Archive for February, 2010

Voicing for IVR

Ever since I blogged last Fall about getting started in voice-over, I heard from many voice talent wanting advice about how to specifically get into voicing IVR (Interactive Voice Response) systems — my area of specialty.

Like any niche that one find themselves in, I can’t say that I mapped out a plan that placed me exactly where I am today; I worked hard voicing the first telephony projects which came my way, establishing a “voice” or “persona”  which made me identifiable (and recognizable) with certain systems, and to this day I enjoy a lot of repeat business because the voice becomes attached to the product. Rather than a “how-to” blog about getting started in voicing IVR, I’ve outlined the aspects of the job — what makes it unique from other voice-over projects — which will hopefully determine if your traits dovetail with that kind of work.

1. If  You Are Set In Your Ways, This Job Is For You

Consistency, stability, and a certain adherence to samness are the cornerstones of voicing IVR well. Sound files which have big fluctuations — either in actual audio levels, levels of energy, variance of enthusiasm, or inconsistency in pace, are of absolutely no use to your clients — especially those who hire you for the long-term and need these files — which you are voicing in March — to match those recorded last June. If you get a special thrill out of the “Zen” of voicing perfectly modulated numbers or letters — which you know will flow seamlessly when concatenated together in the system — you will go far in this genre. If you are not easily frustrated by the “sameness” of the nature of the prompts that come your way (I’ve discussed this before: there’s typically a sea of standard prompts, occasionally interrupted by oddball prompts which make your jaw drop), you are undeniably well suited to this job. I always make the comparison of IVR voicing to my other great love: yoga. I don’t think: “Downward Dog…AGAIN! Can’t they come up with new poses..?” These poses — or asanas — have been done for thousands of years because they are a discipline in and of themselves. I need to continually discover new aspects to doing Downward Dog — which I will be doing until I die; and for as long as I will be voicing, there will be new number sequences to voice. Naturally, with the same old numbers.

2. It’s a Good Thing If You’re Timid About Changing Your Audio Settings

Like most voice talent, I’m talent first and engineer second. The technical aspects of recording are ones which I have picked up slowly along the way, and I am anything but expert at the technical features of recording. In fact, between you and me: they scare the bejesus out of me. I’m not alone in this — most voice talent I know (with the exception of some, who have fully embraced the geekdom and learned everthing they can about sound recording) have enough working knowledge of their gear to record their voice; occasionally mix in the odd music track or sound effect for on-hold productions, and upload their files on FTP sites. And that’s OK — especially if your goal is to voice IVR sound files. Again, we come back to that truism of consistency being king: it’s important to pre-set your audio levels to their optimal range (for you), and — this is the hard part — keep your hands off the knobs. Once they’re preset, and creating the best-sounding and consistent sound files for your clients — leave well enough alone. Most audio interfaces come with far too many bells and whistles which most voice talent as a whole will never use in their day-to-day projects; nowhere is that more true than with IVR voicing. Nobody has ever asked for IVR prompts that sound like they were recorded in a stalactite cave. They want no-frills, straight-up prompts which match seamlessly with ones you’ve already done. Plain and simple.

3. Be Prepared For Regular Work!

I know other voice talent who enjoy regular, steady, recurring work in radio commercials, on-hold, streaming audio — they seem to have a steady stable of clients who have an on-going need to have a consistent “sound” to carry through all of their projects. But even those genres — especially broadcast, which is very influenced by trends, change, and is notoriously fickle) — are prone to arbitrarily switching their voice talent. Nowhere is there greater “job security” than in IVR, where, not only is it important for companies to have the same voice do updates, changes, and revisions to their systems, but if you’re as fortunate as I am to have a project akin to my history with Asterisk — the stock prompts of which are pre-installed on every Asterisk box purchased — there is an exponential need for customized prompts for almost everyone who purchases an Asterisk system. And for every port they purchase. There are still other systems which I have voiced and which have either been either re-sold, re-distributed, or open-sourced out, which have led to much on-going work (and I used to fret about my prompts being freely distributed without remuneration, until it really dawned on me how almost all of the entities which make use of those prompts will actually require customization, fine-tuning, and updating.)

