I’ve often posted on the importance of the voice to public speaking (here, here, and here, among many), and to leadership and authority in general. Remarkable research in the last decade (that I talked about in Power Cues, Chapter Four) reveals that the undertones of the voice are essential to the endorsement of a leader by the group. And more generally, the undertones of a voice carry its emotions and therefore determine how much one person can influence, move, and finally lead another.
Most important of all, every voice projects the personality of its speaker. In other words, voice determines Voice, the capital letter indicating the quality of the human being behind the sounds he or she produces. I’ve reported on how we can quickly determine a surprising number of personality traits just from hearing someone say “hello” to us.
Voices are each unique, revealing, and central to your ability to lead change in the world.
And yet we underestimate the importance of a voice all the time. We humans put more neurons to work analyzing the visual field, including how other people look to us, than we do listening to them. Indeed, if there’s something interesting going on visually, we’ll put 10 million bits per second of analysis into the visual field, out of a total capacity of 11 million.
Sound not so much. We think of the visual as more important, and indeed if you have to lose one of the senses, we save the most pity for blind people, considering that loss perhaps the most catastrophic.
And yet recent research by the American Psychological Association suggests that it’s better to focus on the listening end of things rather than the seeing end.
The study sought to determine the best way to decode the emotions of other people – through looking at their faces and body language, AND listening to them? Or just by listening to them? Surprisingly, it turns out that we are better at making these determinations of emotion if we just listen, rather than doing both – say, watching and listening to a video of someone emoting.
We’re more accurate and can empathize better if we’re paying attention to a voice. Perhaps the focus helps; but I like to think it’s because so much is projected in the voice – our hopes and fears, our excitement and fatigue and joy and anger and love and hate and confusion.
Come to think of it, that old dinosaur Sigmund Freud sat his patients on a couch facing away from the analyst. Maybe he was on to something. Maybe just focusing on the voice allowed the analyst to hear things from suicidal tendencies and neuroticism to aggression and anger more clearly than if he or she had to take in all that information from the visual field as well as the aural.
Start working today on your voice. It is the passport to the soul. In it, your strength and also your uncertainties are revealed. Learn to control it and become an intentional communicator. Don’t leave that most important of ways to connect with your fellow humans to chance.