Archive for January, 2011

Why Get a Pro To Do It?

The economy’s doing better. You’re a start-up — but you’re great about staying within budget, prospects look good, and all things are on track. You realise that there’s an outlay of cash required to get your “framework” set up properly — there’s hiring, and office space procurement, and getting a website up and running (and making sure it pops up with the prevalence and frequency so that people can find it) — the very last thing on your mind (and the very last thing you imagine throwing cash at) is who will voice your telephone system.

After all — everybody speaks, right? People may even have told you on occasion that *you* have a “nice voice”, or — there’s Caitlyn at the front desk! She’ll be answering our phones — let’s just get her to record our outgoing greeting! Besides, have you looked for voice talent on the internet? Those guys make a killing! We’ll just get one of us to voice it.

How hard can it be?

Well, like any skillset, it’s not hard for anyone experienced at it.

I’m a professional voice talent, which simply means that I’ve parlayed a voice of reasonably agreeable tonality into an actual job. I voice telephone systems in a consistent, well-modulated way which has made repeat customers comfortable in coming back again and again for that same “sound”, and word-of-mouth referrals feel safe in knowing that same work I did for their colleague will be replicated for *their* telephone system. I am capable of great many different styles and accents — but typically, a straightforward, no-frills, under-the-radar neutral telephone voice is what people want (and what I can repeatedly give them.) Even though I am human, energy levels when recording are kept at an even keel. As a plus, I run professional recording gear, and manage to keep the settings and parameters fairly unchanged, so as to not interfere with the sameness of recordings done months and even years apart.

No big science to it.

But just as I can (and do) make a fairly reasonable pizza from scratch at home, I couldn’t compete in the arena of those who make high-volume (and consistently high-quality) on-demand pizzas every day. Those who make a skillset their full-time work have a discerning eye for quality; they instantly know what works and what doesn’t, and they have a keen sense of what their best work is, and what needs to scrapped and re-done. With repetition comes an expertise which sets a standard that cannot be upheld by an occasional dabbler.

With every respect due to our prototype receptionist “Caitlyn”, let’s explore why having her — or any staff person abducted in the hallway, put in a quiet boardroom with a phone and a legal pad with prompts scrawled haphazardly over it — may not be your best choice as your telephone voice:

They’ll Be Recording Over The Phone

I was recently asked by the authors of the new Asterisk book to weigh in on the chapter on IVR, where — as heartily as they encouraged Asterisk implementors to utilize the services of a professional recording artist (specifically: me), they also encouraged telephone recording for Asterisk — perfectly fitting with the turnkey aspect of the system itself. It’s ready out of the box, and it makes sense that all stages of the installation should be completely self-managed, without any need for outsourcing. My comments back to the authors about direct-to-phone recording were borne out of my own experiences at being asked to do them: I despise it. It evokes abject terror in me when I’m asked to record over the phone. People’s instructions to get into their systems are rarely accurate (there’s usually some crucial missing step); the handset itself is a terrible microphone and prone to registering any and all plosives; there is no luxury of editing out breath noises (clients assume I have the lung capacity of a Japanese Pearl Diver; I simply edit out all evidence of breathing..) — and most importantly: if there is a screw-up, there is no clean stopping and re-starting where you left off — the whole recording is scrapped and you must start from the beginning. With recording into a computer system, there is very little that editing software — once you get skilled at it — cannot fix.

Caitlyn’s Busy

She has responsibilities of her own, and can hardly be expected to drop everything at the last minute to update the phone tree when there’s a shift of personnel. She may be unavailable to record; she may receive a promotion or move to another department or get hired somewhere else — and you’re stuck with a phone tree which can either be added to with different voices (creating a strange, multi-personailty pastiche of voices on your system) or scrap the entire thing a start all over again with the new receptionist.

It’s Not Caitlyn’s Passion — And It Shows

Recording the outgoing message — from a busy receptionist’s perspective — would rank right up there with having to clean the microwave in the break room. It could easily be seen as an onerous task — and that will translate in what she projects in the recording. You can tell when a job is perceived as chore, and when it’s done with the gusto that comes from pure love. We love what we do (even if the scripts are usually fairly formulaic, we try to treat each one as a completely new and fresh entity). My hairdresser *loves* hair — she can’t imagine a day without fiddling with or manipulating hair in some way and was beside herself with anxiety when she had to take some time off for a surgery. Hair is her canvas, and she looks forward to every day she goes to work. That’s why she’s my hairdresser.

