Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Are your vocals frying your career progression?
Vocal fry expert Kardashian
Just when you thought there were no barriers left to storming into the boardroom, something new has come along to block our progress.  How we speak.

I was tipped off by a Naomi Wolf article on the subject in this week's Guardian reporting on the latest trend to cross the Atlantic  - Vocal Fry.  Not a new form of nose-to-tail eating as I thought, but rather that glottal growl you'll recogize from a thousand next gen reality shows. If you need a prompt, take a look at this video for a quick primer.  If you're over 40, this might feel alien and you might be smugly watching it thinking 'I would never talk like that - so I'm OK'. But you would be wrong. That's just the start of the issues we have with our voices and speech that are getting in the way of our career progression - often without us even realising.

If you're serious about getting on, you need to consider whether you're building gravitas.  Lots of data shows that this is the magic ingredient to getting others to take you seriously.  Clothes and body language are part of creating gravitas and much has been written about the ways in which you can enhance these.  But your voice can betray you - according to research last year into executive speeches in the US, the sound of the speakers voices matters twice as much as the content. 

As a child growing up in the 1970s, I did a bit of 'reading out loud' competitively.  There was actually  a school reading aloud prize.  I flunked at most forms of organised sport so I think I was encouraged by my parents in this endeavour as a consolation, one step up from winning the class 'good egg'* prize.  It was useful training but sadly, speaking clearly and slowing down by counting one at a comma and two at a full stop, whilst excellent for winning school prizes, isn't enough to generate Boardroom gravitas. 

So what you should steer clear of?

Uptalk.  This is that thoroughly modern habit of ending your sentences with an upward lilt.  Like Australians.  But now we all do it. Scientists have shown that it makes us sound as though we don't really have an opinion and this undermines our credibility.
The Loose Women ladies lay into actor Russell Crowe and guest Joan Rivers calls him a 's**t' on live TV
Even Joan Rivers was removed from UK TV show for swearing

Jargon.  In my experience tech companies have their own language, as does the pharmaceutical industry. Jargon is fine in small doses but you have to be able to express yourself clearly in mixed company.

Swearing.  Try to avoid swearing unless you're really sure you're among friends. It can feel macho and fun but is undermining and unflattering.  It is a disaster in cross-cultural groups and can be easily taken out of context. 

Neologisms.  Newly coined words or expressions that may be in the process of entering common use.  They're not a modern idea - Shakespeare is probably the prime culprit.  Presumably when people first started saying "there's a method in my my madness" (Hamlet) it sounded weird and pretentious.  The early seventeenth century equivalent of 'my bad'. This is not an area to be an early adopter if you want to be taken seriously.  Oddly, apparently 'my bad' first appeared in a Shakespeare sonnet. Who knew?

In the US where vocal fry seems to have started, commentators have observed that for the peer group - other young women - this mode of speech is seen as credible and authoritative.  Well, it's a point of view, but until those are the people making Board appointments it's better to avoid strange creakiness in your speech to make yourself understood.

Of course there's a time and a place for everything. Like most women, I can shift personalities several times a day depending on who I'm with and this probably extends to my voice.  I do a lot of work with Americans and when I'm with them I find my sentence structure slightly changing to reflect what I'm hearing.  Although I don't say trash or sidewalk. Drinks with girlfriends would find us all talking in much higher voices and saying things like "Really?? And what did you say?".  But for meetings I try to use short words, clear summaries.

I don't always succeed.  I naturally talk very fast which is often unhelpful particularly if I'm talking to a group of people that don't have English as their first language.  I slow down once they start waving desperately at the back but it's not a useful habit.

I would recommend listening to yourself talking as well as asking close friends for feedback on how you sound when you're in a business environment. If you're really struggling there are coaches that can help but I think most of us just need to increase our self awareness and remind ourselves that our voices are as much a part of our armoury as our grooming.

*for any readers unfamiliar with early twentieth century English idioms, this has nothing to do with food but refers to a pleasant and reliable person