Friday, May 30, 2014

Vocal Fry: The Hot New Verbal Fashion Trend that May Take the Sizzle Out of Your Next Interview

Over Memorial Day weekend, I was thrilled to reunite with a friend from my Broadway theatre days when we were “younger than springtime,” “side by side by side,” and dared to “dream the impossible dream.”  No, we were not performing on-stage (although we sang constantly), but the junior publicists behind the stage promoting shows like Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Cats.   Now, years later, Larry is a successful TV-writer, and, as always, hilarious and a great read of people.  I told him about my mission to get women to not let the sound of their own voices get in the way of success and he had a lot to offer. 

According to Larry, many young actresses who come in to read for parts are riddled with the “like syndrome,” and speak with the upward glide (the inflection at the end of sentences that make statements sound instead like questions), but the main thing that undermines their success is their use of vocal fry, that low-pitch creaky sound that is studied by singers but has found its way into the speech patterns of American women.  Although they think they sound adorable, he told me, they really sound ridiculous, disinterested and insincere.  And, it works its way into their readings.  Take two!

Now a new study confirms that adopting this pop-culture infested “creaky voice” may affect your chances of getting and keeping a job.  The study, published online in the open-access journal PLOS ONE (The Public Library of Science ONE), indicates that “women who speak in vocal fry are perceived as less attractive, less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, and ultimately less hirable.” 

The study’s author, Casey A. Klofstad, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, said, “Our findings suggest that perceptions of speakers based on their voices can influence hiring preferences for female job candidates.”

Klofstad along with colleagues at Duke University recorded women and men speaking the phrase, "Thank you for considering me for this opportunity" in both their normal tone and in deliberate vocal fry. According to the University of Miami news release, “Researchers played those recordings for 800 study participants, and asked the listeners to choose which speakers sounded the most educated, competent, trustworthy, and attractive.  Participants selected the speakers of the normal voices more than 80% of the time for all five judgments.”

When the researches looked at male versus female speakers, they found that, “While vocal fry is perceived negatively in both male and female speakers, women who use the affectation are perceived more negatively than men who use it. One explanation is that because women have higher voices than men on average, the lowering of voice pitch via vocal fry results in a sex-atypical voice pitch modulation for women.”

So there you have it.  But what’s the fix for this new verbal fashion trend? 

According to Marci Maculuso, a former actress who found her next calling in speech-language pathology, the most challenging behaviors have a simple solution, but it takes desire and hard work.  She recommended three steps:
  1. Have the motivation to change
  2. Start with building awareness of what you want to change by observing yourself objectively (video & recording)
  3. PRACTICE until your habitual language behavior is replaced by how you want the world to hear and perceive you

I told my 21-year-old niece Naomi, a theatre major at University of Maryland, about Marci and she was fascinated.  According to Naomi, “I think the same things applies for speech in casual conversation and professional life.  The use of all of those verbal crutches is another way to hide ourselves from the world because even if we're saying what we mean, we don't sound like it. We've become afraid to show who we are because we don't want to be judged by anyone. And our society is soooooo judgmental. It's so much easier to say something passively, because if you don't sound like you truly believe it, you won't get judged as hard for it.”

Naomi went on, “Your blog highlights for me one of the reasons I am glad to be a Theatre major.  What happens in rehearsal comes out on stage.”

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Why You Should Like, Ya Know, Say it Like You Mean it

Let me establish upfront, I’m all for “Leaning In.” But listening to how young women (and men) communicate today in this Kardashian-infested culture gives me pause.  Maybe before we all lean in, we need to…. like, you know, umm…. stop hedging, using fillers and vocal fry and speak with confidence.

Sheryl Sandberg’s brilliant, “Lean In,” and recent “Lean in for Graduates,” and Kitty Kay and Claire Shipman’s “The Confidence Code,” offer empowering words of truth worthy of putting into practice and pinning on your wall.  How about this for a new mantra?  Say it like you mean it.

