Voice Skills

by Judy Apps

Vocal production for women

Much has been written about the ‘glass ceiling’ for women in business. Most definitely, it can sometimes appear that it is impossible for women to get it right. This certainly applies to voice, where women are criticised for voices that are too high and ‘whiny’ or ‘screechy’ or too low and ‘mannish’ or ‘unfeminine’.

Anna Karpf, author of The Human Voice, states unequivocally that ‘almost the entire female vocal cycle from cradle to grave is found deficient or pathological.’ Hillary Clinton has been called shrill (‘No one sounds like everyone’s ex more than Hillary when she has that “you’re stepping on my foot” tone...’ – Timothy Perry, reporting on the Democratic Convention, July 2004.) Margaret Thatcher’s voice was described as ‘hectoring’, ‘patronising marbles in the mouth’, ‘unique grating tones’, ‘one of the most cold, irritating and condescending voices in British politics’ (BBC Talking Point) and ‘like a friendly dentist’s drill’ (Chris Patten).

What’s the answer? How do you get people to listen to you without criticising your voice, if you are a woman?

1. Speak in a low, natural voice

People will listen more easily if you speak in a lower voice, but without forcing it. Women’s voices have deepened significantly since the Second World War – about a semi-tone in pitch. Deeper voices are associated more with power and authority. Joanna Lumley’s low voice, for example, comes high up in opinion ratings.

2. Don’t force your voice unnaturally

Some women force their voices very deep in order to acquire authority. This sounds false and is unkind to the vocal cords. Margaret Thatcher acquired a deep pharyngeal voice later in her career, and this became her trademark. Manipulating the voice in this way achieves the primary aim of the deeper voice, but sacrifices the interest and subtlety of a freely-produced voice. You can use your deeper registers from time to time, to make an important point or add variety, but you don’t have to speak constantly at a pitch that is unnaturally low for you.

3. Relax

Any tension created in attempting to speak more strongly will only make your voice sound forced. Your voice will have more resonance and carrying power if it is allowed to resound naturally.

4. Speak more slowly and with emphasis

Remember that the pitch of your voice is not the only variable available to help you to sound more authoritative. If you speak more slowly, and emphasise key words more strongly, you will create an impact.

5. Learn to intervene

The problem of not being heard as a woman can be connected with the difficulty of finding your entry into a conversation. Listen to how others do it, either on radio or TV group discussions or in groups you attend. You will find that people often intervene before the end of another person’s sentence, once they have guessed how the sentence will end (or even before!). Practise doing this yourself – initially at group meetings where you feel comfortable. You need a bit of volume, just to be heard at the outset. Once you have made your entry, and others have noticed, your voice can return to your normal way of speaking.