Updated: Aug 22, 2022
We would all like to be more confident and persuasive, would we not? To put this in Marketing language... What if I told you there is a facet of your personality you can (relatively easily) hone to automatically appear and become (self-fulfilling loop) more confident and persuasive? What if I told you that if you focus on this area, you are permissed to stop worrying about how your butt looks in those pants? Stop fiddling with your pants. Have you ever considered your voice? Before we get further into this, I feel compelled to issue The Elizabeth Holmes Disclaimer: with the statements that follow, in no way am I encouraging you, or anyone, to affect a voice that is not comfortably your own. We all know that’s just…lame. I did it once as an experiment, and it was…lame. What I am asking you to do is consider what your voice conveys when you speak and try a few tips to refine your speaking voice to convey more confidence and credibility. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life considering what mine conveys, and I’ve learned a few things. Before I outline those tips, let me tell you a bit about my history with vocal awareness. Why should you listen to me? Because people do. I've been a vocal performer for forty-one years, I've done ample voiceover work, and in my worklife, people consistently comment on the ease -- and even pleasure -- of listening to me speak. Let's start with singing -- I’ve always sung. Singing is as natural to me as drawing and writing, and I did all three of those things very early and very organically.
I've always been short, too. At Gakugeikai, Hiroshima International School, 1983, about to shyly sing Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. When I was about eight years old, my family lived in a tiny, Showa-era oyster-farming community on a small island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. (The Army is good about keeping you guessing.) Because I was the only school-aged gaijin* child on the island of Etajima, on the daily, I took two taxis and a speedboat to a British-run international school in Hiroshima. When Taxi Number One picked me up to bring me to Port Number One, I found the white-gloved driver invariably listening to a radio program called Music On the Road, which featured old American jazz standards. These tunes wormed their way into my eight-year-old brain, and due to the repetitive playlist, I knew most of them by heart within my first ten-or-so taxi rides. The speedboats were double-deck, comprising seating in the lower deck and an open upper deck which also housed a small control bridge, occupied by a single boat pilot. Because in 1980s Japan EVERYONE smoked, the lower decks were a congested mess of blue cigarette effluvia seeping into velour seats; not a pleasant place to be. After a couple of trips, I decided to spend the boat rides on the upper deck, where it was just me, the pilot, twenty-two minutes of the Seto’s mist in my face, and the 90-decibel (I’m guessing) roar of the engines at the stern. One day, I started humming those Music On the Road standards while standing at the stern rail, near the engines, and I realized that, while I could hear me, the engine drone acted as a diffuser — no one else (read: the pilot) — could hear anything but white noise. Over successive trips, I played with this phenomenon and gradually got louder and louder until I could just barely be heard over the engine. For the next two years, I started to learn to project by singing into the engine noise, salt spray in my teeth, amused pilot looking on.
I saw a lot of this during those years. Photo by メルビル The next milestone in my history with vocal awareness came when I was about twelve. For whatever reason (perhaps a higher-than-usual dose of testosterone for a twelve-year-old girl, plus the development of singing over speedboat engines for two years), about that time, people started commenting on how deep my voice was. Of course, being a self-conscious pre-teen, I immediately put a microscope (or microphone, to be properly figurative) on my voice, and found that, yea, they were right! It was surprisingly deep! I barely had boobs and I sounded like Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner (Gen X's Lauren Bacall). I also found I liked it. It set me apart. People—especially adults—seemed to like to listen to me; not a bad thing when you’re twelve. That year, in seventh grade, I joined a competitive choir and I started to understand that you can train your voice for specific outcomes and that training investment begets benefits. Competitive choir in Northern Virginia in the ‘80s was no joke. We learned to sing in five-part harmony while step-ball-changing our way through choreographed routines in front of panels of judges who made Simon Cowell look like a pushover. While I always had inborn desire to sing and a naturally ‘good’ voice (I could always, easily, hone in on a pitch), it would take me years (years later) of singing over 150-watt amps to learn to project. Even the speedboat engines didn’t accomplish what touring with amps and live drums eventually would. When I sang in competitive choir, I got solos, but I would need absolute silence in the auditorium to be heard — especially because I was singing Alto and even Baritone parts. At fifteen, after recording a speech I wrote for a competition at a local radio station, the Program Manager took note of my deep, developed voice, and offered me a DJ job. For the rest of my high school career, I spent a lot of time following pursuits that would continue to help me develop my voice — Speech and Debate, English Lit, Drama. (Noting here that I did win Outstanding Choir Student award, 1987 and 1988, as Peggy Hill would say, 'inclusive'!) After school, I joined a band that would take me from performing in coffeehouses in Norman, Oklahoma, to Main Stage on Warped Tour in a matter of five years. At that point, I threw out a lot of my vocal training and just tried to be LOUD. It was the ‘90s, after all, and subtlety was not the name of the game. After we moved The Mimsies to Hollywood, our manager, Steve DePace, hooked me up with a vocal lesson with Roger Love, ‘Vocal Coach to the Stars’. Now, Roger has worked with the likes of Axl Rose and Madonna, so in addition to knowing how to elicit the best voices out of people who are more rock stars than ‘proper’ singers, he also deeply understands how important vocal health is to someone who uses their voice for their livelihood. I highly recommend his book to anyone interested in this subject. (As an aside, I've always preferred listening to rock stars than 'proper' singers; they tend to have more character.)
