2 Habits That Underrate Your Voice’s Influence

Critical skills all leaders need to practice

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Habit 1: Monotone.

The physiological effects upon a listener and the speaker.

Habit 2: Underpowering.

How your body may be working to keep you alive but at the expense of your voice.

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” J. P. Sartre

We are free because we have the capacity to become angels of our better nature; we are condemned because we are born into contexts not of our choosing and hence everywhere curtailed by limits.

Your voice and the muscular physiology that fuel it have been moulded with precision to account for the language you were taught, and how you should speak it, such as an accent. Bi-lingual children can imitate their primary caregiver’s accent precisely but once passed that developmental “critical-window”, up to the age of six, the ability to imitate, and learn a new language “is steadily comprised from then until shortly after puberty, and is rare thereafter” (Pinker, S, 1994). Your first language’s muscle memory interferes with the language you are trying to learn and hence the rise of the dreaded “foreign-accent”.

Shortly after having spoken your first words, other ingredients such as class, status, or the emotional health of the family unit all put their mitts into the primordial ooze that is “your” voice. I speak of the family unit due to the necessity for an environment that fosters play and secure attachment within a child; the other forms of attachment have variable impacts on the nervous system, such as anxiety, which influence the voice due to the physiological changes that occur. We then move onto gender roles; not too long ago females were not allowed to speak without a male's permission, and this is still in force in some parts of the world… Might this have inter-generational repercussions on one’s ability to feel like they have a right to be heard? And, expectations of what a male or female are meant to sound like? For instance, a transgender person requesting tutoring to help their voice sound more feminine and aligned with their identity, where the tonal quality may be considered stereotypical…

Furthermore, your voice changes dramatically due to puberty, but also largely driven by the desire to adapt to the linguistic characteristics of the peers you surround yourself with — a reason why all teenagers tend to sound similar. These “peer” voices have been shown to have more effect on the quality and accent of your voice than your immediate family.

So, with all these different ingredients actively filtering the sound of your voice, can you truly call it your own? Or, at least, how much of it is “you”?

Why Transforming a Habit Begins With Acceptance

Humans are condemned to speak freely. We can speak our minds and thoughts with great clarity but condemned because our voice is shaped in the early stages of our life by our circumstances and, as time goes on, sometimes by our own unconscious making, and for better or worse, these are what become vocal habits. Some can be liberating, and some will condemn us to the whims and fancies of those around us, who, typically, exert the most influence (power) on the cultural biases of the time. Whatever the case, we make do with what we’ve got, and there’s only one voice like your own.

Vocal fry is an example of a cultural trend that can become a habit if practiced with enough repetition (think Kim Kardashian). Your physiology has to adapt to create that quality of voice, and it is not as easy as it sounds! Your rib cage, sternum, lungs, and diaphragm have to measure with precision the force of air through the vocal tract so as not to create too much air pressure underneath the vocal folds. Too much pressure and the vocal folds will vibrate too quickly and the “fry” is lost — too little, and you won’t even get the folds vibrating at all — if you’re lucky, maybe a little wheezing. You also have to tune your vocal folds like a master cellist to ensure the fidelity of their structure remains within certain lengths and thicknesses. An infinitesimal change in their structure alters the quality of the voice; in fact, it is amazing vocal fry exists at all! Done with enough repetition and it becomes muscle memory; you don’t even have to think about it. I don’t believe Kim Kardashian, nor anyone else aims to speak with vocal fry but it more likely arises as a side effect due to external factors influencing her voice, like imitation, and internal physiological factors, such as underpowered airflow (in contrast, her fry disappears when her voice inflects to indicate happiness [the vocal folds tighten to raise the pitch]).

Is vocal fry a good habit or a bad one? Well, it’s certainly serving Kim Kardashian!

But before we look at what these habits are in more detail, these moulds or constructions, buried within your voice are not to be thought of something to be ashamed of; quite the opposite, as they served an important biological function to help you achieve social cohesiveness and fulfil the desire to fit in with the social unit. The desire to belong is deeply buried within our psyche to increase the chances of our survival that any urge to bond with others should be seen as a real gift passed down to us through our phylogenetic heritage. Any habit that has formed, did so in the best interest of yourself at the time, to protect you, and to help you, it just may not be helping you right now and may hold you back from achieving your new goals. The first step is to come to an acceptance of the habit and give yourself a pat on the back. Next, is to drop any baggage, which has gotten you to where you are today, so that you may climb that mountain, behind which, lies where you'd like to be tomorrow.

In my professional experience, clients tend to admonish themselves when they realize they possess these habits that have been holding them back, habits that are unknown to them, but that have also kept them alive; so treat them, as they did you, with some respect.

What is a Vocal Habit and is it Detrimental?

