Voice and Power

The difference between men and women is that men will speak out and pretend to be confident. Women will only speak out when they are confident.
— Lynda Spillane
Voice coach Lynda Spillane (r) with Kristy Wallace, president of Ellevate

Voice coach Lynda Spillane (r) with Kristy Wallace, president of Ellevate

When I hear I can attend an event starring Margaret Thatcher’s voice coach, I’m there.

I grew up in England during Thatcher’s long reign as prime minister, which stretched from 1979 to 1990. I remember she wore skirt suits with fussy ‘80s blouses, she wielded a capacious handbag, and she had that famous voice. The low pitch, the emphasis, the measured tones. It was made fun of a lot (as was the handbag) but boy did it make her distinctive. People listened when she spoke.

Lynda Spillane has worked with a lot of statesmen and women over the years, including more recently President Obama. I was fascinated to hear her talk about communication and public speaking at an Ellevate event recently. Women’s voices have become a controversial topic. There’s been a backlash in the US against widespread criticism of upspeak, vocal fry, and girlish voices. The backlash comes from women saying, “Enough – this is me. And this criticism is sexist.”

My own listeners are divided. When I produced my last show about women’s communication styles, about half the comments I got on Facebook were from professional women who firmly believed in hiring a vocal coach like Spillane to improve your voice and communication skills. The other half shot back, ‘I am who I am, the world should accept me for that. Why would I change myself to fit in with a sexist workplace?’ They saw changing their voice and style as becoming ‘more male’, and they rejected that idea.

I asked Spillane about those critics and she replied, “That’s ridiculous - it’s got nothing to do with being male. I would ask, what’s your goal?”

Spillane and the other half of my correspondents are adamant: if your goal is to persuade people, to have them receive your message, you need to speak in a way that gets them to listen. 

If they’re hung up on a particularly high voice, a garbled delivery, or a voice filled with upspeak or vocal fry, they won’t hear your message. Sure, you could argue that’s their problem. But if communicating is part of your job, as it is most people’s, why wouldn’t you want to be persuasive?

This is why I’ve always been interested in public speaking, even though it still terrifies me. I’m a keen communicator and I want people to listen. I want to engage with them.

If you feel the same way, here are a few pointers from Spillane. She says:

  • People talk too quickly
  • They don’t speak loudly enough
  • Public speaking is different from private speaking – you have to break sentences up and project your voice
  • You need to use pauses

I learned about those last two points when I was making my own foray into this world several years ago. When you’re speaking in a public setting you do need…to…slow…down. It feels unnatural at first but it works.

Finally, to another stateswoman. Ellevate president Kristy Wallace brought up Hillary Clinton and her voice, which is widely felt to be harsh, even if the audience saw much of that criticism of it as sexist.

Here’s what Spillane had to say:

“Hillary has a very masculine voice…It’s not just a question of it being deep. It’s got a very masculine sound to it – and that’s because she’s never learned to speak properly from her diaphragm.”

As every voice student knows, it’s all about the breath.

“I think a lot of people don’t relate that well to her because of that,” she concluded. “They perceive her to be cold and distant because of it.”

It’s a bit late for Clinton to take lessons now, she said. Why would she? But she added anyone else who needs to persuade others as part of her or his job should view the voice as a powerful tool – one that can be honed for success.