Saturday, August 24, 2013

Music to the eyes . . .?

Chia-Jung Tsay at the piano
"Social judgments are made on the basis of both visual and auditory information, with consequential implications for our decisions." Thus begins the abstract for "Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance" by Chia-Jung Tsay, published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States Of America. Maybe you heard Shankar Vedantam's NPR story about Tsay's findings on Morning Edition this week. 

I am fascinated by this research, because Tsay came to it in a very personal way. A child piano prodigy, she spent years on the piano competition circuit. She is a graduate of The Julliard School and Peabody Conservatory, and holds not one but two Harvard Ph.D.s--in Organizational Behavior and Psychology and in Music. Somewhere along the way she noticed that her competition scores were better when the judges saw her play, rather than when they just heard her. Something about the experience of watching her was influencing their judgement. 

I am sure the musician was delighted with those good scores, but the psychologist in her thought this was something worth looking into. So she designed a study in which volunteer judges, amateur and professional musicians, compared competition performances in a  variety of formats: silent videos, videos with sound, and audio-only recordings.  

"What was surprising was that even though most people will say sound matters the most, it turned out that it was only in the silent videos, the videos without any sound, that participants were able to identify the actual winners," Tsay says. Which raises an interesting question: if this visual component matters this much in musical competition--where the overwhelming focus is on sound--how much more does it matter in other situations?

For those who might say that this is just an example of the "attractiveness bias," Tsay looked at the data to make sure these judgements weren't just about good looks. She says, "I wouldn't necessarily say that this is indicative of superficial judgment... There is something about visual information that is better able to convey cues such as passion or involvement or creativity. These elements are very much a part of high-quality performance."  

Passion or involvement or creativity. Also a huge part of presence. I spend a lot of time working with clients on defining and projecting their presence. Many bandy that word about, but don't really know what it means. Confidence, yes, but also active engagement with your audience, as well as your content--whether it is a Beethoven sonata, a stump speech or talking points for the staff meeting. You need to be energized by what you do, even as you are doing it, and connect to it deeply. Tsay's study shows that the winners are those who clearly communicate that energy and connection. 

And even though we do not yet competitively score keynote speeches or networking events, remember Tsay's conclusion next time you want to turn in your best performance. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Where voice reigns supreme

I just came back from a fantastic new movie. If In a World...  is playing in a theatre near you, go! It's very cleverly written (winning Best Screenplay at Sundance) and directed by the talented Lake Bell. A blend of romcom and family dramedy, it is a funny and heart-warming film. But voice coaches like me and our clients will appreciate it on a different level: it offers a glimpse of the actual work that produces those rich, compelling tones we hear in movie trailers and on TV. In homage to the late, great Don LaFontaine, we also see the payoff that comes when you can make your sound convey so much more that words alone do.

This movie shines a spotlight on the little known, but very important corner of the world inhabited by unseen, ubiquitous voice artists. As the Big Producer played by Geena Davis says to our heroine Carol Soloman (also played brilliantly by Ms. Bell), what these people do is important, because "voice is power."

I won't spoil the movie for you by giving away the ending, but as I walked out of the theatre minutes ago I felt tremendously validated. It shows people who make their living from making sound as they ply their craft--doing so much more than just reading what is in front of them. Most people are unaware, but it takes work to get your sound "in shape." Vocal exercises are just a part of what I do with clients and students, but they are a foundational building block. Speaking is a physical activity, and your speaking technique depends on your ability to have a powerful voice. This, in turn, is made by discovering and strengthening your own powerful sound. And that sound depends on a variety of factors, only some of which you can control. So you better believe you need to exercise control over the ones you can!

Most of my clients come to me because they have realized that to get from where they are to where they want to be they need to step up their vocal and speaking game. And that means learning new skills, and yes, making funny faces and silly sounds. But it is all worth it, because in the end they have new techniques to integrate into their everyday speaking. And a more powerful sound.

But don't take my word for it: go see Lake Bell's very funny movie! And be thankful you are not trying to make a living in the hyper-competitive world of movie trailer voice-overs.