Hitting the right note

Charlie Taylor, the government’s behaviour czar, suggested not long ago that teachers needed to be  more authoritative in the classroom.

One of the things he suggested for women teachers is that they should have training programmes to help them vary the tone and  pitch of their voices, to make it lower for example, to sound more authoritative.

Currently most teachers are only taught to project their voices and speak clearly.

They could also adopt more confident postures as they can give way their nervousness by fidgeting and other non-verbal signals. When teachers are tense it can result in them speaking in a higher-pitched voice which the children pick up on and  exploit with bad behaviour.

Research in other walks of life shows that women’s voices have lowered in pitch since the 1940s and this is due to social conditioning. Women with lower pitched voices are considered more authoritative. Margaret Thatcher is a good example of someone who was coached and developed her “intensive care voice” which was a far cry from the high-pitched “Thatcher the milk snatcher” voice before she became Prime Minister.

It seems women are criticised more because of their voices including accents. According to linguistics professor Deborah Cameron, women with accents are judged on their relative femininity and sexual availability – particularly if they have strong cockney and scouse accents. Men are not judged in the same way. Which is possibly why there are so many women with Scottish accents in the media. They sound neutral and authoritative.

Back in the mid-90s researchers at Kent State University, Ohio, found that you could tell who was the dominant person in a conversation by measuring the pitch of the voice. People adapt their speech depending on who they are talking to; changing their accent, raising and lowering the pitch, and changing the speed.

Measuring these fluctuations, particularly in the low-frequency bands below middle C, shows which person is modifying their speech patters to match the other and being unconsciously deferential.

Knowing this is one thing but training people is less easy as competence and confidence are reflected in your voice unconsciously. However learning to hold a good posture, how to breathe properly and using visualisation techniques can help you inject enthusiasm and confidence into your speech.

I have a colleague, Tim Lambert, who was trained as an actor and he is great at helping people develop a more confident speaking and self-presentation style. Look him up at http://www.kay-lambertassociates.co.uk/