I don’t even know what time it was when Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis addressed the press Monday night, but it was late. It may even have been in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
No doubt there was much pressure on her as she delivered the indictment of the former president of the United States. There was no room for error. That pressure would understandably impact her delivery. Impact her body. Impact her voice. As I watched, I was so impressed with the attention she commanded when she walked in the room and her fearlessness in taking on something so big.
When I look at the whole event – the reading of the indictment and the responses during the Q&A – I can’t help but view it through the lens of a voice coach. What struck me was the difference in her sound when she was reading compared to her sound when she was in conversation. As she began to read, you could sense the tension in her body. The tension in her body made it harder for her to take a good breath, and so her breathing was happening high in the chest. Breathing high in the chest creates tension in the throat. In fact, it’s how we breathe when our body is in fight or flight mode. And it impacted her voice as she tried to project.
As she read, she pushed the volume to be louder. She was louder than she needed to be. When you try to be loud but you are not breathing well, it can sound like you are shouting. That’s because you are relying on muscles in the throat to help you PUSH the sound out. It causes strain and actually makes you have to work harder to get your sound out.
The tension in the throat also contributed to the higher pitch and instability you hear in her voice. You can hear it crack as she reads, especially as the pitch gets higher. You will notice that as she reads the names of the accused, her pitch goes up and up with each name so that by the end, she is way up in the highest part of her range. The danger of starting off the reading at a high pitch is that when she wants to emphasize a word, she just gets even higher.
Now, contrast what we see and hear when she reads to what we see and hear when she answers questions. As she reads, there is little engagement in the body. She’s breathing high in her chest. In fact, at the 3:03 mark, you see her shoulders lift with her inhalation.
However, when she begins to answer questions, she becomes much more physically animated. Her body relaxes. She uses more gestures and more facial expressions. The movement helps her breathe better. As a result, she no longer sounds like she’s shouting. She doesn’t have to push to compensate for poor breath support. She actually sounds more authoritative and confident because there is relaxation and ease in the body and the voice.
What is the effect of her delivery on the listener? How is she perceived? We tend to associate shouting with anger or with frustration. The high pitch can be perceived as being nervous or uncomfortable or even frantic. I have no doubt that the DA felt confident and secure in her message. The content was clear and powerful. The tension in her voice projected something different. When you have a strong message and strong content, you want to consider the “how” of the delivery. How does your voice reinforce your message? How does your vocal presence complement the power of your words? The delivery should never be an afterthought. It is just as – if not more – important than the content.