EXECUTIVE PRESENCE: How Powerful Is Your Voice?

Executive presence: How powerful is your voice?There has been a lot of ink (and pixels) devoted to “what to wear,” but not so much about “how to sound.” No matter how impressive a woman exec may appear, a weak or tentative speech style will betray her journey to the C-suite.

In preparation for taping my first audiobook (Do-Over! How Women Are Reinventing Their Lives), I undertook voice coaching with Pamela Christian PhD, a former colleague of mine from the University of Texas at Austin. I was stunned by how much I didn’t know about my own voice and how simple it was to enhance my speech style.

Besides teaching at UT, Pam is a voice coach/consultant and director of Clarity of Speech International, her consulting firm. Pam is also a fellow feminist, sensitive to the issues that face women in the workplace, so I asked her to share some of her insights into the gender of voice.

Why do women and men sound different when they speak?

First, there’s the effect of anatomy on pitch and vibration. Because a man’s larynx (the “voice box” situated in the middle of the neck) is larger than that of a woman’s, his vocal cords are longer. With a larger larynx and longer vocal cords, a man has a deeper, more resonant speaking voice. With shorter and more taut vocal cords, women have a higher pitch and less resonance.

Second, there’s the impact of cultural conditioning. As girls and then women, we learn gender behaviors and concepts of femininity that include speech style. These qualities, once identified and understood, can be reconstructed just as effectively as they were constructed: softness or breathiness (low volume and support), high variability (a sing-song quality), and general politeness/compliance both in tone and content.

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How does voice contribute to how seriously we take a woman?

This question most often relates to how women compare to men in law, business, politics, etc. where vocal performance is part of the job and speech style is key. Men tend to be taken more seriously from the get-go.

Why? If we look at primates, the deeper the voice, the larger the animal; and the larger the animal, the more power and pull. Most high-level professionals are required to demonstrate authority and the ability to push against obstacles to get the job done. Because the typical, untrained woman’s voice has more variability, and the tone is often higher and thinner, there could easily be the perception that she “carries less weight.”

Consider, for example, the boardroom meeting where voices and ideas are debated and accepted or rejected. The louder, more forceful voices will be heard above the rest, whether the arguments are the best ones or not. It’s a matter of the survival of the fittest. Our culture still enforces a social contract that privileges force over function, and this translates into the voice.

That said, power in the workplace is being re-defined, simply because there are more high-achieving women in the C-suite. Speech styles and expectations are changing. We have many more examples of what power can look and sound like for women.

What are the main principles behind how powerfully (or not) women use their voices?

Here are three ways that women can connect with their most powerful voice:

First, embrace your own voice. This is where it all starts. This is where the power lies. Your voice may not be perfect, but it’s the voice you have and it can be developed. A powerful voice is your fully realized voice, not to be confused with an imitation of “loud and strong.”

Second, cultivate awareness. Observe how women today present themselves in politics, film, radio, in person, etc. There is such a range of possibilities, not just one static idea of how the voice can be used effectively. Become more aware of your own voice and assess what power means to you. Here’s an exercise: Record your voice reading and in conversation. Listen back for what you like and what you want to improve. Set a few personal goals and keep it simple. Get feedback from a friend. Make note of your improvements. Integration over time (a little bit each day) will win the day.

Third, keep practicing. Every day presents us with opportunities to speak with personal distinction. Giving a group report can be a voice practice session. Pitching an idea can be a performance event. If you lead with the intention to improve your vocal presence, and you utilize everyday opportunities for voice practice, you will continually reinforce your most powerful vocal identity.

What are your top three tips for speaking with more presence & power?

1. Use your breath efficiently to support the sound of your voice

2. Enunciate your words with conviction

3. Project your voice “forward and out”


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