The sound of my own voice has been a source of insecurity for my whole adult life. Then one day, I decided to do something about it.
I am a native English speaker despite the assumptions some readers may make from my name. I was born and raised in England, but not in one of the areas where people speak how you see on any exaggerated Netflix series.
My high school’s student population was 90% ethnic minority and a melting pot of different language influences. Slang and intentional distortions of speech were the norms. There definitely wasn’t any bowing or curtsying going on in our school corridors. We used words like:
- “bare,” “nang,” “choong,” “kotch,” and “blad”
- “jam,” “bare,” “switch,” and “safe” (had different meanings)
- “dis” for “this” and “dat” for “that”
I’ve completely wiped all evidence from my Facebook history, but if you’re interested, you can find the meanings in the Urban Dictionary. My knowledge of East London vernacular is completely out of date with what people use today because that’s the nature of the beast.
I spoke this way because it’s how a kid adapts to fit in with everyone around them. The last thing you want to do is stand out. It was fine as long as everyone spoke this way because we all understood each other.
That all changed when I went to university. My rather lazy way of speaking made me incomprehensible to other more refined students. No one was ever rude to me but a thick accent plus a tendency to talk fast meant I often saw blank faces looking back at me.
I adapted, graduated, and I’ve worked as a professional for seven years where I’m regularly talking to clients. I have no problem talking without worrying about whether I can be understood. It’s been rare for me to hear any criticism, and I hope you are in the same position.
Yet whenever I had to listen to my own voice back then, I felt ashamed and couldn’t bear the sound of it. My hyper-awareness of my self-perceived weakness made me want to slam my hands over my ears.
Over the last year, I’ve appeared in many online interviews but never watched more than a minute because I couldn’t take it. As my presence has grown, I realized I needed to confront my fear sooner or later. It’s probably not the smartest idea to have recordings of me talking for the world to see and I don’t even know if I’ve said anything stupid to be edited out!
Lots of people want to improve their public speaking or come across more assertively, but it’s impossible if you can’t even listen to yourself speak. In the past month, I’ve listened to myself for over 100 hours and gained immeasurable confidence.
I feel the difference in my own psyche by shedding the burden of shame, and I want to guide you through how I did it.
Step 1: What Is Wrong With My Voice
Like me, you probably have no problem with hearing your voice as it comes out of your mouth because it’s your baseline. It’s only when listening back to a recording that you sound like a Disney cartoon.
To kick off my mission, I first needed to understand why there was this discrepancy. Part of me worried that I was delusional or something was wrong with my hearing. Does my brain normally trick me into thinking I have a deep and manly voice? Maybe it was a coping mechanism my mind created for my own sanity? With these questions in mind, I decided that it’s better to follow the science rather than guess.
It turns out there are multiple effects at play.
Vibrations travel through your skull
This BBC video permanently changed the way I think about my voice and it’s fascinating to learn the way the body works.
The good news is — we aren’t imagining our voices are deeper when we talk; our ears are working correctly. What happens is we hear ourselves in two ways: one regularly through the air and the other where vibrations from the voice box travel through the bones in the face and hit the eardrum. When sound travels in the second way, it spreads out and this lowers the tone!
The bad news for me was the way I hear myself on a recording is the way the rest of the world hears me! So only I hear the voice I think I sound like — and everyone else hears the version I can’t stand. This was a disappointing revelation, but it’s a truth I needed to accept.
Our brain rejects us
The difference in tone doesn’t explain everything though. So what if my actual pitch is higher than what I normally hear? Surely it shouldn’t be such a big deal that I can’t stand listening to myself for more than a minute.
Here is where psychology comes into play. Let’s run through the five senses and their relationship with our sense of self:
- Sight — We only see ourselves in the mirror or in photos.
- Smell — We’re generally pretty immune to our own scent.
- Taste —Not applicable. I don’t lick myself regularly. No judgment if you do.
- Feel — We’d realize the absence of our body reacting to our own touch, but it’s more functional.
- Hearing — We hear our own voices whenever we speak throughout the day.
Our voice forms a significant part of our identity because it’s the only thing we experience at the same time as the others around us. When our voices sound different on a recording, it makes us feel vulnerable. We question who we are and our own perceptions.
Our brain doesn’t like this idea that the information it’s been receiving isn’t reflective of reality. This explains why bilingual people find it harder to listen to their voice in their mother tongue.
We naturally judge others based on their speech and the cues it gives us. When we analyze ourselves, we realize we might assess someone else as lesser if they had our voice. This triggers a cycle of putting ourselves down and the accompanying shame.
Cheap equipment doesn’t help
There is some silver lining to believe the gulf between my live voice and the recorded version isn’t as great as I think it is.
Most of the audio I’ve heard of myself was recorded through my laptop's in-built microphone. It didn’t take much research to realize this was awful quality. The poor quality distorted my voice to some extent.
You might have noticed during the pandemic that some of your colleagues sounded a bit different from what you’re used to. It could well be the same effect where it’s simply a hardware problem. For me, this was a relief and made me feel better about myself instantly.
The circle of control
The three effects mentioned so far are all beyond our control. Yet we don’t get away with not having to work on the character of our performances. Some of the disdain will come from factors within our control, such as how fast we speak or whether we vary our cadence.
There’s no escaping this, unfortunately, but once we’ve accounted for the other issues, it becomes much easier to listen to yourself and identify the specific issues you have. This is a big step in fixing the problems for good.