That brings me to Tip No. 1: Drink water. LOTS of water. Drink water constantly. Dehydration is a razor which can shred your vocal cords. Don’t get there. Sip throughout the day. Herbal tea is a boon, but ultimately, you need water, water, water. Shy no more! Lemme tell you all about it. Warped Tour, Dallas, 2002.
Photo by John Thomas. Fast-forward to my adult life. In my career as a creative professional, I made a conscious choice to move from an introvert-comfortable independent contributor role, in which I could spend all day under headphones, pushing pixels, not talking to anyone, to a leadership role, in which I would have to spend a great portion of my day in meetings. (I’ll discuss the rationale behind this choice, and its outcome, in subsequent posts.) By 2015, I was in meetings more than fifty percent of my day, and more than fifty percent of those meetings were time spent with Marketers. Let me just say here that I have a lot of respect for Marketers; I love working with them, I continue to learn a lot from them, and I find their (general) extraversion is a happy balance to my natural introversion. The fact remains, however, that most Marketers are extraverts — y'all are TALKERS. I realized early on in those Marketing meetings that I would have to develop ways to make my voice heard, for the good of my team. Which brings me to Tip No. 2: Develop the ability to project your voice. I don't just mean to project 'loud', but rather, 'commanding'. This will not only allow you to convey effective orders to your kids about their safety, or direct a panicked group toward calm compliance in an emergency situation; it comes in very handy during meetings when you need to get your point across in a room full of talkers. You can only learn to project by actually raising your voice in a 'safe sound space' where you don’t need to apologize for your volume or your tone. Cars are great for this — they are the equivalent of a sonic dead room (a room in which there are minimal sonic reflections/reverb), due to the high quantity of soft, sound-absorbing surfaces and (like the speedboat) the drone of the engine. (Unless you have a Tesla — I’ll have to experiment with that.) Find a space in your life that allows you to be loud, unabashedly, and just start vocalizing. Like my old, beloved, choir director Debbie West used to say, ‘FROM THE DIAPHRAGM’. To find your diaphragm, put your hand on your abdomen. Inhale deeply through your nose while keeping your shoulders immobile — don’t let them rise as you draw air into your lungs. Do you feel your belly push out? Is it uncomfortable because you’re used to sucking your belly in? If so, that’s exactly what you want. Exhale the same way, refusing to let your shoulders rise. That is diaphragmatic breathing, and it is the first step into honing your voice into an instrument of greater persuasion and confidence. By mid-2020, when so many of us flipped the switch to working from home overnight, like everyone, I realized I had to get comfortable with Zoom. With a photographer mother and a Hollywood stint in my past, I’ve had plenty of on-camera training, but even I had a bit of a bridge to cross to feel comfortable staring at my face in motion for hours on end. What I didn’t have issue with, due to years spent singing acapella to big rooms in sound checks and listening to solo playback of my voice in recording sessions (no where to hide, let me tell you!), was the way my voice sounded in meeting recordings. Tip No. 3 Record yourself and get comfortable listening. When you listen to the playback, imagine you are someone in an audience listening to you, and ask yourself these questions: How fast am I talking? Does the pace of my speech make me sound nervous or urgent? Conversely, do I sound languid and sleepy? What is the general pitch of my voice? Do I sound shrill, dull, or musical? What kind of accent do I have? Does my accent support what I’m saying or distract from it? Do I sound convincing? What do I sound like when I'm smiling? I can address each of those items in subsequent posts, but the main point is that you start recording yourself and get to know the nuances of both your voice and the way you use it. I’ve heard many people say that they can’t stand the sound of their own voice when recorded. Much as a video gives you the ability to see your face as other people see it — in motion in a 3D space — an audio recording gives you the ability to hear yourself as other people hear you — without the ‘refinement’ you get from the sound traveling through your own bones. Record yourself and listen often. It does get easier, I promise you! Push yourself out of your comfort zone and understand that like everything else, vocal refinement takes practice, and that practice really does produce results. Tip No. 4 Understand that your mouth is a sound box. This is important. Your mouth is a resonator. Have you ever thought about it that way? I find