Join Carol Kinsey Goman for an in-depth discussion in this video Evaluating your vocal tone, part of Body Language for Leaders.
- For an experiment in her psychology class, a Stanford University professor made audio tapes of doctors speaking with their patients. Now, half of the doctors had been brought to court for malpractice. The professor then played the tapes for her students, who were able to determine which physicians had been sued, but here's the catch. The recordings were content-filtered, which means that all the students heard, instead of actual words, was a low-frequency garble.
Surprisingly, they could still hear a difference. The doctors who'd been sued had a dominant, hostile style, while the other group sounded warmer and more empathetic. As a leader, you can be sure that people will not only be listening to your words, they'll be evaluating your vocal prosody, how you say what you say. Think, for example, how vocal prosody can change an upbeat, "Yeah, right" into "Yeah, right" filled with sarcasm, or how an increase in volume and intensity, "Stop that right now!" grabs attention because of the heightened emotion and urgency it signals.
Listen to how a change in inflection can subtly alter the meaning in the following sentence. "We need to try." "We need to try." "We need to try." Here are five tips for using your voice effectively. The first tip is simply to breathe. Tension constricts your breathing and tightens your throat, which makes your voice sound stressed. The trick here is to belly breathe. Look straight ahead with your chin level to the floor, and relax your throat.
Count slowly to six as you inhale and expand your abdomen. Then, count to six again as you exhale. Doing this breathing exercise four or five times before you speak will help you sound comfortable and in control. You should also vary your vocal tone, avoiding a monotone delivery that sounds as if you're unengaged or bored. I've actually seen managers offer words of praise in such a flat tone of voice that none of the recipients felt genuinely appreciated.
Another tip is to vary your volume and rate of speech. Speaking loudly and quickly makes you sound confident, unless, of course, you're shouting, which makes you seem insensitive or rude. Speaking softly can be effective for signaling a confidential, a very important message, but always be sure you're speaking loudly enough to be heard, and remember to enunciate and speak clearly. The next tip involves finding your perfect pitch. Under stress or excitement, vocal pitch tends to get higher.
Women who have naturally higher voices need to be especially aware of this because people associate vocal depth with power and authority. Here's a technique I learned from a speech therapist. Before you enter the meeting room or get on the telephone for an important call, let your voice drop into its optimal lower pitch by keeping your lips together and making the sounds, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. The final tip is to eliminate up-speak.
There's nothing that kills credibility faster than letting your voice rise of the end of a sentence. It sounds as if you're asking a question or asking for approval. When making a declarative statement, be sure to use the authoritative arc in which your voice starts at one note, rises in pitch through the sentence, and drops back down at the end. By the way, when you're giving a presentation, don't be concerned with filling every moment with words. Every so often, try pausing.
It might feel like you're waiting for an eternity, but it won't seem that long to your listeners. Try it. It's attention-getting, and it sounds confident.