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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

7 Ways to Sound Polished and Powerful at Work

In an ideal world, career success would be based on meaningful factors like talent, original thinking, and performance. But in actuality, seemingly trivial influences exert a greater impact on how far ahead we get than we may think.

Proof: Recent research pinpointed a strong correlation between power and voice tone, finding that people in high-ranking positions speak differently than those with a lower status, and that others can accurately detect how prominent someone is just by the sound of his or her voice.

Want to harness this to raise your own power profile? Read on for solutions to score a smooth, commanding voice that screams success.

1. Do You Know What You Really Sound Like?

“You wouldn’t dream of walking into a boardroom meeting or job interview in raggedy jeans and flip-flops,” says Darlene Price, president of the executive coaching firm Well Said, Inc. “And your voice is an equally important reflection of your professional presence.”

Price experienced the impact of speech on success firsthand: Originally from a rural farming community in the mountains of North Carolina, she later attended Appalachian State University, graduated at the top of her class, and landed a job in sales.

But despite her hard work, she struggled to get clients. “People wouldn’t give me the time of day—I couldn’t even get an appointment,” she remembers. She was clueless about why doors were being slammed in her face, until her boss shared an insight that changed the course of her life.

He took her aside and told her, “You are highly capable and we are in support of your potential, but your voice is holding you back.” Price was blown away—like most of us, she was completely unaware of what she sounded like and how she came across to others as a result. But her supervisor’s revelation sunk in.

“Not only did I have a heavy Southern accent that was difficult to understand, but I also used a squeaky, breathy baby voice, and I had a speech impediment—I couldn’t pronounce r’s or s’s. On top of that, I was shy, and lacked the confidence to speak up,” she says. “I knew that I had to work on my voice to ensure my future. It was clear to me that I would not have the career I wanted otherwise.”

As Price realized, the sneaky thing about voice is that what you hear in your head could be completely different from how you sound to others. So the first step to figuring out whether your chatter might be hindering your career is to open your ears.

Use the Voice Memo function on your iPhone (or download the free recording app Cogi for Android) to tape yourself during a conversation. Then pop in a set of headphones, hit play… and don’t be surprised if your jaw hits the floor.

2. Drop the Uptalk

If your voice rises at the end of every sentence? Like Shoshanna on Girls? So that it sounds like you’re asking a question? Even when you’re not? Then you’ve fallen into the habit of uptalk, and it’s threatening your workplace credibility. “Not only is it annoying and distracting, but it gives the impression that you’re unsure of yourself and constantly seeking approval,” says Price, who notes this speech pattern is on the rise among her clientele.

Luckily, she has a fix. Hold one arm straight out in front of you, and begin reading aloud from a book or magazine. Whenever you reach a period, lower your arm down to your side, and drop your pitch at the same time. “It’s a technique called kinesthetic anchoring, when you associate a physical action with a certain vocal pattern,” explains Price. “The voice naturally follows the body, so lowering your arm triggers your brain to lower your voice.”

Practice this for 30 minutes a day; after three months you should be seeing progress, and after a year downward inflection will be like second nature.

3. Ditch the Baby Talk

No matter how accomplished you are, you probably won’t be taken seriously if you sound like a third-grader. Price once worked with a CEO who found herself losing out on opportunities as a direct result of her squeaky tone. “She had two PhDs after her name, an incredible history of success, and Wall Street loved her on paper,” she says. “But all that brilliance was masked because people could not get past her voice.” Unwarranted as it may be, people came away with the impression that she was immature and low on the totem poll.

The solution? Yawns are actually a powerful tool to help your voice grow up. “A high-pitched tone is caused by constriction in the throat muscles,” explains Jane Fujita, voice and speech specialist, dialogue coach, and assistant professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. “Yawning stretches your pharynx, opening up space in the back of your mouth and allowing more air to pass through, which results in a lower, deeper pitch.” She suggests aiming for 20 yawns a day.

Also, start belting it out when you’re in the shower, listening to the car radio, or getting ready in the morning. “It’s uncomfortable to sing with a tightened pharynx, so you’ll naturally begin to release those tense muscles and lengthen your breath,” says Fujita. “Often, this will carry over to the rest of your life.”

4. Channel Diane Sawyer, Not Kim Kardashian

You know that husky tone running rampant on reality television shows like Real Housewives and The Bachelor, and spouted by pop stars like Kesha and Katy Perry? Called vocal fry, it’s a speech pattern that female Millennials are picking up in droves. “Originally thought to be a speech disorder, over the past few years, speech pathologists started noticing that young women were choosing to speak this way in order to mimic famous entertainers and fit into a peer group,” says Price.

