Want more influence at work? Try these simple vocal techniques
By Nicole Lowenbraun
As a speech-language pathologist, many clients come to me with questions about how they can change their voice to have more presence and influence in the workplace. I love these questions, because there are a lot of small changes you can make using vocal techniques to sound more powerful, more energetic, or more approachable.
But I get an equal number of questions regarding authenticity, such as, “How do I change my voice, and still sound like me?” and “How can I grow as a communicator without losing my unique self?”
The path to positive change often feels inauthentic at first. Think about the first few piano lessons you had as a kid. Did that feel natural? Probably not. What about those golf lessons you’ve been taking? Does that swing feel natural yet? Not quite. But if you want to get better at anything, you must practice a new habit pattern until you establish those skills in your muscle memory.
Similarly, changing the way your voice sounds takes time and repetition. Here are techniques you can try to refine your voice without losing your authentic voice.
Record yourself speaking…and then listen
Listening to your vocal recordings can be uncomfortable. And there’s science behind why.
We hear in two ways: Air conduction and bone conduction. Air conduction is when the sound waves hit our ears directly. Bone conduction is when the tiny bones in our ears vibrate inside our own heads when we speak.
Every day, we hear ourselves through bone conduction. Ordering a latte, talking to a co-worker, laughing with your kids, these are all heard through bone conduction. But when we listen to a recording, we hear our voices through air conduction. And suddenly, we barely recognize the voice coming through the speakers.
Yet, listening to a recording of yourself is an important first step because it allows you to hear your voice the way others do. And that will help you identify any adjustments you might want to make.
Master the tone equation
Some believe the tone of a conversation is set by what you say, but the tone of your message goes hand in hand with how you say it. Imagine if we sang “Happy Birthday” to the tune of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. It would be confusing, wouldn’t it? The content of the song would no longer match the melody of the song. In the same way, your vocal tone can enhance the tone of your message, or completely contradict it. In fact, research shows that nearly 40 percent of the message your audience hears has to do with the way you say it.
The bottom line is this…
If you want the tone of your message to resonate with your audience, you must strike the right vocal tone. To do that, you need to find the right combination of speed, volume, and pitch.
Let’s go over a few examples.
Warmth & Empathy
If you want to strike a tone of warmth or empathy, your speed should be slow, your volume low, and your pitch should be at the higher range of your natural register. This conveys calmness, and it will likely make your audience feel comfortable and cared about.
Authority & Confidence
If you want to strike a tone of authority or confidence, your vocal tone should remain at a slower pace. But your volume should increase, and your pitch should drop to the lower range of your natural register, eliminating any upward inflection that may cause you to sound unsure. When you speak with these characteristics, you convey controlled strength.
Excitement & High Energy
If you want to strike a tone of excitement or high energy, your vocal tone should be louder (but not too loud) and your rate of speech should be faster. You’ll also want to maintain a neutral to lower pitch. When you speak in this way, it will likely make your audience feel excited and ready to take action.
Those are just three examples, but there are infinite combinations of speed, volume, and pitch that you can play around with. So, before your next meeting or presentation, try it out.
Capture audience attention with vocal variety
If you want your audience to pay attention, you must create contrast in your voice in at least one of the following four ways:
- You can increase or decrease your volume.
- You can increase or decrease your rate of speech.
- You can increase or decrease your pitch.
- You can pause before and after a key word or phrase.
To start, identify which words and phrases need to stand out when you speak. Find a recent talk script or presentation notes. Go sentence by sentence and highlight the most important words. Then practice vocal variety using those highlighted words as your guide.
If you have kids at home, read to them. Kids love animated voices, especially ones that make characters sound unique and interesting. Practice those ups and downs with lovable children’s characters and see how your kids respond. You’ll know you’re doing it right if you get an emotional response, a gasp or a laugh, or a changed facial expression. (Pro Tip: Pets also love vocal variety and are just as fun to practice with.)
Another way to practice vocal variety is to read newspaper headlines out loud. Pick the most important word in each headline and really punch it. Increase your volume. Or your pitch. Or try a slower speed. Try pausing before and after the word to isolate it.
If vocal variety doesn’t come naturally to you, gestures can help. If you put your arms down at your side and try to incorporate vocal variety, it’s not that easy. You’ll likely sound flat and boring. But if you use a powerful or descriptive gesture on the word, your voice is more likely to have more variation.
However you go about it, the key to keeping your audience engaged is to switch up your volume, speed, and pitch.
Articulate to ensure your audience understands you
Research shows that listeners judge speakers based on their intelligibility—how understandable their words and sounds are. How clearly you speak determines whether your audience believes what you say. In other words, clear articulation makes you sound more believable to your audience.
Articulation is simply using your lips, teeth, tongue, and jaw to pronounce words clearly. And it’s especially important when you’re using words with a lot of syllables. For example: technology management, deliverables, and operations. You know, those corporate terms we use in everyday communication. Clear articulation of those words matters the most.
If you speak English as a second language (or a third or fourth language), clear articulation can help your listeners understand you. Accents are great! They make you unique and interesting, but your audience must understand you with your accent, or they might not be able to comprehend your message.
To practice articulation, grab a mirror and say a couple sentences while observing your mouth. If you’re not seeing much movement, your audience might have a hard time understanding you. Work hard to form the words and think of stretching out your words. Open your mouth a little bit wider and round your lips. Show your teeth and drop your jaw.
At first, over articulating might feel very exaggerated, but like any new skill, establishing a new habit pattern can be uncomfortable at first until you get used to it. When you articulate clearly, not only will your audience be able to understand you, but your message will also be delivered with more power and conviction.
Use projection to powerfully send your voice forward
Projection is about sending your voice forward so your listeners can not only hear you, but receive a voice that is full, round, and warm. Good projection requires three specific things.
Sit or stand upright. Open your chest a bit to expand your lungs. That will set you up for good breathing.
It might surprise you that the lower half of your body can also impact your voice. If you’re standing, make sure your knees aren’t locked. And if you’re sitting, uncross your legs and keep your feet flat on the floor. Just like a kink in a hose can prevent a steady stream of water, a kink in your body can prevent steady supplies of blood and oxygen to your lungs. Which brings me to…
Let’s try a little experiment together. If you’re not already standing, go ahead and stand up. Overextend your knees backwards by flexing your thigh muscles. Your legs should feel like rigid straight lines. Take a breath in and out. Now unlock your knees, keep them loose and relaxed, and take another breath in and out.
Were you able to take a breath that was deeper when your knees were unlocked? For me, the difference is significant. This is why they tell brides standing at the altar and choir singers standing on risers to avoid locking their knees. You can actually pass out if your knees are locked.
Wide, open mouth
Now, it’s time to add the speaking part. The process for proper speaking is to inhale and then speak while exhaling. A lot of people inhale and then they hold their breath while they’re talking.
Instead, take a sip of air through your mouth and from your diaphragm. Use your exhale to send your voice forward. Picture your voice riding your exhale in an arc from your mouth to your listeners’ ears. Now, when you speak, you want to open your mouth a little bit wider to help it travel farther. Think of a megaphone. The wider mouth at the end of that megaphone allows sound to travel farther.
Uncovering your true voice
Doing the work to change your voice can feel inauthentic. But these small changes in vocal techniques will ensure that your audience finally hears the best version of your true voice: A voice that is confident, powerful, and energetic.