She’s Inconsistent

Maybe not with word processing, but Caitlyn does not have the experience or the discipline to make sure the that prompts she’s updating today will match in volume and energy of the ones she’s previously done. As an ancillary task, the voicing of the prompts will not be anything that she will be able to maintain a level of consistency with, the way she can with her principal tasks.

You take your car to an expert;  those who have had their bathroom remodeled by a hobbyist have done so at their own folly. Your telephone system sets the tone for your company and establishes an irreversible impression about your company for your callers. Sourcing out the voicing of the system to someone who takes the job seriously; who is always available for redo’s; who keeps the quality consistent — it’s one less thing to worry about.

Next week, I’ll be speaking at IT Expo in Miami about “IVR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them” — in my next blog, I’ll delve into public speaking and how even someone who speaks all day/every day is not immune to the same public-speaking gremlins that everyone feels.

Thanks for reading!


Let Your Fingers Do The Walking….To The Recycling Bin

A few years ago, a focus group was held to study the viability of  The Yellow Pages — the ubiquitous gigantic directories of local businesses which still gets dropped off  on our doorsteps every year.

The leader of the focus group asked participants a key question: how often did they use the Yellow Pages in the last year? Most said once a year.

A man in the study group tentatively put up his hand and asked what they meant by “usage”.  The participant went on to explain: “There are times when my cousin’s baby comes over and she needs something to sit on.”

I wouldn’t be much of a blogger on the telephony industry if I didn’t write about changing trends in the  industry — and one of the biggest examples of a necessity-turned-anachronism is The Yellow Pages.

The Yellow Pages started in 1883, when a Cheyenne, Wyoming printer saddled with the job of printing off one of the first rudimentary telephone directories ran out of white paper and swapped in yellow paper on a whim. The Yellow Pages soon had a stronghold in the arena of print advertising and was, at one time (pardon the pun) the Gold Standard when it came to making your business visible and findable to a local market. As Chris Silver Smith in his blog article “Is Yellow Pages Becoming An Obsolete Concept?” aptly puts it:  “In the ‘Business 1.0’ world, the Yellow Pages label was so deeply established that it could bring companies an instantaneous degree of success. In the ‘Business 2.0’ world, the name isn’t as relevant nor as compelling to consumers as is the combination of content and utility. Companies ignoring the trends will risk making themselves be perceived as dated.”

The internet happened. It happened to everybody. And while some might point to the Yellow Pages adapting beautifully to the online world, the stats say differently.

Halt The Presses

Since 2007, many US states have quit printing residential listings and many more have pending requests to do so: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania, to name a few. Yellow pages may not be far behind.

Hold The Phone

Traditional Land lines are being disconnected at a rate of nearly 10% a year. The connectivity we have away from home — and the ability to do instantaneous searches of business and their contact information, maps to their locations, their rates, find product pictures, and read reviews — wherever we are — makes the housebound landline go the way of the buggy whip — and as for those yellow directories we used to keep on hand to find a dance school, hairdresser, taxidermist? Rapidly becoming useless, unless we’re propping up babies with them.

Some Industries Are Already Yellow  Phobic — and Some Are Not

Would you haul the yellow behemoth out and look for a travel agent? Caterer? Lawyer? The travel industry, in particular, has become so completely turnkey — with travel deals as close a typing in “Trip Advisor” or “Priceline” into a browser — almost making the travel agent in and of themselves relatively redundant; let alone an unwieldy and awkward guide which lists only the travel agents in your area and just their contact information — and that’s it. In the time it used to take to look up an agent in the Yellow Pages, you can have y0ur trip booked and the itinerary printed off — and your plane ticket will be at a price that required no “inside knowledge” of an agent to secure. Some industries, however, still have a strong presence in the phonebook — plumbers and contractors are good examples. If you are looking to renovate your bathroom, for example, it can be difficult sourcing a comprehensive selection of candidates online in your local area to do it. There still isn’t enough local content to provide consumers with the same shopping experience as what the online travel industry offers, for example.

