5 Ways to Improve Your Vocal Impact

You use your voice every day in business to connect with clients and peers. But are you leveraging your greatest instrument to improve your professional image?

October 16, 2014

From just the sound of your voice, others are forming impressions about you. Your voice alone can make you seem more knowledgeable, credible, or even friendly. In fact, the sound of your voice matters twice as much as the words you say, according to a 2012 study by communications firm Quantified Impressions.

The company asked more than 1,000 listeners and vocal experts to evaluate 120 executives’ voices to learn the extent a person’s voice can influence perceptions. Voices that listeners rated as weak, strained, rough, or breathy tended to prompt negative labels of the speakers — viewing them as weak, passive, or tense. Another big vocal annoyance was “uptalk,” where a person pronounces a statement as if it were a question, allowing his or her voice to rise at the end of the sentence (such as “It’s nice to meet you today?”). Another aggravation: “vocal fry,” in which speakers end their words in a raspy growl that can make them sound uncomfortable or in pain.

On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to have a so-called “normal” voice, listeners rated you as more successful, sociable, smart, and even sexy, according to the study.

Your voice matters because it’s your signature — part of what identifies you. So how do you know whether it’s helping your professional image or hurting it? No one likes the sound of their own voice, which makes it particularly difficult know how others may be hearing it and perceiving it. And what if you realize you have a breathy or strained voice: Can you really change it?

Voice coaches say you certainly can — with practice. And as with all instruments, practice is what most people need to unlock their very best speaking voice. That is, one that can lift your entire professional image, your credibility, and likability and even make you a better influencer too.

Unlocking Your New and Improved Voice

Darlene Price, author of Well Said! (AMACOM, 2012) and president of Well Said Inc., a training company for presentations and effective communication, says there are six key factors to a quality speaking voice: tone, pitch, pace, volume, inflection, and articulation. Practically everyone could use a tune-up in these areas. Here, Price elaborates on some ways professionals can improve their vocal quality.

1. Watch your tone.

The tone of your voice conveys your attitude. Do you sound happy, sad, rushed, or distracted? “You can use words to say one thing, but if the tone is something different, people will believe the tone in your message more than the words,” Price says.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of a person’s first impression of you comes from the tone of your voice alone in face-to-face interactions, according to research conducted by UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian. On the phone, when you don’t have the added support of facial expressions and eye contact, your tone of voice can be even more critical.

Try this: Make a point to speak with more energy and volume. Focus on conveying sincerity, cheerfulness, and confidence with your voice, Price says. That also means eliminating distractions and staying completely focused on the person you’re speaking to; even when on the phone, people can tell if you’re distracted (say, when you’re trying to sneak a check of your e-mail). When you’re talking on the phone, here’s a good way to project a better tone: Stand up. “You have more energy when you’re standing,” Price says. “Your diaphragm is more aligned with your voice.”

Price also suggests talking into a mirror when you’re on the phone so you can see your facial expressions. “The facial expressions come first and the voice often follows what the face does,” Price says. “So if you have a pensive scowl on your face, your voice will follow that with a tense sound. On the contrary, if you’re smiling, you’ll likely have a more positive tone.”

2. Throw a good pitch.

Pitch is how high or low your voice is. A lower-sounding voice is perceived to be stronger, confident, credible, and project the appearance of more control over a situation than a high-pitched voice, Price says. An overly high-pitched voice suggests junior or nonauthoritative status and even immaturity — not exactly the message you want to send when working with clients on what’s likely the biggest purchase of their life. Women generally have higher voices than men do and may need to be particularly cognizant of the pitch they’re projecting.

Try this: Learn the full range of your voice. In private, sing the word “ah” at various pitch levels, going down the scale, Price suggests. Then practice reciting the alphabet or reading a passage aloud from a book to get accustomed to using your lower range until it starts to feel natural. Don’t overdo it; you needn’t go Darth Vader low. Find a comfortable lower pitch. You may need to relax your throat so it doesn’t tighten and sound irritated as you try to go lower. Some vocal experts suggest drinking warm water or warm tea to help relax the throat muscles (drinking cold water can have the opposite effect, tightening your throat muscles). In time, practice will make that perfect lower pitch.

3. Set a good pace.

How quickly or slowly do you speak? You don’t want to become such a slow speaker that you risk boring others, but you also don’t want to be so fast that the listener gets frustrated in trying to keep up. The average rate of speech for most presenters is 150 to 160 words per minute, Price says.

“Be mindful of your pace,” Price says. “When you slow down the pace, you will help someone understand more and they will absorb more information because you’ll become more articulate.” When you’re giving fact-based material or instruction or stats, speak at a pace 20 to 30 percent slower than usual, Price suggests.

Try this: Test your pace. Read a document aloud, and time yourself for one minute. Use a document in a word processing program on your computer to make it easy to calculate the word count. Be conversational and natural as you read at your normal rate. How far did you get after 60 seconds? Figure the word count that you covered in that time span. Did you read fewer than 150 words or more (red flag: a possible speed talker?), or were you right on par? It can be a good gauge of how fast a talker you are, Price says.

If you do discover you’re a fast talker, vocal exercises can help to slow you down. Price suggests, for five minutes, clap your hands between each word as you read aloud a passage. Then, for 10 minutes, just clap at each punctuation mark. “You’re forcing yourself to slow down and training your brain to insert natural pauses,” she says.