There are habits that can cause the onset of fatigue in the voice, other habits that have no gain or loss at all, and some may have discreet physiological and emotional influences on a listener. A habit that is working against you might be considered one that either causes long-term damage or laryngeal dysphonia (muscle tension) in the vocal tract; or, it may be one that does not allow your voice to reach the ears or hearts of your audience because it is lacking in qualities or pitch that reside within what is known as the Band of Perceptual Advantage. An example of this is a monotoned voice. It’s a “bad” habit because it does not engage the physiological state of the listener to ignite social behaviours, such as active listening. My last article, “How to give your voice depth and why it matters” explores how a body’s autonomic nervous state reacts to sounds and frequencies and why our vocal influence on others is not to be taken lightly. In brief, “we feel better when we listen to melodies” and not just the prosody found in music but also in our voices.

A “good” habit is one that allows you to vocalize without effort, does not fatigue your voice, that inspires the physiological state of your audience positively to prime social engagement behaviours and possesses flexibility rather than inelasticity, a key indicator of a rudimentary decremental habit.

Lastly, a habit is created through repetition which then becomes muscle memory; so, you can only transform an old habit into a new one through, you guessed it, repetition.

Vocal Habit 1: Monotone

Modulation of the acoustic energy within the frequencies of the human voice that characterize music, similar to vocal prosody, will recruit and modulate the neural regulation of the middle ear muscles [auditory ossicles], functionally calm the behavioral and physiological state by increasing vagal regulation of the heart and promote more spontaneous social engagement behaviors…basically we start to look and feel better when we listen to melodies. (Porges, S. 2011)

It’s why a monotoned voice puts us to sleep and our ability to absorb, and perhaps retain, that information is comprised due to the shallow fundamental frequencies underlying a dull quality of voice.

As children, we can cry and speak infinitely, with nigh a break or touch of fatigue. We explore all manners of sounds, find delight in their whimsical impermanence, and wail on sirens that take our voice to the bottom of its range and swing it to its highest peaks. The colour, or prosody, of a child’s voice, is a remarkable symphony. Along the line, the range of the voice gets narrower. An exciting speaker that innervates the inner ear muscles of the audience swoops and swirls his voice through the frequencies available to him, like a painting dancing with colour. So what restricts the colour of our voice?

Firstly, in order to create prosody in the voice, your voice requires great finesse in the muscles controlling the vocal tract. Many of these vocal muscles required for prosody are innervated by the myelinated vagus nerve, and this nerve only fires efficiently when you are in a relaxed state. The reason behind this is that this nerve is governed under one of the autonomic nervous systems, the parasympathetic nervous system: the system responsible for regeneration and lowering the heart rate. When you are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, and nerve efferents like the myelinated vagus nerve become less prominent and must battle to exert its influence over these vocal muscles.

Its why, when nervous, we find it difficult to speak, or even to speak at all!

If a person finds themselves in a constant state of stress or tension like anxiety, your body begins to learn to use your voice in a different way through repetition. Bodily and neural resources are no longer required for empathetic human speech but rather the priming of muscles for movement or, its nemesis, freezing. Speech is stripped to its bare minimum, and prosody, an element required for social cohesion, is effectively switched off. The body does the opposite required for cohesion; it either wants to fight, freeze or run away, so newer neocortex activities like speaking with prosody, or active listening by triggering the tightening of the middle ear bones, are not required. If the anxiety persists, and the vocal folds remain unstretched, the mind-body learns to acquire this new muscle memory, and the range of the voice in normal conversation can remain lacking. Because the voice is key to expressing emotions we veer into the field of psychoneuroimmunology.

Psychoneuroimmunology can be defined as the study of interactions between behavior, neural and endocrine function, and immune processes (Ader et al, 1995)

This is why understanding your emotional life is imperative to improving your voice. If you don’t get aware of your shit it may prove difficult to become aware of how your voice changes and adapts to situations you may find yourself in, especially stressful ones, if you don’t know what is triggering you to find it stressful in the first place.

Get aware of your shit.

Voice work is not easy, there is no quick fix, and you will have to develop a strong discipline to post-pone gratification; but like anything in life, anything worth doing is difficult. So, a monotoned voice can have its root in your emotional life; but it may also be maintained by poor breathing or posture. If you underpower your voice, the vocal folds have to maintain a thickness that limits the range of your frequencies at your disposal. It’s why a monotoned voice is typically quite deep. An underpowered voice means there is a lack of breath to support the voice, you may get the words out phonetically, but the ideas and emotional life of what you are saying, which live in the variances of the range of the voice, are non-existent.

