In 2002, a Stanford University professor made audio recordings of doctors and their patients in session. Half of the doctors had already been taken to court for malpractice. She then played the tapes for her students, who were able to determine which doctors had been sued.
But here’s the thing: the records were “content filtered”. All the students could hear was low-frequency jamming. But based on intonation alone, they could tell one group from the other. The doctors who were sued had a dominant, hostile, and less empathetic style, while the other group seemed warmer and more personally engaged.
I use this example when I coach professionals to remind them that each time they speak to an audience (clients or colleagues), people don’t just evaluate their words, they “read” their voice. Listeners will look for clues to possible hidden agendas, hidden meanings, disguised emotions, excessive stress – anything, in short, that will help them determine if they can trust what they are being told.
I am of course talking about the impact of vocal prosody (paralanguage): How? ‘Or’ What you say what you say. Like other aspects of nonverbal communication, the audience makes instantaneous (and lasting) assumptions about a speaker’s leadership qualities based on the sound of their voice.
Francisca Branco, classical singer and vocal coach with a degree in political science and international affairs, joins me in this discussion. She is the founder of vocal dynamics in the Nederlands.
Carol Kinsey Goman: You now help executives improve their corporate communication, but you started out as an opera singer. How are the two related?
Francisca Branco: Professional opera singers excel at using their voice to elicit a desired response. They primarily focus on accomplishing two tasks: moving audiences with their voice and acting; and sound amazing with as little effort as possible. The first task is related to efficiency and the second to Efficiency. Successful speakers must do the exact same thing.
Come on man: To speak effortlessly and effectively, you can train like yours in various aspects including intonation, stress patterns, volume, pauses, and rhythm.
Branco: This also includes the exploitation of emotions, as this not only impacts the clarity of content (as it promotes vocal efficiency), but also contributes positively to paralanguage., who studies have shown that it is more effective in persuading others than persuasive language, because it makes the speaker more confident and believable.
Come on man: I see it in the leaders I train. To persuade a professional audience, leaders must emotionally engage that audience. That’s why telling stories, talking about topics they are truly passionate about, and focusing on the needs of an audience increases a speaker’s innate charisma.
Branco: Physiological changes in the voice are natural indicators of our emotional state. Because they are so immediately and easily apparent, they can (and should) be managed to be beneficial rather than inhibiting, as not all emotions are positive.
Anxiety is the unwanted but all-too-familiar guest in our emotional habitat, often arriving unannounced and leaving chaos in its wake. Due to increased muscle tension and lack of respiratory flow, pitch increases, the voice loses melodic range, and vocal quality (energy distribution) decreases. These changes are almost instantly perceived by an audience.
Come on man: When leaders address an audience, they may not be aware of the amount of emotion conveyed by the sound of their voice, but I’ve heard leaders offer words of praise in such a flat tone of voice that none of the recipients felt truly appreciated.
In some situations, this vocal-emotional connection becomes even more important. A recent study by Michael Kraus of the Yale University School of Management found that our sense of hearing can be even stronger than our sight when it comes to accurately detecting emotions. Kraus discovered that we are more accurate when we hear someone’s voice than when we only look at their facial expressions or see their face. and hear their voice. In other words, when your communication is limited to one ear canal – as is the case during a phone call, a conference call or a podcast – people will be able to sense your emotional state even better.
Point: Try to smile when talking on the phone. Even if the listener can’t see you, a smile makes your voice warmer and more engaging. When your voice sounds inviting, it will attract people.
Branco: Pitch is another influential vocal signal in social evaluation and therefore plays a key role in our choice of leaders. For example, more serious speakers are more likely to be perceived as competent, experienced, and trustworthy.
Come on man: Pitch has a direct application for business leaders. Duke University Fuqua School of Business Research examined the earning power of a vote as it extended to male CEOs. Results from 792 male CEOs revealed that CEOs with a deeper voice ran bigger companies, made more money, and tended to be retained longer.
