Whether it is loud or soft…fast or slow…high- or low-pitched…your voice makes a big impression. From it, people draw conclusions about your age, your level of competence and professionalism, how likable and trustworthy you are and your emotional state.
In fact, how you sound can be far more important than what you say! In a study performed in the 1960s, UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, PhD, found that 55% of our impression of a person is formed by facial expressions and body language and only 7% by his/her message. The remaining 38% is linked to the person’s vocal quality, including pitch, tone and inflection.
That means your voice can either enhance the impact of what you’re trying to say or detract from it—yet many of us give our voice little thought.
Luckily, anyone can improve his “vocal appearance.” How to cultivate your voice to create a better delivery…
Understand your voice. Just like a musical instrument has a particular pitch—a flute is high, and a tuba is low—we each have an optimal speaking pitch. It is important to understand the instrument you were born with and how to use it so that you can play a wide range of notes when you speak. Remember: The voice you hear in your head when you talk is not the same voice that others hear because the bones in your skull distort the sound. Use your smartphone to record yourself and then play it back.
Find your optimal pitch. You’re looking for a rich, pure tone that is projected from the facial mask, a triangular area that stretches from the sinuses down to the larynx. Most of the sound you make when you speak actually is produced by resonators in your sinuses, throat, mouth, nose and chest. When you speak from the facial mask, where these resonators are located, your voice will be strong and clear.
To find your facial mask and optimal speaking pitch, hum until you feel a buzz or tingle in your lips and nose. Now start counting, alternating between humming and speaking—mmm-one, mmm-two, mmm-three. Pause between each number for a breath. Blending humming and speaking helps you learn to speak from the facial mask to achieve your optimal voice quality. Do this exercise, humming and counting to five at least once daily, and soon your optimal pitch will become habitual. (Stop if you feel any strain.) This easy adjustment will improve your voice quality and professional image.
Learn how to lower your voice. In general, a deep voice is perceived as confident and powerful, while a high-pitched voice can lead to the perception that a person is young and lacking in authority. A study in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review compared how 27 blind and 23 sighted people rated men and women whose voice pitches were raised or lowered experimentally as they spoke a series of vowels. Both groups judged voices with a lowered pitch to be more competent and trustworthy than those with a raised pitch. Examples of deep voices that are universally acclaimed: Sam Elliott, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, James Earl Jones.
If you wish to lower your voice, try this exercise…
For women: Place your hand on your sternum. The goal is to feel the vibration beneath your hand while you speak.
For men: Place your hand beneath the sternum. See if you can feel spoken sounds vibrating.
Note: Speaking outside your optimal pitch to deepen your voice should be done only for short periods—for a presentation, for example—to avoid vocal strain.
Tame verbal viruses. In addition to the tone and pitch of our voices, almost everyone has developed some bad habits—what I call verbal viruses—such as talking too fast or too slowly and using too many “ums” and “ahs.” Verbal viruses are common in every language, and most people don’t even know they have them. It’s not difficult to beat these tics, however. Here’s how…
If you use a lot of filler words. Using words and phrases such as “ah,” “um,” “like” and “you know” isn’t inherently a bad tactic. Without any, you would sound robotic. The brain instinctively reaches for these placeholders to fill the silence while it searches for a thought. The problem is when they’re overused. Then they can detract from your message.
The fix: Record yourself speaking to someone. On playback, listen for common filler words. You may be shocked to hear how many you use. Then practice speaking with pauses or by taking deep breaths instead of using placeholders.
Note: Pauses are normal and OK. You don’t need to fill every silence. Your listener will wait for you to finish—probably with even more interest than if you barreled through.
If you speak too fast: Talking fast can sometimes be beneficial but more often is detrimental. Fast talkers can be perceived as dynamic and upbeat. Unfortunately, they also can be difficult to understand. There is no uniform or ideal target speaking pace for intelligibility, but you do want to adjust the pace to the needs of your audience so that you can be understood.
Important: People over age 50 have a harder time with fast talkers than younger adults because their hearing often declines with age, making it even harder to understand what fast talkers are saying.
The fix: Train yourself to slow down by pausing at the end of every thought. If you are presenting to a group, use a word or phrase such as, “Right?” or “Is that clear?” and wait to get a response—a nod or a verbal “yes”—before proceeding to ensure your listeners are following.
If you speak too slowly: Slow talkers may be considered thoughtful and reasonable or, at worst, boring and frustrating. Tip: Imagine what you’re saying is on a printed page, and notice the white spaces between words and thoughts. Practice shortening those white spaces to quicken your vocal tempo.
Consider varying your vocal inflection. Women are prone to sounding like they’re asking questions as they speak, which makes them appear unsure of themselves. But ending every sentence on a downward inflection can make you sound boring or condescending. The ideal is to vary your vocal inflection to keep your audience engaged.
The fix: Record your voice during a conversation, then transcribe what you’ve said. Listen to the recording while you read the written version, marking the transcript with an up arrow when you hear yourself raising your voice at the end of a sentence and a down arrow when you lower your voice. If you notice an undesirable pattern, practice varying your vocal inflection and rerecord yourself to see if you’ve improved.
Watch out for trouble. Red flag: See your doctor if your voice tires easily…sounds weak to you or others…or you suffer from persistent hoarseness. These can be signs of serious health problems.