4. Elevate your voice with powerful language.

The words and phrases you say can unintentionally be sabotaging you. It’s not just how you say it — it’s also what you say. Only 7 percent of a person’s first impression of you face-to-face comes from the actual words you speak, according to Mehrabian’s research. But in real estate, you’re working in a vital adviser role to clients and your words will have an impact, so make every percentage of that impression count.

The language you choose can make you more influential and professional in the eyes of your customers.

Try this: Pay attention more closely to your word choices to make sure you’re not falling for one of the common traps: discounting, validation questions (like tacking on “OK?” at the end of your sentences), using “I”-centered pronouns, or words that don’t spur action. In her book, Price outlines several word and phrase tips to improve your language. Here are a few of her tips:

Lose nonconfident speech habits. Don’t unintentionally negate what you’re about to say. For example: “I think that’s acceptable, don’t you?” Instead, say: “Yes, I believe that’s acceptable. Tell me what you think.” Also, other fillers that may show a lack of confidence includes adding “I’ll try” into your speech. Example: “I’ll try to find more houses for you to look at in that neighborhood.” Instead, speak with greater confidence and say: “I will find you more houses to look at in that neighborhood.” “Try” implies the possibility that you may not finish the task or you may fail at accomplishing it, Price says. Another example of nonconfident language: “I was just calling to see if you wanted to view a home on Saturday.” Instead, remove the “just” and say: “Would you like to view houses on Saturday?”

- Replace “I”-centered pronouns with “you.” Price says the three most compelling words in the language of persuasion are a person’s name, “you,” and “your.” How often do you use first-person pronouns (like “I,” “me,” or “we”) when you speak? If it’s quite a bit, make a point to replace them more with influential words like “you,” “your,” or the person’s name, which will capture the person’s attention, since you’re talking directly to him or her. For example, instead of saying: “Our company has top producers.” Say: “Our partnership can ensure you reach your goals in selling your home, John.”

“The frequent use of the word ‘you’ answers the audience’s unspoken question — ‘What’s in it for me?’” Price says. “The point is, to optimize your influence, use pronouns that directly relate to and include the listener. Otherwise, you risk sounding self-centric versus customer-centric.”

- Amp up the action in your words. When you talk with action verbs, you connect listeners to an outcome and conjure up an image of what you want them to achieve. In real estate, “you are leading a person through an important decision, and there is an action involved,” Price says. “When you start thinking in [action] verbs, it becomes another language that has more energy, life, movement, and connects the buyer and seller to the outcome you want them to achieve.”

For example, instead of saying: “Let’s just fix up three things in this house so it sells.” Say: “I want to accelerate the sale of this home by boosting the sales price by making three economic renovations. It will drive prospects to the door.”

Price outlines several action verbs and phrases to start using in your everyday speech. She keeps a list posted at her computer so she can consult it and weave the words into phone conversations and her e-mails. The words cover the gamut, such as “accelerate,” “align,” “optimize,” “maximize,” “transform,” “boost,” “capture,” and “commit.” She also includes a list of phrases that attempt to answer the “so what” or “who cares?” for your listener by incorporating more phrases like “what this means for you …”; “the bottom line for you is …”; or “the benefits for you are …”

“When you speak with action verbs, you connect people to taking more action by creating momentum, energy, and drive,” Price says. “Anytime you’re communicating results, next steps, or outcomes, you rely on verbs.”

5. Shhh!

One of the worst speech offenses: talking too much, Price says. Know when to turn off your voice.

In real estate, a transaction can be filled with emotions. As such, “feeling heard and understood is very important,” Price says. “Know when to talk, and know when to listen.”

“Contrary to popular belief,” Price adds, “the person who has the most influence is usually the one asking the most questions,” not the one doing all the talking.

Try this: Adopt the 80/20 ratio. This is where you ask thoughtful questions and actively listen 80 percent of the time, and talk 20 percent of the time, Price explains. “It helps to avoid the habit of talking too much,” she says. “You can become an expert in asking thought-provoking questions that get them talking more.”

Open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered with one-word responses, like “yes” or “no,” but force your customers to elaborate and help ensure they talk more than you do. These questions begin with words like “how” or “why,” or phrases like “help me understand why …”; “elaborate on that…”; or “what might happen if…”

Voice Training

Become more in tune to your voice. If you’re calling someone on the phone, lay down a digital recorder to record your voice as you’re speaking to that person and listen to it later, Price suggests. How did you sound? Was your voice too soft or too loud? Did you talk too slow or too fast? Did you use too many voice fillers, like “uh,” “um,” “you know,” or “actually”?

“You will be the best judge of your voice,” Price says. “You might say ‘I can’t believe I was speaking so fast.’ Or, ‘Why did I ask that question?’” It can serve as a wake-up call to areas where you might need some vocal improvement.

Or, if self-reflection isn’t enough, enlist a colleague to be your vocal critic. Ask him or her to pay special attention to your voice in your next company meeting or presentation. You can even provide this person with a checklist of what to rate you on, such as how articulate you were or how was your pitch and your pacing. For even greater voice interventions, check with a community college or a singing or vocal coach (search the Web to find some in your area), and tell them that you want formal training in developing a better speaking voice.

After all, “a controlled, expressive, authoritative voice will help you persuade and influence your listeners; earn the respect of your boss and coworkers; make sales; gain promotions; and help capture the attention of every audience to whom you present,” Price writes in her book Well Said! “People want to listen to and do business with those in whom they have confidence. Putting your best voice forward connects you to your listeners and helps build rapport.”