Allison Smith

Why Can’t I Sound Like a Human?

Any voice talent reading this post will probably agree with me: There is no other more commonly heard direction—either from engineers directing a voice-over session or the clients and ad agency writers looking up from the cheese platter and offering their suggestions on how the spot should be read—than the following:

“Just sound like a real person!”

Doesn’t sound too labor-intensive, does it? After all, I happen to be a real person, who on a daily basis tells the barrista how I want my coffee; who pleads with the grocery clerk not to pack all the heavy groceries in one bag (they don’t listen), and yes,  I have real, natural conversations with friends and loved ones on a regular basis.

When we step in front of the mic, whether it be for a broadcast spot, an industrial film voice-over, and yes, even IVR prompts, something clicks in our brains and we default into the thinking: “I’m working. I’m a professional voice. Therefore, I must speak professionally.” The ad execs can’t really mean it when they say they want you to sound like their receptionist, otherwise they could have just dragged her here in the front of the mic, and for a lot less money, right?

The trend, especially if you listen to TV voice-overs, is candid, natural, “everyman.”  Almost gone are the days of a slick, bassy male voice tantalizing you with talk of V-8 engines and anti-lock brake systems. Many car ads now feature voices that sound so completely accessible, and for lack of a better word, ordinary, that you don’t feel like you’re actively being sold a car (it’s a trick). Rather, the announcer just sounds like your neighbor, responding to your question shouted from the next driveway over: “So, how do you like your new Mazda?” The voice for Wendy’s sounds not unlike the voice you’d hear thanking you as she hands you your burger at the take-out window.  It’s in bout the same age-range, and has roughly the same amount of “polish.”

We almost have to consciously let go of some of our experience and training and approach the material as though we’re seeing it for the first time, saying it for the first time, and—this is key—that we don’t have the nicely modulated voices or clear diction on which we built our careers.

And that’s not a problem if the material itself is written in a conversational tone. There’s nothing more pleasant than being cast in a quaint two-hander radio spot that’s written with how real people talk in mind  and still managing to sell the product. The writer has been mindful to write sentences that might realistically be said between two humans. However, all too often we run into danger areas when “Marge” says to “Celeste,” for example: “Well, Celeste, Effexor isn’t for everyone. Oh, no. People who are prone to tachycardia, hepatitis, Crohn’s disease, COPD, osteoporosis, or if you have any of the following; changes in mucous color, increased cough, blurred vision. Certain people shouldn’t take Effexor: people with high blood pressure or lower bone mineral density. Do not take Effexor if you suspect you may be pregnant.” (They coyly cover their mouths and giggle.)

If the material is at least written with a conversational “ear,” we, as voice talent, might have a reasonable chance in translating that into candid, natural conversation. I was assigned an on-hold script about a year ago, with the direction: “Sound Like a Real Person!” The material dealt with marine-grade sealants, industrial lubricants, and all manner of sewage interceptor and collection lines. Horrifically dry and technical content. “Just imagine you’re saying this to your best friend!” came the direction over the phone patch. You know, whenever I gather the girls together, and the good martini glasses come out, talk will invariably turn to the debate between LPS1 Industrial Lubricant and it’s rival, Mobil SHC. We’re still fairly divided about that issue. Don’t get us started.

In voicing  IVR prompts, the challenge to sound natural becomes even more important and arduous. Given the automated nature of telephony prompts, the “sameness” required to make the prompts flow effortlessly together requires a steadiness in inflection and doesn’t exactly invite creativity in the voicing of the prompts. Even if you have a wonderful, relaxed, conversational opening prompt, such as I can help you find what you’re looking for. Why not tell me more about what you need,  you are still at the mercy of robotic-sounding numbers, months, and other “set” landmarks built into your IVR system. I try my best to sound as “real” as possible, and material that is written in a relaxed, conversational tone helps your voice talent to also express that naturalness audibly.

Almost like a model who is hired for a print ad in which great time and resources are used to “uglify” her with mud and dirt, so should voice talent realize that there are times when you’re hired for your melodic tones and crystal-clear enunciation, and other times when all the polish and refinement needs to be stripped down and to access that “everyperson” voice. You know the one. You use it each and every day.

Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, having voiced platforms for Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Bell Canada, Vonage, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom, and the Asterisk Open-Source PBX. Her website is www.theivrvoice.com.