Fixing Elizabeth Warren’s Voice

In a post yesterday about the Democratic candidate’s debate this week, I wrote, as a coda to the usual observations about Elizabeth Warren (that she’s a demagogue, that she’s a relentless populist panderer, that she advocates things in public that as a law school professor she knows are impossible or unconstitutional…that sort of thing),

Maybe its just me, but she talks through her nose, and has one of the most annoying voices in the history of politics. Do you think that doesn’t matter? It matters. It’s also fixable.”

I’m a professional stage director (at least when someone’s willing to pay me to direct a play, anyway), and fixing bad speech habits is part of the job. Most of the time, it is just a matter of making an individual listen to themselves. I could fix Elizabeth Warren in a few hours.

Commenter Jeff, however, raises an interesting point, as he writes,

I think the window on “fixable” might have closed. If Warren took voice lessons and learned to speak with a more pleasing voice, wouldn’t it feed the perception that she’s phony? She’s already got an authenticity problem, and if her voice suddenly became non-annoying, it would be quite noticeable. Had she done it before getting all the press coverage of the primary race, it might have gone unremarked, but I think it’s too late now, especially as she takes the front-runner spot (and its attendant scrutiny from the other candidates) away from Biden.

Can you imagine the hay Trump would make with that? Sample tweet:

“Liz Warren, the Fake Indian, is such a phony she doesn’t even talk with her Normal voice anymore! So sad!”

Jeff has made a fascinating observation that raises macro life competence lessons. Is it a sign of weakness and proof that one is   inauthentic to address a flaw?  Is it ever unethical to make oneself better? I’m sure that President Trump would reach that conclusion, since he has many fixable flaws—including in his speaking style— that he waves like a flag. However, it is hard to believe that becoming easier to listen to would cost Warren more votes than it would gain her. Communications skills are essential in leadership roles and life generally. If you are hard to listen to, people stop listening.  The cognitive dissonance scale also operates when one has annoying vocal habits. Our voices are as symbolic of us as our appearance is.  Negative sounds and sights associated with a person drag  the person down on the scale. This thing…

That’s why Ted Kennedy always went on a diet when he was considering running for President. That’s why Joe Biden has hair plugs. That’s why Al Gore hired a fashion consultant to make him look less like a stiff.  People are generally less attentive to the tics and habits that make them sound bad than they are to  the features that make them less physically attractive, perhaps because their voices sound fine to them due to sheer familiarity.

The trope that complaints about female politicians having annoying voices is sexist is relevant here, and it is a classic example of how being obsessed with discrimination can undermine a group. People complain about female politicians having annoying voices because so many of them do.  Their speaking styles may not be a detriment in a bar, or at a party, or in the bedroom, but when women are seeking leadership positions, roles that anthropology , evolution and human society did not see them as fulfilling, common female speech is absolutely a problem.

A vast number of women in the US, perhaps a majority, have speech pathologist that have been created cultural expectations,  lazy teachers, peer group influence and male dominance. Too man women talk in their head and through their noses because high voices are supposed to be more alluring, unthreatening, (and childlike). Breathy voices are supposedly sexy. Even light lisping, which is anathema to males, is tolerated in women because it is “feminine.” All of these features and others, however, signal weakness and submissiveness.  A woman who wants to lead, be it in the nation, the boardroom, or anywhere else, is foolish not to address a vocal style that undermines her goal. Making a voice strong is the first step; making that voice comfortable to listen to is the next. The first without the second results in strident speaking: a woman who just sounds like a man with a higher voice is not going to be easy to listen to, any more than a woman who sounds like James Earl Jones. Successful actresses know how to sound forceful and feminine at the same time, because they have to. Politicians have to as well–acting is a primary skill in politics, as Ronald Reagan pointed out—and aspiring female politicians who would rather cry “Sexism!” than upgrade their leadership skills are both handicapping themselves and informing us that they aren’t fit to lead.

8 thoughts on “Fixing Elizabeth Warren’s Voice

  1. I think I have 2 examples of successful women politicians: My understanding is the Margaret Thatcher took coaching lessons to lower her speaking voice. I’m not sure about Golda Meir but as I recall her voice was lower than most women’s.

  2. I wonder if Bobby Jindal would have gotten as far as he did if he sounded like an educated version of Apu from the Simpsons, or if Marco Rubio would be a Senator if he sounded like Baba Louie from Quick Draw McGraw.

  3. Didn’t Nixon have a team work with him to be more camera ready and therefore likable? While I think some politicians take attempting to look and sound good too far (John Kerry looks worse after plastic surgery) it is important to present well in leadership roles to be taken seriously. One of the reasons Obama was so well liked by many was because of how he sounded, especially when compared to Bush Jr.

    Warren’s voice does remind me of the shrill nasally voice Clinton has. Everytime I hear either of them speak I feel as if I’m being scolded or talked down to. I often say jokingly when I hear one of them “mom is that you?” Also Mayor Pete looks like he needs to wipe under his nose whenever I see him. Has no one on his team ever heard of anti-shine powder?

    Public speaking can be really hard. Those who don’t may not understand the difficulty in delivering coherent points while being able to think quickly, maintain composure, and sound smooth but serious. However I expect leaders to make use of all aspects if speaking well because it shows they care.

    It’s similar to the difference between licking your plate in public vs. using nice silverware to pick up crumbs. You can be less caring about how you’re perceived but I certainly won’t invite you out for dinner.

  4. Warren is a frighteningly effective demagogue. Any limitations on her persuasive abilities are a gift from beyond. You really want her to have more effective rhetorical skills? Please leave it alone!

  5. Given that I know Warren is a dangerous demogogue so why should I even listen to her.

    I am happy just knowing her positions are so antithetical to mine there is no reason to give her my attention.

    No amount of spech coaching to make her words sound as if they are being uttered by the virgin Mary would do any good.

  6. This subject has come up before on EA; the last time in relation to Hilary Clinton’s voice.

    I 100% agree with Jack. There are times I have overheard speaking voices (mostly women’s) in public places and it has taken all I have not to approach them and say “that can be fixed, you know.”

    As I commented the last time, I have a naturally low, resonant voice for a woman. My theater sound technicians often joke that they have to turn the reverb down every time I set foot on stage. Not only is my voice low, I can get a lot of air behind it; which is what gives it power.

    My low voice caused me much distress as a young girl. I didn’t sound like the breathy, flirty girls in my class. I thought I sounded like a man. I didn’t and I don’t – but my voice provided me much insecurity and discomfort back in the day. That discomfort quite quickly turned around when I began working in the corporate world with attorneys, CPAs, and stock brokers and my voice over the phone hid my age of 20-something. When I spoke, people paid attention. That’s when I knew what my voice could do for me; and that anyone’s voice could be trained to command attention; or at the very least, be taken seriously.

    • That’s really interesting. Mrs. OB has a wonderful voice as well and I had never thought it had served her so well in IT management but it must have.

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