We’re Everywhere!

You tell her who’s boss!”

The encouraging support came  from behind me, while self-checking some groceries recently. I looked surprised at the clerk who oversees all of the self-check lanes at my local Safeway, and he gleefully continued: “You sure told HER!”

Apparently  — like most other customers who have resigned ourselves to being our own cashiers (and as a sidenote: twenty years ago, if someone had told me that sometime in the near future I would happily ring through and bag my own groceries, I would have told them they were bonkers) — I was actually answering the automated voice who guides consumers through the sometimes mystifying process of scanning our own groceries. I was responding to her specific prompt, in which she says — a little too enthusiastically, as though this is a monumental idea which just occurred to her —  “HAVE YOU SCANNED YOUR CLUB CARD??!” I — a professional voice talent, and quite an apt mimic, matched her intonation precisely as I responded: “NO, I haven’t! But I will — when I’m done! Thank you!”

You would think that myself — so frequently on the *other* side of the mic; recording automated systems which undoubtedly must frustrate other human beings, would be somewhat more accepting and accommodating to following the voice prompts which another voice talent has recorded — after all, we’re in the same line of work, and who better to sympathize with the unforgiving onslaught of monotonous instructions which the customer is bombarded with that someone who creates them herself?

And yet, there I am — expressing frustration with her for simply articulating a prompt that’s merely programmed into the system at a prescribed sequence in the process. I find it hard to hide my ire when she declares: “Unknown item in the bagging area,” when all I’ve done is place my shopping bag there for loading. (Doesn’t she know the difference between a pre-paid-for recycled shopping bag and a rutabaga?)

Maybe what sets me apart from other shoppers is that I *know* — better than most — the “she” *is* an actual human being who voiced the files which eventually became automated sound segments which play in a mechanical way…it takes an actual *person* to voice them — which the standard consumer can easily forget (or never even give thought to), and they are more readily able to dismiss her as a “computer voice.” Even prompts which are concatenated (put into a sequence) via a text-to speech utility, are initially voiced by an actual live person. When I pointed out to the Safeway supervisor that I *am* actually one of these people who voices this kind of thing, the irony of me getting snippy with the system wasn’t lost on him.

Voice talent are everywhere. Any time you encounter pre-programmed instructions “speaking” to you, they are the evidence of a voice talent’s work — and they’re often in non-traditional situations instead of the usual instances where one might hear voice talent (TV, Radio, Telephony.)

While not yet the voice of an automated grocery check-out system, I have voiced many automated prompts which are ultimately designed to facilitate transactions and make life easier — that’s the goal, anyhow. Automated banking systems, public transit stop announcements, kiosks, GPS systems, elevator floor announcements, hotel wake-up calls, parking facility ticket machines, automated taxicab change-dispensing systems, talking piggy banks  — even the talking prototype for the Rhoomba vacuum which runs on Asterisk — I’ve been the voice behind automation in many different forms and for a vast audience. While fully aware that most of the instructions which I’ve voiced simply go by, obeyed but largely unnoticed, I’m all too aware that I must sometimes generate a lot of “talkback” — much like my “dialogue” with the grocery store automaton that day.

My first experience with a GPS system was when I rented a car in Phoenix years ago to attend a convention — I, at first, articulated out loud — upon hearing the female GPS voice’s initial instructions — “Well, you’re not so great! How’d you end up getting *this* job?” She proceeded to get me lost. Rather severely. Like, “Welcome to Montana” kind of lost.  I was  in a snit about not being the voice of Garmin and disregarded her recommended twists and turns — I soon realized that the trip went smoother when I paid attention to “Trixie’s” directions (even though I eventually deferred to her, I had to diminish her by giving her a cocktail-waitress name) but couldn’t help but giggle at her frustrated tone if I didn’t take a sanctioned turn: she sounds slightly exasperated and says: “(Sigh!) REcalculating…” Another favorite is my Bluetooth utility for my car, with a British-accented female voice who sounds like she’s saying “Bugger off!” when she’s saying “Power off!” No, YOU Power off!

Of course, it needs to be pointed out that the prompts have a life of their own — they’re just following the sequence dictated by the computer which runs it; we, as the voice talent, are rendering absolutely no judgement when you entered the code for bananas but didn’t leave them long enough on the scale for weighing; we’re not actually admonishing you when your pin numbers do not match, and there’s no actual commentary behind the pre-programmed message which might tell you that you’re in your overdraft or that you have insufficient funds for the transaction you were planning to do. It may sound very much like another human being is getting on your case — but that’s just a construct of “personalizing” a system which is aurally-driven rather than visual.

And when the Park n’ Ride ticket dispenser issues my ticket when parking at the airport, I’m known for thanking “him” with a hearty “Row J it is! And thank YOU, sir!”

I figure he gets enough abuse from everyone else.

Join me in two week’s time (remember: the blog is now bi-weekly) for an article that’s needed to be written for quite some time: many newer users of Asterisk are hazy about the file specs, the optimal settings, and the basic care and feeding of Asterisk prompts — with the help of Rod Montgomery of Digium, I’ll be writing a much-needed primer on “Asterisk 101”!

As always, thanks for reading, and your feedback is always welcome!

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 www.theivrvoice.com.

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