Podcasts Vox Talk The Original Voice of Siri, Susan Bennett, Talks AI Voices
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The Original Voice of Siri, Susan Bennett, Talks AI Voices

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Stephanie Ciccarelli
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Susan Bennett, the original North American voice of Siri, joins Stephanie Ciccarelli to discuss the day her life changed forever, the impact of being an ubiquitous voice, her thoughts on AI voices and how the fascinating story of her ‘alter ego’ Siri creates opportunities for Susan’s career as a public speaker.

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Susan Bennett

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Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Hi there and welcome to Vox Talk, your weekly review from the world of voiceover. I'm your host, Stephanie Ciccarelli from Voices. Are you concerned about TextToSpeech and AI voices? Perhaps you're curious to see where this technology may lead. Lead? Few people know this subject more intimately than our guest, Susan Bennett. You may know her better as the original voice of Siri. Susan, welcome to the show.

Susan Bennett:
Thank you.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
So wonderful to have you here. I can barely believe that this was ten years ago.

Susan Bennett:
Actually, Siri first appeared in 2011.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Wow. Oh my goodness. Almost eleven years. Yeah. Wow. Okay. That's a time machine for us all. Try to remember a life where there was a time before Siri. It's so hard. Yeah. So while we're on that note, Susan, can you tell us about the day that your voice was heard around the world?

Susan Bennett:
I can, because a fellow voice actor emailed me. It was October 4, 2011. Yes, Siri is a libra. And this friend emailed me and said, hey, we're playing around with this new iPhone app. Isn't this you? And I said, what? And I went on the Apple site and listened to the voice and I said, yes, that's me. Wow. So I mean, to have your voice coming out of every iPhone on Earth pretty near, that must have just been wild. I'm sure it wasn't just that one friend who called you. There are probably a few others who are like, Susan, do you know that your voice is on my phone? Yeah, it was weird. But from a working voice actors point of view, it was horrifying. Because something that big and the voice being that ubiquitous all over the world in so many different places. And there were three other voices that came out at the same time. I was the North American voice, there was an Australian voice, British, and I think the fourth one was French. And we were the original voices and we were not paid.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yes, I remember that. And that's part of why we're talking, because I know that AI voice is becoming a big deal now. And the moment your voice was everywhere, you clearly weren't thinking it would be everywhere. But this all kind of stemmed from, I think, a voiceover job you had done before in-studio. So you tell us about the original work that the Siri voice came out of.

Susan Bennett:
Well, the work was what is called IBR recording interactive voice response. And it was the type of thing that we've had for years and years. It's the kind of thing that you hear when you call someone and they say, please press one for so and so. What they were doing, the scripts were new because this whole thing, you have to remember that Siri was the very first and the public manifestation of interactive AI. And so all of this was brand new. And so when John Briggs is the first male voice in England, and he was called Daniel, I think, instead of Siri. And he actually talked to Apple and said, well, I'd like to promote and let's get together on this thing. And they just said, Oh, no, we want our voices to be anonymous. And so they were horrified that the four of us who hadn't been paid, well, let's get something out of this. At least we can promote ourselves. So Apple changed the voices.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Oh, wow. Okay. So that's why we have so many different voices. Not just like the original ones, I suppose.

Susan Bennett:
Right. And then the ones that came afterwards were paid, but they also had NDAs, and so that meant that they couldn't ever say who they were. For me, it actually turned out to be a good thing once I got used to the idea. It was kind of freaky at first, but it actually turned into a whole new career for me. I mean, I do speaker events well. Before covid, I did a lot of in person speaker events, telling the story about Siri and everything. And still to this day, people think that she's a robot.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Oh, goodness. Well, totally not, because you're right here, right in the flesh. We see you and we hear you. I'm just thinking it must in some way be a great compliment to know that Steve Jobs would have wanted to have you represent Siri, like his creation, basically through the iPhone to everybody.

