We Need to Fix the Media, Not Women’s Voices

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Recently, a major UK newspaper asked to interview me about my job as a voice coach. They sent over some potential questions they might ask, and all of them were about women. The questions included: ‘What can women do to make themselves sound more professional?’ and ‘Are there a lot of business women that hire voice coaches?’ When I did the interview, the journalist said the motivation for the piece was in response to a recent BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour episode that discussed how difficult it can be for women to find vocal authority.

This is a topic that is very close to our hearts. As both voice coaches and women, we are in constant search over how we can find our own voices in the social and cultural landscape in which we exist. As a result, female vocal authority has been my topic of research for both my Master’s thesis and in professional contexts. Lindsay and I even presented on this very topic for the Being Human Festival at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 2015.

We have avidly followed the growing media conversation about this subject, which is compulsively fixated on the topic of women’s voices and how they need to change them in order to be taken seriously. From Naomi Wolf’s article (one among many) telling women to stop using vocal fry, which is a habit of allowing a little creak into the voice that can come from either lack of breath support or pushing the pitch down, to women being told to stop talking like ‘valley girls’, which means ending their sentences on an upward pitch, making it sound like a question, to studies showing that both men and women prefer masculine (meaning low, deep) voices in their leaders. Selena Simmons-Duffin of NPR did an excellent segment on the growing phenomenon of criticizing women’s voices in 2014. In this segment, she amassed the six most common complaints about female voices: 1. their voices are too high 2. They sound like children 3. They don’t sound authoritative. 4. They’ve got vocal fry. 5. They end statements as questions. 6. Their voices are too low. Wait, what? Women’s voices are too high and too low? No wonder women are confused.

The current political landscape is adding fodder to this conversation. In the UK, the above-mentioned BBC Radio 4 interview played clips of Theresa May’s and Andrea Leadsom’s voices and had a voice coach compare them and discuss which one sounded more authoritative. They also played clips of Margaret Thatcher, who (in?)famously received vocal training to lower the tone of her voice to sound more authoritative. The voice coach on the program said Thatcher did sound more authoritative as a result of lowering her larynx, which respectfully we must say, we would never advise women to do. Lowering your larynx all the time, which causes you to speak in a lower pitch, would probably feel about as authentic to you as raising it all the time (which would cause you to speak in a higher pitch). If you are interested in sounding conventionally authoritative, I wrote an article about it on another blog which you can read here.

And in the US, while there are countless articles denouncing Donald Trump’s credibility based on his words and ideas, I have yet to come across an article that scrutinizes the tone of his voice (if you have come across one— please send it to me in the comments below!). Yes, there are many impressions of him, but that is not untypical of someone running for public office, especially in the US. Meanwhile, a quick google search of ‘Hillary Clinton Voice’ leads to dozens of articles about the “problems” with her voice, and why people hate it so much.

So, back to my (very prestigious) interview with this UK publication. Here are my answers to their questions.

What can women do to make themselves sound more professional?

I feel very passionate as a voice coach about reframing this question. The way this question is being asked implies that 50% of the population has a problem sounding professional. If half the population has that problem, we need to ask ourselves as a society what standard we are holding that population to. In my experience as a coach, my female clients feel they are not heard because they are expected to sound like men. And many of my clients, previous to receiving coaching, have tried to adapt to sound like men, to their disappointment, because it doesn’t feel authentic to them. Because they are not men!

So instead of asking this question, can we ask two different questions: 1. How can anyone and everyone find their authentic vocal authority? 2. What can we as a society do to create more room for more diverse types of voices, as opposed to holding everyone, both men and women, to an ancient, gendered standard of the masculine, low deep voice? (If you are interested in reading more about that, there are brilliant articles you can read  here and here.)

I approach coaching my clients by asking the first question of myself with every client I meet: How can I help this person find their own authentic vocal authority? Some clients are interested in having that classically authoritative sound, some are not. I am very committed to helping them feel grounded and authentic in their vocal choices, rather than making them feel like there is one type of authoritative sound.

2. Are there a lot of business women that hire vocal coaches?

Yes, but there are also a lot of business men that hire vocal coaches, and in my experience, it’s for the exact same reasons. They feel they aren’t being heard. They want more gravitas, more credibility. So while it’s absolutely true that men and women face different obstacles in the work place, I still approach both with the same question: How can I help this person find their own authentic vocal authority? Men also have difficulty living up to society’s masculinized ideal of authority. In the end, they too have to find their own authenticity.