But, much like Valley Girl talk of the ’80s and ’90s, vocal fry sabotages your professional stature. A study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that young women with a raspy register were perceived as less competent, educated, trustworthy, and hireable than those with a normal voice. (It hurts your throat as well as your career—the creaky tones are a result of your vocal chords rubbing against each other, which creates irritation.)

The good news: “Simply becoming aware of how you sound may be enough to motivate you to stop,” says Price.

This breath exercise can also help: Lie on your back, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. Place a heavy book on your stomach, breathe deeply, and watch the book rise with each inhale and fall as you exhale. If the book isn’t moving much, that’s a sign your breath is shallow; focus on sending the breath lower, so that it originates in your diaphragm. As you exhale, breathe out a word, letter, or sounds like mmm or ahhh. “Good breath production is critical to good voice production,” says Price. “It gives your voice the air and power it needs to rise through your vocal chords.”

5. Take it Slooooow

Peoplewhotalkamileaminute are hurting themselves career-wise. “Rushing through gives the impression that you don’t value what you’re saying,” says Fujita. Plus, you might not get credit for your ideas, since people don’t have a chance to fully absorb them.

According to Price, the ideal speaking speed is 150 to 160 words per minute (this is the pace at which audio books are recorded, for example); motor mouths spout out a whopping 220 words per minute. A nifty trick to help you take your time is to talk or read out loud to yourself, and clap your hands at the end of every sentence. “This trains your brain to stop for punctuation marks,” notes Price.

But for many speed talkers, the root of the problem is that they aren’t using their breath optimally, jam-packing multiple sentences into a single exhale. So to kick-start a slower pace, you need to lengthen your breath. Begin by becoming aware of your breathing throughout the day. “Build an obsession with it,” urges Fujita. “How do you breathe when walking down the street, washing dishes, or talking to other people?” Once you start paying attention to the rhythm of your inhales and exhales, your breath will naturally extend.

And make sure you have good alignment, i.e., an erect posture and loose upper body. “To allow for the deep passage of breath, your diaphragm needs to drop and your belly must release,” says Fujita. “That can’t happen if you are holding tension in your torso or collapsing in the upper body.” Along the same lines, carve out time for relaxation, from yoga to meditation.

6. Quit Bingeing on Fillers

So, if you, like, can’t get out a simple, you know, sentence without, um, littering it with verbal detritus—then people are probably underestimating your talent. “Fillers make you sound as though you don’t know what you want to say, like you need to qualify all of your statements,” explains Fujita.

Instead, replace your likes and ums with a pause. “There is power in pausing,” says Fujita. “It allows you to hold the floor in between sentences and adds meaning to the next thing you say.” A beat of silence also gives the person you’re talking to time to digest your words.

But sometimes those pesky fillers continue to creep in. And while the occasional “you know” isn’t the end of the world, many people go overboard. One of Price’s clients, an exec for a Fortune 500 company, had a wake-up call after delivering a presentation to a major prospect. The decision maker for the group handed him a note reading, You said “um” 21 times in the first 60 seconds.

Give yourself a reality check by recording yourself during a conversation, then counting how many fillers you used. “As soon as you are made aware of this habit, your brain becomes engaged, which automatically helps you keep it under control,” says Price.

Or go a step further: Ask your partner or a friend to tap on the table whenever an um slips out, and then begin your sentence all over again. You can consider yourself cured once you reach two full minutes of filler-free speech. “This can be a frustrating exercise, but it has never failed my clients,” affirms Price. “They end up speaking in a more slow, thoughtful, deliberate fashion.”

7. Make Yourself Heard

What was that? I can’t hear you. Could you speak up? Come again? If you barely register above a whisper, what you say can come across as equally unsubstantial. “A breathy voice doesn’t give your words gravitational weight,” says Fujita. “When you have more vocal amplitude, you have more power.”

But putting oomph into your speech isn’t as simple as just talking louder. Not only will that feel unnatural, but you’ll sound like you’re shouting—not quite the impression you’re going for. Instead, try visualizing your voice as a ball you can bounce off the walls, suggests Fujita. “Think about landing your voice across the room,” she says. This will help you project without coming across as aggressive.

Also, since shyness can often be part of the problem for soft speakers, consider joining a local Toastmasters club—an organization to help you become a more effective leader and communicator. You can practice public speaking, receive feedback on your performance, and become more comfortable sharing your opinions with a group.

Remember, putting time and effort into developing your voice is tremendously important. “A restricted voice that contains disempowering speech habits will jeopardize your opportunity to fully express your power in the world,” says Price. “You will augment your chances of receiving promotions, raises, and job offers through a strong speaking voice.”

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Photo of microphone courtesy of Shutterstock.