Susan Bennett:
That's kind of a side benefit, I guess, of all of this. It's just that nod of approval. Yeah. I like to think that he chose the voice because I know he was very involved in the development of Siri, and unfortunately, he left the planet the very day after Siri came out on the iPhone for him. But at least he got to see Siri come to fruition. He got to see his amazing app come to life. Yeah, it was very like, many things in life, many big things in life, it has a giant positive and a giant negative, so I choose to emphasize the positive.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yeah, absolutely. So I was just thinking that very first day when no doubt after your friend emailed to you and said, Susan, then you probably went and tried to hear your voice for yourself. What was that like, to hear yourself? Did you ask yourself questions? Like, did they say Siri? Was it weird?

Susan Bennett:
Well, it was brand new on the iPhone four S. I had an iPhone four, and my husband actually ran out and got a four S just to check it out and everything. But I was never able to use Siri because it was just too creepy. I was used to hearing my voice on radio and TV commercials and things like that, documentaries or films or things like that. But to have my voice coming out of this miniature computer phone was just too weird.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Oh, yeah. I can only imagine that would just be like, Wow, I don't know, and I'm sure any of your family members would be like, oh my goodness, it would have been weird for them too. Anyone who knew you personally had this like wait a minute, that's definitely Susan and I don't know, but that is wild. And I know that you did the IVR work before and that turned into the Siri voice without you knowing it would. But knowing what you know now about this sort of work and how something like that might happen, how do you advise or would you advise other voice actors to approach this work differently?

Susan Bennett:
At the time, it was like the very beginning of all this. And I was encouraged by a company that I've worked for for decades. I was told that and I said, well, these scripts are rather unusual. And they said, yeah, but it's basically just a generic phone messaging you could call serious phone, very sophisticated of technologically marvellous phone. And so I think that I was somewhat misled. But on the other hand, being this is a lesson for voice actors is that it meant a lot of work and I love to work. And so I thought, oh, this is great. The whole month of July of 2005, 4 hours a day, five days a week, I had a job. That's right. All of us freelancers and anyone else out there who is a freelance person in whatever capacity, if you like to work and you're a freelancer, you try to work as much as you can. And so I think people are much more sophisticated about what it means to do IVR recording now and where the things are going to end up. For instance, the IVR recordings that I did ended up in a lot of GPS and there are some that people call me oh, I heard you, you're the same.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
That's cute!

Susan Bennett:
You've got to have a sense of humor about these things or else she would just really be upset. It was so many years ago that I did these recordings. As I said, the initial recordings were done in 2005 and that's 15, 16 years ago and so no more than that. I think that if you're going to do IVR recordings you need to have a very explicit contract about make sure you know what you're getting into. Because if you just kind of jump into it and go oh boy, this is fun and then all of a sudden you're hearing your voice everywhere.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yeah, and that's happened in our industry even recently, I know, with Bev standing and TikTok, that was something that did come up where her voice was used in a way that she didn't know it would. And it was a different situation than what happened with you.

Susan Bennett:
Right. Because she was specifically doing a translation of something that was something very specific and they just kind of stole her voice from that translation. So the people that used my voice basically unknowingly. I had kind of sold my voice to Nuance, and that's where everybody goes to get their voices. And I guess mine was a popular voice because you can't escape me.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
No, we can't. You’re everywhere. Well, speaking of which, I'm sure everyone here would just love to hear you do Siri. Is there like a phrase that you say when someone asks you, can you go and do Siri for us?

Susan Bennett:
I'd be happy to do Siri for you if you will just leave me alone. Oh, very good. The original voice was very snarky. Yeah, that's one of the reasons I think people would just talk to her just to hear what she would say. Yes, because she was programmed to be kind of edgy. And the very first time I spoke to Siri, I said, Hi, Siri, what are you doing? And she, very disgustedly, answered, I'm talking to you.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Oh, wow, man. That would be like you talking to yourself, but clearly it's Siri. And that's one of the things I know is very different about a real human voice and voice actor versus the synthetic voice is that you have feelings and emotions and you have a whole life you've lived and experiences and you can take into account factors that AI never could. And so it's really strange to see this technology getting better and better all the time. But I think at its core, it will never replace the human voice. There's just too much that is intrinsically unique and special about it.

