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The leader's voice.

By Ken Ideus


emotionWhat is Voice?

Physical voice

At the physical end, we can describe voice rather simply (sound engineers and vocal experts, please bear with me!). Our voice, once it has left our speaking apparatus, is a set of sounds. As my friend George Apsion, founder of Kore Studios in London explains to visitors to the studio, “Sounds are waves of compressed air traveling through space. These waveforms come into contact with the eardrums of others and get translated in the audio centers of the brain into conscious sound.  These waves of compressed air might also come into contact with the diaphragm of a microphone, get translated into an electrical signal which is either recorded or sent directly to a speaker which translates it once again into waves of compressed air, repeating the cycle.

Leadership voice

But we all know that when we speak of voice, we are referring to a much more complex process. The process that leads to that set of sounds that come out of our “speaking apparatus” usually known as our mouth. 

This is where it get’s really interesting from a leadership perspective. Let’s take the view that a leader is anyone who is working to create a future that does not yet exist, by engaging others.  So what comes to mind when we think of voice in that leadership context? 

One of the first things we might think about is content. What is the person saying? 

Next we think of how they are saying it.

The voice conveys the content…and…it conveys a lot more than that.  A lot more. 

The meaning of a phrase can change without changing the words, but changing things like tone, emphasis, volume, energy, pace.

To give yourself a quick example of this, how many ways could you say, “What is it that you want?” Try putting different emphasis and different feelings in it.  It’s surprising how the meaning of a phrase can change without changing the words, but changing things like tone, emphasis, volume, energy, pace. 

If content was all we needed, why speak it.  Why not just write it down and send it out. Actually this happens a lot and we are left wondering why no one is engaged, got it, or “took it the wrong way”. 

The journalist and writer Ann Karpf, in “The Human Voice” goes into stunning detail about what we know and don’t know about the intricacies of voice.  Neuroscience is adding more insight to this as well.  We now know for example, that voice compares more powerfully with vision than was at one time thought.  In days gone by, if a television add lost the sound, the advertiser was still charged about 75% of the fees as vision was held paramount.  Growing evidence would suggest that this might not have been an accurate assessment.  The interpretations and memory of sound are more subtle but very powerful and with long term repercussions (no pun intended!).

Our challenge is getting the voice we hear in our heads to match the voice that comes out of our mouths.

Our focus is generally on the how, assuming the content is real and genuine; the sounds carrying the content come to be. 

How they convey value, emotion, care or commitment. 

Mostly, how the voice carries the sounds of the authentic self within. To do this, we need to examine the inner voice; the one we hear in our heads (or don’t as the case may be) that we hope comes out our mouths.  Getting those two to match up can be no easy task.

The Inner Voice

When she said "I have found my own voice",

she was going to be herself.

When we say someone has “found their voice”, what do we mean?  Hillary Clinton, late in her campaign, after suffering one of several primary defeats, said to her supporters in very personal tones “I have found my own voice” to tumultuous applause. What she seemed to be saying was that she was no longer going to follow a scripted, campaign-managed way of addressing the voters. She was going to be herself.  In that moment, she was relaxed, smiling yet still strong. The stern, politically astute persona was left behind or at least for the moment, set aside.

Where does our own voice go?

If I am trying to find my voice, I have to ask, “Where did it go?”

In the article in this series on Authenticity we talked about how over time, via family, school, work and society, numerous layers get placed over our authentic selves. When it comes to voice, these show up as filters.

In the recording environment, the primary recording is made without any treatment.  Much attention is put on getting a pure, original sound. This is why those who build studios put so much attention to eliminating acoustic noise and investing in high quality recording equipment, all built around first, getting that pure sound recorded. Mobile phones off please! Once this recording is made, in can be modified via numerous tools and filters. A recorded voice can be compressed to keep volumes within a certain range, can be  pitch adjusted to assure you are in tune, can be treated to make it sound deeper or higher and a myriad of other things. Once all this is done, if the engineer wants to find the original voice, he simply goes back to the original and eliminates all the treatments and filters. 

Our social filters do much the same thing. 

  • If we are taught early on that “children should be seen, not heard” we might wind up with a volume control.
  • If we are taught that emotion has no place in science or business, we develop an emotional filter.
  • If we are told to stick to the “company line” we develop a personal content filter.
Finding our voice involves switching off our filters.

