Speech patterns, including your accent, tone, speed, and pitch, paint a very vivid picture of you to the people you encounter. According to Leonard Mlodinow, author of "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior", "If two speakers utter exactly the same words, but one speaks a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume, that speaker will be judged to be more energetic, knowledgeable, and intelligent. And "Expressive speech, with modulation in pitch and volume, and a minimum of noticeable pauses, boosts credibility and enhances the impression of intelligence." When working from home has reduced our non-verbal communication channels and increased people's focus on what they can see and hear, we should all be paying more attention to our voices.
Your voice is a critical medium in delivering your message. In a study from the University of Chicago, MBA students were videotaped giving pitches on why they should be hired. Then, potential employers and professional recruiters were given three options: view the video, listen to the audio, or read a transcript.
The result? "These evaluators rated a candidate as more competent, thoughtful, and intelligent when they heard a pitch rather than read it and, as a result, had a more favorable impression of the candidate and were more interested in hiring the candidate. Adding voice to written pitches, by having trained actors or untrained adults read them, produced the same results. Adding visual cues to audio pitches did not alter evaluations of the candidates. For conveying one's intellect, it is important that one's voice, quite literally, be heard." Your voice, with its many layers of communications mechanisms, honed over millennia, is an exceptional tool for conveying your message.
Pitch is the concept most discussed in terms of business outcomes, that is, how high or low the sound is. A high sound has a high pitch and a low sound has a low pitch. A tight drum skin gives a higher pitched sound than a loose drum skin. Duke University and the University of California study looked at the speeches of the male CEOs of almost 800 public companies. CEOs with deeper voices managed larger companies and had higher income. A decrease of 25% in voice pitch (22.1 Hz) is associated with an increase of $187.000 in annual salary. Additionally, CEOs with deeper voices also enjoy longer tenures. This is thought to be evolutionary. Many of our closest animal relatives, from rhesus macaques to chimpanzees, lower their vocal pitch during altercations.
Does the same hold true for women? Somewhat. Traditionally "female" ways of speaking -a sing-song tone of voice, speaks in a breathy way, or sentences end in a questioning tone (often referred to as "upspeak") can be seen as less intelligent and authoritative. And studies have shown that lowering pitch is as effective for men as for women. In an experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, participants performed a decision-making task that involved ranking the items that an astronaut would need to survive a disaster on the moon. Afterward, the researchers privately asked each member to rank each member's dominance, creating a pecking order for the group. Most participants quickly shifted the pitch of their voice within the first few minutes of the conversation, and those changes predicted their later ranking within the hierarchy. For men AND women, participants who lowered their pitch were perceived to be more dominant, and those who raised their pitch, more submissive.
That being said, there's also a lower limit for women, called vocal fry, that is penalizing. A study at the University of Miami found that having a deep voice characterized as Fry Voice, most easily recognized in imitations of Valley girls, could be a barrier for women because employers view them as being less educated and competent. Vocal fry the sound of insufficient airflow, another reason to slow down and keep breathing. In short, everyone needs to find the pitch that works for them, but generally, lower is better.
Pace of speech is also important. While faster speakers are perceived to be more confident, according to a study conducted at Brigham Young University, you don't want to be so fast as to be unintelligible. The ideal speaking rate is about 150 words per minute.
So what can you do?
In this world of remote work and Zoom presenting, taking steps to improve your voice can go a long way. A great first step to learn about your speech is to record yourself and take a long listen, maybe with the help of a kind yet critical friend. You have to work very hard to recognize and then rectify speech patterns, so this might only be worth it for something that really sticks out and grates. But it's worth at least taking a realistic stock of what you're working with.
Record yourself speaking freestyle, particularly for pitch and hearing fillers such as Um and Ah
Hire a coach
Join a club, like Toastmasters
Test out AI-driven tools, like Speeko, an app that trains you
Practice reading passages aloud and timing yourself, aiming to hit that 150 words a minute goal
Use tongue twisters. Strengthening your speaking muscles will help you have more control when you're in a stressful situation.
Insert words in a passage when reading aloud to practice slowing down and thinking about your diction. You can add an 'and' after every word when reading a passage aloud. This will force you to read without thinking about what it means. The phrase "she sells seashells by the seashore" becomes "she and sells and seashells and by and the and seashore."
But one closing thought on speech modification comes from a story about Margaret Thatcher. As England's first female prime minister, she worked hard to lower the tone of her voice, an astonishing 60mhz. But to some degree, it didn't work. It appeared false to her counterparts and diminished her credibility. And therein lies the secret, while you can make improvements, you don't want to lose yourself in the process. People can smell falseness a mile away.