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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Deep

Vivia Chen

January 31, 2012

595px-Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_001"What gender is the voice of God?"

That provocative question was posed recently in The New York Times. The article ("Why Men Always Tell You to See Movies") was about voice-overs on movie trailers, but it led me think about an analogous issue: What gender is the voice of authority? What kind of voice do you hear when you envision a top dealmaker, a powerful litigator, or a big rainmaker walking into the room?

I'll bet you $10,000 (now that Mitt has established that as the baseline) that it's not a feminine voice.

But before we go there, let's first visit Hollywood. Reports the NYT:

The voice of a sonorous, authoritative, fear-inspiring yet sometimes relatable presence is, invariably, that of a man. Consider the trailer and the omniscient, disembodied voice that introduces moviegoers to a fictional world.

“Most movie trailers are loud and strong, and film studios want that male impact, vocally and thematically,” said Jeff Danis, an agent who represents voice-over artists. “Even if it’s a romantic comedy or nonaction movie, they still want that certain power and drama that men’s voices tend to convey on a grander scale.”

But what's distressing is that our preference for male voices doesn't end in the darkness of a movie theater, says the NYT:

“On average both males and females trust male voices more,” said Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford, noting some gender disparity exists in that women don’t distrust female voices as much as men distrust them. In one study conducted at Stanford, two versions of the same video of a woman were presented to subjects: One had the low frequencies of the woman’s voice increased and the high frequencies reduced, the other vice versa. Consistently subjects perceived the deep voice to be smarter, more authoritative, and more trustworthy.

I've often wondered myself if my relatively high voice diminishes my credibility. When I was a teenager, I remembered trying to imitate Gloria Steinem's "deep" voice in a history class, thinking that it would give my comments a bit of gravitas. I have no idea if it worked, and I probably lapsed back to my girly voice the next day.

161px-Gloria_Steinem_at_news_conference,_Women's_Action_Alliance,_January_12,_1972It might seem silly to try to alter your natural voice, but that's exactly what politicians do, says the BBC, which reported on how voters preferred candidates with lower-pitched voices. And, as we all know now, Margaret Thatcher—our role model du jour—had coaching to lower her voice so that she could play with the Big Boys.

"When people go too high-pitched, it sounds emotional and less trustworthy," U.K. psychologist Sue Lovegrove told the BBC.

The sad truth is that a woman's voice will not deliver the same punch as a man's. So ladies (and you gents with high voices), maybe mimicking Gloria Steinem or Don LaFontaine (the "Thunder Throat" and "The Voice of God" of movie trailers) is just what your career needs.


Related post: "The Power Look—White Males Only?"

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Your "People Style" will to some degree determine how others perceive you in communication settings. Along two scales of assertiveness and responsiveness, voice indicators include:

* More assertive (speaking louder and more often)
* More responsive (speaking with more inflection)

What important is your ability to "flex" your style or adjust your behavior in different settings, based on the feedback/cues you receive, and what you know about your audience and their preferences.

If you stand while speaking, particularly during telephone conversations, your voice will sound deeper, more confident and authoritarian.

Work with what you have. True, coaching can help people who are using their voices in an unnatural way, thus rendering them unnecessarily high-pitched. But your ability to attract and motivate an audience is not limited to the sound of your voice.

What about how you say what you say? Are you speaking in an authentic, passionate manner, or just saying words? Are you appealing to your listeners with compelling stories, that naturally modulate your voice and that resonate for your audience? You can say the same words in a distant, impersonal way, or in a way that emotionally touches and draws in your listeners. In my opinion, that factor has a greater impact than your vocal register.

That is very interesting. In my early days as a trial lawyer, on of the female judges that I tried a case in front of commented that my voice was too high? I never got that comments from a man and I never tried to change my voice. I won the case and don't think the jury cared about the tone of my voice.

George Burns in the classic 1977 movie "Oh,God!"

Non-verbal communication is very subtle and terribly important. I couldn't agree more that the quality of one's voice (not the words themselves in this case) is right up there with body language and clothing choices.
Women who sound child-like or have a high pitch will never command attention like Ms. Steinem. If you sound like Minny Mouse, get some help! A voice coach is one idea, but joining a group like Toastmasters International will give you the opportunity to work on your voice and your overall presentation skills.

Abraham Lincoln's voice was high and squeaky. (After reading your post, I checked the web to see if that was a myth. It is not.) Often it really does matter what the words are and not just the package they are in.

I would not give up home for human intelligence, and persuasion with words and not just sensation. There are lots of influences we cannot help concerning how we speak and hear, but many we can.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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