4. Sexism Abounds in IVR Voicing — And It’s Good News If You’re Female

There are some men who have a strong presence in IVR…one of my favorites does a great job with the United Airlines automated system. Men working in the industry are few and far between. IVR is still an area where a calm, reassuring female voice still reigns, even for telephone prompts in “male-heavy” industries like construction and automotive.

Next blog, I’ll address a recent New Yorks Times article enitled: “Will Carriers Offer a Better Way to Get Voice Mail?” — sent to me by a client whom I’ve voiced IVR for years — and who is referenced in the article (and because I voice for him; I’m indirectly “implicated!”)

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What “Flavor” is Your Company?

You probably gave a great deal of thought to your website, and the image you wanted to convey to customers the moment they landed on your page. You knew that people would make an instant (and sometimes unforgiving) decision about whether or not they wanted to delve deeper into doing business with you, based on seemingly ethereal factors like the layout, the colors you chose for the backgrounds, how slick your logo looks, or even something as arbitrary as what font you chose for the text.

The same kind of soul-searching and exploration into what “type” of company you are — and what the end-result “flavor” you want to sample to prospective customers — comes into play when deciding on IVR scripts for your company’s *other* front end — your phone system. It amazes me when — during a phone consult with someone who is interested in me voicing their system — I ask what “mood”, “feel” or “vibe” they’re trying to create with their prompts….and the question is met with silence. Or stammering. Or the admission: “That’s a *great* question! I hadn’t really given that any thought…”

Just like those first golden seconds of someone landing on your page, the opening greeting on your company’s IVR sets the tone; establishes who the company is, and can make a powerful impression — positive or negative.

Are you a fun, casual, upstart? A stoic grandfather in your industry? Family-run? One guy in his basement who wishes to sound like Apple? Is your product bubbly, fun, and playful? Or would your customers — who are calling to find just that right ball hitch — be confused by a fun, bubbly, playful voice welcoming them to Ball Hitch Inc? Even an industry like Funeral Homes — where a certain amount of delicacy and soothing is always called for — has room for “identy” if the Funeral Home is appealing to a younger market, instead of those catering to families who have been using the same home for generations and expect to hear organ music behind their IVR every time. You need to be crystal clear in your mission and know exactly where your company stands image-wise in your market — and have the ability to convey that to the voice talent who will be voicing your script.

Here’s some audio examples of what I mean.

This is me voicing in a straight-up, old-school telco automaton style: we mean business, we have no time to mess around, every “T” is crossed, and we make sure every “T” is crossed for you if you decide to do business with us(just click on the link below):

STIFF FORMAL

The voice is neutral, almost devoid of personality; there’s no commentary; it’s just a straight-ahead we’re-busy-people-but-we’ll-look-after-you-too kind of delivery.

Some firms are young, over-caffienated, fun,irreverent, and you just know from calling their office that there *has* to be beanbag chairs in the boardroom:

CASUAL FRIENDLY

Shoosh! You can almost *smell* the Red Bull, can’t you? Anyone tired of dealing with stuffy, conservative companies will listen to that IVR and say: “This is more like it. These guys get me.” Those looking for someone to design a plain-Jane brochure for them using stock images and Goldenrod paper will run screaming from this company — thereby pre-screening your clientele, to a certain extent.

There are many possibilities and many stops along the way in-between those examples — I try to default to a confident, friendly, professional timbre unless directed along a specific path — I did an IVR for an independent publishing company who focuses on mystery novels, and to my delight, they wanted me to read their IVR in an almost “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night”-style: What fun! It tells their callers that they’re creative, open and willing to play, and implies that you, too, should have an innate spirit of fun and creativity, in order for you and the company to be good fit.

It bears consideration — when drafting your phone prompts — the question of what *kind* of company you are, and what message you are endeavoring to convey with all promotional materials — you’re establishing an identity. And while your web presence takes priority, it’s a good idea to include your IVR prompts as a vital part of your “identity package”.

I’ve blogged before about how people can start a career in voice-over in general; next post will be geared to voice talent who are interested in working more in IVR voicing — it can be a very rewarding niche with untold job regularity and security…that’s right: I said “job security”!

