If you’re like most people, the sound of your voice has probably made you cringe on more than one occasion.
It’s easy to be hypercritical of ourselves, especially when the stakes are high — our voice is the tool we use to get what we want in some fairly nerve-racking situations, whether we’re giving a persuasive speech in front of a large audience or trying to nail a job interview one-on-one.
It doesn’t help when we’re socially conditioned to respect certain voices either: think the deep gravitas of President John F. Kennedy or any other well-regarded speaker. Unfortunate as it may be, the fact is that there is a relationship between how we sound and how we’re perceived, and women’s voices in particular have often been dismissed — or downright criticized.
It’s a dynamic that Hollywood speech coach Samara Bay understands all too well.
Bay’s interest in the power of voice started to develop when she was just a 7-year-old “musical theater kid” noticing how Eliza Doolittle’s horizons expand when she changes the way she sounds in My Fair Lady, then deepened when she was a graduate student of acting at Brown University — and realized that her unconscious manipulation of her own voice had left her with painful vocal cord nodules.
Bay would go on to serve as a dialect coach for some of Hollywood’s most noteworthy names, turning Gal Gadot into Wonder Woman and Rachel McAdams into Barbara Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. She would also discover a new calling that really “aligned” with her purpose ahead of the 2018 midterm elections: helping blue women candidates harness the power of their voices during this crucial moment.
Now, in addition to continuing her work on Hollywood sets, Bay judges pitch competitions and coaches public figures and leaders in business and politics to speak with authenticity and power when it matters the most. She’s also the author of the newly published Permission to Speak: How to Change What Power Sounds Like, Starting With You, which delves into how to do just that.
Image credit: Courtesy of The New Fashioned Co.
“There’s a massive wave of stories we’re all contending with about who the public was made for,” Bay tells Entrepreneur, “and what anybody who speaks in it is meant to sound like. That’s where the spirit of permission comes in — because of course, no, we don’t want to be asking anyone else for permission but ourselves. But we are reckoning with having grown up inside that culture.”
“Sometimes the tools of upspeak and vocal fry that we’ve picked up have served us and continue to serve us in certain ways.”
We can trace women’s lack of permission to speak back to Ancient Greece more than 2,000 years ago: They were barred from even stepping foot on stage, Bay notes. But that history is hardly as far away as it seems. For example, Bay says, consider women in New York City in the 20th century, many of whom rarely left their homes without male chaperones — and effectively couldn’t speak their minds.
“It’s so fresh for so many of us,” Bay says, “because 100 years ago is a long time ago until you remember that our grandmothers were born then, and our mothers were raised by those grandmothers, and we were raised by those mothers.”
Because of that, Bay says that women who speak freely and authentically in public spaces “are being radical in the mere act of doing that” — even though it’s 2023.
But that act is often fraught with tension. Women are told they need to stop speaking in certain ways. Vocal fry, or the lowest vocal register accompanied by a rattling or popping sound, and upspeak, the high-rising intonation that mimics the pitch of a question, are deemed undesirable, a sure way to not “be taken seriously.”
Never mind that men can also fall into these patterns — and they do.
That’s one side of the coin, Bay explains. The other? People say it’s “anti-feminist” to police women’s voices at all.
But it’s not that simple, Bay says. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
“The entirety of our lived experience is in the gray area between those extremes,” Bay explains. “So sometimes the tools — yes, I am saying that deliberately: ‘the tools’ — of upspeak and vocal fry that we’ve picked up have served us and continue to serve us in certain ways to seem un-intimidating [or] detached so that we don’t come across as overly enthusiastic in a space where [being] blasé would help us at our point across.”
The key, Bay says, is to “own those habits and decide when to use them.”
“Everybody knows this feeling, and everybody thinks they’re alone.”
Giving yourself permission to speak powerfully and authentically requires a mindset shift.
To help her clients get over that mental hurdle, Bay encourages them to think about the voices they respect that don’t mirror the traditional masculine sounds we’ve come to expect.
It’s also helpful to remember that the way your voice is perceived might not stem from the innate quality of your voice itself, but rather from the way you’re feeling and how that translates vocally.
Consider this: Although women’s vocal cords do tend to be shorter (thus their voices higher), female and male voices go up when adrenaline hits their cords and makes them tighter, causing the voice to sound higher, Bay explains. So the accusation that “you’re too high-pitched” might simply boil down to your nervous energy — not an easy fix, to be sure, but an important starting point.
In any situation, it’s also critical to know exactly what you want; you’ll need to tailor your voice accordingly. Sometimes, rather than showing up as our vocally authentic selves, the goal is to play the game, Bay says: to land the job that will help us pay rent or present the pitch that will lead to a promotion.
Then again, sometimes harnessing the full power of our voice is the objective itself.
“If you’re sick of [playing the game], if you’re feeling a fire inside of you to try something new, to stop hating your job or to get this new job, but only to get it on your own terms without negotiating away parts of your identity that matter to you, well, now that’s a different want,” Bay says.
And keep in mind that you’re probably not the only one feeling vocally out of place. “Everybody who’s a woman, who’s a person of color, who’s queer, who has an accent, feels like [it] marks them as different,” Bay says. “Everybody knows this feeling, and everybody thinks they’re alone.”
“It’s not that you have a different voice. It’s you without all of the tension.”
If a mindset shift is part of the equation, just as important is the technical aspect — the physical process of voice itself.
“The voice is just like all the other instruments we can think of,” Bay explains. “We can talk about them in terms of these four dynamics: tone, pitch, volume and tempo or pace. And all four of those have both exercises and big ideas inside each of them.”
When Hillary Clinton ran against Donald Trump, she was called “shrill,” code for high-pitched, Bay says. It goes back to the idea that a low voice equals masculine which equals power, she explains, and is the reason why some women lower their voices to earn more respect.
One of the most recent public examples is Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, whose deeper voice “quite frankly worked until it didn’t,” Bay says.
But, of course, the solution isn’t for women to artificially lower their voices to be taken seriously. “For most of us, [that] feels uncomfortable or physically hurts us,” Bay says, citing her experience as a graduate student.
Bay’s book is full of exercises that can help you rediscover your authentic voice and harness its power, but technical drills aside, it can be worthwhile just to consider the physical change in your voice that coincides with specific states of being or situations.
Think about how it sounds after you’ve gotten a massage or finished a yoga class, Bay suggests. “It’s not that you have a different voice,” she says. “It’s you without all of the tension.”
Because we don’t just have one authentic voice.
“It’s that we just have different facets of ourselves,” Bay explains. “And my goal is that in my clients’ and my readers’ highest stakes moment [during a] presentation or a pitch, [when it] feels like their greatest ideas are on the line, they will show up as a version themselves that is more relaxed and are more willing to be as weird and wonderful as they are.”
So the next time you are heading into a high-stakes situation, settle into that mental state that allows you to show up as your full self, and rest assured that almost everyone else is trying to do the same.
“When you’re going into that scary space and trying to give yourself permission to show up as some newer version of yourself, part of the answer to that is to turn left and turn right before you walk into that space,” Bay says, “to have friends, to know that there’s solidarity in this pursuit, to feel their hands on your back when you’re alone with somebody who seems intimidating. And allow that to introduce you to some version of yourself that maybe you haven’t previously brought with you.”