Archive for November, 2010

NDA: “Never Divulge Anything”.

For someone who desires to keep her credentials and client list as current as possible on her website; as someone who has a fan page on Facebook (which I do – set up by an Asterisk admirer and which I sorely neglect) — even when friends and family casually ask in a social setting “what are you working on these days?” — it can be a frustrating feeling to have many great and interesting projects on the go and be unable to talk about any of them — due to various NDA’s — or Non-Disclosure Agreements — I’m regularly asked to sign. Especially this blog — where my mandate is to write about the telephony industry from the perspective of a professional telephone voice — cries out for specific examples from scripts I’ve read for my actual clients: the “goodies” of such transactions are often protected by me signing an NDA, promising I won’t divulge the company’s idea or product. If I do cite examples from work I’ve done, it’s always very cloaked, general or vague, rather than spill the beans on a product in development or the next great idea that’s about to be unleashed on the world.

An NDA, as defined by Wikipedia, is “…a legal contract between at least two parties that outlines confidential material, knowledge, or information which the parties wish to share with one another for certain purposes, but wish to restrict access to by third parties.” Basically, restricting the flow of non-public business information. NDA’s protect ideas from being copied, prevents patents from being hijacked, secures proprietary company information, and generally hinders others from profiting off of someone else’s idea.

Almost anyone hired by a company dealing with intellectual property can be asked to sign an NDA — either upon hiring, or upon termination: writers, computer coders, artists — even venture capitalists being approached to fund such a project  — anyone in the position to hear, assist in developing, or become privy to confidential information is likely to be asked to sign one.  (I recently read an interesting article in The Guardian.uk about special-effects animator Kevin Spruce {Academy Award-winning animator who has worked on “The Matrix”, “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Narnia”} who — as a matter of procedure — had the interviewer for the article sign an NDA, limiting him in what he could write about and restricting severely the detail in which he could discuss his works. Photographs? Out of the question. Not even of wobbly, roughly drawn rudimentary sketches of possible designs. Especially not those.)

For myself — a freelance voice talent under contract (or not) with many different companies all working in the same industry (or for competing products) — it’s generally acknowledged that I could quite possibly divulge the nature of one client’s IVR structure; just by offering a template to one client of another’s phone tree, I could be giving away information about their company practices, inner workings, or proprietary secrets. I actually recently had to sign an NDA for a product that was *so unbelievably great* — gah! It kills me not to be able to say more about it. See what I mean? Absolutely bound and gagged. Suffice it to say, this product will reduce hours and hours of needless waiting time for everyone — and even though I wasn’t actually selected for the job (I had to sign the NDA just to get a look at the script in order to render my bid) — I still take that oath of confidentiality very seriously.

Refusing to sign an NDA can have dire consequences; if asked to sign it upon applying for a job and refusing to do so, it can radically affect your chances of getting hired. If refusing  to sign one upon leaving a company, you could be deprived of benefits or promised perks (even accrued vacation pay). I’ve even read — in agreements I’ve personally signed — a clause which makes me liable to pay restitution to the company should I be the source of a leak of any crucial information — although one wonders how far a firm would enforce that. Most definitely an injunction to stop further disclosure could be rendered; you could be sued for damages, or criminal charges could be pressed against you.

Better to keep mum (as excruciating as it is); recognize the agreement as a sacred bond (which it is), and — as hard as it may be — follow Dan Aykroyd’s advice in “Grosse Point Blank” and “Cut the string, Chatty Cathy!”

Join me next week where — in the spirit of the upcoming holiday season — I will propose a possible phone tree structure which might ease the production demands of a certain North Pole toy making/distribution entity.

Thanks for reading! Your comments are welcomed!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world. Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

What Price is “Human Nature”?

A few weeks ago, I voiced an on-hold program for a client, and when he declined all of my choices of available selections of royalty-free music to mix behind my vocals, he suggested something which still stymies me to this day:

“Can’t we just play Michael Jackson?”

I tried to explain to him that our combined incomes — let’s throw in the incomes of everyone who works for him — heck, let’s go ever further to combine all of our incomes and that of everyone who works in his office park — couldn’t come close to affording what it might cost to legally mix a track from the Michael Jackson catalogue into an on-hold program. The thought that permission or royalties would even have to be paid — on top of  what he had already paid for the CD — never occurred to him. Grudgingly, he eventually gave in and chose a cut from my collection — but even after the fact, he still vigorously debated how great it would be to have “Human Nature” playing for his customers.

