Does Your Voice Undercut Your Authority?
How speaking up can pave the way for gender equality in the workplace
In my 20+ years as a professional voice coach, I’ve learned that women’s voices are one of our most powerful assets — especially in the workplace. Strengthening your voice can prevent others from interrupting you in meetings, (which happens all the time according to this infamous New York Times article, “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women,”) and your ideas from being stolen. Speaking up clearly not only adds to your own confidence but paves the way for overall gender equality in the workplace.
We can learn to project confidence and authority every time we speak. Yet most of us are not conscious of our voice until it’s brought to our attention by those around us. As we come into our full vocal power, learning to distinguish between helpful, constructive feedback and gendered, biased, inaccurate, and unhelpful criticism is an important skill that we can and should cultivate. When our boss or colleagues tell us we need to work on our voice, we need to get them to dig deeper and give us helpful examples that we can use to improve. Here are 5 things to consider when it comes to improving your voice in the workplace.
1. Find the right volume
The first thing you want to do when someone takes issue with your voice is to ask for specifics: Are they trying to tell you that you’re talking too loud or too soft? Having a powerful and dynamic voice is a matter of control, so practice the different levels of volume that each task requires. If you’re in an open office, lowering your volume might allow others to concentrate better. When you’re giving a big presentation, raising your volume is appropriate. Talking with clients on the phone might put your volume somewhere in the middle. Imagine your voice has a volume knob that you adjust accordingly.
2. Be aware of gender bias
Watch out for gendered language such as when a boss or colleague tells you that your voice is too feminine or too masculine. This kind of feedback indicates that the teller has some gender bias. Don’t let it throw you off your game. You have the right to live, work, and exist exactly as the woman that you are! Gently but firmly inform the person that you’re looking for helpful feedback on the pitch, pace, clarity, and volume of your voice, not on your specific gender. If the person can’t deliver the details, consider asking for feedback from another trusted colleague.
3. Practice enunciation
If you have an accent you can work on your enunciation, but understand that the goal is not to eliminate your accent completely! Clarifying consonants and/or vowels can go a long way toward clearer communication. Simple phrases that emphasize these elements can be helpful. With my clients who speak Mandarin, we work on purifying vowels: “All the eels swim around the owls.” My clients who speak Hindi generally need help distinguishing between “T” and “D”: “To do today’s traditions in tandem.” Daily practice of these phrases can help you become more crisp and clear.
4. Practice pacing
Your boss might indicate that you speak too quickly, blurring your words together, or too slowly, causing the listener to lose interest. The pace of your speech can also be precisely adjusted. Practice by reading a page from your favorite novel as slowly as you can, sounding out each word, then slowly increase speed until you’re at a comfortable level. Record your progress, and listen back as you work. And of course, make sure to enunciate clearly, so that you can be fully understood.
5. Focus on your breath
Lastly, consider the role of breath support in your speech. The diaphragm muscle is responsible for moving air in and out of our lungs. Voice teachers call it the “Platform of Power” for its ability to control the movement and action of each breath. About 90% of my clients are using 10% of their breath! Think of a beautiful Maserati sitting in your driveway: if there’s no gas in the car, it’s not going anywhere. Without proper breath support, your vocal cords have to work too hard, causing strain and hoarseness. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced during yoga, meditation, and exercise. Allow the belly to expand as you inhale, and use the same principle when you take a breath before speaking. Breathe deeply and push the air up through your voice … you might be startled at what comes out!
Remember that embracing the full power of your voice is a process that requires time and dedicated effort. It may take awhile for the people around you to adjust to your new confidence as your voice gets stronger and more supported by your breath. You may even find that you actually start speaking less because your words will carry greater impact. In any case, practice practice practice!
Alicia Dara is a Seattle-based voice teacher (singing and public speaking) with over 20 years experience. Corporate clients include Microsoft, Kimpton Hotels, and Planned Parenthood. Private clients include the National Women’s Political Caucus, members of Amazon, and Merrill Lynch, among others. Go to AliciaDara.com to learn more about her services.
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