While this interview did indeed occur, the paper did not publish it. It could be because it didn’t end up fitting with their other features that week, but I do wonder if it’s also because I didn’t give them the answers that they wanted. I wonder if they wanted me to be yet another voice coach in the media pathologizing women’s voices, and making women feel like their voices are something they need to fix.

Well we won’t do that. As voice coaches, we at BeSpoke Communication firmly believe that everyone can benefit from voice training, including women. Not because we all need to adhere to one specific kind of sound in order to be heard, but because it can be empowering to learn how to use your voice as a tool. So women, there is nothing wrong with your voices. If you want voice training in order to better use what you’ve already got, then let’s do it!

Christine

Warm Yo’Self! (10 Minute Warm-up)

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Hello friends!

Warm yo’self!

This week we’ve got a 10 minute voice and body warm up for you that includes everything we’ve covered so far— some body and alignment work, breath support, resonance, range and articulation. It’s great as a short daily routine or as a warm up before an audition or presentation.

Let us know how it goes, and stay warm!

Take good care,

Lindsay and Christine

Finding Your Alignment

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Hello friends!

Now that we have checked in with the body through the ‘Basic Body Check In’ and the ‘BeSpoke Body Scan’, this week we are introducing a quick sequence to help you find your alignment in standing. Finding your alignment is about stacking the bones of your body from the crown of your head to your toes. It all starts with the feet, which is why you get a sneak peak at Christine’s sexy cat slippers! Meow!

Finding this alignment allows you to stand with grace and move with ease. It’s a timeless posture that will keep you more comfortable and allow you to breathe more easily when you stand up. Easier breathing means easier speaking. This is an excellent sequence to listen to along with our other body check -ins or on its own. It can be used as a prelude to a vocal warm up or as a way of checking in right before you begin to speak in any communication context.

Please let us know what you think!

Christine & Lindsay

 

Why Work On Your Voice?

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(Addendum: We have been planning to publish this blog post for the last week. This morning, when we woke up to the news of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we hesitated. We weren’t sure if today was the right day to post something that was unrelated to the attacks— if it would perhaps be somehow disrespectful. But then we decided— maybe this is the exact day that BeSpoke should publish this post. We live in strange, scary times where communication, particularly peaceful cross-cultural communication, seems to be breaking down. In publishing this post, we at BeSpoke are advocating that we all take a step back and think about how we communicate. Thinking about how we use the voice seems like a perfect place to start.)

If you already know how to talk, then why would it be important to spend time working on your voice? Isn’t the sound that comes out just the sound you were born with?

Well, no. Not necessarily. Do you feel like you could talk all day and not lose or strain your voice? Do you feel like you are always using the appropriate volume, or are people often telling you your voice is too loud or asking you to speak up? Do you feel like your voice is helping you say what you’re trying to say, or does it get in the way? Do your nerves change the sound of your voice? Do you mumble?

We were all born with a powerful voice. Babies, whether we like it or not, have the ability to scream and cry for hours and hours and hours (and hours…)— without losing their voices. Without even going hoarse. It’s an important survival skill. Babies need to be able to cry and scream until someone who can care for them takes notice. You used to be able to do that.

For a multitude of reasons, many of us over time become disconnected from that powerful voice and adopt other habits that can prevent us from communicating fully. Now, I’m not saying that to communicate fully you have to scream like a baby. While that might certainly have an impact, it might not be the impact you wanted.

However, the way you use your voice at any age can affect the perceptions of the people who listen to you, as well as your perceptions of yourself. Albert Mehrabian’s research revealed that, when you’re discussing your thoughts and feelings in ambiguous situations, 55% of effective communication has to do with body language. 38% has to do with tone of voice. Only 7% has to do with the actual words that you’re saying. When taking that into consideration, it seems that it’s just as important to think about how you’re saying what you’re saying as it is to think about what you’re saying. You get what I’m saying?

Working on the voice can therefore provide a powerful way of working on your communication. Learning how to use the voice efficiently (so that you can talk with appropriate volume and a variety of color for as long as you need to without strain), and learning how to connect your voice to your message can help you find authenticity, gravitas, and impact.

So just how do you work on the voice? There are so many ways. You can start by having a browse through our audio content in our Voice Coaching Audio Lab. And there will be more to come.

