Archive for August, 2011

“I Wanna Go Tuh Cleveland…”

An interesting trend developed in telephony a few years back.

There was an active and vehement move away from the robotic, automaton sound of early voice recordings on telephones — recordings which seem to have been deliberately done that way, in order to eliminate any confusion as to whether or not the caller had reached an actual, live human being or a “machine” — and a move more towards a relaxed, natural, conversational cadence. A tone which says: “Yes, you’ve definitely reached a self-serve system — but think of me as just another fellow human being. I hate these things, too!” The thinking behind it is: if the caller feels the voice behind the system is welcoming without using up too much of their time; reassuring without being obsequious; and — all the better — if the voice can sound like the caller’s best friend or neighbor, the caller will “engage” the system, follow the instructions accurately, not hang up in frustration, and not have a whole new veneer of annoyance on top of the issue they’re calling in about, by the time they *do* make it to an actual rep. And even if they have managed to turnkey themselves into a solution (made a reservation, checked their Visa balance) and never had to actually speak to a live operator, their opinion of that company or the transaction can still be made or broken by that automated voice alone.

Solid thinking. And personally — having voiced telephone prompts for companies internationally, and for a wide variety of industries — I applauded, and still continue to applaud that trend. Rather than having to “put on” a voice which isn’t actually natural for me to speak in, I’m allowed — nay — encouraged to sound like an actual, real person (what luck! I happen to *be* one…) Real people hesitate slightly when they’re trying to think of just the right word; there’s a certain…pause…which seems normal in everyday conversational rhythms; and there’s almost a  “stumbling” effect which many clients want me to do when I’m voicing — so that I’ll sound like a real person. Actual speech is full of slurs, imperfections, and natural flaws which we all try to avoid in everyday conversation — it’s those natural “artifacts” which are big in IVR right now. (On the extreme end of that scale was a company who produced on-hold messages, who encouraged me — if at all possible — to come up with a yawn or sneeze in the middle of script, just to reinforce that a “real” person took the time to voice it — I talked them out of that. That’s just a little too “real”.)

However, consider this: humans — being quintessentially social — are infinitely comfortable in taking on the mannerisms, rhythms, and traits of those other human with which they’re interacting. Watch a pair of humans introducing themselves to one another, and the intricate ballet which ensues. They will — without even thinking about it — mirror the other’s mannerisms, the “rate” or speed at which they converse, and the innate need to “match” their conversational partner. It’s the reason why accents are irresistible to *not* absorb as you speak with a native of Scotland, for example. It’s why dating coaches actively encourage their clients to make a point of deliberately matching their prospective mate’s every mannerism move for move — that sympatico that mirroring creates is not only beneficial to our harmony with others — it’s automatic and almost impossible *not* to engage in.

How that relates to IVR is simple: whether or not you’re aware of it, you mirror the “tone” set by an IVR you call into. In many ways, that voice dictates the formality or informality of  the transaction. It tells you everything you need to know about the company and even gives you an idea of the level of service and attentiveness you can expect when your issue or problem is eventually dealt with. And the degree of “precision” apparent in the voice is likely how *you* will respond.

Think, for example of an IVR voice saying — in a no-frills, somewhat flat-toned delivery: “Please tell me — clearly and slowly — the city to where you’d like to travel. Please press pound when finished.” If you’re the caller, hoping to book a flight to Cleveland, you’ll probably take that instruction quite seriously and deliberately slow your roll as you enunciate — much more slowly and clearly than you’d normally be inclined to: “I’d like to travel to Cleveland, please.” (Even mirroring the two “pleases” which were in their command). Or — you might even just intone: “Cleveland.” In stark contrast would be the “modern” style of IVR: “Great. I can help you book your trip.” (Playfully) “Why don’t tell me where you wanna go..?”

Naturally, you’re going to reply (playfully) “I wanna go tuh Cleveland.”

Fun, yes? And while this style of recording is accessible, young, modern, and warm, it didn’t take long for data to surface which found fault in that casual, almost *too* relaxed call and reply: speech recognition software struggles to fit the biometrics of “informalspeak” and complains of a less than perfect hit-rate when callers match a “lazy” IVR’s cue. Also, where with “traditional” clipped, more severe IVR’s, the caller would be more likely to just say “Cleveland”, for example, than a chatty, off-the-cuff IVR might be inclined to make the callers respond in kind, or elaborate more than they would under the parameters of a “stiff” automated system. With less accuracy comes confusion, more time burned up, and a greater chance that the customer will either pull the plug on the call, or be so annoyed with the ongoing attempts to repeat their selection, they’ll be stoked with a refreshed supply of vitriol for the poor CSR to whom the call eventually gets transferred.

While I’m a fan of a more relaxed, conversational tone — both as a caller and as a voice of IVR systems — the dangers of “under-enunciating” are vast and very real. I like to strike a balance between the friendly and natural, and also being a clear enunciator (while I keep my diction as clear as possible when I’m working, anyone who has spoken to me over the phone after a long day in the booth can testify that I slur like Tom Brokaw). To be relaxed and conversational, and yet authoritative enough to make sure people “hit” the speech recognition utility is always my goal.

Perhaps — to maintain the integrity and accuracy of speech recognition utilities — a certain amount of formality is required in an IVR.  It could be argued that there’s no getting away from a steady, even-toned delivery, if it means a clean, well-running match-up of vocal input whose ultimate goal is getting callers to the right department.

I’m very excited about my next upcoming blog, where I interview the legendary Emily Yellin — arguably the world’s expert in customer relation metrics. We had a great chat about what companies desperately need to know about designing effective telephone systems, and I bring you that interview in about two week’s time.

