Jerry Seinfeld jokes that “Speaking in front of a crowd is considered the # 1 fear of most people. Number two is death. Death! This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy!”
“Funny and true,” laughs, Linda Brice who is an international voice coach. She says that singing and public speaking elicit primal fear because we are terrified of being shamed, humiliated, or banished from our group at work, at home, or in our communities.
This is why our voices can get creaky and our hearts race when it’s time to stand on stage or lead a meeting. Our minds don’t know the difference between a real threat and a fake one, so our bodies respond like it’s a near-death experience!
Linda’s convinced that you don’t have to conquer your fear to be powerful. In fact, she says, “Bring it on.” Fear has its advantages. It releases adrenaline and can warn us of danger. Linda says, however, “For many people, fear brings on fight, flight, or freeze, and freeze is the worst because you’re not breathing.”
Professional performers and speakers have to be trained to breathe through their terror. It’s their only chance to find genuine confidence and their strong, authentic voice. Linda tells, “One of my greatest students throws-up before every performance, but because she has learned to breathe through her fear, she is now living her dream and performing around the world.”
Regardless of your profession, your speaking voice is a critical component of your self-identity. And, your vocal demeanor is one of the most powerful tools you have to influence others. The question is, “Are you breathing?”
Women are getting a bad rap lately for their inauthentic voices. Many are accused of “vocal fry,” the gravelly, raspy sound popularized by reality TV, like the Kardashians. Linda says, “Mirroring vocal fry comes from a desire to fit-in to the culture.”
One of my Confidence Project clients, with vocal fry, started working with a voice coach after her customers complained that it was hard to hear her on the phone and on voicemails and webinars. Plus, she got laryngitis regularly which compounded the problem.
It’s not just women who have these strained voices. Linda says, “Vocal fry is an ‘equal opportunity epidemic’ for men and women. It happens when you don’t breathe properly. Your vocal folds rub together and they swell. Universally, anyone with vocal fry sounds weaker.”
Another vocal epidemic is “baby voice.” Technically, it’s called false deferential voice. This is when grown women speak like little girls. Linda sees it as an unconscious signaling that women use to convey that they are not a threat to people in power. “She might have a Wharton MBA, but it’s too scary for her to own her power because she doesn’t believe in it. So, she feels she needs to attach her coattails to someone else, and she talks like a child.”
“Upspeak” also effects your vocal image. It’s the habit of making a simple statement sound like a question. For example, “You put a question mark? Any time you’re speaking? Even when it’s in the middle of a sentence?” Linguists say this causes a fully competent person to be viewed as hesitant, immature and not confident.
Thomas Linneman is a sociology professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He said, “Studies show that if a woman comes across as too assertive, too confident, or too successful, then she’s regarded as unfeminine. So, a woman might say, ‘OK, I’m beating the pants off these guys, but I don’t want to come across the wrong way. One way I can repair this is to sound uncertain.’ ”
All of these vocal issues are contagious and unconscious, of course.
Here are some strategies to develop your authentic voice:
- Breathe deeply. You can be three breaths away from getting into a meditative state to calm your nerves.
- Slow down your speech.
- Use pauses for emphasis.
- Be definitive by using periods.
- Ask people you respect how you sound to them.
- Practice recording a new voicemail greeting, and don’t stop until it projects the vocal image you want.
Linda Brice is certain, “No one gets away with not breathing correctly. It translates into heart attacks, insomnia, high blood pressure, and acid reflux. People who don’t breathe fully get into disputes more easily and are reactive vs. pro-active.”
For the next 30-days, if you feel under attack or scared, the first thing to ask yourself is, “Am I breathing?”
You can fuel your authentic voice by intentional breathing. When you do, your confidence goes up. It’s not luck. It’s not a whim. It’s not even that you’re having a good day. You’ve succeeded because of a concrete skill that you have learned and put into your muscle memory.
Start breathing. The world needs your real, vital voice.