In March of last year, Yellow Pages Group in Canada rebranded with a new logo, which foists the “book” right out of the picture, hoping to associate the ubiquitous walking fingers and a blobby, mouse-pad/mouse-shaped outline — in an attempt to signal that the product is now multi-platform. (Ignoring the persnickety but true fact that our fingers don’t do that “motion” when searching for something online. Our fingers look like that when we’re pointing our fingers downward on printed material. It would be a less aesthetically pleasing logo — but more accurate — if they’d designed the “chicken claw”-like look of hand grasping a mouse. But I’m getting off track. ) Getting customers to think of Internet Yellow Pages (or “IYP” as it’s known in the industry) is no easy sell. Google, Google Maps, Bing, Yelp (which — undeniably — is a clever acronym of “Yellow Pages” without any of that messy yellow print stigma attached to it..); nearly any other online search engine outramps the online versions of Yellow Pages, be they Superpages, Dex, or Yellowpages online. Your first instinct will be to enter your term into Google if you need to send a bouquet from your small hometown in Rhode Island to a client in New Mexico — you’re just not going to use your local Yellow Pages online directory to find a nearby florist who *might* coordinate the delivery…or a florist on their end. You’re going to find an instantaneous listing of those florists who deliver all the time anywhere — with photos, prices, and a payment portal, so you can have the whole thing taken care of in a matter of a couple of minutes.

I have a great personal attachment to the Yellow Pages — a dear cousin of mine proudly sold ad space in the Alberta Government Telephones Yellow Book for most of her working life; I acquired a vintage pink rotary dial phone from my Aunt’s estate — and one of the most endearing features of the phone is the vintage AGT Yellow Pages Sticker on the handset; I also voice an auto-dialer for Yellow Pages yearly, which calls virtually every home in America, asking if the household received their Phone Books; enquiring sweetly if they’d like to have more delivered.

Like the pagers that most of us wore with great gusto on our waistbands in 80’s, the Yellow Pages served their purpose well and brilliantly when they were the ultimate mode of linking people together. I dutifully stack the current year’s books in the corner of my office, but can’t foresee a time in the near future — as most people can’t — when I’ll actually turn to them.

Next week, I’ll address the question: “Why Have a Pro Do It?” when it comes to your IVR voicing; the economy’s recovering, but people are still cost-conscious and wondering why they’d need to hire an over-priced voice talent to voice their phone system. Caitlyn’s right there at the front desk — let’s get her to do it! Next week, I’ll explain why “Caitlyn” may not be your best choice….

Thanks for reading!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is

Choosing The Right Voice Talent

It sets the tone for your entire phone system; it identifies what your company is all about — it can even be a deciding factor as to whether or not someone wishes to do business with you.

Your choice of voice talent is crucial in creating the perception of your company, as the front-end of your phone system establishes who you are and in many cases, how serious you are about what you do.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about your selection of voice talent to voice your IVR — existing preferences with regards to male versus female; the deliberate decision to go with an older voice as opposed to a younger sound (or vice-versa) — all are negotiable and not set in stone. What was once the preferred and valued convention in a vocal style can suddenly fall out of favor and the converse can now be the “norm”.

I have been asked to voice the IVR prompts for many companies and industries which were, before, considered to be the domain of men: I recently voiced an online training module for welders (their thinking being that a woman’s voice would be calming to candidates writing their exam); car markets — from sales to accessories and customization of vehicles — once the turf of male announcers, are rapidly leaning in favor of a female voice. It could be a matter of “sex sells”; I like to think that it has more to do with the psychology of how a voice hits your ears. You know how some voices just irritate? And you don’t know why? A voice can “agree” with your ears, without you even really knowing why.

A young, energetic sound — with the gravelly, almost sleepy cadence of a Jersey Shore girl, will most definitely fit with a young upstart alternative clothing company and likely wouldn’t fit with an upscale high-end clothier targeting a 35-55 market. A straightforward conservative male voice might sound stodgy and not dovetail well with a hip, urban record label, in much the same way that callers to an importer of high-end housewares might find it incongruous to encounter a telephone voice who sounds too hip or “street” — or even a “young” sound, which could create doubts of competence for callers phoning gem dealers or art auction houses, where a seasoned, experienced sound would inspire confidence.

