The Virtuozo Impact Lab:
Everyday Experiments to Increase your Impact >>>
This is a series where we will explore tools, techniques and principles for you to create more impact and influence in your interactions. Do try these at home! And we would love for you to post your results and input on our LinkedIn page.
Episode 1: The Influential Voice
By Michael Weitz
When it comes to being more persuasive, we often focus on the words we use, but recent research shows there is something else we should pay attention to: our voice. And as someone obsessed with all things voice, this was music to my ears.
The sounds of our voice have two aspects that we can work with: power and flexibility. Lions have powerful voices. Their roars can be 20 times as loud as normal human speech, but are not very flexible. Parrots have remarkably flexible voices. They can mimic everything from opera, to cars, to human speech, but lack sizable power. Our voices are more flexible than lions, and more powerful than parrots. So in the voice department, nature has dealt us some good cards.
For upping our influence game, which has more impact - power or flexibility?
New research tells us which, and it’s something anyone can put into practice.
An intriguing study…
Researchers Jonah Berger at the University of Pennsylvania and Alex Van Zant at Rutgers explored this question. They looked at what aspects of speaking, aside from words (paralinguistic cues), could persuade others. They looked at things like pitch (flexibility) and volume (power).
There is a lot to unpack from their paper, but here are two significant findings which you can easily implement for more impactful communication:
Increasing speaking volume had more of an impact than other cues like pace and pitch
Speakers who varied their volume created an even greater impact than just speaking louder by itself
So according to this research, vocal power, and varying your vocal power, wins. This matches my own experience. When I first started leading workshops, I quickly discovered that the more I found excuses to shout and whisper over the course of the session, the higher my feedback scores went. Most top comedians of the past 50 years also use this technique. If you’re just starting out, you may not want to go into your next meeting going quite that dynamic, but you can probably go louder, with more varied volume, than you think.
Why does this work?
Berger and Van Zant discovered this worked because it made the speakers appear more confident. And appearing more confident made them more persuasive.
Why? Conviction. Not the conviction that prosecutors strive for to win trials, but the kind that wins minds. Conviction is the mental state of being fully convinced or fully persuaded. The researchers found the more confident a speaker seemed, the more the speaker’s authenticity and sense of conviction went up for listeners. And more than anything else in today’s communication landscape, conviction is the currency that wins.
For many of us, this can have big implications...
This research gives a clear and easy way to boost our ability to impact an audience. If you are a “low talker”, or if you don’t speak with much confidence, this can be a game changer.
Researchers at Harvard and UC Berkeley found an interesting connection between confidence and doubt. People are less likely to look critically into the arguments of communicators they perceive as confident. But the opposite may also be true. Someone may be more likely to challenge your ideas simply because you are speaking in a low volume and appear unconfident. This is true even if you believe deeply in what you’re speaking about.
The good news is...
You’ve got more vocal power than you’re using
The power of our voice is partly defined by our bodies, but also by our habits. Take The Voice sensation, Wé McDonald. In her blind audition, Wé, pronounced “way”, showed very different voices in how she sang and how she spoke. Watch her in action from 1:16 - 1:58.
And it’s not only Wé that has access to this powerful voice inside of her. Many of us have more vocal power available to us than we know.
Having worked with hundreds of clients all around the world to become more impactful communicators on high stakes stage situations like TED, the World Economic Forum and IPO roadshows, we at Virtuozo have found many ways you can access more vocal power when you need it. Here are three of my favorites.
Put your foot down
A few years ago I took a workshop in Portugal with the world famous voice teacher, Patsy Rodenburg. A significant part of the workshop was us lifting various chairs and heavy objects over our heads, or pushing with our arms against the walls of her farmhouse. While doing these exertions, Patsy instructed us to count out loud until we ran out of breath, or recite various lines of text from Shakespeare’s sonnets.
This may sound odd, but the effect was immediate. Suddenly people who could barely count to ten in one breath could count to twenty and higher. Wallflowers with soft voices that we could barely hear turned into vocal badasses.
The reason this works? It activates “the core”; that group of muscles in your abdominal area which, when you engage them, allows you to have a voice that is stronger and lasts longer. Since then I’ve had clients from CEOs to front-line managers, pushing, lifting, and lugging their ways to engage their core... resulting in stronger and more powerful voices.
One of my favorite ways to bring this tool into day-to-day work is by putting your foot down. Literally. You can even try it now.
Open the voice recorder on your phone or computer and record yourself slowly counting to ten.
