Getting Vocal

Your main connection with clients and business associates is the phone. Are you aware of what your voice says about you?
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the June 2000 issue of Subscribe »

Editor's Note: As a homebased business owner, there may be no one asset more important to you than your voice. You deal with clients, suppliers and business associates on the phone-some of whom may never meet you in person. Your voice is your lifeline to the outside business world. But when was the last time you really assessed your vocal abilities?

We're not talking about operatic range or even being able to carry a tune. But if people perceive your voice as squeaky, childish, mumbling or monotonous, you may be losing business. To help you assess your vocal strengths and weaknesses, we're running the following excerpt from Jeffrey Jacobi's recent book, How to Say It With Your Voice (Prentice Hall Press, $17). Read on to learn why your voice is so important, and then take the vocal assessment to find out if you need to improve upon your greatest asset. Once you discover your areas of weakness, you can follow Jacobi's tips to improve your voice.

"And so," Marian Ellerbee said, closing the folder that held her notes, "I'm confident that you will agree with our proposal. Just tell me when you'd like to start the new campaign and we'll get it underway for you!"

Marian did feel confident. The proposal was one of the best her agency had ever come up with. And she had done her homework. She'd had an answer ready for every question the clients had raised; she'd had every fact and statistic right on the tip of her tongue. They'd go for the campaign; she was sure of it!

But then, as she paused just outside the conference room to put her papers into her briefcase, she was stunned by what she heard them saying behind her.

"Maybe they have some good ideas, but they obviously don't feel any enthusiasm for our new product at all!"

"I know what you mean.Ellerbee knew all the facts, sure, but you could tell-she was just going through the motions."

What Went Wrong Here? All the hard work this advertising account executive had done to offer her client an irresistible proposal was wasted because her soft, breathy voice made her presentation sound weak and lackluster. She was enthusiastic about the client's product and about the fine campaign her staff had created, but that didn't come through to the people listening to her. And she didn't get the account.

Copyright ©1996 by Prentice Hall Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Prentice Hall Press, a division of Prentice Hall Direct.

Jeffrey Jacobi is owner and director of Jacobi Voice Development in New York City. He has coached executives at AT&T, American Express, DuPont, Merrill Lynch, Nabisco, General Electric as well as entertainers and media professionals. His company can be contacted at

How Rapid Fire Speech Doesn't Get The Order

"Well, whaddaya say? Y'ready t'go ahead on this?" Jack Nelson grinned and slapped an order blank down on the desk, pen at the ready. "How many units, Fred? Five? How about five t'start with?"

Fred Whittier cleared his throat and stared down at his desk, trying to keep his voice pleasant in spite of the way he felt. He said only, "I'll have to get back to you later, Jack. I'm not ready to make a decision right now." But what he was thinking was a lot less polite: "I wouldn't buy from you, buddy, if you were the last supplier in the state!"

He showed the sales representative out, glad to see the last of him. When the door had closed behind the other man, Fred turned to his assistant and said, "You know what he reminds me of? Those guys at the carnivals. The ones who always tell you you'll win the giant teddy bear, but you never win anything but one of those crummy paper fans!"

"He's a fast talker, all right," she agreed.

"He sure is-he's so fast he talked himself right out of an order," Fred said. "I didn't trust him for one minute!"

What went wrong? It's obvious. Jack Nelson may be a skilled salesman. He may be selling a fine product. But that's not going to be enough-not when his rapid-fire speech makes customers feel uneasy and distrustful. He won't be getting an order form Fred Whittier. Not now; not later.

Being Judged By Your Speech Can Put You At A Vocal Disadvantage

Certainly, it's not fair. It's not fair for Marian Ellerbee's otherwise excellent presentation and hard work to go down the drain-just because she sounds like a bored child when she talks. It's not fair for Jack Nelson to lose a sale-just because his delivery makes customers think of con men they've encountered in the past. None of that is fair. Good work and sold value ought to be enough!

