In the drug development process, there is sometimes a crucial moment when a team of pharmaceutical executives is asked to present and answer questions in Washington, D.C. before a panel of experts and the FDA in an open public meeting.
Hundreds of millions—sometimes billions—of dollars, years of work and the entire future of the company can hang in the balance in these few hours. As you can imagine, these are stressful and exciting moments for the leaders involved.
I’ve helped many teams prepare for these meetings. Because the meetings are broadcast and sometimes quoted in national media, the presentations are usually scripted. And if you’ve ever tried to read a script in public, you know how hard it can be to sound engaging.
One leader I coached really struggled with his script. Although typically he was animated and spoke with passion, when he read aloud his voice was flat and monotone. He sounded as if he were half asleep—it was actually hard to pay attention to him. And it was such a contrast to the warm, engaging leader he is.
In this situation, a great exercise is for the speaker to try reading their script as if they are reading a bedtime story to a young child, injecting all the animation and energy they’d use to keep a child’s attention. “And then the big bad wolf HUFFED, and he PUFFED…!” You get the idea. In reality that’s too exaggerated, but the exercise gets the job done. The results can be remarkable. This particular leader became much more engaging and compelling. His was among the first voices the panel heard, and he set a wonderful tone. Ultimately he helped the team get a positive vote and, later, an approved drug.
How you use your voice can strongly affect how engaging you are as a speaker, as well as how confident you sound and how easy it is for people to understand you, all of which contribute to executive presence. Here are a few tips for working with your voice.
This is a chief culprit that can cause issues. Do you have a habit of raising the pitch of your voice at the end of sentences so it always sounds like you’re asking a question? Ask the people around you if you do this. If you do, it may be making you sound more junior than you are.
Instead, end more of your sentences with a downward inflection, like you are saying something definite. It’s the difference between “We should change our approach?” and “We should change our approach!” Both might be a statement, but the tone in the second example sounds much more certain, more confident.
Also, executive presence is usually augmented by having color and warmth in your voice instead of speaking in a monotone. Like with music, the human voice is more engaging with some inflection, some ups and downs. If the pitch of your words stays flat, people will pay less attention to you simply because it’s easy to tune out “sameness.” In fact, that’s a broader principle for engaging communication: change keeps people’s attention.
But you can also take this too far. If your voice is too animated or sing-song, it can reduce your gravitas. So a good approach is to use some vocal inflection, but not to be overly exaggerated.
Your talking speed can become a problem if you are way outside the bell curve. Talking much slower than the people around you can reduce your executive presence, as can talking very fast. The goal is to make sure people can easily comprehend you, and if you talk too fast, they may not be able to follow. Talking at a reasonable pace helps your audience keep up.
In some companies everyone talks fast, so talking fast may be fine. The rule of thumb is: can your audience understand you?
If your natural voice is very soft, it may work against your executive presence in some situations.
For better or worse, very quiet voices are often not associated with presence and confidence in the U.S. Of course, in a one-on-one conversation this may not be an issue. Just recently I met with an executive—a highly respected leader—who has a very quiet voice. I don’t think it’s a problem for him one-on-one. But in a meeting or in front of a group he may need to push himself to speak louder, or use a mic.
Overly loud can potentially be a problem too, though I encounter this far less often. If you’re much louder than the people around you, they could feel you’re dominating the conversation. In the short term, that may give you an aura of authority, but it can undermine your effectiveness if it means others don’t feel comfortable.
If you speak in a constant stream of words that never stops, it’s reducing your effectiveness. Make sure you take some breaths, pause and leave space between big ideas. Also, listening is crucial for executive presence, and if you’re talking all the time, you’re not listening!
Voice is very personal, and I’m not suggesting that you try to radically change your voice or that everyone should talk the same way. Authenticity is also crucial. But it’s helpful to be flexible and to know if there are situations where your natural vocal style might be an impediment to your purpose. It’s good to have additional tools in your communication toolbox. Leaders with executive presence adapt their vocal style, at least somewhat, to help ensure they achieve their goals.
For more on executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, listening, authenticity, word choice and body language.