possible to accomodate some non-native language requirements — with the caveat, always, that if they are after an authentic, native speaker — they would probably be wise to outsource it elsewhere.

Next blog post, I’ll answer a question I’m frequently asked: “What *won’t* you voice?” Find out what’s on my “never do” list!