22 May 2019
Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the American civil rights movement, was a great orator who knew the power of the spoken word. Photo: Internet
Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the American civil rights movement, was a great orator who knew the power of the spoken word. Photo: Internet

Do you have the voice of a great, charismatic leader?

What makes a great public speaker? We are all fascinated by leaders, who, by the power of their words, can rouse and persuade the public, turn their despair into hope, move them into action.  

Scientists, who have been studying their speeches to unearth the secrets of their charisma, have discovered something that we probably already know but often take for granted: it’s not so much what they say as how they say it that matters.

One thing all successful politicians share is their ability to manipulate their voice.

“You have the capacity to shape your voice in a way that makes people perceive you as a leader,” says acoustic scientist Rosario Signorello, of the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted experiments on charismatic public speakers. “It applies to politicians, to CEOs, to everyone who aspires to leadership status.”

Generally speaking, someone speaking in a low-pitched voice is perceived as dominant and persuasive, while someone speaking in a high voice is viewed as small and submissive, the Wall Street Journal reports.

When speaking to crowds, political leaders typically stretch their voices to extremes, with a wide range of frequency variation, Signorello says.

“My research shows that charismatic leaders of any type in any culture tend to stretch their voice to the lower and higher limits during a public speech, which is the most important and risky context of communication for leadership,” the newspaper quotes him as saying.

Signorello presented his work at a recent meeting of the Acoustic Society of America in Indianapolis. 

Similar findings have come out of studies at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, which tend to show that CEOs with lower-pitched voices usually manage larger firms, make more money and last longer on the job than their higher-pitched peers. 

While the quality of our voice depends on lots of factors, including biological, hereditary and even what drinks we take before we step up to the podium, researchers believe that we can train it to suit our purpose.

“The voice is a tool that can be trained,” says Signorello. “Singers and actors train their voices to reach higher or lower frequencies. A leader-speaker should do the same.”

But so far Signorello’s experiments have only involved male voices. “Maybe there is a charismatic voice just for women,” he says.

But Duke University’s research suggests that deliberately lowering one’s voice to resemble the sound of a successful male voice may not be a good idea.

Young women who adopted a distinctive low, guttural way of talking were perceived as less competent and less trustworthy, according to the Journal report.

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