The IVR Clinic with Allison Smith

Allison Smith, The Asterisk Voice
Allison Smith, The Asterisk Voice

The 15 Commandments of IVR

Commandment #6: “Understand What Constitutes a ‘Prompt’”

This series of “commandments”, guiding you to writing clear, easy-to-understand IVR prompts is venturing into the “fine-tuning” mechanics of constructing prompts – this latest commandment: “Understand What Constitutes a Prompt” is an important aspect to grasp in order to make sure that all your options in your phone tree are covered by a corresponding prompt – and that you understand how much you’re purchasing from your voice talent.

When you order Asterisk prompts via the Digium site, there is a pricing algorithm in which an increment of funds buys a certain block of words. When hired independently, I (and most other voice talent) charge by the prompt. Up to ten modest-sized prompts fits into my half-hour prorate; anything over that constitutes the hour rate. The most common question I hear back from clients (especially those new to the process) is: “What constitutes a prompt?”

Basically, from edit point to edit point. Where a prompt needs to be cut in order to be a free-floating entity, ready to be plugged into your phone tree anywhere it needs to concatenate with other prompts. The prompt below would be universally recognized to be a “prompt”: “Thank you for calling Morrison, Incorporated – the nation’s number-one ranked search engine optimization company. Please make your selection at any time: for sales, press 1. For Accounting, press 2. For Marketing, press 3. For all other enquiries, press 0. Thanks again for calling Morrison, Incorporated.” Very straightforward.

Others: not so much. Below are other examples of “prompts” – which, while they look like fragments and not at all complete entities, are prompts in and of themselves, because they need to be edited into just that little bite-sized piece, in order to concatenate into a sequence:
“….is away from his desk.”
“The department you have selected…”
…..each of the above prompts edits exactly where they begin and end – hence they are each a “prompt”. (Number sequences are particularly befuddling to people – and, in fact, there’s a bit of an in-joke in the telephony voice-over community, where we imitate customers who say: “I only have about five prompts – oh, and the numbers 1 to 100”. A number sequence from 1 to 100 only actually takes about 10 minutes to voice – to edit each number into a separate sound file is about an hour and a half of studio time.)

Trick question: below is a single prompt, correct?:
“You have entered (insert extension number), the desk of (insert staff member’s name) in the (insert staff member’s department). Unfortunately, (staff member) is unavailable to take your call. Please leave a message, and (staff member) will return your call between the hours of (insert staff member’s office hours). Thank you for calling!”

Incorrect. Fifteen separate prompts, actually, and more, depending on how many extension numbers there are, how many staff member’s names and departments there are, and how many office hour options there are. It needs to be pointed out that the above sequence cannot run continually – each option requires a break in the file, and another file to play the option, so it really should be written as such:
1. You have entered…
2. …Extension 101…
3. …Extension 102…
4. …Extension 103 (and so on…)
5. …the desk of…
6. …Frank
7. …Mike
8. …Sven (and whomever else is assigned an extension)
9. …Accounting Department.
10….Marketing Department. (And any other departments you need)
11. Unfortunately…
12. …is unavailable to take your call. Please leave your message, and…
13. …will return your call between the hours of…
14. 9 Am to 5PM, Pacific Standard Time (and any other schedule possibilities you need)
15. Thank you for calling!

While it may seem like hair-splitting, for an IVR designer to have a clear understanding of which prompts he needs for every available option, and to have an understanding of how a sound engineer (or voice talent) needs to break them into separate sound files, the recording and editing of the files will occur smoothly, and it will prevent you from going over-budget – an all-important consideration.

The next commandment in our series is one of my favorites: #7: “Understand the Effects of Proper Pronunciation in Concatenation” – amazingly simple tools which are guaranteed to give your prompts just the right inflection.
Thanks for reading!

About the author

If you’ve listened to the public airwaves, used an automated phone system, participated in a phone survey, or even used a talking thermostat, you’re familiar with Allison Smith. One of the most prevalent telephone voices in the world today, Allison has voiced platforms for Vonage, Bell Canada, Cingular, Verizon, Qwest, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom – as well as being the voice of the Asterisk Open Source PBX. Clients include Marriot Hotels, 3M, Pfizer, Toyota, Victoria’s Secret, Bank of America and EBay among many others. Her website is and

3 Responses to “The IVR Clinic with Allison Smith”

  1. Detlev

    Hi Allison,

    there is a book series available with many more tipps and recommendations for everything in IVR and speech technology. I did this together with other independent experts like Bill Meisel or Bruce Balentine.

    Have a look at or read a few parts online at

    We are on the way to produce another Edition for 2011 and if you like to join, feel free to contact me.

    Best Regards

  2. Allison Smith

    Allison Smith

    Detlev —

    Thanks for the link, and I’m definitely interested in contributing to the 2011 Edition. Can you contact me at and we can set up a call?

    Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply