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Sound Like Success: How to Improve the 
Quality of Your Voice

SoftwareCEO Interview With Rebecca Shafir by Gordon Graham

Every software exec has to do a lot of talking; in person, on the phone, giving presentations. You're called on to motivate staff, negotiate with prospects, speak to journalists, pitch investors. 

But is your "vocal image" up to the job? 

This issue, we present some unique tips and perspectives from a veteran vocal coach who works with business people to help them communicate better. 

It turns out, there's more to our voices than meets the ear. 

So if you're not happy with your voice — or you've never really thought about how you sound to other people — stay tuned for some tips that could help you be more successful. 

Getting vocal tip #1: How you sound is more important than what you say
Rebecca Shafir is a professional voice coach with 30+ years' experience who operates a Boston-based business called Mindful Communication. 

She helps business people from all over the world improve what she calls our "vocal image" or the impression we make with the sound of our voices. And that's really, really important. 

"Research shows that how we say things is much more important — perhaps five times more important — than what we say," she notes. "People make major decisions based on the sound of our voices." 

For example, listeners on the other end of the phone quickly jump to conclusions about our intelligence, education, expertise, credibility, likeability, and even what we look like, based on little more than the sound of our voices.

Giving a less-than-ideal vocal impression can lead to lost credibility, lost promotions, lost deals, and lost investors. 

So there is a lot riding on the sound of our voices.

Getting vocal tip #2: You can improve your voice
The good news is, our voices are not something we're just born with and stuck with. 

Now matter how you sound right now, you can learn how to use your voice to convey more authority and more decisiveness, and to connect better with others. 

Shafir helps people every day with this. 

"I get people transferring from behind-the-computer jobs to all of a sudden they're project managers or in sales... and they're experts in their fields, their content is outstanding, but darn, they just can't get people to listen, and they just can't sell themselves," she says. 

"And it's a shame."

But she says there are straightforward things people can do to improve, and even making a 25 percent improvement in your vocal image can be a huge transformation. 

Getting vocal tip #3: People are not good listeners, so you must speak clearly
Yeah, but isn't it up to the listener to catch our message? 

Not if it's you who wants to make an impression, or get something happening. 

Shafir even wrote a book on this, called The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction. In paperback, it's $11.53 from Amazon. 

"We are not a nation of good listeners," she says. "We have so much going on in our minds, and so much distraction going on around us. And if we don't catch something, we're hesitant to ask for clarification. 

"So as speakers, we have to combat those kinds of distractions by using our very best vocal image."

But how? 

In the rest of this article, Shafir highlights five common speaking problems, and what you can do about them. 

Getting vocal tip #4: Work to overcome the limits of telephones, speakerphones, and Skype
Standard telephones deliver a restricted bandwidth to the listener, says Shafir, which cuts off all the highest and lowest frequencies. Speakerphones and Skype are even worse. 

Plus we're competing with background noise, such as traffic or the buzz of conversation in a coffee shop. 

"It's kind of like speaking through a thick wool sock — that's pretty much what a listener hears over the phone line," she says.

The telephone proves "the need to be very flexible, to make your voice very adaptable and strong to combat those bandwidth limits."

She recommends "adding more energy to the lips and the tongue, and practice tasting the words. It's not speaking louder, just clearer."

And here's a couple more practical tips for the telephone. 

"When you're spelling out a word on the telephone, you really need to say 'S as in Sam' and 'F as in Frank.' You'd be surprised how many people have lost business because they just gave their website or their e-mail, and there was an F that their listener heard as an S."

And when you're leaving a message, say your phone number or website address twice to give your listener a better chance to catch it. 

Getting vocal tip #5: Inject variation into your voice, especially when giving a presentation
Monotony is another deadly sin in speaking. 

"Monotony is when I'm talking and nothing is changing, my pitch isn't changing, my volume isn't changing, my rate isn't changing, nothing is changing," says Shafir. "And monotony will put people to sleep faster than anything."

Couple that with some dull PowerPoint slides in a dark room, and it's nap time for many people. 

"We all love PowerPoint, but I try to use it sparingly and keep myself in the focus, because that's really who they're dealing with, not the PowerPoint," says Shafir. 

The key for speakers is to add some variety to your voice, some ups and downs, some vocal highlights and some dramatic pauses, but to do it strategically, in a way that works with your message. 

