There’s nothing quite like the human voice, is there? As our primary means of communication, nothing can engage us quite like it. It can enrapture or enrage; inspire or oppress. The composer Richard Strauss noted that the human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but also the most difficult to play.
I have the privilege of hearing many leaders address their staff, in many different contexts. In time of success and failure. At the beginning of the many chapters of corporate life. And at the close. And the observation I must make is that one voice does not fit all.
As a leader, one must learn how to adjust voice timbre, not just volume. Many chief executives think volume alone is the key to personality projection. Perhaps they learn this from watching African politicians. But that’s a far from good example. Shouting loudly; and chopping their messages into clauses that bear no relation to human speech. Letting sentences tail off so that their audience is coerced into finishing them. That kind of stuff only works with the lowest common denominator audience – the kind that gathers because there’s a jamboree in town, not because they intend to consider what you have to say.
Recent research by Quantified Impressions, a communications analytics business in Austin Texas, used a panel of ten experts and one thousand listeners to evaluate the impact of various speaking styles. They found that voice quality delivered twice as much impact as spoken content. And that passion, knowledge and humility were powerful enhancers.
Last week, I had the opportunity to hear the leader of a pan-African business address his executive team at the beginning of a digital transformation process. The company is one of the drivers of economic growth in Africa. A huge enterprise that manages ports, railways and all manner of logistics solutions.
The leader himself is prone to using volume when he needs to, and sometimes when he does not! But he never speaks without evoking empathy.
As he closed this meeting, which had principally focussed on technological change (and where I advanced the culture change agenda), he did a remarkable thing. He bowed his head and spoke quietly. So quietly that his people leaned forward to listen to him. And he said; ‘Let me leave you with one thought. Consider the impact on your people. Give them hope; show them the light.”
The vocal timbre behind his words, delivered without the need for volume, forced us to pay attention. The humanity of his text gave me confidence that the change project this huge enterprise is embarking upon will ultimately be successful.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside