Do you sound like a leader?

Your audience isn't only evaluating your words; it is also “reading” your voice

Carol Kinsey GomanIn 2002, a Stanford University professor made audiotapes of physicians and their patients in session. Half of the doctors had previously been brought to court for malpractice. She 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.” All the students could hear was a low-frequency garble. But based on the intonation alone, they could distinguish one group from the other. The doctors who had been sued had a dominant, hostile, less empathetic style, whereas the other group sounded warmer and more empathetic.

I use this example when I coach business professionals to remind them that whenever they speak to an audience (whether customers or colleagues), people won’t only be evaluating their words; they will be “reading” their voices. Listeners will be searching for clues to possible hidden agendas, concealed meanings, disguised emotions, undue stress – anything, in short, that will help them determine if they can rely on what they’re being told.

I’m speaking, of course, of paralanguage: how you say what you say. Like other aspects of nonverbal communication, audiences make instant (and lasting) assumptions about a speaker’s leadership qualities based on the sound of their voice.

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I recently interviewed Francisca Branca, a classical singer and voice coach with a degree in Political Science and International Affairs. She is the founder of Vocal Dynamics in the Netherlands.

Carol Kinsey Goman: You are now helping executives improve their business communication, but you started out as an opera singer. How do the two relate?

Francisca Branca: Professional opera singers excel at employing their voices to elicit a desired response. They primarily focus on accomplishing two tasks: to move the audience through their voice and acting; and to sound amazing with the least possible effort. The first task is related to effectiveness and the second to efficiency. Successful business speakers need to do the very same thing.

Goman: To speak effortlessly and efficiently can take training in a variety of aspects, including intonation, stress patterns, volume, pausing, and rhythm.

Branca: It also includes tapping into emotions, as that not only impacts the clarity of the content (as it supports vocal efficiency) but also positively contributes to paralanguage, which studies have shown is more effective in persuading others than persuasive language, as it makes the speaker appear more confident and credible.

Goman: I see that in the leaders I coach. To persuade a business audience, executives need to emotionally engage that audience. That’s why telling stories, talking about topics they are genuinely passionate about and focusing on the needs of an audience increases the innate charisma of the speaker.

Branca: Physiological changes to 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 advantageous rather than inhibiting, because not all emotions are positive.

Anxiety is the unwelcome yet all too familiar guest in our emotional habitat, often arriving unannounced and leaving chaos in its wake. As a result of increased muscle tension and lack of breath flow, the pitch rises, the voice loses melodic range, and vocal quality (energy distribution) decreases. These changes are almost instantly perceived by an audience.

Goman: When executives address an audience, they may be unaware of how much emotion is expressed through the sound of their voice, but I’ve heard leaders offer words of praise in such a flat tone that none of the recipients felt genuinely appreciated.

In some situations, this vocal-emotional link becomes even more important. A recent study by Michael Kraus of the Yale University School of Management found that our sense of hearing may be even stronger than our sight when it comes to accurately detecting emotion. Kraus found that we are more accurate when we hear someone’s voice than when we look only at their facial expressions or see their face and hear their voice. In other words, when your communication is limited to an auditory channel – as it is on a phone call, a teleconference, or a podcast, people will be able to sense your emotional state even better.

My Tip: Try smiling when speaking on the phone. Even though the listener can’t see you, a smile makes your voice sound warmer and more engaging. When your voice sounds inviting, it will draw people in.

Branca: Pitch is another influential vocal cue in social evaluation and therefore plays a key role in our choice of leaders. For example, lower-pitched speakers are more likely to be perceived as competent, experienced, and trustworthy.

Goman: Pitch has a direct application for business leaders. Research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business looked at the earning power of a voice as it extended to male chief executive officers. The results from 792 male Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) found that CEOs with deeper voices managed larger companies, made more money, and tended to be retained longer.

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.

My Tip: 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 “um hum, um hum, um hum.”

Branca: You should feel the same ease in your lower range as you feel in your habitual pitch, without any sensation of pressing down. A forced lowered pitch will be consciously or subconsciously perceived by the audience and create the opposite of the intended effect (disbelief, skepticism, distrust). Rather than forcing, speakers should look for a relaxed sensation in the throat, support it with proper breath flow (think of getting rid of air as you speak) and maintain a correct postural alignment. It is helpful to record yourself and practice a lower pitch in a comfortable setting, speaking normally in your most casual conversational tone. Then do a second recording with a lowered pitch, and work to find the same relaxation in sound production.

Goman: Our physical and emotional states are directly related. It’s the mind/body connection I see when I look at the impact of someone’s body language on how it makes them feel. For example, good posture not only makes you look more confident but also makes you feel that way too.

My Tip: Standing while on video or a phone call will give your voice more energy and conviction. Conversely, if you shuffle papers, check email, or let your gaze wander, it detracts from your concentration, and that distraction shows in your voice.

Branca: A posture that supports speech simultaneously allows efficient breathing and a correct alignment of the vocal tract. The larynx, containing the vocal folds, is a suspended structure in the neck. It is held together by numerous extrinsic and intrinsic muscles that allow its movement and flexibility. Tension and poor neck alignment undoubtedly hinder its efficiency. On the other hand, a correct alignment of the vocal apparatus allows the sound to resonate efficiently, particularly with the help of an open and relaxed pharynx. An open chest facilitates proper breath-flow, if your shoulders don’t overextend into a militaristic position. And if you are standing, it is important to keep your knees unlocked so your back and abdominal muscles that support the voice can stay flexible.

Goman: Effective communicators vary their vocal tone, volume, and rate of speech – avoiding a monotone delivery that sounds as if they’re disengaged or bored. They enunciate and speak clearly, vary their volume, pause to give audiences time to absorb information, and sound comfortable when they speak.

My Tip: Eliminate “up-speak.” When making a declarative statement, be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end. Nothing kills credibility faster than letting your voice rise at the end of a sentence, making you sound as if you’re asking a question or asking for approval.

Branca: That’s all part of vocal quality, a parameter that plays a large role in how people evaluate you. Vocal quality refers to the efficiency of the voice in terms of energy distribution, tension, and ease. Good voice quality indicates health, fitness, confidence, competence, and therefore general trustworthiness. Better voice quality increases trust, while worse voice quality decreases it.

Goman: I know how important correct breathing is for speakers – and I advise the executives I coach to take five deep belly breaths (inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for the same count) to help them settle in their bodies before going on stage or on camera.

Branca: Breathing exercises are also helpful when a speaker is preparing for a presentation. Here’s one of my favourites:

Lay down on your back, keeping 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. Breathe out with a long and relaxed [s] sound (as in sea) while keeping your throat and jaw relaxed.

At the end of the exhalation, simply release the abdominal tension, so inhalation occurs as a reflex. This reflexive inhalation will fill the lowest part of your lungs without adding tension to the torso or the neck. Repeat the process for two to five minutes, taking breaks for normal breathing from time to time. Doing progressively longer exhalations reduces anxiety and stimulates a positive emotional state.

Goman: Vocal training for leaders includes improving vocal health, vocal quality, vocal power, performance endurance, and communication effectiveness. Working with a skilled vocal coach can help establish leadership presence by aligning the sound of your voice with the intent of your message to influence your audience positively and persuasively.

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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