On a drab rainy day in Portland, Oregon, I once listened to a woman speaker who had a voice that was everything the weather was not: bright and joyful, clear and energetic. Compared to the bleak day just outside the door, her voice was a splash of sunshine right there in the room, lifting the mood. I no longer remember what she was talking about, but I distinctly remember the effect that the quality of her voice had: it lifted spirits.
What does your voice do for (or to!) the people around you? What does it tell people about you? Is your voice naturally high or low pitched? Are you typically loud, soft or somewhere in between? Smooth or ragged? We’re born with some of our vocal characteristics, but others we develop over time, byproducts of habits–some of them not so good.
Maybe you haven’t given it much thought. With all the things you have to do and worry about, how your voice sounds perhaps hasn’t made it onto your self improvement to-do list. But if improving your voice could boost your credibility and improve your relationships, wouldn’t it be worth some attention?
If you’ve ever attended a presentation where the speaker was too quiet, too monotone, or too breathy, you probably had a hard time paying attention. Wussy voices don’t compel us to listen. Instead, we glaze over and detach, or we struggle to follow the speaker. The effect is a little like trying to listen to the same musical note quietly played over and over, without rhythmic variation. That’s mind-numbing.
But in professional life, we want to be listened to and understood, and how our voice sounds can go a long way toward connecting us, and our message, to those we work with. Part of an engineer’s job is often to explain things, to figure out a solution to a problem and make sure others understand it, or to hand off some work to another team–and communicate to them what they need to know. If that communication happens in person, how you sound can affect whether you’re respected, listened to and understood.
The voices we pay attention to have some common desirable characteristics. For example, they’re lower in pitch, which for women means somewhat more masculine than the average female voice. Voices that command attention are’t affected–that is, they’re normal, neither artificially high nor low, and they use normal intonation and normal variation in the up and down cadences, like those heard in everyday conversation.1 They’re also loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to be off-putting.
Engineers who speak too softly–even if they’re brilliant, even if they’re right–can have trouble getting their point across, especially when their audience is senior management. It isn’t the content of what they say that’s at fault. It’s the voice they use.
According to a San Diego State University/Columbia University study (reference https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614553009), voices of leaders are never too quiet. In fact, they’re louder than normal, and you may have noticed that real leaders know this. They speak to be heard, and they lack patience with speakers who won’t do the same.
If you’re thinking you may be one of those people who needs to speak up, you don’t need to start shouting. You need to change how you breathe. Most of us breathe shallowly into the chest, not giving much thought to the act of breathing. After all, it’s autonomic, right? Why think about it?
Because our default way of breathing, although it’s sufficient for keeping us alive, isn’t sufficient for our voice. Those little wisps of air we take in to our chest one after another don’t power the voice. If you want to add power to your voice and up your volume, breathe into your belly. Technically, you’re using your diaphragm muscle (that same muscle that spasms when you have the hiccups) to help you breathe into your belly. When you’re doing it correctly, your belly extends out as you inhale and and goes in on the exhale. And when you do that while you’re speaking, your volume naturally increases and your voice sounds more confident. It’s a technique actors and public speakers use all the time, and voice coaches teach it to politicians and executives. And now you can do it.
You can read more about this technique in a useful little booklet from Toastmasters International called “Your Speaking Voice.” It’s free for the downloading at: https://www.toastmasters.org/~/media/B7D5C3F93FC3439589BCBF5DBF521132.ashx.
Volume and normal conversational intonation can help you sound confident. But what unpleasant vocal characteristics could be getting in your way? Here are a few to be on the listen for:
- Breathy – a lot of air flowing in and around the words. Marilyn Monroe was famous for her breathy voice, and it worked for her. But she wasn’t an engineer. Breathy voices don’t command respect, and they don’t inspire confidence. Strong, solid projection sounds self-possessed, the voice of a subject matter expert; breathy voices sound vulnerable and unsure. The belly breathing technique will definitely help counteract a breathy voice.
- Nasal – pinched and constricted, back of the throat is mostly closed, sounding less like an incurable cold and more like whining. Nasal voices don’t command authority because they sound wimpy, not strong. Worse, the sound is unpleasant. If you have this problem, try relaxing your jaw. Imagine you have a short thick pencil wedged in the back of your mouth, holding your mouth open. When the mouth is more open, the nasal goes away.
- Trembly – where the voice quivers and shakes. One reason for a trembly voice could be that it’s cold. If it’s below freezing, that’s a decent excuse for a trembly voice. But if that’s not the case, then a trembly voice betrays fear. Trembly voices are most often heard in presentation situations, or in any situation where the speaker is nervous. If nervousness is behind your problem, stay tuned for next month’s “Cogent Communicator” column on conquering stage fright.
- Vocal “fry” – dropping the voice artificially low so it sounds creaky, like a frog, especially at the ends of sentences. For some reason, this has become a popular vocal affectation in recent years among young people, especially (though not exclusively) women. “Fry” is the word that’s used for this lowest register of the voice. “Modal” is the normal register, the way we talk most of the time. Above modal is “falsetto.” Below modal is “fry.” Unfortunately, some listeners find the vocal fry indicates indifference on the part of the speaker, a sort of flatness to the expression that sounds blasé. (Still not sure what “fry” is? There’s an audio clip of normal vs. fry in this Fast Company article.)
Breathe, Speak Up, Keep It Real
Be natural. Speak in your modal range. Don’t force yourself to dive down to lower registers artificially. Just talk like the natural human being you are.
Remember to breathe more deeply (belly breathing!) to counteract breathy voice and to turn up your volume naturally, without shouting from the throat. Everyone will appreciate being able to hear you easily, and you’ll command the kind of attention you want because that’s the kind of voice that gets listened to.
1While writing this column, I came across a video of comedian Will Noonan performing at Club Comix in Boston and absolutely nailing affected speaking. It’s hysterical! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=To0otqt0cQc
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Her new novel, Speaking English with My Father, is available now.