Don’t stop the recording. Keep it going while taking a relaxing breath or two, then count to ten again. But this time, when you reach “five”, press your foot into the floor and keep it there while you continue counting to ten.
Listen to the recording. Can you hear the difference?
If you want to take it further, do some experimentation. Try the other foot, or perhaps try both? Does it make a difference if you are slouching over your desk with your head on your hand vs sitting straight up? How hard do you need to press to activate your core?
Find the combo that works best for you. One of my financial services clients wanted to work on not losing her voice during long meetings. After an hour of arming her with various tools, the one she loved best? Crossing her legs and pressing the bottom foot into the floor. It’s now been helping her win deals for years.
2. Speak to the back of the house
You can use your body’s natural instincts to speak with a more powerful voice.
When I graduated university, I went on tour as an actor with a traveling theatre company. For 12 weeks at a time, we’d get into our van and haul our trailer from one town to the next, playing for students. Each day was a different city. It was demanding work. Keeping our voices strong and healthy was the #1 concern while on the road.
How did we do it? Every morning we’d get up on the stage of the day and speak to the wall behind the last row of the audience (“the back of the house”). By visually focusing on that back wall, our bodies would naturally activate our core to give us more vocal power. Within a few minutes our voices went from reaching just the first few rows, to being heard at the back of the house, without the need of a microphone.
Don’t have access to a 5,000 seat theatre? There are simple “sound meter” apps you can play with to reach a similar effect. I like “Sound Meter” from Smart Tools as the gauge is easy to see, but any can do.
Open your app and check to make sure it’s working by talking in your regular voice, or vocalizing on a long “ahhh” sound
Repeat the same phrase or sound again, but this time see how loud you can get, while still having a good feeling in your throat
Once you can move the needle higher, place your phone as far away from you as possible, with the app open and "aim" your voice at the phone. Repeat what you did before.
Keep playing with your voice to get louder and louder for about 5 - 10 minutes
This is also a fun exercise to do if you have kids, or competitive adults. My four-year-old loves to “race” to see which of us can be the loudest.
To give you an advantage, here are a few things you can experiment with to boost your volume:
1 minute of physical activity that will get your heart pumping - jumping jacks, running around the room, solo dance party, etc., - then try speaking again
Holding a medium heavy object above your head while you speak. A heavy book, a chair or small stool, that basket of laundry you’ve been meaning to wash…
Try “The Straw” (see below)
When clients first start to amp up their volume they feel like they are applying a lot of effort. After a few minutes that feeling goes away, but they are speaking louder, clearer, and with more energy in their voice.
3. Grab a straw... and perhaps a glass of water
Over the last ten years, one tool that has taken the voice performance world by storm… The Straw. Yes, the same humble straw you may find at a restaurant, hotel bar, or grocery store. But do not be fooled. This common object can bring extraordinary results. In one experiment, researchers tested the straw vs a standard vocal warmup technique. Both groups increased the power of their voices, but the straw group was measurably louder than the other.
I’ve seen the impact on my clients. One tech CEO described the effect as “like inhaling a bunch of helium”. But instead of getting high and funny, his voice got deeper and louder. One TED speaker we were working with backstage in Vancouver said, “I feel my voice is coming from my eyes!” And while technically inaccurate, she wasn’t too far off on what was happening inside her body.
So how do we activate the magic?
Best is to learn from this video of the master himself, Dr. Ingo Titze. He’s the researcher most responsible for the straw’s bursting onto the world stage:
For non-USA audiences I use the “Happy Birthday” song and it works equally well, you just need to repeat more times.
A few tips:
Research has shown that doing the exercise 3 - 5 minutes is optimal for most people
If you have trouble getting this to work the first time make sure you are humming through the straw and no air is coming out through your nose
To increase the effect, grab a glass of water and do the exercise with your straw at least 3 centimeters/ 1 inch inside
This is also a great exercise to do if you feel you are losing your voice and need to speak. It’s my go to exercise before workshops and talks where I feel my voice isn’t 100%.
It’s time to roar
I find the research of Berger and Van Zant fascinating as it gives us a clear and easy way to channel our inner lions to increase confidence, conviction and impact. Other research has shown that vocal flexibility also plays a major role in influence, especially for leaders.
We’ll be covering that, and many other insights on increasing your impact in future episodes of the Virtuozo Impact Lab.
Meantime, find some low stakes situations where you can experiment putting your foot down, speaking to the back of the house, and singing through a straw. You just might discover your inner Wé.