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Lounging poolside in West Hollywood, Marsha Graham cranks up her Dr. Jekyll-like larynx and starts jabbering.
One instant, she’s “friendly mom”; the next, she’s “sultry,” then “intelligent,” then “authoritative.” Finally, she segues into a bizarre vocal-cord exercise that sounds like a cross between Tibetan chanting and bad Japanese horror film dialogue.
This is The Voice, the one that has its own publicist, its own fan club and a six-figures-going-on-seven salary.
It pipes up on radio ads for Union Bank, TV commercials for JCPenney and--most famously--telephone voicemail systems across the country.
Graham is the official throat for Octel Communications, the biggest supplier of voicemail in the U.S., with 27% of the market. Octel, whose own main number is answered by a live operator, sells Graham’s automated phone chatter to such entities as McDonald’s, General Electric, Kaiser-Permanente, Hewlett-Packard, the Environmental Protection Agency and six of the seven Baby Bells.
Heard by millions each day, she has been dubbed the “queen of voicemail” by some, “the voice America loves to hate” by others.
As the Boston Globe puts it, “One word from her is enough to make some people curse and clench their fists.”
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To counter that user-unfriendly reputation, Graham is now stepping from behind the phone lines, revealing tricks of the trade and trying to give voicemail a human face.
“People want a connection with a real person,” she says. “They’re less likely to bash voicemail if they know it’s an actual person.”
So Graham, whose predecessor at Octel was the telephone Time Lady has been seeking media interviews, giving speeches and autographing photos with such favorite voicemail phrases as, “Are you still there?”
It’s not the kind of fame she originally envisioned. Although her high school yearbook prophetically noted that she “can usually be found on the phone,” her first dream was to be a singing star.
After 11 frustrating years in that field, Graham turned her focus to jingles and voice-overs. In 1990, she struck gold at a cattle-call audition for Milpitas, Calif.-based Octel.
Chosen from 60 finalists, she then spent two grueling months recording thousands of words and phrases. At the end of each day, “I couldn’t speak a word,” she says.
The sentence that gave her the most trouble was “I’m sorry.” To make it sound sincere, “I thought of a friend saying it to another friend,” she says.
To give other prompts a less robotic feel, Graham silently imagined the phrasing that might come before and after the particular part she was recording. You have . . . two . . . new messages.
“It’s a real Zen kind of place you go to do that,” she explains.
Another secret: Throat Coat tea, spiked with slippery elm, to keep the vocal cords limber.
When asked why women dominate voicemail recordings, Graham theorizes that the female voice sounds “authoritative but friendly,” whereas men come across as more demanding.
Graham still reports to Octel’s “phrase development” department about once a month to lay down new or revised tracks, but most of her work now is in radio and television ads for other companies.
Her voice is so well-trained, she says, that when necessary, she can instinctively trim a quarter-second off a 30-second spot.
She can also alter the tone and inflection to match a specific product. Advertising agencies never ask for just a generic voice, she says. They usually want something that conveys a certain age, income, profession, even number of children.
In March, Graham plans to move from Sausalito to Bel-Air, to be closer to acting and voice jobs.
Still, it’s the voicemail voice that will probably be her lasting trademark.
Indeed, the weird thing about talking with Graham in person is the feeling that, if you don’t like her answer, you can just press a button and get a different one.
Graham, who wears a small angel pin on her jacket, sees a spiritual dimension to her work. She teaches classes (and is writing a book) on “authentic voice” and says she tries to bring a sense of “truth” to her voicemail recordings.
The Information Age has revolutionized communication, she contends, but has also left a hole.
“We liked talking to the secretary, but she kinda messed up messages sometimes,” she says. Voicemail technology solved that problem, but now “we miss the connection with a person. . . . The next century needs to be about . . . bringing the humanity back into this.”
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