Feb 23 2010
I am often surprised by the lack of research in the area of voice as a barometer for the psyche, but we all know it is. I got a voice mail from my daughter the other day. All she said was, “Hi, Mom. Call me,” but I knew something was wrong. Fortunately, it was not a big problem, but how did I know there was a problem at all? It wasn’t what she said; it was how she said it. Politicians can deliver eloquent, powerful phrases in response to accusations, and we think we know they are lying, no matter what they actually say.
A study done in Geneva has shown that emotions can be “heard” in the voice. An emotion is what happens when many interconnected processes of interpretation, bodily reaction and expression happen in response to a situation, either external or internal. Emotion is physical. Therefore, since the voice IS also physical, it is no wonder that we can “hear” emotions in the voice. It happens through changes in the muscles, the breath and the brain which in turn affect the pitch, cadence, and inflection of the voice. Coupled with the ability for the voice to show emotion is the ability for the ear to pick up minute differences in the sound the voice produces. The ear can perceive 1400 different pitches and 280 different levels of volume for each pitch it can hear! So if you feel an emotion, you can be assured that no matter how hard you try to disguise it, someone will pick it up!
But what about intention? Can we pick up intentions in a person’s voice or because of their relation to emotions, or is there something else going on? Intention is what one has in mind to do or bring about, and I mean literally “in mind,” as was shown by two studies of intention. In the first, it was revealed by New York researchers that infants as young as six months old can understand our intentions, and respond to them. Another study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that the mirror neuron system tracks not only the actions, but also the intentions, of others. This mirror neuron system has been identified as being very important in guiding our social interactions, especially in survival and keeping us safe. Therefore, intention is a component of “trustworthiness” in social interaction and it is definitely picked up by others, which is why you need to be clear about your intention as a speaker.
Aligning your intention with others’
Public speaking often feels like a solo act. Conversation can feel that way too! In personal expression, you will almost always communicate the representation of your personal perspective. You seek to persuade others, to inform others, or to entertain others. However, if you truly need or want to communicate something, you need to consider the perspective of others. You can think of intention in public speaking as something akin to good marketing: you need to know who you are, what you do and why anyone should care. In an article called “The Power of the Ask,” Market Like a Chick blogger, Coree Silvera, says “You build your solutions based on their needs and demonstrate how your unique product or service can help them achieve their goals.” Likewise, when speaking with others, you do the same. You are not looking for their intention to be the same as yours, but you must understand how their intention for being there intersects with or conflicts with yours.
Let’s look at some obvious examples.
- A political comedian may be hysterically funny to the Democrats and offensive to the Republicans, or vice versa.
- No matter how persuasive, a pharmaceutical rep may have a hard time convincing a convention of naturopaths that his product is viable.
- The most eloquent teacher in the world will not necessarily persuade a group of restless teenagers to sit and listen to him for hours.
- If you know that you have a solution to sell and they need your solution, that doesn’t mean that their intention is to buy from you.
Speech coach, Lisa Braithwaite has a recent article on her blog, Speak Schmeak, which addresses intentions in a broader picture. She stresses that your words have to align with your actions, and in her examples, the actions have intentionalitiy behind them. Though not in these words, she asks you to consider this: what is the intention behind your actions?
It is safe to say that there are those who have persuaded others to listen when it was against the odds. One fine example is that of a ten-year-old boy, Dalton Sherman, who has captured the hearts of over 1,000,000 viewers on YouTube. Dalton is a passionate speaker who makes us believe in him because he obviously believes in himself. Dalton’s voice is strong. His words are strong, and he intends that we move together to make a strong difference in education.
How can you be more like Dalton? How can you better align your intention with your voice and your content? The first step is often to get very honest with yourself and to take inventory of what’s going on in your mind and the minds of your listeners. Make it a part of what you do in preparation for a talk or a conversation. And consider that circumstances may interfere with your intention. A sound system fails, a heckler interrupts your talk, an unexpected emotional response affects you deeply, and changes your mind. Still, an awareness of intention in yourself and others is key to more clear communication. Here are some ways to discover yours and use it well.
- Ask yourself why you are there? Are you there to convince the audience to do something? Are you there to entertain? Are you speaking to educate? Are you giving something away in order to get them to buy something else? Are you speaking on behalf of a cause? Are you using this as an opportunity to do something you weren’t actually asked to do? Did you agree to have lunch with someone because you would then be able to corner them with a topic they are not expecting? Are you apologizing? Are you wanting them to hear a grievance? There are many possibilities. Write them down and be aware of them as you craft your speech or conversation.
- It may be more difficult to clarify intention when you are asked to speak on the spur of the moment. In that situation, take a moment to consider the audience and who and why they are there. Your intention is the intersection of why YOU are there, what you have been asked to do, and why the audience should care.
- Create a personal statement of intention for each project or product you need to represent. Let that statement shape your intention in your communication with others.
- Research the purpose of the organizations and businesses for whom you speak. Find ways in which their purpose and your intention intersect and use that as a filter in your communication with them.
- You have a unique perspective and personality to bring to whatever you do. You have a voice that is unlike any other, both a physical one and a “voice” as an authentic presence in the world. Your intention is always to bring that voice to the table so you can be heard. And even though Dalton impresses us because he isn’t like most ten-year-olds, just like Dalton, you can bring your unique self to us and do so with confidence and clarity if you honestly believe in who you are what you have to say.