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Last night while making dinner, I was listening to a political documentary playing in the background. One expert after another chimed in with comments, offered deep thoughts, gave opinions — all interesting and enlightening.
And then this one guy spoke … ack! He sounded high-pitched and tonal, kind of light and airy. It didn’t matter that he was smart and insightful; all I could think about was that he spoke like a child, not like a person with authority — and not like someone I’d take seriously.
As a professional researcher and analyst, I confront bias every day — my bias. There’s always the possibility that my opinions and proclivities can influence how I interpret data, so I have to be vigilant about remaining objective. If I couldn’t take that guy seriously, what chance did he have of impressing anybody?
I’ve talked to and interviewed many people dealing with legal issues. Many have told me that the way a lawyer communicates is very important, whether that communication is on the phone or in person. People are sensitive to a lawyer’s pitch, volume and tone — more so than most lawyers would expect — to the extent that lawyers might lose potential business just because of the sound of their voice.
What can you do to make sure your voice makes the right impression?
1. Gather intel about what your clients want. Some people want a divorce lawyer who is compassionate, someone who can show empathy and support. Others want their divorce lawyer to be a bulldog. Some people expect their personal injury lawyer to be aggressive; some want their immigration attorney to be kind. Different people want different types of lawyers. In your first meeting with clients, feel them out. Or directly ask them what they expect from you. That way you can adjust your communication to meet their needs. If you don’t want to adjust your pitch, volume or tone for your clients, then recognize that you may need to tailor your marketing strategy to attract people who want a lawyer who sounds just like you.
2. To convey compassion, take it down a few notches. A study examining the impact of therapists’ communication styles revealed that patients’ muscle tension reduced significantly when the therapist started the session with a conversational tone, volume and pace, but then decreased tone, volume and pace as the session went on. Trying too hard to sound nice may not work: Another study among therapists suggests that a tone that’s too sweet makes patients feel nervous and even aggressive.
3. To convey power, go deep. Deep voices are associated with leadership, research finds. CEOs with deep voices make more money, and voters favor political candidates with deep voices. Going deep helps whether you’re a man or a woman. Research also suggests that both sexes prefer women with more masculine voices. So whether in a courtroom or in your office, using a nice deep voice could give you an edge. To pull this off, try speaking from your belly rather than your chest. But avoid being emotionless or cold, which could give clients the sense that you don’t care about them.
4. To convey credibility and charisma, use more vocal variety. The Science of People analyzed 50 TED talks and found that speakers with more vocal variety came across as more charismatic and credible. Charisma matters because it draws people in and makes you memorable. Credibility matters because more than a few potential clients will come to your office ready to find out if you really know your stuff. Your voice can help convey that you do.
5. Stay above the fry. Vocal fry — also known as “creaky voice,” “glottal scrape” or “the way a Kardashian speaks” — happens when your vocal folds close together completely (compared to regular speaking where that doesn’t happen). The result is a jittery or sizzling sound. Women are much more likely to use a creaky voice. Those who do run the risk of seeming less educated, competent or trustworthy than those who don’t. About 83 to 86 percent of people prefer a normal voice to one with vocal fry.
6. Record and listen to yourself. Everyone hates the sound of their own voice. But unless you really hear how you sound, you’ll never know for sure if you’re coming across the way you want to.
7. Don’t forget to smile. According to the Science of People, speakers who smile are perceived as more intelligent. And if you think you don’t have to smile because you’re on the phone, think again. Research suggests that if you smile without constraint, people over the phone will hear it in your voice.
For the most part, lawyers are pretty mindful of the words they use. They want to give their clients the right information, not mislead them, and be helpful. Getting this right takes practice. Sounding right also takes practice. It’s worth taking the time to work on how you sound.
A little fine-tuning can go a long way, and your success as a lawyer could depend on it.
Nika Kabiri is Director of Strategic Insights, Law and Society Analyst at Avvo. A sociologist by training, she leverages learnings from political science, economics, psychology and sociology to frame what people go through as they navigate personal challenges that intersect with the law. Nika received her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Washington, and has a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. Follow her @
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