I write this article from the heart with one intention; to help women in business present and communicate with power and embody who they truly are.
It is sweet music to my ears when a female client says after coaching, “Wow, I can celebrate who I am and I can learn how to be more of me, so that I can be a better me.”
I feel very proud and honoured when a female client starts out dreading presenting and ends up being told by their colleagues that their presentation was the best one of the conference.
Voice is Power
In this article I am going to focus purely on voice. I will follow up with body language and other areas in later posts.
I coach women in leadership positions from all parts of the world and the common hurdles they report to me are voice projection and pitch. Based on the conversations I have had and continue to have, many women around the globe say they have been conditioned from an early age to speak quieter (or softer) than men, or they have simply slipped into that way of being without even realising it. Or there is often a feeling of “l am less than others” and that will certainly shackle the possibilities.
Many women also report that, despite being a mother of three children and holding a management or leadership role, when they answer those invasive marketing phone calls in the early evening at home, the caller asks if their mum or dad are home; because they have a high-pitched voice.
Projection is different than volume. Increasing volume would be to speak normally into a microphone in a lecture theatre for example and raise the volume on the mixer desk. This does not give you voice projection, it simply raises the volume and evenly distributes your voice around the room.
Voice projection starts with diaphragmatic breathing (rather than chest breathing) so that you maximise your lung capacity, which provides a more powerful exhalation (watch the animation below). The energy from your exhalation then vibrates your vocal cords (also known as vocal folds; see 2nd image below) with greater efficiency (compared to chest breathing) and enables you to speak with more power from your core. This is not about shouting; this is purely about harnessing your natural energy to maximise your voice projection.
Great voice projection means that it doesn’t matter whether you are standing close to people, sitting across a large desk, or standing at the front of a lecture theatre with all the participants standing behind the very back row of seats, they will hear you at more or less the same level, regardless of the distance (within reason of course). It's an extraordinary experience when you achieve that level of uniformity for the first time.
So get in a room and practice projecting your voice with some colleagues or friends. Imagine that when your voice leaves your mouth it is soaring upwards like a squash ball leaving the racket and landing with accuracy and precision at the far end of the court.
Allow your voice to soar with power, purpose and direction to land at the ears of your audience. Feel and hear the natural energy you can create with your breath and your vocal cords. Get your colleagues to raise their hands if they need you to increase your voice projection and do what they are asking.
When quieter speakers experience their true voice for the first time in this way, they will most likely say to their colleagues, that’s crazy, it sounds like I am shouting now; but their colleagues will reply, no you’re not, now you’re perfect and we can hear you really clearly. It sounds to the person speaking like they are shouting because as a habitual quiet speaker they won’t be used to the sound of their voice at that level of projection coming back into their ears. The change is amazing and highly impactful.
Then you need to maintain it by practicing by yourself every day. Record your voice on your smartphone or other device. Listen back and hear the before or after effect.
You may have been told that your voice is high pitched or you may know that it is. Or you may be interested in experiencing the impact that speaking with a lower pitched voice has on you and on others.
When a woman speaks with a combination of low (quiet) voice projection and a higher pitch it can really lessen their level of impact and influence. Many women report to me that when they put forward an idea at a meeting it seems to pass unnoticed, but when someone else around the table in the same meeting proposes the very same idea moments later it gets picked up and endorsed.
The key here is to experiment with your vocal range. Many women speak from a place of habit and are not aware of the range they have. Find your sweet spot and play around as if your voice is a musical instrument, which it is in essence, one that works on energy and vibration through your breath and your vocal cords. Take a chorus or a line or two from one of your favourite songs. Again, use your smartphone to record yourself. Sing the words out at a pitch you are comfortable with. Then if you are aiming to lower your pitch simply sing the words out again at a slightly lower key and see how it feels and sounds. Then try a little lower and so on. When you get lower than your natural field your voice will start to crack, so that’s the sign to go back up one notch. From the key that you are comfortable and happy with immediately switch from singing the words to speaking the words. Play back the recording and hear the before and after effect.
From this “new” lower key for you, start making it your goal to speak with conscious awareness around this pitch/range so you speak with purpose rather than out of habit on autopilot. The same goes for your voice projection.
I would like to share the following short video that amazingly demonstrates the voice and presence transition of the late, former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The video starts in her early years and ends in her latter years. Politics aside, this was some transition.
Of course you can get voice coaching and that’s what I help women in leadership roles with, but in the meantime the above steps will give you a great self-help boost.
The key here is to find your own personal transition. How do you want to be perceived. Set your sights on the changes you want to make and go for it. It’s not about you becoming a woman you are not; it’s about you becoming the woman that you are truly capable of being.
Over to you. It’s like going to the gym or working on any of your goals… it takes discipline and effort and where your voice is concerned the results will certainly speak for themselves.
Please let us know how you get on and of course do add your comments and thoughts here.
