Woman With Headset

A strange phone call highlights the importance of being yourself

I received a call just now. It was one of those follow-up calls asking about ‘your recent experience with us’. The woman’s voice was lovely, clear, sing-songy, and as a result, sounded a bit like a recording.

More than a bit.

Being fascinated by speech and voice, and technology, as I am; I was transfixed. Was I speaking to a real person, or a computer system using a recorded voice? The system’s ability to understand what I was when I confirmed for it my name seemed pretty smooth. Names are hard. Well, not mine, but generally, names are tricky. Voice recognition systems usually prefer numbers.

So I started making it harder. I mumbled my address, and still, it understood me. Addresses include names. No problem.

Maybe it is a person.

So I read out my date of birth falteringly. I was starting to giggle at myself. I was doing an impromptu Turing test. When I paused for a long while between the month and year, it didn’t interrupt to check I was still on the line…

Maybe it was a machine.

Once it’d confirmed my identity, it started asking me questions, and I couldn’t handle it. While it was speaking, I just started blarting out sounds at it (yes, that is a new word). The scripted voice kept talking.

Aha… A machine.

And then…

It stumbled. “I’m sorry, did you say something?” I interrupted that, too, to say “No, no, go on”.

“But you wanted to speak?” she asked, inadvertently re-interrupting me.

Definitely a human.

What amazed me most was that this human had probably put quite a bit of effort into sounding this way.

So much effort, that she’d ended up sounding like a machine.

This is actually quite common. Not humans being mistaken for machines (though there is another fascinating case of this happening); but of humans training themselves to be un-themselves. A lot of our work revolves around un-training that habit. Training people to be more authentically themselves while at work, presenting, meeting people, whatever.

Wall-e.jpgThis ‘be yourself’ is never a concept I’ve liked. We change. I change. I pride myself on it. On seeking out and acting upon feedback; on adapting to new situations; of always putting myself in new situations. This isn’t not being ‘me’, it’s being adaptable. I should hope we all change who we are, it’s a part of growth and development.

But there is, I think, an ‘idea’ of being something else that can cause problems, and we see it a lot when people come to present, persuade, or deliver messages. Of people trying to re-enact something they’ve seen someone else do. Many other trainers actively push people to all become the same cut-out presenter or salesperson, and I think it’s bad.


It’s unhelpful because it creates this awkwardness that people in computer animation and robotics call the ‘Uncanny Valley’ – which is the closer an animation or robot gets to being human, the more it irks us. It seems so nearly perfect, and just that little bit off… That’s why Wall-E doesn’t freak us out nearly as much as this Japanese robot.


Learn techniques, experiment, grow, change. And while you’re doing all that, let it seep in and settle with who you are – so that when you deliver that feedback in that particular format that you’ve learned, it’s still clearly you, speaking honestly, to someone you know well and care about.

PS> We run speaking courses.  Damn good speaking courses.