You may think your homemade business cards are fooling us, but we know you're just the assistant to the regional manager. As it turns out, people can tell how powerfully you rank just from the sound of your voice.
A study published last week in the journal Psychological Science examined how we assess power status by hearing voice cues. In the first half of the study, 161 undergraduate students were asked to record themselves reading a passage of text. Then half of the participants were asked to imagine they were in a high-ranking scenario (e.g., they had power in the workplace or had valuable inside information). The other half got to imagine a low-ranking scenario, such as recalling a time in their lives when they didn't have power. Then all of the students were asked to record themselves reading another passage of text.
In the second half of the study, 40 undergraduate participants listened to a subset of the second recordings from the first experiment. They were told to rate the recordings based on a scale from one to six on 12 different measures. All of the measures were designed to assess how powerful the listeners perceived the speakers to be, such as how focused or demanding they expected that speaker to be.
Results showed that those who had voices with a higher pitch, less variability in pitch, and greater variability in loudness were rated as being higher ranking. So, if you want to sound like you're more powerful, you don't just want to yell — you want to yell at the right moments. Which, interestingly, is almost exactly the strategy Margaret Thatcher used: After undergoing voice coaching, her speaking had a less variable pitch and more variable volume.
But, Thatcher's voice also went lower in pitch after coaching. And, another recent study showed that we perceive lower-pitched, bass-heavy sounds (and voices) as being more powerful. So, there isn't total agreement here. But, if you want people to see you as more powerful and confident at work, we've got you covered.