By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
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.”