it pretty amazing that the same orifice through which we sustain ourselves also allows us to communicate and interact with our world to a very sophisticated degree. The mouth is such an expertly-designed resonator that (so I've read) the Church of Latter-Day Saints Tabernacle in Salt Lake City (of ‘Mormon Tabernacle Choir’ fame) was designed to mimic the inside of Brigham Young’s mouth. There’s a ‘whisper spot’ in the U.S. Capitol rotunda that also mimics the acoustical properties that each of our mouths naturally possess. As you are vocalizing in your ‘safe sound space’, explore that resonator. What does it sound like when you say I am confident or Emma, leave the cat alone as you normally would? What does the same phrase sound like when you think about using the whole space in your mouth to create the words? What does it sound like when you say it while pushing your tongue to the roof of your mouth? What does it sound like when you keep your tongue low and scooped, like a bowl? What sounds flatter? What sounds ‘rounder’? What sounds softer? What sounds warmer? What sounds more dynamic?
From L-R: The Salt Lake Tabernacle, widely regarded as a masterwork of acoustic architecture by people who care about such things.
A tight-lipped Brigham Young, and my 'Homeoblock' retainer; similar shape. Tip No. 5 Be aware of your audience and give them reason to listen to you. What I mean by this is that every group of meeting attendees is an audience. If your organization is anything like mine, we are all overworked, overwhelmed, and we are beyond fatigued by being in back-to-back meetings day in, day out. Start thinking about what you want out of an effective meeting speaker, and consider the following: What can you do to: Sound calm and confident Convey leadership competency without sounding affected Retain your audience’s interest not only because the information you’re presenting is valuable, but because you are easy on their ears Sound dynamic (not monotone) Create more clarity in the words you are speaking Use your accent, if you have one, to charm your listeners while not distracting from your message A quick story before I conclude.
Emma, leave that cat alone! For an introvert, I've spent a lot of time being LOUD. Photos by Johnny Crash, Doug Hill, and Jeff Spirer After working from home for more than two years, my boyfriend and I have spent ample time with each other’s work meetings and calls. I’ve come to know most of his colleagues by voice, and vice-versa. This really shone a spotlight, for me, on how effective or ineffective voice can be as a means of conveyance for information. One of his colleagues, while a high-powered, successful professional, sounds like a petulant teenager, concluding her every statement with classic SoCal Valley Girl ‘upspeak’, making every statement a question. Fair or not, I find myself questioning her credibility every time I hear her. Another one of my boyfriend's colleagues — a leader in the company — sounds like Ben Stein, hanging on the same pitch throughout forty-five minutes of monologue. It’s enough to make the most attentive among us tune out. Ben Stein, creatively, made a career out of his monotone, but I hazard that option is a one-and-done phenomenon. Conversely, I can listen -- really listen -- to our Director of Brand MarCom's voice because he's had ample PR training; it's evident he understands the power of voice to convey confidence and credibility. I can’t help but imagine how much more effective both of the folks in my boyfriend's company would be if they took a little time to invest in their voices. They’ve both been financially successful, so there’s the argument, Why put in the effort now? Because we can always improve our station. I firmly believe that the power of my vocal training has helped me get jobs, win raises, be persuasive, and maintain order in some tense situations. I know...I know...another thing I have to think about? In a world that unfairly scrutinizes our every detail, no -- you don't have to think about your voice, but I can almost guarantee that it merits more awareness than, say, your butt. Unless you are a bee or an exotic dancer, your butt doesn't need to motivate anyone to do anything. Your voice does. Stop worrying about how your butt looks, and put that effort into refining your speaking voice. At the very least, try it and let me know what you discover. If you'd like help, contact me and we can discuss working out a vocal training plan for you. Fun Fact: I have a role model for my public speaking voice -- Loni Anderson playing Jennifer Marlowe in WKRP in Cincinnati. Pull up an old episode and listen to her (here at about 8 minutes in). She's warm, she's engaging, she's mellifluous, but she is also articulate and commanding; there's no question she's smart and she means business. Who's your public speaking vocal role model...and what do they look like in jeans? *gaijin = Japanese for 'foreigner'