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Finding your voice
27 November 2017
“There are eight notes in an octave,” says Lucy Cornell, picking out the notes of an octave on a keyboard.
I have no idea which notes she is playing or what octave they make up but I know I don’t hear that many notes in most people’s speaking voices. Lucy goes on to explain, the average human vocal range is more than three octaves and most of us, in our day-to-day, only work within one octave. Two octaves, maybe, if we’re at a football match on a Saturday night.
And what about when we have to deliver a report or speak in public - and if fear kicks in? Lucy explains that fear - adrenaline, stress - makes our bodies tense up, flattening out our voice and then we’ll be lucky to use one or two notes let alone an octave.
For the past 14 years Lucy has run her own business specialising in voice coaching with a focus on finding and developing an authentic voice in business. Her clients range across all industries, and include lawyers, barristers, senior management and business leaders, not because she only works with people at senior levels but because it is at this level that people are asked to be the voice of the business.
“Generally, our clients are transitioning from being the transactional cog in the wheel - which is that mid-level area - to being asked to be influential with people.
“Clients come to us because of some outside stimulus. They are about to make a career transition into senior management, or they want to make the transition, and maybe they’ve been told in a performance appraisal that they need to work on their presentation. All of a sudden they’re not being asked to deliver reports or updates but to form rapport and build relationships with their audiences. This is something they have probably never had to do before, or certainly not in the same way,” says Lucy.
She also says, women worry about how they sound: too soft, mousy, light, not heard in meetings: “One of the things I hear most often from people is about how their ideas are ignored and often credited to the guy (and sometimes that can be another woman) who says it next.”
How does this ‘unheardness’ happen and is it genderless?
“You can’t approach voice without approaching identity. The question of what is my identity and how do I see myself are very important because your voice expresses you. When we work with people on their voice we always unearth the internal landscape that accompanies their voice and is shaping their voice, and we need to deal with that internal landscape,” explains Lucy, who believes our adult voices have been shaped by the culture in which we have grown up.
“Within businesses, there are existing cultures into which our adult voices have to fit. Many of those work cultures are structured along more traditional, patriarchal lines of power and authority, and men and women can be affected differently by these,” says Lucy.
She continues: “We are all born with a voice and for the first 18 months or so that voice is expressed without words and its needs are met. From about two or three years old we learn to have a civilised voice and that is moulded by the culture in which we grow up: where girls shouldn’t shout and should be ladylike, boys shouldn’t cry, etc., etc.
“In learning which bits of our voice we should use - dictated by the cultural forces around us - we shut down and soon forget parts of our voice. These voice habits are embedded psychologically, emotionally, physically and neurologically and so our adult voice develops and uses only a fraction of our real potential and truth.”
The 'shutting down' process, she goes on to explain, continues to adulthood and on into the workplace, where the culture of our workplaces comes into play and can again stifle or reward our voice depending on how it fits with that culture.
It would appear our conscious and unconscious biases are ingrained in our voice, which is probably why Lucy and her business, The Voice Advisory, focus on offering a strategic and systemic approach to developing a business’s voice and the individual’s voice within the business.
If you want more in your 'voice tool kit' than one spanner you need to uncover and exercise the other authentic notes you are capable of making.
Once you have uncovered those other notes, take them out into the world and use them. Start low stakes - practice when you’re ordering coffee, or in a team meeting, or at home with the kids.
Get those new sounds you are making endorsed by receiving praise, and/or by seeing it have an effect, and you will begin to bed them down in your repertoire.
Leadership requires you to express yourself vocally, to speak with ownership and belief. If you are committed to, backing and championing what you are speaking about and leading, this will come out in your sound... that sound is what’s needed for leadership.
In the end it takes courage to speak and be fully committed to what you’re saying.