Susan Bennett:
I would like to think that, but I'll tell you what, if you listen to the original Siri voice, she was still a tiny bit robotic. She was the best of what that was at that period of time. But you can still hear little bumps. And even now, as you say, they don't always get the to me, it's the rhythm. They don't get the rhythm of the voice because we don't just speak like this and talk like this and answer questions, and we go up and down, loud and soft. But to me, it's the rhythm that they never get. And sometimes they won't get the emphasis right or the intonation, like the virtual assistant will say, I went to the store. Well, did you?

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Or a little noncommittal.

Susan Bennett:
Instead of, I went to the store. I went to the store, the store, the store. There are a lot of subtleties in language and in speech and in the voice. And I don't know if they'll ever get it 100%, but they're going to get very close, I can tell you that, because it's a big deal.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
It is, and it's wild. And I know that this conversation with you is just one of many that we're starting to have with people about the AI conversation about voice and how it's used. And it's just an interesting time. And just in a recent episode, actually, this podcast, it was said that technology always wins. Like whether just anything that technology is going to win. Now, if that's the case, Susan, how can voice actors take advantage of what's happening with this technology?

Susan Bennett:
I have absolutely no idea. I really don't. I guess what you can do is just make yourself as versatile as possible and create as many voices for yourself. The sounds that you can make and the voices that you can present. Otherwise, I really don't know. The future as far as AI goes is just a big giant question mark and especially how it's going to affect all of us in some way. Not just voice actors.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yes, and all of us is important because there's people who will be out of jobs who aren't just voice people because of the automation of the technology and the different things that they can do. But there are also be new skills that come about. So one that I was thinking about was how someone will need to have the skill to manipulate the AI voice. They'll need to give it direction, they'll need to know where the inflection points are to make it strongly this emotion, or it's medium level or low, it's just going to be a whole new skill set that audio engineers potentially or talent could learn to develop and just do work in that way. Because maybe someone's like, well, this is our AI voice that we have for a company and we want to make videos or who knows what, or our phone system, but we want it to sound more natural. Can you go and manipulate these waveforms and do that? Who knows? That's definitely something that is possible. There's various companies out there. I know Semantic is one and they helped Val Kilmer get his voice back. There's just any number of these different softwares that are available to people. So we'll just have to wait and see and see what happens with all that.

Susan Bennett:
Yeah, exactly. I mean the possibilities I think are endless because technology is just at my age, when I was a little kid, I actually had a telephone, I mean a big hunky black telephone with a dial. And I do remember I was really young, but I do remember when you'd have to pick up the receiver and talk to an operator yes. And have that person place your and you see what it's evolved into in just a few decades. And technology is just improving so amazingly fast that it's really, really hard to say where we'll be even in ten years with all of this. And it's already difficult for voice actors now. Technology has really changed the voice business because in the past there was a beautiful structure, most of us that came from acting and other things. We were already members of AFTRA and SAG, they joined it, SAG-AFTRA now. And when you did a job, it went through the union, it went through your agent and it was all very structured and you got paid well and then if they bought it again, you got paid again. And it was much more equitable than it is now because what's happened technology has made all of the amateurs viable as well. As long as you have a smartphone, some sort of mixer, a good microphone in a closet, you have a studio. And so this has made a lot of people who aren't professional, who haven't studied, who haven't acted or done a lot of the things that make being a good voice out over a good voice actor, good and successful. And so there's so much competition. Just an example, I have a good friend, Tony Masano, who is a wonderful person, excellent voice actor. He also works as an art director ad agency. And we were talking about the competition thing because he and I have done voiceover for decades and he said, well I'll tell you where it is right now. We had an audition for a little commercial that was going to run in Alabama for four weeks and it was going to pay, it was non union, it was going to pay $150. And he said would you care to guess how many people auditioned for this bot? And I thought I was just giving an outrageous number. I said 100. He said try 300. So you know that the client, producer or whoever is not going to listen to all of those. The audition process is really strange right now. I don't know how they're going to get around it.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yeah, I think just like when we talked about technology and platforms, some platforms find ways to help talent, better position. Like if you were more skilled potentially to answer a job and of course it's taking into account what's on someone's profile then you'll have a higher score potentially for what that would be. But you're right, a lot of voice technology has leveled the playing field. So anyone with some kind of a studio set up, it doesn't have to be the amazing like I remember studio setups from before that you're spending like tens of thousands of dollars on your recording studio and that was the standard and absolutely even ways of delivering that audio has changed. So it's not ISDN anymore. Here we are today on Riverside FM doing this and we're not on ISDN, we're not using Source Connect. Not that that isn't a great tool, it's just what we happen to have here. But it's really interesting how things can change and also but one thing that doesn't change Susan, is that the cream always rises to the top. Talent is something I think and do believe that is what gets people heard and certainly it's their work ethic and it's the effort and the training that people go through and the investment in their studio that can actually keep that success. Maybe it's oh, I just booked this. Like what can you keep booking? Are you a great person to work with? Do you have a reliable studio, a good training background, and those people who are actually going to do very well in this new kind of world of the online. I remember Don LaFontaine was the very first to basically allow for home studios to be normal, because everyone's like, come on, Don, you make them do ISDN from your house, right? But now it's kind of like, well, there's a new sort of way of how that might work. But I think there's great opportunity for people who never were in the industry before who are looking at it now, especially post pandemic, enduring pandemic, that maybe they were always on the other side of the glass and they thought, well, people always told me I had a great voice. It's kind of what happened with Don, too. Right? He was the copywriter. One day someone didn't show up and they asked him if he wouldn't mind voicing the spot.

