If someone asked you “what’s the story of your voice?” what would you say? This is not exactly a standard question. It’s not even standard to think about your voice, let alone to have a story about it.
But I’m asking, what’s the story of your voice?
When did you learn that you speak too softly or too loudly? That maybe you’re too monotone when you get up to talk in high stakes moments, or that you use the word "like" too much? I’ve found that most of us have a love/hate relationship with our voices; we just don’t have the tools to talk about it. Or change the story.
One sticky afternoon during the summer of 2018, I was driving to a community center I’d never been to in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. While I inched along city streets blasting the air conditioning, I called my mom to tell her I was about to see then-candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak. My mom, the type of second wave feminist who kept her maiden name when she married, said: “Oh good, she needs you!”
I had been coaching women running for the midterms through Moveon.org, helping candidates deliver their message like they deserved to be heard. But I gave my mom a total eye roll over the phone.
“Mom, I’m pretty sure she’s doing okay without me,” I told her.
“No,” my mom insisted. “I can’t take her seriously with that voice.” Too nasal? Too high-pitched? Too millennial? What she meant is that AOC sounds like where she's from, and who she is.
“Or,” I suggested, feeling fiery, “she’s teaching us what being taken seriously might sound like.”
I think of AOC as a data point. Same with former First Lady Michelle Obama and American activists Emma Gonzalez and Tamika Mallory. They're data points mapping the new sound of power, the one we didn't grow up associating with leadership. No matter who we actually admire, when we consider what a powerful voice sounds like, many of us accidentally revert back to old tropes we grew up hearing, like we’ve got collective amnesia.
And it stops us from becoming a new data point ourselves—trusting that our own voice, the one that reflects our own identity and our real life experience is the one that deserves to be heard.
So how can you sound more like where you're from, and who you are?
When we take a vinyasa class or rock out to Lizzo, our bodies tend to remember that they know how to breathe well all by themselves; they expand enough to fuel the activity. But when we speak, we don’t always breathe enough to fuel the activity. We don’t think of speaking as an aerobic sport—but we should. Bringing forth an unarticulated idea and grabbing words to articulate it in real time is a full-body experience. Try dancing it out before a tough conversation or an important meeting. Stretch and feel your ribcage expand, notice where you’re holding tension and get intentional about releasing it. (A recent podcast guest of mine who does standup, talked about leaning into her thighs when she’s about to land a provocative joke. Turns out, our thighs tense up when we’re in fight-or-flight mode, which, alas, public speaking sometimes triggers). The goal is freedom. Movement frees us.
Part of what goes wrong when we don’t breathe is that we start relying on our throats to do all the work of getting our words out. There’s all kinds of reasons to hide in our throats: shallow breathing, but also fear of being seen or heard, a disconnect between our feelings and what would be appropriate to share in this particular space, and my favorite, “the generic monster.” It’s this sense most of us have that there’s a right way to sound powerful, or to pitch, or to host a podcast, or to start a presentation, and it’s the way some other person would do it.
The thing is, when we go generic, we flatten ourselves out. We use a lot less pitch range than our voice has access to and come across as strangely absent — like we show up, without really showing up. Think about what you sound like when you’re sharing a wild story with your favorite people. How much you go up when you’re excited or drop down when you’re affecting a conspiratorial tone, how much you lift the words that matter in the thought and let go of the ones that don’t. Pitch equals vulnerability. Pitch shows we care. Listen, every room is different and if it feels legitimately dangerous to be yourself, please navigate accordingly. But sometimes it’s old habits or assumptions we picked up along the way that are holding us back, and they’re due for a performance review.
3. Make it about them
When you’re preparing to speak in front of an audience of one or 100, remember you’ve got something they need and that you are speaking for them. Do the work ahead of time to get really clear on what that something is, and speak to them like you’re there to help. We know how to do this for friends or family. We know how to help. And in fact, according to neuroscientists we get a dopamine hit when we do it. Trust that your idea, your pitch, your candidacy, will be of use and get the hormones flowing. Often, our vocal issues come down to apologizing—with words or just with our tone—for taking up time and space. Remember how much value you’re bringing to them. Nothing to be sorry about. If anything, you can think, “you’re welcome.” Which is kind of cheeky—and a little joy goes a long way these days.
This bizarre work-from-home era might actually be a good chance to try these techniques. What does public speaking mean anymore, anyway, if you’re doing it at home? Maybe it means you can experiment with being a bit more your favorite version of yourself, scaling her up, and seeing what she sounds like. What’s her story?
Samara Bay is an in-demand Hollywood speech coach for actors, entrepreneurs, politicians, scientists, and anyone looking to bring their best selves to their biggest moments and sound like it. She’s coached on movies like Wonder Woman 1984 and Netflix’s Eurovision and campaigns for women running for US Congress, UN speeches, award show telecasts, academic keynotes, and TED talks. Her iHeartRadio podcast, Permission to Speak, offers weekly intel on how to use your voice with guests from Michelle Obama’s speech-writer to linguists and actors. She’s currently writing a book for Penguin Random House on the new sound of power.