It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it…

This morning I was listening to Tom Jones on Desert Island Discs. I love Desert Island Discs, a fact that leads me to believe I am officially middle-aged, and that it’s time to crack open the slippers and sweet sherry. But that’s another post.

Tom Jones is a man who has built his life around his voice. His voice is powerful, deep, commanding. When he talks, you take him seriously, he sounds wise. I on the other hand, do not.

When I talk, I do not command respect. My voice is high-pitched and childlike, adding to the general image I present of a teenager dressing up in her mum’s slightly out-dated clothes. It’s another reason why writing works so well for me and why I will never work in a call centre.

I was pitching for a piece of work recently with my friend Suzie. Before we went in she said “just try not to say hello in that voice.”

“What do you mean?” I squeaked.

“You know, that funny high-pitched voice you sometimes say hello in. It doesn’t sound like your normal voice.”

“Oh right,” I said, “I’ll try.” I cleared my throat. “I’ll try,” I said, more deeply.

We went called into the board room, our powerpoint presentation was set up, and my dress was nicely adjusted to show an appropriate amount of cleavage for the audience. We were ready to begin.

“Heeellooooo!” I practically sang, Julie Andrews style. As soon as it came out of my mouth I realised what had happened, but it was too late. I tried not to get distracted by it, or to make eye contact with Suzie, and talked my way as confidently and as deeply through the rest of the presentation as possible.

We didn’t get the job, but I’m sure it wasn’t because of the hello. Pretty sure.

This morning, as I was walking to my brunch date, I walked past a woman talking into a phone, standing in a doorway. She had the most amazing voice, a deep, American accent, that immediately made me think she must be hugely confident and successful. Perhaps it’s just me being shallow, but how a person sounds surely has a massive impact on their lives? It’s like height – apparently the taller a man is, the higher his earning potential. I wonder if anyone has looked in the same way at voices? Do your chances of personal and professional success increase incrementally as your pitch lowers?

When you think more generally about gender, and the importance we attach, in business at least, to male characteristics, it would make sense that a deep voice equals respect and success. Didn’t Margaret Thatcher have elocution lessons to deepen her voice?

I always knew I had a young sounding voice, but I’ve become much more aware of it since I started working as a journalist and having to record interviews. Listening back to endless recordings of myself asking silly questions in a weird, squeaky voice does very little for my confidence.

Unless I’m prepared to shell out Thatcher style though, which I’m not, there isn’t much I can do about it. I can dye my hair to cover the grey, stop biting my finger nails – I’ve even heard rumour that regular exercise can tone your flabby bits – but your voice is something you just have to get used to.

How do you feel about the sound of your own voice? Do you think the sound of someone’s voice changes the way you think about them?



  1. 1 October, 2010 / 5:58 pm

    Don’t fret, Jo … Sarah Vowell (who sounds like a teenager despite the fact that she’s 40) enjoys a career as a successful author, journalist, and radio commentator. That voice is her trademark!

  2. 1 October, 2010 / 6:13 pm

    Oh you make me sound such an ogre! You didn’t mention that I became almost unable to speak at all because my mouth was so dry with nerves! You have a nice voice – sound MUCH older on the phone…

    I sound like my mum. She’s 81 :-(

  3. maryfclark
    1 October, 2010 / 8:03 pm

    Not something I would worry about. As long as you sound sincere, trustworthy, like you know what you are talking about, like you’d be fun to share a bottle of wine with, blah blah blah, in short, as long as you sound like YOU, it’ll work. I think, speaking professionally, that Thatcher just sounded tranny. But I’m only the ‘American Swallowing Wifey,’ aka ‘That American speech therapist with the cane’.

  4. 1 October, 2010 / 10:16 pm

    I’m comfortable with the way I speak but there are situations at work where I make a conscious effort to use a deeper, slightly louder and more confident speaking voice.

  5. 2 October, 2010 / 8:11 am

    I find the sound of my voice to be unpleasant, except on the rare occasion when I might be hung over and too exhausted to speak in my normal ‘enthused’ tone. I do have a public speaking voice however. I have practiced with Toastmasters, competed in speaking contests, and even won a few. It is slower, probably a little bit lower, and flows easily.

    I don’t know why I don’t use it all the time, because when I do, I feel more confident. I imagine if I did try to use it regularly, I would become very tired, like I did the first month I lived in France and only spoke French. It was exhausting.

    I don’t worry too much about my short comings (being short with a crappy voice). I like who I am, but it is nice to know, that if I need to speak in front of people who don’t know me well, that I can turn on a better voice and pace.

    I hope that answers you question. I would like a cookie now. Please.

  6. 2 October, 2010 / 8:21 am

    I am sure you are onto something here, there’s probably a PhD worth of research on the topic! For my part I have a voice that I’d rather not hear played back at me and cringe when I hear myself on home videos. Childlike, most definitely. Much prefer communicating in writing. Great post!

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