By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Imagine that you're housebreaking a puppy. After the inevitable 'accident,' and in order to enforce the rules of the house, you address her using your best lowered and ominous voice: "Daisy, what do you do?" Without having any idea what you're actually saying, the pup reacts to your tone, and suddenly you are the powerful alpha, and your pup is the shame-faced omega. That's done with pitch, and it isn't the only situation where lower notes connote power. You can probably hear it in your mind's ear right now, the low tones of James Earl Jones saying, "This is CNN."
The importance of pitch as part of one's vocal tone is well known in persuasion. Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly went through extensive voice coaching early in her career in order to come across as stronger and more authoritative. But will the techniques that worked for the "Iron Lady" work for lawyers in a courtroom? Recent research adds to our understanding, and it turns out that pitch is very important. A lower pitch isn't just an aesthetic preference, it is a way of signaling social status that is implicitly recognized and practiced by audiences and speakers alike. The courtroom is an arena where perceived power and status matters to attorneys as well as witnesses. Of course, we can't just artificially force our voice into a low pitch and all start talking like Darth Vader (whose voice is also James Earl Jones' by the way) in front of a jury. But in understanding the social role of pitch, we can potentially vary within our natural range, and avoid allowing stress to cause us to correct in the wrong direction. In this post, I'll look at the research and some practical implications.
The Research: Pitch Matters
One social reality is that a good portion of our interactions have the intended or unintended effect of helping to maintain a hierarchy or pecking order among people. As Dr. Joey Cheng, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois notes, "What’s really fascinating about status is that regardless of which groups you look at and what culture and in what context, what inevitably happens is that people divide themselves into leaders and followers, and there’s a hierarchy that’s involved." In a recent study (Cheng, 2016), she asked participants to carry out a group task, and relied on natural observation (watching or just listening to audio recordings) to evaluate social power within those groups. What she found was that a lowered vocal pitch was considered more prestigious and admirable, and the pitches that participants adapted predicted the status they would go on to assume within the group. "Individuals spontaneously alter their vocal pitch in a manner consistent with rank signaling," she explains, "Raising one’s pitch early in the course of an interaction predicted lower emergent rank, whereas deepening one’s pitch predicted higher emergent rank."
The pitch change doesn't just reflect one's own implicitly perceived status, it also reflects our perception of the status of those we are talking to. Research completed this year (Leongómez, Mileva, Little & Roberts, 2017) and discussed in a release in ScienceDaily shows that people change tone depending on who they're talking to, and depending on how they see their own status relative to those of that audience. In a simulated job interview task, the researchers found that participants tended to talk to higher status individuals using higher pitch. According to one of the authors, Dr. Viktoria Mileva, "If someone perceives their interviewer to be more dominant than them, they raise their pitch. This may be a signal of submissiveness, to show the listener that you are not a threat, and to avoid possible confrontations." People who already feel dominant over those they are talking to, in contrast, are less likely to raise their pitch.
Implications: Pay (Some) Attention to Pitch
All aspects of delivery are important, but those that relate to the power, prestige, and credibility of the speaker can be critical in the courtroom. So here are a few practical implications on pitch.
Don't Let Stress Rob You of Status
The first implication is not to work on dropping pitch, but to avoid doing the opposite. Why would someone in court raise their pitch? Because court is stressful. For the witness, certainly, but even for the attorney, there is the risk of being intimidated by the other side, by the judge, or by the process and the formality itself. As I've written in the past, one unfortunate habit that many people adopt when they feel they're in a lower-power position is to adopt a habit of ending their statements as if they were questions. But beyond this 'rising intonation' problem, however, there is also the issue of your overall pitch. Based on this research, we are likely to speak in a higher register when we feel less overall power, and when that happens, the audience gets the message and sees us as having less social power as well. So, be mindful of your stress and your pitch.
But Don't Be Fake Either
Artificially forcing your voice into a lower pitch, however, might be just as bad. In the courtroom, credibility is key, and so is at least some element of 'conversational' style. If a jury or another audience picks up that the attorney or the witness is 'acting' or affecting some behavior that isn't natural, then credibility is sacrificed. Some communicators, for example, reasonably feel that their voices are naturally higher. Female speakers, for example, sometimes feel that they are at a disadvantage pitch-wise just due to their natural vocal register. What the research seems to point out, however, is that it is not just absolute pitch that matters, it is also the pitch that is relative to a speaker's normal pitch. So if you are within your natural register, but still preferring the lower ends of that register rather than the higher ends, then you are still helping to convey greater power and confidence.
Practice in Advance, Not in Court
Here is what doesn't work: Standing in front of a jury or sitting in a witness box and thinking, "Is my pitch low enough? Do I sound powerful? Should I lower my pitch now? Like T H I S?" When you're on the spot, your attention should be on your substance and your message, with very little conscious attention on your delivery. And the way you get to that level of comfort is by practicing in advance of your testimony or presentation, not during.
So go ahead and practice. Sit in a witness box and testify. Stand up in front of a group of volunteers and give your opening statement. Look into a camera, try it out, and then watch yourself. In that setting, you can explore your own natural register and try to be on the "authoritative" end of what still feels right. Once you've established it as a habit in practice, then it will come across naturally and without too much mental distraction in court.
Other Posts on Vocal Delivery:
Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., Ho, S., & Henrich, J. (2016). Listen, follow me: Dynamic vocal signals of dominance predict emergent social rank in humans. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 145(5), 536.
Leongómez, J. D., Mileva, V. R., Little, A. C., & Roberts, S. C. (2017). Perceived differences in social status between speaker and listener affect the speaker's vocal characteristics. PloS one, 12(6), e0179407.
Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license