Archive for July, 2010

Purple Heart Services

While attending IT Expo in Miami two years ago, I came across an interesting exhibitor who didn’t seem to fit into the typical prototype of the telco manufacturer, supplier, or reseller that usually sets up at those kind of of trade shows — and from no other exhibitor have I *ever* been given dog tags instead of business cards.

They are Purple Heart Services,  and in addition to raising funds for the service, welfare, and rehabilitation of  wounded, disabled, and/or handicapped veterans (and their spouses, orphans or survivors), the aspect of their work which really intrigued me was their mandate to train disabled war veterans in call center and support center technology & skills — and  to also position them into jobs in that industry.

Naturally I was interested in offering to voice their IVR — which I did and continue to do to this day — but what most fascinated me was their unwavering committment to assist in improving the lives of those who have served their country — and who might have additional challenges which make re-entering the workforce after service even more daunting. Physical limitations — which may make working in many industries a challenge — if not impossible — are a non-issue when integrating former servicemen and women into a call-center environment.

Veterans undergo 600 hours of training, taking place over 15 weeks, to be accepted into the Purple Heart call center. With a full-time dedicated staff of skilled combat wounded and disabled veteran operators, Purple Heart offers workers with an unparallelled knowledge of web-based predictive dialing call center systems and products. Think about the disciplined, dedicated, and efficient military sensibility and how that would fit into a call center context — and you’ll see why military veterans and a well-run call center are  a match made in Heaven.

They offer custom-built CRM software, built in-house and adjustable to various campaign needs. Practically any industry would find this kind of call center setup extremely adaptable, turnkey, and pertinent to their specific industry.

The service that Purple Heart offers is incredibly useful and amazingly resourceful; this is stimulating, specialized work which is rewarding both financially and esoterically, gives wounded veterans — who might otherwise be overlooked, or who might find themselves under or unemployed; a chance to really contribute to society and become self-sufficient.

If you happen to know of a disabled or wounded veteran who might prosper and flourish in this amazingly supportive environment, or if you are in the market for outsourcing your call center needs, check out their website at www.purpleheartcallcenter.com or www.vvti.org.

Next blog entry will delayed by a couple of days — I’ll be attending Speechtek in New York August 1-4, and I intend on reporting back from the Convention Hall Floor about the very latest in speech technology!

Thanks for reading!

The Science of Directing Voice Talent

Why don't you just turn *up* the beige knob?

I was voicing a radio spot years ago, and the ad agency rep — kind of a kooky, older British guy, spoke to me over the studio mic and offered what I consider to be one of the strangest pieces of direction ever given: “Uh, Allison — can you make your sound more….beige?” 

Man, was I confused. 

He’s using a *color* equivalent to describe a *sound*? OK, thought I; I think I know where he’s coming from. I replied: “So, what am I currently…..brown?” 

He started to hop up and down excitedly. “YES! YES! Exactly!” he yelped, looking very pleased with himself. 

Apart from tales of weirdness (like that one), the dynamic between the client and the voice talent (actually, *any* director and virtually any creative talent)  is one which requires diplomacy, careful selection of words, and a sense of acknowledgment of the vulnerability of the talent in front of the mic/camera/audience. I wanted to write about how best to direct talent who may be voicing your project — and the best resource I could think of is my good friend and colleague, Glenn Howard. Glenn is a former engineer-turned-voice-talent — an advantage which gives him not only formidable equipment (and the knowledge to use it properly!) but he has a unique perspective about how to direct voice talent, from his massive amount of time spent behind both sides of “the glass”. 

When asked to boil down what he thinks are the best “ingredients” for a productive voice-over session, Glenn encapsulated it perfectly: “I had the great fortune of learning voice directing from people like Steve Convery (TA2 Music/Louder Music) and Terry O’Reilly (Pirate TV) — these guys had a way of directing that really respected the performer and allowed the process the be a collaborative one.” 

It *should* be looked on as a collaboration. 

Of course, it starts with the writers. Glenn offers: “Writers have a really tough job to do. The writers that make my job easy are the ones that have a great ear of how certain words flow together when read aloud.” He adds: “Often, words that look great on the page don’t necessarily translate that well when they’re spoken aloud.” (Or — spoken in a mumbled fashion at a copywriters desk with a stopwatch.) 

Communication between the talent and the writers/producers at the onset of recording is crucial. It’s important that the talent understands what the message is; who the audience is; and what the writers intentions were — and its paramount that the producers are able to articulate that clearly and succinctly to the talent. Glenn adds: “Often, before I start doing a take, I’ll ask the director to give me the background on the spot so that I can make the choices I need to make in my delivery.” 

That can also backfire, as Glenn can attest to: “I remember a copywriter dissecting his script for me for 20 minutes before I read a single word. As much as I appreciated his attention to the script, all he really needed to say was: ‘Let’s make it casual and conversational'”. 

