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Voice of ‘Siri’ Talks to Lafayette Seventh Graders

Making podcasts for music class, students at Ascension Episcopal School in Louisiana learned about voice acting and recording from actor Susan Bennett, who provided the voice for Apple’s virtual assistant Siri.

(TNS) — If you’ve never given much thought to the person behind the voice of Siri, you’re not alone.

It’s something Lafayette students Lilly St. German and Sadie Guillory didn’t think about until tasked with creating a podcast about Apple’s virtual assistant during their music class. During the project, 13-year-old Lilly and 12-year-old Sadie had the opportunity to speak with the woman behind the original voice of Siri in North America.

“At first it was kind of scary,” Lilly said. “She’s on the screen — staring at you, studying you. But then you talk to her, and she’s really nice and funny.”

Susan Bennett, a voice actor and musician who lives in Atlanta, spoke in a video call last week with Kaedron Hall’s seventh-grade music class at Ascension Episcopal School. In addition to answering Lilly’s and Sadie’s questions, Bennett answered questions from the school’s seventh-grade digital media class.

The calm, cool voice of Siri is perhaps one of the most recognizable in the world, but Bennett’s normal speaking voice is as candid and common as anyone else’s.

"My favorite, I guess, is maybe shocking people when they say, ‘Well, you don’t really sound like Siri,’” Bennett told the class in her regular voice before abruptly switching to her Siri voice to add: “And I say, ‘How about now?’”

Bennett said she had no idea she’d become the voice of Siri when she took a job recording generic phone messages in 2005. She spent weeks saying non-sensical phrases, such as “Cow hoist in the top pot today,” and random sound combinations to create an artificial, robotic voice that sounds incredibly human. After dozens of hours recording, there were enough words, sounds and phrases available for a computer to combine them into new words and phrases to create infinite response possibilities.

Six years later, Bennett’s voice would be selected by Apple executives for the 2011 launch of the virtual assistant known as Siri.

“Speaking into the phone and hearing my own voice was too weird, so I just didn’t talk to her,” Bennett said. “She had way more attitude than I liked.”

Apple’s accessible voice recognition technology — and the persona behind it — paved the way for other voice-to-speech technologies, such as Amazon and Google smart speakers.

“You just don’t think there are people out there doing this,” Hall said. “You almost think they’re automated.”

Hall, who has taught middle school music and theater at Ascension for seven years, decided to dive into the world of podcasts with his seventh-graders this year. Student teams had the opportunity to select from a number of topics for their podcasts.

Lilly and Sadie didn’t know when they picked Siri as their podcast topic that they’d have the opportunity to meet the person whose voice served as the original Siri on Apple products in North America. It was a bonus that earned them extra credit with both their teacher and their classmates.

“They felt like it was a really cool, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Lilly said. “They thought it was awesome.”

Brad Williams, who works as Ascension’s director of technology, connected the students with Bennett.

As Williams helped Hall with the logistics of recording the podcasts, the technology director realized he had a handy connection that could take Lilly’s and Sadie’s podcast to the next level. Williams, who moved to Lafayette last year from Atlanta, is a musician who has played at venues alongside Bennett’s husband.

“I reached out to Susan, and she immediately got back to me,” Williams said. “She was excited to do it. You can tell she really has a heart for it, for helping students.”

Hall’s music students turned in their completed podcasts last Friday, but Lilly and Sadie got an extension on their project after leading a live interview with Bennett in front of their classmates earlier in the week. Their teacher said he has no doubt they’ll earn an A.

Like his students, Hall learned a lot about creating and recording podcasts through the class assignment.

“This was new for me and my students. It took a little longer than it probably needed to take,” Hall said. “The most impactful part for me is just that the kids had that opportunity. You want to provide kids with opportunities and to expose them to multiple forms of creativity.”

Bennett’s voice is no longer associated with Siri, but it’s still widely used by Delta Airlines and some vehicle navigation systems. Her unexpected claim to fame has also provided her with a new career path as a motivational speaker.

Although virtual assistants like Siri have been known to offer cheeky responses to philosophical questions, Bennett’s last bit of advice to the Lafayette students was much more practical.

“You never know what you’re going to end up doing in this life, and you never know — unless you try — what things you’re really, really good at,” Bennett said. “So just jump in and do as much as you possibly can and have fun.”

©2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.