Firstly, to reintroduce the potential for dynamic range in your voice focus your attention on the vowels in the word. Each vowel is a formant with a different set of frequencies in the voice; this means there is naturally occurring modulation in the vowels you speak. Over enunciating the vowels as a practice in your free time, such as reading from a book out loud, can help you get a sense of their potential in your common tongue. You’ll find that the sensation lingers having completed the exercise.

Secondly, singing is a must if your voice lacks dynamism. There is a colossal amount of research on the benefits of singing on your physical health, such as governing the release of a newly discovered chemical called endocannabinoids, which does exactly what you think it does, but it also helps stretch your vocal folds and activate articulators that may have become dormant. It forces you to kickstart your respiratory muscles to function cohesively with voicing, meaning, you learn how to give enough air to your voice so the tone and quality are not underpowered. But it needs to be practiced so might I suggest the shower! This leads us to our next rule.

Vocal Habit 2: Underpowering

This is exactly how it sounds; a self-defeating habit that really sucks as it pulls your legs out from under you! This commonly occurs when you have something important to say, and that’s the crux; because it’s important, it carries more weight, and if you don’t step up to bear it upon your shoulders, the words can implode before the idea has even left your mouth. It takes courage to speak your worth because once it's passed your lips, you cannot take it back; however, underpowering tries to do just that, “one foot out of the door and one foot in”.

You have to commit whole heartedly. There’s no sitting on the fence when you are required to speak on matters that are important to you!

Underpowering means that not enough breath is being capitalised to give enough tone, amplitude, and resonant quality to the voice so that it can either sound muffled, monotone, non-audible, or thin (lacking in harmonics that capture the inner-ear to regulate neural functions that engage social cohesion). Here are two ways it can happen: the first is that the tongue slightly stiffens up and retracts back into the throat, physically stemming the tide of sound from escaping, or “swallowing your words” as it is known. It may sound like lunacy that you’re trying to do one thing but your body is doing another but this is the role, or a specimen, of cognitive dissonance. Another key example of underpowering is when your voice fails to make it to the end of your sentence. If you consistently fall off the end of your sentence, where coincidentally the crux of the idea lives, this should concern you as it detracts from the power of your idea.

The second is a locking of the respiratory muscles. We do this when anxious to protect the body. Without going into the phylogenetic heritage of our nervous system, which you can do here, our response to stress developed to protect us from predators, so the tensing or priming of muscles was key to our survival. The most common is the constricting of the core muscles (rectus abdominis, transversus abominis, etc). A locked belly, however, does not allow for thoracic capacity to increase to efficiently intake enough air for what you may want to say, due to your core muscles being an integral part of sustaining phonation. Energy, that should be directed to controlling airflow, is instead directed to protecting the body from an ancient enemy.

Understanding how your body reacts to stress is integral to transforming the ancient neural vestiges we maintain, such as the fight-flight response to stress, into something that you can use to your adavantage.

The key is in the concept of “no effort”. Restricting primary muscles, especially those used for respiration, has an enormous impact on the use of your voice because you tend to recruit secondary respiratory muscles to pick up the slack. These muscles, such as the sternocleidomastoid, are not meant for the fine control of vocalisation and can introduce tension within the vocal tract due to their proximity. To read more about the effects of breathing on the voice may I suggest you begin with, What Crocodiles and Humans Have in Common. If you tend to find that a locked belly is common for you, you may have to begin a process of exercises that enhance your proprioception, so that you can begin to let go of excessive, and unnecessary tension, in response to stress. Relaxing and releasing specific muscles can teach you the essence of “no effort” because it teaches you to understand, via proprioception, what muscles are required, and muscles that aren’t. Like learning the guitar, where every muscle is involved, you have to learn to use only what is necessary and if it means learning how to breathe effectively again, like an infant, then so be it, there is no shame in learning.

Your body is trying to protect you from the tiger lurking behind the reeds, be patient.

What Happens Now

Practice. Record yourself and listen to yourself free of negative judgment but with honest critique and appraisal. If you find your voice lacks pitch and resonating variance, trying incorporating your body into the language. Jumping up or down, sitting and standing up, or running on the spot, will help to ignite, or rather, give you the gift of realizing your potential for colour within your voice. Become aware of the vowels within your speech, and try singing; you’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Get aware of your shit. You must take responsibility for how your body deals with stress, not just for the sake of your voice but for your own self-understanding. Because it is such a primal and visceral biological function it is paramount to understand what patterns you’ve developed to cope with it and with that knowledge you may begin to unpack the myriad of ways that it affects your voice. How Stress Affects Your Voice, is another good starting point for those seeking more information.

If you have any questions please feel free to respond below.

Works Cited

Pinker, S. (1995). The Language Instinct. Penguin.

Porges, W, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology

Voice Coach and Founder of Orator | Masters in Voice Studies, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama | Currently Coaching in London | www.oratorvoice.com

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