For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved listening to the radio. The mellifluous voices of my favorite programs’ hosts—from David Allan Boucher, the DJ of the easy-listening nighttime show Bedtime Magic, to Ira Glass, of NPR’s This American Life—never fail to calm me down and make me feel right at home. On the other hand, when I hear a particularly nasal screech or a maddeningly flat tone—whether in real life, on TV, or over the phone—I become instantly uncomfortable and can’t think about anything besides getting as far away from the speaker as possible.
We all have different ideas about what makes certain sounds more soothing than others, but there’s not a person out there who’s entirely immune to the effects of the human voice. Whether you prefer a booming baritone, a sultry whisper, or a lilting tone, evidence suggests that our visceral reactions to the ways people speak play an integral part in our interactions.
A Mother’s Love
There’s a reason why so many people’s first instinct when they’re upset is to call their mother: a University of Wisconsin–Madison study has identified a concrete link between the sound of Mom’s voice and the soothing of jangled nerves through the release of stress-relieving oxytocin—also known as the “love hormone”—in the brain. In May 2010, biological anthropologist Leslie Seltzer told LiveScience that “it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if [she’s] not standing there.”
For her study, Seltzer asked a group of sixty-one girls between the ages of seven and twelve to speak publicly and solve a series of math problems before a panel of strangers. When the subjects’ stress levels increased under this pressure, one-third of them watched an emotionally neutral video, one-third received in-person embraces from their mothers, and one-third talked to their moms on the phone. In both cases in which the girls were allowed to interact with their mothers, Seltzer observed a lasting and marked decline in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a noticeable increase in their levels of oxytocin, while the participants who watched the video did not achieve the same turnaround. Seltzer believes these findings might be rooted in human evolution: she speculated that women responsible for protecting their children are wired to use voice-related social bonding as a stress reliever.
Other times, our biological response to other people’s voices isn’t quite as straightforward a formula as Mom talks = we feel better. In a July 2010 post on the UK Guardian’s Science Blog, Cian O’Luanaigh described a study in which Aberdeen University scientists measured the voice pitch of 113 female participants and observed those women’s responses to recordings of four male voices, which had been digitally altered to sound more traditionally masculine (lower-pitched) or more conventionally feminine (higher-pitched), saying either, “I really like you” or, “I really don’t like you.” The strongest favorable reaction to this test came from the female subjects with the highest-pitched natural voices when they heard the deepest male voice utter the affirmative statement. As a result, the researchers surmised not only that women prefer deep male voices (on the condition that those voices are saying complimentary things), but also that a woman’s particular preference for the pitch of a male voice depends on the pitch of her own.
In April 2010, in honor of World Voice Day, NPR host Scott Simon interviewed Douglas Hicks, the director of the Voice Center and head of the Speech-Language Pathology section at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Simon played audio clips of well-known speeches for Hicks and asked him to both identify the speakers and describe their voices’ lasting impact on listeners. In response to the first excerpt, of James Earl Jones in Hamlet, Hicks declared, “[He has] this incredibly deep-pitched, resonant voice—a true basso profundo type of voice that is so rich and carries such deep emotional, relaxing, soothing meaning … voices like that are very often perceived and rated very, very favorably.”
The second clip, of Queen Elizabeth II, was less notable for its timbre than for its sophisticated, well-trained style; as Hicks explained, “This particular sample introduces another intriguing aspect—what is oral communication … There is a distinguished, authoritative style of speaking that is the more magnificent part of her presentation, as opposed to just simply the timbre of the voice.”
Finally, Simon played a vocal sample of Curly—the member of the Three Stooges who popularized the expression “nyuck nyuck nyuck”—and asked Hicks, “So … [just] as some voices can make us smile or make us feel as if we’re being soothed, other voices [can] make us laugh?” Hicks responded, “Curly, every time he opened his mouth, threw us a … vocal curve. And that, along with his antics … created a rather clownish caricature that we found humorous and entertaining.”
In September 2004, ASAE & the Center for Human Leadership published an article by Jeffrey Jacobi, founder and president of New York City–based Jacobi Persuasive Speaking, highlighting the correlation between people’s voices and their professional and personal successes. Jacobi cited a University of California, Los Angeles, study that concluded that vocal impact comprises 38 percent of an in-person first impression and a startling 83 percent of a first encounter over the phone. In other words, if the other person doesn’t like the sound of your voice, you may have a hard time securing his or her approval.
Based on these figures, Jacobi initiated his own survey of one thousand men and women to identify the “most unwanted” voices in the United States. In response to the question “Which irritating or unpleasant voice annoys you the most?” most participants answered that a “whining, complaining, or nagging tone” was most grating; others were bothered by squeaky, monotone, or loud voices; mumbling; and fast talking.
Jacobi has built his career on coaching people who have these sorts of abrasive voices to improve their vocal stylings. For example, he cautions fast talkers to take conscious breaths while they speak—“essentially adding commas to [their] thoughts”—and thus allow listeners to absorb their ideas more easily. And for people with especially nasal voices, he advises, “Open the back of your throat a bit more when you speak. In particular, watch out for words like ‘manager,’ ‘answer,’ and ‘annual.’ Such sounds often get pinched.” By customizing relatively simple speech exercises to address his clients’ individual needs, Jacobi asserts, he can have them commanding respect in no time.
Whether you’re a business executive delivering an important presentation, a parent trying to comfort a crying child, an interview candidate for a new job, or a hopeless romantic preparing to profess your undying love to your girlfriend, your voice is a defining element of your identity and of the way others perceive you. Perhaps it’s biological, as Seltzer implies, or maybe it’s conditioned, as Jacobi believes—either way, paying close attention to your tone and tempo and modulating them as the need arises just might be keys to your success.