How Your Vocal Presence Influences Your Success

Christine S. Filip and Sharlene Vichness, New Jersey Law Journal
February 19, 2016

W.H. Auden was partially right when he said that, “All I have is a voice.” As a professional, one’s success is heavily influenced by one’s physical appearance, but one’s voice is the song of persuasion and a game changer. Your voice, like a great tune, has composition, rhythm, melody, phrasing and emotional content carried by words that move the listener. Highly acclaimed songs persuade us to listen, affect our feelings and sometimes make us dance. In truth, each of us sings a different tune.

Being successful at work requires our best “song” of persuasion in various settings, one to one, to a crowd, up the chain of command, down the chain, to insiders, outsiders, foes and friends. It matters dearly that we get that song right. Business voice is almost always a negotiation: multiple people with differing concerns trying to reach a useful solution that involves money.

Enter the Internet age, globalization and migrations of people to new places of work and life. Vast gulfs of bilingualism, culture and multiple generations of just plain English permeate our work and personal lives, and are obstacles to communication. To be a successful professional, to persuade and negotiate, which is what most business speak is, you must pay attention to your vocal presence.

Speaking + Body Language = Vocal Presence

Pair your vocal style with your body language and you get vocal presence, a song that works or doesn’t. Your vocal presence can change the arc of your career and your paycheck. Chances are very good that your public appearance will be recorded on the Internet as a speaker, alone or on a panel, a webinar, on a video newsletter, in a press conference or a networking event. That recording will serve to magnify the good and bad combinations of your vocal style and your body language: your vocal presence.Social media has given every participant the right to be a commentator on both the substance and style of your captured image.

Remedies for more effective communication and negotiation skills do exist, and they address the variables that make vocal presence different. The undermining variables include: accents; uptalk, aka, Valley girl voice; leftover teenage phrases (Dude!); growly voice, aka, vocal fry; rhythm and pitch; word choice; distracting space fillers, such as “ummmm,” “OK,” “like,” “you know” and other repeated meaningless words and phrases; and even body movements, like wiggling eyebrows, lip licking, constant head tilting, looking bored or angry, or large hand gestures.

Reading the Audience: Minimize the Differences

The point of this article is not that one style of vocal presence is better than another. The true message is that if you understand and read your audience and know its generalized style of communication, you can minimize your vocal presence differences that prevent effective communication.

A small example: as a native of New Jersey, in my early twenties I lived in New Mexico, just off the Texas panhandle. I started giving tennis lessons there. My first client was a young woman who in telling me about her life, mentioned that her husband, “holled sheet.” Translation: living in the cattle fattening capitol of the southwest, removing animal waste was an important business. Now you know. To be understood, I had to learn to speak slower, spend more time saying howdy, and severely downplay my “Joisey” accent to teach in a state where row-day-oh (rodeo) was a varsity college sport.

Of late, there has been a spate of articles focused on how women speak to their detriment at work, such as using “like” too much, making every sentence sound like a question (uptalk) or that cutesy growl (vocal fry) and diminishing phrases such as “Can I have a minute?” or “I think…,” or “I just want to say that…,” etc. There’s also been a backlash in articles questioning why, to be perceived of as competent, women have to speak like “older white men.” Fair enough.

This article advocates being less different from your audience so that you can negotiate better results for yourself. This effect is true for both men and women, because we are all actors on the same stage, and we all exhibit a lot of differences. As a result, we look at voice first, then vocal presence in action, meaning, negotiation.

Elements of Vocal Presence

Your vocal presence is a professional brand to convey gravitas, substance and likeability, and to minimize the differences between you (the transmitter) and your audience (the receiver). Whether you are informing, persuading or presenting, this vocal image is a major factor in the success or failure of your intended outcome. Other factors include, but are not limited to:

  • Volume. To be effective, voice volume should be scaled to circumstance. Your voice should be appropriately scaled for close contact or projection to everyone in a larger room. An intimate whisper is inappropriate for a boardroom presentation.
  • Tonality. All dressed up in a “power suit” doesn’t impress your audience if your voice emerges as a donkey’s bray, growly voice or high-pitched squeak.
  • Accents and Regionalisms. Everyone has an accent; it’s part of what makes you unique. But accents can sometimes make understanding difficult. The speaker must always be mindful of differences in vocabulary and usage from region to region.
  • Vocal Affectations. Valley girls don’t belong in the office or the boardroom. Neither do surfer dudes, brah. And neither do statements ending in a question (upspeak). And to be taken seriously, do not allow “vocal fry” or growly, creaky voices to infiltrate your speech. Think Confidence, not Cuteness. Think Mature, not Frat. Men also exhibit vocal fry: Jimmy Stewart and Casey Affleck are but two examples.
  • Style. Your posture affects both how you sound and how well you communicate. If you are slumped, your voice will not project well and you will not appear to be competent and in control. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
  • Word Choice. Using qualifying words or fillers can be demeaning factors in your ”credibility quotient.” Diminishing words are: just, I think, in my opinion, I’m sorry, and other words or phrases that devalue the speaker’s authority. Notice the difference between “I just want to let you know what I think could be a good solution to the problem” and “I want to suggest a potentially viable solution to this problem.”

  • Voice into Action: Negotiation

    We use our vocal presence at work for conversations that are preponderantly negotiations: two or more people in a discussion trying to reach a fair result for all with a financial impact. We hold these negotiations up and down the chain of command and in endless types of high and low stress situations inside our workplaces and with outside parties, like vendors, clients/customers, suppliers and potential new hires. High impact negotiations, as in a performance review or contract with a vendor or customer require our best vocal presence to communicate and persuade effectively.

    In highly crucial negotiations, it is vitally important to reach an equitable result for your company and the other side—basic win-win strategy. Diving deeper into the research of the financial impact of business negotiations demonstrates a very serious top and bottom line financial effect: retaining high performing (good partners) vendors, clients and workers improves the revenue and profit results of your company and are not to be ignored.

    There are numerous vocal presence factors that make a positive difference to a high impact negotiation, but the two subtle factors that are often most neglected are:
    1. Establishing a greater degree of rapport by asking (and researching) questions about both the professional and personal goals of people across the table so you are better prepared for the give and take; and…
    2. Preparing at least two pricing outcomes based on costing out the dollar values of potential concessions, trade-offs and value adds. Being certain of your financial range allows you to appear considerate of the other side’s requests rather than seeming to make up prices on the spot, which always appears untrustworthy.
    Wrapping Up

    In our digital and diverse world, there is no room for troublesome communication behaviors. Vocal presence is grounded in the projection of competence and the ability to read an audience, which decrease the differences between you and them. It is the key to achieving success at work, in thought leadership and in competitive leadership, because we use words and physical presence to achieve results in negotiations that matter deeply.

    Filip is an attorney and the president of Business Development Partners in New Jersey. Vichness is the president of Language Directions in New Jersey. Together they present a workshop, “Change Your Voice. Change Your Fortune,” for businesses, higher education and professional firms.

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