Voice: Finding Yours

Last week I was the protagonist in the curious ritual called a ‘post-prandial’ talk at my College (Churchill). In other words, after the whole Fellowship had met for the formal governance activity known as ‘Governing Body’, and after dinner (prandium is actually the Latin word for the midday meal, but somewhere along the way this name for the after-dinner seminar has stuck), I had to give my talk. The last time I had to go through this particular ordeal was as part of the interview process for the job of Master at Churchill, when I was asked to talk for about 20 minutes to a general audience of the Fellowship (ie scientists and non-scientists alike, who all had a vote as to who they wanted to be the next Master back in 2013) about my research after dinner. A challenge to make it both exciting to the former and accessible as well as accessible to the latter. Now 10 years later, I was asked, at about 3-days notice, to step in and talk about anything I wanted (I chose some of the work I’ve been doing about science policy) to a similar generalist audience.

Of course, the first thing to get through on such an occasion, is dinner, with quizzing from some younger members of the College. “Do I still get nervous?” – yes. “Really?” – yes, and as I said to them, it’s definitely worse talking to your friends and colleagues than to a much larger group of complete strangers who you’ll never see again. How do the nerves manifest themselves? My voice does not often shake these days (I’m sure it used to). But in the circumstances of the Labour Party Conference Fringe event I wrote about in my last post, undoubtedly my fluency departed, as confirmed afterwards by a friend in the audience. On that occasion, I was largely reading from my scripted notes, to make sure I covered all the bases that I intended, rather than ad-libbing around a Powerpoint presentation. Since the notes had had to be hastily amended in scrawled handwriting, as I described before, I felt both thrown out and overly anxious. My speech was more jerky than fluent as I tried to piece it together into something coherent. On this more recent occasion in College, with a rapidly written Powerpoint to hand, once I’d got underway I felt the words flowed quite easily (I had not drunk much of the wine proffered over dinner; flow is different from slurring).

My observations on my own research students and postdocs suggests a shy demeanour and/or nerves does not necessarily manifest itself in any visible or audible signs, nor is an excellent presentation predicated on daily exuded confidence. One of my Friday dinner companions remarked their voice tended to rise when tense, but you’d have to know the person well to detect that. However, there is no doubt that voice pitch can matter, at least to some people. I have never forgotten the comment made to me many years ago by a well-meaning departmental colleague, to the effect that perhaps I should take voice-coaching lessons to lower my voice. I was utterly appalled by this, the very idea that gravitas is more readily conveyed by a low (presumably male?) voice, regardless of content stunned me. But, this was a trick Maggie Thatcher clearly believed in, even though the rumour that she went to a voice coach may be apocryphal. Nevertheless, she certainly did lower her voice and, if the article in that link is to be believed, probably damaged her vocal chords in the process since she had not apparently had any coaching.

If you’re concerned about your voice, there are those who advocate thinking yourself powerful before giving a talk apparently, not a tactic I’ve ever used. I’m usually more concerned about content than sonority. However, this specific study suggested those who imagined themselves in a ‘powerful condition’ deliberately raised the pitch of their voices, in contrast to the comments about Thatcher. I suspect, as this commentary about the publication in Forbes points out, there are gender issues at play here, that are not pursued in the original paper. However, as this comment piece spells out, and in line with what I say above, ‘In fact for me, what conveys power is the substance of what the speaker says, not the pitch or the variability of volume.’ Quite. This journalist and I are both more interested in content than auditory tricks.

But voice has other meanings, such as that of authenticity. Management gurus such as Brené Brown are great believers in authenticity as a powerful way for leaders to speak. I think it would be true that, when at the Labour Party fringe event the words were carefully chosen for that audience, and in that sense less authentic than many of my talks, since political speech is not my natural language. At the post-prandial I would have been talking about my own doings (in that particular case, also in the policy arena) and not some hypothetical wishlist for policy-makers to hear. I hope that more recent talk made me sound convincing, as well as fluent.

Psychologist Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book, In a Different Voice, which I am currently re-reading, discusses yet another sense in which ‘voice’ is used. Gilligan is talking about how adolescents, and particularly young women, develop a voice (in the sense of content, not pitch) that is what they believe to be right, even if it isn’t what they genuinely believe. They lose their authenticity in order to fit in with what they perceive to be expected of them or, as Gilligan puts it, they lose their connectedness with their inner self. She sees this as one of the ways in which women shortchange themselves, and are shortchanged, by a patriarchal society where the male voice/view is taken as the norm and any deviation as ‘less developed’, allowing women to be seen as sub-standard men rather than fully-rounded women. These are ideas she builds upon in her much more recent (2018) book Why does Patricarchy Persist?, co-written with Naomi Snider. These approaches are not ones that I utilised in my own book, Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science, but perhaps I should have done. My book is rested far more in the social sciences (such as gender and educational studies) than in psychology.

Voice is not simple, and we each develop our own tricks for survival and for communication. Sometimes what we use relates to our audiences, and sometimes – perhaps not often enough in our daily lives – to our inner selves.

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