Sound Leadership

The instrument

I was fortunate to be born a stutterer. As a result, I became expert in synonyms, since if I could instantly switch to another word, no one would catch on that I was stuck. The payoff? I gained a marvelous vocabulary. And since I grew up in a family that treasured music, my folks expected all four of us kids to sing, always in harmony and usually in pajamas. Though embarrassment increases stuttering’s grip, I discovered that I couldn’t stutter when I sang.

Singing gave me a way out and paid off in some happy years of professional warbling, even to this day. And I found vocal coaches. My favorite coach, Kay Funk (her given name!) changed my understanding: our voice is not just an outlet for our thoughts, it’s an instrument of almost limitless power. We work on our golf swing, our computer skills, our appearance, our business cards, and our resumes. Our voice is a monumental leadership tool. After all, we use it every day. Why not develop it?

Is your voice just a drain for the brain?

Our voice can be no more than the drain for our brain: when we open our mouths, we pull the plug, and here comes the flood. Yada-yada-yada. And don’t forget, everyone in your audience has mastered looking interested, so don’t count on feedback to alert you that you’re wasting their energy. And yours. To move beyond the drain, change how you approach talking.

Research backs up our experience that tone of voice and visual expression (body language) outweigh words during speech.

In fact, words get their meaning not from dictionaries, but from context: our voice. So here are three areas for focus. You don’t have to be an opera singer or roar like an angry bull to use your instrument better.

Build your voice, build your impact:

Start by reframing how you “see” your voice. Though the words are important, they get their power from the variations in three dimensions. The first is timbre (a musical term that means tone). As an experiment, try talking to an empty room and locate your voice in your head, above your throat. Then try the same thing with your voice coming up from your chest. Feel the difference? So will everyone else. With a little practice, you’ll learn to pull your voice up from your body rather than down from your sinuses, which gives your timbre resonance and power.

The second thing to consider is volume. Unless you want only one or a few people to understand, always speak to be clear in the farthest corner of the room. In fact, you needn’t shout, simply address that farthest person. If s/he can’t hear you, others won’t. Use volume to engage, a bit quieter to pull people in, a bit louder for emphasis.

And now my favorite (as a blues singer): cadence. Words, like musical notes, get their power from the space that surrounds them. So when you have some alone time, practice slowing down, leaving some space between words or groups of words, and varying the speed even within sentences. At first, it will feel weird, though your pets and family will be vastly entertained. As you practice, you’ll expand your power and others’ understanding.

And now my favorite consideration (as a blues singer): tempo. Words, like musical notes, get their power from the space that surrounds them. When you have some alone time, practice slowing down, leaving some space between words or groups of words, and varying the speed even within sentences. This is “wax on, wax off” training, so it will feel weird, though your pets and family will be vastly entertained.

Next Steps . . .

Take voice training. If you don’t want to find a coach, search for “voice training” online for all kinds of exercises and tips. As a habit, I use this resource every day to warm up and brush up – the voice is a muscle and needs exercise. Remember, your voice is a leadership tool, not just a drain. A little practice, a little focus, and attention, and you’ll see huge dividends in your confidence and impact.

Last, but certainly not least, remember W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking?) and W.A.I.S.T. (Why Am I Still talking?). It’s better to be last to speak than first. Listen like a laser and build on what others have said. Think of value over volume. Above all, develop a voice that holds attention and sparks understanding.

Speaking of the voice (!), here’s a short podcast with some tonal examples as well. Enjoy:


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Nice post, Mac. As a student of voice, everything you said makes sense and then some for everyday conversations. My study of voice as an instrument has served me well in a leadership role and given me words to use to help others find their “voice.” And timbre has a lot to do with breath – helped by pulling air out of your lungs to float your voice.

  2. Mac —
    Well said, As I was reading your article, I was thinking of how we consciously or unconsciously apply tone, volume, and cadence to some written communications – especially email – we receive. Potentially dangerous, as we can so easily misinterpret how someone wrote something.