I have called Glenn — on a few occasions — the Master of the Talkback Switch — which is a device which controls audio from the engineering booth — where the engineer and clients/writers/producers sit — and the voice talent, sequestered in the sound booth. It is a way for both “camps” to communicate with one another — and can be the cause of a lot of confusion for the talent, if they are allowed to listen to all discussion which occurs during breaks between takes — which can be confusing, contradictory, and sometimes, unflattering. Glenn is expert at filtering out the information, and only passing down to the talent what will be useful in the next or subsequent takes. Glenn mentioned: “When I was the guy with my finger on the talkback, it was my responsibility to listen to the comments being made, find a consensus in the room, and then relay that direction to the talent clearly.” Not all engineers are that prudent; I’ve had to listen three or four snippets of contradictory direction coming from a group of people on the other side of the glass, and had the engineer swivel in his chair and ask: “Got that?” 

Got *what*? I got that Ad Exec #1 wants me to do it softer and Ad Exec #2 wants me to do it more heavy sell. 

When asked what he considers to be the top traits a voice talent needs to contribute to a short, efficient,  smooth voice-over session, he answered, without hesitation: “Preparation, preparation, and preparation. Arriving at least 10 minutes early to the session, having the necessary skills at hand, having confidence, and just being a professional are all essential qualities.” 

He’s a joy to work with — those of us who have had Glenn engineer our sessions know all too well what a level-headed calming influence he can be in the session — now his rapidly growing list of clientele know it too. Glenn has voiced spots for the US Army, California Milk, Intel, Coca-Cola — he’s a formidable talent who still manages to remain his usual jovial and unflappable self. Check out his demos at www.ghvo.net

Next blog, I’ll write about an amazing not-for-profit organization called the Purple Heart Foundation, for whom I’ve voiced IVR — they employ disabled veterans in call centers, which is an extraordinary opportunity to get injured veterans back in the workforce and on the road to being self-sufficient again. 

Thanks for reading!

Phone Phobia

It’s not technically a “phobia” — actually more of a preference — but despite the fact that voicing telephone systems is my bread and butter, I can’t actually stand talking on the phone.

Is that odd?

I’ve always been like that. I come from a family where we talk with brevity, stating our piece, and then get the heck off the phone. Even as a teenager, where many girls my age spent long hours on the phone recapping and analyzing the day with the same friends with whom they had just spent their day, I was prone to lightning-quick homework checks over the phone and that was it.

E-mail has become my preferred mode of communication — and I know I’m not alone in that regard. Many people love the way in which it allows organization of thought and planning of words; and requires less thinking on the fly. You can meter out your reply with as much care (and redos!) as you desire. You have the control of replying when *you* have the time set aside to focus on your response — even if it’s right on the heels of receiving the enquiry.

Increasingly, I’m getting initial e-mails from clients who are interested in me voicing their projects, and in the box in the response form on my website dedicated to obtaining a description of their project, an increasing number of clients simply write “Call me.”

This makes me cringe for several reasons. Calls — if I allowed them to — could take a gigantic chunk out of my day — a chunk better spent in the booth recording.  A description of their project — the length and scope of the project; the mood/feel they’re looking for — and bonus points — attaching even a rudimentary script right out of the gate — will go a long way toward fast-tracking communication, and I can usually render a quote and answer most questions in a good information-filled initial e-mail than I can in a protracted telephone call. Seldom are their requests or needs so complex that I haven’t encountered many similar projects in the past, and I’m more than happy to schedule a follow-up call if their specific requirement still need ironing out. But I’m encountering more and more people who want that initial direct phone contact at the outset (maybe they’re trying to determine that there really *is* a living, breathing entity behind “the voice”? It’s a quality control check? Like sample day at Costco? Or — aha! — they’re surreptitiously recording me for their own text-to-speech application! (“We should talk on the phone about a dozen more times, and I should pretty much have all the information I need…”)

I have a friend (actually, we go far back enough for her to be one of the friends with whom I used to do homework checks — or rather, *she* corrected *my* homework over the phone) — who automatically assumes that if the phone rings, it’s bad news. Even though financially solvent and healthy, and fortunate enough (like I am) to be living a relatively carefree existence, her default thought when the phone chimes is that a bill collector is calling to inform her of financial ruin; it’s her doctor calling, thinking that the “thing” warrants a few tests, or that — especially if the call is especially late night/early morning, someone  must require her assistance in identification at the morgue.

While not that fatalistic, and while I don’t necessarily presume the worst when the phone rings, I do dread the act of outbound calls, and I’m happy to say that my marketing plan of recent years requires less and less cold calling and more fielding of offers which come in. Is this preference for written discourse symptomatic of the more insular life we’re all leading? Is it indicative that we actually *prefer* the detached, somewhat removed nature of “virtual” contact, as opposed to direct, human-to-human interchange? I would have to say a resounding “no” — I’ll still take face-to-face human interchange over practically anything. But I — along with a growing number of people — will limit my time on the telephone in favor of concise, efficient communication via e-mail.