Fillers or verbal tics can weaken our speech, making us sound unsure, and yes, maybe uneducated.  Whether a teen-ager is giving an oral presentation in class, a high school student is interviewing for a summer internship or with a college recruiter, a young woman (or man) is undergoing a job interview, or is charged with engaging colleagues at a meeting, sounding self-assured and articulate is paramount to being taken seriously.

A colleague of mine was telling me how she has two brilliant, highly educated female co-workers, but that she often cringes hearing them on calls and in meetings.  She has wanted to pull them aside and impress upon them the importance of not peppering their speech with mindless repetition of filler words and the verbal uptalk – the upward glide that ends what should be statements or proclamations in a question mark.  “In today’s meeting, I think, you know, we need to discuss a new strategic direction for our client?” (What is heard?  I’m not self assured and not capable of running this meeting.)

This issue has become my baby, which is probably why it came up at my recent gynecology appointment (and if I weren’t in a compromised position, I would have taken notes!).  My doctor, a top practitioner in her field, told me emphatically that she too has experienced this, even in the operating room.  She said that fellow women surgeons weaken and clutter their speech to try to gain consensus and likeability.  So the command, “Scalpel” will turn into, “If you don’t mind, could you please hand me the scalpel?”   Not only are the extra words unnecessary, but in a high stakes medical situation, they don’t inspire confidence.

I first became aware of this challenge growing up in suburban New York, where the popular boys called themselves “The Hair Gang.” They would end virtually every sentence with, “ya know,” show their toughness with expressions like, “In your face!” and shout “Nnnnaaa” in unison at the lunchroom table and at sporting events (a male battle cry of sorts, though I’m still unsure of the meaning).  The girls would sarcastically say, “yeah, right,” “whatever,” and “as if!”  But as a country, it was Valley Girl speak that plagued us (“Those shoes are like totally last season!”) It took a concerted effort to protect oneself from falling prey to this verbal epidemic.

Now, 30 years hence, I find myself with teen-agers of my own, privy to the current slang and fillers. Thankfully, although my girl can do a spot-on imitation, she has not caught the Britney bug, the Kardashian croak, the Kesha lazy, drawn-out twang (what YouTube’s Abby Normal calls “The Vocal Fry Epidemic” But, the “likes,” “ya knows,” “umms” and “ahhs” are there, and although I can blame her peers, she probably caught some of these verbal tics from me (but, like, I don’t know how?!).

Vocal fry, the low, staccato vibration during speech that arises mostly at the end of sentences, even manifests itself in teens’ online social conversations; particularly in text messaging.   A greeting of “Hey,” is a two syllable. “Heyyyy,” “Party” is “Partayyyy,” “Damn hottie” is “Ddaaaaayyyuuuummm Hottie,” and even OMG has a few extra G’s, “OMGGG!”

Jimmy Fallon is on it.   On Late Night with Jimmy Fallon his “Ew!” sketches poke fun at teen-age girls, and this trend of verbal fry .  “Exercise?  Kale chips?  I can’t!  I can’t even!  EW!”

It goes way back... If you’re a Broadway baby, or as old as I am, you may recall that in My Fair Lady, the turning point is when Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering drill Eliza Doolittle incessantly with phonetic speech exercises, trying to rid her of her Cockney accent. It all works itself out when she starts singing the exercise, the key lyric being "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." 

I like the idea of a singing method to break one of bad verbal habits.  But would it work?  My married college friends have two teen-age girls and their own method.  When their girls use the word “like” in a sentence, they repeat the sentence back, and then make them repeat the sentence, but add, “and I am not very smart.” For example, “Brittany and I are, like, going to a party,” becomes, “Brittany and I are, like, going to a party, and I am not very smart.  Maybe a bit harsh, but if you knew my high-spirited and lovable friends, you would understand why their tactic is working.  For most of us, though, we don’t want to risk stifling our taciturn teenagers and interfere with our precarious relationships. 

