Okay, forgive the click bait, of course not all political leaders sound terrible all of the time (No intention of implicating Joe Biden in any way. I just liked the picture). Still, I have started to notice a few unfortunate trends in public voice use and would like to address them.
I attended the MA Democratic Convention as a delegate this year, and it solidified an observation I have been making about political leaders of both parties. It seems as if little if any thought is being given to the health of the vocal instrument even as they are speaking at very high levels. So, why are so many of our political leaders misusing their voices?
My (fairly educated) theories:
Lack of Vocal Education. This one is a little odd to me. Most campaigns and many politicians employ speech coaches. Speech coaches are professionals who help with content, speech presentation and sometimes craft all of a speaker’s verbal messaging. I know these professionals address breathing to some degree but wonder if many of them spend much time at all on vocal production and care. I would think it in everyone’s best interest that speakers know how the sound is made and what different colors and volume choices are available for delivery. Then again, maybe this is being taught, and the problem lies elsewhere.
Adrenaline. Known as the “fight or flight” hormone, adrenaline is responsible for increasing rates of blood circulation, breathing, carbohydrate metabolism, and preparing muscles for exertion. The problem arises when nervousness triggers this response in the absence of actual danger. In the case of this reaction in public speaking, your body is set up for a significant physical movement when the task before you requires subtlety. The subsequent voice-use pattern is punctuated by major muscle tension and restricted breath causing suboptimal vocal production. The longer it continues, the more difficult it becomes to speak freely.
A desire to convey passion and intensity. I was recently introduced to the concept that political movements require tension or conflict to make people act. It is also true that the best speakers are trying to get the audience to take action as a result of what they have heard. Enter the passionate, unfettered, shouted speech. This manner of speaking, especially when delivered by a skilled presenter, can be extremely effective in “firing up” a crowd. Interestingly, it seems that the level of noise you get from an audience doesn’t necessarily correlate to actions taken after the event. It does feel good to have the audience in a state of high engagement. I just think that the “shouted” speech is not effective in the long term and is extremely detrimental to the vocal instrument.
Why should it matter to us how political leaders (or other public voice users ) use their voices?
Kinesthetic Empathy. An interesting thing about humans is how we like to model physical behaviors and responses we see in others. Kinesthetic empathy is why loud Speakers get loud responses. It is why you feel tense when there is tension in a room even if you are not directly involved. It is even why you will breathe or hold your breath when in proximity to that behavior. So while someone is emphatically yelling at us, we model that throat tension and restricted breath even if we do not ourselves utter a word. Listeners end up paying the tax on the voice-use mistakes of the speaker.
In the absence of volume, one needs content. Over-impassioned deliveries of speech make us all feel like we are part of a tribe. It unifies us for a moment in time, especially when what we are hearing is something with which we agree. A speech with supported breath and healthy voice production does something different. It triggers us to really listen which now requires there be substance in what we hear. In the absence of tension and emotion, there must be quality content because well-supported, well-produced voices demand attention.
Why should it matter to professional voice users, whether their vocal quality is clear or rough? Here are just a few reasons.
We make instant judgments about a person when we hear their voices. For better or worse; most humans are judgmental. It isn’t personal, it’s biological. When we hear a person’s speaking voice, we make judgments about their authority, their intelligence, and their authenticity almost immediately. In fact, the latest data indicates that it can take as few as 30 seconds for us to decide if someone is worth listening to. Even if we are later swayed into a passionate response by some good, old-fashioned shouting at a podium, we will return to our first impression when it is time to act.
They want us to act. All people speak to inspire an action. They need you to donate, volunteer, or vote. They need you to believe certain things and have those things inspire your action. Ideally, they need you to become not just a believer but an evangelist for their message. It is because the stakes are so high that they should really be as focused on voice quality and delivery, as they are on message.
They NEED their voices. Political operatives and other professional voice users are putting many demands on the tiny structure of the vocal cords. Importantly, they really need to be able to continue to speak. Losing one’s voice when trying to deliver one’s message is a disaster of epic proportion.
What a professional voice user should know:
- How to use the breath to support the voice.
- How to project the voice for different spaces and amplification.
- How to use pitch variance and resonance (rather than straight volume) to create a response in an audience.
- What to do if your amplification fails (or was not planned for) to be heard and protect the voice.
- How to care for the voice so you can do it again tomorrow.
- How to care for the voice when you go too far.
- When you need to be seen by a voice professional.
In closing, I really believe many political leaders (and other professional voice users) are missing the boat on caring for their voices and using them to their full potential. I sincerely hope we can change that and in the process elevate our speech in substantive ways. What do you think?