Susan Bennett:
That's how I got into voiceover. Is it? Yeah, I guess. I was a jingle singer and we had done a commercial and the voice actor didn't show up for some reason. So the studio owner said, Susan, you don't have an accent. Come over here and read this copy. And I went, Oh, ding, ding, ding, I can do this. So I got a voice coach and then a talent agent, and that's what started everything. But I think you're right. I think that it is important to be good. It is important to have skills. Those things are still important. The sound of your voice, it's great if you have this beautiful molecular voice, but if you can't act, a lot of voice acting is acting. It's not just speaking a sentence. And of course, one of the things that the amateurs do have in their favor is that the trend still and has been for a while now, the natural sound. When it comes down to working with engineers and working with studio people, it's always going to be to your benefit, to be agreeable, to be pleasant, to be easy to work with and to be good at what you do. Meaning you're not going to take it's not going to require five to ten takes for you to do what they want you to do. I remember when I first started with the Alpharetta Studio we're talking about, I had to read whole paragraphs without making a mistake because the recording was on tape. It was just too not cost effective enough to have just these reams and reams of tape and having to go through all these to get the right one. So they had to those are the people that got the work of the people that could read a whole paragraph without making a mistake or just mispronouncing something or whatever.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yeah, well, that's why you get hired. And I think that's still why certain people get hired today is because they're reliable, dependable, they've proven they can do it. And to have great speaking skills and to understand what it is that you're saying. I know that a lot of talent sometimes will go into an autopilot mode, just auditioning, boom, boom, boom, get them done. But it's like, no, you've got to bring something more to the copy. You have to make it come alive, relate to it in some way, and remember who that audience is. What you're doing is selling. You're selling something, you're selling a product, and you got to interest the audience in what you're presenting. Yeah. So all of that said, what are the concerns you have about where this technology is going? We've talked about how it could get better and better, but do you see a day where I don't want to say a robot, but where a voice that is not a living, breathing person in front of a microphone is actually chosen over someone who is capable of doing that voiceover, the recording?

Susan Bennett:
Well, I hate to think that it's a possibility, but I guess it is. Just seeing the advances that they've made in voice technology in the past five years, even just evening out the sound of the robot voices, the AI voices. Yeah. It's not really a concern for me at this point because I've embraced my inner Siri, and most of what I'm doing now is Siri presentations and speaker events and things like that. So I'm not competing for voice commercials anymore. So it's not something I really think about too much or worry about too much. But it is a possibility. But there will be great changes, and there'll be a little bit of a transition period, and then things will settle down. And then basically it comes down to, as you say, the same basic things that humans want. They want to get along, they want a good job done and those things. So I think for all voice actors, the main thing for you to do for yourself is to get good at what you do. A lot of different aspects of voiceover too. That's the interesting thing about voiceover too. There are so many different types of voiceover. I mean, you can just be just a straight announcer. You can be a cartoon voice or whatever. It's a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun in my career.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Oh, yes. No, it's wonderful. I remember when all of this happened, we were all watching with bated breath, and then you started doing these interviews, and clearly there's a story, and people love hearing stories, and I'm so glad that we got to hear some of your story here today. So from your perspective, Susan, what has been the best part of being the original voice of Siri? Well,

