Leading through Voice

voice essentials

The ability to speak, convey an idea, paint a verbal picture, connect emotionally and convince others has long been an essential aspect of leadership. Non-verbals like body language and voice have been critical to how leaders influence action in others. Social distancing has meant that we interact with our teams and stakeholders almost entirely through video calls and telephone. Many complain of a sense of fatigue and dissonance as they use these mediums. In such constrained environments, the use of voice as a tool of impact can help (a) to manage own energy levels, and (b) to convey our message in a compelling way.

Everyone likes to listen to a voice that is rich, soothing, like golden honey. Working on voice can be a lifelong process of training as most actors and singers know. For the rest of us, there are still a few small things that can help us create impact when we speak.

  1. Working with breath Voice does not really originate from the throat at all. It carries on the air from our lungs. So the deeper we breathe the more control we can have over voice and the more relaxed we will feel (because we are not straining our vocal cords). Just before getting on a call is a good time to do a breathing exercise.
    1. Firstly activate your breathing by walking around if you can. Physical movement drives more breath into the body and opens up the voice
    2. Then, sitting straight on a chair or lying down if possible (we prefer the lying down version for beginners – it is much easier to do), place your hand on your stomach and breathe into it without lifting your shoulders. When you breathe in, your hand should get pushed out or up and on breathing out, it should go back down/in again. Do this for at least 3 mins. This helps in many ways. It will take the stress out of your shoulders, neck and upper back and gets your lungs to take in more air
    3. Breathe in deep and then release the air with a prolonged ‘Ha’ sound – like ‘haaaaaaaaaaa’ until the breath goes out. This will relax the mouth as well. Do this five times
  2. Be aware and manage the quality of sound The pitch at which we speak goes a long way to determining the quality of sound. By and large women have higher pitched voices than men. A higher pitch more easily communicates excitement and emotion and a lower pitch conveys seriousness, authority. But the converse is also true. That is, when we experience emotion, our pitch tends to ride up and when we are calm and in control, we speak at a lower octave. On a work call, it may be good to speak at a lower octave and use higher notes very sparingly (to convey surprise, excitement, etc.) You can enable this by:
    1. Understanding that pitch is affected by many factors such as external noise, the need to multi-task (driving while on the phone for example, or simultaneously sending an email while on call),health conditions, and whatever you have been doing just prior to getting on the call. So take a moment to check in and center yourself before the call
    2. Drink some warm water (preferably with a drop of honey) before the call. Singers do this all the time. It relaxes the throat and mouth and makes it much easier to speak and immediately makes a lower speaking voice accessible
  3. Pace The speed at which we speak varies a lot across cultures. In India, we speak fairly fast and rely a lot on gestures and other non-verbals to get the message across. In a phone call or even a video call where people are not able to see our gestures as much, we need to slow things down. Speaking slower also means greater clarity in speech is possible, helping you be understood without too much strain. One hack to help you speak slower is to write down your points in advance and practice saying them out loud. Do this a few times until you get the knack of slowing your speech down.

Since a remote mode of working is likely going to be used a lot more even post the Corona crisis, mastering voice techniques will be an asset. Where body language is not available as a communication tool, people pay a lot more attention to tone of voice. These practices will primarily help you feel less fatigue, but will also support you to be heard better, be taken more seriously, and to communicate trustworthiness during a time when everything outside is in a spin.

We recommend this video by Julian Treasure for additional tips that might help you use your voice well.