Voice of the Leader [August 06 2017]

Are you satisfied with your voice? How do you know if your vocal behavior (a.k.a. vocalics) is appropriate in a given business context when speaking with your colleagues, business partners or important stakeholders? What do you need to focus on when you wish to improve your voice? In this article I will give you (1) the basic understanding of how you can assess your own, or others', voice and (2) some exercises that help you improve.

A leader's vocal messages can speak pretty much about what they truly feel and how emotionally responsive they are to other people' feelings. First, I will write about the five basic features of vocal messages. The acronym VAPER, volume, articulation, pitch, emphasis and rate, will help you remember them. What are they?

Volume refers to loudness or softness of your words and sentences. Just imagine when you say "I understand" as a reply to one of your subordinates in a soft and silent voice. Now imagine the same words in the same context but this time you are shouting. They convey very different messages. It is obvious that leaders need to speak at a level of audibility that is comfortable and easy for team members, clients or business partners to hear. Some leaders, for example, let their voices trail away at the end of their sentences. Some unnecessarily soften their voice to match that of their subordinates. While a booming voice overwhelms (and puts you easily in the Persecutor role), speaking too quietly may give the impression that you are lack of power (or that you are even a Victim). A firm and confident voice is a good starting point from which to make variations as appropriate, for instance by speaking more gently or more loudly. The picture below shows you three different modes of responding. The vocalic features of them might indicate different ego states from the leader's side. Obviously, the different responses (for example the shouting, from a Critcal Parent ego state) ignite different continuation of the communication (for example going to the Conforming Child ego state and subsiding into silence - just to mention one possible way).

Articulation describes the clarity of your speech. Leaders who enunciate words well are easier to understand. It gives you a great first impression in many situations. We build trust more easily with people who send messages that are easy to comprehend. When hearing someone speaking like a robot, we may doubt that person shows any care for us. It can be made even worse when it is accompanied with other nonverbal channels like lack of eye contact, closed posture or increasing proximal distance (i.e. moving away from us).

Pitch refers to the height or depth of your voice. An optimum pitch range includes all the levels at which a pleasing voice can be produced without strain. Errors of pitch include either being too high pitched or too low pitched. My observation is that leaders, and other people too, picking up the Rescuer role (when for example trying to please people around them) unconsciously start speaking in a higher pitch.

E stands for emphasis. I believe that good leaders should use vocal emphasis when responding to their subordinates or clients' feelings and nuances and when sharing feelings. It has a healthy and critical balance. If you use too much emphasis, you may seem melodramatic. If you use too little emphasis, you may seem as wooden. Another error I can bring your attention to is when you use emphasis in the wrong places. The classic example of this one is when you say a sentence like "I didn't eat the cake" and put emphasis on "eat" or "cake". The meaning of the former one might be "I didn't eat the cake. I gave it to someone else" while the second one might mean that "I didn't eat the cake. I ate the chocolate".

Finally comes the R referring to rate. Most of the time it is measured by words per minute. I remember when I was working in India, I needed to get used to the high speed people spoke in the office. We spoke the same English, but in a different word per minute ratio. Speech rate, however, depends not only on how quickly words are spoken, but also on the frequency and duration of pauses between them. People can be very different here. It can even cause conflict between conversational partners. One might expect immediate answers to their questions while others might need some time to digest the question and come up with a proper answer. It may look like this person is not concerned about the topic, or the other person. It is not necessarily so. If speaking very quickly, leaders may appear anxious and subordinates may have difficulty understanding them. On the other hand, too ponderous a speech rate can be boring or pompous. Pausing and being silent at the right times is another important aspect of speech rate a leader must be aware of.

Now that you know what areas to assess, it is time to ask yourself how conscious you are about these five areas (volume, articulation, pitch, emphasis, and rate) related to yourself on the one hand and where you should improve on the other hand. I will give you three exercises.

Firstly, assess yourself on each of the following vocal skills you use when you are speaking to your subordinates, business partners or other stakeholders:

(1) volume

(2) articulation

(3) pitch

(4) emphasis

(5) speech rate

(6) use of pauses and silences

Give yourself a number for each area on a 1 to 10 scale where 1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest.

Secondly, ask for feedback from your peers or team members on your good and poor vocal communication skills. Invite them to use the same 1 to 10 scale approach. You will surprise (1) how helpful they will be and (2) how much you can learn from their feedbacks.

Thirdly, pick a specific vocal communication skill that you think you might improve . It may be based on the feedback or your own impression on yourself. For example you may have a tendency to talk too silently (Volume feature). Then hold a conversation with someone in the office in which you work on improving the skill you have targeted. Either during or at the end of your conversation ask for feedback on how you are doing. If it is not appropriate, you can observe yourself during the meeting. This improves your self-awareness and if you are getting better at it, it also has a positive effect on your partners or clients too.

If you have any questions, comments or stories, share them with me via email. We can publish them here.

(c) NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION COACH - www.nonverbalcommunicationcoach.com


by Bali Polyanki


(c) All Rights Reserved 2017