Next week, I’ll interview a colleague and friend of mine — Glenn Howard — about the optimal ways in which to direct voice talent in a voice-over session. Glenn is in a unique position: a former engineer-turned-voice talent, Glenn has spent considerable time on *both* side of the glass, and has a unique perspective on how best to get that perfect performance out of your voice talent — and how talent can hit their mark every time.

Thanks for reading! As always, comments are welcomed and encouraged!

Prompts Which Haunt Me

"STOP SUCKING!"

I usually do things in a largely regret-free manner; I’ve gotten pretty expert at sizing up a potential voice project and assessing what its impact might be further down the road. As I’ve discussed in past blogs, there’s distinct lines I won’t cross with gratuitous profanity, overdone eroticism, or overt racism — these give me pretty clear signals that I should probably respectfully recuse myself  and urge the client to move along and find other talent to voice for them. 

Other things I’ve voiced — seemingly harmless and non-noteworthy at the time — have a way of surfacing and never leaving me alone. The “haunting” by these prompts — which become almost like “tag lines” which people take great glee in quoting to me — are most times amusing; other times, they make me wish I’d never uttered them. 

Take the harmless number sequences I’ve voiced for countless telephone systems — the numbers 1-100 (or more), needed to flow and concatenate into billing platforms, numerical sequences, etc. At the very first Astricon in Atlanta, an Asterisk enthusiast approached me and asked: “You know those numbers you voiced for Asterisk?” 

I blinked. “Yep! I know them well,” I quipped. 

“So, for the number ‘0’,” he continued, “you said ‘Zero’, but you also said ‘OH’, right?” 

Again, Yep: systems typically need me say both to cover the option for: “Press One-OH-One for Accounting..”, that kind of thing. 

“Well,” he continued, as his eyes lit up and he started to get quite animated: “I saved that ‘OH’ sound and I loop it so it just plays over and over…..’OHOHOHOHOHOHOH..!” 

I faked a nosebleed to get out of there. 

One of the most inventive uses for Asterisk was when a noted Asterisk wonk got the ever-popular Rhoomba vacuum robot to operate on Asterisk code commands, which he demonstrated at a couple of IT trade shows before really amazing the crowds at Astricon with it — he took it even further and arranged for me to record some custom prompts specifically for that application — prompts which were audible from the vacuum unit itself. 

I *knew* when I recorded them, that the prompts which said: “START SUCKING!” and “STOP SUCKING!” were going to be absolutely no good for my career. But they were so fun! And they went over in a huge way when the mastermind of the project set it down on the floor during his lecture at Astricon and delighted the crowd as it zipped down the center aisle with me — the voice of their Asterisk systems which they recognize so well — barking: “START SUCKING NOW!” 

Of course, not a convention goes by without someone walking past me and whispering “Start Sucking!”, and it even came up in an e-mail from a client whose company name I was having a hard time intoning properly…..he joked: “Stop Sucking and say it correctly!” I still have images of the remote-controlled Rhoomba following me at my heels across the hotel lobby, me practically tripping over it, with a never-ending chorus of “me” chirping: “START SUCKING!” 

I was hired to voice a demo for an interactive ordering system, to demonstrate the ease of processing a product order from greeting the customer, information gathering for billing, and customizing their order — the demo focused around a pizza ordering model. I never realized — after I was well into voicing the various options for pizza sizes — that there were quite so many adjectives to describe “large”. 

“OK. You have selected…two…..LARGE….HUMONGOUS…..MASSIVE…..THE GARGANTUA!….ENORMO-GIGANTICO…TOO MUCH FOR ME!….RELEASE THE KRAKEN!….pizzas!” 

On their own — and used in an innocent pizza ordering application — not even going to raise an eyebrow. Taken out of context, hijacked, copied and used on their own — I always have to think about these sound fragments and how they can be lifted out of their intended “milieu” and used for evil. Well, if not for evil — at least for too much amusement. (Remember on The Simpsons, where Smithers computer revealed an image of Mr. Burns “saying” a pastiche of sound fragments {surreptitiously gathered and “Smithered” together?} which sounded jumpy and fragmented, but unmistakable: “Hello, Smithers…you’re…quite…good…at…turning…me…on!” )

I have to always be mindful that once the prompts leave my studio, they’re open for manipulation  and altering; and that even seemingly innocent things I’ve voiced can create far-reaching ripples. And which may follow me forever.

Next blog, I’ll delve into a common trend in modern human behavior: the preference of e-mail over telephone communication, and why even I — who makes a living voicing telephone systems — can’t stand talking on the phone. 

Thanks for reading! 

(BTW: for those hard-core IVR developers — or for those who just need assistance from the ground up in writing and building your IVR systems: I’m now blogging directly on the Digium site, in a column called The IVR Clinic with Allison Smith. I’m currently working on a 15-part series called “The 15 Commandments of IVR”, and it highlights the biggest mistakes people make when designing their IVR systems and how to avoid them. It can be found at: http://bit.ly/b6M0Re.)