Finding Your Five Voices

Charlotte Ashlock Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place! 


Finding Your Five Voices

How adding variety to your voice can add power to your life

Repeated statistics reveal that the number one phobia in America is public speaking, ranking at a whopping 74%. Interestingly, only 68% of Americans fear death. So basically, that means most people would rather die than perform in public, right? Unfortunately, speaking and performing in public is a necessary skill that most everyone must develop at some point in their lives. It just seems to be one of the hardest.

Barbara McAfee, author of Full Voice , describes how your voice can provide you confidence, power, and control in any situation if you know how to use it. To use its full potential, you first have to know that you have five voices. This may sound like a theory useful to schizophrenics only, but below is a short summary of section two of her book to give you a better feel for what these five voices are and how understanding them can make such a difference in communicating.


1. The Earth Voice

Think of Johnny Cash singing “The Ring of Fire,” Darth Vader announcing that he is Luke’s father, and The Terminator’s warning-“I’ll be back.” Think women can’t do it? Talk to Adele and Scarlett Johannson.

Use this voice when you want to exude authority. Seriously, you would listen to anyone using this kind of voice on you. If you need to confront a challenge or establish boundaries, this voice is your guy. If you lean too much on it, however, you’re probably going to sound like a bully or a doofus. Monotone speakers are usually comfortable speaking at this level and just staying there. Borrrring.

2. The Fire Voice

This is Martin Luther King Jr. crying “I have a dream!” Pavarotti belting out an aria is another great example, as well as your dad yelling at the TV during the football game. Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and, yes, Beyonce are in this category, too.

Let’s play the guessing game: what is one of the first images that comes to every poet’s mind when they write about passion? You guessed it: fire. Using your fire voice will inject power and burning ferocity into your performance, and is especially useful for more introverted people. If you throw too much into the mix, though, you’re going to overwhelm or annoy your listeners.

3. The Water Voice

Picture Julia Child talking about butter, your sister excitedly praising your niece for taking her first steps, or John Travolta as a woman in Hairspray.

If you’re trying to convey a sense of compassion or break some bad news, you should use this comforting voice. It softens almost anything you say and is a great tool when giving advice or critiquing because it is less likely to offend. Keep in mind, though, that if you overdo it you could be seen as the na ƒ ¯ve, touchy-feely, Kumbaya person in the office.

4. The Metal Voice

Imagine the Wicked Witch of the West crying out “I’ll get you, my pretty!” or the “beep-beep” from the Roadrunner-and pretty much any bluegrass singer. And you can’t forget Fran Drescher and Edith Piaf-they’re all using the Metal Voice.

The sharpness of the metal voice can cut through any background noise without thinking twice. It allows you to amplify your voice so you can be heard through a crowd without having to strain. But only use this when you need to make serious noise-using it all the time will probably cause people around you to flinch and hold their hands over their ears.

5. The Air Voice

Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to President Kennedy, the soft words of a mother to her baby, or a dove cooing in a tree should convey the right sound. Yes, men use it, too-Art Garfunkel and Jack Johnson, to name a few.

Want to inspire your audience, bringing a hushed excitement that makes them lean forward in their seats? Try going the Air voice route. Of course, speaking like this the entire time would be weird (probably even a little creepy) and people would get frustrated by always straining to hear you. But using it at the appropriate times will add an aura of possibilities and of excitement that’s hard to beat.

Applying Your Voices

So really, who cares about these voices? Why would someone take the time to categorize the ways in which we speak? Because to be effective and efficient you need to use all of them. If you have problems speaking in public or are trying to improve on expressing yourself verbally, there is probably nothing wrong with you-it’s probably an overemphasis or lack of emphasis on certain voices, throwing your vocal chords-and rhetoric-off balance.

Worried that you are boring your audience? Just test it out. Try adding some Fire into the speech-then perhaps some Air to give them the chills. If you feel like your voice is closer to nails on a chalkboard, practice using less Metal and more of the other voices (at least for the sake of your listeners). It takes practice not only to figure out how to use the voices, but also to get used to matching them to the tone of your speech. McAfee discusses the art of integrating these voices easily into your speech and life, giving direction on how to practice each, in section three of her book, Full Voice-and it’s just as entertaining as her descriptive voice examples above.

Buy the book or the enhanced e-book with videos, songs, and trainings from Barbara McAfee (see example below).