Thursday, January 14, 2010

What's your vocal image? part 1

(Editor's note: I asked vocal trainer Kate Peters to share a guest post on one of her specialties, helping speakers develop a great vocal image--and she's generously provided enough material for a three-part series. The author of Can You Hear Me Now? Harnessing the Power of Your Vocal Impact in 31 Days, she blogs about vocal impact on her blog, Kate's Voice. There's a lot of specialized information here for you. Stay tuned for parts two and three...)

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.

Miep Gies: A quiet voice that spoke out

Miep Gies, the woman who was the last surviving protector of Anne Frank and her family, died this week at age 100. She's the person who discovered Frank's diary after the Nazis raided their hiding place and took them to concentration camps. The New York Times obituary notes that she preferred a quiet life and avoided public speaking until her own story became known:
Mrs. Gies sought no accolades for joining with her husband and three others in hiding Anne Frank, her father, mother and older sister and four other Dutch Jews for 25 months in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. But she came to be viewed as a courageous figure when her role in sheltering Anne Frank was revealed with the publication of her memoir. She then traveled the world while in her 80s, speaking against intolerance....she began to travel widely as a living link to Anne Frank and spoke on the lessons of the Holocaust, often talking to schoolchildren who were reading Anne’s diary.
That's astonishing, in its own way: She started a public speaking career in her 80s, even though her preference seems to have been to remain quiet. I think that adds to her eloquence, and find myself struck by the power when a quiet person chooses to speak out. Perhaps that's because, as seems to have been the case for Gies, they're doing so not to advance themselves but because they feel passionately about their subject. In fact, the obituary notes that Gies and her husband would stay quietly at home on the anniversary of the raid, preferring to remember their friends rather than participate in public ceremonies. MSNBC has a previous interview with Miep Gies here . (Photos of Gies in 1999, right, and with her husband Jan Gies, on their wedding day in 1941, left, courtesy of the Anne Frank House.)