Everyone has heard her voice, but few know the story behind it: Susan Bennett is the original voice of Siri, Apple’s revolutionary AI that lives inside your iPhone. Ms. Bennett shared her journey as a professional voice-over actress, and the voice heard around the world as the original Siri of North America.
Most iPhone users interact with Siri daily without a second thought, but Siri had to come from somewhere! Siri, like other AI (artificial intelligence) software, was built from a real person: Susan Bennett, an Atlanta-based singer and voice actor. In the mid-2000s, she and a group of other voice actors submitted to a vague project that involved recording hundreds of hours of seemingly nonsensical speech without knowing what the end goal was. When Siri debuted in 2006, Bennett and the other actors got a real surprise when they learned that millions of people across the world would be speaking to their voice. For this issue, Susan Bennett agreed to speak with us to talk about her career and what it’s like to have filled such an iconic role.
How did you get into the voicework industry? I got into voice over actually by accident. I was, and I am, a singer, and I used to do a lot of jingle singing back when they used to create songs for commercials. There was a group of us that did most of the work at Doppler Studios, and one day the voice actor that was supposed to read the copy for a particular jingle that we had done didn’t show up, and the owner of the studio said, “Susan, you don’t have an accent, come over here and read this copy,” [laughs] And I did, and they used it, and I thought, “oh!” Because you know, singers, and voice over people are all freelancers, so we’re always looking for other opportunities, so I thought, “well, I could do this!” So I got a voice coach and then a talent agent and I’ve been doing voiceovers ever since.
Did you always want to go into voice work, be it singing, voiceovers, or something else? Well you know, I always knew that I was musical. I [have played] the piano since age 4, and I play by ear, so music came very naturally to me. But I didn’t really think that you could make a living doing music. And it is hard [laughs], if you’re just a working musician, to make a good living, but I was very fortunate to just sort of fall into some things. Things just sort of happened for me. When I first came to Atlanta, I used to sing out in clubs and restaurants and things, and went to different studios and started doing jingle work as I said, and voice over stuff just kind of came from that. And it came very naturally. There are a lot of voice actors that come from music, come from DJ-ing, and come from the theatre. It has a different skill set to it, but basically, doing voiceovers is basically voice acting for the most part, unless you’re just doing strict announcing. And so it was just sort of a natural progression. It’s not something that I really worked towards, it was just very lucky. It was very lucky for me, that it happened the way it did.
How did you come across the Siri job? What was that process like? I was working for a company, and I still work for them, that does a lot of phone messaging. And the scripts that we read for what ended up being Siri were pretty different from the regular phone messaging. And working for this company, [I was reading] phrases and sentences that were created to get all of the sound combinations in the language, so the sentences were often nonsensical because they were based on sound, rather than content. My gig was four hours a day, five days a week, and it was very, very tedious work. It was kind of interesting, I guess, for the first few hundred sentences, [laughs] but this went on for a month! I’ve spoken to other original Siri voices about all this, and we all had the same experience. We thought that basically we were doing some sort of new phone work—and I guess you could consider Siri to be a very sophisticated phone system—but what we weren’t expecting was to become a persona. You know, we never expected any of our voices to be used as a persona, which is what ended up happening with Siri.
What was it like to find out that your voice had been chosen for Siri, and that you were going to be on hundreds of thousands of devices, and people were going to be talking to your voice? It was pretty weird! I really had ambivalent feelings about it because first of all I thought, “wow, this is pretty cool, I’m basically the new voice of Apple,” but the fact is that I didn’t know about it and I hadn’t consciously auditioned for it, so it was kind of strange, too. It took me a long time to actually reveal myself as the voice of Siri, because I knew it could impact my career, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be in a positive or negative way. When you do phone messaging and that sort of stuff, your voice can remain anonymous. When people hear your voice doing that, unless it’s a particularly unusual voice or a celebrity voice, people don’t listen to the actual voice—they’re listening for the information. But when that voice actually becomes an actual persona, and people are speaking [and] interacting with that voice many times per day, suddenly the anonymity is sort of gone, and it can impact your career. It could go one of two ways: “oh, let’s get her, she’s the voice of Siri!”, or “oh, let’s not get her, she’s the voice of Siri.”
Everyone knows that voice. So it was a real quandary for me. Finally, once I decided to reveal myself, it ended up being really fun, and a really cool thing. I’m glad I did it, and I sort of wish I’d done it earlier. But I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do some really unusual and interesting things that I never would have done had I not been the original voice. And also it led to really a whole new aspect of my career, which is doing Siri appearances and speaker events.
Is there any particular project that has been especially meaningful to you? Well, back in I would say a decade more ago, the voice actors used to congregate in a studio and work together, and that was probably my favorite thing: to do dialogue with other actors. Now that technology has totally changed that, basically the final product is in the engineers’ hands, because most of the voice actors are in their own studios recording and then the engineers just put it together. I kind of miss that aspect because I think there was a lot to be said about just the improvisation, or the spontaneous things that happen when you get actors working together in the same place. So that was probably my absolute favorite thing, but the thing that I love about voice over work in general is every job is different, so every day is different, and I like that aspect of it very much.
Do people ever recognize your voice as Siri? Well, Siri has been out for six years and of course the voices have been changed, but in all of that time my voice has only been recognized twice without people actually knowing that it’s me. And once was a banker at Wells Fargo, and he said, “boy, your voice sounds familiar! My son just got an iPhone…” and I said, “you’re in the wrong business, your ears are too good to just be in the banking industry.” And another one was a waiter. He said, “are you Siri? You sound just like Siri.” And I said, “wow, you’ve got incredible ears!” Mostly people don’t recognize me because you know, when I speak, my voice is kind of [higher] and the original Siri was sort of [lower]; and also, people aren’t expecting to hear it anywhere but the Apple device.
Do you have any new projects coming up? What other kind of voice over work are you doing, are you looking around for? I still do a lot of narrations, and I still do a lot of phone messaging, and I do some commercials every once in a while. You’ll hear my voice on a lot of GPS systems and even on car commercials and stuff like that. And I’m still doing the speaker events—I’ve got one coming up in April in Croatia [laughs], so as you can see, there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of unusual things that are happening and never would have happened without Siri.
Is there any advice you have for people who are looking to get into this field? Well, it’s very different from when I broke into the business, because [now] it’s all about technology. And it’s very competitive now, because so many people have decided to get into this business, and now you can basically have a home studio just by having a smart phone, a mixer face, a good mic, and a closet! It’s opened up just a terrific amount of competition. But I like to tell people, if you really really want it, you can do it. But you have to have certain skills—it’s not enough just to have a good voice. You really have to learn some skills. For commercials, you have to learn to read copy within a certain amount of time—15, 30, 60 seconds—and for long-form narration, you really have to learn to try to expand your vocabulary as much as you can, and practice reading. Just being able to read cold is an important thing, too. So there are certain things, certain skills that are needed as well as just having a natural propensity and just having a good voice.