Archive for March, 2010

Absenteeism, Debt, and Other Not-So-Friendly Products I Represent…

I could very well be the voice that parents most dread. What was — at one time — the job of school receptionists is now automated (as are a lot of tasks which used to be human chores); I was hired to voice an automated system which automatically dials all parents and guardians of kids who miss/skip class and informs the parents that their offspring are out in the free world, pursuing other interests. The call is generated by bar-coded swipe cards at the school entrance — when a student doesn’t swipe, the call is placed. It’s a great way for parents to nip the problem of a no-show student in the bud before it becomes a chronic problem, but I kept thinking — as I voiced the appropriately serious prompts — that mine is the voice that parents are going to dread hearing. Or, I envision being encircled by disgruntled school kids ready to lynch me.

I *really* started to get a serious pit in my stomach when I voiced the first of many automated bill-collection platforms — calls which (at first, gently) remind the recipient of the call that their credit card bill is past due, and then the messages escalate somewhat in seriousness — I’m never a thug or even close to Tony Soprano on a “collect”, by any means. The messages merely build in urgency and seriousness with the number of messages you get, and in the second or third message, phrases like: “Our legal department sees this violation of your contract with the credit card company as theft, and will prosecute as such..” are brought out for effect.

How I’d hate to get that call! Even as professional, business-like, and non-menacing as the messages are, I still know that my voice will not be the favorite of the thousands who get those messages a week….even when encountered later on while listening  to other systems, the sound of my voice might evoke a negative feeling further down the road. Voice talent are human and still have that innate desire to be liked — and when I’m voicing the IVR for a hotel, luxury brand, or well-known product or company, it’s a great motivator knowing that my voice imprint is actually tying itself into the product — and if you’ve been voicing for the product for a while, your voice really does become part of the product. I once voiced an autodialer which called entire districts at a time to inform them that a registered sex offender will be moving into their neighborhood — while important and purposeful, it was a project which gave me the wim-wams to voice (to use the technical term) and serves as another instance where my voiceprint is loaned to a not-so-positive project — and may create a negative perception of my voice.

And so it is with these so-called “negative” or “serious” products — they’re necessary (and great contracts to have!), but the residual after-effect they leave is of concern to voice talent. Peter Thomas, the brilliant narrator of the “Medical Detectives” series on Discovery Channel, also does some TV commercial voice-over work — and even when I hear him voicing spots about life insurance or mortgages, I half-expect him to launch into explanations about blood-spatter theory or Luminol tests; so strongly in my mind is his voice linked to forensics. (I also know of a voice talent whose career was all but ruined by voicing spots for years for a certain well-known rectal-itch remedy….a tough thing to be well-known for, and a hard association to shake. “We’d love to use you in the car commercial, but we just hear…..hemmorhoids.”)

Even necessary but stern IVR prompts such as “You have no funds available in this account” or “You have been blocked from this conference” — even delivered without judgement or commentary — still will elicit a negative reaction from the caller — one that most voice talent see as a necessary evil, but an “evil” nonetheless.

Next week: I’ll blog about the unlikely connection between voice-over and the medical/pharmaceutical industry — it’s a significant link, and profitable — if you’re not easily scared away by terminology — or gore.

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Accents — They’re Magically Delicious!

She’s my competition on a sound studio’s talent database, and for every job I land through them, Jane gets hired for about three. It used to aggravate me slightly, but I always reminded myself that Jane’s paychecks end up in my bank account.

“Jane” is actually me — the British-accented version of me, and it was the studio’s sound engineer’s idea — in addition to creating my profile on his website for when clients are shopping for a voice — to also create this mythical “Jane” character for clients who are looking for a British accent. In the US, the perception seems to be that a British accent connotes wealth, sophistication, and can make even a non-highbrow product somewhat tonier. (I’ve left behind my exposure of years of watching Coronation Street and try for a higher-class RP British accent with a splash of playful English MTV Vee Jay thrown in).

Although not common (with the internet providing accessibility to talent worldwide who can voice projects in their own natural, native accents) the need for accents does crop up occasionally — I did some prompts for Eircom and introduced a bit of a Belfast lilt, and it’s not uncommon to be asked to bring in a bit of a Southern “sensibility” into projects geared at the US South — most often they’re looking for more a Paula Deen “warmth” than a full-out drawl.

The biggest danger when voice talent is prevailed upon to venture into accents is to overdo it, delve into cliche, or make the accent the focus of the project. I would caution never to agree to do an accent (or even have it on your demo) unless you are already fairly accomplished at it (I am regularly approached by Asterisk developers in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to voice prompts in their native accents — those are partcularly difficult accents to get right, and fall into the category of those I wouldn’t even attempt. Welsh is another one.)