Main photo: Shutterstock: Zoom Team
Breathing animation: youbeauty.com
Image of Vocal Cords: Shutterstock: Alila Medical Media
Photo Squash: Shutterstock: Kzenon
Photo Singer: Shutterstock: Studio10Artur
Steve Knight is Adjunct Professor of Business Communication at INSEAD, a Certified Executive and Leadership Coach and Co-Founder of Voice is Power.
>> This article is part of the LinkedIn Influencers series; I welcome your questions, thoughts, observations, and experiences here below on INSEAD Blogs and also on Linkedin:
This is a topic which is near to my heart… Cheers! This page really has all of the information I needed about this subject.
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22/02/2016, 05.29 pm
As a voice technique coach I am clarifying these vital points:
Breath and Voice
The lungs have no ability to take in air or expel it on their own. Rather, they respond to changes in air pressure in the chest cavity by taking in or releasing air. This response mechanism relates to the oxygen-carbon-dioxide exchange which is essential to life.
The breathing action is prompted by the autonomic nervous system which regulates the essential, automatic functions in the body like the beating of your heart and the automatic processes of other internal organs which keep you alive and well.
The autonomic nervous system operates in the background of your consciousness. It serves as the ‘engine’ of your body by taking charge of those processes essential to life.
Thus breathing, like your heartbeat, occurs automatically.
The intake and exhalation of breath from the lungs is driven by the muscle known as the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles of the rib cage.
In this process, the diaphragm contracts and flattens. This creates space at the base of the chest cavity at the front of your body. The lungs automatically respond by taking in air at their bases to occupy this space.
Simultaneously or soon thereafter, the intercostal muscles, which govern movements of the ribcage, shift marginally upward and mostly outward. This prompts the sideways expansion of the lungs into the lower chest cavity on both sides of your body.
One key to managing your voice’s power is to consciously harness the combined muscular capacity of the diaphragm and the ribcage, by developing the strength in those muscles. This is achieved via a range of structured breathing exercises which are likely to be customised for you by your voice technique coach.
By knowing how to use those muscles to easily and without tension to take in a well-placed breath and then slowly and steadily release the out-breath, which carries the voice beyond the body, you will develop the ability to fill a room with the sound of your voice.
It is important that you develop breath-for-voice techniques so that you do not damage your vocal mechanism by ‘pushing’ or ‘forcing’ your voice into a room.
Voice Pitch in Women
The term ‘pitch’ refers to where the voice is found on the vocal register and to what capacity that voice travels smoothly and easily across your vocal register. Your pitch relates to the notes, much like musical notes, which each voice accesses, easily and naturally, when speaking.
Your pitch range is largely determined by the physiology of your body. In other words, the size of your frame, the structure of your throat and the internal dimensions of your nose, mouth and throat.
The rule of thumb is: the smaller the structure, the shorter the vocal folds, the higher the pitch range. To confirm this picture, think of little children and their voices… consider how they grow and how their voices change in depth as they mature. The most dramatic change is heard in men’s voices but it occurs in women’s voices as well.
I am generalising when I write that the pitch of a speaking voice can have a range of up to 1.5 octaves. That means that between the highest and the lowest note in your pitch, you have 12 notes available to you. Of course, at both extremes you are likely to find it a strain to use those notes. I strongly recommend that you avoid them as you will strain your voice. As the article above suggests, find where your voice is comfortable and strong. This is likely to be 3-4 notes above your deepest note, which I call note 1. As a rough guide, many of the women that I work with are comfortable with ‘middle C’ as a starting point for their voice development. Remember, NEVER push your voice lower or higher than is comfortable; you will do damage to your voice and how you sound.
Once again, an easy range of notes across your pitch can be confirmed, strengthened and enhanced by graded, progressive voice exercises. These are combined with tension release, relaxation and breathing exercises to give your vocal mechanism the best possible function when you speak.
Relaxation, breath management and voice release exercises support best practice in voice in the same way that swimming, walking and gym exercises build regular fitness.
The Context of Women’s Voices
Be aware that women’s voices are particularly influenced by a society’s cultural norms and expectations.
In many instances, women’s voices have been predicated on those norms and expectations, which have not been to the advantage of women living and working within those societies.
Today, and despite the changes that we have witnessed over the last 50 to 100 years, women continue to work through prejudices that relate to the qualities and intensities of the female voice. I’m sure you’ve heard ‘shrill’, ‘high’, ‘thin’, ‘tinny’, ‘child-like’ and similar to describe women’s voices.
A rich, full voice continues to be appreciated in men and women.
This type of voice is attainable with steady practice and the support of breathing-for-voice followed by voice richness exercises.
The strategic purpose of voice work relies on voice placement and voice resonance work that develops each voice’s unique quality.
I repeat that forcing the voice is not an option. Steady, regular, systematic voice development strategies that suit your physiology, your context and your professional choices are central to your vocal success.
Sandra Baigel, 2016
Voice Technique Coach, Melbourne Australia