Emphasize the keywords of your presentation, says Shafir, so your vocal changes work to help anchor the main points of your content. 

She will even run through presentations with her clients to suggest which words to emphasize and how to do it. 

The point is not to get distracted by remembering all sorts of vocal cues. It's to become more relaxed when using your voice, so you can focus whole-heartedly on your content. 

Getting vocal tip #6: Don't mumble; learn how to move your face
Shafir says men with deep voices sometimes mumble. 

"You don't want to mumble, because it conveys certain messages," she notes. "It suggests that you're not quite sure of what you're saying. You're not quite interested in connecting with the listener." 

She routinely records her clients speaking so they can hear themselves, including their own mumbling. But what can they do about it? 

"We work on bringing more animation to the face, opening up the jaw. I do an exercise where I make somebody stand 200 feet away from me and I don't let them use their voice, I just make them articulate, and I have to see if I can read their lips."

If she can, that person will sound clear and decisive once they add their voice back in. 

Maybe you can't do this exercise in your own office, but you get the idea. Don't be afraid to move your face around. 

And when you're out there presenting, make an effort to connect with your audience. Make direct eye contact with members of your audience, and speak directly and clearly to each one for a few seconds at a time. If you don't want to do that, why are you there? 

Getting vocal tip #7: Overcome nasality by opening your mouth
There are two aspects to nasality, or "talking through your nose" which Shafir demonstrates over the phone. 

"The less common nasal problem [hyponasality] is where people are talking like they have a cold. This is deadly to a speaker in front of a group. When you notice your audience walking up with boxes of tissues, it's time to go to see a doctor," she chuckles.

Hypernasality is more common — especially in women — where it creates a high-pitched, squeaky-sounding voice which many people find irritating. 

"What's happening here is the oral cavity is closed off, the nasal cavity is getting all the sound waves emanating from the larynx, therefore the resonance is not equally distributed."

What can you do if your voice sounds like this? Again, don't think it's just something you were born with.

"I get people with nasality issues to open up their mouth to allow more of those sound waves to pass through the oral cavity. That's a pretty easy fix."

Ever notice how wide singers open their mouths? It's the same principle: Let the sound out. Practice alone if you need to. 

Getting vocal tip #8: Stop clearing your throat
Another common problem that Shafir sees is distracting vocal behavior, like excessive throat clearing.

"That's a sign of uncertainty. I had some very interesting training by a CIA interrogator when I was writing my book, and throat clearing is one of those behaviors where the body doesn't feel comfortable sharing information, feels unsure, or dishonest."

Of course, throat clearing could also be caused by allergies, an infection, or post-nasal drip. What can you do about it, short of doing to the doctor?

"Drinking a lot of water helps; swallowing is a very relaxing way to reduce the stress in the throat," says Shafir. 

"Water is sometimes needed because the vocal chords are just plain dry, and it's like running your car without any oil in it."

Getting vocal tip #9: 20 minutes before you need to speak, drink a big glass of water
Shafir calls this her 20-minute rule. 

"Twenty minutes before an important interview, radio interview, or presentation, have a big old glass of water," she says, "because it takes 20 minutes for the body to absorb that moisture and use it." 

She says your water can be at room temperature or a little cooler, it doesn't matter. 

If you have a cold, try gargling with salt water or lemon juice to break up any mucous in your throat. 

Both moves will help you put your best sound forward. 

And if you feel like you could benefit from some personal attention, look up a vocal coach like Shafir. She works with both individual execs and entire workgroups. 

Her first session, during which she takes your medical history and analyzes your voice, runs 90 minutes and costs about $350. Each follow-up session costs $150 an hour. 

How many sessions will it take to get your vocal image to where you want it to be? 

"Some people, I see them for one session, and they know what they need to do and they do it; they are so good at mimicking, and they've got a good ear, and they pick it up, and that's great," she says. 

"Others may take 10 or 15 visits, if they don't have a very good ear, and they aren't an auditory learner."

She can work over the phone, or in person. She can even work with entire groups, like your tech support team. After all, these people are in an especially stressful job where their vocal image likely affects your customer satisfaction ratings... and for a SaaS company, your subscription renewals. 

No matter how you do it, there's really no downside to doing a little to improve your vocal image.

Copyright (c) 2008, Computing Technology Industry Association, Inc. Reprinted with permission.



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