Author Talks: Denise Woods on the power of voice

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Diane Brady chats with Denise Woods, one of the nation’s most sought-after voice and dialect coaches. In her new book, The Power of Voice: A Guide to Making Yourself Heard (HarperCollins Publishers, January 2021), Woods shares the secrets, tips, lessons, and stories that have helped Hollywood’s biggest stars become confident, effective communicators. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What holds people back from being effective speakers?

The biggest mistake that people make is that they don’t breathe. Something very, very simple. You think you’re breathing, but you’re not. We get the thought, and then we speak, but that’s not what we’re supposed to do. We get the thought, then we breathe, then we speak.

Because breath is to a voice what gasoline is to a car. If you have no gas in your car, your car goes nowhere. The same thing holds true for the voice. If you don’t breathe, you have no voice. Vocal variety and vocal color is the difference between having a box of crayons with 64 crayons or eight crayons. Wouldn’t you rather have five shades of green than one green crayon? So, I say the same thing about voice. As you breathe more deeply into your center, and go deep into that emotional wellspring, you will find that all sorts of things—the good, the bad, the wonderful aspects of who we are—start to color your voice, inform your voice, and, ultimately, make your voice more interesting.

Particularly for women, either in corporate America or Hollywood, it’s important that we relax and connect the voice to the breath. A lot of times we’re not relaxed because we feel we have to go in and prove ourselves.

Make your voice heard

How do we avoid being stereotyped because of how we speak? Words like ‘articulate’ can be an insult.

The word “articulate,” in and of itself, is not a bad word. It’s actually quite a lovely word. It’s what we’ve attached to it: as a society, no matter where we’re from, we have a tendency in the human condition to make ourselves better at the expense of others, which is called prejudice.

Being articulate is lovely. It’s just the presupposition that everybody else not like you is not articulate. And that’s where we run into problems in society, not just as African Americans, or culturally, but in terms of gender as well.

We need a paradigm shift. And I think the paradigm shift starts in Hollywood. I think the paradigm shift starts in journalism, in the media. The stories we see in film and television, the stories we hear on the evening news—the producers of these stories need to be conscious of the narrative so that it becomes more inclusive. We then see strong women as the norm.

We see articulate people—be they Asian, Latinx, or African American—as the norm, so it then becomes a thing of the past to single out a strong, Black woman who’s articulate. It’s the norm.

What impact has the pandemic had on our voices?

In this new age of being masked—either literally being behind a mask or behind a virtual mask on Zoom calls—we now have to use our voices more liberally than ever. In the past, we had physical cues, we had body language, we had gestures. We had all kinds of cues that would let the listener know what we were saying. I’m in a box right now because I’m behind a mask. Typically, when I go out, I’m in a mask, in sunglasses, and I usually have a cap on, so you can’t see any of my face. What we have to rely on are our voices. At this point, it’s all we have. It’s all we have to really show the fullness of who we are.

Good vibrations

What message do you want people to take away from this book?

Working on your voice is also working on your posture, on your delivery, on how you perceive yourself, on everything. It gives you confidence. Voices are like fingerprints; no two voices are the same. This work shows you how to bring your full essence to your voice so that you can be heard, so that you can be respected, so that you can be appreciated for being the unique person that you are.

Working on your voice is also working on your posture, on your delivery, on how you perceive yourself, on everything. It gives you confidence.

Denise Woods, voice and dialect coach

A lot of times, we’ve thought, “Oh well, that’s for people who use their voices for a living. Oh, that’s for the actors. Oh, they sound stagey or they sound theatrical.” I’m encouraging everybody to find the theatricality, to find the fun, to find the depth of utilizing their voice.

It’s an instrument. It would be tantamount to having a guitar and only being able to play one song on it. That would be a travesty. What I’m saying is, use this instrument that you’ve been gifted with. There are some voices that are inherently more beautiful than others; not everyone will sound like James Earl Jones. But we all have our own personal instrument that has depth, and beauty, and resonance that we can tap into, that will leave an indelible impression. Vibration. That’s all voice is. You want people to feel your vibration. You want people to see your vibration. You want people to hear your voice. And if anything is in your voice or your speech that detracts from the story, that becomes a distraction, then [you should] address it. But I don’t think where you come from, a wonderful lilt of the dialect that you naturally have, is a distraction because that’s a part of who you are. That’s your voiceprint, and it should be honored, and it should be respected, and ultimately, loved.

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