If asked to voice copy in an accent, try not to go into cliche (I’m still recovering from the rash of St. Patrick’s Day commercials with DJ’s doing their overblown “Lucky Charms” Irish accents), and always ensure that the accent doesn’t “become” the project — it shouldn’t be the focus of the spot, it shouldn’t distract the listener, and it most definitely shouldn’t overshadow the message of the project.

There are times when my natural speaking voice is considered to be “the accent” — I do a fair bit of work for sound studios in the UK, Germany and other parts of Europe, who keep a roster of North American talent when they need the product to sound “international” to *their* customer base — a small telco in Britain hired me recently with the sole intent to sound like a major US Telco (I was flattered!) — but there are times when it’s worked against me: I once bid on a project in Australia, and was told  by their less-than-diplomatic creative director that their customer base would revolt from my “jarring, offensive American accent”. (For the record, I hail from Western Canada where accents  — like our political leanings and our cuisine — are painfully neutral. Most clients can’t place my regionality from my cadence, and I’m glad about that.)

There are times where it just doesn’t “work” — I recently watched a documentary about the Hillside Strangler, narrated by a male British voice talent — who, while undisputably talented, seemed incongrous voicing a show about a series of crimes committed in America in his elegant British timbre. Just days ago, “Jane” was hired to voice the IVR for a Karate studio — it seemed an odd fit, and I felt a little like Julie Andrews setting down her Wedgwood teacup and giving the “Fight Club” speech to moppets in sailor suits gathered around her: “Now remember children: the first rule about Fight Club: Nobody Talks About Fight Club! Now, shoo!”

When they work well — in the appropriate project — accents add auditory “interest” to a project and really enable the voice talent to use that acting instrument. Writers/producers need to ensure that the content fits the accent, and the voice talent should always endeavor to deliver realistic, understated performances.

Join me here next week, where I’ll talk about projects I’ve voiced which might very well make me — if not a *hated* voice — certainly unpopular. Hint: did your kid skip class this week? You might have gotten a call from me….

Why Can’t I Sound Like a Human?

Any voice talent reading this post will probably agree with me: there is no other more commonly heard direction — either from engineers directing a voice-over session or the clients and ad agency writers looking up from the cheese platter and offering their suggestions on how the spot should be read — than the following:

“Just sound like a real person!”

Doesn’t sound too labor-intensive, does it? After all, I *happen to be* a real person, who on a daily basis tells the barrista how I want my coffee; who pleads with the grocery clerk not to pack all the heavy groceries in one bin (they don’t listen) — and yes — I have real, natural conversations with friends and loved ones on a regular basis.

When we step in front of the mic — whether it be for a broadcast spot, an industrial film voice-over, and yes, even IVR prompts — something clicks in our brains and we default into the thinking: “I’m working. I’m a professional voice. Therefore, I must speak professionally.” The ad execs can’t really mean it when they say they want you to sound like their receptionist — otherwise they could have just dragged her here in the front of the mic — and for a lot less money, right?

The trend — especially if you listen to TV voice-overs — is candid, natural, “everyman”.  Almost gone are the days of a slick, bass-y male voice tantalizing you with talk of V-8 engines and Anti-Lock Brake Systems — many car ads now feature voices which sound so completely accessible, and for lack of a better word…..ordinary, that you don’t feel like you’re actively being sold a car (it’s a trick), but rather, the announcer just sounds like your neighbor, responding to your question shouted from the next driveway over: “So, how do you like your new Mazda?” The voice for Wendy’s sounds not unlike the voice you’d hear thanking you, as she hands you your burger at the take-out window. About the same age-range, and roughly the same amount of “polish”.

We almost have to consciously let go of some of our experience and training, and approach the material as through we’re seeing it for the first time, *saying* it for the first time — and — this is key — that we don’t have the nicely modulated voices or clear diction on which we built our careers.

