• Westwood International

Power of Tone

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

People may listen to your words, but they react to your tone.

When asked in an interview with Oprah Winfrey about the process of becoming Abraham Lincoln, award-winning actor Daniel Day Lewis thoughtfully replied, “The voice is a deep reflection of character, of who we are—the voice is the fingerprint of the soul.” Day Lewis intuitively knew how impactful tone can be. He spent months researching, studying, and eventually taking on the persona of Lincoln after much hard work and soul-searching. If finding a character’s tone and cadence takes a highly skilled actor months of internal inquiry, it stands to reason that one’s own voice comes from the depths of our being; it is nearly impossible to fake.

The dictionary defines tone as the modulation of pitch, quality, and strength that adds semantic meaning to a word or phrase. I see tone of voice as the genuine mood or flavor—an underlying essence of a verbal interaction between two or more people. How is your tone of voice conveying your message?

Conversational Tone Versus Content

If you were going to study the effect that a person’s paralanguage—the nonverbal qualities of speech such as pitch, amplitude, rate, and voice quality, as well as the pauses and hesitations between words has on the success of their communication, a call center would be an excellent place to start. And that is exactly where MIT researcher Alex (Sandy) Pentland and many others have done their research.

Studying the how of conversation, rather than the what, Pentland spent many years working with large corporations in Asia and the United States, deciphering what he terms “honest signals,” the often unconscious ways that speech pattern, tone, and body language determine how we perceive what the speaker is saying in a conversation, be it in a business or personal context. Our extralinguistic cues have a complex interaction with our spoken words, regardless of language or culture. In fact, Pentland and his team were able to predict with startling accuracy during speed dating sessions which pairs would exchange contact information, without hearing the content of what they were saying!

Because we have only about 90 seconds to establish rapport when we first encounter someone, says Nicholas Boothman, keynote speaker and author of How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less, adjusting our conversational speaking tone to match the context is crucial.

In his 1971 book, Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA and influential researcher in the field of nonverbal communication, says that if there is a mismatch between a speaker’s words and the tone of their voice, most of the time, people will trust what they sense in the tone over the actual words. This means that one’s tone has the power to shut down communication, trust, confidence, agreement, and possibilities.

Reflecting on how many times we engage in meaningful communication each day, be it pitching a project, negotiating a contract, interviewing for a job, training a co-worker, assisting a customer, selling a product, networking for your business, or even asking someone out, if your position depends on a clear interaction, then aligning the nuance of tone in your verbal communication becomes paramount.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

We’ve all heard that tired trope since we were in elementary school, but as it turns out, the cliché has more merit than we may have realized. Sincerity, enthusiasm, compassion, attention, concern, warmth, self-confidence, and authority cannot be feigned; your listener will be affected by your tone, whether you or they are aware of it or not.

If you are feeling stressed, nervous, resentful, angry, bitter, tired, apathetic, bored, or threatened, these emotions will seep through and negatively impact your inflection and can therefore unintentionally convey a message you don’t want to send. Since most of us attend primarily to the content of our communication at the expense of the nonverbal ways we express our intent, it is in our best interest to begin to bring to consciousness the effect and origins of our inner voice.

Get right on the inside, so that your words are right on the outside. Putting yourself in the right attitude ensures your tone will align with your words.

Action Steps

Take these steps to align your attitude with your message to ensure an effective tone. 

  • The next time you find yourself reacting to something someone is saying to you, identify the disconnect between their words and what their tone is actually conveying. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize the dissonance in someone else, and this can be helpful when learning to align your own words and tone.

  • During an important and challenging conversation, give yourself a few moments to tune in to your inner mindset. Really pay attention to your feelings toward the receiver, your truest thoughts about what you are going to say, and any hidden agenda you may have. Practice the tone of your communication so that it lines up with the intent of your message. This can be more challenging than it sounds!

  • Body posture and your breathing affect your tone of voice. Do a quick check to optimize the effectiveness of your communication.

  • Smile! Your tone is warmer when you smile as you speak.

  • Practice speaking at a lower pitch, as it has been shown that deeper voices convey more credibility.

  • Use an appropriate amount of hand gestures to help keep your energy up.

  • Judith Filek, who writes for the Impact Communications blog, says, “To enhance the tone of your voice, you must master the pause.” Pause for a moment when you want to emphasize a point and keep the listener engaged. Taking a breath is almost like a verbal comma at the end of a clause or a verbal period at the end of a thought.

  • To really connect and build rapport in face-to-face conversation, try synchronizing your tone to match that of your conversational partner.

If your position depends on clear interaction with co-workers or clients, understanding and controlling the nuance of tone in your verbal communication becomes paramount. Start with these tips, and see your ability to connect grow!

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