Four Steps to Ensure Your Communication Tone Works for You


Are you aware of how the tone of your communication impacts others? It might be far more than you think.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Southern California analyzed the acoustic features of couples’ dialogues and, based on that analysis, were able to out-predict marriage therapists on which couples would remain together. In fact, they were correct in over 74% of the cases!

Using speech-processing techniques, the researchers looked at pitch and intensity as well as warbles in the voice that could indicate moments of high emotion. An algorithm then forecasted the degree to which the couples were showing positive qualities, such as acceptance, or negative qualities, such as blame.

I thought about this study after I received feedback from someone who was in the audience of a presentation that I delivered recently. Commenting that I sounded bossy and abrasive, he told me, “I felt like you shouted at me the entire presentation.”

“How could that be?” I wondered. I never meant to come across that way. After replaying the tape in my mind of the presentation, I remember feeling aggravated with a technology malfunction and somewhat nervous about the stakes of the presentation. Without realizing it, my unsettled thoughts caused me to compensate with my voice.

After that incident, I took a presentation skills course (one that our company offers, of course) where I was coached to soften my tone and present “like I’m talking to my nine-year-old son’s baseball team after a game.” I relaxed my voice and spoke with more compassion and understanding. And, according to my fellow participants, it made a big difference.

Do your thoughts and emotions ever unknowingly translate into a tone that betrays your intent? Maybe you sometimes sound angry, patronizing, less authentic or less engaging than you really are. How do you know? And how do you ensure your tone is congruent with your intent?

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Find out when you don’t sound right. Ask people for an honest assessment of when the acoustic features of your voice don’t land well. Ask them to describe a recent situation where they heard your pitch, intensity or emotional warbles convey something that you might not have intended. Did I say to ask them to be honest? (And remember not to get defensive when they are.)
  2. Know your triggers. In most day-to-day communication, your tone is probably just fine. It’s usually under duress, fatigue, stress or excitement that your tone gets out of alignment with your message. It’s also usually the same types of situations. It tends to happen to me when I feel criticized or judged. If I’m in a meeting at work and I don’t think people are respecting my point-of-view…or if I’m getting feedback from someone, my voice starts to sound angry.
  3. Coach yourself to let go. One way to improve your tone is to mask your underlying emotion. You know, fake it. A better way is to let go of the underlying thoughts that are causing the tonal dissonance. For instance, since I took our presentation skills course, I am more aware of when I’m triggered to sound abrasive. When I do, I say to myself something like, “You’re feeling frustrated that some of the audience isn’t paying attention. Let that go. Talk to your nine-year-old son’s baseball team.”
  4. Deliberately practice your communication tones. Musicians improve their acoustic sensitivity and flexibility through practice. As I wrote recently, deliberate, uncomfortable practice (usually with a coach) is what leads to improvement. If you want to improve your tonal sensitivity and flexibility, work on it.

Do you know how your communication tone is affecting others? Maybe it’s time to listen up.

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