It started with phone calls—the prospect of talking to adults I had never seen before made me nervous. And my voice would reflect it. Whenever I would call to make doctors’ appointments or restaurant reservations, my already naturally high voice would seamlessly raise an octave. My parents would laugh and tease me when I hung up the phone, but I never noticed it, so it never bothered me.
In high school, my general nervousness about speaking to adults had spilled over to my classes. When speaking to my teachers, I would hear my voice getting progressively higher, and if I was called on to answer questions, I would always tonally answer with a question. Regardless of how confident I was in my answer, I would always hear myself drawing out the last syllable with a slight uptick.
A combination of nervousness and the common teenage lack of self-confidence left me with a permanently changed speech pattern as I left for college. The tone of my voice and my linguistic rhythm had nothing to do with how intelligent I was, but it left me sounding constantly nervous and unsure of myself.
But it really didn’t bother me. Sure, I hated the way I sounded on my voicemail message, but so does everyone. My voice was just my voice. There was nothing to love or hate about it, it just was what it was, but the people around me seemed to take notice. Every now and then, I would get a teasing remark about how I sounded scared when I talked to adults or I always sounded like I was answering questions with more questions.
Finally, one day I was writing an article for my college’s paper, and I was recording an interview with a source. When I went back to transcribe what had been said, I heard myself talking. I had done everything possible to prepare for that interview, and I knew exactly what I was talking about. But when I heard myself speak, the only think that came through was a nervous and high-pitched sound. I didn’t sound like the prepared and knowledgeable journalist that I was.
It was time for a change. I had the potential to be a leader in my student organization on campus, but it was difficult to give directives and lead effectively without the ability to speak authoritatively. There is enough potential adversity that female leaders face, I didn’t want to add to that by presenting myself with a speech pattern that made me seem less professional and authoritative than I was.
So I began working on the way I spoke. I began by just paying more attention to what I was saying and how I was saying it. At first it felt really unnatural to think about the way I formed my words and structured my sentences as I spoke them, but after I had been doing it for a while, it became second nature.
I noticed some changes quickly, but anytime I would feel nervous or overwhelmed, I would still default to an unnecessarily high pitch. So I began recording myself giving short speeches. When I would listen to them back, I would think about which aspects I felt could sound stronger and then record it again focusing on those areas.
Hearing a pick up in the speed of my speech or the use of filler words such as “like” or “yeah” became a signal that I needed to refocus on what I was saying and maintain my composure. The process took several months, but over time, I really did begin to hear a more confident voice portrayed in my recordings. I felt more comfortable giving speeches and speaking in class, and I really do think I noticed a difference in people paying attention and listening to what I had to say, though I don’t have any quantifiable evidence to show that anyone but me even noticed a difference.
There were several unintended consequences of my exercises. Just like if you say one word too many times it stops sounding like a word, if you listen to yourself talk too much, it gets easy to over think and overanalyze what you hear. Somehow in it all, I picked up an unexplainable Bostonian pronunciation of “very” and a tendency to go just a little too long before I take a breath between sentences, but even with these anomalies, it was still worth the effort.
I am not sure if I would feel comfortable to advise other women to follow in my footsteps. I would never want to perpetuate the sterotype that speech or vocal patterns can make some speakers, especially women, sound dumb. There is no reason that such a correlation should exist, but the fact remains that I felt a higher likelihood of being taken seriously if I changed my speech patterns, so I did.
Now that isn’t to say that everything improved and I don’t struggle to keep an even tone. When I get nervous speaking to a professor or boss, I still have to consciously focus on speaking in a constant pitch and not allowing my speech pattern to stray. Not that it would be an unforgivable thing if it did. But I worked to feel more confident in my speech pattern, and that is something I feel proud of.