Voice 101

Cat yawing and singing

Even cats use a variety of pitches to communicate their needs.

How can we use our voice to influence?

The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.”– F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Great Gatsby

 “Her voice was like a bagpipe suffering from tonsillitis.”
—Anonymous

Our voices are capable of a broad range of expression. The voice is designed to reflect our inner-state to the outer-world and has the capacity to invite or repel an audience.

One of our main challenges when we are presenting is to keep our audience interested. Think of your voice as a musical instrument, and your presentation as a piece of music, and you will be well on your way to engaging your audience.

  • Think melody: if a piece of music consisted of one note, it would get boring very quickly. Experiment with varying the melody in your vocal range.
  • Music is sound and silence; leave room for the pauses. A drone, like a bagpipe, consists of the one sound uninterrupted.
  • Vary the rhythm; think Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, or the Rolling Stone’s Jumping Jack Flash. It’s the rhythmic stops and variations that get our attention

One easy way to get a clearer picture of how you are using your voice is to record yourself. Try recording yourself giving a presentation. It is going to sound weird- not because you sound weird, but because we experience our sound differently than everybody else. When we hear our own sound, it’s like we are in the middle of a speaker. As you can imagine, we get a clearer ‘sound-picture’ in front of a speaker. If you are behind (or inside) a speaker it will sound muffled.

Use the points below to guide your listening.

  • Are you varying the melody or speaking in a monotone?
  • Are you leaving space for words to have their impact by pausing?
  • Are there places you might speed up, or slow down to underline what you are saying?

What can you do this week to raise your awareness of how you are using your voice? Are you matching the same melody and rhythm in your presentations as your conversations?

Accent on Accent

Can you change your accent?

Can you learn a language? If you can learn a language, you can refine those language skills even further.

Remember the beginning stages of learning a new language, and how hard it was to make unusual sounds? Refining pronunciation follows the same process you’ve already been through to master the sounds you have now.

Why do we have an accent when we speak another language?

Each language has a set of linguistic habits. When we learn another language, this information passes through the filter of language habits we are accustomed to using. One example in Spanish is the single ‘r’ and the rolled ‘rr’ sound. Many English speakers have trouble rolling the r sound, as it is not part of the language. But in Spanish, the difference between having that sound, is the difference between pero- (but) and perro- (dog).

Although there is room for misunderstanding, the important thing to remember is to focus on an adequate level of communication.

When we get to business communication and positions of leadership, it can help to get a linguistic ‘tune up.’ Especially if the work requires presentations to groups.

How do we work on clarifying accent?

  • Working on a few key words or phrases. Each language group has similar difficulties around pronouncing certain words and sounds in English.
  • Understanding how the words are being formed in your mouth. You can investigate this for yourself on youtube, or work with a coach on how you are forming your sounds.
  • Get feedback and practise. If you have the right information, and you practise, it is inevitable that you will improve.

The good news on accents

In our international age, a lot of people speak more than one language. So long as we can communicate clearly, we can easily engage an audience.

There’s some interesting information in the book, Compelling People that some accents are perceived as warmer or stronger than others. The examples used are the perceived strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘I’m back.’  If you imagine his Terminator character with a more melodic or rounded vowel accent, say French, or Italian, it might sound quite different.

The main point to consider when we’re speaking a second language:

Are we being understood?

In all of our communication we want to make it easy for our audience.

Easy to listen, easy to be engaged, easy to respond.

If you’re getting feedback that some of your words are difficult to understand, with a little feedback, it’s easy to improve.

What are nonverbals? Or; Are your dinosaur scales showing?

There is a fine line between effective, strong leadership and embarrassing displays of dominance.

Our meeting was running on time; the interstate meeting my business associate and I had been asked to attend to discuss working with a high profile client of ours.

Within the first five minutes, there were signs that working with these people would be risking dropping our client into the jaws of an ancient reptile, the business crocodile.

