Name: Marinda Botha
Location: South Africa
What I Do: CUI Designer & Voice Actor
How did you get started in voice tech and what are you currently working on?
Around a year ago I decided that I wanted to pivot my career into working in a technological field. I have a passion for storytelling and have always been an early adopter of technology. So, having already gained 20 years of skills and experience I could contribute, I started looking into which fields I could transfer these skills most successfully. That led me to the voice tech industry and designing voice-first applications for digital assistants and even creating these so-called virtual beings or virtual influencers. I really think voice technology is the future and that a large part of the way we interact with technology will be voice-activated and I really want to be part of this wave of innovation.
Recently, I’ve been busy writing a choose-your-own-adventure story which I hope to launch soon as an Alexa skill. I’ve also been writing sample dialogues and creating mock-up voice assistants using a no-code application called Voiceflow which really let’s me focus on character design and conversational design. That is what I have focussed on all my life. As an actor and voice artist it’s your job to create characters and bring them to life through text. You always start with a text and you work on expressing meaning and emotions through the words. You create character and meaning from the text.
I really think voice technology is the future and that a large part of the way we interact with technology will be voice activated and I really want to be part of this wave of innovation.
What do you believe makes voice tech compelling?
I believe that the need to tell stories and the need to consume stories is hotwired into our existence, into our psyche as human beings. Furthermore, I think a voice application is a perfect vehicle for storytelling because prior to even having the ability to write down and capture stories, we had oral storytelling traditions.
I believe that the need to tell stories and the need to consume stories is hotwired into our existence, into our psyche as human beings.
Personally, I like them when they’re interactive. When you as the listener aren't passive and you can actually change the story. But storytelling itself, it's everywhere and it's part of all industries - I know the advertising industry uses it very successfully. It should be woven into just about any kind of product or service that you want to present to the user because it's been proven to be the most surefire way to keep someone’s attention. Just because it's so hard-wired into our being. Sometimes people say, “the narrative isn't everywhere,” but I would beg to differ. I think if you really broke it down and you do some research into the types of products that users mostly relate to there's some type of story that they can identify with.
I think that the thing with the voice is, it's so intuitive. We all know how to speak. It's such a strong medium in that sense that it seems like a no brainer. The learning curve is really low because it's something we can all do. We're going to see so many more applications that are hands-free, that are just voice-activated. The aim that we should strive for is to make them as intuitive as possible - like talking to another person.
Do you have any tips for how to make a voice experience intuitive?
The advice I am about to give you is like a secret tip that no one believes, but it's really true. The number one thing to understand when communicating your message to a listener is knowing your audience or target market. When I tell my students and they just look at me like that can't be it. But it is. And it is also true for public speaking as well.
It doesn't matter how many people are in the room or how many millions of people are listening to you online. When you are performing a script you imagine one person, the target market, not your best friend, not your mom or whoever. You have to know who the target market is, who needs to hear this message and you speak only to that one person. It's always speaking to that one person because it's about sincerity. The voice is honest, you cannot lie, and you can hear if someone is nervous or unsure. The voice includes so much of the person in it. So it's sincerity and the way you can get sincerity across is by visualizing this one person that you are focusing on and you're telling your message too.
What are a few skills from non-technological fields you believe are important?
Imagining the position of the user
This may sound unimportant but if you come from a technical background or analytical background you may not realize that most people, common everyday people on the street, don't think like that. Most people are not very technically or analytically inclined. From the user’s point of view, the application must “just work” and be a plug and play basically. Which, of course, can mean concealing the vast amount of coding and technical considerations that went into the product to get it to that state where it seems so intuitive and “easy” to use.
Storytelling (both writing and performing)
The need to hear and tell stories is hot-wired into the human psyche. Storytelling is used in the advertising industry all the time, but I feel it should be used (even in a very minimal form) in the creation of all products and services. If you can hook your user and pique their interest in the first few seconds of exposing them to your application/service then you have their full attention. And the best way to do that is by telling a story.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?
I don’t have a technical background and I don’t know how to code. When I was just starting out, it was very daunting because most of the industry at the moment is made up of people who can code and who come from a technical background. I mean, I have 20 years of professional experience but now to go back and say, “Oh, do I start to learn to code or not” I think that has been a struggle. So, finding a way to prove the value of my skills without being able to code was the biggest challenge I would say.
My solution to that is to just keep learning as much as I can, to build voice applications that demonstrate my skills in character creation/conversational design, to be involved with the voice communities, make connections and contribute where I can. There are resources available for people who want to learn to code from scratch but you can also use no-code software like the application I used (Voiceflow).
What has been the most useful resource for you?
I’ve found that the online communities in the Voice industry are extremely helpful and welcoming to newcomers. I’ve joined Women In Voice, this community, Meetups, and zoom meetings/webinars whenever I can and I must say that it seems to be a growing community of members who assist each other. The first few times I would speak up and I’d feel like a leper like “I cannot code! I'm sorry I'm here!” and everyone’s like, no, no, you’re welcome here. So it's been really amazing. There are also a lot of online resources available to teach yourself how to create these applications, which is useful, of course. But it is the online communities, which I found to be the greatest resource actually.
What are your goals for 2020?
I aim to pivot my career into working within the Voice industry, either as a contributor to the creation of characters/personas or dialogue creation for voice applications. Whether that be specifically in the automotive industry, the medical or educational industries or have a more commercial slant, I don’t mind. It is an extremely exciting industry to become involved in and I’m eager to learn and find my place in it.
What's your advice for voice actors who are just starting out in this industry?
Take acting classes. Get some drama performance training under your belt. Voice over performance is acting. Even if the text you are reading is training bankers on how to use new software, or whatever, you are still pretending to be a character. Through your voice, the way you are delivering the lines, you are pretending to be a persona (with underlying motivations as to why you are saying what you are saying). You are not just getting the client’s message across, you are also building trust and a connection with the listener. And actor-training really helps with that, specifically on how to connect with your listener, how to hook them with the first word you speak and keep their attention.
I have an online course available which you can have a look at on my website if this is something that interests you (links at the bottom). Another piece of advice is that it takes time. Be patient with yourself and keep training, practicing, and honing your skills. Success is usually the result of some very hard work. It doesn’t happen overnight.
My last tip is to go and listen to the audio material that is being used in the industry which you would like to do voice overs for. If you want to do medical narration, try and find some examples of this type of narration. It is surprisingly difficult work as it usually involves many technical and medical terms that may be foreign to you and difficult to pronounce. If you want to do TV Promos, you really need to listen to several different television stations and learn how their promos differ from each other.
How do you see the voice industry evolving in the next 5 years?
I believe most of the everyday interactions we have with technology will include some form of voice applications in the near future because of what’s happening in the world at the moment. This global focus on hygiene is forcing companies to create innovative ways of interacting with users while not physically touching surfaces (think elevator buttons being replaced with voice commands). Even something like menus in restaurants being replaced by some form of audio interface. Definitely the way we interact with vehicles and public transport will change, very quickly I think.
Online learning, which is already a large industry, will become more immersive through the use of AR and VR and these experiences will include virtual trainers providing instructions and feedback. Remote working and collaboration will also use the AR and VR platforms more. And in both, the substitution of an in-person physical presence will be simulated in innovative ways. Also, because of the current state of the world, with so many people working and living in isolation I think we will turn to technology more and more for comfort and companionship and build stronger relationships with the tech around us (for better or worse).