Do you have a trustworthy voice? If you want one, then listen to mine

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

The voice is an avenue for communication. On podcasts, radio, television, and even on Zoom calls, the way one sounds and how one comes across can impact the impression left on others. An example of someone with a calm yet commanding voice is Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer of the UK. He is said to be the clear-headed expert at the helm of the nation’s strategy to fend off the coronavirus. Listening to him explain the prognosis and the government’s defense strategy makes one feel secure, and that’s something not all speakers have the ability to evoke from their listeners.

People are often not fond of their own voices. It can be rather uncomfortable having to listen to oneself speak. A study at the University of Nebraska by Nuttirudee Charoenruk analyzed the impact of tone, intonation, and speech rate on how people respond to questions from an interviewer. This highlights the importance of speech and people’s responses according to how one sounds. The study talks about the elements of voice and of speech. These include pitch, intonation, speech rate, and disfluencies. A disfluency is an involuntary disruption in the flow of speech that may occur during one’s natural speech or even due to a speech impairment.

The five interviewer personality traits that affect interviewee responses

Professor Christopher Whitty (Photo from The Guardian)

Charoenruk coded the five different interviewer personality traits into the research when they tracked the responses that they were getting to standard questions from interviewers. The five personality traits the interviewers displayed were expertise, trustworthiness, reliability, confidence, and easiness to understand. These are the five elements that anybody speaking publicly on the radio or even one-on-one in a client or company meeting would still want to exhibit.

The interviews took place over the phone, and the interviewers were instructed to read questions with proper phrasing and inflection and to read the questions at a speech rate of two words per second. They looked at the different outcomes of the interviewees and their natural ways of speaking. The summary is that the interviewers obtained better data quality when they read the questions with moderate intonation and disfluencies. The voice characteristic with the largest effect on data quality is speech rate. Interviewers obtained better data quality when they read neutral questions at a rate of two words per second. Interestingly enough, they found that when reading socially undesirable questions, they should be read more quickly. Basically, speaking at a normal pace of two words per second is optimal for delivering information. 

The findings of this study also suggest that the interviewers could have their personalities understood by the interviewees based on their level of intonation, pitch, and disfluencies. It made a difference, therefore, on the outcome of the questions, how quickly, how much up and down there was in the voice, the volume and tone, and whether people were speaking monotonously or not. All these different ways of speaking impact the outcome of the same questions to the same people and how they perceive the person that was asking the questions. What was interesting was that the interviewees answered more fully when they were interviewed by experts or those whom they perceived to be trustworthy and reliable, and in cases of socially awkward questions, they would answer with greater depth of response. In other words, if somebody came across as trustworthy and reliable and instilled confidence in the interviewee, they would share more intimate details. 

Elements of the voice 

This goes to show that how the voice sounds makes a real difference to how one is perceived. With that, here are some vocal elements to keep in mind in order to improve voice quality. First of all, it’s worth commenting on the technology and the equipment you are using. Especially since meetings are mostly held from home these days, a good quality webcam and microphone may be worth the investment. The closer the voice is to the microphone, the better the quality of the audio, the less echoey, and also the more depth of tone that you get from the voice.

Second, be in control. Vocal control means staying on pitch. This can relate to singing but also when trying to convey a message of anger, anxiety, fun, or humor, because the pitch of the voice reflects that. Next is the tone, which is the overall sound of the voice and the vowels in the words which are sustained in lyrics. These are the warm-sounding words or sibilant words that can make the voice sound very sharp and jangly. There is also timbre, the characteristic sound of the voice, if it’s hoarse or smooth, hard or soft, broad or narrow, light or heavy, and so on.

Photo from Tony Robbins

Tone is impacted by the environment. Some drinks such as caffeine can constrict the vocal cords. When doing media training with clients, they are recommended not to drink coffee at least an hour before doing a recording. Creating tone is key, and that also can be about how one lifts or raises the voice from the chest or stomach. Some people can sound quite nasal, so they have to try and drop the voice down. Next on the list is enunciation. People that can articulate and enunciate each individual syllable will be more easily understood. There are soft sounds in English that are put together by the brain but actually don’t really get articulated fully. These words and these sounds cause a problem for understanding, especially for people whose first language isn’t English, so articulating each sound and letter clearly is is of crucial importance to being understood. 

The next is strong support. This is about the body, sitting up straight, being in an ideal environment, proper breathing, being well dressed. The physical aspects of supporting yourself just as you would if you were going for a workout are important. The next element is the volume. This needs to be appropriate to the environment. The next element is consistency, because speaking with a voice that has a consistent pace, style, and pitch is really important. The next aspects are around phrasing and not rambling. This creates distinction for the listener, since their brain has to comprehend each of the different elements. Identifying which groups of words or sentences are going to come together is a really powerful way of helping the listener process the information they’re receiving.

The next element is about being versatile. With different kinds of speaking events, like presentations, conferences, or staff or client intervention, having a versatile voice means the ability to inject humour into the voice at one moment and pathos, sadness, seriousness, or sensitivity in another. Consider the different styles of the conversation and how versatile voices can be, because the voice is the best instrument after all. The more challenging parts are around self-awareness, which comes from going through that awkward and slightly embarrassing phase of listening to oneself. That leads on to this idea of using your ears in your eyes. Listening back objectively to yourself is not always a comfortable experience, but it gives cues to improve on and to find the areas where mistakes are habitually made so so they can be avoided. Another useful tip would be to listen to people who speak well. That can give guidance on how to use the voice to communicate effectively. 

Breathing is another essential element for good vocals. Learning how and when to breathe is another skill. Controlling breathing and making the breath come from the diaphragm, not from the chest, gives the warmth of the body. And as we’ve seen, the ability to make singing or speaking seem easy is also a skill, and it’s something that can be taught. It’s not something people are just born with. Some people have a natural voice and that’s wonderful, but the great ones train and work at it, and so should we. Nowadays, the ability to convince people with body language has been reduced significantly, so the voice has an overwhelming impact. As that University of Nebraska study showed, people listening will make assumptions and judgments based on our pitch, our tone, our pace, and our disfluencies.

Another small thing is to practice opening the mouth and smiling. Smiling actually warms up the voice. It opens up the face, and it allows more air to come out. Lastly, have fun, as that will naturally reflect to others. Work on all of these elements, and that will hopefully bring out a confidence to take up communication and share what you know with those who would love to hear from you.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Insperity

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