Hard To Listen To
Stephanie was concerned about commanding a room. In particular, she worried her voice wasn’t up to the task.
I asked what specifically she worried about.
“I’m monotone,” she said. “People tune me out when I talk.”
“They do? I don’t,” I said.
“Well, you’re different,” she said.
“How so?” I asked.
“’Cause it’s your job to listen to me,” she laughed.
I laughed, too. “Maybe, but some people are hard to listen to even for me. You aren’t one of them.”
“No?” she asked, curious.
“No, you’re not. Let’s start with you being monotone. You’re not. But you’re not alone thinking you are. A lot of people think they’re monotone. But they aren’t. A true monotone would sound like a robot from a 1950’s sci-fi movie. No one sounds like that.”
“Well, okay, maybe not monotone, but, like you said, hard to listen to. If it’s not monotone, what is it?”
I said, “Stephanie, instead of focusing on what makes people hard to listen to, can we flip it and think about what people do that makes them able to command a room?”
“Yes,” she said with energy, “that’s what I want.”
“Okay. If you want your voice to command a room, you have to treat it like an instrument. If you’re going to ask your voice to perform, you need to groom it, exercise it.”
“Take it out for a walk?” she asked, laughing.
“More like going to the gym,” I said. Then, “I’m going to lay out three areas of exercise for your voice.”
“Really? Great,” she said. “Hit me. What’re the big three?”
The sacred seed of vocal command
I said, “Okay, before I tell you the three areas, I want to plant a seed that will strengthen all three areas. No matter what part of your voice you’re exercising, this one seed needs to part of it.”
“Holy moly, okay! What is it?”
“Variety,” I said. “If you want your voice to command a room, it has to have variety. Vocal variety.”
I continued, saying, “Consistency makes our brains numb. When there’s lack of vocal variety we stop listening. So, as you exercise your voice, the meta-goal is to create as much variety as possible. Variety keeps people listening.”
She nodded in understanding. “Like being monotone turns ‘em off.”
“Exactly, yes,” I agreed. “Okay. One final thing before I tell you the three areas. There is a big obstacle to doing this vocal work. Think about your voice. You think you’re monotone. Some people think they’re squeaky. Some people think they’re nasal. No matter what you think about your voice, your brain accepts it as normal. In your case, your brain knows your highest note and your lowest note, and your brain accepts those as good and proper.
“As you develop your voice, you’re going to stretch your highest note a little higher and your lowest note a little lower. When you stretch those norms, your brain is going to resist. It’s going to tell you you sound ridiculous. It’ll try and snap you back to what it thinks is ‘right.’” I slowed down, saying, “If you want to develop your voice so it can command a room, you have to push past the discomfort that comes when you stretch your default settings.”
“Are you trying to discourage me?” she asked.
“No, I’m trying to prepare you to expect resistance. Resistance is natural and you’ll need to push past it.”
She nodded. “Got it. So now do I get the big three?”
R = Rhythm
“You do,” I said. “Here they are. R.V.P. That’s the acronym I use. R.V.P. Rhythm. Volume. Pitch. Those are the three areas you’re going to exercise. Let’s start with the R. Rhythm.”
She gave a smiling grimace. “Are we going to do tongue twisters?”
“Tongue twisters?” I asked. “What made you think of that?”
“I had this friend back in middle school. She had a tongue twister she could do super-fast. It always made me laugh. That’s rhythm, right? Talking fast.”
“Yes. Or talking slow. Sometimes it’s an attention grabber to just. Slow. Things. Down.”
“I never think of that. I like it when I hear it, though.”
“I use it. A. Lot,” I said, exaggeratingly.
She smiled. “You know what that makes me think of? The sloth in Zootopia.”
I burst out laughing. “Yes!”
“My girls and I watch that scene over and over. We cry we’re laughing so hard. That’s all about rhythm, right? The bunny cop can’t slow down, and the sloth is so painfully slow. Oh, my, gosh!”
“Right!” I said, relishing the scene.
With a big smile, she said, “Okay, I won’t go as far as the sloth, but I see how I could slow down sometimes.”
