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Close your eyes and “hear” a “Radio Voice”. Can you instantly recall someone whose voice is so melodic, deep, rich, that you are compelled to listen, even if you aren’t interested in the topic – even if s/he is speaking in a foreign language?
Now, just as quickly, recall a voice that creates a similar reaction in your body as the sound of scraping your fingers across a chalkboard – shouldn’t take too long!
What is it that about voice that creates such a visceral reaction in us?
According to Schirmer and Kotz:” “Whether we think someone is scared or annoyed greatly depends upon the sound of his or her voice . . . (Emotional) Arousal mediated changes in heart rate, blood flow and muscle tension, among other things, modulate the shape, functionality and sound of the vocal production system.”
It’s not always true that someone is in a heightened emotional state because there are a number of factors including genetics, illness, injury which can result in a tense voice. But we will always subconsciously react to tension with distrust or at least put ourselves on alert that something may not be right.
Trust -> Influence -> Impact
As mentioned in my previous Presence Point, there are always two conversations taking place, the verbal and the nonverbal. The nonverbal occurs a split second before the verbal and will be unconsciously believed every time.
We want to do many things to our audiences: delight them, entertain them, inform them, educate them, influence and persuade them – we never want to distract or confuse them. Vocal quality is one way of totally engaging your audience or totally turning them off. This is particularly important on the phone or in virtual meetings when all people have in order to “read” your nonverbal intentions are your voice.
How to use your Voice as a Secret Weapon
The use of vocal variety, rhythm and range are commonly associated with charisma, confidence, power and enthusiasm. Posture and breathing are critical in conveying openness, confidence and trust. A full, resonant voice results from a relaxed, full breath pumping through a relaxed and open vocal tract. Try some of these:
- In Winning Body Language, Mark Bowden describes how vocal tone is calm and confident when assuming posture and gestures in the TruthPlane: “keep your hands totally level in a horizontal plane that potentially spreads out a full 180° from the center point of your belly button and goes out and beyond your personal space” p. 51. If your audience is too excited, or you want to emphasize an important point, you can decrease the energy level by letting your hands drop straight down by your sides and standing still (the GrotesquePlane). Your vocal tone will naturally drop also and can be perceived as commanding, particularly if loud. Be careful, however, because continuously speaking in a loud, commanding voice can create distrust, as the lack of gesture/movement doesn’t match the intensity of vocal volume. Conversely, if you maintain this as your primary posture without being loud, you may actually depress your audience and put them to sleep with your deep, down-turned vocal tone.
- In virtual meetings, or on the phone, it is particularly effective to use gesture, to move your body slightly and deliberately to portray interest and energy in your vocal quality. (Caution: people can “hear” you if you pace or shuffle things around. It’s very distracting.)
Rhythm, cadence, resonance, inflection
- Pitch is subjective but typically a high pitch is perceived as immaturity, less authority. Breathiness can signal intimacy, but can provoke distrust. Deeper voices are typically perceived as more authoritative. Harsh or nasal vocal qualities are distracting. Check out some tips here.
- Vocal variety signals someone who is open, interested and interesting. A slow, measured tempo with frequent pauses conveys confidence. The typical rate of conversational speech is from 120 – 140 words per minute (wpm). Newscasters speak at @ 220 wpm. A speech rate of @160 wpm conveys “expertise” so it can be very effective to speed up for important points and then slow down again to engage trust (faster than 160 and we think we are being sold a bill of goods).
- Vary the length of your sentences to create and sustain interest.
- Dropping your voice at the end of a statement, particularly one that you want to emphasize, creates the sense of command, authority, and expertise. Compare this with the upturned “question mark” rising inflection at the end of a sentence, which can diminish power, certainty and authority.
- Silence is golden.
