Veronica Rueckert has made a career out of finding her voice.
A trained opera singer and former Wisconsin Public Radio host, Rueckert now runs a consulting firm and is a national media relations specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she was working for public radio, including as co-host of "Central Time," she remembers having a hard time getting female guests to come on the radio. Successful, smart, accomplished women would be reluctant to speak on the air. And it’s not surprising; even full-time female radio hosts get negative feedback from listeners (mostly, but not entirely, male) about how they sound.
"I’ve had so many women come to me and say, 'I’m a public speaker and I get great reviews, but I feel crappy afterwards,'" she said. "There’s this authenticity schism where they’re trying to be one person, but they’re told to sound like another person. They don’t feel good until they feel and sound like themselves."
To help women learn to love their voices, and learn to love using them, Rueckert has written her first book, “Outspoken: Why Women’s Voices Get Silenced and How to Set Them Free.” The book offers technical advice on how women can become more comfortable using their voices — how to project, how to interrupt, how to take up space in the room. Those prescriptions are placed in part of a larger conversation about how women are often marginalized, ignored, literally talked over by men, from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., to Madison.
Rueckert, who is doing an author event at Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company at 7 p.m. Friday, talked with the Cap Times about her book, myths about the human voice, and what men should be doing:
In one way you seem to be using women’s voices as a metaphor for inclusion and equality. But you’re also talking about them literally. How did you hit on that idea, talking about something very specific and something very universal at the same time?
They were two sides of the same coin. There is my passion and deep and abiding interest in the actual mechanics of the voice. How do you work with it? How do you have fun with it? How do you make it so there are more resonant spaces when you talk? That’s fun to me. And I think people are just under-educated about their voices, and women in particular.
But then, we’ve been seeing this cultural conversation blossoming about the sudden acknowledgment that we haven’t been hearing these voices. It shouldn’t be sudden, because we’ve been marinating in it forever. But people are waking up to that, and realizing what does it actually mean to hear women’s voices and make space for them? And luckily I have expertise in both those things — in the media and in being somebody who studies the voice and loves thinking about the voice.
I came in thinking that women could do more with their voices, and be encouraged to use them more. But along the way, I realized that all these women hate their voices, and have been forced into these negative relationships with their voices. They’re told they’re “wrong,” and if you did it “right,” people would hear you. And that’s toxic.
I think a lot of people think your voice is your voice, and to try and change it is artificial.
I think that’s flat-out wrong. I was watching the backlash against Elizabeth Holmes from Theranos, and people were saying “Oh, it’s so phony, she changed her voice.” Well, would you tell an athlete, “Don’t work out those quads, because you weren’t born with those huge quads”? Of course you wouldn’t. The voice is an instrument. It’s weird that we apply these rigid sets of rules and authenticity metrics to the voice.
I have clients who say “I feel this incredible power inside, and I’m moving into leadership. But when I talk, I don’t hear someone powerful. I hear someone who doesn’t sound like the me I feel on the inside.” So we work to align it, and that means changing the voice. For those women, it’s absolutely the right decision, and there should be no judgment about that.
I have women come into my workshops, and they just want encouragement to talk. They’re sick of listening, and they’re sick of being sidelined, and they’re sick of feeling like they’re not being heard. So we talk about, here’s how you can interrupt, here’s how you can take up more space.
I was discussing your book with my wife, and she said, “Why do women have to alter their presentation? Why don’t men just have to do a better job of listening?”
I agree with your wife. I think that’s been a misread of the book, that women need to change and then they will be heard. That’s not the case at all. Women already know how to talk. But the system is set up that women don’t have the space or the respect that men are automatically afforded in a place of privilege.
No, I don’t think women have to change the way they talk. But if they do want to be more aggressive, for example, about jumping in, that’s something I can help with. Or if you feel like you’re being shut down in a meeting, I can help you with rolling back your shoulders, taking deep breaths and dealing with anxiety. There are things that you need to navigate these waters, because they’re tough. They’re tough.
How much is this a generational thing? A middle-aged career woman might see things differently than a woman in her 20s.
It’s totally a generational thing. This is so interesting, especially the vocal fry. In the beginning, I didn’t like the sound of vocal fry (a way of speaking in a lower register that has a rough or creaking sound to it). Older generations think that way, that it sounds like you're being lackadaisical. But research has shown that younger women perceive vocal fry as being authoritative. It began as a way for younger women to have a lower voice, and therefore be perceived as a stronger person. And younger women have told me that it sounds like you care less. Because you’re so nonchalant, you have more ownership.
So, what should men do?
Thank you for asking that question. You’re the first man who’s asked that question since the book came out.
* We know men talk way more in meetings than women. In these meetings, especially if a man is facilitating, they can say at the beginning that they want to hear from everyone, that they value all voices. They can also set up alternate channels, so that a woman who may still not be comfortable speaking could send an email later and still contribute that way.
* If someone gets interrupted, and you’re presiding, you can say, “Hang on, I want to hear what Veronica had to say.” If someone is idea-poaching, where they take an idea that I started to say and everybody applauds it, instead of putting the burden on the woman to say, “Actually, I brought that idea up a while ago," the men at the table can say, “Actually, that was Veronica’s idea. I’m glad you picked up on that.” It doesn’t have to be confrontational. Just these small corrections in the moment.
* When you’re in the office, and you have people having these kinds of conversations, like “Vocal fry, I can’t stand it.” You can say, “Hang on, that’s not okay to be talking about somebody’s voice like that. We need to be listening to what she has to say.”
* You can go to HR and say this is a problem. When we get a briefing before hiring committees, we should talk about the ways that young women’s voices get dismissed.
* Watching body language, too. Everyone should be able to take up the space their body needs. If someone is kind of hunched up like a pretzel next to you, you could think, "Maybe I could diminish my physical footprint so she might feel more comfortable taking up more space."
There’s a man starter kit for you.