Why Everyone Is Fixated On Elizabeth Holmes' Tone Of Voice

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images.
Elizabeth Holmes' family members insist that her deep voice is in fact real, TMZ reports. Apparently, many people in the family have deep voices, including Holmes' grandmother. However, Elizabeth will sometimes "change her pitch to a higher octave — especially when she gets excited or passionate," TMZ reports.
UPDATE: This story was originally published on January 24.
Elizabeth Holmes is notorious for a few things: wearing a Steve Jobs-esque black turtleneck uniform, running a fraudulent biotech company Theranos, which sold single-drop blood tests that claimed to accurately test for hundreds of diseases, and speaking in a distinctive, serious, baritone voice. Since Holmes gave her first TED Talk back in 2014, people on Reddit and Twitter have speculated that the voice she uses in professional settings was fake.
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In various interviews, former Theranos employees have recounted times when Holmes would occasionally slip out of character and speak in a higher tone. "It was maybe at one of the company parties, and maybe she had too much to drink or what not, but she fell out of character and exposed that that was not necessarily her true voice," Ana Arriola, a former Theranos employee, said on "The Dropout," a new podcast about the scandal. "Maybe she needed to be more convincing to project a persona within a room among male VCs. I'm not really quite sure."
While it's next to impossible to know the truth about the origin of Holmes' particular trait, there are a few things we know about the psychology of deep voices. Research has shown that people tend to perceive leaders with lower voices as attractive, honest, dominant, confident, and capable — at least when they're men. But studies have found that women in leadership with lower-pitched voices are also often viewed as stronger, and more competent and trustworthy, too. Other research suggests that women who speak with a vocal fry — often a result of trying to lower the pitch of their voice — are perceived as being "more neurotic" than women with clear voices.
Some studies have looked specifically at how vocal pitch affects business. For example, a 2013 study from Duke University examined the voices of 792 (male) CEOs from the Standard and Poor's 1500 stock index, and found that CEOs with lower voices tend to manage larger companies and make more money. In fact, a decrease in voice pitch of 22.1 Hertz translated to an salary increase of $187,000 a year, and a longer tenure, according to the study. Other studies from Duke have shown that voters tend to prefer politicians with lower-pitched voices.
Perhaps more in line with Arriola's theory that Holmes was trying to appear more "convincing," other research shows that people's vocal pitch tends to change when they lie. A 2012 study found that people's voices go up in pitch when they lie, even when they're aware that their voice changes during times of "deception." Of course, it's normal for people's voices to fluctuate along with their thoughts and emotions when they talk, but some communication experts say that people tend to use a monotone voice when telling a lie. In general, people tend to change the pitch of their voice depending on who they're talking to and the circumstance. In a 2017 study, researchers found that people who see themselves as dominant are less likely to shift their (usually lower) pitch. When answering questions about conflict in particular, people in the study lowered their voice.
Of course, dissecting the way that any person speaks can only tell us so much. A new ABC News "Nightline" documentary about Holmes, clips of which aired last night, featured never-before-seen footage from her testimony before the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2017. Holmes pleaded not guilty to criminal charges, agreed to pay a $500,000 fine, and could face up to 20 years in prison. During the testimony, she said, "I don't know," in her signature voice, more than 600 times. For as selective as she is with her words, it's no wonder people have attempted to pick apart her tone and style of speaking. Because often what matters isn't what you say, but how you say it.
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