Your Voice: Friend or Foe to Your Success?

“How wonderful is the human voice! It is indeed the organ of the soul. The intellect of man sits enthroned visibly, on his forehead and in his eye, and the heart of man is written on his countenance, but the soul reveals itself in the voice alone.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

He calls it his $450,000 mistake.

He was a professional filmmaker, one of three finalists hoping to be awarded the National Park Service’s film production contract of $450,000. His written proposal ranked number one. His reputation was solid, and he had a friend on the selection committee. He should have been a shoo-in – but his oral presentation cost him the contract.

What went wrong?

The committee’s decision had nothing to do with the content of his presentation. But, his friend reported, they felt that he was nervous and lacked confidence.

How did his lack of confidence show? It might have been distracting gestures, an inability to make eye contact, or (my bet) his voice.

If you have ever listened to a well-constructed speech delivered in a monotone, you understand the concept. “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Asked to make a presentation, we spend a great deal of time on what we are going to say. Meanwhile, how we say it is every bit as important.

Just think of what happens when you phone someone you know well. The way that person says “Hello” tells you how they’re feeling, doesn’t it? You immediately know if they’re happy, sad, angry, or jubilant.

Like it or not, your voice is your public relations agent. Listeners decide on your state of mind, your health, your social and educational background, and your attitude – mostly from the way you sound. And in business, your vocal image converts into dollars (or lack of them).

Are you aware of what your voice says about you? If you are not sure, here’s one way to find out: Put a tape recorder or recordable CD by your phone. Then record your portion of a conversation. Try to record at least 10 or 15 minutes of it. Wait a day before you play it back. Then ask yourself the following question: “Is this someone I would enjoy listening to?”

If your answer is “no,” see if you can identify the problem by answering these questions:

1.  Is my pace comfortable … or do I speak too slowly  or too fast?

2.  Is my tone warm and friendly … or cool and distant?

3.  Is my voice clear and confident … or nasal and whiny?

4.  Can I identify the emotion, if any, in my voice?

5.  Do I vary my pace and inflection … or is everything  said in the same way?

If you don’t like the actual sound of your voice, what can you do?

The first thing I recommend is to check your posture. When we stand tall, in proper alignment, it allows the voice to flow more naturally.

Second, learn to breathe through the diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing has many benefits: You get more oxygen to the brain. (Clearer thinking!) You remove more toxins from your body. You are better able to support and project your voice without raising your pitch. And you become more centered, relaxed, and calm.

To check your breathing, stand in front of a mirror large enough for you to see your upper body. Take a deep breath. Do your shoulders move up and down when you inhale deeply and exhale? If they do, you are chest-breathing, using only about one-third of your lung capacity. If you are serious about improving the sound of your voice, it’s important to learn to breathe diaphragmatically. (Some people call it “belly breathing.)

The easiest way to learn to breathe through the diaphragm is to start by lying down. In a supine position, we all naturally breathe through the diaphragm. Notice that when you breathe in now, your mid-section expands. And when you breathe out, it flattens. (Most people breathe in the reverse – which causes tension and a tight throat.) Keep breathing in this position until you are able to duplicate it while standing.

The time you spend developing a pleasant, flexible voice will be well worth the effort. It will help you sound as capable and intelligent as you truly are.

[Ed. Note: Virginia Avery is a communications specialist who trains and coaches businesspeople to make more profitable presentations.]