In case of stress or excitement, the pitch of the voice tends to rise. Women, who have naturally higher-pitched voices, should be especially aware of this, as people associate vocal depth with power and authority.
Point: Before you walk into the meeting room — or pick up the phone for an important call — let your voice fall into its optimal pitch by keeping your lips together and making the “um hum, um hum, um hum” sounds.
Branco: You should feel the same ease in their low register as you feel in your usual pitch, without any sense of pressing down. A forced lowered tone will be consciously or unconsciously perceived by the audience and will create the opposite of the intended effect (disbelief, skepticism, mistrust). Rather than forcing, speakers should look for a relaxed feeling in the throat, supporting it with an appropriate airflow (think get rid of the air while you speak) and maintain correct postural alignment. It’s helpful to record yourself and practice a lower pitch in a comfortable setting, speaking normally in your most casual conversational tone. Then make a second recording with a lower pitch, and work to find the same relaxation in the sound production.
Come on man: Our physical and emotional states are directly linked. It’s the mind/body connection I see when I watch the impact of someone’s body language on how they feel. For example, good posture not only makes you look more confident, but also makes you feel that way.
Point: During a video or phone call, standing will give your voice more energy and conviction. Conversely, if you mix up papers, check your emails, or let your gaze wander, it hurts your concentration and that distraction shows in your voice.
Branco: A speech aid posture is a posture that allows for both efficient breathing and correct alignment of the vocal tract. The larynx, containing the vocal cords, is a hanging structure in the neck. It is held together by many extrinsic and intrinsic muscles that allow its movement and flexibility. Tension and misalignment of the neck undoubtedly hinder its effectiveness. In contrast, proper alignment of the vocal apparatus allows sound to resonate effectively, especially with the help of an open and relaxed pharynx. An open chest helps good breathing flow, if your shoulders don’t overextend in a militaristic position – and if you’re standing, it’s important to keep your knees unlocked, so your back and abdominal muscles that support the voice can remain flexible.
Come on man: Effective communicators vary the tone, volume, and rate of their voice, avoiding a monotonous delivery that makes them sound disengaged or bored. They enunciate and speak clearly, vary their volume, pause to give the audience time to absorb information, and appear comfortable when speaking.
Point: When making a declarative statement, be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on a note, rises in pitch throughout the sentence, and drops again at the end. There’s nothing that kills credibility faster than letting your voice rise at the end of a sentence, making you sound like you’re asking a question or asking for approval.
Branco: It’s all part of voice quality, a parameter that plays an important role in how people rate you. It refers to the efficiency of the voice in terms of energy distribution, tension and ease. Good voice quality is a sign of health, fitness, confidence, competence and therefore general reliability. Better voice quality increases confidence while poorer voice quality decreases it.
Come on man: I know how important proper breathing is for speakers – and I advise the executives I coach to take five deep belly breaths (inhale for a count of five and exhale for a count of five) to help them to settle in their body before going on stage or on camera.
branco: Breathing exercises are also useful when a speaker is preparing for a presentation. Here is one of my favorites:
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Support your head with a pillow and rest your hands on your abdomen below the navel. Exhale with a long, relaxed [s] sound (as in sch) while keeping the throat and jaw relaxed.
At the end of the exhale, simply release abdominal tension, so inspiration occurs as a reflex. This reflexive inhalation will fill the lowest part of your lungs without adding tension to your chest or neck. Repeat the process for 2-5 minutes, taking breaks for normal breathing every now and then. Progressively longer exhalations reduce anxiety and stimulate a positive emotional state.
Come on man: Thank you, Francisca Branco, for bringing your classical voice training techniques into the corporate arena. Voice training for CEOs (and other leaders) includes improving voice health, voice quality, voice power, performance endurance, and communication effectiveness. Working with a qualified voice coach can help establish a leadership presence by aligning the sound of your voice with the intent of your message to influence your audience in a positive and persuasive way.