Step 2: Rationalize
Now the first step was great for my understanding — but part of it was me delaying actually listening back to myself again and attempting to overcome the mental roadblock.
I used a simple trick to help summon the courage. I thought about how many conversations I’ve had in the last year. Some with family, some with friends or colleagues, and some with complete strangers.
They all understood me. I never had an instance where I ordered fish and chips and had a pizza delivered. Yes, my discussions with strangers have been pretty limited in the pandemic.
But I took this a step further. The voice I hate to hear is the same one I had when I met most of my friends and acquaintances. My voice wasn’t a problem for any of them, and it can’t be so unbearable if they are still around.
Whilst it’s not the way I would like to portray myself, it is the voice all the people who love me associate with me. My public voice has done quite a lot for me, so it feels unreasonable to pour so much disdain on it when I should be grateful instead.
Step 3: Use the Two Folders Cheat
I now needed to get used to hearing how my voice sounded to others — despite every fiber of my body wanting to press stop as soon as I started listening to a recording. So I did what we all do: I procrastinated and tried to find a shortcut.
In this procrastination, I stumbled upon a hack from vocal coach Chris Beatty. You can block the sound coming through your bones if you use two empty folders (or magazines) and place them vertically in front of your ears. I felt like a fool — but I tried it, and it works.
I could now get real-time feedback of how I sounded, and I could keep some control because I could close my mouth whenever I wanted. This felt much less intimidating than playing a recording of the unchangeable past. Think of it like using a helium balloon, even though your voice is distorted, it’s fun because you’re making the decisions.
I read some of my articles out loud and messed around with changing my voice and using different accents. I don’t recommend doing this in public if you don’t want people moving two meters away from you — even after social distancing ends.
Every day, I committed to reading one article out loud until the novelty wore off, and my voice no longer shocked me. This took less time than I expected, and after a week I could move onto step 4.
Step 4: Invest in a Microphone
Now I can’t do all my interviews with two folders held next to my head for obvious reasons, so I needed to move on to recording and playing myself back.
The first thing I wanted to do is ensure I was playing on the right field. There was no point in forcing myself to get accustomed to a recording version of my voice that didn’t reflect reality at all.
If you look online, you’ll see podcasters regularly recommending the same microphones with eye-watering prices. We don’t want to create a podcast with 10 million monthly downloads, we just want a more accurate reflection of our own voice.
I went for the Tonor TC-777, but the Blue Snowball is also a good choice for those like me on a budget. There are many better mics out there if you’re willing to spend the money but these two do the job we need them for.
When my microphone arrived, it made me feel more professional just by the nature of having a fancy-looking piece of kit. I wasn’t ready to record myself reciting War and Peace yet so waited for an organic call and tested it out. Unfortunately, the person on the other side wasn’t blown away by the change in my voice in the first few seconds.
Yet over the next couple of weeks, I received a couple of comments that my voice sounded much clearer than usual. A small win, but I was happy to take it. It seemed like I’d made some progress without having to do anything difficult yet!
Step 5: Start Small
Some of my interviews have been well over an hour-long, but I knew I definitely didn’t want to start at this length.
Taking the principle of kaizen and tiny improvements, I chose to record for a minute at a time. I wanted this to be something I could make a natural part of my day, so I chose to read out my to-do list at night for the following day. It was doubly useful as a reminder to myself of what I needed to do.
For me, this became painless within a few days, so I upgraded to reading my own articles again. These would generally take around 10–15 minutes to read out loud — though I’d often spot typos! This was a big escalation in pain, so I dialed back down to five minutes at a time.
After doing this for a while, I’d conquered the issues of being unaccustomed to my voice and the higher pitch. I recorded a long conversation between myself and a friend, and I managed to listen to the entire thing! A big milestone for me.
Step 6: Identify Exactly What You Want To Change
I’d done enough now to analyze without being deafened by self-loathing. I wasn’t in the clear but could focus on what was in my control to change. Whenever I felt uncomfortable listening, I tried to pinpoint exactly what made me feel this way.
Here was what I found, and you may find similar faults:
- Saying “yeah,” “like,” “umm,” “erm”
- Speaking too fast
- Changing volume
- Mispronouncing certain sounds
- Lack of enthusiasm
I didn’t try to go from disinterested university professor — to Obama overnight. I ranked each of the faults in the order I thought it would be easiest to fix. Now, when I did my daily practice, I thought only about addressing one thing at a time.
I still have parts I don’t like but I’ve gained the self-confidence to believe I can keep working my way through my list. If I focussed on the biggest problem first, I would have been disheartened and given up!
Step 7: Experiment
Step six can go on forever, but it’s important to rotate between it and experimentation. This is meant to be enjoyable!
I listen to podcasts all the time and decided to try to mimic my favorite hosts. I was playing a character rather than being myself, and this distanced my mind from being too critical. I’m unlikely to ever sound like Guy Raz or Rangan Chatterjee — but it’s fun to try!
Depending on the situation, I don’t need to sound like me on every interview or recording, and I can test out different personas. Now that we can listen to ourselves, we’ve opened up a whole new world for us to explore. Many people love trying out new styles to change their appearance, why shouldn’t we enjoy doing the same for how people hear us?
If this guy — with a bastardized hybrid accent from a mix of different influences — can grow to enjoy listening to his own voice, then so can you. I know the hardest bit is starting, which is why there are so many preliminary steps to give you those little wins.
Everyone tells you to love your body, but it’s time you loved your voice too.