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The Sound of Your Voice Speaks Volumes
By Sue Shellenbarger
Recent research has shown that powerful men, including chief executives and politicians, tend to have voices that are deeper than average. (See: What Does a Successful CEO Sound Like? Try a Deep Bass.)
Powerful women, however, apparently assert themselves in different ways. A small study of 10 female business leaders shows their voices are closer in pitch to the average for all women, based on a comparison with a 423-woman database by Quantified Communications, a provider of communications analytics. The study included PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi ,Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer.
Women leaders stand out on another measure – the amount of “vocal energy,” or variations in loudness, they use to drive home their points, the study shows. An energetic voice comes across to listeners as authentic, inspiring trust, says Carrie Goldberger, a research analyst with Quantified Communications. And vocal energy is easily controlled by the speaker, providing ambitious people a ready tool for advancement.
The voices of 10 top male business leaders also rank above-average in vocal energy, the study shows. And the past three U.S. presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – speak with more energy than the six Oval Office residents before them, back to Lyndon Johnson, the study says. President Obama’s voice is higher in pitch than most preceding presidents, and he also speaks with more vocal energy, Ms. Goldberger says.
Researchers define vocal energy as variations in loudness, amplitude or intensity of a speaker’s voice. A speaker who shifts often from loud to soft tones tends to capture listeners’ interest and to come across as more passionate than one who speaks in a monotone.
“As gender equality slowly evolves in the workplace, the characteristics associated with leadership may begin to shift,” with increasing emphasis on vocal energy, the study says.
In the past, women leader’s voices typically attracted attention only when they were seen as a problem. The late Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, worked with a voice coach to reduce what her biographer called “her annoying shrieking.” Learning to modulate her naturally shrill, harsh voice was essential to winning acceptance, historians say.
More women today are seeking voice coaching to advance their careers, as discussed in today’s “Work & Family” column. Women who lack confidence or feel stressed and anxious often speak in a high or weak voice that undermines them at work, says Brenda S. Smith, a speech and presentation coach with Voice Power Training Services. Learning to breathe differently and relax the neck and shoulders can make one’s voice stronger and more resonant, she says.
One client’s voice became timid and high when her boss interrupted her work and ordered her to do some trivial task for him immediately, Ms. Smith says. After the woman strengthened her voice with coaching and began telling her boss in strong, assertive tones that she would be available after finishing whatever she was working on, he backed off. “He was just a bully,” Ms. Smith says.