Voice AND vocabulary – keys to your success

Posted by on September 4, 2015

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Alternate Title:
Your ‘vocal image’ affects your credibility

Printable version of Post

Voice and vocabulary

To start, let’s define the terms:

  • Voice – the sounds made when we speak or sing.
  • Vocabulary – the range of words we know and use.

Our voice is one of our most recognisable features – it is a central part of our personal brand. It is also our main means of communication. Depending on how we use it, our voice can be a valuable asset – but for some it can also be a handicap.

Along with our voice, our vocabulary is another core part of our personal brand. The range of words in our vocabulary will have much to do with our experiences, our aspirations, our intentions, and our connections.

Together, our voice and our vocabulary form our ‘vocal image’.

Graphic image titled “Keys to Your Success”, showing outline image of a human, with the label “Your Vocal Image”; text on the left of the image reads “How you say it …. Voice reveals: - your emotions, - your nationality, - even your age”; text on the right of the image reads: “What you say …. Vocabulary reveals: - your knowledge, - your intelligence, - your education”

Our voice and our vocabulary make up our ‘vocal image’. Whenever we speak, our audience gets two messages. One is what we say – our vocabulary. The other is how we say it – our voice.

The messages we send

Whenever we speak, there is a message in what we say, and there is also a message in how we say it. While the first of these is intentional, the other is usually not. Our pitch, pace, tone, volume and accent all reveal something about us – e.g. our emotions and also our nationality. Our vocabulary, which delivers the intended message, will reveal something about our knowledge, intelligence, and possibly our education.

As soon as we start to speak, those hearing us begin to make judgements about our credibility (e.g. confidence, knowledge, authenticity). By the time we have spoken barely a dozen words, people will be forming an opinion about us – and once formed, that can be hard to change. Of course, when the roles are reversed, we do exactly the same to others.

Body language and first impressions

Whenever we meet with someone, even before a word is spoken, each party forms an opinion about the other from observing body language and appearance. When we do speak, no matter how well groomed we are, if our voice does not match our appearance, our impact will be diminished.

‘Face-to-face’ communication comprises spoken words, tone of voice, and various other non-verbal actions. When there is an inconsistency between spoken words and non-verbal messages, the audience is more likely to be influenced by the non-verbal messages than by the spoken words. In situations where face-to-face connection is not possible, such as a telephone conversation, the only channel available to present ourselves is our voice. The initial impression of our vocal image will be based on the pitch, pace, tone, volume and accent of our voice; any of these can become a barrier.

Once someone has ‘tuned in’ to our pitch, pace, tone, volume and accent, they can focus on our message, i.e. the spoken words. Their ability to comprehend what we are saying will be affected by our vocabulary and our clarity, particularly when they are not able to observe our body language. Clarity is about how correctly words are sounded, and also how effectively words are used to express ideas, etc. Vocabulary (and clarity) is also part of our vocal image.

Graphic image titled “Non-verbals are important in face-to-face communication”, showing in the upper left corner two figures in face-to-face conversation, with the text: spoken words, non-verbals, voice tone; and showing in the lower right corner a single figure with a mobile phone, with the text: voice tone, spoken words.

In face-to-face communication, non-verbal messages (i.e. body language) are important. Should there be any inconsistency between our spoken words and our non-verbal messages, our audience is more likely to be influenced by the non-verbals than by the spoken words.
When a face-to-face connection is not possible, we must rely totally on our ‘vocal image’ (i.e. voice and vocabulary) for successful communication. Our audience’s initial impression will be based on our voice pitch, pace, tone, volume and accent. From these they detect our emotions, our nationality, even our age. But, any of these voice properties can also be a barrier.
Our vocabulary, and our clarity, carry our intended message. From these our audience assess our knowledge, intelligence, and even our education – i.e. our credibility.

Does voice overshadow content?

A 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal [1] cited research by communications company Quantified Impressions showing how ‘content’ has a substantially lesser influence on an audience than does the sound of a person’s voice (11% versus 23%). While this article has been referred to by numerous voice coaches (and others), because the original data and context of the research is not readily available, I am hesitant to declare it ‘definitive’.

That said, there is a certain plausibility to the proposition. From my personal experience, I can certainly recall situations where a person’s voice compromised their message. Several years ago, while working on a job redesign project, I was assigned a Subject Matter Expert to help me. I had heard about her work, and she had a very sound reputation. When we first met, I noted her to be a tall, well presented lady. Then she spoke – the pitch of her voice was rather high, and she also had a quite strong Australian ‘twang’ (the broad, nasally sound known affectionately as ‘Strine’ to Aussies). It took me several moments to attune to this delivery – the visual impact was positive, but the initial vocal image was something else.

Over the years I have encountered a number of instances where a person’s vocal image has been a barrier. Generally this has to do with my ability to comprehend what is being said, e.g. a fast-paced delivery, especially when combined with a high-pitched voice, or even a strong accent, can be very difficult. A colleague once experienced a challenging situation at a Brisbane airport security check – he could not comprehend the officer’s rather heavily Scots-accented questions, which were spoken at a quite fast pace. Eventually the rather frustrated officer and equally frustrated traveller achieved some sort of ‘understanding’ and peace prevailed.

Developing our voice

For most of us, speaking/talking comes easily – we just allow our voices to express our thoughts and emotions. And we do it all of the time – sometimes without any ‘thinking’! Again, for most of us, unless we had apparent speech problems at school, our voices and vocal ‘behaviours’ will have developed relatively naturally, with little or no intervention such as voice coaching or elocution.

