Skip to content
Home » Want to Sound Like a Leader? Start by Saying Your Name Right by Laura Sicola (Transcript)

Want to Sound Like a Leader? Start by Saying Your Name Right by Laura Sicola (Transcript)

Laura Sicola

Full text of Want to Sound Like a Leader? Start by Saying Your Name Right by Laura Sicola TEDxPenn conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Want to sound like a leader_ Start by saying your name right by Laura Sicola at TEDxPenn


One of the hottest topics in courses and books nowadays with regard to leadership communication is the concept of executive presence. What does it mean? How do you define it? And can it be taught or learned?

The Center for Talent Innovation identified three main pillars of executive presence: appearance, communication skills, and gravitas. Gravitas means things like “Do your words have teeth?”, “Are you able to make the tough decisions and stick with them?”

One of the missing pieces when you think about what’s integrated really between the lines of broad concepts like communication skills and gravitas is vocal executive presence, as I call it. It’s the missing link. How do you sound when you’re making those tough decisions? Does your delivery reinforce your message and establish the image that you want? Or does it undermine it?

What happens if I’m trying to diffuse a tense situation and I say: “Okay, everybody just calm down now, we need to reevaluate the situation.” At worst, I’m just adding fuel to the fire, and at best, you may later on gently suggest that I switched to decaf. It’s about how we connect. I end up working a lot with people who are preparing for presentations and for press conferences, and they make statements like: “We’re very passionate about helping children and improving the quality of our schools.” And I think to myself:”Really? Because you could’ve fooled me.”

There’s a claim of passion, but there’s no evidence thereof. The problem is a disconnect between the choice of words and their execution, their delivery. And this creates a problem of credibility.

Now, there’s a historic and seminal study that looked at feelings and attitudes as a result of the consistency or inconsistency in verbal and nonverbal messaging cues. And what they found was that when they ask people to evaluate speakers as far as whether or not they thought the speaker sounded sincere, 38% of that evaluation was based on the tonality of the speaker’s voice. Tonality being things like the ups and the downs in your intonation patterns.

In contrast, only 7% of those decisions were based on the speakers’ words that they chose, and the remaining 55% were looking at non-verbal cues, were based on non-verbal cues like your posture, your eye contact, et cetera.

Now, this is a study. We have to be careful because lots of people love to misquote it. And you’ll hear people make grand statements like: “Well, you know, 55% of all communication is non-verbal.” That’s not remotely accurate and it’s not what the study was talking about, but what we can take from this study, and a lot of subsequent research in the area is the importance of sounding credible.

Now, I’d like you to think about this in the context of how you personally prepare for some sort of presentation. Do you spend 38% of your time working on the delivery? If you’re like most people, you probably spend the vast majority, if not all of your time, working on the content: your outline, your script, your PowerPoint slides, making sure you got cool graphics and some snazzy animations, crunching your data to put into your spreadsheets.

But then, after all that work, we sort of wing the delivery hoping it will be good enough. And in the end, that’s just comparatively weak, and it can undermine both your immediate goals and objectives, as well as your long-term image and reputation. The fact is, if you want to be seen as a leader, you have to sound like one. You have to demonstrate vocal executive presence.

Now, a part of vocal executive presence is the ability to read an audience and identify the kind of person from whom they would be most open to receiving your message, and then figure out what that kind of person would sound like.

Now, to an extent, we’re all born with the voice that we have, but we do have a lot of control over how we use it. Margaret Thatcher is a great example thereof. She was the first woman in British Parliament, and she was overtly mocked by a lot of her opponents with phrases like: “Me thinks the Lady doth screech too much” because when she was passionate in her arguing certain points, her voice would go higher and become rather shrill. So when she decided to run for Prime Minister, she worked with a tutor from the National Theater who helped her to lower her pitch in order to sound more authoritative. And this is really important because the voice has both cognitive and emotional effects on the listener.

Let’s start with the cognitive. We talked about tonality, that 38%, the highs and the lows in your voice. And if we use this strategically, we can actually help the listener to focus on the most important words and parts of the message which makes for a lighter processing mode and helps them understand and potentially remember what we’re saying. And this can have a persuasive influence.

When we listen to speech, we process it in what are called tone units or chunks. And we start first by fixating on the intonation pattern and anchoring what we listen to to where those highest peaks are. And then, if necessary, we allow our imagination to fill in whatever is in those lower sound valleys. An example of this is in song lyrics. Now we’ve all had this situation where we’ve been singing along to our favorite song and suddenly, we realize that, or perhaps somebody else not so gently points out, that we’ve been singing the words wrong. You’ve ever been there? A lot of nodding.

There’s a classic song, “What a wonderful world” by Louis Armstrong. I think everybody knows this one. And in it there’s a line that talks about: “the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night.” But when I was a kid I thought the line was: “the bright blessed day and the dogs say good night.”

Now, does this make any sense whatsoever? No, but I accepted it, in part because, first and foremost, it matches those intonation patterns and it also matches at those pitch peaks, the vowels, these syllables that are up at the top. And then, in the parts that were less salient, that were less emphasized, in those pitch valleys, I let myself make up the rest.

This also reflects why effective speakers, when they’re speaking, will emphasize the most important words with higher pitch. Now, tonality, if we use it strategically, can have a good influence on our very first impressions in attempting to establish ourselves as leaders from the moment we meet somebody. It’s really important, of course, to make a good, strong, memorable first impression. But this is difficult when a lot of people feel like they’re not even good at remembering people’s names. You ever feel like that?