“Or speed up,” I added.
“Or stop altogether.” She looked at me with a smile. “One of my girls shows me these dance videos. These dancers are amazing, what they do with their bodies. I love when they’re doing all these fast little movements, then suddenly snap to complete stillness. That grabs me. That’s rhythm, right?”
“Absolutely. Pausing is variety, and variety makes rhythm powerful.”
“I’m not great at it, but I admire it. Okay. I can expand my rhythm. Great. What’s next? V. Volume. Loud and soft, right?”
V = Volume
“Right. A great place to start is observing people. Are they easy to hear? Are they too loud.”
“Funny you say that,” she cut it. “Just yesterday, I met a friend at a coffee shop and there was this guy, I swear his volume was stuck on 11. He was so loud. And he didn’t seem to have any idea.”
“Was he on the phone?” I asked.
“No! He was with another person. I kept wondering if the other person was hard of hearing or something. I kept waiting for the friend to shush him.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Maybe that’s just his default setting when it comes to volume.”
“Maybe,” she said, shaking her head. Then she said, “I think I’m okay on volume. I think people can hear me okay,” she said.
“Good, I hope they can. Here’s a way to think about volume. When you’re speaking, the person in the farthest corner should be able to hear and understand you without strain or effort. And the person closest to you shouldn’t feel you’re shouting.”
“Both at once, huh?”
“But that’s just your default. Then you add variety. Can you get softer sometimes? Louder sometimes?”
“Golly, I never thought about it. Which means I probably don’t.”
I leaned in. “Sometimes it’s fun to just get really quiet.”
She laughed. “Make ‘em work for it, huh?”
“It’s just more variety.” I said.
“So how would I exercise volume? Start whispering at the dinner table?”
“You could!” I laughed. “But the real work is breath work. You can’t control your volume until you can control your breath. Have you ever focused on your breathing?”
“In yoga, sure. Oh! And square breathing (discussed in commentary section of episode). Have you heard of that?”
“Yes, that’s a great breath control exercise.”
She was making a note as she asked, “What’s left after rhythm and volume? P. What was P?”
P = Pitch
“Pitch,” I said.
“Being a monotone!” she said, wagging her finger at me. “I knew we’d get there.”
“I hope I can expand your thinking about this monotone idea,” I said. “Here’s how I think of pitch. We all have a top note and a bottom note. Your voice rising and falling between those notes is your pitch. At the moment, your top note and your bottom note are pretty close together. If you want to command a room with your voice, you’ll want to expand your range, add more pitch.”
“How would I do that?” she asked.
“There are two exercises you might play with. The first one is particularly good for women. In the morning, when you first wake up, take a moment. Whatever position you find yourself in, just relax there. Don’t move. Breathe in. Then, as you breathe out, put a little voice on top of your exhale. Hum or say ‘uh.’ Listen for your pitch. A lot of women hear a very different voice come out of their bodies.”
“Lower?” she asked.
“Much,” I said. “A lot of women say they can feel a rumble in their chest. That’s your pitch when your voice is its most open and relaxed. Experiencing that gives you a vision of where your natural voice might actually be.”
“But I’d never really be able to talk like that, would I?” she asked.
“If that bottom note was available to you, why not?”
She thought about that, then gave a surprised little “huh!” Then she said, “Okay. What was the other exercise?”
“This is a stretching exercise. The goal is to expand your default settings. Take a breath, then, using any vowel sound, slide from your highest note to your lowest note and back up again. Do it over and over. You can do it while you’re doing the dishes or walking to the car. Keep doing it until your brain begins to rewire its default settings.”
“My girls are going to get so much mileage out of this,” she said with a smile. Then she asked, “Is it true that lower voices command our attention more easily than higher ranges? And is it true for both men and women?”
“That’s my experience,” I said.
She nodded. “Mine, too, I think. I’ll start listening.”
Stephanie was fearless. Learning to command a room was important enough to her that she didn’t allow her natural resistance to stop her. She understood that resetting her default settings in rhythm, volume and pitch would lead her to The Look & Sound of Leadership.