I’ve been posting a good deal recently on research having to do with the voice. And a number of readers have asked me about one voice study that seemed to contradict most of the others, finding that a higher, more strident voice came across as higher status than a lower one.
Well, rest easy. We don’t all have to become tenors or sopranos. That particular study was flawed in a number of ways. And other research confirms that it’s the range that’s more important than the high pitch. In other words, what audiences are responding to is the emotion, and a bigger emotional range is more powerful (and higher status) than a narrower one.
But there’s more, and far more important research into how the voice actually works on the human psyche than these quick and dirty studies tweaking the voice a little and superficially measuring attitudes in response.
So for those who want to understand what’s really at stake, read on. This is for the voice geeks, or the speakers who really want to succeed, or the leaders who want to remove all possible barriers to their successful leadership.
Researchers have known for a long time that when we speak, we put out low-frequency sounds that we’re not aware of—consciously. The researchers assumed that these noises were meaningless by-products of our vocal chords working away as we communicate with one another and shout at passing cars and other annoyances.
They were wrong. Those sounds are not only meaningful, but they determine who’s in charge.
The good news is that you can learn how to increase your production of these secret influencers in order to make sure that you are the leader of any group you want to control.
How does this unconscious conversation work, this conversation that you’ve never before been aware of that runs your life?
Every sound produced by a human—or a musical instrument, an animal, or a machine—has an aural fingerprint that you can measure by charting its frequency responses in units of sound called “hertz.” We can hear sounds ranging from twenty hertz at the low end to twenty thousand hertz at the upper end. Anything at about three hundred hertz or lower sounds to us like a low bass note or, as they go lower, not like notes at all, but rather like rumbles of thunder.
It’s important to understand that most naturally produced sounds are not pure emissions of one note at one frequency. The quality of a sound—the difference between your mother-in-law’s voice, for example, and a chain saw—is determined by the overtones and undertones that the sound produces. A sound gets its quality from the number of over- and undertones, as well as the intensity of them.
Very broadly speaking, we like sounds that are rich in overtones and (especially) undertones. The “thinner” a sound is, the more likely we are to find it irritating. There’s a wide individual variation in the kinds of sounds we find appealing, but on the whole, for example, a thin, nasal voice is less appealing to us than a rich, resonant voice.
Here’s the amazing part: people who put out the right kind of sounds—below the range of conscious human hearing—become the leaders of most groups.
So what are these low-frequency sounds we all emit and of which we’re not usually aware? Sociologist Stanford Gregory of Kent State University decided to study them a bit more closely. What he found was extraordinary.
Working with colleague Stephen Webster, Gregory studied interviews on the Larry King Live show.
His research built on the work of a member of the French Resistance who used a machine called a vocorder to analyze voices. That Frenchman, Pierre deLontrey, became familiar with the vocorder during World War II and continued to work with it as a professor at the University of Colorado after the war.
The French Resistance had used the vocorder as a coding device. Invented by Bell Labs, it filtered out certain frequencies of the voice. The coders took the frequencies between 100 and 350 hertz in a human voice recording and filtered them out. Then, they took another a frequency in a higher register and mixed them up in accordance with a code. Then, of course, when the Germans or Japanese received it, it just sounded like random sounds. The code was extremely hard to break because you had to know what frequencies had been removed and scrambled and put them back in the original order.
After the war, deLontrey used the vocorder to analyze conversation. When Gregory met deLontrey, the Frenchman was experimenting with various ways of dissecting the voice in conversation. The vocorder enabled them to take apart a conversation, or take apart human speech, into its constituent frequencies.
Using this device, Gregory and his colleague Webster found that in conversations and meetings, people rapidly match each other’s low-frequency sounds. Why? In order to have a productive conversation or meeting, we need to literally be on the same wavelength. As Gregory says, “Without the low-frequency sound, it makes it harder for two people to complete a task. Our research showed that when the lower frequency is eliminated in people’s interactions, they’re not as able to complete a task in as timely a manner or in as accurate a manner, even though they can hear it very crisply.” Gregory and Webster found that humans need the lower-frequency sounds to add some very important emotional aspects to their communications.
That, by the way, is why phone conversations are so much less satisfying that in-person conversations. Of course, the lack of body language input is important too, but phone technology does a poor job of transmitting lower frequencies, so the result is that a phone voice is emotionally unsatisfying.
But the power of the low-frequency end of the voice goes even further than that. When Stanford and his colleague dug into the Larry King interviews, they found that lower-status people match the low-frequency sounds of the higher-status people in the room.
You might expect that everyone would meet in the middle, but that was not the case. When Larry King was interviewing someone of very high status, he matched the high-status individual’s tones. When the interviewee was low status, he or she would match Larry King. The quickest to match Larry was Dan Quayle, the former vice president of the United States.
The conclusion? We not only want to be on the same wavelength, but we want to know who’s in charge. So the process of picking a leader has more to do with having the right kind of voice than it does having the right ideas or the right physique.
Speakers, voice geeks, and leaders take note. You can work on your voice, and produce a leadership-quality sound. Or you can leave it to chance. Now, at least, you’ll know why you will succeed or fail.
Part of this blog post is excerpted from my new book, Power Cues, published in May by Harvard. You can learn more about it here: http://amzn.to/1m0ktBA.