The voice is our emotional engine. It carries our energy, health, vitality, joy and intelligence. But because our voices are powered by the breath, which is instantly responsive to stress and anxiety, it can also signal our anxiety, fear and self-doubt. Using your voice to convey confidence and authority is a challenge for everyone, of course, but it often has greater implications for women and can hurt their ability to influence and lead.
Let’s briefly return to the breath. Breathing is hardwired to respond to external stimuli, and the fight or flight response makes breathing shallow and quick. Speaking up in a meeting or delivering a presentation is not running from a charging lion, but it can feel that way. What happens? Once the body is hijacked by adrenalin and shallow breathing kicks in, the voice quakes, the throat gets tense, and the resulting sound is thin and higher pitched.
Even when women aren’t coping with stress, they may have other vocal ticks that can impact their authority and gravitas. Filler (those repeated sounds like “um”) or so-called habit speech, such as “like” or “you know,” are very distracting and your audience must actively tune them out to follow your words.
Then there’s what I call vocal lift, often referred to as “up talking,” which is ending you statement with a questioning lift of pitch. Vocal fry—placing stress on the vocal chords to create a hoarse, crackly sound—has gotten some media attention lately (thank the Kardashians) and is becoming increasingly common. Both tics are distracting and impact the recipients’ ease of listening.
Voice problems are often the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy: You’re nervous about presenting, so your breath becomes short and shallow, your voice sounds thin and unsure, and you begin to finish sentences with self-questioning intonation. In a presentation, the audience senses your nervousness and looks doubtful. Feeling their doubt, you grow ever more shaky, ever more insecure. Authority and gravitas fly out the window. Sound familiar?
What to do? There are many practices that will align the powerful voice in your head to the one your audience actually hears. Achieving the appropriate tone, pace, emphasis and delivery style does require intentional focus on your voice. But boy is it worth it! The power of a relaxed, rich, resonant voice is a delight to listen to, and can engage and connect you with your audience.
My first recommendation is to learn how to belly breathe. So often, when I ask people to take a deep breath I see chests expand and shoulders rise. Women in particular, not wanting their bellies to protrude, tend to suck in their abdomen, putting a vise grip on deep breathing. To breathe deeply into the belly, the lower abdomen must provide room for the diaphragm to drop so the lungs can expand.
Record your voice. Listen to it. Ask yourself, is this the voice of a leader? Is this voice telling or asking? Is it powerful, full of life, humor and warmth, or is it flat, lifeless and insecure? Be forewarned: No one likes the sound of their recorded voice. We’re all accustomed to hearing our voice as it resonates through the bones of our skull. It sounds deeper inside our heads than it does out in space. But take heart! So very much is signaled by the voice; it is essential to gain mastery over this vital communication tool.
There are many exercises to deepen resonance, explore tone and pitch placement. Give them all a try and see what you discover.
Gina Barnett is the founder of Barnett International, Inc., an executive communications consulting firm, and author of Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success (McGraw-Hill, June 2015). Her clients include Novartis, HSBC, GSK, The Guggenheim Foundation, and since 2011 she’s been speaker coach for the main stage TED Conference.