Traits of My Favorite Clients — Part 2

Last blog, I discussed tangible measures that IVR writers can do with their scripts to greatly facilitate the recording of their prompts — and it can be as simple as the program and format you use.

This post, I’ll delve into other ways which can forge a strong and easy relationship with your voice talent — and ensure that you get the prompts you need, delievered in the format your system requires.

1. You allow enough time

I’m known for very fast turnaround — even as busy as I am (and it continues to grow) I can still almost always return prompts back to a client the same day if I get the order by noon, MST. Pretty darn great, yes? Some people seem to think that *even that* is an intolerable lag time. My favorite clients e-mail even a few days ahead of their deadline to enquire about my availability — instead of presuming that I’ll be around to record at the 11th hour just before they want to go live with their IVR.  It’s a good idea to allow not only enough time for the talent to deliver the files, but also that they’ll be around for those inevitable redo’s or re-writes.

2. You Write Your Own Script

Lots of people presume that I will write their script for them. I am so focused on (and my time is so completely consumed by) standing in front of the mic, that I can’t get sidelined into writing. Also, I always maintain that clients know their own company the best; they have more knowledge about their business, and they are the best qualified to write about it. I’m more than happy to offer suggestions (if solicited) if something isn’t reading naturally, or something is worded in a confusing way. Apart from that, sending me a finalized script is necessary for me to do my job.

3. You Have Researched The Rates at Which Voice Talent Work

Some clients who are new to hiring voice talent have a little bit of sticker shock when I quote the rates to voice their project. I had someone exclaim recently: “You make as much as a lawyer!” Be that as it may, a quick search of other voice talent’s rates will likely convince you that I’m actually a bargain. I have endeavored to keep my rates as competitive as possible; I offer a half-hour prorate (and even a per-prompt rate) — which many voice talents do *not* do — and my rate increases are infrequent. With my turnaround being so rapid — and a quality product being delivered — good, regular clients acknowledge that mine is a reasonable rate; they pre-pay me without balking, or submit payment after the fact in a timely manner.

4. You Let Me “Do My Thing”

I used to be on the roster of a now-defunct voice talent agency, and I loved how the only direction they frequently put on their spec sheet was the simple phrase: “Do Your Thing.” What greater compliment can you give to an artistic professional, but “Do That Intangible Thing You Do.”

This would apply to any creative professional you hire — be it the web designer who builds your website, the graphic designer who comes up with your logo, or even the interior designer who whips up the design scheme for your office: give us a clear idea of the message you wish to convey; tell us examples of what you like; even tell us what you *don’t* want……then step back and let us do our thing. Presumably, when someone finds my website or is referred to me by someone they know whom I worked for, they have an idea what I’m best known for. They’re hiring me for qualities they like; it would make sense for them to step back and allow me to do what I do. Like a good theatrical director who tries to keep as much natural movement, mannerisms, and speech patterns as the actor cast in the role brings into it, it doesn’t serve you to micro-direct your voice talent. You hired them for a reason — let them “do their thing.”

Next blog: I will explore the question: “What Flavor Is Your Company?” It’s a good question to explore, in order to convey exactly the right image of your company through telephone prompts.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment!

Traits of My Favorite Clients — Part 1

I am blessed to gain lots of new clients every week who either approach me due to being referred by a colleague of theirs, or many come my way by way of  Google searching and landing on my website.  However, in addition to fresh new clients, I am also blessed to have a full roster of loyal and wonderful clients whom I record for regularly every few months, each week, and some every day. One reason that I work so easily with the same people again and again (and the reason that most new clients start off on a right note with me) can boil down into something as simple as the system in which they write their prompts for me; the way they present the prompts in an organized manner on the page; and even the program they use to construct their IVR trees.

This can be best illustrated by indicating formats *which do not* work well for me — the first is what I call “The Corleone Family Tree”:

Vito and Carmella begat Vincente....

