What’s the first thing you notice about someone? Perhaps his or her physical presence, clothes, or even hair. But that first impression may change once the person opens their mouth. The sound of your voice is more than vibrations in the air. It’s part of your overall vocal behavior.
I define vocal behavior as how you are received and perceived—so the actual sound of your voice is only one component. Vocal presence is an area neglected by many business professionals. I often notice a lax attitude toward vocal behavior as I overhear conversations on the streets of downtown Minneapolis, participate in networking events around the Twin Cities, and sit in the offices of prospective clients. In those situations, my gut feeling is to do a vocal intervention. I’m guessing those folks would not take kindly to the unsolicited advice, but I can share some tips with you.
Vocal Behavior Basics
Here are a few questions for a self- assessment of your vocal behavior: First, what does your voice say about you? Does it help you solidify relationships and enhance your profile? Or is it hurting your ability to close deals and build your brand? In other words, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 the best, are you closing in on double digits or are you heading toward number one (which in this case doesn’t signify “winner”)? To help figure this out, ask yourself if your voice could be mistaken for a child’s voice or someone far younger than your actual age. Or are you often asked to speak up? That could mean your lung capacity may be weak.
Your vocal behavior covers three important areas of delivery: How you sound, how you deliver your sound, and how people receive and perceive you through what they hear. (The third area I often call “subtextual messages.”) If one or more of these areas is off, you will have credibility issues. And if you’re the person who gathered a group of valued business colleagues at the Saint Paul Hotel for lunch to ask for referrals or to open a new portfolio of business, you can’t leave that crowd chuckling over your delivery. If your profession requires you to showcase your credibility or influence others, you want to sound like the professional you are.
Many people believe they are stuck with their voice. That’s not true. Each of us actually has two octaves in our speaking range (opera singers have more like four). That gives us 16 notes we can use when speaking. The note on which most people land is what’s organically developed over the years as we settle into ourselves. Some people are fortunate to have a note that sounds strong and resonant—think of James Earl Jones. Others may not only have a weaker note, they also may have a nasal projection, which adds to the low-credibility effect.
You can improve your vocal quality if you’re willing to do a little work. First, analyze your vocal strengths and challenges. Then get some guidance on what to do with that analysis. If you sound really nasal—especially prevalent in the Upper Midwest—there are specific vocal exercises you can do to minimize or eradicate the twang. This won’t happen overnight, but it’s possible to make changes.
If you often clear your throat when presenting, perhaps you are dehydrated. Staying well-hydrated a day or two before any high-stakes communication moment, as well as on game day itself, can help. When you know the stakes are high or that you could be nervous, avoiding foods and beverages that clog the larynx, such as dairy and sugar, can only help.
Prime the Pump
Along with vocal health, vocal exercises can also help grow your vocal power. The most basic of vocal exercises is the yawn. Yes, you do it every day—often when you don’t mean to. Think of the yawn as your friend and your warm-up for all vocal exercise. The yawn serves a couple basic purposes. It relaxes and warms up the larynx—your voice box. The yawn also cools the brain. Your body naturally goes into a fight-or-flight response when it knows you have a communication moment. Help yourself by yawning on the way to a meeting or take a few moments in the restroom to do some simple vocal exercises (see “The Vocal Exercise Kit”).
Your situation may require a vocal behavior coach. If so, look for someone who deals with the spoken and not the singing voice. Looking online with those search terms as well as “presentation coaching” should help you find some options.
In your daily work life, you can grow your vocal skills in a few easy ways.
It doesn’t really matter what you know if you don’t know how to communicate it. Many people never analyze how they sound or the messages they deliver beyond the words they speak. If you do, you will grow your brand and be well on your way to vocal behavior that’s always a wow!
Roshini Rajkumar (on Twitter at @RoshiniR and Facebook at facebook.com/RoshiniRajkumar).is a communication coach, host of News & Views on WCCO Radio, and author of Communicate That!