I was on a train to Yorkshire last Sunday and noticed that the pre-recorded voice of the announcer was the same as that on the Metrolink trams in Manchester. I can't say I was pleased because I find her enunciation annoying. She has a way of withholding some of her consonants, in particular the word "will" - as in "the next stop will be" - she pronounces as "wiw". I suspect the cause is the computer programme which, in the process of stringing her words together into meaningful phrases, chops off some of the endings prematurely, thereby presenting a compromised speech format which lacks the charm of an authentic local accent while failing to achieve the crystal clarity of standard received pronunciation.
Still, I am consoled by the fact that she always sounds cheerful, positive and approachable (although she's just a disembodied voice). In any case, her tone is certainly uplifting compared with that of the miserable-sounding woman who announces the landings in the lift at the building I once lived in: if depression were contagious you would have caught it by floor three.
An unthinking or cheapskate approach to vocal recordings can seriously damage the public image of companies and organisations. When office managers, for instance, take it upon themselves to record the phone menu options, the results will often sound humourless, abrupt, abrasive, bumbling or some combination of these. In PR terms, it's a false economy not to employ a professional actor to take care of the telephone interface with the public; they know how to achieve the desired effect. A good example of how to get it right is the Post Office which, some years ago, introduced an audio prompt "Please go to counter three" and, if you didn't know better, you would have sworn it was Roger Moore, sitting comfortably in an armchair, glass of single-malt Scotch to hand, keeping a watchful eye on the queue from behind a velvet curtain. But not all companies get it right. Try calling TalkTalk or Virgin Media and be prepared to be wound up by the relentlessly cheery woman trying just a bit too hard to convince you that it's fun to listen to tedious lists of options which purport to make your ordeal easier but which are really designed to prevent you talking to a real person.
But I digress. I was travelling to Yorkshire to attend a poetry reading staged as part of a friend's book launch (click here for details). During the event half a dozen poets got up to read their own works, so it was an opportunity to enjoy and appreciate their different approaches to poetry. Some poems had unexpectedly funny endings; others were quietly contemplative; and there was one which brought an emotional tear to the eye. I have to say, however, that the quality of the vocalisations didn't always do justice to the written words. Being able to write a good poem doesn't necessarily qualify you as the best person to read it out; conviction alone is not enough. When spoken words are taking centre stage they need performance skills to lend them their full weight. Diction, enunciation and projection are all crucial to the act.
With all this in mind, I tried a little experiment when I got home. How hard can it be, I thought, to read something out loud? So, in the light of my observations, I recorded myself reading a Wonderman blog post to see how it might sound: laid back is how I would describe it. Not in a good way, not in a Mark Rylance-as-Thomas Cromwell kind of way but in an unfocused, drifting kind of way, and with a tendency to drop syllables at the end of some words.