It’s interesting how many people like to talk but don’t like to listen to themselves. And how many people don’t know what they sound like.
Back in my twenties, I was surprised when I heard myself on someone’s answering machine and realised I sounded like Minnie Mouse on speed. Was my voice that high and fast? Not long after, evidence emerged that it really was that high when I called for an ambulance and the operator asked me in a gentle voice “Is your mummy there?”
I put that “evidence” down to being in pain and needing an ambulance and moved on.
Or so I thought. What I realised over the years is that I had both slowed down the way I speak and lowered my voice. Partly in an attempt to lessen my accent (this was a long time before regional accents were deemed acceptable) and partly to emulate the people I admired at work, most of whom were much older than me.
During a group coaching session a few years later, something happened that opened my eyes to how the way we speak can impact our ability to communicate and be understood.
There’s nothing quite like being filmed giving a presentation and having to watch it back with a group of (not very supportive) colleagues to open your eyes to the way in which you come across.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t my voice that lowered my performance score. That seemed OK. I spoke clearly and time seemed to have dulled the high-pitched edge, but…I waved my hands around. A LOT. So much so that no-one focused on what I’d been saying, and all the feedback was about how distracting my hands had been.
Clearly, I needed to change.
Being me, I researched, so I studied body language articles, communication textbooks and then started to look online at successful speakers. I didn’t want to adopt the slightly odd Tony Blair “puppet hands” approach, so I settled instead for a pen.
How does that work?
Hold a pen loosely with one hand at either end. Your focus stays centred when you’re talking, and you aren’t flinging your energy or your point around the room.
It works standing or sitting. Genius. Problem solved.
I still gesticulate a bit (I am still me, after all), but at least now it tends to be with more emphasis on key points and with more certainty than in my arm waving days.
But, back to voices, I was phone coaching for interviews a few weeks ago and asked my client if he was sitting. Yes, he was. I asked him to stand and try his interview answer again. The difference was immense. Gone was the mumbling, gone was the deflated tone and gone was the monotone delivery. By standing, more air was coming into his lungs, removing the deflated, flat sound. His upright head made his voice clearer and he sounded much more confident.
Not sure that he could register the difference, I suggested that he record himself speaking in both poses and he was stunned by the difference.
Of course, it’s not always possible to stand on a video call or in a meeting, but we can apply the same principles – shoulders back and down, chest open and head up. All of those acts make a difference. Try it.
I’d definitely recommend it if you’re interviewing. As a transition coach, I’m working with a lot of people now who have been made redundant and are feeling deflated. With each, I go back to a time when they felt confident and get that version of themselves to speak so they can reconnect with their strengths. Once we’ve achieved that, I ask them to record themselves and, for the brave, to film themselves.
I’ve worked with very few people who would willingly submit to being filmed or recorded. I understand why but based on my own experience, I try to convince them that they really would benefit from seeing how others see and hear them, and from making a few changes to boost their presence.
If you’d like to be more confident at interviews or in presentations, why not try a session of Career Therapy?