By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., for CommPro
In 2002, a Stanford University professor made audiotapes of physicians and their patients in session. Half of the doctors had been previously brought to court for malpractice. She then played the tapes for her students, who were able to determine which physicians had been sued.
But here’s the catch: The recordings were “content-filtered.” All the students could hear was a low-frequency garble. But based on the intonation alone, they could distinguish one group from the other. The doctors who had been sued had a dominant, hostile, less empathetic style, whereas the other group sounded warmer and more empathetic.
I use this example when I coach business professionals to remind them that whenever they are speaking to an audience (whether customers or colleagues), people won’t only be evaluating their words, they will be “reading” their voices. Listeners will be searching for clues to possible hidden agendas, concealed meanings, disguised emotions, undue stress – anything, in short, that will help them determine if they can rely on what they’re being told.
I’m speaking, of course, of paralanguage: how you say what you say. Like other aspects of nonverbal communication, audiences make instant (and lasting) assumptions about a speaker’s leadership qualities based on the sound of their voice.
Joining me in this discussion is Francisca Branca, a classical singer and voice coach with a degree in Political Science & International Affairs. She is the founder of Vocal Dynamics in the Netherlands.
Carol Kinsey Goman: You are now helping executives improve their business communication, but you started out as an opera singer. How do the two relate?
Francisca Branca: Professional opera singers excel at employing their voices to elicit a desired response. They primarily focus on accomplishing two tasks: to move the audience through their voice and acting; and to sound amazing with the least possible effort. The first task is related to effectiveness and the second to efficiency. Successful business speakers need to do the very same thing.
Goman: To speak effortlessly and efficiently can take training in a variety of aspects including intonation, stress patterns, volume, pausing, and rhythm.
Branca: It also includes tapping into emotions, as that not only impacts the clarity of the content (as it supports vocal efficiency), but also positively contributes to paralanguage, which studies have shown is more effective in persuading others than persuasive language, as it makes the speaker appear more confident and credible.
Goman: I see that in the leaders I coach. To persuade a business audience, executives need to emotionally engage that audience. That’s why telling stories, talking about topics they are genuinely passionate about and focusing on the needs of an audience increases the innate charisma of the speaker
Branca: Physiological changes to the voice are natural indicators of our emotional state. Because they are so immediately and easily apparent, they can (and should) be managed to be advantageous rather than inhibiting, because not all emotions are positive.
Anxiety is the unwelcome yet all too familiar guest in our emotional habitat, often arriving unannounced and leaving chaos in its wake. As a result of increased muscle tension and lack of breath flow, the pitch rises, the voice loses melodic range, and vocal quality (energy distribution) decreases. These changes are almost instantly perceived by an audience.
Goman: When executives address an audience, they may be unaware of how much emotion is expressed through the sound of their voice, but I’ve heard leaders offer words of praise in such a flat tone of voice that none of the recipients felt genuinely appreciated.
In some situations, this vocal-emotional link becomes even more important. A recent study by Michael Kraus of the Yale University School of Management found that our sense of hearing may be even stronger than our sight when it comes to accurately detecting emotion. Kraus found that we are more accurate when we hear someone’s voice than when we look only at their facial expressions or see their face and hear their voice. In other words, when your communication is limited to an auditory channel — as it is on a phone call, a teleconference, or a podcast, people will be able to sense your emotional state even better.
My Tip: Try smiling when speaking on the phone. Even though the listener can’t see you, a smile makes your voice sound warmer and more engaging. When your voice sounds inviting, it will draw people in. For more, click here.