Empowering Women’s Voices

On January 21, 2017, I marched in Oklahoma City, while millions of other women marched around the world raising our collective voices! Now, more than ever, women are activated, engaged, filled with the hope that when we are truly heard positive change will happen! Today more women lead cities, states, companies and countries. Hillary Clinton almost broke that highest of glass ceilings! Elizabeth Warren fearlessly speaks truth to power. Carly Fiorina clearly articulates complex information on national stages. In this last election cycle, however we may have felt about its outcome, we have seen women speaking out, expressing opinions, voicing outrage and hope, giving us an opportunity to look closely at their various communication styles.  As successful as these high profile women are, they often sabotage themselves because they have not learned how to express themselves in a way that is authentic and engaging. Women in positions of leadership often receive feedback that they are harsh, shrill, and abrasive. Communication habits that are filled with tension and effort, what I call press, frequently obscure the message.  Even as we are inspired to claim and own our voices, years of self-defeating vocal habits can stop us in our tracks.  How does a woman overcome physical and psychological habits so her voice conveys confidence, presence, and authentic power?

My training and consultancy business, Vocal Authority, is full of women who had been told, “You can’t be heard, own your voice, find your voice, speak up!” Or just as commonly, “Tone it down, you are bossy, aggressive, shrill!”  Perhaps you have said to yourself, “I need to find my voice. Nobody listens to me. I am not taken seriously. I hate my voice. My voice is just naturally soft.  My voice is naturally loud.”

As diverse as these issues seem to be, there is an answer. Whether you over work or under energize there is a path to a grounded, centered, confident voice that can be heard, respected and accepted! The women I encounter yearn to speak personal truth in all situations, whether speaking to leaders or in leadership positions themselves. I reassure my clients at every session, “you don’t have to be stuck with the voice you think you were born with!” It is easy to make significant changes in your voice.  But real and lasting change takes time. If, for example, you decided you wanted to be a marathon runner, you know you would have to commit to weeks, even months, of deliberate practice. If you want to play the violin, you can’t just read a book about the violin and expect to play music worthy of an audience. If you feel your voice has been holding you back from achieving your career goals and you commit to practice, you will hear and feel lasting changes. 

There are many books written for women by women on various issues concerning women’s professional challenges,  all encouraging us to speak up, own our power, lean in, push back, take our place, take our seat, have confidence and have presence. I read many of these books as I prepare to better help my clients; they all gave inspiration, insights and understandings. The piece that I find missing in all these books is how. How exactly does a woman overcome years of vocal habit, ways of thinking and behaving, to find a clear, strong voice that conveys confidence, presence and authentic power?  We can intellectually understand a concept but not be able to make our body actually put it into practice. The clear and effective voice is made up of a series of bodily systems that must ultimately work in a natural synchronization. By working with our body’s muscle memory we can actually learn to speak in a new and more effective way.

Women often fall into one of two default, habitual settings – Bluff or Denial.  Bluff is chest-led, chin up, shoulders back, knees locked, voice is aggressive or shrill. “If I am going to compete in a male dominated work place, then I need to act and sound like a man.” Which doesn’t always get the desired results. Conversely, there is the woman who denies her voice: shoulders round, chin hangs, voice is small, thin and apologetic. Her thoughts might be, “I don’t want to make waves, I want to be easy to work with, I will just let my good work speak for me.” This likewise doesn’t typically get the desired results.

The physical condition of being grounded and centered, sustained by deep central breathing is the key to an authentic, powerful, compelling voice and person! When we change behavior patterns, we also change emotional patterns; when we behave authentically confident, we will actually feel, look and sound authentically confident!


Rena Cook

Rena Cook is Professor Emerita at the University of Oklahoma. She is a TEDx speaker, author, voice, speech, confidence, and presentation coach. She is the founder of Vocal Authority, a training consultancy serving attorneys who want to use their voice in more commanding and authentic ways. She has authored several books, including Her Voice in Law, which she co-wrote with Laurie Koller. The book provides additional advice on the above topics and more, and is available at https://www.americanbar.org/.

1 Comment

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