Verbal traps start early; as early as elementary school and middle school, perhaps when you are most influenced by peers and celebrities, and the when fitting in matters most.  Even little Lisa Simpson, the brain of the dysfunctional Simpson bunch, calls on these verbal crutches to fit in with the cool crowd.

In poetry slam artist and author Taylor Mali’s “Totally like whatever, you know,” , he writes:

In case you hadn’t noticed,

it has somehow become uncool

to sound like you know what you’re talking about?

Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?

Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s

have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?

Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences—so-­called

because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true, okay,

as opposed to other things are, like, totally, you know, not—

have been infected by a totally hip

and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?

Like, don’t think I’m uncool just because I’ve noticed this;

this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It’s like what I’ve heard?

I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?

I’m just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

Taylor Mali nails it.  But, changing right brain habits is always a hard task, and when it comes to communication and peer pressure, it takes vigilance and repetition.  Teachers deal with this issue all the time.  My friend Marci’s daughter’s 7th grade English teacher made a competition out of it.  She asked her students to speak for one minute on a topic of their choosing, without the fillers – a challenge to see how many, if any, could do it. They quickly realized how often those fillers make it into their speech and how very difficult it was to remove them.  

My girlfriend, who happens to be a 5th grade English teacher, had this to say: “Definitely, in my classroom, the quietest voices belong to the girls. Girls subconsciously or consciously speak in a way that lessens the power of what they are saying.  As for the boys, perhaps to lessen their accountability, they mumble, talk really fast, or qualify their ideas with, “what I mean is…”

Although I’m not sure that my primary and secondary education had me speaking to impress, thankfully, as a communications major at college, the skills associated with the written and spoken word were drilled into me.  But, as a new employee at Hewlett-Packard (my first “real” job) - where men filled virtually all of the top spots - I quickly realized that not everyone was on board.  I distinctly remember being appalled when at my first company meeting; the regional general manager gave a speech that was riddled with grammatical mishaps and fillers.   It was embarrassing and frankly, shameful.   

I reached out to a few speech-language pathologists (SLP’s) to learn more.  It turns out there is a field dedicated to studying how language serves and is shaped by the social nature of human beings called sociolinguistics.  According to SLP Marci Macaluso, “We are so busy bonding and wanting to be part of the ‘tribe,’ that we don’t realize how habitual these verbal crutches becomes and how they take over our speech and the way we present ourselves to the world. There are psychological and behavioral issues behind these speech patterns and with speech modification, there are different strategies we can use to successfully reshape these behaviors.” 

With my own communications consultancy, Say it Like You Mean it is, and has always been, my tagline. I am constantly mindful of how my colleagues and clients “sound.”   In my business’s arsenal of tools, we use speaker training to teach executives how to best communicate their company’s expertise.  Why?  Because every time an executive clips on a microphone, is faced (online or off) with a reporter, or speaks at a conference, their company’s reputation is on the line.

The fact is, to “lean in,” everyone could use speaker training. Corporate world or private sector; politician, marketer, retailer, social worker, engineer or doctor – no matter what our chosen profession – to show our best selves, we don’t just need to dress for success.  We need to speak to impress.

Back in February of 2012, the New York Times did a piece entitled, “They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrve,” positing that girls and women in their teens and twenties deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang.  Maybe so, but I think we are in a danger zone.  Among friends and family members, this “Linguistic currrve” may be okay.  But, girls and young women, who even in 2014 are challenged by our male-dominated business world – and still earn 70 cents to the dollar – need to demonstrate competence, assert power, and be taken seriously.  Like, ya know…I think we need to Say it Like We Mean it.

I’d love to hear your stories.  Do YOU suffer from the "like" syndrome? Tend to speak in questions or apologize or downgrade your thought before you even get to the point ("This might be wrong, but...)?  Have you seen these issues in your own career/world?   Tried (successfully or unsuccessfully) to remedy the issue? Please fill me in…and look out for an upcoming panel discussion on September 18th that will offer insight, tips, fixes and dig deeper…

Reach me here:
Audrey Mann Cronin
Mann Cronin PR|Comm

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