Many people don’t realize how limiting and restrictive the agreement you have between you and an on online downloading entity like Apple iTunes is — or even the “agreement” you informally strike up with the license holders of the CD you just bought. (Do people still buy CD’s…?)  You are, essentially, signing up for “private listening” — if you play it in *any* milieu other than enjoying it for yourself, or among family and friends — that’s considered “broadcasting”. And that requires permission and the shell-out of a licensing fee.

Playing music in a restaurant, bar, office, store — or putting it into an on-hold messaging program — requires a license. There are three large companies in the US who regulate and monitor the use of licensed materials, making sure that the artists and musicians get their fair share from their creative works being used — Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Society of European Stage Authors & Composers (SESAC) — there are a few smaller ones as well. Because music is so prevalent and pervasive in almost everything we are exposed to (especially online), seldom do we think about entitlements and remuneration to which the artist might be due. We purchase or download for free, copy it relentlessly and distribute it without flinching.

Another common practice is to play a radio station for customers on hold — which unleashes a whole other subset of problems. The same copyright issues apply — there is no express permission of the music title and mechanical copyright holders for you to be “broadcasting” their music, and for that reason alone, the playing of a radio station while on-hold is illegal in many states. Also, there is no control over the specific songs played, which could potentially be offensive to callers. Additionally, you could be unwittingly broadcasting commercials for your competitors, which your customers are forced to absorb while waiting for service from your company. Technical aspects of radio — ie: sounding harsh in monaural sound — plus being prone to interference — makes it not the best option for on-hold.

So what’s the big deal over playing tunes you’ve downloaded or purchased to run under your on-hold program? It’s done all the time — by everybody — and impossible to monitor or enforce…right?

It *is* difficult to monitor. Millions of performances of copyrighted music take place every day — however, increasingly, representatives from BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC are contacting businesses and determining whether or not their licenses are current for the materials they are playing on their on-hold, as well as streaming audio on their websites, etc.

How bad can the penalties be?

Actual damages, as well as statutory damages of up to $20,000 can be awarded for each copyrighted song performed without a license. The damages can actually be closer to $100,000 if the infringement is willful. And those who willfully infringe for commercial advantage or private gain can be fined up to $25,000, be sentenced to jail time of up to a year, or both. Well worth the detectives for the licensing agencies to do some poking around.

Those practicing due diligence will purchase individual licences from the licensing agencies for each project or selection of music they plan on utilizing  — or, as in the case of an on-hold company — using many titles on a ongoing basis — the payment of a yearly lump-sum to the licensing agencies makes sense. Proof of the license is usually issued to those who purchase on-hold programs to make sure everyone is covered in case a BMI or an ASCAP comes knocking on your call center door.

Personally, I find the purchasing outright of individual tracks from various online royalty-free music agencies to be headache-free and a far better option — two of my favorites are www.musicbakery.com and www.soundrangers.com. For a flat one-time purchase fee, you have unlimited world-wide usage of the track for as long as you own it. Their music is also current, there’s a vast array of choice, and their selections are — for lack of a better word — non-schmaltzy, as can be a lot of pre-packaged, off-the-shelf on-hold collections. And best of all: there can be no repercussions on the royalty side — peace of mind for both myself and my clients.

Next week, I’ll be blogging about the issue of confidentiality and conflict of interest in doing voice-over work: as a voice talent, NDA’s are a common thing I’m asked to sign — the nature of some projects I’m privy to is proprietary and requires a bit of discretion on my part. Difficult for most people to commit to — especially a blogger!

Thanks for reading. Comments, as always, are welcomed!

(Editorial Note: In the last blog entry, “What The Heck is Gonk…?” I mentioned the “second Orson Welles file” but neglected to embed the link into the article. This no doubt caused confusion for those searching for the legendary “frozen peas spot”. The link is there now.)

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world. Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.

What The Heck is a “Gonk”?!

Every now and then, a few sound files make their way from sound studio to sound studio — comic and sometimes painful voice-over sessions featuring celebrities unleashing various degrees of attitude towards producers, audio engineers, and anyone else in their path — sometimes justifiably so; often times not.

An increasing trend towards using semi-recognizable (and fully unmistakable) voices of anywhere from well-to quasi-known actors to sell products is a common practice nowadays — from Christine Lahti voicing Oil of Olay commercials for years, to Richard Thomas (of “Waltons” fame) lending his voice to spots for Mercedes-Benz, John Corbett for Applebee’s, Jeff Bridges for Duracell, and the workhorse of celeb V/o’s — Gene Hackman — voicing spots for Lowe’s, Oppenheimer Funds, CNN, and United Airlines. While Morgan Freeman (Visa) is impossible *not* to identify, others (like Willem Dafoe for Qwest) have that intrigue of being just slightly familiar enough to ruin your evening as you rack your brain to recall just who that might be.

