Is Voice the New Height in National Politics? - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Hearing is sometimes the better part of believing.

By Sean Braswell

It was one of the best speeches at the Democratic National Convention last year, and the only one to really take on Mitt Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. But nobody heard Deval Patrick. Not really.

The Bay State’s current governor, Patrick should be a household name and included in any conversation about front-runners for national office or the presidency. He’s smart, handsome, has worked as a civil rights lawyer and a business executive at Coca-Cola, and for the past seven years has competently run one of the most populous states in the U.S. He has also been a leading liberal voice on issues like education, same-sex marriage and health care. Unfortunately, however, his voice, with its high pitch and nasal quality, make Patrick sound more like, well, a Coke executive than a national leader like his good friend and resonant baritone Barack Obama.

It used to be that being short was like being dead for modern politicians.

It used to be that being short was like being dead for modern politicians, particularly ambitious male ones. But the electoral success of Nicolas Sarkozy (5’5”), Michael Bloomberg (5’6”) and others has helped lower that barrier even if diminutive candidates like Michael Dukakis (5’8”) and John McCain (5’9”) have fallen short of the Oval Office. That said, words still matter — as do delivery, pitch and timbre — and for aspiring politicians and leaders, basso is better.

To a certain degree this has always been the case: The ancient Greek orator Demosthenes practiced for years to overcome a speech impediment and would speak with stones in his mouth or while running to strengthen and improve his voice. And former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — thanks to a speech instructor from the National Theatre recommended by Sir Lawrence Olivier — famously transformed her inherently shrill pitch into a lower, more authoritative tone prior to seeking national office in 1979.

Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick at the National Democratic Convention in 2012

Source Corbis

Margaret Thatcher famously transformed her inherently shrill pitch into a lower, more authoritative tone prior to seeking national office in 1979.

Thatcher’s instincts were bang on. Subsequent research has shown that men and women both prefer deeper voices in their leaders, and the candidate with the lower voice won every U.S. presidential election between 1960 and 2000. Moreover, a strong voice seems only to have grown in importance in an age where radio and television dominate, and first impressions count more than ever with low-attention voters. As Rindy Anderson, a researcher at Duke University, explains, “We often make snap judgments about candidates without full knowledge of their policies and positions,” and “it’s clear that our voices may carry more information than the words we speak.”

This is bad but not surprising news for vocally challenged politicians like Patrick, and the preference for lower voices can present a particular challenge to female candidates like Hillary Clinton, who hired noted voice coach Michael Sheehan prior to her 2008 run. Clinton is said to have “found her voice” in 2008, and it will be interesting to see if she can do so again if she runs in 2016.

Margaret Thatcher speaking into a throng of microphones with her hand up.

Margaret Thatcher speaks at a news conference in Washington, DC, while on a goodwill tour to the United States prior to winning the top job in Great Britain in 1976.

Source Corbis

Perhaps with the proliferation of written communication via text and social media, tomorrow’s leaders will not be judged by the structure of their larynx but by the content of their tweets. Possible, but it’s more likely that voice will remain a decisive factor in politics for some time to come — and even liberal candidates may have to take a page out of Dame Maggie’s playbook and go deep.

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