A big multinational company recently sent me a speaking client who “lacked leadership presence.” Looking at her resume, that seemed odd. She was accomplished. She was energetic. She was focused. What was she missing?
When we met, I quickly realized that her voice sounded rather nasally. So I asked her a question: “Do you have a hearing problem?”
“Yes!” she replied. “How did you know?” I suspected that might be the case because her voice had a particular quality to it that I’d heard before in clients with hearing difficulties. Her voice told me something about her that I wouldn’t otherwise have known.
You may not have a hearing problem, but your voice conveys all kinds of information about you to listeners—perhaps more than you realize. It’s true that our voices and speech patterns are fraught terrain, especially for women, who often face gender bias in and outside the workplace based on how others believe they sound. Still, there are a few characteristics of our voices that affect how we’re perceived regardless of gender. Here are four ways to tell what your voice might be revealing about you every time you speak.
1. TEST FOR RESONANCE
We tend to interpret a strong voice as a sign of confidence. But what’s a “strong voice”? It’s one that’s resonant—the sound is full and rich. That isn’t a question of pitch or volume. It all depends on where the sound is coming from in your body.
Put your fingers on your throat and make an “ohh” sound. If your regular speaking voice feels the same way, it may be too gravelly. Now pinch the bridge of your nose and make an “eee” sound. If your regular voice feels this way, your voice may be too nasally. Finally, make a “mahh” sound and note what your lips feel like. If your ordinary speaking voice sounds like this, you’re in the sweet spot of resonance. It may take practice, but that’s where you want your voice to be if you want to project confidence.
2. LOOSEN UP
Your voice also reveals your stress level. Typically our voices get crackly when we’ve got a lot of tightness in our throats—often as a result of stress. The muscles around your vocal chords are constricting, limiting your air flow. Your audience will assume you’re as high-strung or uptight as you sound. But if your voice is smooth, you won’t speak with this tightness. The muscles around your vocal chords can relax, and your sound flows. Listeners will feel that you’re at ease and see you as strong.
You can figure out how much tightness there is in your voice by listening to the way you finish sentences. If your tone tends to drop at the end, you likely have a smooth voice. If your sentences go up at the end or if your voice start to break up a little bit—kind of like that unpleasant feeling of swallowing potato chips you haven’t chewed enough—it’s probably on the tight side.
Smooth voices should actually feel smooth when you speak—like swallowing ice cream or a nice glass of scotch. Listen to the ends of your sentences, or make that “ohh” sound again and notice what it feels like.
3. ADJUST THE VOLUME CONTROLS
Your voice can also hint at (or scream) your level of emotional control. This is where volume comes in. If you’re too loud, chances are you’re managing your emotions by pushing harder—too hard. I’ve had many executives sent to me because they were basically shouting on a regular basis without realizing it.
If your volume is too quiet, on the other hand, you might be thought to be holding back a flood of emotions. I’ve also worked with clients who are hard to hear, even in a small room. Both extremes convey much the same thing, though—that you’re not fully in control of your feelings.
Speaking volume can actually be tricky to self-diagnose. You may think you sound just fine while others don’t. The best solution is often some sort of technology. Ideally, you would use a VU-meter, which is what I use with my clients. Otherwise you can find an app that serves as a decent substitute (here are a few more details on your options). The same way you need to look in the mirror to make sure your clothes fit and match, you often need some sort of recording device to see if your volume is right.
4. TAKE ITS TEMPERATURE
Our voices can also project warmth—or not. If your voice has a round quality, it’ll sound warmer. A “round” voice is smooth and even, with one consistent flow—think of James Earl Jones. If your voice is sharp and abrupt (the opposite of round), you’ll project more coolness. This isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world; you may grab your listeners’ attention that way. But the risk of a sharp voice is coming off as attacking, like those robotic Daleks in Doctor Who.
To feel what a round, even voice is like, place your hand in front of you and extend it outward, like you’re hitting a backhand shot in tennis. As you extend your arm, make an “ohh” sound. This will get you in the habit of elongating your vowels and smoothing out any choppiness.
The next time you speak, think first about what aspects of your personality—you or even just your mood—that you want to reveal and which ones you want to keep hidden. Your voice lets you choose.