Importance of your Vocal Image

What business leaders can learn from ‘The King’s Speech’ 

By John Barker (Special to Financial Post – February 28, 2011)

The King’s Speech should be required corporate leadership viewing. In this year’s Academy Award nominated (winning) film, Bertie, (played by Colin Firth), the severely stuttering prince, must rise to his unexpected destiny as a war-time King.

Turning in desperation to the unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue, (played by Geoffrey Rush), we see behind the crown Bertie’s all too human foibles and paralyzing insecurities.

Parallels to the world of business are clear: when called upon, leaders often struggle to find their own voice. Whether king or queen, executive or manager, anyone who aspires to inspire must face this rite of passage. 

Lionel and Bertie, were dealing with much more than a simple stutter – personal empowerment was the core issue. In twenty years of coaching leaders to discover and embrace their authentic voice, I’ve seen many talented women and men achieve personal and professional success while facing down similar emotional and political roadblocks.

Audiences connect with this movie because they relate to the terror of exposure that the microphone represents for Bertie. We all understand the personal courage it takes to respond to the urgent call of the moment, to put aside self-doubt to – “deliver” – all while under the most unforgiving kind of public scrutiny.

Yet we expect the very same extraordinary qualities on a daily basis from the people managing and leading our major enterprises and institutions. It can be an unnerving high-wire act within already high risk jobs.

So what’s the executive summary of The King’s Speech when it comes to finding a “genuine leadership voice”?

Intellectual stutters can be overcome
Decades of “Power Pointless” presentations have reduced many brilliant leaders to insecure, expensive voice over talent. Sloganeering, tech-speak and business bafflegab combine to erode confidence and credibility while undermining any trace of the visionary voice that all stakeholders crave. “Personal Points of View” based on the unique character, vision and sensibility of each individual must replace those conceptually stammering – and all too corporate – “Bullet Points of View”.

Ritualized communication is obsolete
Once upon a time, ‘Kinging’ only required “looking good on a horse!” says Bertie’s father, the old King George, before he dies. Expecting deference and intellectual authority based on your ‘title’ — whether royal, executive or managerial – invites skepticism and scorn. Today’s relentless digital media exposure accentuates this perception dilemma. Our “emperors of business” really do have “no clothes” until they take charge of their communication and define their own unique and sincere style.

Finding ‘authentic voice’ is a personal quest in a public forum
Like any sophisticated personal skill, mastering voice and leadership presence takes time, repetition, humility and mentoring. Lionel Logue’s insistence on a hierarchy-free, private working relationship between two personal and intellectual peers was key to Bertie’s ultimate breakthrough. Business people also need a safe environment to explore their voice, free from the rigid status quo thinking of “Archbishop of Canterbury” traditionalists.

Delivery Tips:

1.Imagine the effect you want to have Bertie had to galvanize a nation for War. You don’t. Start with what you want your audience to feel – then create the authentic and personal message to take them there.

2.Be more than your title Titles are hollow until you fill them. Bertie could finally speak as King after he accepted himself as a real Person. Bring you entire sensibility and your life experience to the communication challenge.

3.Speak as part of a larger conversation: Events loom large only in the presenter’s mind. Think beyond that specific moment on the calendar. Every exchange is part of a larger conversation. Tune into that larger rhythm and keep things in context.

4.Offer insight not just facts: Anyone can do process. Find the story or the personal experience that makes your unique insights on the content come alive. Narrative trumps detail every time.

5. Be benevolent: At the podium a good Queen or King is just and forgiving – towards themselves. Be gentle with yourself and approach the process with humour and grace. Audiences will be kind to you when they see you being kind to yourself.

The King’s Speech succeeds because it recognizes our profound human need to connect — communally. King or commoner, reaching that level of ‘voice’ is rarely easy but the rewards are great. Business leaders who remember the image of Bertie delivering across the microphone to Lionel with growing confidence and conviction will know the simple secret: Speak authentically to one — reach and inspire multitudes!

John Barker has more than 25 years experience developing compelling content and coaching leaders to discover, own and master their authentic, inspirational voice.

Importance of the Voice


Even before we are born, we are listening for voices. Research has shown that a child in the womb shows a discernible preference for a mother’s voice. Hearing that voice, and mother’s heartbeat, is one of the few sensory perceptions accessible in the womb.

Voices are highly unique and individual. Marilyn Monroe had a breathy, come-hither voice. Alfred Hitchcock had a stilted, caught-in-the-throat sound that complemented his theatrical thrillers. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke with command and charisma in a smooth deep voice that captivated listeners.

Several parts of the body come into play to produce a voice, including the diaphragm, vocal cords, tongue, palate, gums and the oral and sinus cavities. How we breathe, project, resonate and restrict or relax our speech muscles affects the sounds we produce.

With training, anyone can learn to optimize or even alter a voice. David Bourgeois, president and creative director of Voice Coaches in Schenectady, N.Y., helps individuals pursue voice acting careers. Rather than trying to reach for the “it” voice of the moment (remember movie trailer voice guy Don LaFontaine’s deep signature phrase, “in a world where …”), you can have a salable sound if you know where your voice will fit in for the best effect, Bourgeois says.

Voice Coaches will be holding workshops for anyone interested in diagnosing and flexing their vocal skills on Cape Cod and in Providence, R.I., in June.

Unlike the early days of radio and television, when listeners expected to hear what the industry generically calls the traditional “announcer’s voice” — forceful and emotionally contained, with all of the tricks of pause and emphasis, inflection and tone in the right places — today’s audience wants to hear authenticity and sincerity more than a canned voice, Bourgeois says.