The two most notorious V/o sessions which will live in infamy were recordings of two larger-than-life celebrities — Orson Welles and William Shatner — both accomplished and lauded actors, and both were hired frequently for voice-0ver work: not only for their celebrity cache; they both had undeniably powerhouse voices and deliveries which were absolutely distinct.

And one would presume that if they’ve been hired by producers/ad agencies for their unmistakable vocal quality and unique cadence, that those working with them on the sessions would leave them well enough alone in order for them to (to use my worn-out but dear-to-my-heart phrase): “Do Their Thing.”

But no.

Set Phasers to....Humiliate!

In the following sound file, William Shatner starts the V/o in his natural delivery and trademark Star Trek dreaminess that made him the icon he is today — until the producer decided to micromanage his performance: (click below):

William_Shatners_voiceover_revenge

At first, he attempts to explain his choice of delivery –then decides against doing so, and does another take in the “more energetic” style the producer requests. “There”, we’re all thinking: “He nailed it!” Not exactly. The producer responds to the take with an elongated “Uhhhhh…..” — as if starting to talk without first formulating what he should say — and we know he’s dead in the water. “Do it for me — exactly the way you want it to sound!” invites Shatner of the producer, who –against better judgment — offers a monotone, deadpan sample with down-ending sentences and all the pizazz of a wet weekend — and which Mr. Shatner imitated with eery exactness. Hearing his excruciatingly ordinary attempt being repeated back to him with startling clarity, the producer recanted his direction; showered Shatner with a sea of apologies, and hugely regretted ever intervening. Out-and-out pleading with Shatner to go back to the halcyon moments of his first delivery — which he undeniably should have just let him do from the start — Shatner cruelly sticks to his guns and refuses to voice anything without the producer reading it out loud first.

While not an advocate of loftiness in front of the mic — and definitely not a proponent of belittling anyone — especially those representing those who are signing the check — the producer’s irreversible mistake of not trusting in Mr. Shatner’s experience and talent was one that he probably still regrets to this day. I’m imagining that he ended up going to agricultural college and pursued a diametrically different career in botany, but still tells that story at dinner parties where time has softened it and made it into a delectable after-dinner story rather than what was quite possibly the worst afternoon of his life.

Would you direct that face?

The next classic recording is a spot Orson Welles did — and unlike the Shatner spot, we see Mr. Welles hit the “red zone” of anger almost off the top — at the very idea that a second take would even be requested: (click below):

Orson Wells 2

Many of us in a playful mood behind the mic will imitate Orson Welles when an innocent engineer asks for a harmless (and justifiable) second take — I’ve been known to adopt the best Orson Welles voice I can do, and bellow: “WHY? I just did it perfectly!” If the engineer is hip, he’ll warble, in a timid British accent: “Well…uh….I thought I heard a slight…GONK outside…..?”  My favorite part of the file is the long think, the long pour of water, the even longer sip, and the request to have a word with the producer. You can almost hear the engineer change careers!

The second Orson file:

welles-orson-frozen-peas-spot

…defies analysis: his hackles were up throughout the whole session, from his painful exactness at establishing the correct pea growing season to an almost fanatical urge to correct what he perceived to be crimes against grammar — he became increasingly difficult to work with, as supported by the one of the producer’s helpless attempts to assure Mr. Welles that “you did six for us last year — which were by far the best!” Nevertheless, Orson’s objections of “Too much direction in here!” and that the script was “Unpleasant to read — unrewarding!” made for an arduous and unforgiving session — and makes me wonder, every time I hear it, whether or not they managed to talk him into coming back (after storming off) and giving them the read they needed.

No one is “above direction” — anyone involved in the creative process of creating any artistic medium must be willing to “play” and contribute to the process by hearing direction clearly, responding to it appropriately, and showing your versatility and flexibility by altering your performance to the direction.

Within reason.

A good director will try to incorporate as many of the natural mannerisms and rhythms that a performer brings to the process — that’s why you hired them. In the case of someone with a “signature sound” — like a Shatner or an Orson — you’d do well to trust in their instincts and intervene only when completely necessary — because, in the clenched, fury-driven words of Orson Welles: it just might mean that “…the right reading for this is the one I’m giving!”