Define The Sensation You’re Attempting to Create

It is important to have it worked out in your head — and to able to express to your voice talent — what “vision” you have of the company’s image, and how the talent can help to create that. Articulate what you are; and articulate what you *aren’t* all about. Provide examples from other ad campaigns or phone systems you’ve heard, or even examples of what’s worked well for you in the past or what *hasn’t* worked well — but only as a rough guide and not as a template which you expect the talent to replicate exactly.

Ask for a Custom Demo…but not too many

It’s completely acceptable (and highly recommended) to request a custom demo of your material, to make sure the talent’s on the right track — with a few caveats. Make sure the material is short (two or three lines or prompts should be sufficient to establish the direction they’re heading in). Be aware that most talent will not read an entire spot or a full script for audition purposes; we are vigilant about making sure the clip isn’t actually used without remuneration and rather than embed a low-grade tone under the sample (a watermark which effectively makes it unusable) we will deliberately change prices or transpose phone numbers to make sure it won’t be used. If the talent doesn’t hit the mark the first time, feel free to suggest a retry on the demo — but if, after that second attempt yields results which still aren’t sounding right, move on and audition someone else. Most often, understanding the material and being able to convey the vision is an instant “get” — when it’s not there, it’s probably best to farm other avenues.

 Know Your Demographic — And Have a Clear Idea What They Respond To

Knowing what works and what doesn’t work for your customers is as important for your IVR persona as it is to have a website which you know your customers will find intuitive, or knowing what type of radio commercial draws your customers in. And sometimes, it’s all about context. No surveys or testing would be required to know that callers to a Women’s Health Clinic will likely *not* respond well to a male voice greeting them on the telephone system, but callers to a grocery chain (where women are still the principal consumers) might find a reassuring, “let’s-cook-dinner-together” male voice to be just the right tone. 

The More People You Ask — The More Messy the Process Will Be

We know that many aspects of the corporate environment need to be done by committee, taking many, many people’s opinions into consideration. If it were just up to the person who contacted the talent, it would be a simpler, more direct process. It is rarely up to one single decision-maker. It is important that the vision be agreed upon and solidified corporately before even approaching the talent; it is essential to narrow the parameters of what you’re looking for early in the process, and it will be a valuable nugget of information to articulate to the talent that *many* people will be reviewing not just their demo but all of them (and that this may cause more of a delay in obtaining feedback). For bonus points, decide to set a limit on the amount of demoing which will be required of the talent.

 It’s an amazingly creative process to hunt for and obtain just the right sound, which closely mirrors your company’s persona, and provides the best, most accurate impression of your company at the outset. It’s the indefinable moment when the voice hits your ear “just right”.

 Next week, I’ll be exploring a staple in the world of telephony which refuses to become an anachronism: The Yellow Pages.

Thanks for reading!

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, who can be heard voicing systems for telephone systems and private companies throughout the world, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, and Asterisk.  Her website is

That Was So….Ten Years Ago……

You Can Shout All You Want -- We're Not Buying It!

There are “trends” in voiceover — whether you’re talking about the style of announcer you currently hear when listening to a TV ad campaign; a type of telephone voice  or even the kind of approach you might hear in a DJ either on FM or AM radio — the “mood” or “feel” created by a voice is an important stylistic element to consider when hiring a voice — and these “trends” are as variable and as prone to whim as hemlines.

What voices end up sounding “dated”? Why is it that we can watch a documentary and come to the conclusion that the announcer is “old school”? Or that we change the radio station, because the DJ sounds too much like the ones you remember from your childhood and you were trying to tape your songs off the radio without his booming tones overlapping onto your song? (Man, am I old….)

I firmly believe there are “trends” in voiceover which — just like fashion — can be cyclical, are never definitive (or permanent) — and that one must be sensitive to these fine changes in the market and adjust your performance accordingly — whether you, yourself are a voice talent looking to keep your demo current, or are in the position of hiring voice talent or writing ad campaigns which require a voice-over component.

