By Julie Benezet:
Your voice matters. Whether your listener is an executive, romantic partner or state legislator, there is much that needs to be said and, more important, heard. Finding the right tone for a situation will make a difference as to whether your message gets through and achieves something better.
A simple training exercise reveals an important clue to making yourself heard.
The session leader selects four volunteers from the audience. One is left standing in front of the room. The remaining three are led into the hall and given the following instructions: When they return to the room, they will stand in a line opposite the fourth person. Each of them in turn will step forward and say the words, “You got a minute?” There will be one difference in their messages. The first person will say it with a friendly tone. The second will use a whiney voice. The third will sound aggressive.
Back in the room, the fourth person, unaware of the subplot, is instructed not to respond to anything the three others say. After the three confederates re-enter and complete their mission, the fourth person and the audience share their feedback.
This exercise produces remarkably consistent results. While the three confederates say the same words, the listener responses are anything but the same. With few exceptions, they go like this: The friendly person’s overture is greeted with openness to hearing what that person has to say. The whiney speaker is someone the listener would prefer to ignore, deciding they are not worth the trouble. The aggressive person triggers an urge to pull back and leave.
What the exercise shows is that tone of voice matters.
In my work as an executive and executive coach, I have seen myriad examples of how the tone of voice affects the response to the speaker. In the sixties, researcher Albert Mehrabian concluded that only seven percent of communication is the words used. The remaining 93 percent of communication is nonverbal. While the exact percentage has been debated over the years, the principle endures: what gets communicated goes far beyond the words themselves. They include facial expressions, body language, and vocal tone.
All three of the nonverbal behaviors contribute to what comes across, particularly when they are incongruent. For example, if someone says after a nasty fall, “Oh, I’m fine,” with a grimacing face, it’s hard to believe them. Vocal tone carries particular importance not only in live person to person conversations, but is even more important in phone and video calls, where there are limited or no facial and body language cues.
It is easy to miscommunicate our ideas when we use a tone that someone doesn’t like or understand. Effective communication depends not on what is sent, but what is received. Therefore, it’s important to land your message in way that your audience can hear and digest it.That’s how you will move your ideas forward.
How do you establish the right tone? Before your deliver your message, size up the audience, then adjust your voice to accommodate them.
A Brief Story: Scaling a Brick Wall
Charlene, a mid-level executive responsible for redeveloping a housing property, needed her CEO to approve a large payment owed to the current property owner. The project lender had agreed in concept to a development loan, but they had not yet made a commitment. Charlene was running out of time. Failure to pay the current owner could lead to losing the project. To avert a potential disaster, she looked to her company to bridge the funding gap.
When she met with the CEO to make her plea, she felt nervous. In a rapid-fire delivery, she told him why the payment was due, why their company had to pay it, and the bad things that would happen if they didn’t. As she spoke, the president narrowed his eyes and sat quietly. The longer he remained silent, the tighter her voice became.
He denied her request. He told her to go find another funding source, despite her insistence that they had exhausted all other possibilities. She left the room confused and upset. Why was she hitting a brick wall?
The Debrief: After a long walk to lower her blood pressure, Charlene asked a trusted colleague to help her figure out what went wrong at the meeting. Clearly, she said, the president hadn’t listened, because if he had, he surely would have agreed with her, or at least given her a viable alternative. Instead, he shut her down, leaving her with empty hands.
After hearing the exchange replayed, the colleague suggested a different direction. Maybe it was not the substance of Charlene’s message, but, rather, the delivery. She had presented her case in a machine-like voice that carried an argumentative edge. What she thought was a factual and forceful presentation intended to drive a sense of urgency was experienced by the president as disrespectful and attacking. In short, she misread her audience and spoke in a tone of voice that turned him off.
