For 25 years I’ve been coaching women’s voices. My focus is on career women and strengthening women’s voices in the workplace. I’ve coached CEOs, global VPs, startup founders and almost every type of entrepreneur. Whenever someone asks about my profession, I usually remind them that contrary to common belief, public speech and presentation are not “soft skills.” In fact, they’re actually quite hard; they’re hard to do, and they have a hard impact on our life and career. Yet beyond the basics like pacing, volume and enunciation, there’s another element that has compelled me to dig deep into my work with women. It’s a mystery hidden in plain sight (or sound) and I discovered it quite by accident.
When I started coaching, I was young and green and learning my craft. Women came to my home and talked to me and I led them through things like breath support, vocal projection and vocal tone. Later came the thing called “presence,” a special charisma radiating from a person that makes others trust them, and view them as a leader. In the beginning, I didn’t possess much presence either, so we learned together, the women and me.
Somewhere between the end of the beginning and the start of the middle, a strange thing happened. Women would come in for their first session, sit down and start talking, and I would fall through a secret door that opened right in front of us. Something invisible but audible was actively taking place inside the sound of their voices. I was shocked by this phenomenon, but I knew what it was called because I was born into a family of musicians: overtones. When a note is plucked, strummed or sang, the human ear picks up that frequency of sound and relays it to the brain, which turns it into a particular pitch. Generally we “hear” only one note at a time. Yet each note is stacked with other shadow notes called overtones. The overtones create a powerful vibration that makes the music come alive and allows us to feel our own emotions through it. Computers and machines can’t make overtones. Only acoustic instruments and the human voice produce this magic.
When the women spoke, their voices vibrated with powerful emotions that were often in direct opposition to the words they chose. A 24-year-old woman, searching for a corporate job right out of college, described a need for security and a stable paycheck. Yet a minuscule tremor in her tone vibed a wild longing for exploration and freedom. A 40-year-old, moving up to the top management position in her company, was concerned that her dislike for her new boss would cause daily aggravation. Yet her voice shimmered with desire when she described his “despicable” habits. A young CEO, not yet 35, boomed a long monologue about her ability to delegate and multi-task. Yet behind her insistent volume was a dark hum, and she eventually copped to having terrible impostor syndrome.
Once the overtones began to show up in the women’s voices, I had to change everything. If their true thoughts, dreams and desires were still hidden in the background, then basic public speaking skills were no longer enough to get them where they wanted to go. We started to work on the language they were using to describe who they were, what they did and how they did it in the world. We made sure that it matched what they truly wanted, not what they thought they should want. We also worked on setting strong boundaries around their time and energy and maintaining strong boundaries during conflict. Most important of all, we worked on drawing deep, powerful breaths, the kind that calm nerves, energize the mind and propel the voice up and out. That’s when then magic started happening.
Slowly, then suddenly, the women began to roar. They led powerful presentations that changed their company’s direction. They stood up for themselves in meetings and stopped interrupters cold. They said NO to tasks that were time-sucking and unrewarding. They negotiated higher salaries and longer vacation periods. They walked out on bad jobs and networked to get better ones. They got dream jobs.
The overtones have only gotten stronger. These days when a new client comes in and starts talking, I spend the first 10 minutes listening closely for the vibration of fear, anxiety, doubt and shame. These are the Four Horsemen of a woman’s spirit. Most of us have at least one of them running around inside our voice, but If I hear too much of them I might suggest a course of therapy before we begin our coaching sessions. In any case, I tell my clients that I will help them do whatever they want with their voice and their livelihood. I also reminded them that it’s important for women to examine our choices, and especially the conditioning around them, to make sure that we are choosing authentically rather than automatically. The overtones in every woman’s voice serve as a constant reminder of how powerful we are, and how vital our inner life is to our outer wellbeing and success.
Alicia Dara is a nationally recognized voice coach specializing in strengthening women’s voices in the workplace. She has helped thousands of people including CEOs, managers, and Presidential candidates break through blocks, find their voice, and put it to work. Clients include Microsoft (where she is a vendor), Planned Parenthood, The Rivkin Center, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Female Founders Alliance, and countless entrepreneurs. Her writings about public speaking and creativity have appeared on CoveyClub, The Write Life, and Daily OM.