If you’ve seen the old film Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, then you remember one of my favorite scenes where the teacher, played by Ben Stein, attempts to cover U.S. economic history to a group of students who could not be more bored or disengaged. And they can hardly be blamed since the teacher’s style seems designed to sapp any will to listen: His voice is absolutely flat, devoid of even a hint of interest or energy. You can probably hear that tone in your head: “In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone?... the Great Depression, passed the... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act?" Litigators understand that they cannot be the flat and boring narrator if they expect a jury, judge, arbitrator, or mediator to pay attention. Still, anyone who has spent time in courtrooms has heard that style too often. With their minds on the evidence and the law, attorneys will sometimes forget about style. And one of the most important and malleable aspects of style is the color and tone of your own voice: Your pitch, volume, emphasis, and variety.
One advantage of a varied and energetic tone is that it makes your content listenable. But another under-appreciated advantage is that it influences your own attitude and state of mind. That’s right, the causal arrow runs both directions: Confidence makes for better style, and better style makes for greater confidence. That means that less-experienced attorneys and under-confident witnesses can benefit substantially by simply monitoring their tone to sound more energized and more positive. A recent and very innovative study (Aucouturier et al., 2016) demonstrates the advantage. Research participants read passages in the laboratory while simultaneously hearing their own voice via headphones. Unbeknownst to them, their voices were subtly manipulated in the directions of happiness, sadness, or fear. In response, their own emotional states, measured both by self-report and by physical symptoms, shifted in the direction of the manipulation. In other words, those made to sound happy became happier and those made to sound sad became sadder. So we take our cues from ourselves, or as the authors note, “We often use the same inferential strategies to understand ourselves as those that we use to understand others.”
The Research: We Are the Way We Sound
The research article (Aucouturier et al., 2016), available for download without charge at the PNAS site, is the product of an international team from France, Sweden, and Japan. They wanted to see if the covert manipulation of a speaker’s perception of their own vocal tone could influence that speaker’s attitude. So they asked French and Japanese research participants to read a passage aloud while wearing headphones. To the participants, they were simply hearing their own voice, the way you hear yourself when you’re in a conference call on a phone headset. Without the research participants’ knowledge, however, they manipulated the sound the participants were receiving. One group heard a “happier” version of their own voice: With vocal upshifting, greater inflection, and a modified dynamic range (described as “compression” and “high pass filtering”) in order to make the voice sound more positive and confident. Another group heard a “sad” version of their own voice, with pitch downshifting, what they call “low pass filtering.” And a third group heard a version of their own voice with altered pitch, vibrato, and inflection to sound afraid. Audio samples are linked to the original article so you can understand what they’re talking about.
The differences were subtle enough that participants did not believe their own voices were altered. Independent listeners correctly interpreted the “happy” voice as happy, the “sad” voice as sad, and the “afraid” voice as afraid.
The participants’ emotional states were evaluated before and after reading using subjective adjective scales as well as more objective skin-conductance tests. As predicted, emotions shifted in the direction of the manipulation, at least for the “happy” and “sad” groups, with each becoming more like the voice they heard. The team interpreted this as evidence that the individuals understood the conveyed mood as their own, and aligned their feelings to match what they believed to be coming from their own voices.
The study focused on a “happy” voice, which of course isn’t always going to be the right adjective for litigation. You wouldn’t happily describe your client’s or your adversary’s injury. But the operationalization of the emotion in the study might be more properly viewed as energetic or positive. You don’t have to be smiling or discussing favorable content in order to adapt a style that conveys interest and even enthusiasm for the subject matter.
More broadly, this result underscores an important principle in effective speaking: Good delivery isn’t just for the audience. It is also for the speaker in the sense that good presentation is great self-persuasion, and a good way to become more confident is simply to sound more confident. Here are three reminders.
Monitor Your Voice
The advice might sound simple: Listen to yourself. But in the complex and challenging setting of litigation, witnesses and attorneys might instead understandably be focused on the circumstances, the facts, and the other side. Still, at least a part of our attention should be focused on whether our own tone is right. One interesting implication of the study is that this might not come very naturally to us. “Participants did not detect the manipulation," the authors note, "they instead attributed the vocal emotion as their own.” As a result, they find “no support for the hypothesis that we continuously monitor our own voice to make sure that it meets a predetermined emotional target.” That is why before presenting in court, some practice helps to keep most of our attention where it belongs (on the facts), while also reserving a slice of that attention in order to check in on how we're sounding.
That monitoring is not always easy, and as the study results show, self-perception is not always accurate. If participants were made to believe that they were "happy" or "sad" just based on very subtle manipulations to their own voices then our own self-perceptions might not be reliable. For that reason, it helps to get feedback. Attorneys should practice opening statements in front of some kind of audience, and witnesses should engage in actual practice testimony and shouldn't be content with just discussing the issues beforehand. In both cases, it helps to have a trained communications professional in attendance, but even without that, some feedback is better than no feedback. After practicing, ask, "How is my tone? Do I seem positive, energetic, easy to listen to? Where could I improve?"
Take It Seriously
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the crush of preparation leading up to trial is just to take this seriously. It is easy to think that, "If we win, it will be on the evidence, and not because our voice sounds nice." True enough, but it is also inescapable that delivery guides the attention that we will receive, and attention determines what evidence is noticed, remembered, and trusted. Form isn't fluff. In many ways, trials can boil down to a confidence war. Jurors and judges use a variety of heuristics, or mental shortcuts, in deciding what is important and who to believe. But the confidence and the listenability of the advocates provide very important cues. Everything else being equal, information delivered with positivity, conviction, and energy will always be more influential than information delivered under tension or with flat affect. Bottom line, if you sound like Ferris Bueller's teacher, it is pretty easy for any audience to tune out.