Let’s face it. There are a lot of people with a lot of opinions about what women’s voices should sound like. The voice should be confident but not shrill, empowered but not domineering, feminine but not girly, warm but not sexy, pleasant but not chipper, musical but not childlike, and whatever you do don’t vocal fry (not a complete listing).
It’s exhausting. So I want to start today from a simple truth. Opinions about women’s voices are less about the sound and more about whether women should be allowed to speak at all. Still, in 2018. Yes, women are policing women on this. There are many interesting studies on the sociology of it and I welcome you to look them up but this is not my point.
My point is that women and femmes are in the workplace and we all have to make it work. So how do we navigate these very muddy waters? I must confess that my inner feminist thinks we should ignore the criticism and fight this hard. However, the voice specialist in me realizes that some of these speech tendencies are harmful to more than women’s careers, they can also be harming the vocal instrument.
Ok then, what does enlightened speech coaching for women look like?
First of all, one must determine if there is a problem impacting vocal health. If there is, the next steps are clearer because there are issues to remediate that will by their nature make the voice more clear, authentic and confident. If there are no health implications, such as a healthily produced but rigorous vocal fry (yes, this exists), then we are in the mud, Ladies.
I’m not going to judge anyone for wanting to keep vocal tendencies as-is. Voice is identity to a large extent. Still, I am aware that many people, male and female, have no real concept of what they sound like so I think this resistance is more about wanting to be accepted as-is (and who doesn’t) than knowing one’s vocal identity. I personally think that if your voice is healthy and your breathing is balanced no one should force you change it. I also get calls from employers on an almost daily basis asking for help to improve a promising employee they don’t want to lose but cannot fully use with the vocal tendencies they currently have.
Given the interesting terrain, I am going to lobby for developing strategies for supporting a healthy voice and a clear speaking style. A voice that is being trained is more flexible and more adaptable. It is capable of eliminating vocal fry and up speak for a three hour conference and borrowing it back from drinks with friends and gives you more choices in how you present your self to the world.
One of the easiest ways to start this work doesn’t even require a voice coach. Just start recording yourself speaking and listening to your recordings. Yes, I just felt the collective shudder but hear me out. What we are hearing as we speak is a lovely fiction conducted through bone, bounced around rooms and wrapped in a beautiful fiction by our auditory cortex. It isn’t what everyone else hears and we often don’t recognize it as us. Recording and listening, especially while it is terrible, starts to actually give your brain data so that it can create a better fiction of what you sound like. More importantly, it will teach you to recognize your voice. Trust the body y’all because for many of you just this exercise will get you thinking more about how your voice is entering a room and whether it is saying what you want it to.
For some of you, recognition of your voice will also be recognition of vocal tendencies you would like to change. Some of those tendencies may require a Speech Language Pathologist to correct but for the majority, a good voice coach will be able to assist. A customized approach is key.
I tend to see vocal tendencies in the studio that developed as coping mechanisms to physical issues almost as often as I encounter those that developed from vocal criticism.
For example, when I encounter vocal fry in a female executive over 35 it likely developed in an attempt to pitch the voice lower by force. This is an actual technique still taught by some. When however, I encounter vocal fry in a younger woman it is often the result of disconnection to the breath. These issues are not the same and require different tactics if one wishes to actually improve the voice. If I offer only a solution to correct vocal fry without addressing the underlying cause, that tendency may just shift into another part of the voice. The body is dynamic but habit-loving and we are often chasing tensions from one area to another. A less prescriptive approach is required.
So back to our question about enlightened speech coaching for women.
1. It is fine to say “frack it” and not change a thing as long as your voice and breath use are healthy. Your voice is a tattle tale. If you are often hoarse, lose your voice, or experience inconsistencies in sound then your voice is not healthy.
2. Whether you think you need it or not start recording yourself, today. We use mirrors all the time and your voice needs one too.
3. If you are hearing commentary about your voice at work be proactive and find out if there is a perception of an problem. Ask it to be framed in terms of the actual rather than the perceptual. “Your voice is too high” is different than “our top clients are not taking you seriously” and one of these definitely needs to be addressed if you want to grow in that job.
4. If there is an issue, get some help. Heck, get a team if you need it. From a SLP, to a voice and speech coach, and all the way to presentation or content coaching you can take control of the situation whether it should be a situation or not.
I hope you found this helpful and would love to hear your thoughts or experiences in voice use. As always leave a comment here or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gina Razón is the principal voice specialist at GROW Voice LLC, a full-service voice and speech studio in Boston’s Back Bay. She has over 16 years of experience both as a teacher of voice and speech, and a voraciously curious voice user. Gina has worked professionally as a classical singer for over a decade and more recently as professional public speaker. For more information on the studio or to book Gina visit www.growvoice.com.