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As important as our words are, our voices also send a message quite apart from the language we use in any given situation. It’s worth considering what that message might be and whether it serves us well.
The author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges says when we feel powerful our voices grow.
“When we feel powerful,” Amy Cuddy explains, we initiate speech more often. “We speak more slowly and take more time. We don’t rush. We’re not afraid to pause. We feel entitled to the time we’re using.”
Ahhh. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Think about a time when you felt entitled to the time you were using in a conversation to say what you really wanted to say.
And maybe you can also remember a time you felt more self-conscious, concerned that people weren’t really listening to you, or weren’t that interested in what you were saying. And you felt the need to rush through it. To make way for someone else to speak. To get out of the figurative spotlight—fast.
I’m a big believer in making space for others to talk, and I think there’s not nearly enough of that in our public discourse or in business and social conversation.
And yet, there is something important about taking our time as we speak. It sends a definite message.
A couple of Stanford psychologists say more measured speaking is “a way of claiming social space.”
Lucia Guilroy and Deborah Gruenfeld say slow speech has an impact on the listener, and on the speaker, too. The same way taking up physical space with expansive posture and gestures can make us feel more powerful, using conversational space creates confidence.
In an experiment where people read sentences out loud at different rates of speed, they found that the more slowly the participants spoke, the more powerful, confident, and effective they felt.
So how do you speak more slowly?
It probably doesn’t mean literally drawing out each word. It’s more about the time between words and phrases and sentences. The pause.
Just a beat of silence creates the space to give your words weight and to signal that you’re comfortable and confident as you talk. That means not rushing along and not scattering “um,” “uh,” “like,” or “you know” between your words and phrases.
If those pause-killers sounds familiar to you, you’ll be glad to know even people with an entrenched filler-language habit can make that change.
First step is awareness. Listen to a recording of yourself and notice where those non-words appear. Or ask a friend for some feedback. Sometimes other people hear our vocal habits in a way that we don’t because we’re just so used to the way we talk.
Then it’s a matter of practice. Intentionally pause as you speak, pay attention to how you sound, settle into a more measured pace. Practice in ordinary conversations with family or friends when you’re comfortable. Then it’ll be more natural to maintain your new habit in business conversations where the stakes may be higher.
And if you’re worried about what my radio pals call “dead air,” you know what I tell my clients. When you let your words breathe a bit, the air is very much alive.
To sound—and feel—more powerful, think slow. And low.
The association between power and a deep, resonant, low-pitched voice goes way back, and yes, there could be an element of sexism in it. Women naturally speak and sing at a higher frequency than men, even allowing for loads of variation among individuals.
In any case, both men and women ascribe more power and authority to a person who speaks at a lower pitch. And both are more dismissive of someone with a higher voice.
Of course, we hear our own voice too, and it’s connected to how significant we feel. Amy Cuddy points to experiments where people are assigned to a high-power role. They respond by unconsciously lowering their pitch and making their voice sound bigger. Because that’s how power sounds.
Does that mean we should all try to lower the pitch of our voices? No, that’s not the point; it would sound weird and artificial, like a child mimicking the sound of an adult voice.
What I do suggest is that my clients use their full natural range, speaking more at the lower end and using their higher notes for emphasis.
The way to make that happen is not to manipulate the voice. Instead, the path to a richer, fuller vocal range is to adopt a relaxed, open, expansive physical posture.
When we’re anxious, we tend to shrink into ourselves, tighten up, and clench our jaw. That yields a higher, tighter, thinner voice.
When we feel secure, strong, and comfortable, we relax our whole body, including our face. Our shoulders release, our jaw muscles loosen, and even our larynx expands. And that letting-go automatically lowers our pitch.
We hear our own strength. And so does everybody else.
You might experiment some of these physical changes and see what impact they have on your own voice … and on your own sense of yourself.
And let me know how it goes, will you?