The other night, I was talking to my phone. Set my alarm for 8am. What is the weather tomorrow? When is Game 6 of the NBA Finals? Remind me to pick up my dry cleaning. Also, how do I live a fulfilling life and make a meaningful contribution to society? And then Siri spit out the answers, she set my reminders, and she refused to answer the only question that matters.
And then I thought – wait a minute, there is a real person behind Siri. Someone, at some time, recorded this. What’s her name? Who is she? What’s her story?
Enter Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri.
Susan has been doing voice-over work for years. Her career began in the 1970s when she recorded the voice of Tillie the All-Time Teller for the first ATMs. She is the voice of all Delta terminals. Her voice has been used in advertisements for Ford, Coke, McDonald’s, Visa, Macy’s, and many other companies. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter here.
Hello, Siri. Welcome to the blog.
Susan, how did you become Siri?
To tell you the truth, I don’t know exactly how my voice was chosen. The recordings were done in 2005, back in the dark ages of technology. At the time I was doing digital recordings for text-to-speech companies. I, along with many other voice actors, knew we were working for phone systems, but we thought it would be for messaging. No one, other than Steve Jobs, could really envision what they were planning to do with the voices.
I did the basic vocabulary that became the original voice of Siri, but I don’t know if my voice was chosen by the man who created Siri, or if it was done after the fact by Apple. The Siri app was created and fully realized by a Norwegian man named Dag Kittlaus. Apple eventually bought it for $200 million.
At the time we couldn’t imagine that the iPhone would exist, let alone one with an interactive voice. But now it’s part of our culture. A lot of things haven’t kept up with the speed of technology, and we’re all learning how to utilize it and try to spin it in a positive way for ourselves.
So, I don’t know how my voice was chosen. It’s still a mystery. And Apple ain’t talking.
It’s something we use so ubiquitously. But it is quite possible that your voice has been heard more than any other voice in the history of mankind.
That’s a frightening thought.
What was the process like when you recorded Siri?
It was very long and tedious – four hours a day, five days a week. The scripts were very monotonous. They ended up being quite nonsensical because they were created solely to get the proper sounds that they were looking for. They wanted all of the sound combinations in the English language. And when you consider the fact that the English language has 1 million words, probably more, it was a lot.
Each sentence had to be read exactly the same – the same tone, the same pacing, the same intonation, the same emphasis. It was very tedious and tiring work.
I think the reason Siri works is that you don’t feel like you’re talking to a robot. There’s a bit of personality in there.
Yes, and I think that’s why everyone freaked out over Siri and she became such an iconic thing. She was the first concatenated voice that sounded human AND she could interact with people.
You didn’t come out as the voice of Siri until October 2013. What went into the decision to finally reveal yourself?
It was the influence of my husband and son. They both thought I was missing out on a fun opportunity. I was being a little more conservative about it because I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. I wasn’t sure that I wanted the recognition and the notoriety. It could have gone either way as far as future work for myself, either: Oh, that’s Siri, let’s get her! or Oh, let’s not get her, she’s everywhere.
I debated for a long time before I was finally like, this is silly, it’ll be fine. And it has been a really fun experience, and I’m so glad I did it.
What were those first few weeks like afterwards?
It was very overwhelming at the start. That first month was a real whirlwind, a whole month of running from interview to interview and making appearances.
The voice-over business is so completely different now. I have had my own booth since 1996. We don’t get a chance to interact with people all that much. We’re often isolated in our little booths, working via ISDN or Source Connect. We’re not actually in the studio with the other talent the way we used to be. So I thought, at the very least, if I come out as the voice of Siri, there will be something different going on and I can talk to people.
Of all the appearances you did – David Letterman, Queen Latifah, CNN – were there any that were especially memorable?
I did some appearances at tech conferences. At one of them I met Steve Wozniak. Most people don’t know that name as well as they know Steve Jobs, but the irony is that Wozniak actually built the first Apple computer. He’s an absolute genius and just a wonderful person.
When I was appearing at this tech conference, I was going to be there a day before him. And then I was told: well, we don’t have too much extra money to pay you, but could you stay the next day and introduce Steve Wozniak? And I said, oh, I’d love to! So I had a chance to meet him, and he’s just a wonderful, great guy. So that was probably the most memorable experience for me.
What is your relationship like with Apple?
Apple has been notoriously silent about all of this. In fact, they changed all of the original Siri voices with OS 7. My voice is no longer on the newer phones. I’ve been in touch with some of the other original Siri’s, and our feeling is that we were replaced because we didn’t have non-disclosure agreements. And we didn’t have those because originally Apple had nothing to do with what we had done.
I like to say that I’m “Siri Classic” or “Steve Jobs’s Siri.”
What other projects have you worked on?
I live in Atlanta, and most of the work I’ve done has been regional stuff. Back in the day I did a lot of commercials for Coca Cola, McDonalds, Papa John’s, IBM, just about any company that you can think of because I’ve been in the business for a really long time. I’m also the voice of Delta Airlines gates worldwide. In the past decade, I’ve mostly been doing narrations and eLearning projects.
I saw that you and your husband are in a band?
We had a private events band for 25 years. We had the same four people for 20 years, and then people started dropping off and doing other things. At this point in time, that band is not really in existence, but we have a new band called Boomers Gone Wild. We play 60s and 70s music, and it’s really fun.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know. Part of voice-over work is to audition, and I audition all the time like everyone else. I have a couple of projects coming up this summer, but I don’t like to talk about them because I don’t like to talk about things that aren’t a sure bet.
**Five rapid fire questions**
Do you own an iPhone? Yes. I don’t use Siri. I don’t listen to audiobooks either, and I don’t listen to talk radio. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing voice-over work for so many years that there’s too much talk. If I’m listening to anything, it’s always music.
If you could have one word tattooed on your arm, what would it be: Persistence
Did you see the movie Her? Yes. I had mixed feelings about it. I thought it was visually interesting, I thought the acting was really great, but it was too long for me. And all of this technology that is making its way towards artificial intelligence is a little disturbing.
4 favorite bands of all time: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles of course, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received: Well, it goes back to being persistent. Don’t give up. It’s really tough in today’s culture because so many people are trying to do the same thing, and it’s very competitive. But if it’s something you really want to do and really believe in, you just have to keep going.
And finally, Siri, take us out in style…