‘It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.’
-William Carlos Williams

The name Albert Mehrabian probably isn’t very familiar to many of us. It should be though, because he is responsible for one of the most quoted findings in the field of human communication.

Mehrabian was responsible for his discovery that the words used in face-to-face communications account for only 7% of messages received, while body language and vocal tone account for 55% and, 38% respectively.

This is called the rule of 7/38/55%. Professor Mehrabian’s findings are frequently trotted out at personal development seminars, emphasizing the importance of body language and vocal tone over the words which we use.

The implication is clear: good communication goes beyond the words you use to convey a message. Speech writers spend hours crafting their speeches to perfection. How many of these dedicated people invest as much time in their presentation skills as they do in their vocabularies? It is clear that top communicators rely far more heavily upon appropriate body language and vocal tone to get their message across more effectively than reciting from a dictionary.

The Science of Speech

Plenty of research has gone in to determining which vocal tones are more pleasing to the human ear. First, a little biology: the tones of the voice originate from the triangular chamber at the upper end of the trachea, or windpipe. The front part of this chamber forms the ‘Adam’s Apple’ visible in men (women have one too, just smaller). The vocal chords are comprised of two strips of tissue that, which, when air is passed through, vibrate to produce a vocal tone.

Power of the Pitch

While preferences for particular vocal tones can vary from person to person, there are a few rules that have been revealed through research. For example, lower vocal tones have been shown to generally possess more authority than higher ones.

According to a study recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, vocal pitch (highness and lowness) is perceived to have an effect upon the perception of the leadership capabilities of the speakers. This is shown to be heavily influenced by their gender.

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Women with higher pitched voices were perceived as more attractive, while those with lower pitches were more socially dominant. Men, on the other hand, who possess lower voices, were perceived as ‘more attractive, physically stronger, and socially dominant.’

Research conducted in 2011 linked deep male voices to improved memory in females, while a further study conducted at McMaster University in Ontario discovered voters were more likely to favour candidates with lower voices.

Use your Vocal Tone to become a Better Communicator

The use of body language is one thing, but how can we work on how we use vocal tones to become better communicators? Salespeople are adept at this. Whether it’s a telemarketer calling to compare credit cards, a charity collector on the street, a shop assistant or salesperson, many people involved in sales implement these skills instinctively.

Used in both your personal and professional life, there’s no escaping the fact that developing an excellent use of vocal tone will pay dividends. Judith Filek of Impact Communications suggests some ingenious techniques for improving the tone of your voice:

  1. Ensure you are breathing from the diaphragm, which is the muscle beneath your rib cage. Shallow breathing will make your voice sound strained.
  2. Make sure you drink plenty of water all day to keep your vocal chords properly lubricated.
  3. Ensure you limit your intake of caffeine as it is a diuretic.
  4. Sit up straight: posture not only influences your voice, but also your confidence.
  5. Use gestures to energize your voice. This will help give your voice added power when you are tired. Smiling also helps ‘warm’ your voice.
  6. Record your voice. This is a particularly illuminating technique for some!
  7. Try speaking at a slightly lower octave, as research has shown that those who speak at a lower octave are often presumed to have more credibility.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on your vocal tone.
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