You can dress for success, master the zen of office politics and learn how to win friends. But if your voice is too low, too high or too soft, sought-after promotions or personal relationships may still elude you.
That's the opinion of a number of speech therapists who believe the voice is an overlooked tool, one that can make or break careers as well as relationships.
Though few are born with great voices, speech patterns can be improved, say therapists who have devised a number of strategies to make the task easier. Besides a host of recent books on the topic, there are at-home instruction tapes and vocal coaches who charge from $75 to $300 per hour to help transform sloppy voices into suave ones.
Whether you choose the do-it-yourself route or hire a consultant, experts agree the first step to a better voice is finding your natural pitch.
Los Angeles speech pathologist Morton Cooper believes there may be two pitch levels in every voice: an optimal or natural level and a habitual one.
To find the proper pitch, Cooper recommends an exercise called the instant voice press: "Standing, place your index finger just under your sternum (where your ribs come together). Now press gently with a staccato movement and make sound with the lips closed." Saying "ummmm-hmmm" can help, adds Cooper, author of "Change Your Voice, Change Your Life" (Harper & Row).
Lillian Glass, a Beverly Hills speech pathologist and author of "Talk to Win" (Putnam), recommends a similar exercise: "Take a small breath in, filling up your tummy. Remember to keep your upper chest down. As you exhale say 'Ah ha' as though you were agreeing with someone." Next, "tummy-punch" out the tone, pushing under your breastbone so that a wavering tone--your optimum pitch--comes out.
Proper breathing--from the midsection of the chest--is also important, Cooper says. "Most women breathe with the upper chest," he finds, partly from habit. "Their mothers told them, 'Hold in your stomach.' " That may be good for the profile, he adds, but it impairs effective speaking.
Those basics down, correcting bad habits becomes the issue, say speech therapists, who often differ in their approach. Here are some of their suggestions for correcting problem voices:
Nasal. Don't think you are? Deborah Ross, a Santa Rosa speech pathologist, suggests this quick test: Touch the sides of your nose when you speak. "If it vibrates, too much air is passing through the nose, causing a nasal quality to your speech," advises Ross, who has devised a three-part instructional audio tape for home use (Voice Advantage, 170 Sotoyome, Suite 2, Santa Rosa, Calif. 95405).
Nasal speakers often don't open their jaws wide enough, adds Glass. Move the voice forward, suggests Cooper. "Practice saying 'right' or 'really.' "
Nonauthoritative. Voices without authority often lack projection and inflection, experts say. To enhance projection, Glass advises bearing down and out with abdominal muscles and adding inflection. Emphasize adjectives, she adds.
Avoid ending strong statements with upward inflection, Ross says, noting "speaking with vocal question marks is a common mistake made by women."
Too fast or too slow. "Fast talkers convey the image of being nervous," says Ross, who thinks a too-slow rate is no better. "Slow talkers look and sound a little dull. They're perceived as having no energy, no initiative."
For some, the real problem may be fluency breaks due to incorrect breathing, says Anett Grant of Executive Speaking in Minneapolis, a voice coach who combines movement exercises with voice training. Slowing body movement will slow speech, she reasons, though one speech pathologist dismissed the idea. In one such exercise, Grant tells clients to wave a scarf slowly in front of them as they talk. "Make a smooth, slow movement," she advises, "and let your voice follow that movement."
Glass tells fast-talkers to practice taking in a breath and holding it. While exhaling, say, "Hello, how are you?," drawing out each vowel for about two seconds.
Stammering or staccato. "The more staccato you sound, the more you'll be distrusted and the more people will be anxious with you," Grant believes. It's an understandable reaction she says, asking rhetorically, "Which would you rather listen to, an orchestra or a jackhammer?" The same scarf exercise that slows fast-talkers can smooth out "jackhammer" talkers, claims Grant, who also tells clients to think of phrases--not words--as the basic units of speech.
Ideal. The best voices share several characteristics, Glass believes. "They exude warmth and enthusiasm and have a lot of inflection." Voice improvement doesn't mean taking on someone else's voice, Ross says, noting "I don't change my client's voices, I change the way they use their voices."
Nor is voice improvement only a matter of mastering mechanical exercises and correct breathing. Voice problems are often tied in with voice image, Cooper says, which in turn reflects self-image and self-esteem. "A lot of women have trouble changing their voices because they won't accept maturity," Grant maintains.
Adjusting to New Sound
Changing the voice can be done in a single session with a speech expert, Cooper claims. But changing the image itself may take much longer. Even those with a healthy voice image may need to adjust to a new sound, Cooper finds. Often, they think they're speaking too loudly or too forcefully, assurances to the contrary.
When seeking professional help, experts recommend asking voice consultants about their training, fees and how many sessions they recommend.
Some are trained in speech pathology; others are not. Pathologists should have a Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn., an association spokeswoman said.
'Chemistry' a Factor
The number of sessions will depend on the problem. But "it also depends on the talent of the therapist, the motivation of the client, and the chemistry between the two people," says Glass, who generally advises clients to anticipate biweekly sessions of four to six months.
Grant, catering to executives who want everything yesterday, puts out-of-town clients through a fast-paced day-and-a-half crash course and follows up several months later. With local executives, she typically consults for six sessions. Her maximum? "Eighteen--but that had to be one of the worst voices I've ever heard."
Even dramatic improvements aren't likely to provoke dramatic feedback, Grant says: "Don't expect to hear, 'Wow, your voice sounds great.' " More often, she finds, co-workers and friends of clients make comments like, "You seem more mellow" or "You seem more confident."
THE VOICE: Nasal THE PROBLEM: Too much air passes through the nose, making speaker sound whiny and immature. THE ADVICE: Open jaw wider. Practice moving the voice forward by saying "right" or "really." THE VOICE: Non-authoritative THE PROBLEM: Speaker seems unsure because of lack of projection, inflection. Rising intonations at end of sentences make strong statements sound like questions. THE ADVICE: Project more by bearing down and out with abdominal muscles. Increase inflection. Don't end strong statements with "vocal quesion marks" THE VOICE: Too High or low THE PROBLEM: Unnatural pitch. High voices sound too emotional; low too boring. Both can damage vocal cords THE ADVICE: To find proper pitch, stand, put finger under breastbone. Press gently with staccato movement and say "umm-hmm" with lips closed. THE VOICE: Too Fast THE PROBLEM: Fast talkers seem nervous, and uncertain, sometimes conveying a sense of indifference. THE ADVICE: Practice taking in a breath and holding it. While exhaling, say "Hello, how are you?," drawing out each vowel for about two seconds. Sources: Morton Cooper, Lillian Glass, Anett Grant, Deborah Ross.