Susan Bennett:
I think that it was a life lesson for me because I'm kind of an introvert, kind of a private person, and so it took me a very long time to reveal myself as the voice. And so it was a challenge for me. And when I finally did that, and when I really embraced what was happening all of a sudden, which happens a lot, if you're afraid to do something or you don't think you're good enough to do something, and if you just go ahead and take that leap of faith, it's just amazing that the universe will have your back. And that's what happened to me. It just once I made that decision that everything just opened up. I did all kinds of TV interviews, which were a lot of fun and a lot of interesting people. Did the top ten list for David Letterman.

Stephanie Ciccarelli;
Oh, wow. You did the Top Ten List for David Letterman?

Susan Bennett:
I did. Oh my gosh, I did. But I think a lot of it too was the fact that it did turn into a whole new job for me. And interestingly enough, it was Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs' partner, and the guy that actually built those amazing machines. He's a keynote speaker. And I met him at a tech conference and he called me up on stage and we worked together for a few minutes. And afterwards he said, you need to do this. He said, you're so comfortable on stage. I said, Well, I'm a singer, I've been an actress. I did, I went home and I said, well I went home and wrote a presentation and just jumped into it. And that was a brand new thing. If anyone told me like twelve years ago that I would be doing that, I said, no, not me. Yeah, here's another thing. Don't limit yourself. Don't limit yourself.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yes, don't limit yourself. And especially if Woz tells you that you should go and create these presentations, how could you not do what was tells you? Well, I'm sure, sometimes you might not. But just the very thought that someone of that influence level would say to you, you know what, I think you've got something here and you have a real story. And clearly he believed in what you are doing because he's a big part of Apple Computer and all that they were doing. But I think that's amazing. You really don't know where your life will go or what one decision it leads to another decision and these opportunities, because as you said before we got going here to be the voice of Siri, if someone had probably told you that you would be the voice of Siri and everyone would know your voice print ever, the whole world, it's just like, what? Are you kidding me? Are you for sure this is going to happen? But it just goes to show you that anything is possible.

Susan Bennett:
Yes, I think that's a given.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Absolutely. So, Susan, this is amazing. Obviously anything is possible, as we just said. And so for anyone who wants to hear more about your story and just understand what you do and possibly even book you to talk about your being the voice of Siri, because obviously you're doing that, too. Where can they go to learn more?

Susan Bennett:
Well, there's a lot of information just on my website, which is Susancbennett.com and Bennett is two NS and two TS. And also, if any kind of booking should go through, my agents at Vox Inc. West Stevens and Tom Lawless, and you can find them online.

Part of what I'm trying to do, having been the voice of Siri, is to encourage people. And anytime I can do that and help in any way, any time I can answer questions for people, I'm happy to do it. That's why I do end up doing a lot of podcasts.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
Yeah. Your perspective and insight is so greatly appreciated. So for everybody, I think I can say it for everyone here and everyone who's listening, thank you so much, Susan, for joining us today on Vox Talk.

Susan Bennett:
Thank you so much for having me.

Stephanie Ciccarelli:
And that's the way we saw the world through the lens of Voiceover this week. Thank you for listening to Vox Talk and for walking with us on your voiceover journey. Thank you also to the inimitable Susan Bennett for giving us a front row seat to the day that changed her life, nearly everyone else's lives, and the world of voiceover forever. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to share with your friends and discuss this episode online using the hashtag Voiceover for Voices, I'm your host, Stephanie Ciccarelli. Box Talk is produced by Jeff Bremner. On behalf of the team at Voices, thank you for listening and we'll see you next week.

Stephanie Ciccarelli
Stephanie Ciccarelli is a Co-Founder of Voices. Classically trained in voice as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. For over 25 years, Stephanie has used her voice to communicate what is most important to her through the spoken and written word. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, Stephanie has been a contributor to The Huffington Post, Backstage magazine, Stage 32 and the Voices.com blog. Stephanie is found on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.
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