The Importance of Striking the Right Tone

Do you ever stop to think about how your voice sounds? I don’t mean the instant reflex of “ugggh do I really sound like that?” when you hear yourself on a recording, but what your voice is saying about you? The human voice is one of our primary tools for creating impact. It’s something we rarely stop to consider and yet this is a tool that can be honed to great effect.

The importance of voice, and particularly tone, has been seized upon by developers who have produced Amazon Halo, a new fitness app that monitors users’ body fitness. While the monitoring of body fat, heart rate and other health and wellness indicators has been around for a while, Halo takes things to the next level with the addition of microphones on its fitness wristband. The purpose of these is to monitor the tone of a user’s voice to check on their state of wellbeing.

Known as ‘Tone’ for short (‘tone of voice analysis tool’ to give it its full name), this feature employs artificial intelligence to analyse changes in a user’s voice and compare it to changes in a person’s emotional state. Hence it can tell you (as if the year of lockdown had not already made you aware) that mixing work and domestic life can negatively impact on your stress levels.  Yes, it does sound rather like one of the final pieces of the jigsaw on the journey towards being a citizen in the new dystopia, but it does open an interesting topic of conversation.

Tone Development

It may come as a surprise to learn that voices are as distinctive as fingerprints in marking out individuals.  Personal experience backs this up if you consider the human being’s ability to instantly recognise somebody familiar by just the sound of their voice. As for what gives us our vocal individuality, that’s down to genetics environment. This perhaps explains why children instinctively mimic their parents, why we often revert to our ‘natural’ voice when under pressure and how a trained opera singer can unleash the kind of ear-splitting decibel level that could stop a herd of wildebeest in their tracks (and if you have ever been in close proximity to a soprano in full throat you will know exactly what I mean).

How we use voice and tone are key elements in the process of successful communication and effective presentation. Maximising vocal potential is something that I have focussed on with those I’ve worked with over the past fifteen years and it continues to amaze me how even the simplest of exercises combined with a focused awareness of technique can quickly yield significant improvements to how the voice can persuade, inform and inspire and yet so few who are not directly involved in the spoken word as the mainstay of their profession yet need it to build their businesses choose to ignore its potential to differentiate.

In my experience people consistently underestimate the impact that voice and tone can have on the way they come across to an audience.  While this new app is constantly monitoring tonal differences, for the purposes of presentation we tend to selectively vary our tone in order to give range and provide emphasis. Of course the danger of ‘scripting’ such vocal changes is that the delivery begins to sound contrived which is to be avoided at all costs – in presentation authenticity is a quality that should be pursued at all costs.

If we’re looking for great examples of how tone is used then history throws up several examples. Winston Churchill is one world leader who could convey so much with weighty timbre alone and in recent history, Barack Obama used a charismatic tone to strike a statesman’s pose. A more confusing tonal conundrum can be found in the form of the present incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue whose varied use of  tone in speeches has been interpreted as either calculated response to circumstance or merely the by-product of a scattergun reaction.

Margaret Thatcher is another leader who worked hard with a voice coach to develop the right tone. Aside from political motivation, she was also battling unconscious (and in some cases, conscious) bias to her gender as she worked hard to banish accusations of sounding ‘shrill’. Unfortunately, such bias remains in many workplaces today, prompting women to be judged more harshly based on tone alone.

I shall leave you with another interesting fact (although obvious when we think about it). It is impossible to hear how we sound when we talk, due to us hearing the sound vibrations buzzing about in our skulls as well as the actual sounds emanating from our mouth which is what everyone else hears – hence the shock and horror of hearing ourselves on a recording and realising that we do not sound just like Juliet Stephenson or Morgan Freeman!