Eye contact, fidgeting, pointing your feet in a certain direction and talking too quickly. We’re all familiar with the non-verbal and verbal cues that can express our level of comfort (or discomfort) when having a conversation. But whether you’re in a meeting, a video call or a job interview, there is another clue. According to new research from the University of Stirling in the UK, your voice pitch changes when talking to people more important to you.
“Our latest study has found that men and women generally speak with higher-pitched voices to interviewers they think are high in social status,” writes the paper’s researchers. “However, we found that people who thought they themselves were quite dominant, were less likely to vary their pitch and generally spoke in a lower pitch when talking to someone of high social status. On the other hand, people who considered themselves to be prestigious talked in a measured way, not increasing or decreasing the volume of their voice very much.”
“Knowing how to prepare oneself for ‘across-power’ conversations is important, whether you’re talking to a leader or staff members.”
The researchers defined dominance as “taking power by force and coercion”, whereas prestige was “being freely given power due to one’s skill and merits”. By this theory, speaking in a high-pitch voice, although less dominant, could ease a professional relationship. “Using a high-pitched voice would signal to an employer that the interviewee is not a threat, and may serve to avoid confrontations,” write the researchers.
With this in mind, how low should you go in a professional situation?
“Most people are unaware of their pitch changes,” says Sandra Baigel, a voice technique coach who works with executive clients across Australia to increase the impact of their voices in a business context. “Knowing how to prepare oneself for ‘across-power’ conversations is important, whether you’re talking to a leader or staff members.”
As in the study, she finds many clients speak with a high-pitch when speaking to superiors. “People can sound young and breathless when speaking up the chain of command,” she says. “The implication is this is because the voice is light or ‘reduced’ you are not a threat to the leader. But it’s important to note we are not bound to use high voices in these contexts. Each of us can choose how we respond.”
Rather than telling clients how they should sound, she focuses on finding their most natural intonation, using a range of strategies including swallowing to relax the throat, releasing a clenched jaw and managing breath flow.
“The pitch of a voice refers to where the voice is found on the vocal register,” says Sandra. “It’s determined by the structure, size and function of the vocal mechanism. Knowing how to find your optimum pitch – those notes where your voice works best so that you can sound strong and calm – can help people choose strength, depth and balance in the voice when they are under pressure.”
Through the Voice-Word you can submit an audio snapshot of your voice for analysis. The best strategy, according to Sandra is practise, whether it’s in front of the mirror or with a mentor. “It is important to note that pitch changes are only one aspect of a person’s voice impact,” she says. “The rate of speech may ramp up or slow down. The fluency of language may dry up, they may stumble over words or forget them entirely; the presence or lack of richness and strength in the voice may fluctuate, as well as the impact of the voice, how vibrant, how alive the voice sounds during conversations.”
Want to sound your best in any situation? Follow these tips to be pitch perfect.
In a job interview
“Be prepared beforehand by knowing as much as you can about the organisation and the role you wish to gain,” says Sandra. “Practise aloud how to give an example and tell a story. This will give you confidence and the knowledge you need for general conversation and the specifics of the role. Speak in a strong, clear voice and be confident.”
On a group video call
“There is usually an agenda which is sent out before the meeting so be prepared,” she says. “Use a purposeful voice and speak clearly, keep your content short and to-the-point. Most importantly, look at the camera and open your mouth when speaking. People often mumble when nervous, but, on a video call, people lip-read. It’s an important part of communication.”
If you’re a boss speaking to an intern
“Model the behaviours you want them – especially if they’re new to the company – to adopt in their role. Break the ice first and smile. Make sure your voice sounds warm and friendly as you say hello. Breathe deeply so you relax, keep the conversation easy and light, and wish the newcomer a good day when you go your separate ways.”