The 15 Commandments of IVR

By Allison Smith

Commandment #15: “Write in a Conversational Tone”
This blog entry wraps up my 15-part series – and I’m ending on a topic which excites me the most. As someone who voices telephone prompts on a daily basis, I’m pleased to report a trend in IVR “style” which makes systems more personable, more accessible – and more “human” than ever before.

IVR designers and writers are getting farther and farther away from the “automaton” style of years past – they are less interested in fostering the “robotic”, unemotional voice once thought to be a necessary element in IVR systems, and the tendency is moving more towards an automated voice which sounds conversational, candid, and more like an actual person. The former gold standard of an automated android was prized for the fact that there was no confusion as whether or not this was a recording you were encountering; it made the vocal style a non-issue and even left the corporate identity of the company a bit of a mystery until you actually spoke to a flesh-and-blood human. The paradigm has shifted into the thinking that the IVR sets the tone for the caller; your IVR is the entry point into your company – and especially if your product projects an essence of warmth, humanness, and personability – the way in which your IVR prompt are written – and voiced – should reflect that.

The former thinking was that IVR prompts – and in particular, sequential prompts such as numbers, letters, months and days of the month/week – needed to voiced in a deadpan, neutral fashion in order to concatenate seamlessly. The wisdom was that if we kept things neutral – with no huge fluctuations in inflection – things will flow smoothly. We now know that if the voice talent voices sequential aspects in an “up-ending” way (as if something were to be attached onto the end); a “down-ending” way (as if to cap off something which has preceded it) and in a “neutral” way (to be used wherever its needed in a sequence) – you are covered for any eventuality, and more importantly – allows you to get away from a flat, nondescript delivery once thought to be necessary. You want the free-standing, introductory prompts to flow well with the “canned” stock prompts which handle the technical aspects of giving credit card balances, confirming airline reservations, or letting you know when the next train arrives. With a varied selection of inflection available to the sequential aspects, you can accomplish that.

The script itself must be written in a conversational style – its not enough to ask the voice talent to read a script written in a dry, stodgy, and technical manner in a “casual” style if its not written with that style in mind. There’s a world of difference between: “Slowly and clearly tell me to which city you would like to travel” and “OK. Where do you want to go?” Be clear on the level of informality versus formality you wish to convey – and make sure your prompts are written in a style which reflects that.

It’s been my pleasure to blog on the Digium site – I’ll blog here occasionally in the future on topics which hopefully will appeal to the Asterisk Community. Feel free to post any comments you may have, or send them to me at [email protected]

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About the Author

Allison Smith

If you’ve listened to the public airwaves, used an automated phone system, participated in a phone survey, or even used a talking thermostat, you’re familiar with Allison Smith. One of the most prevalent telephone voices in the world today, Allison has voiced platforms for Vonage, Bell Canada, Cingular, Verizon, Qwest, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom – as well as being the voice of the Asterisk Open Source PBX. Clients include Marriot Hotels, 3M, Pfizer, Toyota, Victoria’s Secret, Bank of America and EBay among many others. Her website is and

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