When we were growing up, how could our parents or teachers know we were being sarcastic when we
said just a few words? Our tone of voice, of course, often gave us away! The good news is now that
we are adults, we can use that knowledge to our advantage and project a professional voice that is
clear, sincere, positive, and has our listener all ears.
We’re not talking about training yourself to sound like James Earl Jones (a spokesman for Verizon
whose deep, rich voice is one of the most memorable voices ever). We’re talking about how to
become more aware of your voice so that it projects competence in the next job interview; or
confidence when you ask for that raise; or inspiration at your next sales meeting. Changing your voice
quality isn’t about being phony. It’s about being sure your voice quality is honest and consistent with
your verbal message. Just as you are aware of your physical appearance on the job and take steps to
dress professionally, it is also important to be aware of your voice quality and take steps to improve it.
In this article, we will focus on those aspects of your voice that can be improved through practice
rather than those characteristics that should be dealt with by a trained speech therapist. (But feel free
to consult one if you have the need.)
One reason it is important to become more aware is because your voice quality reveals your true
message. An important study done by UCLA Professor Dr. Albert Mehrabian found that the vocal
component of communication has a bigger impact on the meaning of your message than the actual
words you chose. In other words, if there is an inconsistency between what you say and how you say
it; the listener will hear and believe your voice quality more than your words. Think about the last time
you called a customer service provider and heard a sarcastic, “How may I help you?” Didn’t you know
right away that “help” was probably the last thing you were going to receive? You could just imagine
the person on the other end of the phone, legs up on the desk, reading a magazine, chewing gum,
rolling his eyes. With just five words and a cynical tone, this company just lost your business. So when
an interview asks you “What are your strengths?” and you rattle off a list of three, but you do it with a
quiet, hesitant, slow voice; the interviewer believes your voice, not the words. No matter what
strengths you mentioned, a weak tone tells them: “Me, strengths? I really don’t have any!”
The second reason to become more aware of your voice quality is that we hear our voice quality
different form others. An employer hears our voice traveling through airwaves; we hear our voice
impacted through our bones in the ear. So we may not be getting a truly accurate picture of how we
sound. That is why I recommend asking others for feedback and listening to your voice on a tape.
Finally, it’s important to become aware of how you sound so you can take steps to improve it when
necessary. While our voice quality is a long-standing habit, influenced by our caregivers, education,
culture, physical conditions, and other attributes. Taking steps to improving our voice can help us
project confidence in an interview, compassion in a difficult situation, and calm in a crisis.
According to the book Success with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, in America today, preferred
voices are low and full, the volume is moderate and “the contours they follow as they speak are
smooth curves rather than flat lines or sharp angles.” This doesn’t mean we all need to sound exactly
alike. It just means that certain voices are easier to listen to than others. Let’s look at a few attributes
of your voice quality and what you might like to strive for:
Generally it’s best to avoid extremes (too loud, too soft). It’s important to consider the
setting (private office speaking with one person, versus large auditorium with no microphone speaking
to 200). Consider the distance from you to the person(s) you are talking to and the content of what
you are talking about. It’s almost always best to avoid a monotone, one level which can put us all to
sleep. Variety can be the spice of life and there are times when you might speak at a medium volume,
but emphasize a word or phrase by raising your voice slightly. Your posture also affects your volume
and your clarity so it’s best to sit up straight when you speak.
According to Communicology by Joseph DeVito, the normal rate of speed is between 120 and
180 words per minute. Speaking too slowly may sound boring or imply that you think your audience is
an idiot and you need to talk slowly so they understand it. Speaking fast, while at times can imply
enthusiasm or energy, at other times can be confusing or cause the listener to think you are nervous
or have to finish quickly so you can talk about something else. Speaking too fast also doesn’t let the
other person have a chance to clarify or ask questions. Again, moderation is important when you
consider your rate. Be aware too that what may appear “normal” to you can seem “fast” to others. As
the youngest of seven children, in my family you had to talk fast if you wanted to get anything said.
My natural or normal style is probably a lot faster than others, so I need to remember that. It can also
be helpful to talk slower to people who talk slow and pick up the pace when you encounter someone
who has a quicker rate. Mirroring the volume and rate of another’s voice can at times be effective.
(You should not mirror an angry talker; this will generally only inflame the situation.)
Many times people aren’t sure what to say so they fill the silence with nonwords “uhs”, “ahs”,
“umms” This distracts from your main message and can lead the other person to think you are
unprepared or nervous. It’s important to realize that silence is okay. Not 10 minutes of it in an
interview, but 8 – 10 seconds of silence as you think about your answer is far better than a list of
nonwords. Silence or pauses can also help you emphasize a point. For example: “My biggest
accomplishment for my previous employer was creating their first Web site. …(pause)…. I
spearheaded this effort with our information systems team.”
While we don’t see punctuation when someone talks, we can hear it. To instill
confidence that you know what you are talking about make sure your tone reflects the punctuation at
the end of your sentence. If you’re making a statement, make sure your listener hears your period.
Make sure you voice rises at the end only for questions. We can lose a lot of credibility by mumbling
the end of our sentences or making our opinions or statements sound like questions. Use your tone to
be clear about what you are trying to say.
1. Start being aware of your tone of voice and others. Take some notes on what you like and don’t
like. Listen to people you admire and be aware of how they communicate. How loud is their voice?
How fast or slow? How do they end their sentences? How does the audience or setting affect the voice
2. Get feedback. Ask people you trust for feedback. Be sure to be specific. Ask them to listen to you at
different times in the coming week and then get back with you.
3. Listen to yourself on tape. Talk for at least 15 minutes. You can tape yourself making a presentation
or do it in private and just talk about something you enjoy (a hobby, family, etc.) Use this as a
baseline. Listen to it and decide for yourself what you like, what you’d like to change.
4. Make a 15 to 30 minute tape of a voice you like (this could be a colleague…ask permission first) or
tape a famous person on TV. Keep listening over and over to what about their voice you like, speed,
5. According to Success with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, then practice with the tape.
Repeating each sentence trying to sound like the speaker. Practice this in private two or three times a
week for at least a month.
6. Make a new tape of your voice and compare to your baseline. Evaluate how you’ve done and repeat
your training if necessary.
Remember your tone of voice strongly affects the meaning of what you are trying to say. If you are
trying to instill confidence that you are the right person for the job, be aware of your volume, speed,
pauses, and how you end your sentences. So as you prepare what you are going to say, also
remember to prepare “how” you will say it.
First published in the Employment Times
© Nancy Ansheles. This article may not be published in part, or in its entirety, without prior written
consent from the author.