Here are the major pitfalls which will give your sound away as being “dated” just as sure as bell-bottoms or leisure suits:

Shouting. I, and most other professional voice talent, dread copy which dictates that we scream. In addition to being a huge waste of energy – and an actual detriment to the voice — that trend of advertising went out long, long ago. Ad agencies have long ago figured out that nobody responds well  to being shouted at; a constant barrage of noise actually makes listeners reach a saturation point, and certainly does not compel them to take their wallets out. It could be argued that it’s the only way to fill the stands for a Monster Truck and Tractor Pull, but for almost any other product — keep in mind that *nobody* enjoys being assaulted about the ears.

“The Earbug”. There’s a topical headache remedy (applied directly to the forehead — you know the one…) and the signature aspect of their ad campaigns since its inception has been a very monotonous and irritating tag-line being repeated again and again throughout the ad, until you find it rolling around in your head for hours afterwards. Now, many advertising analysts might call that a “win”: after all, the ad is memorable, the tag line is unforgettable, and the all-important victory: you can remember the product’s name. I call it complete disaster; an ad series which doesn’t care about finesse or creatively getting the message across — it’s planting an earbug in your head and gives you no choice but to repeat it and remember it — but makes me and many others deliberately *not* buy the product, because that would be rewarding the people who drove me so crazy.

“Gary Owens” Syndrome. Everyone watched this last week — with great interest — as Ted Williams, former homeless man-turned-re-hired DJ — was discovered panhandling, noticed for some amazing velvet pipes as he thanked the donor; was later videotaped by the same benefactor, uploaded onto You Tube, featured on CNN, and who now is fielding offers from radio stations, sports affiliates, and various other media contacts, taken with his amazing story and — let’s be honest — looking to capitalize on the publicity. My first thought — when watching him demonstrate his amazing announcing skills — was one of cautious congratulations. I — like everyone else — wished him well, and hoped for the best. But I was also stricken with a certain “dated” aspect to his DJ style — he was doing the traditional velvet-throated classic-DJ; all bravado and cigarette-enhanced bass tones which, quite frankly — just aren’t done anymore. Like the stereotypical announcer Gary Owens on Laugh-In — with hand cupping the ear, and the elevated, unnatural stilted DJ style oozing out, DJ’s are now (and have been for awhile) displaying a more natural, personable “‘everyman” persona, rather than what a DJ has “traditionally” been expected to sound like. Addiction problems aside, was Mr. William’s dated delivery the source of not going further in his broadcasting career? Was it a moving part in his demise that he couldn’t get out of “DJ Head”?

Telephone “Automaton”. With the lion’s share of my work being in the area of voicing telephone  prompts, I can tell you that even that area is not immune to trends. Years ago, the preferred style was an emotionless android, who had no appreciable “ups” or “downs” in inflection — this was to accommodate even and seamless concatenation of prompts. We now know that if a voice talent were to voice series or “strings” of related prompts — such as numbers, months, days of the week — with a mind to doing them in a “up-ending” inflection, “down-ending” inflection, and yet another set delivered fairly neutrally, almost all eventualities would be covered. Prompts can then be delivered in a candid, conversational tone (much preferred in modern IVR’s), and the “robot” sound can be avoided.

It feels natural to write a companion piece blog next week which expands on this idea (but which I had planned to write in coming months) — next blog, I’ll delve into the sometimes dark science of “How To Hire The Right Voice”.

As always, thanks so much for reading. Has something you’re read sparked a comment in you? Feel free to leave a comment!

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

How To Talk American


Canadian voice-over talent like myself have an interesting and unusual challenge which presents itself, especially when — as mine is — your focus is on building an American clientele.

There are certain tell-tale words and cadences which give us away when we attempt to “fit in” and make our “Canadian accents” neutral (and ultimately a non-issue) — most of us know about modifying words like “project” and “process” to sound less “Canadian” (saying “PRAW-ject” and “PRAW-cess” — as opposed to saying more of a “pro” sound fits in better with American clients) — but it led me wonder if there were other hard-and-fast rules which would allow for voice talent to make  the adjustment and “acclimatize” better while voicing American projects. Another word which comes up often in scripts is “data” (DAY-tuh is more American than “DATT-ta.”)