As always, thanks for reading. If you have any comments or insights about what you’ve read, 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, including platforms for Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Sprint, Bell Canada, Hawai’ian Telcom, and Asterisk.  Her website is


Obscenity Will *Never* Go Out of Style

"What type of pepper are you wear-....urm...snorting..?"

It was an obscene phone call so well cloaked; so incredibly subtly executed, that I didn’t even know I was into it until it was way too late. It was a Saturday morning, full of the usual hub-bub and rushing around that weekends usually bring, and we were on our way out of the house when the phone rang. It was a rep from an ad agency who was casting a radio spot for a cold and flu remedy, and he was on the prowl for a voice actress who could convincingly voice a spot sounding like she had an actual, real cold. 

No problem! This is what I do!

I proposed that he send me the script over the weekend, and I’d be happy to record a demo in my studio first thing Monday morning. Nope — that wouldn’t work: time was of the essence and he needed it right away. Not at all unusual for broadcast jobs. Instead of recording it, he asked me to just demonstrate over the phone right then and there that I could do it (red flag number one), and when I asked if he could send the script for the commercial via e-mail, he refused (red flag number two) — he just told me to grab whatever copy I had handy and just read from that. I located a script for a job I had done earlier that week and started reading it in what I thought sounded like a very believable, stuffed-up, sniffly fashion.

No good.

He explained that there’s a “cliche”, cartoon-y, “I can’t brede I’m sooo sdufffed up…” characterization, and he wanted to avoid that — he needed that distinct sound of a woman with actual, inflamed sinuses. The client’s very picky, he went on to explain — and the client hated everyone they’ve auditioned so far because they were giving him that “fake cold” sound.

(Nothing puts a bigger fire in a voice talent’s belly than the idea that all other talent before us has tried and failed, and that *I* must be the one they’re looking for! It’s like catnip to us.)

I really focus, and give him another take, which — in my estimation — sounded exactly like I do when I actually have a cold.

Again — it’s just not working for him.

Then, he asked a curious question.

“Do you have pepper in the house..?”

Urm….certainly. I am an inquisitive cook who has been influenced by every cooking magazine and blog out there to acquire each and every exotic, multi-colored breed of peppercorn on the market. My pantry practically groans with every variety of available pepper. What the Hell does that have to do with voicing the spot? What……oh HELL NO…..

This calm, apparently intelligent and ultimately normal-seeming man went on to request: “Grind up some pepper, and then snort it up both nostrils. That should give you the right ‘congested’ sound. Go ahead. I’ll hold on the line while you do that…”

And the Third Red Flag’s a Charm!

I hung up as fast as I could. Apart from telling my husband about it, I actually didn’t tell any other voice talent about it, until about a year later, when I read on a message board about the same thing happening to another female voice talent.

Turned on by women who have colds? I’m not sure if that’s even in the DSM IV (soon to be V) catalogue of psychiatric disorders, but if it isn’t, it sure should be. And rather than trolling around doctor’s offices or working for a pharmaceutical company running test groups for Sudafed, he decided to mine voice talent, who might be considered somewhat expert at sounding any way they’re asked to sound. His payoff would obviously be  finding someone willing to “play” and indulge his predilection — and judging by my brief, split-second thought of travelling a few steps to the kitchen and actually reaching for a pepper grinder — others may not have had similar filters in place, and indulged him.

Not the usual heavy breathing “what are you wearing?”-type of obscene telephone caller, but it still made me think about the nature of obscene phone calls — and whether or not they would go the way of the buggy whip now that we have the entire world wide web to indulge the stuffed-up sinus devotees, or any other wide variety of arcane turn-ons which used to occupy phone lines and force women into listing their home numbers with only first initials “A”, “J” or “D”, for example.  With caller ID, instant traceability like *69 (which will call back the last incoming number), and call blocking features, one would think that the risk would be higher than the “payoff” and that our ability to float — featureless — in the ether of the internet — would all but eliminate the need for phone prowlers. There’s a transparency now that was previously unheard of. Phone tracing used to be time-consuming, expensive and used only in rare cases of kidnapping or treason. It’s now completely turn-key.

But let’s not forget what that “payoff” of the obscene call actually is, and the basis behind the admonitions from telecom companies to their customers for decades: it’s the startled, shocked, extreme reaction from the recipient of the call which delivers the goods for the obscene caller. It’s that real-time shock and surprise in the voice of the victim on the other end which is at the heart of the calls — an immediate and often highly charged response is what they’re after, and reason why a soft (non emphatic) hang-up is always recommended. A strong, even volatile reply in the form of a return e-mail cannot carry the same emotional weight as a real-time register of shock and disgust.

Are there fewer obscene calls now than there were twenty or thirty years ago? Stats are surprisingly hard to unearth; I did find a quote from a Pacific Bell rep who vouched for the instance of general harassment calls to “go in spurts” and that the trend in so-called “crank” calls (along the lines of Prince-Albert-in-a-Can pranks) still escalating around school break times. As to the instance of obscene calls falling as a direct result of other, more cloaked means of communication — we can only guess.

My take on it is that the gratification achieved by the obscene phone caller can never be replaced with keystrokes, and that the relative ease with which callers — whether it be from landlines or cellular networks — can be tracked and pinpointed, only adds to the risk and danger — and m ay heighten the conquest. Obscene messages have even become a growing phenomenon on Skype, with a cloaked protection of forwarded numbers and shared ID’s making the “messager”‘s identity difficult to trace.

I, for one, am thrilled that my exposure to a “phonoerotic” was limited to that one surreal Saturday morning, and I’m happy to report that my peppercorns are safe snd secure in the pantry, where they belong.

Join me here for my next article — in about two week’s time — when I delve into whether or not the casual, relaxed — even lazy — preference in IVR prompts is helping or hurting us.

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