The Sweet Sound of Success
Last month, a colleague sent me a request via e-mail.
“Could you consider lowering your voice when working from your desk?”
No problem, I was tempted to yell across the newsroom.
Instead, I hit reply and thanked her for her candour. I subsequently relayed the non-verbal exchange to my boss, who all but screamed out: voice makeover!
In an age when every last bit of our bodies is fair game for sharp needles, invasive procedures, sadistic trainers and unhealthy self-scrutiny, non-cosmetic improvements such as voice training seem too painless to be true.
Which is not to say easy. Or even fast. As I quickly learned from a crash course in changing the way I breathe – and subsequently speak – the process requires commitment, reprogramming and a willingness to sound like a robotic cartoon character.
But speaking well is part of an oft-forgotten family of social graces that is poised (pardon the pun) to become as important as ever. We are losing so much these days – jobs, money, morale – that the least we can do is hold our heads high and try to be eloquent about it.
“It’s far less expensive than cosmetic surgery,” etiquette expert Gloria Starr said in an interview.
“If you’re using poor body language or posture or negative attitude, it doesn’t matter how beautiful you are, you’re sending out bad energy.”
Starr, who runs an image-consulting business in Charlotte, N.C., and trains princes and celebrities in the art of dining elegantly, just published her seventh book, The Modern Day Finishing School. And business is thriving: “I’m doing a million dollars a year in my home-based office and travelling all over the world.”
“Everything a person does to improve themselves will add value; there are inexpensive and free ways to speak better and stand with excellent posture,” she continued. Watching old movies, she suggested, provides a better model than what we absorb all around us today.
But no amount of Audrey Hepburn alone could change my voice.
Bonnie Gross is a Toronto-based speech therapist who specializes in public speaking and communication skills.
In my three visits in as many weeks, she introduced me both to my problem areas and some of the issues that affect us all.
“I’ve seen people who come in and say, ‘I have an interview in three weeks and I know the way I speak is holding me back.’
And the truth is, the way they speak is holding them back,” said Gross, whose company, Speech Science, offers lessons that range from reducing those insidious “ums” and “likes” to sounding like a million bucks (ahem, dollars).
“A person’s voice has an instant emotional impact on the listener, and what we want to do is have that instant emotional impact be positive,” she continued. “The goal of using your full potential voice is to give the right impression, and I often say that voice is the second impression.”
Gross bristles at the idea that changing a person’s voice is a form of makeover. Making a person sound more educated is simply “refining what’s already there.”
I called up Samantha Anobile, a former patient of Gross’s, to hear how transformative the process can be.
While I don’t know how she sounded before, her voice now is both silky and sophisticated. “People comment on my voice all the time,” said Anobile, who is nearly 60 but sounds like a late-thirtysomething. “They say that I have a sexy voice or ask whether I have had training.”
The accounts manager for L.A.-based Salon magazine says her job requires chatting up clients, which can make her voice “tense and tight” by day’s end. “I was always aware of my voice, but I didn’t now how to improve it.”
I hung up, wondering whether I could sound as mellifluously ageless, rather than often stuck between teenager and adult.
Gross’s audio arsenal includes a video camera.
“It allows the client to see and hear the positive impact on their overall presence and communicative impact,” she explained, adding that the camera reveals “the negative impact of the problems.”
She also uses Computerized Speech Lab hardware and software, which analyze speech patterns and biofeedback. During our first session, we tested my pitch and volume ranges using the Visi-Pitch program. Gross said this provides a visual and auditory goal.
When I spoke a few sentences into her microphone, the vacillating grey and blue lines resembled a high-volume trading day on the stock exchange. There were also areas where my pitch diverged into two lines, only to come together again; these were pitch breaks that occur when I run out of breath.
For the sake of getting the most from our sessions, Gross told me she would be skipping some steps and asked me to talk, this time while breathing out.
“[Your voice] goes up when you get excited about something, which is charming, and that’s the part I wouldn’t want to drop at all,” she explained. “But you go up and you get louder, which can be grating.”
This, I suspected, is how my colleague would describe my voice. But Gross assured me there is hope. “As soon as you drop your pitch, you can still get excited; you’re just going up and down and all around from a lower point.”
Dropping my pitch permanently is not as easy as dropping my pitch once or twice. The deeper issue is, quite literally, that I don’t breathe deeply enough.
Apart from drama students and yogis, who thinks about their diaphragm?
In my case, this manifests itself as nasality, because I’m not maximizing my chest resonance. My voice has nowhere to go except into my mouth and nose.
To help me understand where my breath – and consequently voice – should originate, she had me try a series of exercises that begin as if I’m yawning and end with some dialogue.
Co-ordinating these processes without sounding goofy seemed more difficult than learning to dance like Beyoncé.
With more than 30 years in the business, Gross has a good sense of how long the process takes to stick. Most people require an average of three months of weekly sessions, at $100 to $300 per session.
So will my colleague still take issue with my voice? Most likely. But I think I am able to respond in a more sophisticated way. And I now catch myself when I get too cutesy. As Gross said, “I’m asking people to change the most instinctive thing you do.”
I couldn’t have said it better (although I can now say it lower).
Written by Amy Verner, reporter for the Globe and Mail.
Bonnie Gross is currently the President of SPEECHSCIENCE INTERNATIONAL – a company devoted to helping individuals become dynamic, influential speakers and communicators, through training, in voice enhancement, fearless public speaking, leadership speaking skills, VOCAL EQ. and accent reduction. With a dual career in both Speech Pathology and Radio and Television Arts, Bonnie is able to transform individuals into dynamic, persuasive, exciting speakers.. Her techniques create permanent and outstanding results for her clients.