Commanding respect as a leader means more than having a fancy job title and a corner office; it also means having the right tone of voice.
Laura Sicola, linguist and founder of Vocal Impact Productions in Philadelphia, has spent more than a decade coaching business leaders on the impact of vocal executive presence, or the ability to harness the power of your voice to command the room, connect with the audience, and close the deal.
"You can have all the credentials, you can have the space on top of the org chart and all the other external symbols that you’re supposed to be a leader but [it’s] your communication that makes people really buy it," Sicola says.
Too often, she says, leaders focus their attention on the words they want to deliver—reading and rereading a speech, going over PowerPoint bullet points, and making an agenda of meeting issues. While the words may be perfect, the tone with which you deliver the message can cause it to fall flat.
Sicola identifies four common mistakes leaders make in vocal communication:
"If you don’t sound like you’re interested in your own words, why would anyone else be interested?" asks Sicola. Too often, she says, managers will jot down meeting notes and read them off, or attempt to memorize them. The problem is, she explains, trying to get through a list of words often distracts the presenter from their meaning and causes them to sound disengaged.
"It’s not that you have to be Tony Robbins jumping up and down and trying to convince and compel, but you have to sound like you’re at least listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth," says Sicola.
To encourage engagement, she recommends thinking about the key message and altering the inflection of your voice to emphasize the most important words. It may sound like this: "When you deliver a message, you need to emphasize the most important words because that helps the listener to focus on those key words," Sicola says. By drawing the listener’s ear to these key words, the speaker is then making it easier for the listener to capture, process, and retain the message.
Listen to the speeches of some of society’s great orators, and you may notice that they speak in short sentences and pause after each one to take a breath. "A lot of times [if people have] a complicated concept or they have a lot that they want to say they take a deep breath and they just spew it all out," says Sicola. "If you were to transcribe what they say you would find a half page worth of text with one period at the end, and that period means, ‘Now I’ve run out of stuff to say.’"
Filling speech with punctuation—commas and periods—gives the listener time to process the speaker’s messages in the same way that a sentence on a page causes the reader to pause. Vocal periods also show clarity and organization in the speaker’s thoughts, and helps the listener take notes.
Using the ups and downs of the voice, or intonation, can help draw the listener’s attention to what is most important and reduce their cognitive processing requirements. Sicola says proper use of intonation can even help listeners remember your name.
While many of us introduce ourselves by saying our full names in one monotonous tone, causing the listener to have to figure out for themselves where the cutoff point was between your first and last name, Sicola says by raising your intonation on your first name and lowering your intonation on your last name helps the listener to process what they’re hearing, and remember your name.
Sicola argues one of the most ineffective intonation patterns is upspeak—where the speaker’s voice rises at the end of each sentence as though they’re asking a question.
"It’s implying, ‘You know what I mean?’ It doesn’t sound authoritative," says Sicola. "It doesn’t sound clear. It sounds like I’m double checking everything. I’m a little insecure of what I’m saying. I’m hoping you’re not going to correct me, and I’m really hoping you’re going to tell me I’m right."
Because the intonation is in the wrong place, Sicola explains, it distracts the listener from what’s important and causes the listener’s brain to work overtime to find the key message.
Sicola recommends leaders record themselves speaking to better understand where their speech difficulties lie. "Most people are unaware of how they actually sound," she says.
When preparing for a presentation, think about how you want the listener to feel. Do you want to arouse passion? Express anger? Display gratitude? Tap into that emotion—record yourself giving your speech, then play it back and see if it conveys the emotion you wanted it to. Chances are you’ll find yourself making some of these speech errors.