Nervous not nasal, misunderstood not misleading – Julia’s just trying too hard

Is the Prime Minister’s delivery interfering with her message? Yonhap/AAPIMAGE

Julia Gillard’s time as Prime Minister has been dogged by much personal scrutiny – of her dress, her partner, her hair and her speech.

Julia’s ability as a negotiator is well known in the halls of power. But what of her communicative style? As a speech pathologist and voice specialist, I’ve noticed this is characterised by a number of consistent features.

In the speech sciences, we often differentiate the voice – what the voice sounds like, how much the speaker varies pitch and volume, whether it’s resonant or hoarse – from speech – the words and speech sounds people use to convey their message and how precisely, quickly or fluently they speak.

Julia’s speech

Julia’s accent is broad Australian with a Welsh flavour – no taking the edge off to make it more neutral. This helps us, the people, think of her, the leader, as (almost) just one of us.

As a long-time professional communicator, she works very hard to get her message across without distractions, providing the listener with plenty of time to hear and understand what she’s saying.

Her speech rate is slow and deliberate. She rarely uses an “um”, “err”, stutter or stumble. The delivery of her words is frequently flawless and she often repeats her final phrases twice, to ensure we get the message.

Her intonation, however, suffers. This is because she becomes more monotone as she tries to emphasise the message. It is this, combined with a slower delivery and lack of speech dysfluencies, that pose the first real threat to her image.

The speech used by you and I in conversation is highly variable in intonation, rate, pauses, fillers (such as um and err), small dysfluencies and incomplete sentences. We’re not used to hearing errorless speech. We’re also not used to hearing reduced variability in pitch in women, as this trait is more common in men.

Julia also occasionally uses a high-rising intonation at the end of phrases. This feature is often perceived by listeners as the speaker being insecure or uncertain of what they are saying – not a great feature if you want to convince people of your argument.

Combined, the above elements convey a lack of spontaneity, a highly controlled delivery, and are likely to induce perceptions that Julia is being unnatural, rehearsed and disingenuous – that is, we think it’s all spin.

Trying too hard to get the message across may be getting in the way of the real message. When Julia tells us she feels passionately about an issue, we don’t hear it in her speech (see below).

Julia’s voice

Julia’s voice poses a second threat to her image. It’s a voice people either hate or (currently) ignore – “it’s nasal”, “I can’t stand it”, “it’s twangy” are oft-heard comments. Her voice quality is slightly rough and croaky at times, her throat strangling the sound.

As a politician under constant scrutiny, this is an understandable and normal physiological reaction to performance stress. The throat tightens when our fight or flight reaction is triggered – a phenomenon experienced by us all when we’re nervous.

Research conducted at The University of Sydney Voice Research Laboratory has revealed women with croaky voices are perceived by listeners as more neurotic, less extroverted, warm, open and conscientious.

Julia’s inconsistently croaky, slightly strained voice quality may well be a liability for her in terms of relating to the listening public.

It also robs her of a clarity, resonance and depth of voice that would allow her to convey her feelings about her subject matter. When she is more relaxed, her voice sounds very different – impassioned, genuine, inspiring.

Take her performance during her post-election speech (above), where she was clearly relieved and humbled by the result, and inspired by the challenge. Her intent is unmistakeably real and natural; her voice clear and resonant and full of subtle variations that convey changes in emotion and meaning.

News clips (see below) of a younger Julia attacking the Coalition on the floor of the house also reveal a fast-talking, passionate-sounding woman with far more intonation variability and a less deliberate delivery.

Maybe Julia’s communication style has been “tuned” deliberately to her leadership role. In order to help the listener understand what she is saying under the pressure of media scrutiny, she has lost touch with her passionate self, the real self that you and I recognise in ourselves.

My one tip for Julia is to just be herself first, and Prime Minister second …