What Does Your Voice Say About You? (The Voice of Your Power, Part 2)

“That can’t be me! I hate my voice!” So many of my clients say this. I have said this.

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:

  • Listen

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.

You can use your own recording device or check out these online resources: http://www.viddler.com, http://www.audacity.com, http://www.vimeo.com.

  • 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.

  • Relax

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.

The Voice of Your Power

I have a voice!” By now most of you have at least heard about the most important line in the movie The King’s Speech, shouted by King George IV (Colin Firth).

There are many ways to have a voice, a powerful presence, and a tremendous impact without actually verbalizing, such as writing, drawing, and using of a variety of nonverbal behaviors including eye contact and gesture. People consciously and unconsciously form impressions of us based upon our voice quality: pitch, resonance, clarity, strength, intonation and inflection – regardless of what words we use. Have you ever met someone in person after speaking with them on the phone and been totally shocked that their physical appearance did not match the impression you had formed about them from their voice?

This first of a 3-part series about The Power of Voice addresses the actual sound that comes from our amazing natural instrument: our vocal chords.

As with music, the quality of the sound of our voice comes from the physical condition of our instrument AND from the “soul” of the musician breathing life through it. Speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) repeatedly tells King George IV: “You must have faith in your voice”

Years ago, recently transitioned from clinical Speech Pathology into coaching, I nervously co-led a workshop with some other coaches. I felt out of my element and unsure about being in front of this group. It showed in my barely audible voice. During a break a participant came up to me, handed me a whistle and said: “Blow this. Maybe then we will hear you!”

Because I knew, and highly regarded, this woman as compassionate, kind and fun-loving, I welcomed the whistle, and its message, with (red-faced) good cheer. I still keep that whistle with me as a reminder: Not only does our voice have tremendous power to influence and persuade – it needs to be tremendously powered to get the results we want.

There are many exercises you can do with the aid of a vocal coach to help create a rich, resonant voice and greatly enhance the quality of sound and your impact. Here are 3 immediate things you can easily put into practice to power your voice:

  • Breathe right

Deep diaphragmatic breathing, fully relaxes and expands the abdomen upon inhale and contracts upon exhale. This is the way we breathe when we are lying down. This allows us to have a great supply of air to vibrate our vocal chords and produce a rich, resonant sound but also cuts the flow of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress chemicals which are released when we engage in shallow breathing – breathing from the upper chest and shoulders, as it triggers the “fight or flight” response. Breathing through your mouth is the most effective way to breathe when speaking – after a deep inhale you can fully power your instrument on the exhale.

A great, quick exercise for this is to sit and bounce vigorously on a very large exercise ball for 10 – 20 minutes.

  • Speak up

If you want to be heard, you need to be loud enough. Soft speakers are often perceived as weak. Conversely, you need to not be too loud. There is a range that is appealing and engaging to the listener – violate that and you may be speaking to yourself.

A great way to tell how your volume measures up against others is to record a meeting or a conversation. Listen to how loudly others speak. Who do you perceive to be more effective? Where does your volume fall within the range?

Always speak on a full exhale and stop speaking before you run out of air. As listeners, we get an uncomfortable, visceral reaction when it sounds as though someone is out of breath or is gasping for air.

  • Drink up

Your vocal cords are muscles, covered by thin mucous membranes. Upon vocalization, they come together and vibrate in your throat, valving our air to produce sound and pushing it up through your mouth and nose. The whole oral cavity, and especially the vocal cords, requires moisture to smoothly vibrate and produce a rich, pleasing sound. Dehydration can cause not only poor voice quality and fatigue, but physical damage to your precious instrument.

Try to drink at least 8 glasses a day.

What types of responses or feedback have you gotten in regard to your voice?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where we consider: “What Does Your Voice Say About You?”