Well, I’m going to absolve you of about half of that blame. And that’s because when most people introduce themselves to you, they pronounce their own names wrong. Okay, well, technically maybe not wrong, but they pronounce them in a way that uses a rhythm and an intonation pattern that does make it more difficult for you to understand what they’re saying. And, by the way, I absolve you of only half of that responsibility because the other half of the time you’re the one introducing yourself to somebody else.

So, if I want to know that I’m introducing myself and helping the listener to really understand my name, and by understanding, then they can hopefully remember it, and thereby remember me, I want to start by letting my voice go up, up like this, on your first name, as if to say, “I’m not finished yet,” and then at the top, we’ll have a little break, that little pause that will allow for a sound break to indicate a word boundary, and then, on our last name, we want to go down, let the pitch fall, as if to say, “And now I’m done,” like you’re putting a little local period at the end.

So instead of blurring your way through your introduction, like, “Hi, my name is Laura Sicola,” and bla-bla-blah, I want to focus and help my listener to understand, and so I’ll do my best to say to them, “Hi, my name is Laura Sicola.” And you’ll be amazed at the difference this strategic tonality can make even in something this small.

Now, of course, if we’re haphazard in our use of intonation, and putting it in the wrong place, we can have the exact opposite effect. We can distract the listeners’ attention from what’s most important, and make it harder for them to process what we’re saying. And one of the most common and, in my opinion, annoying examples of this, that’s becoming more and more prevalent in society nowadays, is a phenomenon called “up-speak,” otherwise known as up-talk or, more technically, high-rise terminal. And that’s the pattern where people are talking, and they keep adding these question-like tones at the ends of all of their phrases and sentences, “You know?”, like they’re implying a bunch of little “OKs” and “rights,” one after another, like there’s some sort of deep-seated insecurity and pathological need for constant validation? You know?

The problem with talking like that is that what ends up becoming emphasized is just whatever randomly falls at the end of the phrase. It doesn’t help anyone to process what you’re saying. And that monotonous lilting upswing time and again can be rather hypnotic and so, after a while, we don’t really know if the audience is listening to anything we’re saying, much less what.

By the way, I should also point out that this is not just a “Valley Girl” kind of phenomenon, like a lot of people seem to attribute it. More and more nowadays, this vocal crime against humanity is being perpetrated by men and women, old and young, highly educated and lesser educated. So, congratulations guys, you’ve closed the gender gap. Way to lead!

So from there, one of the other issues is that when people, of course, hear up-speak, they tend to have a very negative and even visceral response. It’s not only the antithesis of vocal authority. It’s almost like the vocal equivalent of hair-twirling, you know? So, when people have that visceral response, this will bring us to now talk about the emotional effects of voice.

Let’s start by thinking about some people who have really distinct voices. We’ll start with James Earl Jones, perhaps best known as the iconic voice of Darth Vader. Now, in my opinion, with that deep, rich, bass voice that he has, he could read the ingredients of the back of a bottle of shampoo and it would sound like poetry. But he probably would not have been as successful if he had tried to play the role of Elmo on Sesame Street.

What about someone like Fran Drescher with that completely unmistakable, whiny, nasal voice right out of Queens, New York? She was great on TV as The Nanny, but she probably would have been less successful as Darth Vader. Can you imagine her standing over Luke Skywalker saying, “Luke, I am your father!” It just so doesn’t work!

Now that’s a great voice for comic relief, but it’s not necessarily the voice that you want to encounter when you’re looking for a funeral director. It’s all about context. In the funeral context you’re looking for someone who sounds sympathetic, who sounds compassionate, who sounds like you can trust them to take care of you and your family during your time of greatest emotional need. And the problem is that when we find someone who has a voice that we find unpleasant or somehow seems to lack the characteristics of the kind of person we’re looking for — doesn’t sound like that kind of person — we can tune them out. We can sort of shut down, and we don’t even want to hear the rest of the message, no matter how important the information is. Subconsciously, we really want the messenger’s voice to fit the message.

Now, does that mean that vocal executive presence is about acting? No, on the contrary, it’s the exact opposite. You have to be authentic. You have to be yourself. But the key is to recognize which parts of your personality need to shine through in a particular moment and how to transmit that through your voice and speech style.

Now, you’re listening to me here today in part because the way I am presenting to you makes sense to you and will match your expectations for what a TED talk speaker should sound like. But I can’t use this same speech style when I’m talking to my 3-year old nephew. He’d wonder what happened to aunt Laura because I don’t sound like fun anymore, and he’d probably stop playing with me.

But at the same time, I can’t come here today and talk to you in the same way that I talk to him. Can you imagine if I started by saying: “Everybody, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s talk about vocal executive presence!”

You’d be like, “Are you kidding me? Who is this nut? What can she possibly know about leadership or executive anything? And, for that matter, who invited her?” And by the way, it was them.

So I call it “working your prismatic voice.” In the end, I’m not acting. It’s just a matter of recognizing and being aware of the two audiences’ different needs and expectations. And then identifying which parts of my personality I want to let come through and how, in order to ensure your openness to my message.

And with regard to the big notion, the metaphor, the prismatic voice, in many ways, in the same way that white light would pass through a prism and break in all the colors of the rainbow that make up that white light, when the white light of your personality passes through the prism of some situational context, you need to look at all of the colors that are available, all the different parts of your personality, and decide which one you need to highlight in the moment and how, in order to be most effective and appropriate for that moment.

And if you can figure out how to do that successfully, then you can create your own, unique, and authentic sound of leadership.

Thank you.


Related Posts

Reader Disclosure: Some links on this Site are affiliate links. Which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support.