Persuasion Matters

Does the Pitch of Your Voice Impact Audience Perception?

Imagine you’re sitting in a jury box, and the trial attorney sounds just like Morgan Freeman. Or James Earl Jones.  Or Matthew McConaughey.  Or even Kathleen Turner or Judi Dench.

Then imagine that we can clone that attorney and make a “twin” who is 100% identical in look, style, demeanor, presentation, diction– everything but for the pitch of voice. One is a baritone and the other, a tenor.

Who do you think the audience would deem more trustworthy?  More competent?  As the better leader?

Research suggests that the baritone (or bass) speaker would have an edge over the tenor.  And in the event the advocate was a female? A lower-pitched alto would have the edge over a soprano.

Make no mistake: context plays a ginormous role in perception. There are multiple complex, intertwined factors that impact how jurors digest what happens in the courtroom. Facts. Credibility. Demeanor. Poise. Presentation. Persuasion. Likeability. Integrity. Knowledge. Conduct.  The list goes on (and on).

However, researchers isolated one interesting factor related to perception: the pitch of a speaker’s voice.  Below are a few highlights from recent studies that measured impact of a speaker’s voice pitch with the listener’s perception of that speaker.  

First, a disclaimer: each of these studies was conducted with a fairly small sample size, and none had anything to do with jury research, litigation or the specific role of an attorney. The focus was strictly on voice pitch– “real life” influences were essentially removed. However, the findings are at the very least interesting, and to some degree, relevant and applicable to trial advocacy.

Here are a few findings worth noting:

  • Men and women generally perceive male political candidates with low-pitched voices as being more honest and trustworthy than male candidates with higher-pitched voices.  Candidates with lower voices were also perceived as more attractive and more dominant. Source: Tigue, C., Borak, D., O’Connor, J., Schandl, C., Feinberg, D. (2012). Voice pitch influences voting behavior. Evolution and Human Behavior.
  • Women remember more when the speaker has a deep, low-pitch male voice.  Source: Smith, D., Jones, BC, Feinberg, DR, & Allan, K. (2011). A modulatory effect of male voice pitch on long-term memory in women: Evidence of adaption for mate choice? Memory and Cognition.
  • Men and women prefer leaders– both male and female– with masculinized voices, and associate those leaders as being competent and trustworthy.  Source: Klofstad, C. A., Anderson, R. C., & Peters, S. (2011). Sounds Like a Winner: Voice Pitch Influences Perception of Leadership Capacity. Social Science Research Network.

What does this mean for you?

If you happened to be blessed with a naturally-occuring low-pitched voice, count yourself lucky.  It could increase the odds that jurors will perceive you as a competent, trustworthy and honest advocate. And couple that with a panel full of female jurors?  Your voice could actually aid them in remembering your message.

If you’ve got a higher-pitched voice, no worries.  Pitch is only one of many factors related to persuasion.  Do not try to alter your voice or practice your Darth Vader impression.  If you attempt to be something you’re not, jurors will almost certainly sense it and your credibility will suffer.

Whether you consider your vocal pitch to be high, medium or low, it’s important to remember that perception is a complicated thing and involves many complex factors.  Every voice can be used as a tool for persuasion (more on that another time), so don’t be afraid to play with your voice pitch and mix things up now and then.  For example: When you want to emphasize a particularly important point, vary the pitch of your natural voice.  It’ll grab the jury’s attention.

And that’s always a good thing.




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