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Voice and women's leadership

This week I was busy getting out my monthly newsletter, and so the "Talk the Talk'' blog entry took a back seat. My apologies!

In the newsletter - for those of you who haven't gone there - I talk about the transformative power of voice, as employed by Meryl Streep in her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. In a wonderfully in-depth interview with NPR's Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Ms. Streep gives background on how Mrs. Thatcher herself found a new voice, and used it as a tool in her transformation from Education Secretary to party leader.

I am especially interested in this story because I work with a lot of politicians, mainly women. These women come to me because they know they need to strengthen their voices as part of establishing stronger leadership personae. Some of this has to do with the still lingering perception that "women aren't strong enough to lead," that well-documented double-bind women face while vying for leadership positions. But much of it has to do with personality. As is true with men, women who seek leadership roles not always the most outgoing, extroverted people. As such, they know they need help with their verbal communications, especially before large crowds, and with the packed schedules candidates must maintain.

It is true that women's voices have a general tendency to be smaller. It is a fact that men (in general) have bigger, deeper, more resonant voices than women, due to their relatively larger size, specifically their larger larynxes. This has been an impediment to women in many leadership positions. I also work with female pastors, who need to strengthen their delivery; they have all heard variations on the theme "I can't hear what that preacher-lady is saying." Microphones can only do so much of the work.

But don't tell a soprano at the Met that she is not as strong as the guys she sings with! She knows how to maximize her instrument, to make it flexible, responsive to emotion. And she can turn up the volume when she needs to. She has learned how to use her voice. She knows what to do to maintain proper vocal health, so she can stay strong and continue to grow in her career. One of my favorite opera artists, Renee Fleming, sang her first major role in 1986 and is still going strong!

I tell every one of my clients she or he can develop a strong public voice. No question! Everybody who has a working diaphragm, larynx, lips, tongue, and teeth already has the basic material. All that is needed is some coaching, guidance (and a bit of effort) to uncover it. But then you have it for life!

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