And that’s not a problem — if the *material* itself is *written* in a conversational tone. There’s nothing more pleasant than being cast in a quaint two-hander radio spot that’s written with how real people talk in mind — and still manage to sell the product. The writer has been mindful to write sentences which might realistically be said between two humans. However, all too often we run into danger areas when “Marge” says to “Celeste”, for example: “Well, Celeste, Effexor isn’t for everyone. Oh, no. People who are prone to Tachycardia, Hepatitis, Chrone’s Disease, COPD, Osteoporosis, or if you have any of the following; changes in mucous color, increased cough, blurred vision. Certain people shouldn’t take Effexor: people with high blood pressure or lower bone mineral density. Do not take Effexor if you suspect you may be pregnant.” (They coyly cover their mouths and giggle.) If the material is at least written with a conversational “ear”, we, as voice talent, might have a reasonable chance in translating that into candid, natural conversation. I was assigned an on-hold script about a year ago — with the direction: “Sound Like a Real Person!” — and the material dealt with marine-grade sealants, industrial lubricants, and all manner of sewage interceptor and collection lines. Horrifically dry and technical content. “Just imagine you’re saying this to your best friend!” came the direction over the phone patch. You know, whenever I gather the girls together, and the good martini glasses come out, talk will invariably turn to the debate between LPS1 Industrial Lubricant and it’s rival, Mobil SHC. We’re still fairly divided about that issue. Don’t get us started.

In the voicing of IVR prompts, the challenge to sound natural becomes even more important — and arduous. Given the automated nature of telephony prompts, the “sameness” required in order to make the prompts flow effortlessly together requires a steadiness in inflection — and doesn’t exactly invite creativity in the voicing of the prompts. Even if you have a wonderful, relaxed, conversational opening prompt: “I can help you find what you’re looking for. Why not tell me more about what you need? ” you are still at the mercy of robotic-sounding numbers, months, and other “set” landmarks built into your IVR system. I try my best to sound as “real” as possible — and material that is written in a relaxed, conversational tone helps your voice talent to also express that naturalness audibly.

Almost like a model who is hired for a print ad in which great time and resources are used to “uglify” her with mud and dirt, so should voice talent realise that there are times when you’re hired for your melodic tones and crystal-clear enunciation — and other times where all the polish and refinement needs to be stripped down and to access that “everyperson” voice. You know the one. You use it each and every day.

Next blog: I”ll write about the challenges of accommodating clients who require accents…..great and fun work, if it’s done well!

Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment!

It’s Broke — And We Ain’t Fixin’ It

The link to a New York Times article was sent to me a couple of weeks ago by a client of mine — uReach Technologies, out of Holmdel, NJ (www.ureachtech.com) — they supply voice mail service to many telephony companies, among many others, Verizon. They’ve hired me for years to voice not only platforms for Verizon, but for numerous other carriers. Here’s the link to the NYT article:

http://nyti.ms/dup4x3

The author, David Pogue, is a well-known technology writer, an emmy-winning technology correspondent for CBS News, and the leader of the “Take Back The Beep” campaign, inspiring some of the major carriers to — in some cases — completely eliminate the 15-seconds of instructions before leaving a message, or at least greatly reducing the instruction wait time with other carriers. 
 
In his article, he mentioned being sent an e-mail from a marketing executive at uReach; the title of the press release being: “Ninety-Eight Percent of Users Want a Better Way to Get Voice Mail” — echoing Pogue’s own frustration with the mind-numbing (and revenue-generating) wait, listening to the same old instructions. 

Why should I — a person whose bread and butter is voicing voicemail trees (and the longer and lengthier the better!) — applaud Mr. Pogue’s efforts to reduce the laborious and time-consuming IVR trees? Those who have been following this blog since its inception last Fall know that I am an evangelist of “Keep It Simple.” Get to the point; say what you need to say in as few steps as possible; don’t underestimate how short people’s attention spans are (mine included), and even though a lengthy voicemail tree generates money (Pogue estimates: “If Verizon’s 87 million customers leave or check messages twice each business day, that comes out to $750 million of airtime a year..”) realise that listening to long menus is a collosal waste of time and productivity.

Mike Comstock — my contact at uReach and the source who brought the atricle to my attention — sent it to me in a sprit of “See why your scripts are so wordy?”, but Mike had some great further thoughts on the issue, especially the aspect of supplying an awesome technology, which gets hidden behind an old interface:

“I like to refer to the interface as a skin,” Mike explains. “If a web page looks unattractive, cluttered, confusing, etc, then it doesn’t matter how cool the underneath technology is. If the skin is ugly, then customers aren’t going to stick around to discover the cool stuff underneath. Similar parallels hold for the IVR skin. No matter how professional you or any other voice talent may be, if the script/call flow is poor, then the product suffers.”

There’s other voice talent? I digress.

We’re all after the perfect blending of an outstanding technology that drives a system which is a dream to navigate aaround; never frustrating, not delliberately trying to bill more minutes by asking callers to listen to Herculan menus; hopefully, a soothing, professional, genuine-sounding voice provides the icing on the cake and creates a lasting impression and even a company identity.

Join me here for my next blog, where I will investigate a conundrum which had plagued professional voice talent since the birth of sound recording: Why is it So Darn Hard To Sound Like a Real Person?