People tend to be judged -- perhaps too often -- on their words. It's not what they say, but how they say it, that matters most, argues Renee Grant-Williams, author of Voice Power: Using Your Voice to Captivate, Persuade, and Command Attention (AMACOM, 2002).
A person's way of speaking is crucial in establishing the impression they leave, adds Grant-Williams. "Life itself is about selling," she says. "Try to think of a time when you're using your voice and not selling -- selling your kids on the idea of brushing their teeth, selling your boss on the idea of a raise, or selling the cat on the idea of coming down out of the tree."
The good news is, people aren't necessarily stuck with the voice they're born with, she argues. In her book, she describes the physical process of speaking and offers tips for improving it. For instance, she suggests using "passive breathing" (which she describes as letting the air fall in the mouth and throat like water going down a drain) and support (the system of muscles that collectively produce a speaking sound) in the lower body to develop a more effective voice.
What's more, the strategic pause can add significance to words, she adds. "The goal is not to become the next Luciano Pavarotti, but rather to develop a speaking voice that gives you and others pleasure to hear," Grant-Williams writes.
The Nashville-based author knows something about coaching voices. Her clients include singers Faith Hill, Randy Travis, Linda Ronstadt, and Huey Lewis, as well as executives.
BusinessWeek Online's Billy Cheng recently chatted with Grant-Williams about her book. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: To what extent can people alter their voices for the better?
A: You can change the tone pretty substantially to make it warmer, louder, higher, or softer. My feeling is that if you start out sounding like Lucy, you shouldn't try to sound like Barry White. There's a limit to how much your tone can change. But by altering several aspects a little bit at the same time, you can make quite a few changes.
When you use a lot of support, your tone sounds more committed, more round, and more full. If you support your tone well, you can make your voice louder. You can resonate in different parts of your body -- in your chest, your throat, or your nose. Where you choose to direct your flow of air can have a lot of effect on your sound.
Q: To be an effective leader or manager, what should you know about your voice?
A: The most important thing that a good manager needs is to sound committed to what he or she is saying when communicating with employees. Managers must use a voice that indicates they stand firmly behind what they're saying.... Their comments should sound like they come directly from the center of them.
And you do that by using your entire body to speak instead of just the small portion around your neck and throat. When you speak using your entire instrument from the feet up, it sounds like you're committed to what you're saying rather than half-hearted about it. If you only use part of you to speak, it sounds like only a small part of you is committed to what you're saying.
Q: Considering how global and ethnically diverse U.S. business culture has become, what should speakers know about accents they might have? Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to have one?
A: I think it can be a bit of an advantage. An accent can distinguish you from other people. In the book, I mention that my stepfather came to America from Denmark when he was 18. He kept his accent strong all this time. But when we were at home, I heard him talk without it a lot. The accent was part of his public persona, and he said people never forgot him.
So if you have an accent that distinguishes you, it can be a way for you to stand out in people's minds. You just have to make sure that whatever accent you retain is something that distinguishes you rather than disturbs people.
Q: What are common mistakes people make during business phone calls?
A: One of the things I find is that people need to clearly visualize the person in the other end. When you talk into a machine, it depersonalizes what you're saying, and oftentimes, people don't imagine and clarify in their own minds the person they're talking to.
Telephone calls should be well planned out. Before you make a phone call, you should gather any information that you might need. If it's an important phone call that relates to your business, you should plan a logical sequence of how the discussion should go. You never know how long you have to talk to people. You want to make sure you get the important things you need to cover out first.
Q: What would be your most important advice about giving a presentation?
A: Be conversational. When you make a presentation in public, you should always make sure that you give people an impression that you're talking with them rather than at them. One of the most important things I tell the speakers I train is that you should always speak to a group as if you were speaking intimately into the ear of one person.
Q: Most of us get stage fright once in awhile. Is there any way to avoid it?
A: A good way to help alleviate nervousness is to do what I call passive breathing. It's a method of breathing that gradually relaxes you. Stage fright affects our breathing. A lot of times, people just hold their breath and forget to breathe. It's very important that you continue to get oxygen into your body, and this passive breathing can lower your pulse rate and relax you.
Q: What should people know about their voice in order to be persuasive, generally?
A: There's a system I describe in the book that explains how to stress important thoughts and ideas by lengthening the consonants of the important words and by creating silence. I sometimes feel that silence in between words is more important than the words themselves.
One way to be persuasive is to really make the things you want others to do more memorable to them when you speak. If you're saying I want more money, you would lengthen the consonant at the beginning of the word that you wanted to stress. For instance, "I want more mmoney." Or, "I wwant more money." Or, "I want mmore money."
When you want to be persuasive, you want to keep coming back to your important thoughts and keep stressing them. You want to really imprint them on your listener's mind. Lengthening consonants and creating silence around your words is an important way to achieve that.
The other thing you should remember: Don't do all the talking. Leave a lot of space because it's a very powerful tool in negotiation to leave space for others to jump in.
Q: How important is it to pay attention to how you speak informally around co-workers, friends, and family?
A: Your voice is a very important part of your public persona. And there's no reason not to let it represent you well at all times.