This system of mapping out your prompts is extremely beneficial in getting your thoughts organized and making sure all mailboxes, possible options, and various directions the caller can potentially take are clearly planned for. It makes me break out in a cold sweat if it’s sent to me in this format to record, as these types of schemograms frequently have instructions, directions and notes mixed in with the actual text you want me to record — and some of that is not easy to suss out. *Please* use this form of diagram as a way for you and your IVR team to map out what you need — to send it to your voice talent, send only the prompts you need — verbatim, written exactly as you want us to voice them. If there must be notes, make sure they are separate from the recordable text and easily discerable as such.

The next example of what your script should *not* look like is what I call “Notepad Hell”:

Can you tell where one prompt is supposed to end the next begins? Neither can I. Documents done in Notepad morph into one big horriffic run-on sentence. It should be avoided at all costs unless the separations between each prompt is made crystal clear.

My final least favorite format is when a spreadsheet is used as a word processor:

The sentence in Cell 11 actually goes on for about six pages horizontally. Use Word to type your script, as opposed to a spreadsheet, which is actually intended for short snippets of stats and figures and not word processsing.

My favorite format for receiving scripts: straight up Word format:

It’s easy to see that each prompt is encased in its own text box — there’s no guesswork involved, and virtually no confusion about what is considered a “prompt”.

Constructing your IVR scripts in the simplest, clearest way can go a long way to ensuring that I record exactly what you need, saving you time, and sparing aggravation on both sides.

We’ve covered scripting this week; next week, in Part 2 of Traits of my Favorite Clients, I’ll talk less about the technical framework of the scripts, and more about other factors which make most of my clientele a dream to work with!

I’m (Apparently) Too Sexy for This IVR

A few years ago, I voiced an interesting project for Kodak: a self-serve photo development kiosk where photographers could process their own film by simply walking up to a kiosk, installing their film, and controlling the processing of their photos in a very turnkey way. I was actually hired by a sound studio in Australia do voice the “North American-Sounding Female” version — the idea (especially in retrospect) became antiquated pretty fast with the advent of digital picture-taking making direct-to-film photography all but obsolete to all but a few hobbyists. Nevertheless, the project went forward, and with the studio being happy with the sound files and the invoice paid, I didn’t think too much about the project — the product hit the stores, and it promised to be a huge time-saving (and more private) way of having photos developed — however short-lived.

 A couple of months after the kiosks were up and running, the sound studio sent a very carefully-worded e-mail to me: in the sound files I submitted, I was sounding too…sultry. Breathy, languid, kitten-with-a-whip. Further to that point, marketing researchers from Kodak were tracking the film processing stats closely; male customers were coming in droves with their rolls of film, agreeably following all of my prompts, and leaving generally contented. Women, on the other hand, were beginning the process, but soon cancelling out of the system and leaving the stores with their arms crossed and scowls on their faces. The feedback that Kodak got: I was sounding just a little too….suggestive.

I had to be honest with myself, and acknowledge that I had actually gotten that feedback from *other* clients on occasion, ever since I started voicing professionally. It’s not anything I meant to send out; it wasn’t a deliberate “device” on my part — it was a certain bubbly “friendliness” that was coming across unintentionally as, well….come hither. Regardless as to whether or not it was deliberate, it soon to became clear that the “breathy”, somewhat heady treatment of sound files I was doing wasn’t going to fly — unless specifically called for. Redos were done in a more businesslike-yet-friendly tone, which proved to be much more accessible to consumers of both genders.

One must realise that  — even honoring the time-tested truism of advertising that “sex sells”, we must always keep our audience in mind, and that at least half of that income-earning and decision-making audience is female. I needed acknowledge that the tone and approach of sound files — be it for telephone systems, streaming audio on websites, or even advertising — must appeal to both genders, and that an overly-sensual female voice will invariably alienate women — and no doubt the converse would be true, with men tuning out a male voice who is trying too hard to suavely win over the women.

I’m definitely asked to put on a provocative tone for the occasional customer — the IVR for the makers of the Ferrari Art Engine comes to mind, where “the more languid the better” was the direction I got; there are other clients — such as the one who hired me to voice the IVR for the US Prison System — who urged me to avoid at all costs anything even close to an inviting tone. Otherwise, a friendly, professional, non-threatening, accessible tone almost always seems to work for most projects — and keeps me out of trouble.

Next blog: I’ll discuss my favorite types of clients…those clients which do everything right and make my job a pleasure!