My Turn: Sounding Off

If you don’t like your voice, here’s the reason. 

By Caren S. Neile, Ph.D., ATMS/CL

Some years ago, I called a colleague for a quick chat. In the middle of my second sentence, I realized I hadn’t identified myself, so I told him who was speaking. He replied that he had known who I was as soon as I said hello, because I have a very distinctive voice.

I was intrigued. “Oh, really?” I said. “How would you characterize it?” His immediate reply: “You sound just like the little sister on The Simpsons!"

Now that may sound cute to some, but I was a newspaper editor in my thirties at the time. And I was still reeling from having been told several years earlier that I sounded just like the actress Mary Steenburgen, who has, in my opinion, the voice of a cartoon character.

Most of us have no idea how we sound to others, and when we find out, we are often discouraged. That’s because our voices tend to sound higher-pitched and reedier, or thinner, to other people than they do to us. And for good reason. When we hear ourselves talk, the sound has traveled not only through the air, but also through our bones into the inner ear, which gives it a deeper pitch. But since the sound doesn’t reverberate through the bones of our listeners, our voice sounds lighter to everyone else.

This phenomenon becomes even more disconcerting when listening to a recording of our voices. Unless the equipment is of extremely high quality, we’re not only missing the impact of the bones on our voices, we’re also hearing the tinniness caused by a poor microphone and/or speakers.

Why should we care how we sound? Despite our highly visual culture, we tend to judge people to some extent by their voices. (In non-visually oriented cultures, people are judged far more by how they sound or smell than by how they look.) Did you ever notice that dogs tend to respond better to men than to women? Like dogs, people associate lower, stronger voices with authority. We tend to sit up and take notice, to take the speaker more seriously. Higher-pitched voices, on the other hand, are typically associated with children and with non-professional, non-assertive women. That doesn’t mean they’re bad. It just means we should be aware of the impression we’re making.

Just how important is the tone of our voice when we’re speaking? According to some estimates, 55 percent of what audiences recall from a speech is the visual portion, seven percent is the content of the speech, and 38 percent is the quality of the voice. So if our words are stirring and our images are strong, but we deliver our talk in a less-than-pleasant voice, we may not be communicating as well as we’d like. And in a recording where there are no visuals, tone takes center stage.

Does this mean that we all need to take voice lessons? Well, that isn’t a bad idea for anyone, but it’s usually not crucial. Instead, liking your voice may simply be a question of adjusting your attitude. Think of it this way. If your voice sounds thinner and higher to others than it does to you, remember: Everyone else is in the same boat. So in comparison, you sound perfectly normal!

You might consider asking others for their opinions about your voice. Do they think it sounds pleasing? Is it nasal or hoarse? What is the overall impression your voice creates? In general, when we support our voices with deep, diaphragmatic breathing they sound fuller. This is also known as abdominal or belly breathing, because when done correctly, the belly expands on the inhale.

In addition, get used to your voice by listening to it often. You may hear your spouse or co-workers so often that you take their voices for granted. But yours will always sound strange to you until you hear it on a regular basis. One easy way to do this: Record an extra long message on your answering machine and play it back frequently. Experiment by re-recording with a different pitch. (To help out callers, make your primary message shorter and more to the point!) Or, if you can use high-end recording equipment, so much the better. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to ask a fellow club member to tape your speeches now and then. Not only will you grow accustomed to how you sound, but you’ll also improve your speaking ability. And in time, you’ll become accustomed to your voice so you can judge it more accurately.

As for me, I use a deeper voice when I speak to groups and lighten up when talking one-on-one. Believe it or not, I’ve actually come to appreciate my “distinctive” voice.

Just don’t ask me how I look on camera!

Caren S. Neile, Ph.D., ATM-S/CL,
directs the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University and is a member of the Boca Raton Toastmasters club.