"Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice,
him or her I shall follow...anywhere around the globe."
Leaves of Grass
Throughout history, the most respected speakers--from poets and politicians, to public servants and professionals--have trained themselves to speak with, what Whitman called,
'the right voice'
so that other people would follow. In fact, over 2,300 years ago, Aristotle advised them to do so in
, his treatise on the art of persuasion:
"It is essentially a matter of the right management of the voice...volume of sound, modulation of pitch, and rhythm. Those who bear these three in mind usually win...in the contest of public life."
Is it still true today? According to the
Wall Street Journal
, a 2012 study by Quantified Impressions showed that the sound of a speaker's voice matters
as much as the content of the message. That doesn't mean content is insignificant--it is critically important. It simply means that if listeners are distracted by your voice, the message is greatly diminished. Though there are many vocal elements that comprise an effective speaking voice, let's focus on Aristotle's top three to help develop
voice of authority.
1. Volume of Sound
. When you speak, the audience must first hear you before they can be influenced by your message. When I ask soft-spoken workshop participants to increase their vocal volume, many of them say they feel like they're yelling. Audience members, however, applaud with glee saying, "We can finally hear you!" They assure the speaker he or she sounds much more credible, confident, and authoritative. A soft, timid, weak, or inaudible voice does not sound confident and persuasive to an audience, even though it may feel more comfortable to the speaker. The voice of authority requires appropriate volume.
Good volume depends on deep abdominal breathing. To practice, lie down on a flat surface. Place a heavy book on your tummy. Breathe deeply and slowly from the diaphragm--feel your belly move the book up on the inhale, and down on the exhale. Repeat for 10 deep breaths. Then, for the entire exhalation, practice projecting the "Ahhh" sound toward the ceiling, as strongly and confidently as possible, without straining your voice. Repeat 10 times. This floor exercise relaxes your muscles, aligns your posture, and centers your breathing. Next, move to a chair. Sit up straight and place your feet evenly on the floor. Repeat the "Ahhh" exercise, projecting your voice strongly to furthest wall. Next, count aloud to five, on each of 10 exhales. Then, speak a sentence or phrase on each of 10 exhales. Finally, stand and repeat the exercises. Do this every day until your new and improved volume becomes second nature.
2. Modulation of Pitch.
Pitch refers to the highness or lowness of your voice. Studies show a lower-sounding voice correlates with higher positions of leadership and higher pay, in both men and women. Audience members also consistently rank it as sounding more commanding, authoritative, confident, and trustworthy. Conversely, an overly high-pitched voice can sound youthful, unseasoned, and insecure. The goal is to speak naturally in the mid to lower register of your voice range.
To practice, think of your voice as a musical instrument. Sing the "Ah" sound, traveling up and down your vocal scale. Without straining your voice, ascend as high as you comfortably can go; descend as low as you comfortably can go. As you repeatedly glide up and down the scale, listen to the full range of your voice. Assign the number 10 to the highest pitch; five to the middle pitch; and zero to the lowest. Settle comfortably in the lower register, around three or four. Speak in this lower register until your voice adapts naturally and comfortably.
Unlike a painting or a piece of sculpture, which are compositions in space, the art of a speech, conversation, poem, song, or dance is a moving composition in time. In linguistics, rhythm may be defined as your pattern of speech in time. As Plato observed, it is "an order of movement." How do you move your words through time? Do you speak too quickly or too slowly? Where do you place silence? Which phrases or words are stressed versus unstressed? Do you pause at punctuation? As the artisan and speaker, you compose the rhythm of your speech. Like a song or dance, you can speed up or slow the cadence to elicit a desired response from the audience.
If you speak too quickly, try this exercise: During rehearsal, practice delivering the opening of your presentation using an exaggerated slow pace--physically clap your hands at each punctuation mark. For example:
Good morning everyone and welcome.
Thank you for the opportunity to visit with you here at XYZ organization.
My name is Jane/John Doe.
The purpose of our meeting today is...
(clap). Continue this exercise for at least five minutes. This visual, audible and tactical act trains your brain to insert silence at punctuation marks and helps eliminate rushed speech. Conversely, if you speak too slowly, you may be struggling to remember scripted words, or searching for the perfect word. Instead, think conceptually, not textually. That is, strive to express a series of concepts or 'big ideas' in your own words, versus reciting a script. With all the exercises mentioned, record your voice, listen to the playback, make incremental improvements, and applaud your progress!
In closing, 'volume of sound, modulation of pitch, and rhythm' will help you discover and develop 'the greatest instrument of all--the human voice.' When you speak to others using your voice of authority, don't be surprised if your listeners follow you 'anywhere around the globe.'
If you would like to learn more about developing your voice and delivering persuasive presentations, please read my book,
Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results
(available in hard cover, audio, and Kindle).