That Can’t Be My Voice, Can It?

by drjim on June 22, 2010

We Never Hear Ourselves The Way That Others Hear Us

We Never Hear Ourselves The Way That Others Hear Us

Have you ever had the misfortune to hear yourself talking? Can you remember what your facial expression was as you heard your voice come out of the recording device – pain, anguish, disbelief? Almost universally we all dislike the way our voices sound and we just can’t imagine that an audience would be willing to sit through one of our speeches. What’s up with all of this?

It’s All About The Bones

So just why do we sound so weird when we listen to recording of our own voice? It turns out that the answer has to do with bones – specifically our bones. When we speak, we of course hear ourselves. However, we do this in a couple of different ways. Obviously our ears are working and we pick up the sound of our voice. However, at the same time, as we are speaking the words, the sounds that we are speaking are also traveling through the bones in our skull and reaching the inner ear. This ends up making us “hear” a deeper sound to our voice than everyone else is hearing.

Recording our voice to listen to can screw things up even more. Since every recording device is imperfect, what gets recorded is not necessarily what your audience heard. Depending on the quality of the microphone that recorded you and the speakers that you were played back through, you voice may have picked up even more of a tinniness to it.

Why Everyone Wants To Sound Like James Earl Jones

If this was a perfect world (it’s not, by the way), what would you want your voice to sound like? I don’t know about you, but I’d like it to sound like the actor James Earl Jones’s voice – you know, the one who played the lion in the movie “The Lion King”, did Darth Vador’s voice in the Star Wars movies, and who has done countless voice-overs for TV commercials around the world.

Why his voice? Simple – studies have shown that people associate deeper voices with authority. Clearly James Earl Jones has a very deep voice and that’s why he has always been in demand in the entertainment industry.

The Story Of Bitching Betty

True story: once upon a time I worked building fighter jets. The manufacturer of the jets wanted to find a way to get the pilots to pay attention when they had to immediately take an action – such as pulling up if they were flying too low to the ground. They decided to build into the aircraft a voice alert system (sorta like today’s “a door is a ajar” voice that your car has).

They searched high and low for the right voice: they needed one that would make the tough, manly pilots sit up and do what it told them to do right away. They tried men’s voices, women’s voices, sweet voices, urgent voices, sexy voices, and none of them did the trick until they found just the right voice. It happened to belong to a New Jersey housewife (yes, you can imagine what it sounded like) and it had exactly the right timber to it. For obvious reasons pilots came to refer to the voice as “Bitching Betty”.

What All Of This Means For You

So what’s a speaker to do? You really can’t change your voice – the best that you could hope for is to take some expensive voice classes and change it just a bit. Instead, the best thing to do is to become comfortable with your own voice.

This means that you need to spend time listening to (imperfect) recordings of you speaking. This will give you the ability to hear yourself as other hear you and this will be the first step in controlling how you sound. Don’t worry – no matter how bad you think you sound, you always sound better to others because they sound just as silly to themselves as you do to yourself…!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills

Question For You: Do you think that it is possible to have one voice that you use to deliver speeches in and another that you use for normal conversations?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

If you talk about the wrong things, then your speech will go nowhere quickly. Maybe we should have a chat about what you shouldn’t be talking about…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

K8Peters July 7, 2010 at 2:14 pm

This is a great post on why we don’t like our voices when we hear them. You are spot on with the bones, and why we like deeper voices, and even Bitchy Betty being able to get attention because of her voice, but you are wrong about not being able to change your voice if you don’t like it. That’s like saying you can’t change your fitness if you don’t like it. Voices are made of muscles that can be exercised and they are created through imitation. You created what you have now. James Earl Jones cultivated the sound he has. If you don’t like what you hear, you can create something else and not just by taking expensive lessons, although it helps to have guidance from a trainer, just as it does when you work out the rest of your body. Through awareness and proper exercise you can create what you want. And in fact, your voice is such an important component of the impression you make on others, that a speaker can’t afford to accept that their voice can’t be changed! When people first hear you, it only takes a few seconds for them to hear you as Bitchy Betty. That’s fine if it’s your job to wake up pilots. But why would you stand for sounding bitchy if your job is to raise money for a homeless shelter, or sell the next widget to senior executives? It is completely possible to create a vocal image that supports exactly what you do and who you are.

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Dr. Jim Anderson July 17, 2010 at 5:26 pm

K8: Ok, you make a good point — our voices are controlled by muscles and just like every other muscle, these too can be developed. However, I’ve never met anyone who has significantly changed how their voice sounds — and I’ve worked with a lot of professional speakers. Got any examples of someone famous who’s done this?

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