The recent attention to Elizabeth Holmes’s low-pitched voice brought to mind the voice lessons I received in my first year in private practice. Back then, the managing partner at my firm offered me the opportunity to participate in a weeklong voice program in New York City, followed by work with a speech pathologist, because, I presume, he wondered whether the pitch of my voice was negatively impacting my credibility with judges and clients who had not dealt with female lawyers.
What I learned at this program was fascinating and fairly easy to apply, and it quickly made such a difference. It didn’t take long for my presentations in court and communications with clients to improve. Here are a few things I learned:
Stand (or sit) tall and proud. The speech pathologist pointed out that I tended to tip my head back when talking. This apparently was common for women. The problem is that tipping your head back or tilting your head to the side can make you appear uncertain and submissive. This was not what I was feeling when arguing a motion or talking to a client, and it certainly was not the message I wanted to convey. More importantly from a voice standpoint, tilting your head up or to the side strains the muscles in your neck, which can strain your voice. It also limits the space available for your voice to resonate. Holding your head level with good posture in your shoulders and back lets everything work as designed.
Breathing matters. Breathing is important not just for singing and public speaking. It impacts your everyday speech. It was difficult for some people to hear me. When I purposely tried to project my voice, my pitch would waver (go even higher) and my words sounded strangled. I learned to think of periods and commas as signals for taking breaths to support the entire sentence. Belly breathing allows the full operation of the vocal cords.
Don’t skip syllables or consonants. In Michigan we collapse syllables and tail off at the end of words. If you have a higher pitch or tend to speak more softly, poor enunciation can make it even harder for the listener, resulting in miscommunication and lack of confidence in your message. After you check your breathing, consider your enunciation. Many of those consonants we drop can make such a difference. Say “walkin” and then focus and say “walking.” Hitting that g makes your voice sound stronger. Many resources are available, including this YouTube video on How to Enunciate with exercises and tips.
Focus on expression. Inserting calculated pauses and placing emphasis on selected words or phrases and hard consonants can improve your communication. Watch this video clip of the television character Don Draper from Mad Men. Notice the pauses and also the emphasis on certain words with strong consonants such as public, product, engage, bond, and potent. Also notice that he sprinkles in emphasis on softer consonants like on is and heart. These variations help keep the listener’s attention and interest.
Working with the speech pathologist and practicing in my basement with a mirror and a cassette recorder had an immediate impact. Posture and breathing resulted in a fuller voice that naturally pitched lower and projected further. I’m not suggesting you unnaturally pitch your voice lower. Research suggests that purposely pitching your voice lower might not be effective. But posture, breath, enunciation, and expression will make what you were born with work better for you and your listener.