The chances are most of us would say a sheepish ‘not really’ in response to these questions. We can become a little embarrassed or dismayed when we hear ourselves in an accidental recording or family video. How we sound in our own heads and how we sound in reality can be distressingly different.
The good news is that through learning some simple techniques and with a spoonful of self-awareness you can feel much happier and more confident about the way you speak. Your voice can be clearer, stronger, more varied and more commanding than you could imagine – and all without getting too shouty or theatrical…
Appealing and unappealing voices
I am fascinated by the human voice and the relationship we each have to how we speak and sing. As a species we are compelled, commanded and seduced by the voices of others. We make judgments on a person’s social background, how much money they earn and fundamentally whether they are someone for whom we would put the kettle on based to some extent on the way they speak and whether we like it or not!
Research has shown that irrespective of where in the world we come from there are certain vocal characteristics that are considered universally appealing: rich tone, vocal variety, clarity and warmth. So why is it then that there are so many in the public realm with nasal, whining, monotonous voices? It is a question that I can’t ignore. What would it take for that person to really embody the full range of the power, strength and reach their voice is capable of?
I spent 15 years of my life as an actor and singer – my voice was my livelihood and I spent years working on it. I nurtured it, steamed it in vapour baths, practised making it mellifluous and attractive – listened to its natural cadences and got to know them. I learned the technical mechanisms that made the voice work, tried to master them and hoped the magic would happen. Sometimes it did. During that time I was encouraged to lose any remnants of the rural Devon accent I grew up with in favour of Received Pronunciation – BBC English. Nowadays, drama schools are more enlightened in helping young actors connect with their authentic selves and enhance the qualities they already have, rather than forcing upon them a mantle of uniformity.
A mismatch between who you are and how you sound?
In the work I now do in the development of others I have met many inspiring people who lead in organistions and communities. I often find myself listening hard to their words – but my attention will soon turn to the way they are speaking. Do I believe what they say or is there a fatal incongruence based on the way they are saying it?
What has surprised me over and over again is how there can be a significant mismatch between who a person is and how they sound. Leaders, capable of greatness, nonetheless can have whispery, droning, sometimes almost inaudible voices. They fail to understand their lack of vocal power and the impact this has on the way they are seen. Take for example the wonderfully talented tennis player Andy Murray. His post-victory interviews have the tone of one who is recently bereaved – his flat, deadpan delivery is at odds with his huge achievement. Maybe it is just me but this feels like a missed opportunity.
Finding your voice
As a coach one of the most frequent and heartfelt calls I hear is from people wanting to ‘find their voice’ – as if somehow, in some unexpected way, they have lost it. The sense I make of this call is that they want to be heard: to be understood, to have some say in how things turn out.
I am absolutely sure that by learning some simple techniques and how to breathe properly anyone can transform their vocal confidence and dexterity.
It intrigues me that so few people give any attention to the way they utilise their voice, believing that our voices are not open to change – unless, of course they are faced with the dread prospect of having to deliver a speech in public. There is a whole industry based on helping people with techniques to speak through the nerves and to be heard – even if just for one day.
I am interested in something more sustainable and more holistic. A closer-in relationship between you and your voice. You don’t have to steam it in a vapour bath but at least acknowledge its presence and its potential and, perhaps, entertain the possibility that it may be capable of more range and power than you give it credit for!
A Whole Person approach
The voice is one of the most wonderful tools we have. I realise I am referring to it as if it is somehow separate to us – like a troublesome employee or an anxious child. I see the voice as part of the whole person – connected to us in a myriad of ways. It would be great if we could learn to narrow the gap between who we are inside and how we present ourselves to the world. There’s nothing new in that aspiration but I think this can be achieved directly by working with our unique voices. Learning how to make them soar and swoop, coo and soothe – understanding where the volume button is and bringing it into our own control – rather than turning into a quivering lamb chop when faced with a challenging situation. Being all we can be, but vocally.
By introducing more and more voice work into the leadership development programmes I am running, I have seen people finding their voice by extending it, flexing it and using it with range and authenticity.
To give even more people the opportunity to transform their impact in this way, Corinna Powlesland and I have developed a workshop that creates a space to access vocal confidence, drawing on our joint experience of performance, developing others and voice coaching. It’s now one of our most popular short programmes. Find out more about Speak to be Heard including dates for the next programme.