Jon Robbins

I shouldn’t be writing this. It’s a really bad idea. But bear with me, the reason will become clear.

You’ll have heard that the eyes are ‘the windows to the soul’.

And they are. Until you open your mouth to speak.

In my group workshops, I might ask – to mild amusement – ‘Who uses their voice as a part of their work?’ All assent. ‘And who here practises their voice?’ What a ridiculous question!

And yet the voice is our most precious possession, giving flight to thought.  In Shakespeare’s Richard II, the banished Thomas Mowbray expresses the horror of how, no longer able to speak his mother tongue, his voice is “no more than an unstringed viol or a harp, … put into hands that knows no touch to tune the harmony.”

For many leaders I work with, this sentiment is apt.

To speak is to influence

There’s an illuminating body of research led by Juliana Schroeder, Assistant Professor at Haas School of Business, that reveals how speech beats the written word when it comes to influencing.

In her 2017 paper, The Humanizing Voice: Speech Reveals, and Text Conceals*, experiments show that reading an opposing opinion leads the reader to dehumanise the author, negating their intelligence, discrediting them as people. Whereas if the very same text is spoken, listeners more readily understand the view and respect the speaker. (The experiments also suggest a possible explanation for some of the animosity between polarised political standpoints.)

Given that speech is still the most effective tool for business, the greatest motivating force you have, and by far the most persuasive, it wouldn’t be wrong to consider refining this most overlooked (‘underheard’?) of resources.  After all, elite athletes, musicians and others at the top of their game practise their craft unremittingly to achieve the results that give the impression of talent.

The best teachers (and leaders) are good communicators

An important point often glossed over is this: they didn’t do it on their own. If you want to learn to fly, you’ll watch, and listen, and read and dream, but you’ll only get so far by gaining knowledge. There’ll come a point at which you’ll need to call on an expert – in fact, two – in one person: someone who’s an expert pilot, yet also an expert teacher.

Somehow  though, leadership is all too often regarded as a mystical art. Hard skills like influence, authenticity and negotiation, (yes, you read that right – there’s nothing ‘soft’ about them; they’re among the most difficult to master) are considered so nebulous that we tend to concentrate our efforts elsewhere: strategy, data, innovation …anywhere. 

We have to remind ourselves that communication and collaboration are highly-skilled, learnable activities. Those who are in the process of developing them benefit from executive teams that are built on a foundation of trust, where conflict is constructive, and ideas are given breath, resulting in a more engaged workplace, and happier clients and customers.  In short, their voices are heard.

Your voice is your most persuasive tool

Although being heard seems a fundamental and universal need – becoming the basis of our self-worth – we fall foul of a fatal assumption:

We put the onus on the listener to hear us, to perceive us as we wish, rather than take the responsibility for how we come across, and for (using a phrase that crops up so consistently) ‘bringing people with me’. 

Recently, I worked with a new leader who felt that the same respect should be accorded to them as to others at the same management level. And yet they had a voice that seemed to apologise for itself; that person was unaware their voice was creating that effect.

In the same way, you don’t need to sound like you’re gurgling broken glass to push people away. It might be that a withheld breath, or jaw tension, or any subconscious habit, is causing a lack of conviction.

With a few practical voice coaching sessions or workshops and some practice assimilating the techniques, things will begin to change. People start to sit up and listen and the former frustrations evaporate.

Let me end by asking you: How much of your full vocal range of expression did you use yesterday? 

Give it a rough percentage.

Now equate that to an untapped reserve of influencing power.  And let the possibilities soar.

And whilst I mentioned at the start of this article that I shouldn’t be writing this, (it would of course be more powerful if I were speaking to you), I hope you hear the sentiment in the piece: that your voice may well be an untapped resource that has hidden powers – with a little practice, it can achieve wonderful things!

Jon Robbins is a voice and executive presence coach, with Quiver Management

* The Humanizing Voice: Speech Reveals, and Text Conceals, a More Thoughtful Mind in the Midst of DisagreementSchroeder, J.,  (Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley) Kardas, M. , Epley, N.  (Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago) Association for Psychological Science, 2017

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