With only cursory eye contact on introductions and shaking hands, small talk was almost non existent. Once in the meeting room our hosts thew their business cards on the table. The leader of the meeting chose a chair at a distance from the rest of the group, and extended himself back in his chair, crossing his outstretched legs at the ankles and broadening through his chest.

These collected elements are what we call the nonverbals of the meeting. Though each element is significant on its own, we look at, and respond to clusters of non-verbal information.

What are nonverbals?

Beyond ‘Body Language’

Nonverbals are everything we communicate that is not verbal. That goes from the building your meeting is in, to how you are greeted by the receptionist. The architecture and how people are dressed. The tone and pace with which people move and talk. This is what Joe Navarro in his book, Louder Than Words’, calls ‘curb-side appeal.’

  1. Tone of voice (paralinguistics) which communicate how we feel about what we are saying. This is exactly why there is so much room for misunderstandings in email and text messages.
  2. What you are wearing? One female manager I know wears a dark, matte shade of lipstick popular in the 1990s. Do you think this communicates an outlook that is up to date?
  3. The use of space and distance, in the nonverbal world, this is called proxemics. In our meeting, the choice our meeting partners made of the seating arrangement communicated their intention to be collaborative (one manager seated next to us) or combative (the other manager, who had also displayed a cluster of dominance displays, left a seat between himself and my partner.)

How do we become fossilised?

Crocodiles have been around for more than 55 million years….Often working within the same company or role for an extended period of time can lead us to being stagnant with our nonverbals. A way of being that seemed appropriate at the beginning of a career can be based on mentors and role models who were already behind the times. Our nonverbals are something people don’t feel comfortable giving us feedback on. It’s too personal. Unless I have been contracted to give someone feedback on their nonverbals, there is no way I would intrude on a person’s personal choices in their communication.

How can we fix it?

Outsource. Find someone who has put in thousands of hours research into what will help you be more up to date. That can be anything from books, magazines and online videos to personal consultations.

I have a one piece jumpsuit from the 1980s that would have looked very chic when it was made. The shoulder pads in themselves would have indicated up-to-date power, and the slashes of hot pink colour would have communicated an edginess, contrasting with the more sombre background beige. In 2014, I wear that jumpsuit to dress-up parties. Every time I wear it I get a laugh. When we stay in a time warp, everything from our wardrobe to our nonverbals can become a joke. We can’t expect our business behaviour to remain the same for twenty or even thirty years without appearing out of date, and out of touch.

Are we present?

“I’m too old to be rigid”- Patsy Rodenburg

At any time in our lives, we can become more flexible in our approach to presentation through our voice and body.

Awareness of how we communicate is the first step in making conscious choices.

There is a great opportunity to learn how to be better communicators from people who have dedicated their life to exactly that craft.

Patsy Rodenburg is well known among actors, politicians and corporate executives for her coaching in voice and presence.

The ten minute video (link below) explains her ‘Three Circles of Energy’ in power presentation.

Here is a summary from her book:

First Circle Presentation

Inward-focused; body may be slumped or collapsed, voice thin- unclear delivery.

Second Circle

“Energized yet open body and delivery.

You will feel that you, the listener, matter, and through the speaker’s eye contact you will feel connected to the presentation.

The speaker will have energy and passion, but this energy appears effortless and efficient.

There is authenticity and humanity in their presence and even if there are a thousand people present, the speaker is speaking to you alone.”

Third Circle

The energy is about ‘bluff.’

“Third Circle presentation can be effective. It can control an audience and pump generalized energy into a room. However, it rarely inspires or makes the audience believe they matter.
… although this energy can be enthusiastic, aggressive or entertaining it doesn’t take the listener into consideration and is therefore controlling.”

From her book, Power Presentation (link below)

In this video, Patsy explains how to recognise when we are in the space of ‘give and take.’ I like that she says we always have a choice in life to come back to the present.

Watch her video here:
Second Circle Presence

If you want more from her, on this topic, check out her book, Power Presentation.