Rachel, a new sales leader, is frustrated because her team isn’t listening to her, making it difficult to excel in her role. Kristin, a highly-experienced sales person, describes being frequently interrupted or “talked over” by her own manager. Anna is a talented young sales person who feels she is not taken seriously by older decision-makers. Despite talent, titles and experience, these women share a common problem. They are not being heard. And male or female, not being properly heard, can cost you sales and career opportunities.
Unfortunately, this is a greater problem among women. I hear similar refrains from women like Rachel, Kristin and Anna all the time. These women often struggle to find just the right words to make people “sit up and pay attention” or “stop interrupting.” Most of these women are extremely sharp and well-spoken. The words are rarely the problem, instead it’s usually the following two issues: 1) a lack of vocal authority, and 2) the fact that women are simply interrupted more often than men.
What is Vocal Authority
Vocal authority is the ability to speak in a way that portrays confidence, credibility and demands respect. Fair or not, the sound, tone and quality of your voice impacts if and how others will listen to you. A lack of vocal authority can overshadow a powerful message or cause someone to doubt the speaker’s credibility.
There are several things that can erode vocal authority, like a weak or breathy voice, mumbling or speaking too softly, and uptalking (that unfortunate habit of ending sentences on a question) – patterns which are more commonly associated with women.
There is one component of vocal authority in particular that is genetically biased against women. For many centuries, authority has been associated with a lower voice. A study of nearly 800 male CEO’s done by Duke and the University of California found that the CEO’s with deeper voices are paid on average, $187,000 more than the male CEO’s whose voices were on the higher end of the spectrum. Not only that, but the CEO’s with deeper voices also lead companies with $400 million more in assets that those companies run by males with higher voices. Sadly, there were not enough women CEO’s to do an equivalent study.
Does that mean women need to adopt a false lower voice to be heard? Absolutely not. It’s important to maintain your vocal authenticity. There are, however some things you can do to improve your vocal authority and command greater attention and respect from your audience.
Increase Your Vocal Authority:
- Drop the non-questions. Make sure you are not ending your sentences on an up-tick? Like this? Which makes a statement sound like a question? This habit is rampant in younger women and quickly erodes credibility. It’s a difficult habit to break so enlist support from those around you.
- Expand your vocal register. Your voice is like a scale. You have access to many notes, but most people only play a handful. If you are spending most of your time on the high notes, you are missing an opportunity to add variety and resonance to your words. You may even be damaging your vocal cords. Many women can benefit from exploring their lower register and incorporating those lesser used notes into their repertoire.
- Breathe from the diaphragm. Shallow breathing is often the cause of soft or breathy voices. Try taking a deep breath from the diaphragm and speak on your exhale. Done regularly, this will give your voice much more power.
Stop Interrupting Me!
If you feel like you’re being interrupted or talked over, you are in good company. A study of the Supreme Court Justices published in the Virginia Law Review found that male justices interrupt the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments. And this pattern held true even when there were fewer female justices on the court.
Knowing that even Ruth Bader Ginsburg is frequently interrupted may not make it easier to accept when it happens to you, but it does indicate just how common the experience is for women. In light of this fact, here are a few tactics for dealing with interrupters.
- Set expectations. Stating up front that you are going to speak for a few minutes and will then welcome questions or discussion can prevent many potential interrupters from getting started.
- Play defense. Some interrupters jump in when given the opportunity. Avoiding eye contact with them or minimizing pauses can be a good deterrent.
- Address it calmly. For most interrupters, a short “Excuse me, I’m not quite finished,” can be very effective. Just make sure your tone remains even and calm and your body language is not defensive.
- Find the humor. Serial interrupters have a surprising lack of self-awareness. Expose their habit in a firm but light-hearted way, for example, “Wow, it’s great you are really excited about this subject, but I’m not quite finished yet.” And then continue.
This gender bias toward what vocal authority sounds like and the propensity to interrupt women is not likely to disappear anytime soon, but you don’t have to let it impact your career. Take control of your destiny by working on those areas that may be detracting from your vocal authority and using proven tactics for dealing with interrupters.