Finding our voice is a matter of switching off the filters. This can be hard work but the rewards are quite striking as well as fulfilling.  Often, when people here themselves recorded, they will find they don’t like the sound of their own voice.  Part of the reason for this is that what they here in their heads, what they intend, is not what comes out…it has been filtered and doesn’t feel powerful or genuine.

Our followers want to know that we believe in the future we are talking about, and are emotionally connected to it. 

When others listen to us talking about a future we are trying to create, they want to know that we believe in that future, that internally we are aligned with that future and are emotionally connected to it. 

In the article on The role of emotion we realized that emotion is the energy driver behind action and decision.  How can we expect others to be emotionally engaged if it appears that we are not?

Its not Just One Voice, its Many

Just when we thought we found our voice, we find out it isn’t just one voice, it is actually many. We are not simply a singular personality, none of us. No, I’m not saying we all have a multiple personality disorder. What I mean by this is that we have several sub-personalities, each of which can be identified by a particular voice. This voice has it’s own way of sounding, it’s own vocabulary, it’s own feeling and it’s own physical attributes (posture, gestures etc.). To get an easy handle on this, lets try something.  I’ll list some sub-personalities below, and you let yourself be that sub-personality for a moment.  Try saying something from that place and see what it sounds and feels like. What words seem to fit that space?  Here we go:

  • Concerned parent
  • Angry customer
  • Crisis manager
  • Curiosity
  • Optimism
  • Critic
  • Friend

What we have found in numerous exercises with hundreds of people, that we can quickly learn to identify these and many other voices or sub-personalities simply by hearing and watching someone make a simple statement from one of these positions or modes. In a short time, small groups have come up with up to 40 or more voices that they could each identify with. 

By the time we are young adults we have a myriad of voices, though we are not that aware or conscious of them. Our overall identity contains all these. Through various forms of acculturation, we start suppressing those, which don’t seem to fit how we want to show up. Over time and experience, more and more get pushed into the background. As a result, our identity appears to shrink as well.  We lose access to the powerful, flexible, creative and expressive individual that we actually are. By rediscovering these voices, and legitimizing them, we enlarge our selves, our world and our ability to engage and connect.

There are a few messages to take from this.

  • We have several voices, linked to a legitimate part of our overall personality or self.
  • While we may start out with many voices, we lose them one by one through various forms of acculturation.
  • We can bring these voices back and acknowledge them as part of ourselves.
  • Once aware, we can make choices about the voice we want to use, while still being authentic.
  • As we expand our access to a range of more voices, we become more flexible and adaptable, while remaining true to ourselves.

Creating the Future with Your Voice

We said earlier that leadership is about creating a future that does not yet exist. This might be as simple getting a colleague or employee more excited, engaged and committed than they now are.  Or, it might be creating a culture of creativity and innovation in an organization that is conservative, heavily risk averse and likes the known and predictable.

Voice is one of our most powerful tools for generating the future. 

As our voices carry our emotions, our commitment our values and our details of a future we are generating, the likelihood of building trust, engagement and commitment on the part of our listeners increases, dramatically.

When we are fully engaged as the speaker, we are no longer simply transmitting a message we are being the message.

Why? Because when we are fully engaged as the speaker, we are no longer simply transmitting a message we are being the message. The listener is no longer simply hearing the message, they are absorbing the message. 

When a message is absorbed, the likelihood of action is much higher than when it is simply heard, and, without action the new future is still just an idea.

Voice in Summary

  • Voice itself, at a physical level is just sound waves, bits of compressed air traveling through space.
  • What is carried by these sounds is much, much more than content.  How we convey content is key.  Sounds of voice can contain emotion, values, commitment and much more.
  • Finding our voice is about getting our inner voice back.  This voice carries our identity, our passions, our purpose, and our commitments.
  • Our voice actually shows up in a myriad of modes, all authentic. Over time, we reduce the number of modes or sub-personalities we have available to us, limiting our range and scope for communicating. We can, however, learn how to bring those voices back up to the surface.
  • Voice is one of the most powerful tools we have for generating a future we desire that does not yet exist. When our listeners absorb what we say, versus simply here it, engagement and action is more likely to follow.

Ken Ideus

This series on authentic leadership is written by Ken Ideus who is well known globally for his work on "The Leaders Voice". Ken has worked for the last 30 years with multi-national corporates in over 30 countries, doing both consulting and senior leadership development in the USA, Europe and Africa. You can read more about his articles and tools, and about The Leaders Voice.

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