One area that many conversations about inclusion often overlook is spoken communication. It feels awkward and personal to discuss how people talk. Accents and speech patterns are also not areas where many of us feel we have expertise.
With her new book Permission to Speak, Samara Bay, a podcaster and vocal coach to actors and political candidates, tackles how to reduce biases you have about how people sound when they talk, and how to speak more persuasively yourself.
"Getting heard is a tricky business: It's what you say and how you show up, filtered through your audience's assumptions and biases—and maybe even your own,” explains the jacket of Bay’s book. “For women, people of color, immigrants, and queer folks, there's often a dissonance between how you speak and how we collectively think powerful people should speak."
Bay puts the onus on listeners: “We may be ‘speech gatekeeping’ more than we realize and shutting out humans’ yearning to connect, and the type of diversity we say we want in our lives.” (p. 174) Bay encourages readers to observe who they naturally relate to and why, as well as who they trust implicitly and seek out.
She also notes the largely unacknowledged discrimination in hiring based on a job candidate’s accent. “Though businesses all around the world have instituted anti-discrimination policies preventing (or at least intended to prevent) biases against prospective employees based on their skin color, ethnicity, or gender, policies preventing accent-related bias simply don’t exist,” Bay writes. (p. 173)
Upon hearing just seven words, we’re able to make judgments about the speaker’s social class with reliable accuracy, according to Yale School of Management organizational behavior professor Dr. Michael Kraus. “We rarely talk explicitly about social class, and yet, people with hiring experience infer competence and fitness based on socioeconomic position estimated from a few seconds of an applicant’s speech,” says Kraus in the book. (p. 173) The instructive element is not for interviewees to code switch and alter their accent or patterns of speech, but for interviewers to beware of what they may inadvertently be listening for and disadvantaging in their assessments.
One factor in workplaces is that our culture traditionally has reinforced the importance of masculine-coded traits while downgrading “soft skills” and feminine-coded traits. This legacy means that “we know to value strength; we don't always remember to value warmth,” Bay explains. (p. 152)
In our attempts to sound polished when speaking in public, we often try to remove any evidence of effort. This reflects long-held expectations about public and influential speech— “it sounds like command and conviction,” Bay writes. (p. 5) Demonstrations of easy authority include John F. Kennedy justifying a trip to the Moon and Steve Jobs giving a Stanford graduation address. It's Madeleine Albright as secretary of State, demonstrating the conventional wisdom that "flat is better than topological variety…A steady voice gets the job done.” (p. 109)
But unemotional is outdated, according to Bay. While “neutral delivery devoid of personal touch once seemed like the epitome of authoritative speech…it now seems suspect,” she writes. (p. 93) Mimicking the speaking style of years past partially causes joyless public speaking, panels, and meetings.
Instead, Bay sees benefit in “being emotional with purpose” (p. 95) when trying to convince groups of people. This sounds like X González advocating for gun control and Oprah using vocal fry to lower her pitch when she’s sharing a personal conviction.
When it analyzed 70,000 business leaders around the world, the leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman looked at whether leading with traits associated with strength or warmth was most effective. Regardless of gender, successful leaders exhibited equal parts strength and warmth. A major difference among people in the highest-level positions, both women and men, was that they communicated with more warmth. “Ultimately you access real power when you treat people well, inspire them, build trust, communicate, gracefully accept feedback, bravely grow and change, and help others develop themselves too,” Bay writes. “Actually, that kind of warmth strikes me as strength.” (p. 153)
For speakers, the book contains a range of exercises to try at home. Amy Cuddy’s hands-on-hips “power pose” for confidence is here, and so is “the Rapinoe,” named for soccer star Megan Rapinoe, for focus and empowerment: “hands extended out like you’re holding the world and it’s yours.” (p. 39) You can attempt “looping it through the heart,” a technique that involves imagining “that the words don’t just come up through your throat and out your mouth, but that they detour through your heart before they emerge.” (p. 103) Speaking with confidence can help us ultimately sound more like ourselves, not an imitation of what we think authority sounds like.
Common physiological problems that Bay hears include individuals holding their breath, constricting their throats, and producing stifled, flat sounds that come across as “halfhearted.” (p. 21) Instead, she advises taking hearty breaths, expanding the rib cage and allowing more air in so as to relax your throat muscles and not strangle your sounds. Getting reacquainted with your breath in this way will help you be more present so you can better read the room and read yourself, which will result in more embodied speech.
Nerves can lead to raised pitch and limited range, creating what Bay calls “Starbucks Voice,” undermining the speaker’s impact. “‘Hi, what can I get for you?’ becomes ‘Hi, I think I might have an idea for a strategy if you guys want…?’” (p. 115) While acting nice in this way can help smooth over a hostile encounter, it’s not needed most of the time. To counteract this, practice temporarily speaking in a “teaching mode” that borders on singsong; the exaggerated intonation will help you increase expressiveness. Using this broader pitch variety signals that “we’re comfortably in the power position…we have nothing to prove.” (p. 118) The intention here is not to speak like you’re instructing all the time, but to be able to speak with greater fluctuation when it’s beneficial to you.
To be sure:
- Bay could have included more on remote work and communicating well when you’re not in the same room as your listeners. How, for example, have hybrid work and the shift towards video calls impacted speech trends and individuals’ talking time?
- I've spent 500 hours in yoga teaching trainings where breathwork and managing vocal pitch are a major part of the curriculum, so I approached Bay's book with some skepticism. There are lots of self-proclaimed experts on these topics! But I finished Permission to Speak with respect for its range, and was convinced of Bay’s practical and academic knowledge.
- The chapter about vocal fry, upspeak, sorrys, and voice "size" is the least interesting in the book because she avoids taking a stand or providing new analysis of these topics.
- The audiobook version is a great complement to the text, and for many will be a preferable way to understand Bay’s own speaking choices. The audiobook would have benefited from clips of notable speeches to bring verbal references to life.
- “How you move your tongue a fraction of a millimeter one direction or another can affect your salary…and how others move their tongues a fraction of a millimeter can affect how you treat them. What biases might you be perpetuating?” (p. 173)
- “Name any hero of yours and I bet they’ve lost their train of thought in public, and I bet you’ve happily forgiven them…Will people judge you for fumbling, though? Yeah, maybe. Especially if you have melanated skin in a white-dominated culture, especially if you speak English as a second language or with an accent that sounds rural or strikes others as less educated, especially if you don’t have connections or cash or cachet. Biases abound. But is the solution to fear the fumble? It is not.” (p. 194)
- “This new sound of power doesn’t sound only one way. It must not; the diversity is the point. That our voices reflect our life experiences is the point.” (p. 13)
The bottom line is that Permission to Speak is modern and politically correct, approachable and action-oriented. While it is largely framed around vocal delivery, it contains useful considerations about crafting everything from a narrative to an organizational culture that is psychologically safe. It’s a love letter to “all of us trying to navigate the intricacies of expanding in the moments that matter.” (p. 48)
Listen to Bay on a recent episode of the Hello Monday podcast. She recommends Margot Macy’s Medium post For Black Girls Whose Voices Are ‘Too White’ or ‘Too Black’ on the topic of voice, identity, and confidence. Dr. Christine Runyan’s On Being interview, mentioned in the book, contains additional exercises to become more aware of and calm the nervous system in preparation to speak.
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