For the first 30 seconds that you speak, people are more interested in figuring out who you are than what you have to say. Many of the cues they follow are in the sound of your voice—not just the pitch or tone, but the complete impression your voice makes. Here are some attributes that may be expressed simply through your voice:
- Your education
- Your emotional state
- Your geographic origin
- Your gender
- Your age
The mental picture people develop of you based on the way you sound is called a “vocal image.” Your vocal image is the result of imitation and preferences combined with your unique physiological make-up. If you want to catch someone’s attention in those first 30 seconds and keep it, you need to know what your vocal image is and you need to make sure it’s aligned with your intention and message.
What makes up vocal image?
Your vocal image sends a message louder than words. Although our relationship with sound is largely unconscious, it affects everything from our responses to a speaker to our heart rate and breathing. Julian Treasure, in his blog Sound Business, writes in depth about the power of sound. “The human voice,” he says, “is the most powerful sound on the planet.” He also notes that “according to Richard Norton at the University of Chicago the average human ear can distinguish 1,378 'just noticeable differences' in tone. By comparison we can distinguish just 150 hues of colour. On this measure hearing is almost 100 times as sensitive.”
With so many discernable variations of sound, one can only begin to grasp the complexity of this fascinating science. For practical purposes, then, we’ll distill our examination down to three aspects of sound: cadence, volume and clarity.
Each of these aspects sends messages, intended or unintended. For example, a cadence of often-repeated vocal patterns may indicate you’re nervous. On the other hand, an angry mood may transform a voice from calm and soothing to loud and irritating. Let’s examine these aspects more thoroughly.
Cadence is the general inflection at the end of spoken sentences. This inflection can lead people to make conclusions about one’s gender, geographic origin, as well as one’s openness and flexibility.
According to Deborah Tannen, we hear a downward cadence as “closed” or “final,” with the extreme being “controlling.” Conversely, we hear an upward cadence as “open” and “flexible,” with the extreme being “indecisive.” Perhaps that’s why New Yorkers are stereotyped as abrupt and Californians as flaky!
Volume of voice, loud or soft, reflects moods such as confidence, fear, shyness and assertiveness. Speaking too softly can project a weak image; speaking too loudly may sound forceful or even angry. We often use volume to emphasize words or ideas and to provide contrast. For example, if you want people to listen to an important point, try dropping your volume rather than speaking more loudly. This unexpected contrast creates a dramatic effect, particularly if the point you are making or the piece of the story is something they don’t want to miss!
Clarity of sound is created by effectively using articulation mechanisms—tongue and lips. The perception of one’s articulation may suggest education level, economic status, geographic location, formality and informality. People who are more formal typically articulate more clearly. Culturally speaking, many believe there is a direct correlation between clear articulation and intelligence. This, of course, becomes problematic when we consider that people from different parts of the world have different styles of articulation.
In this post on Andrew Dlugan'sSix Minutes blog, Kathy Reiffenstein recounts speaking in Nigeria and Kenya. She found that even though the official language of those countries is English, it is different from everyday American English. If she used contractions, her audiences had more difficulty understanding her. The good news is that you can change your vocal image for the better. The question is how. Part 2 of this series will offer a three-step process to help you begin.