Arriving at the Other Side of the Brick Wall
Below are guidelines for finding the right tone to deliver a message in a way that it will be heard:
1. Research your audience. Whether you are designing a product, creating a growth strategy, or convincing someone of an idea, it is always important to know your audience. Deciding what tone to use for presenting an idea begins with understanding who is in the room. Start by answering the following questions:
a. What is their history with your issue? Is your audience familiar with the problem you are trying to solve? If they are new to it, or you’re not sure about how much they know, ask them what kind of background would be helpful. Then assume an informative tone that aims to educate. Beware of assuming a tone of impatience with your listener’s lack of knowledge. Hard as it might be to resist it, remember that you live with your project every day. Your audience does not and has other priorities.
Charlene didn’t realize how little the president knew about her project. If she had understood his starting point better, she could have focused on bringing him up to speed in a respectful rather than exasperated tone.
b. Are any political land mines involved? What has been your audience’s experience with your issue? If it was negative, your first decision is whether to proceed. If your answer is yes, presenting it using a respectful tone that shows sensitivity to that history would be in order. You also will need to offer a distinction between what happened in the past and the current ask.
Charlene learned after her meeting that the company board chair, to whom the president reported, had a reservation about her project. Assuming the chair’s issue was solvable, she would have done better to approach the president in a problem-solving mode, using a thoughtful and inquiring tone.
c. What is their level of authority? If your audience is senior to you, choose a respectful tone that is polite but not unctuous (i.e., no Uriah Heap “I’m so ‘umble” stuff). Projecting humility and truthfulness creates trust. As a matter of common practice, good manners that take the higher road usually work best, regardless of where your audience is in the food chain.
Charlene’s brusque tone, while understandable under the stressful circumstances, was anything but respectful.
d. What is their preferred communication style? Everyone has a preferred style of communication. It can run from analytical to social. Adapting the vocal tone geared to their preferred style is important. Senior executives cover the whole spectrum of styles. Some are analytical, preferring succinct, distilled information delivered in a matter-of-fact tone. Others, particularly those from a sales background, go for an energetic, motivating tone. Still others do best with a personable tone that is warm and friendly.
What unites the different executive styles is their need to know how an idea will affect the bottom line. A concise presentation that makes a clear request in the listener’s preferred style works best.
Charlene could address the impact on the bottom line, but she had ignored her perception that the president tended to pay more attention to people who were amiable rather than analytical. Had she assumed a more personable tone, she might have been more successful.
2. Consider personal history. If you have worked with the person before and enjoy a good relationship, you can use a conversational tone so long as it focuses on business issues. Even knowing the person, however, does not eliminate the need to do your research and answer the questions above. If you don’t know the person well or you two have a difficult history, keep it formal and objective. You can adjust to a more personable approach if the conversation goes well and tension lifts.
3. Acknowledge physical and emotional needs. Too often, people confuse lack of attention with the emotional or physical state of the other person. Yet those states influence how well they will hear you. While they seem to be only half there, the problem might be they have a baby at home and haven’t slept. Or, they had just received bad news from a colleague and are still digesting what they heard. Checking in with them as to whether it is a good time to talk establishes a caring tone that places their needs over yours. Aside from being a good thing to do, it might pay dividends later.
4. Know what motivates you. Ultimately, you are trying to connect with someone to win support for an idea you believe will make a difference. That might mean dealing with people who you dislike or scare you. Nevertheless, they hold the keys to the kingdom. To make the most of the situation and adopt the best tone for the interaction, think on your bigger prize.
Charlene realized her confrontational tone was driven not by anger but by deep caring for her project and the people it would serve. Her fact jammed presentation delivered in an argumentative voice came across as aggressive and condescending, instead of an intensity fed by her emotional commitment.
In her next meeting with the president, she apologized for her earlier stridency and explained her underlying motivator. Adopting a sincere, personable tone that reflected her emotional investment in the project was more appropriate for his preferred social style and allowed her to connect more positively with him. Over the next few meetings, they were able to work out a solution.
Vocal Tone as a Door Opener
Your voice matters. There is much to be done in today’s world in the privacy of your home and in the world outside. Understanding your audience will give you navigation lights to steer your tone in the right direction to make your words heard, and win support for your ideas.