Back in the mid- or early nineties, I was videotaped for the first time, doing some media work for my then-employer, Princeton University.  Aside from the usual reactions – I didn’t like my hair, my clothes, my physique, or what I did with my hands – I was most astonished by the shrill, pipsqueak voice that came trilling out of what I thought was my body.

I barely recognized it.  It sounded ridiculous.  And I couldn’t figure out what had happened.  The voice didn’t sound anything like what I remembered from the day of taping.  Was it a tech issue?  Had my voice been distorted by a malicious camera operator?  What was going on?

So I asked the other folks present that day if the silly voice on the recording sounded at all like my “real” voice.  “Oh, sure,” they said, “pretty much.  Maybe a little higher, and more stressed out, but pretty much.”

I learned three lessons from this exercise in humiliation.

First, your voice doesn’t sound to you like it does to other people.  Quite simply, you’re hearing it from an internal perspective; they’re hearing it from outside.  If you’re planning on doing any amount of public speaking, then, record your voice early on, get used to it, and start to work on it to make it better.

Second, adrenaline makes your voice go higher.  When you’re stressed, your vocal chords tighten up and your pitch accordingly raises.  Unless you’re completely cool for an event, then, you need to practice deliberately lowering your pitch to compensate.

Third, we humans are incredibly good at hearing the stress in other people’s voices.  We pick up on it immediately.  That’s part of why speakers need to learn to compensate.  But there’s more.  It turns out, according to recent research, that people speak in higher-pitched voices when talking to higher status people, or if we’re intimidated.  So if you don’t want to signal either of these two impressions, lower your voice.

Another study found that men lower their voices in order to try to dominate in certain settings.  In short, we signal dominance with lower-pitched voices.  And still another study found that people who spoke with lowered voices were perceived as both more prestigious and more admirable.

Now you have the bad news.  Stress, of the kind that you naturally experience when giving a presentation, will tighten up your vocal chords, raise your pitch, and generally make you sound stressed out.

But that voice will also make you appear less prestigious, less admirable, and lower in status.

None of those things will help you succeed as a speaker, so now’s the time to begin to work on your voice, keeping it low despite any stress you may be experiencing.

Relaxation exercises, and of course the deep, belly breathing that I’ve blogged about many times, will help you sound like the authority you are hoping to be, not like the terror-stricken underling I must have appeared back in the day for those TV appearances.

Live and learn!

Learn about how to write and give a top-notch speech at our Powerful Public Speaking one-day workshop in Boston on October 24.  Spaces are limited, so sign up soon!


  1. Low and slow — that’s the ticket. Low does all of the things you cite here, and slow helps you find a comfort zone. When your heart, and seemingly everything around you, is going a million miles per hour, the only thing you truly have control over is the pace at which you speak. Wielding that control might be the most important thing you can do to combat nerves.

  2. Funny, I had just a situation like this yesterday prior to an audition for a rather important gig — I approached the casting assistant and wanted to introduce myself — as we’d mostly been exchanging here — and because of the situation…a casting agency full of prospective talent vying for the same gig, the fact that the workspace area was open concept and totally within hearing range of the other talent, fact that I’d actually invited my dad to participate in the session since it called for “sons with the *real* fathers” and I was a bit nervous that my dad — who isn’t at all an actor, at least per training — would nail the audition, in addition to the fact that we were waiting to get called in and who knew when that would come….all told, I think in retrospect it caused my voice to falter a bit when introducing myself. Kind of slapped myself after because I was mad that I permitted the situation to zonk me out and make me tentative…but then I read a post like yours — thank you for the timeliness Dr. Nick — and I’m back to focus. Perfect post.

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