Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vocals have emerged as a turn-off among voters and commentators. It has been accused of many crimes: It is too shrill, too deep, too artificial, too enunciated. She is too Southern, not regional enough, falsely hokum when it suits. The voice is too loud, too irritating and — somewhat inevitably — too female. Specifically, in the United States, Fox News’ political journalist Brit Hume has complained of her “not-so-attractive voice” and “sharp lecturing tone”. Radio host Howard Stern featured an imaginary app that could make her voice more seductive or softer depending on what you preferred to hear. British radio and news presenter for the BBC James Naughtie has spoken of the “slightly shrill tone, which she tends to adopt sometimes in speeches”, while commentator Julia Hartley-Brewer said: “The prospect of having to listen to her for the next four years is horrific.”
Vocal experts have pointed out that though Clinton’s voice is actually average in pitch and loudness for her age, she has a tendency to shout into the microphone when delivering speeches, which can put off an audience, and makes it harder for them to interpret the parts of the sentence she is trying to emphasise. But is the problem really Hillary’s voice or with the fact that America may not be ready for a female president? Dr Judith Mohring, lead consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in London says: “It seems we are asking Hillary Clinton to do something impossible. To sound both submissive and yet dominant enough to be President of the Free World — knowing these states to be mutually incompatible. Is concern over the voice just the excuse for concern over something else?” Dr Mohring adds: “When a woman is in a senior position, a lot of the focus goes on the package as well as the content, especially when no woman has ever been in that position before. There is no role model for what a female [US] President should look like, so we don’t actually know what one sounds like yet.”
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously took elocution lessons to deepen her speech, but why does the voice matter so much anyway? Dr Gayle Brewer, a senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, is an expert on body language, appearances and the way we’re perceived by others. “Voices can tell us a lot about a person. Specifically, we have sexually dimorphic voices, with men’s 50 per cent lower than women’s. “When women do have lower voices they are seen to be less physically attractive, but more dominant. So if Clinton does lower her voice, that could be an advantage for someone trying to get in to a position of authority.”
Commentators who have listened to Clinton’s voice over the past three decades have noted that there have been some changes. She sounds more polished and neutral, and has lost much of the Southern inflection she had adopted in early speeches when Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas. In fact, her natural voice would have been less mellifluous, having been born in Chicago, and schooled at Wellesley and Yale, both in New England — but accent mimicry, researchers have found, is part of the brain’s in-built urge to “empathise and affiliate” with other people.
Communication coach Robin Kermode, author of Speak So Your Audience Can Listen, thinks there is still work she might do. “She could learn a lot from [British Prime Minister] Theresa May in terms of where the voice is placed. “Your voice should come from below the belly button, as the emotional centre is in the gut, which is what May does to be convincing. “[German Chancellor] Angela Merkel has a softer voice than Clinton — she speaks from the middle of the chest. But Clinton speaks from the throat, which can sound emotionally disconnected.” He adds, this means she risks looking and sounding like she is trying too hard. “Hillary looks right at the edge of her power, with no more to give. You can see the throat muscles at each side straining. It makes you wonder if she has anything left.” “She is shouting into the microphone, and you don’t have to do that. The mic does all the volume so you can sound conversational.”
Clinton also has to compete not just with her Republican rival, but with Democratic predecessors, says Kermode. “Obama doesn’t shriek or shout. And Bill was held to be one of the best communicators in the last century. You had the feeling if you met him after a speech he would be the same. I would not want Hillary to be the same, she would be too loud.” May, he adds, has “a natural, strong voice — she sounds like a world leader.”
So gender is not always the problem?
Dr Brewer says: “Women don’t have to ape men, but lots do. They feel to be taken seriously, they have to speak or dress in the same way as men, and have the same leadership style. “Yet, women need to be confident in their abilities, adopt their own style rather than copy what men are doing. That’s why it’s so important to see lots of women in positions of power doing it in lots of different ways. “Hillary Clinton is representative of the fine line women have to walk between being themselves and being like a man,” confirms Dr Mohring. “The tight-rope between being assertive and authoritative but not bossy and overbearing, and remaining feminine. The more senior the position, the more difficult that is.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Victoria Lambert is an award-winning journalist who has covered stories as diverse as tetanus campaigns in rural Madagascar to ovarian transplants in St Louis, USA, and most recently the dearth of Frozen themed Lego outside Denmark. She blogs at www.underthescope.co.uk