Our ‘natural development’ has probably been strongly influenced by our environment (family, friends) and by our ‘idols’ (media personalities). As young children, we tend to mimic those around us – particularly parents and older siblings. As we grow older, we may be influenced by our friends and those we look up to. As teenagers, we often adopt the mannerisms of various cultural ‘idols’, such as social media celebrities, movie/television actors, entertainment and sports stars. Examples of this are ‘uptalk’ and ‘vocal fry’ [2].

There are many ‘voice coaching’ practitioners offering their services via the Web. Several years ago I worked with a two such experts on a voice skills program for contact centre agents [3]. The program enabled agents to understand how to manage and use their voices, not only as voice professionals, but also in their personal lives. What was very noticeable was how the attitude of individual agents largely determined the level of success they achieved. Two key points for me were correct breathing and voice ‘warm ups’. Overall, the program was quite effective – I would commend this sort of thing to anyone who wants to develop their voice skills, whether for professional purposes, or otherwise.

Voice properties

Today, most of us will hear a number of different voices – family, friends, colleagues, co-workers, strangers, media, etc. Some of these voices will be easy to understand, and some will not (even when we know the language). Some voices will be pleasant to listen to, others will not. Every voice is unique, with its own set of properties. Even when we cannot see someone, we can use the sound of a voice as a means of recognition.

There is quite a range of terms and definitions in use for voice skills and various voice properties (aka features/characteristics/qualities/etc.). This can make it quite challenging to conduct research. Here is my take on some of the more common terms related to voice properties:

  •  clarity – how we combine sounds and words to give meaning, involves:

enunciation:- forming sounds into words;

pronunciation:- sounding whole words correctly;

articulation:- expressing something in words (i.e. using our vocabulary)

  •  pitch – the frequency range (high 1 low) of our voice
  •  pace (aka tempo) – the speed at which we speak
  •  volume (aka loudness) – how loudly we speak
  •  tone (aka timbre, colour) – the emotional content of our voice
  •  accent – a distinctive way of pronouncing words

Other voice properties include:

  •  energy – variation in the pace, volume, tone and pitch of our i
  •  intonation – variation in pitch to express surprise or pose a question
  •  inflection – variation in pitch or tone
  •  rhythm/cadence – variation in the flow of our spoken words
  •  resonance – the depth of sound in our voice
  •  emphasis – stress applied to particular words
  •  pause – used for emphasis, to help our audience keep up with us, and for us to breathe
  •  dialect – geographical variations in how a language is spoken, e.g. ‘Singlish
Animated graphic image titled “Voice Properties”, showing the following texts on a timed exposure: Clarity – combining sounds and words to give meaning, which involves: enunciation (forming sounds into words), pronunciation (sounding whole words correctly), articulation (expressing something in words – i.e. how we use our vocabulary) Pitch – the frequency range (high – low) of our voice Pace – the speed at which we speak (aka tempo) Volume – how loudly we speak (aka loudness) Tone – the emotional content of our voice (aka timbre, colour) Accent – the distinctive way we pronounce words

Every voice is unique, with its own set of properties. The most obvious voice properties are:
- clarity
- pitch
- pace
- volume
- tone
- accent
Any of these can become a barrier for our audience, inhibiting their ability to actually hear our message.
These, and other voice properties, can be developed and improved with appropriate training. From there we can move on to addressing some of the other voice properties such as: energy, intonation, inflection, rhythm/cadence, etc.

Our vocabulary

Whether we opt to use a ‘conversational’ vocabulary of well-known words, or we prefer a wider (say – intellectual or academic) ‘lexicon’, our personal vocabulary is likely to continue expanding throughout our lives as we encounter new words. Effective communication does not necessarily require an extensive vocabulary – for example (according to TalkEnglish.com [4]), knowledge of just 2000 English words will allow someone to speak fluent English.

When speaking, shorter sentences (<20 words), are invariably easier for an audience to comprehend. Comprehension is further aided when the actual words we use are in common usage. Conversely, use of less commonly used words will hinder our audience’s ability to understand our message. This is particularly so when members of our audience are not native speakers of the language we are using. Many English words have multiple meanings, which can be a source of frustration for non-native speakers, e.g. check out the word ‘articulation’.

Graphic image titled “Our Vocabulary, i.e. the range of words we know and use”, showing the text “should suit Our Audience”, with a display of four dialogue types (i.e. conversational, intellectual, academic, technical), with tick boxes indicating each as suitable for Native speakers, but question marks against intellectual, academic, and technical for Non-Native speakers

As we speak, our vocabulary reveals something about our knowledge, intelligence, and education. The range of words in our vocabulary has much to do with our experiences, aspirations, intentions, and connections.
Effective communication does not necessarily require an extensive vocabulary. What is important is to ensure that our choice of words suits the abilities of our audience – particularly when some of them are not native speakers of the language we are using.

Our ‘vocal image’ – asset or liability?

In face-to-face communication, our body language also contributes to our message; however when there is only one channel available (e.g. telephone), we rely totally on our voice and our vocabulary. It is very easy to ‘lose’ our audience because of how we sound or what we say, i.e. our ‘vocal Image’. In particular, our voice pitch, pace, tone and clarity, and even our accent, can all be barriers which inhibit our audience from actually hearing our message. Our vocabulary can also be a barrier – especially if we choose to use words that our audience is not familiar with.

Worth a look
Our free nugget for this Post is the Toastmasters International resource page “Your Speaking Voice” – this page offers PDF downloads about understanding and improving your voice (in a number of languages).

Coming next
Getting your ideas across – from concept to fruition


  1. Wall Street Journal article “Is This How You Really Talk?” dated April 23, 2013
  2. Dailymotion video “Faith Salie on speaking with “vocal fry”” [2min 17sec]
  3. Linkedin profile – Veronica Allardice (founder of Theatre of Leadership)
  4. TalkEnglish page “English Vocabulary

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