FEMALE VOICES: Common Speech Problems for Women

February 16th, 2012

I’ve often thought about writing a post on common issues with women’s voices, but hesitated, fearing I might bring the wrath of the gender police crashing down on my head. But then I thought, “Hey, as long as I write a companion post on men’s voices—which might actually be longer, why would anyone accuse me of being unfair?”

Then an article by Katrina Onstad appeared in the Toronto Globe & Mail, “Up High or Down Low: What a woman’s voice says about her,” and I thought, “Okay, it’s out in the open. People are obviously interested. Maybe it’s not the minefield I imagine it to be.” Ms. Onstad didn’t quote any experts, but she obviously did her research. The first problem she identified, having a high-pitched voice, would certainly make my Top-Three list of  speech problems for women, so let’s start there.

Having a voice that sounds high is a common problem facing my female clients. Consequently, they fail to project an image of authority and credibility. Listeners tend to associate high voices with youth, inexperience and even weakness. Opinions are dismissed and accomplishments are overlooked. Unfair? Absolutely. But remember, listeners aren’t acting rationally. They respond based on how that voice makes them feel. For strategies to enhance the perception of vocal depth, see the article, “Discovering a Deeper Voice.”

Having a voice that lacks strength or volume would be second issue confronting my female clients. It’s a serious handicap if your listeners routinely struggle to hear what you’re saying. The consequences are very similar to the one’s we’ve just discussed. Yes, there are many situations where a soft, quiet voice might be an advantage, but when the environment becomes more competitive and interactions become more assertive, a small voice is a big problem. For strategies to strengthen your voice, see the article, “Your Strong Voice.”

A third problem facing many female speakers is up-speak, a tendency to pitch the ends of sentences up instead of down. Since it’s a common characteristic of teenagers’ speech, it diminishes the perception of strength, confidence and authority in the communication of adults. In English, up-speak is appropriate for questions (e.g. “Did you like that?”), and for lists (e.g “I went to the store, the bank, the gym, and then home.”). But statements are generally inflected downward (e.g. “This is the way it’s done.”). When you catch yourself using up-speak, say the phrase or sentence again, deliberately inflecting the tone downward at the end. Notice how this makes your delivery feel stronger and more definite.

We could also talk about vocal fry, the tendency to speak with a slightly raspy or scratchy tone, especially at the ends of sentences. Men tend to do this just as often as women—maybe more often, but that doesn’t make it okay. Vocal fry is also very common among adolescents, so it can convey a sense of reserve and uncertainty for business professionals. Listeners might not be conscious of what they’re hearing, but they’re still left with the feeling that the speaker is holding back and not willing to engage fully in the interaction. See the article, “Vocal Fry,” for a more detailed explanation and recommendations for eliminating this trait.

Of course the four issues I’ve mentioned are not unique to women’s voices; they show up with my male clients as well, in varying degrees of frequency. But when I consider the vocal challenges confronting my female clients, over all the years I’ve been in practice, these few show up most often. The good news is, none of them are mysterious or difficult to fix. With a bit of technique and ongoing practice and awareness, every woman can cultivate a voice that’s strong, clear, resonant and effective.