However, this is the real world, which isn't always a fair place. And it's simply a fact of life that many business professionals have the talent and motivation to move ahead, but common problems with the way their voices sound-and the way they use their voices-hold them back and become barriers to their success. According to a recent study, nearly 40 percent of the first impression you make on other people is based entirely on the sound of your voice. Just think what this can mean to you during the opening moments of a sales pitch!

Research proving that the most critical parts of human interaction depend primarily on the sound of the voice and the way the voice is used has been around for many, many years. Nothing you can do for your image will give you as much bang for the buck as improving the way you sound will; nothing can do you more damage, more unjustly, than a negative response to the way you sound. We all know that; it's not news. But most of us spend our money and energy on the way we look-on expensive clothes and haircuts and watches and desks-without devoting any of our resources to that single, and far more important, problem.

Evaluate Your Voice

Answer the statements that follow as honestly as you can. Enter a number that corresponds to the response choices listed below for each statement. Add your score up, and click to the next page to see how well you did. To find out your particular areas of strengths and weaknesses, note the numbers following the questions to which you answer "most of the time" or "frequently." Then match the number in parenthesis to the guide on the following page.

Response Choices:

1. Most of the time
2. Frequently
3. Occasionally
4. Almost never


1. I worry about how I'll sound before I begin a meeting or presentation. (1a)

2. People ask me to speak up. (2a)

3. The intricacies of English grammar confuse me. (4b)

4. I sense that people have a hard time understanding me. (4a)

5. I experience shortness of breath when speaking before large groups. (1a)

6. My voice rises in pitch and "wimps-out" when talking to my superiors. (2b)

7. People tell me I have an accent. (4a)

8. I find that others interrupt me or talk over me. (1b)

9. My voice gets high and squeaky when I get excited. (2b)

10. I have a hard time getting and keeping my listeners' attention. (3a)

11. It's hard for me to sound calm, collected and positive in stressful situations. (1a)

12. When I speak up, I feel I'm not being taken seriously by others. (1c)

13. People tell me I talk too fast. (2c)

14. I get hoarse after I've talked for awhile. (2a)

15. I have trouble sounding convincing when I have to present ideas I don't entirely agree with. (3b)

16. Others don't seem to enjoy talking with me and hearing me talk to them. (3c)

17. People who grew up in my part of the country/world have an easier time understanding my speech than those who didn't. (4a)

18. On the telephone, people mistake me for a much younger person. (2b)

19. It's an effort for me to project my voice in a large room. (2a)

20. Using complex and technical terms makes me appear in the know. (4c)


Add up the numbers next to each statement for your total score. This represents your voice quotient. Match your score to the ratings below.

73 to 80: Superior
65 to 72: Above Average
57 to 64: Average
49 to 56: Fair
20 to 48: Poor

Here's where the numbers in parenthesis come in handy. Match them to the following guide to discover where your weaknesses are. Then check out the next page for tips on common areas of weakness.

1. Confidence

a. poised, relaxed
b. assertive
c. authoritative

2. Control

a. projection, power
b. pitch
c. pacing

3. Persuasiveness

a. color and variety
b. energy and enthusiasm
c. warmth, expression

4. Polish

a. pronunciation/accent
b. grammar
c. vocabulary

The Five Most Common Speaking Problems And How To Correct Them

1. Talking too fast. Rapid-fire speech can erode your credibility and make what you say sound less important. Don't cram too many words into each breath (say fewer words in each breath), and remember to pause for breaths as you speak.

2. Mumbling. Speak up and open your mouth wider. Feel your tongue clearly articulate the sounds in your speech especially your final "t's" and "d's".

3. Flat, monotonous tone. A flat, dull delivery is a sure-fire way to turn off your listeners. To add color and variety to your voice, change the pitch of your voice on the most important words of your message and take extra time to emphasize key words.

4. A weak and wimpy voice. To add power and authority to your voice, hum long tones up and down your comfort range. Concentrate on feeling vibrations in your head and chest. The more buzzing you can feel, the fuller and richer your voice will be.

5. A nasal, whining tone. To take the nasality out of your voice, keep the back of your tongue down and open your throat a bit wider when you speak. This will help you feel your voice coming from your chest and not out of your nose. Avoid pinching the vowel sounds in words such as "answer" and "down".

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