Christine

Self-Talk to the Talking Self—Early Musings on the Mindful Voice

“Be mindful of your self-talk. It’s a conversation with the universe.” David James Lees

Mindfulness is—in the words of the Zoolander villain Mugatu—“so hot right now.” There’s no shortage of speculation on the reasons many people are seeking ways to reconnect to presence, a key concept of mindfulness. Reasons range from the deeply cynical to, what I consider, optimistic to the point of delusion. I place myself somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Mindfulness allows me to ease fixation on the past and anxiety about the future while appreciating and observing moments of existence as they occur. Over the years it has become increasingly connected to the way I understand my communication internally and externally. We’ll get back to that in a moment. First allow me to give you a little context on my relationship with mindfulness.

Not to sound like a hipster at the latest local microbrewery, but I was into mindfulness before it was cool. That’s an exaggeration, but it was certainly before lifehacker.com wrote about a study evaluating 700 mobile mindfulness app options (link here: http://lifehacker.com/the-best-mindfulness-apps-ranked-in-one-chart-1726392024). I’ve always had a bit of a neurotic streak. This was not helped by the trials and tribulations of high school, where I began experiencing my first ever-existential crises. Probably partly in the hopes of reducing the number of visits I made to his office, a student advice counselor lent me CDs (yup, CDs still very much a thing at this time) of Mindfulness pioneer Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations. I didn’t really get it and admittedly felt a bit silly when I sat on the floor trying to monitor my breath. If any of you ever watched “Tiny Toon Adventures” there was a New Age, mediation, chanting expert called Shirley

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From: http://tinytoons.wikia.com/wiki/Shirley_the_Loon/Gallery

“the Loon” McLoon (real subtle wordplay there; I did indeed do research to verify this character’s identity) and that’s kind of what I felt like—a loon. But I liked that there was no agenda except focusing on the breath, clearing the mind, and becoming aware of the present moment.

Over the years I’ve dipped in and out of regular mindfulness meditation during times of stress or health-kicks and now I practice it regularly alongside yoga. I do use the app simply called “Mindfulness,” which has a feature allowing you to choose times of day to receive a mindfulness notification like, “Take six breaths with full awareness.” And I find that helpful. Where it’s really become influential recently is my development of ideas on how our thought patterns influence our communication skills. The concept of “self-talk” is another current hot topic across many contexts involving some kind of performance, whether athletic, artistic, or traditional presentations. My understanding, based on the pop-neuroscience reading I’ve done, suggests that our internal (non-voiced) and external (voiced) thoughts affect our brain’s neural pathways, which in turn impact the body on a number of levels. In my mind this chain reaction contributes to different behaviors manifesting in our internal and external acts of communication.

That process is why I am so intrigued by the relationship of voice/body work to mindfulness. How we think about challenges, events, and good moments in our day affects the way we communicate them to the outside world. I notice these shifts most at two extremes: tired/stressed and happy/energized. In the first my voice sits in a croaky place that’s often disconnected from my breath, leading to monotone, de-energized sound. With the second I feel the fullness of my voice being powered by the breath and find playful shifts in expression.

Obviously these are two very clear differences and there’s a vast spectrum of emotion and sensation we interact with day-to-day, but the way mindfulness fits in for me is the ability to notice how I’m impacting my own self-talk. Taking ten minutes to focus on the breath, on presence, opens up the possibility of choosing how I respond to fatigue and stress moment by moment. Making the choice to focus on the breath helps the voice and body function better and makes me feel more grounded and capable in my communication with others, even encourages the voice to regain some vitality instead of leaning in to a low-energy mentality. Many people have experienced moments where they’re forced to make this shift, doing a fake-it-til-you make-it to get through a presentation or any important day when you’ve been up all night. My interest is how actively linking a sustained mindfulness practice to communication might change the ways we talk: inside, outside, about the self to the self, about the self to others, and of course, to others about themselves and the world.

Consider this a preliminary discussion, I’ll be looking at more focused aspects of mindful communication in upcoming posts. It’s important to bear in mind that mindfulness is still very much in the subjective realm, although this NYT blog post my mom sent me discusses some new research that seeks to nail down scientific evidence for overall benefits of mindfulness: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/contemplation-therapy/?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0

(Thanks, mom!) The point is, remember to honor your experiences and feel free to send any thoughts on what this provokes for you.

Happy talking and self-talking!