Retired broadcast journalist and “CBS Evening News” anchorman Walter Cronkite has often been cited in opinion polls as “the most trusted man in America” because his professional experience, kindly demeanor and genuineness came through in his voice. Bourgeois says Cronkite’s believability set him apart.

Being selected as a voice performer for broadcasts, commercials, documentaries and the like “used to be driven by whether you had the right voice, the ‘announcer’ voice, the ‘FM radio’ voice,” Bourgeois says. “The most common misconception today is that success in the field comes down to quality of voice.

“Now, we value believability and sincerity in a voice. What makes a ‘good voice’ is a loaded term. We choose voices that are appropriate for a specific job,” he says.

Whether your voice is melodic or commanding, a bit whiny or childlike, there is likely a niche where you can get paid for using it. Even an unpleasant or nasal voice might be appropriate for comedy. Who enjoys listening to that annoying Six Flags Amusement Park guy, but he has a good thing going. “More flags, more fun!”

Bourgeois advocates keeping close to a person’s natural “core voice” even when seeking employment. Voices with widely different characteristics are used in audio recordings for books, training and education, travel, video games, Internet sound clips, museum installations, phone message systems — not to mention cartoons.

Some people are masters of malleable voices and can make many different fictional personalities come to life for listeners who may never know that the voices are all being generated by one human being. Take Mel Blanc, for example. During a six-decade career, he brought sound to the Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Barney Rubble of “The Flintstones,” Mr. Spacely of “The Jetsons,” and hundreds of others. He earned the nickname “The Man of a Thousand Voices.”

Today, Dan Castellaneta is running up a long list of 16 voices for the almost 20-year-old cartoon phenomenon “The Simpsons,” including the moaning and whining of lead character Homer Simpson.

Clearly, what makes a voice buyable is not necessarily the same thing as what makes it pleasant or memorable. New Bedford jazz vocalist and Berklee College of Music voice professor Armsted Christian says, “Certain frequencies just resonate with the human spirit, all different timbres and textures of sound. The human voice is like that as well, both the singing voice and the speaking voice. Some have a thickness of voice. Some have a thinness of voice.

Some voices have a raspy, edgy quality,” he says, reflecting on what we respond to in different voices and what makes them unique but still appealing to us.

In general, male baritone voices are attractive to the female ear, and impressive to the male ear, he says. Christian points out that Walter Cronkite’s famous broadcast voice is baritone, and seductive singer Barry White’s voice is a very low, resonate baritone.

Michael Jackson’s high tenor voice, however, while generally applauded while he is singing, is not as well liked while he is speaking. Christian suggests that the voice is “almost cross-gendered and so closely female in quality and texture” that many listeners find that disturbing.

Christian, who teaches the art of the spoken word as well as song for performers, says when it comes to voice communications, “it’s important that your message not be defeated by the color of your instrument.”

Here’s where voice coaching can help tremendously. And, Toastmasters International, an organization founded in 1924, is one low-cost way to work on both speech prowess and voice quality in the environs of a supportive social club.

As desirable as it is that a voice not be too high-pitched or shrill, too nasal or too subdued, those who want to optimize the effectiveness of their voice need also to pay attention to the tools they can control for making the most out of what nature gave them: proper breathing, tonal variation, emotional emphasis and inflection.

Maryann Murphy is president of the Upper Cape Toastmasters Club (, which meets in East Falmouth on the first and third Tuesdays of each month so members can work on speech skills with the benefits of immediate feedback and encouragement.

As part of the Toastmasters’ standard $20 sign-up fee (plus $33 for each six months of ongoing membership), a newcomer receives several books about communication skills, including one specifically titled “Your Speaking Voice.” It teaches, Murphy says, how your voice is created and how to analyze its qualities. The book advises that anyone “can develop a better voice by stripping away bad speaking habits and replacing them with better ones.”

Pacing is one aspect of speech that we can all practice, and according to Toastmasters we should be emitting between 120 and 160 words per minute. Fewer and our message drags. Faster and we’re hard to comprehend. However, speed demons with voices that remain intelligible may find work doing the disclaimers at the ends of pharmaceutical commercials.

Murphy says the Toastmasters’ voice exercises use well-known speeches by President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because those voices are so burned into our collective memories. “We can practice using our voices in a similar way,” she says.

Regardless of the pitch of your particular voice, coaches agree everyone needs to avoid speaking in a monotone, mumbling, not articulating, speaking too softly or too loudly for the size of a room, and speaking too slowly or quickly for people to comfortably understand you.

Morgan James (Mwalim) Peters, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, is considered by critics and peers alike to be one of the true modern masters of the oral tradition. He grew up immersed in a blend of his Bajan (Barbados) and Wampanoag cultural heritages, both of which highly value voice for song and spoken-word communications.

“Voice can convey things that words don’t,” Peters says.

His original work, “Before It Was Written,” is about his understanding of the power of voice to carry messages long before the skills of writing or recording became commonplace. (Hear it with this story online.)

“On some level at least, the initial beauty and power of communications is about speaking to someone and listening to someone talk,” he says.

Peters splits his time between homes in Mashpee and New Bedford. His black Wampanoag heritage led him to first exercise his power of voice as a storyteller in coffeehouses, lounges and poetry venues. He is a published author of poetry, a playwright and a filmmaker.

A recipient of the MLK Jr. Cultural Arts Fellowship and a playwright in residence with the New Africa Company in Boston (New England’s oldest continuous black theater company), Peters believes in good voice training but also in authenticity.

“I never want actors to imitate another great actor’s performance,” he says. “If Bob Newhart gave the MLK ‘I Had A Dream’ speech, it would have had a remarkably different impact.

“Everyone’s voice reflects who they are,” he says.

Pamela Marean is a freelance writer. Contact her at

Scroll to top