What your voice says about you

As someone who is interested in behavioural economics, you are clearly interested in the hidden forces that shape behaviour.  Here’s one that’s been right under our noses the whole time – our voices.  People judge us not only by how we look, but how we sound.

Snap judgments

On the back of studies confirming people judge the health, attractiveness, warmth and competence of others based on how they sound, researchers from the University of Glasgow were interested in how long this impression takes to form.

The answer? People make these judgments in the time it takes to say “hello”.

First whittling a passage of text read by sixty different people down to the word “hello”, the researchers had 320 people listen to that single word and rate the anonymous speaker according to a list of personality traits such as trustworthiness, warmth, dominance, aggressiveness, attractiveness, masculinity and femininity.

The interesting finding was that there was consensus across participants about the ratings given to the voices. In other words, 320 people broadly agreed which voices were warmer, more dominant, more trustworthy and so forth.

Were these assessments accurate? Was the person who sounded the most trustworthy, actually trustworthy? That’s not what the researchers were interested in, so we don’t know. The important (and alarming) take away is people make the judgments irrespective of evidence.

If you overlay this with behavioural concepts such as the halo effect and confirmation bias, it means that once you are judged (or judge) in a certain way, evidence confirming that judgment will be prioritised over anything that disaffirms it. If Bob sounds trustworthy, I will naturally look for examples of trustworthy behaviour from Bob and discount contradictory information.

What first impression are you creating?

Knowing that you and your staff will be judged by how you sound, it is worth thinking through the points of first impression. Are you meeting customers in person or over the phone? What does your voicemail message say about you? Have you paid enough attention to the vocal ‘talent’ that represents your business in ads, videos and recordings? Make sure your voice hits the right note with customers because it is likely to be one of the behavioural forces that has been overlooked.

Can you change your voice?

The natural question after finding out that we are judged by our voice is to ask what we can do about it. Can we change our voice?

That’s actually what got me started on this line of enquiry. I came across “Four Ways to Tell What Your Voice is Saying About You” in Fastcompany, and as someone who speaks regularly in front of groups and in the media, I was curious about what messages my voice was sending without me realising, and whether I could influence it.

The upshot from what I’ve read in Fastcompany and other literature is you can change your voice, but only to a degree.  

  • Pitch and rhythm you can control, and vocal exercises (how now brown cow) and mindful breathing can help (Google “vocal training” or “executive speaking” to find some options). 
  • Other aspects of your voice like resonance are more difficult to change because they are a function of your physiological make-up like height and length of your vocal tract.

Of course, there’s always a gulp of helium to set your voice apart, but I think we’ll agree this strategy is ill advised for reasons of health and credibility.

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