It's an experience that, sadly, just about every woman business leader has had: at a meeting or event you present what you know to be a truly awesome idea, but your words seem to sink like a stone, making barely a ripple in the room. Then, only minutes later, some man says either the same thing or something much dumber and the audience responds with rapt attention. What went wrong?
The problem could be you're speaking to a room full of sexist jerks, or it could be your voice.
That's the message of a wonderfully practical post from INSEAD communication professor Steve Knight on INSEAD Knowledge. In it, Knight, who has helped many women business leaders tune up their speaking skills, explains that, in his experience, women often struggle with projection and pitch. Get these two important points right, and a woman who "started out dreading presenting... ends up being told by their colleagues that their presentation was the best one of the conference," Knight claims.
You might think that 'project your voice' is just a fancy way of saying, 'speak louder,' but Knight begs to disagree. Projection, he insists, isn't about raising your volume, but maximizing your voice with efficient breathing.
"Voice projection starts with diaphragmatic breathing (rather than chest breathing) so that you maximize your lung capacity, which provides a more powerful exhalation," he explains. "The energy from your exhalation then vibrates your vocal cords... with greater efficiency (compared to chest breathing) and enables you to speak with more power from your core. This is not about shouting; this is purely about harnessing your natural energy to maximize your voice projection."
Knight suggests you check out the video below to get a sense of how you should be breathing and also advises practicing with trusted colleagues, or recording yourself on your smartphone to hear the difference in how your speak. He offers more details on what you should be aiming for in the post.
"When a woman speaks with a combination of low (quiet) voice projection and a higher pitch it can really lessen their level of impact and influence," Knight notes, claiming this combination of high pitch and low projection is often to blame for the feeling of invisibility women sometimes experience in meetings or in front of an audience.
So how do you find the most impactful pitch for you voice? Knight suggests this exercise: "Take a chorus or a line or two from one of your favorite songs. Again, use your smartphone to record yourself. Sing the words out at a pitch you are comfortable with. Then if you are aiming to lower your pitch simply sing the words out again at a slightly lower key and see how it feels and sounds. Then try a little lower and so on. When you get lower than your natural field your voice will start to crack, so that's the sign to go back up one notch. From the key that you are comfortable and happy with immediately switch from singing the words to speaking the words. Play back the recording and hear the before and after effect."