Next week, I’ll blog about the conundrum of royalty-free music, in the context of advertising and on-hold systems — in this free-downloadable age, many believe that *any* music is fair game be used for such purposes…and they couldn’t be more wrong.

Thanks for reading!

You Are Now Free To Move About the IVR

Searching online for disaster stories about convoluted telephone systems and the customer frustrations which ensue (which has become a near-sport/ hobby of mine, since I started this blog) can be very entertaining reading in an odd, perverse way– and no other industry is more prevalently featured in these “IVR Hell” stories than the airline industry; the volume of transactions which are processed daily in order to keep passengers in the air and at the right transfer points is staggering. The expense and total committment that travel requires from passengers raises the expectation in the public’s minds that all the moving parts of air travel *need* to function without a hitch in order for them to make it to their destinations. They don’t even want to entertain the possibility of “what if…?” delays/weather/cancellations happen — they just simply can’t. They need it to work.

Factor in the incredible emotional element woven into travelling by air in the form of sudden and unexpected changes in a passenger’s situation: a death in the family, an unexpected shift of work commitments, jobs lost and gained, relationships taking unknown twists and turns — all can necessitate high-stress last-minute changes to one’s travel arrangements.

When changes do need to be made to an itinerary, the stats will tell you that 36 percent of online US customers prefer self-reliance for service. This percent jumps to 46 percent for the dewy 18-29-year-old demographic. As aptly put by Brian Jameson in his Blog: “Top 5 Reasons Customers Dread The Call Center”: “Customers in the social age are looking for simple, fast resolutions to their problems. By not providing a self-service option for your customers, you could be frightening web savvy consumers by requiring them to dial you for basic customer service requests.”

I’m *slightly* outside of that target group which prefers to hunt down solutions on their own via a company’s website — be that as it may, I still solve the majority of my concerns/requests through turnkey website self-help features…unless things are really serious. Unless my situation is dire/time constricted/what I perceive to be overtly complicated — then, I default to calling in — with the hopes of talking to an actual person. I guess my rationale is that a real, live staff member has inside knowledge, secret solutions, perhaps even empathy, or may know of loopholes which will enable me to make the changes I need to make which cannot be intuited by a website. “When customers are in situations where they have to give something other than numeric information, they have to speak to a human. That is a drawback, ” says Jim Mitchell, manager of voice communications at Ceridian, “because it adds to call length and expense.”

A considerable factor in people’s hesitancy to call into an IVR — especially in situations like air travel re-bookings, where time is of the essence, the ability to re-book your flight becomes almost competitive with other passengers, and a caller’s patience is stretched to unknown limits — is the inaccuracy of speech recognition utilities used by most airline call systems. (I recently watched a broadcast from the Just For Laughs Festival, where a comic was recounting his experiences with an airline IVR, where he clearly intoned: “San Jose” as his city of choice, and he imitates the deadpan of the IVR voice, chirpily replying: “Thank you. You are now booked on the….9:00 AM flight to……STOCKHOLM!”)

In the Destination CRM.com article: “Avoiding the Speech Rec. Wreck”, Coreen Bailor states: “…speech applications cost about three to four times more to develop than touch tone versions, which allow customers to respond to prompts with their keypads, which is more accurate.” Seems like a no-brainer — when it works well, (meaning: there is a high capture rate of what you’re inputting {intoning} into the speech synthesis, it works blissfully well. When it doesn’t — frustration breeds. (Background noise, accents and colloquialisms can all derail a speech synthesis’ ability to help you.) The exasperation at being misunderstood  — at any time — is intense; by a machine it is doubly vexing (as I waited for a cab outside my hotel on a business trip recently, I overheard a man on his cell phone — obviously calling an airline’s automated system — intoning with painful clarity, more than a little too much volume, and the slowness with which one would speak to a disobeying child: “change…….flight….. CHANGE……..FLIGHT!!) All is not flawless with DTMF (touch tone) applications either — the chance for failure there lies in too many options; the fear that selecting the wrong option will send you back to the start of the process (more than likely), or the stark dread when *none* of the options they’ve laid out seem to reflect what you need. Compound that with redundancy (your information being asked for during numerous steps along the process — only to have the information *again* gathered by a live agent) — we want the shortest route to correcting and changing our travel plans — and sometimes the determining of that shortest route is anything but intuitive.

Join me next week, won’t you — where I will blog about the brilliant, hysterical, and occasionally painful viral sound files which make their way around sound studios from time to time; which feature celebrities in voice-over sessions gone awry….jewels which never fail to make us audio geeks chuckle.

As always, thanks for reading!