Updated: Jul 12, 2021
7%, 38%, 55%. These percentages are believed to be indicative of the relative importance of words (7%), tone of voice (38%) and facial expressions (55%) when you speak.
It’s near-on half a century since Professor Albert Mehrabian published these findings. He was studying people's feelings and attitudes, then evaluating the inconsistencies between what they said and how their message came over.
Today “7%, 38%, 55%” is often cited as a reminder that the words we use only represent a fraction of the message we convey.
Yet Mehrabian's study was deeply flawed.
Nevertheless, anyone who has attended my Make Your Mark programme will understand the interplay between words, tone of voice and facial expressions.
In this business unusual environment though, many of us are remotely communicating with much of the non-verbal feedback we would normally get if we were together in a room hidden from view.
Given how important this aspect is, I thought it would be helpful to share some tips on how to use your voice to its fullest potential – so you can be heard, even when you can’t be seen.
Creating the conditions for success
First impressions matter so it's worth investing some time to create an environment that will set you up for success, albeit everyone appreciates how hard that can be when working from home.
This film clip of a live TV interview is testament to that and still makes me smile – but strive to create a quiet space that is distraction free. You want to be able to hear and be heard.
If you aren’t speaking, it really helps the person who is if you mute your microphone.
This will cut out any unhelpful background noise, which can drown out the speaker and make it challenging to hear - even for the most active listener!
When you aren’t looking someone in the eye it’s easier to get distracted. If you look at the little green light (your camera) on your laptop you will be making great eye contact with those on your call.
Not easy, but definitely worth a try because, as the Harvard Business Review reports, half those on conference calls are typically multitasking. That’s unfortunate particularly for the speaker, but it offers active listeners a real opportunity to stand out. If you’d like a reminder of how to be a better listener, take a look at my recent article here – it’s full of helpful tips and resources.
Creating contributions that engage
Time moves much faster when you talk than when you listen.
When we speak it is often to share information about a topic within our expertise. It can be easy to fall into lengthy detail or use technical language. To hold people's attention, keep things simple and succinct. And to involve your listeners: invite chat and ask questions.
If you are speaking to an international audience, or those listening in their second language, it’s even more important to keep your words simple, your sentences short and your pace measured.
Many feel uncomfortable with silence in conversation but if you haven’t yet done so, I’d invite you to practice using pause. Pause can be powerful for two reasons. As a speaker it allows you to take a breath, collect your thoughts, or create dramatic effect. But it also gives your audience time to process what you are saying.
Of course, when you are virtually communicating you won’t be seeing lots of the facial micro expressions you would if you were working in-person. To signal understanding, encourage listeners to nod, give thumbs up/down and, as Skipper the penguin would say: ‘smile and wave’. This helps everyone feel connected, not least the person leading the meeting.
Research described in this further article in the Harvard Business Review shows how immediately after listening to someone talk, the average person only remembers about half. The clearer, more concise and engaging you can make your contributions, the greater impact you’ll make and the more likely your message will be remembered.
Creating vocal impact
When you can’t be seen, say on a phone call, how you deliver your message becomes even more important.
When we can’t see someone, it is human nature to imagine the person behind the voice – particularly if you’ve never met them. When someone likes what they hear, they are more likely to engage.
To avoid the ‘like/dislike’ conundrum, focus instead on making your voice more interesting.
Aim for vocal variety. Switch up speed, pitch, intonation, loudness, and tone, not to the extent you would if you were reading a story to a child, but enough to capture and hold attention.
I explore these five vocal elements in last month’s article here. Check it out for ways and watch outs to create vocal interest and impact.
So, given the increasing reliance on voice in our business unusual environment, I wanted to close with my three top tips for keeping your voice tip top:
1. Certain foods, especially those that are spicy or contain dairy, are known to negatively impact the voice, so it can be worth avoiding or minimising these.
2. Certain drinks, like caffeine or alcohol, can be drying. To keep your voice hydrated sip plenty of water.
3. Working remotely isn’t for everyone. It can lead to unusually high levels of stress, constricting the larynx, which limits your voice. Releasing tension in your body will improve your speaking voice. One way to do that is to release your belly. This will allow you to breathe more deeply, oxygenate your brain better and lower voice pitch.
Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned coach. She was writing in support of World Voice Day on 16th April 2020 and the call to ‘focus on your voice’. One of the rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique blend of experience now sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work. www.susanroom.com #WorldVoiceDay #FocusOnYourVoice