- Eye Contact, before we speak, is the most powerful form of body language we have in face-to-face interactions in Western cultures. Without it you have reduced trust. This is what can make virtual meetings a challenge. As speakers, we must establish eye contact: 5 seconds of direct, but soft, gaze is normal, 10 can be exaggerated for effect (longer than 10 seconds gets creepy). Looking a picture of a loved one during meetings dramatically alters your vocal quality.
- Pauses. Studies show that too much talking can overwhelm people’s ability to process information – strategically inserted pauses are highly effective.
Are you using your nonverbal secret weapons for maximum impact?
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What does your voice say or betray about you? Vocal image affects the perception that we make about others due to their voice quality, tone and inflection. According to research your voice is responsible for conveying 38% of the meaning of a message, body language for 55% and only 7% of meaning is conveyed through the words we use. Yet, most speakers focus all their attention on the aspect of communication that has the smallest impact.
Society dictates cultural norms for defining weakness vs. power based on vocal quality. For example, a lower pitched, more resonant voice is typically regarded as having more authority as opposed to a high pitched, or squeaky voice. You know how unpleasant it is to listen to nasal and whiney voices. Who doesn’t feel nervous when confronted with a shrill trill? And we’ve experienced the life being sucked out of a room due to a dull, flat, low energy voice.
What does your voice say about you? It may say much more about your state of mind and confidence than anything else. In order to harness our true powerful presence – we must consciously choose what our voice says about us.
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed “powering” your instrument. In Part 3 of this series we will take a more in-depth look at specific practices and techniques for using our voice as a tool for influence and persuasion. Today we discuss voice quality and options to improve your natural vocal image as a step towards being a powerful communicator.
We each have a unique voice, a “voiceprint” which is based upon our anatomical structure and the adaptations we make to it. It is similar to the concept of a “fingerprint”, represented by a spectrographic analysis of our individual sound characteristics. However, due to habits practiced over a long periods of time, the voice we regularly use may not in fact be the voice nature intended us to have.
In fact, unlike fingerprints, you can change your voice quality, resonance and range, actually rather quickly. Sustaining a compelling, optimum voice takes intention, focus and lots of practice. The results are well worth the investment.
A vocal coach, and/or several great books, can prescribe specific exercises to sustain functional use of your optimum voice. Here are some ways to get started on your own:
Record your voice to get a baseline and to hear yourself as others do. Listen for qualities such as clarity, tone, nasality, breathiness, and high/low/ just right pitch. Make a note of specific qualities that are pleasing to you, and of those you might like to change. One reason that hearing our voice on voicemail or video is so disconcerting, is that when we speak, we hear our voice filtered through the bones in our head. It does actually sound different than our same voice that others hear through airwave conduction.
- Mask it
Dr. Morton Cooper describes two quick and simple exercises for identifying your optimum vs. habitual pitch: The Mask and Instant Voice Press. The following is from his book, Change Your Voice, Change Your Life.
The Mask: say “umm-hmmm”, using rising inflection with lips closed, in a spontaneous, sincere fashion, as if to be agreeing with the statement: I want to have the best voice possible! Do this until you feel a slight tingling around the nose and lips (the mask area). This is your natural pitch. If you feel too much vibration in your lower throat and very little in the mask area your pitch is too low. Practice a few times and you will get there.
The Instant Voice Press: While standing, place your index finger just under your sternum (where your ribs come together). Press gently with a staccato movement and make sound with lips closed. That is the sound you were born to use. Now say “umm-hmmm” in that same voice. That should do it – but if not, try this: raise your arms above your head as high as you can reach, while still standing. Now say “right!”, say it again, only louder. Say “hello!”, then “umm-hmmm”. You have most likely found your natural, right voice.
Make sure you record your “optimum” voice as well.
In Part 1 we talked about low diaphragmatic breathing. Not only does this supply the power for sound production but also allows us to relax our neck, shoulders and jaw so that our “resonance chamber” is open and free to vibrate naturally.
What do you want your voice to say about you? Does it?
Stay tuned for Part 3 where we discuss practices for making your voice one of your most powerful secret weapons.