I always watch the presidential candidate debates, both sides, because as an expert in political communication, the press often calls on me to get my take on things. As my long-time readers already know, when it comes to presidential politics, I believe that he – or she – who communicates best, wins!
So when I was Tuesday night, I was struck by the sound of Hillary Clinton’s voice. It sounded good! I’m surprised because although I’ve commented on it before, it’s never been consistent. She’d seem to change it for the better, then revert to her habitual sound, which is generally harsh and unpleasant. (Click here to see Hillary speak in Feb. ’07 and here for samples of her performance on Oct. 31.)
The speaking voice is a powerful communication tool that is usually overlooked. Right now, however, it’s a hot topic among training pros and I’ve certainly noticed increased interest among my clients. Despite our (over)reliance on email, IM and txt, we’re still using our voices an awful lot. Used well, the voice can captivate and hold audiences’ attention; use it poorly, however, and the snoring begins. To prove my point, all we have to do is think about the voices we love to hear: James Earl Jones and Diane Sawyer are great and current examples. So what are some things mere mortals can learn from such mastery? There are 3 things to focus on.
#1: Tone: Beautiful tone is pleasing to the ear. It sounds smooth and rich. There is no strain or hoarseness. It is resonant in the same way a beautiful violin solo is. Expression and volume are parts of tone. And here there is a real virus going around: the corporate monotone. Formerly expressive people get to the job and in a relatively short period of time, all expressiveness is flattened out. If this happens to you, try upping your level of expression just a bit. It won’t go over the top and will help you to make your points more easily. Also, watch your volume. It’s no good if you speak so softly that people must strain to hear you and no good if you’re always shouting. Find a moderate volume level and stick to it. Finally, find your optimum pitch level (OPL). This is a level that is not too high or low in the spectrum, but just right. It never feels pushed or strained. Women often have to lower their voices slightly and men must raise them (sorry, guys, not everyone is a baritone).
#2: Breath: Breathe from the core. If you’re into yoga, you’ll know what I mean. If not, recall that the way we usually breathe is shallow and facilitated for the most part by muscles in the chest and shoulders as evidenced by shoulders and chest heaving. When you breathe from the core, however, your shoulders and chest are still. Deliberately take a core breath and exhale slowly while speaking. Note how your voice feels. It should feel less tense and have more freedom.
#3: Rhythm: Rhythm encompasses the percussive aspects of speech including diction or enunciation, accents, dialects, rate and pace. In our frenzied world, there is a notion that he or she who speaks fastest is smartest. What isn’t often said is that if he or she speaks too fast, it won’t matter how smart they are because they simply won’t be understood. Slow down a bit and crisp up your diction by being sure to put on word endings. For example, in the word “want” should be pronounced “wan-t” with a real focus on the “t.” Other consonants/blends to pay attention to are s, d, sh, ch and k. If you focus on diction, you will automatically slow down. If you have an accent (foreign) or dialect (regional within same language) – and we all have one or the other – that is fine, but only if people can understand you.
Improving your voice takes time, by the way, and practice. In the meantime, watch and listen to other voices. Get a little digital voice recorder (check out the Olympus 300 series) and read aloud focusing on the things above. Be sure to play it back. If you’re diligent about this, you will eventually see changes.
Hillary has made changes relatively fast and if she can do it, so can you.
Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT • www.ruthsherman.com