Sounding Like Yourself: An Alternative to Robot Voice

by Diana Ecker on May 15, 2013

Robot by Sebastian LundWhen I was a career counselor, I conducted lots of “mock interviews.” Students would come in to the office, sometimes as a requirement for a class they were taking, and meet with a career counselor for a make-believe, or simulated, job interview.

For many of these interview simulations, we only had half an hour. It may sound like a lot, but it’s barely enough time to greet a student, get through the basic questions, and then provide feedback at the end. So I would welcome the student and jump right in.

Usually, the student would respond to the interview questions in what I call “robot voice,” or how people talk when they are trying to sound professional, remember all of the advice they’ve been given, and not make a mistake. As you might imagine, this all takes up a lot of bandwidth. It doesn’t leave much room for actually thinking about the question, reflecting on possible responses, or processing information about the interviewer.

After 10 or 15 minutes, we’d be done with the simulation, and the student would heave a big sigh of relief and offer up a huge smile. If I asked, “How was that?” they’d usually confess to being a little nervous and relieved to have it over. The contrast between their affect, tone, word choice and sentence structure compared to just a moment ago during the interview simulation was startling!

I’d let them know: “Hey, I’d love to see you bring this wonderful, natural side of yourself into the actual interview!” We’d kind of laugh together and they’d say, “I know, I know. I just didn’t want to mess anything up.”

It took me a while, but I finally realized that talking about it after the fact wasn’t enough. By conducting the interview and letting them go on in “robot voice” for 15 minutes, I was subtly reinforcing the idea that those kinds of answers were acceptable (or even preferred!). As soon as this sunk in, I changed my approach.

Often I would greet students and start asking them about themselves, not making a distinction between the friendly welcome at the beginning and the actual interview. Students were able to answer questions about themselves and their strengths, interests, experience and goals in a much more natural way, not imitating what they thought they should sound like.

Not only did this prepare them more effectively for a real interview, but it helped reinforce the idea that an interview can actually be a conversation between two real people, that what they had to say was worth saying, and that they would be taken seriously when they talked about themselves.

If they were preparing for a real interview that would be exceptionally challenging, they could make another appointment to come back for a more challenging simulation. The key was to establish confidence and ownership first.

These days, I frequently find myself visiting websites where after reading just a few words, I can tell they’ve been written in “robot voice.” It just doesn’t sound real. Maybe the person who wrote it was nervous and just “didn’t want to mess anything up.” Maybe they were doing their best to imitate what they thought they were supposed to sound like.

Fortunately, if they give themselves a little freedom, a little room to mess it up, and a little space to channel a more natural voice, they can give it another shot.

There is always an interesting person behind the robot voice. And that person has interesting things to say — and a unique way to express those things. I’m sure of it.

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Photo by Sebastian Lund, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

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