No sooner had I rolled that idea around in my head as possible blog topic, when I met a fascinating speech-language pathologist at a party of mutual friends of ours — Lisa Bjerke — who runs a company called Accent On Canadian English ( and I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed for this article. (And believe me: nothing makes me smarten up and enunciate like meeting a speech pathologist. Like chatting with a dental hygienist and fighting the urge to fish for floss in my handbag.)

She had some great additions to the list of words which benefits from a consistent “American treatment”:  borrowed words such as drama, Mazda, pasta, and plaza tend to be pronounced “the Canadian way” with an “a” as in “hat”, and in the “American way” as “a” as in “hot”. (I have a close friend from the US who is driven crazy when the suggestion of “PASTa” comes up, as opposed to “PAHS-ta”.)

“The prefix ‘i’ such as anti, and semi ,” continues Lisa, “Is typically pronounced as “ee” by Canadians and “eye” by Americans.” Similarly, “The ‘ile’ suffix is most often pronounced as “aisle” by Canadians, and “ul” by Americans in words such as ‘fragile’ ‘versatile‘, mobile’, ‘hostile‘”, adds Lisa. She also points out the characteristic American pronunciation of “roof” with the vowel in “put”, where Canadians tend to say “ew” as in “pool”.

She further deconstructs the difference in cadence between speakers of the two nations: “Canadians produce two vowel sounds in a more “clipped” manner than our American neighbors: the two vowel sounds are ‘i‘ as in ‘wide’ and ‘ow’ and in ‘cow’. In Canadian English, pronunciation varies depending on whether a voiceless or voiced sound follows the vowel sound. This phenomenon is known as “Canadian Raising,” she explains, further illustrating: “Say the words ‘right’ and ‘ride’, and ‘house’ and ‘houses’ out loud. The vowels in these words are slightly different for Canadians but not for Americans. For Canadians, the tongue is raised to a more central position in the mouth for the two vowel sounds mentioned when they are followed by a voiceless sound such as /t/ or /s/.” (Try it! It really works! Talk about a party trick!)

I brought up a predicament which Ms. Bjerke found interesting: when I’m asked to voice in a British accent (frequently — in fact, I’ve blogged before in this space about how “Jane”, my British alter-ego — sometimes snags more work than I do..) — quite often the scripting is at odds with the accent. The client (usually American; and is wishing to create an upscale, erudite image by using an English accented-announcer..) will insist that I say words like “controversy” as “CON-tro-VER-sy”, as opposed to the more authentic British “con-TROV-ersy.” I should be saying “IN-quiry” (British) as opposed to “in-QUIRE-ry” (American).  Lisa addressed that by explaining: “accents are comprised of two main aspects: segmentals which are the individual vowel and consonant sounds and the supersegmentals which are the unique stress and intonation patterns of the language.” Her advice was actually my default way of dealing with the problem of script battling the accent: I may have to do it in an ‘un-authentic’ manner to please the public.” And to always keep in mind who the audience is.

I couldn’t resist imparting my story to Lisa about the Realtor from Georgia for whom I used to voice “talking house” real estate listings: she called me one morning with a note about a redo that needing doing: “Hon”, she drawled, “It’s pronounced ‘foy-YUR’….you said ‘foy-YAY.” My skin crawled, and so did Lisa’s: the word “foyer” has French roots, and while I’m not a Francophone-type-Canadian, I do my best to defer to the rightful roots of a word. Grudgingly, I gave her the pronunciation she was after — but I wasn’t happy about it. (Another one I’m frequently “pulled over” for is the pronunciation of the word “Sorry” — it should almost sound more like the East-Indian Garment (“Sari”) in American scripts than the Canadian “SORE-ry” (and we known as an overly apologetic people. You would think we need little coaching on *that* word.)

Lisa spent American Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, and was stricken — even herself being a speech pathologist —  at how our brains perceive the differences in accents, even with the vowels “a” in “hat” and “a’ in “hot” being delivered in a millisecond — the differences are appreciable and distinct.

Thanks for reading (and for sticking with me while the blog went on a slight hiatus for Christmas) — I’ll be back next week, where I’ll explore “trends” in commercial voice-over  — and speculate on why we still hear styles which are decidedly outdated.

Feel free to comment!