Vocal coaches say listening to yourself can improve social and career prospects

Chicago TribuneSeptember 7, 2013 

  • Listen to yourself

    Experts offer advice on how to identify and correct bad speech habits.

    Diane Diresta offers a tutorial on six bad speech habits and how to break them at career-advice.monster.com. Type “sloppy speech” in the search field.

    Claudio Milstein of the Cleveland Clinic discusses good vocal habits in online chats at clevelandclinic.org. Type “your voice matters” in the search field.

In a recent television interview, Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino said “y’know” 72 times in three minutes.

In a way it was refreshing to hear that long-infuriating verbal crutch resurrected with such gusto, because “y’know” has been largely eclipsed by even more unnerving verbal tics these days.

There’s uptalking, where the speaker ends each sentence with a rising intonation that makes everything sound like a question. And the habit of women who’ve apparently seen too many Disney cartoons to speak with a Minnie Mouse-like squeak.

Then there’s the leading linguistic scourge: vocal fry.

Vocal fry is a fingernails-on-the-blackboard phenomenon characterized by a speaker lowering his or her voice to an unnaturally low frequency at the end of a sentence. It has been seen (and heard) for decades, but has gained currency via the Kardashians, America’s first family of vapidity.

“These are just speech patterns that may be popularized by some famous people kids look up to,” says Claudio Milstein, a speech scientist at Cleveland Clinic. “The good thing is most kids outgrow it.”

A speech scientist with clinical interests in laryngology and voice disorders, Milstein says vocal fry and these other speech blips have been going on for centuries. “Maybe today because of access to the media it’s more pervasive. But kids imitating ways of speaking that go with cultural shifts is nothing new.”

Expressions such as “you know” and “like,” he says, “are like crutches to fill gaps when there’s not much concept behind it.”

Joni Brander, a Chicago-based TV talent coach and corporate presentation trainer ( thetvcoach.com), agrees with Milstein that vocal fry has been around for a long time, but she points out that young people are picking it up again as a form of communication.

“It’s one thing if a singer uses it to highlight various notes, but quite another if used in conversation,” she says. “Besides being annoying and immature, vocal fry is very hard on your vocal cords, if overdone.”

These vocal quirks drive people – mainly older people – crazy. And when “older” people are the ones doing the hiring out in the real world, sounding like a creaking gate or using “y’know” 72 times in three minutes may not be the best way to launch a career.

When Brander is working with clients in television or the corporate world, she sees a variety of vocal issues – poor inflection and vocal tone, pitch, pace and volume problems, among them.

“Some people have patterns of speech and/or regionalisms that could limit their current job or future job prospects,” she explains. “Younger women sometimes end sentences with an upward inflection, a questioning tone, which makes them sound unsure and immature. Both young men and women sometimes pepper their sentences with ‘dude’ and ‘like’ without realizing it’s unprofessional.”

Brander points out that in a job interview, a person has minutes or maybe only seconds to make a favorable impression.

“Young people entering the job market already have a deficit and must overcome their age and lack of experience. If they come across as immature and uneducated due to poor speech habits, their job prospects will be seriously limited.”

So it may be up to parents to guide a child in the right direction.

Brander says parents should set the bar by establishing guidelines and insisting on proper speech at home. That way, even if a teenager employs slang and other shoddy lingual habits with his or her friends, the child will know the difference when it really counts, such as in a job interview.

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