Voice and the way we use it matters. Hillary’s finding this out the hard way. She’s one of the most qualified Presidential candidates in the history of our country, but we can’t stand listening to her voice. Five voice strategies she can use now….
“There were many, many women in this convention who spoke far more memorably than she did, who held the crowd in more rapt attention, who were able to modulate their speeches in ways that helped people understand their message better. This is not, in other words, a woman problem; it’s a Hillary Clinton problem. She simply doesn’t have certain gifts of oratory and connection with people that other more natural politicians do. It’s a weakness in a presidential candidate.” – Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
First – a disclaimer: I’m an experienced voice and presentation coach, a Hillary supporter, and a woman, so don’t throw the “sexist” label at me. But we know what she sounds like: “shrill”, “hectoring”, “lecturing” and worse. We also know, despite her experience, her qualifications, and her sheer grit, that this single factor is negatively impacting her campaign and prohibiting her from really connecting with her listeners. So let’s analyze her voice a little, rather than changing the channel or throwing labels at it.
If I were Hillary’s voice coach, here’s what I would tell her to Do Right Now:
- Employ abdominal breathing to support the voice, stop pushing from the throat. So many politicians do this, and then they suffer from laryngitis and worse. Try taking a good abdominal breath when you change topics in a speech: this will center you emotionally, and give listeners time to digest what you just said.
- Emphasize vowels and de-emphasize consonants in strategic places. Emotionally, who is in your vocal driver’s seat? Is it anger, tension, resentment, or is it heartfelt concern, passion, and sincerity? What we hear is largely the former, and what you need us to hear is the later. You’ve got a few strikes against you vocally just due to your upbringing; a flat affect that locks your tonality in the facial resonators, and those hard midwestern “R”s. You can balance that by employing fix #1 along with stressing vowels over consonants. When adults stress consonants as much as you do, we are vocally asserting authority over our listener – scolding them like teenagers who stayed out all night, and the audience resents it. Even when we agree with your ideas – you force us to keep fighting this resentment, so instead of being able to imagine you as our president, we come to regard you – as Bill Mahar recently put it “like a vaccination” – something we have to do, but we won’t enjoy it”. Find some portion of your communications: a story, something you want us to imagine – and paint a picture in our minds by slowing down and stressing the vowels. Effective use of vowels signals emotional connection with your audience – they trigger the same neural response we had to our parents when we were children. That’s why we hear people stretch out their vowels when talking to their little kids. Obviously, I’m not advocating that strong an emphasis, I’m just sharing a piece of universal human neural connection that you can employ when you need us to listen to you like the compassionate advocate that you are, like someone we can trust as a fellow human being, not as a politician or policy wonk.
- Treat the microphone like a friend, not something you have to shout past. You know the drill on placement and how to position your head and body in relation to the mic – those things are not your problem. You might try changing your relationship to it by leaning in, lowering your pitch and your volume, and slowing down. You tend to get shrill when what you are saying comes from a place of anger – I’m not advocating you change that anger, but you might want to lower your volume and your pitch, slow yourself down, and redirect that emotion straight into the microphone so there is no mistaking your target: Trump and Republican policy, NOT your listeners.
- Vary your starting pitches. Experiment with different pitching at the beginning of sentences. Start each sentence with a different pitch. This is how people actually talk to people they know and trust. It signals engagement and a person who is not afraid to show us who she is. If we charted your voice on a graph so we could see the pitch range, it would be clear that often you err on the “Policy Wonk” vocal pattern: a very narrow pitch range with a forced droning tone that unconsciously signals us to tune you out. When you are speaking more off the cuff with listeners you are comfortable with, the graph would indicate a pitch pattern that is fairly wide and more expressive, but when you start to push for volume – your voice gets high, shrill, and strident. It’s a very common pattern for many of us and a truly unfortunate vocal linkage in a politician.
- Water is the best resource for voice health, period. Hydrate whenever possible – drink some when you employ strategic pauses in your speeches. Show some respect for your own vocal needs and you will let us see some vulnerability along with your capability: how hard you are working and how hard you will work for us.
Hillary, your voice is not a weapon, its a tool. Listening and assessing your voice is one way your listener denotes sincerity. Eyes may be the window to the soul, your smile may be dazzling, but the way you use your voice will either help establish trust or shut it down. You’ve mastered the content, but if we viscerally have to cringe when you open your mouth, roughly 38% of your message is not being received the way you need us to receive it; in hearts, as well as minds.
Kymberly Dakin, M. Ed, has over a decade’s experience in voice and presentation coaching with clients in law and accounting firms, financial services, national non-profits and start-ups: www.voiceintolearning.com.