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With all due respect: Highs and lows

Every Issue

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2015 89 (1/2) LIJ, p.99

Lawyers worry about all sorts of things. They worry about their CV and qualifications, the depth of their legal knowledge, their presentation skills and the ability to relate to clients.

But do they worry about their voice?

Research in the US has found that, for males at least, the pitch, frequency and timbre of your voice can be a determining factor in the ability to be persuasive and ultimately a success in your profession. If you don’t believe it, try telling your dog to sit in a low pitched voice and a high pitched voice and see which one works. If it’s my dog it will be neither, but that’s just my dog.

A study at Duke University’s business school of 792 CEOs found those with lower-pitched voices typically manage larger firms, make more money and last longer in their jobs than higher-pitched peers.

Actors, orators and even the most awful dictators know the persuasive power of the voice. Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” but it was his deep powerful voice that gave the words impact. Remember Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son”, Dirty Harry saying “Go ahead make my day” and Sean Connery introducing himself to female conquests as “Bond, James Bond”? Now imagine the same phrases uttered in Woody Allen’s voice.

Hollywood knows that vocal pitch can show authority, menace and even play a part in seduction while a squeaky voice is generally comic or pathetic. Singer Barry White is a case in point. So, too, is Russell Crowe. Rusty’s velvety vocals surely helped him nab the lead role in Gladiator. When Maximus Decimus Meridius said, “At my signal, unleash hell,” we knew he meant business. As did the NY hotel front desk clerk when the actor used his telephone voice.

I have marvelled at the way some male barristers from decidedly humble backgrounds adopt the voice patterns of minor royalty as they progress towards taking silk. They have obviously worked out that deep silky Anglo tones impress both judges and jurors.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found public speakers with range in their voices could use that power to influence or inspire. This makes sense. How many of us have almost lost the will to live when we sat through a uni lecture or a conference speech given by someone with a boring monotone voice?

UCLA researchers recorded the voice patterns of various foreign leaders and asked male and female volunteers, who did not speak those languages, to rate the speakers. Those with a low-pitched voice were perceived as big and dominant, while those with high voices as small and submissive. This begs a question. Would Gough Whitlam be so revered if he had sounded like Christopher Pyne?

Don’t go overboard in the lower register, however. University of Chicago scientists studied 60 recordings of male advocates in the US Supreme Court and it appears the masculinity of the voices helps predict the outcome of cases. Less masculine sounding voices were more likely to win, surprising the scientists who explained it thus: ‘Lawyers who think they’re going to lose may project a different kind of voice, perhaps overcompensating by sounding more masculine.’

Even if you don’t have a persuasive or dominant voice you should not fall silent according to UCLA acoustic scientist Dr Rosario Signorello.

“The voice is a tool that can be trained,” he said. “Singers and actors train their voices to reach higher or lower frequencies. A leader-speaker should do the same.”

I wonder if he could train my dog?

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