May 31, 2013

Tune Your Witness’s Tone of Voice

By Dr. Shelley Spiecker:

 Speaking Bubbles

A few days ago I was helping prepare a successful CEO for testimony in an upcoming arbitration. The case boiled down to a dispute between two shareholders with one advocating for dissolution of their agreement and the other seeking to keep the agreement in force. My client’s testimony and credibility would be crucial to the case. A high self-monitor, he quickly picked up on my recommendations for posture, eye contact, and other key nonverbal credibility cues. One impediment remained – a tendency to end sentences with an upward vocal inflection. While infrequent, this “uptalking” had the overall effect of making him appear uncertain and less believable than desired.

Ironically, while vocal characteristics speak volumes in terms of impression formation, they can often be one of the more difficult aspects of witness presentation to change. Sager suggests that scientifically voice sounds different to the speaker than it does to the listener, a key reason it can be difficult for many witnesses to self-correct their vocal cues.

Recent research suggests that making the effort to assess vocal quality and enhance vocal effectiveness can pay off. A 2012 study by Quantified Impressions and published in the Wall Street Journal, found that voice quality accounted for two times more than message content for listeners when forming impressions.  The same article reports a study of over 700 executives, finding that CEOs with lower-pitched voices made on average $187,000 more than their higher-pitched counterparts.

So why does how we sound have such an impact? Some communication strategists suggest that listeners can have a positive or negative emotional reaction to vocal cues. Jeffrey Jacobi, author of How to Say It with Your Voice (Prentice Hall, 2000), surveyed 1,000 men and women and asked, “Which irritating or unpleasant voice annoys you the most?” Overwhelmingly, the most annoying sound was a whining, complaining, or nagging tone. Other offenders included a high-pitched or squeaky voice, a loud and grating voice, a mumbler, very fast talkers, a weak and wimpy voice, a flat and monotonous tone, and a thick accent.

In contrast, I find that witnesses who use a lower pitch with pitch fluctuation, strategic use of pauses, nonhesitant speech, and strong vocal projection convey the most confidence and believability. When working with witnesses struggling to improve their vocal cues, I have found the following techniques to be helpful in improving the message a witness sends with their voice:

Eliminate the visual distraction. When I give the witness feedback, I turn my recording iPad away from the witness so they can only hear themselves speak. This enables them to hone in on their vocal characteristics. 

Demonstrate the difference. I play audio recordings of persons who speak with strong vocal cues so the witness can hear the contrast in their vocal cues versus the stronger speaking cues.

Create a different communication context. To make it easier for a witness to feel what it feels like to speak in a different way, I suggest they imagine themselves talking in a different context. For example, if they are too soft-spoken, we identify a key piece of their testimony and I ask them to speak this imagining they are in their kitchen commanding their dog not to jump on the counter and eat the dinner that was just pulled out of the oven. The shift in mental framework helps facilitate a shift in the vocal cue.

Emphasize only the key elements that make a difference. I identify the two to three key vocal cues critical to credibility for a particular witness and I only help them improve in those identified areas. Attempting to change too many cues tends to overwhelm a witness.

It takes effort, focus and repetition for witnesses to improve their vocal skills. When done strategically, the persuasive effects speak volumes.

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