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Robert Mueller and the Myth of the ‘Nervous Voice’

What is a ‘nervous voice,’ exactly? What’s going on in the brain, and how can it be overcome? And in Mueller’s case, is the accusation even fair?

The moment former Special Counsel Robert Mueller began testifying before Congress this morning, he sounded — there’s no better way to say it — nervous. His voice was shaky, he cleared his throat, he used lots of ums and uhs to fill space. Overall, he seemed unsure of himself, his answers or maybe both. Perhaps he was searching for the right words, careful not to misstep; maybe the veiled threats from the president got to him.

Either way, I wasn’t the only one to notice. People from both sides of the aisle criticized Mueller for sounding weak and ineffective as he clarified his report on, in part, whether President Donald Trump obstructed an investigation into Russian election meddling.

For two years, the public barely heard Mueller’s voice. We only witnessed his stern, solemn face — except for when the report came out, and the Department of Justice misrepresented his findings enough that he had to give a prepared statement. And even during that statement, people griped that his voice didn’t match the stern, stone-cold demeanor of a straight-shooting professional that people had (perhaps too dramatically) attached to him.

Outside of the gravity of today, though — or maybe exactly because of it — it’s reasonable that anyone forced to answer pointed questions in a high-pressure situation (a la Mueller) might sound shaky at times. But what is a “nervous voice,” exactly? What’s going on in the brain when it leaves your mouth, and how can it be overcome?

Why A “Nervous Voice” Happens

“Nervous voice” could describe a sound we might hear “from a speaker who is in the throes of something like a fight-or-flight response,” explains Liz Jackson, owner and voice coach at the Voice Lab. “And that response happens differently for everyone: Some people get nervous when speaking or singing in front of crowds, and some people don’t.”

No matter what makes you nervous, once those nerves kick in, “the adrenaline and other hormones flood the body and can impact some of the processes of vocalization, specifically breathing,” Jackson says.

In any situation where adrenaline is pumping, she continues, “the breath becomes shallow and harder to control. In order to achieve a vocal presentation that’s full of richness and has enough volume, adequate control of the breath is imperative. Without that breath underneath the voice, we might hear shakiness, wavering, low volume, inconsistent volume or even breathiness or hoarseness that wouldn’t normally be present for that person.”

This is why people unused to performing on camera might sound, well, not like themselves. That’s where training can be helpful, Jackson says. Many professional singers and speakers “have learned how to harness this rush of adrenaline and turn it into something productive and helpful for the voice.”

It takes time and practice, yes, “but learning to maintain deep and connected breath through this type of body reaction is definitely possible,” she concludes.

Is Robert Mueller Actually Nervous, or Just Breathy?

Duh, the only person who can answer that question is Mueller himself. But to the ear of Stephen Camarata, speech pathologist and professor of hearing, speech, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University, the former special counsel is just a breathy talker.

When speaking, air flows through “our larynx and voice box, and two folds of skin — the vocal folds — which vibrate with the flow of breath that goes through it. If you make a lot of voice, you’ll have more air go through. When you whisper, the actual vocal folds are completely open and there isn’t any vibration.

“So in my hearing of Mueller,” the professor continues, “he has what I’d call less breath support: There’s air leaking through his vocal folds, so he sounds a bit breathy to me.”

In short, it’s not a nervous voice. Still, Mueller isn’t getting the volume he wants, “and as he’s doing his self-monitoring, he’s trying to project and have more volume, and it’s causing these little pitch breaks in what he’s saying,” explains Camarata.

This makes Mueller sound tentative, the professor adds. “But it’s not necessarily true that he is ‘tentative’; it has more to do with the mechanics of his voice projection.”

Camarata references Mueller’s prepared speech on May 29th, where in response to Trump saying he was totally exonerated, Mueller repeated and reasserted the findings of his investigation that argued the opposite. He sounded the same. “His voice is a bit breathy, so that creates this impression of somebody who’s weak,” Camarata says. “But if you were just to read the transcripts of what he’s saying, you wouldn’t have that impression. He’s answering the questions directly, and he’s answering with conviction. It’s just that because of his lack of breath support, he doesn’t sound powerful or emphatic.”

A breathy voice is also part of the aging process, Camarata adds. “It would be interesting to hear clips of him when he was younger. My guess is that he probably didn’t have such a breathy voice back then. People’s voices get a little weaker for lots of reasons: breath support, respiration support, being able to control the larynx. Even Frank Sinatra couldn’t hit the notes he could when he was younger. It’s just part of getting older.”

People seem to want Mueller — once a lust object, a “resistance daddy” — to command the stage with a booming voice to match the authority of his résumé. Instead, he speaks softly, even if — to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt — he carries a big stick.

“If you believe you can accurately tell whether a person is lying, or whether they’re strong or intelligent by listening to their voice, I have a very nice piece of the Brooklyn Bridge I’d like to sell you,” says Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University. “A shaky voice or a weak sounding voice could be from a thousand different causes: dry or otherwise damaged vocal folds, vocal nodules, poor breath control, dehydration. It’s a long list. But voice quality has zippo to do with character or strength. You sometimes get great big tough-looking people with cute little voices, and you sometimes get small timid folk with voices that carry easily across a room. In fact, Abraham Lincoln was said to have a kind of high reedy voice.”

Gerry Filipsen, professor of communication at the University of Washington, agrees with Camarata and Wells-Jensen on Mueller’s speech patterns. “[He] seems not so shaky to me as exhibiting a lot of pauses, slightly dysfluent, in-word corrections and hesitation phenomena (uhs) in answering [questions and] inconsistencies in his statements. These speech behaviors make him sound uncertain, and a little old,” he tells me.

Still, Filipsen continues, “In my view, the vocal behaviors (rather than the inconsistencies) aren’t objective indicators of weakness, infirmity, age, etc. Rather, they’re things that listeners might use to make such judgments. This, however, might say more about the listener than about the speaker.”

Basically then, our takeaways about Mueller’s fortitude on stage say more about us than him. “Whether you love him or hate him from a political standpoint, he’s a very accomplished person — any honest person would say that,” Camarata continues. “You wouldn’t characterize this guy as a weak person. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Why a Breathy Voice Unfairly Suggests Weakness

Camarata theorizes that this is a hardwired, biological human behavior. “If you think of power dynamics, people who are loud and aggressive have an impact on people around them,” he explains. “I witnessed this in China a few weeks ago. People who aren’t as loud and not as aggressive in their voice don’t demand as much attention. In a sense, it’s hardwired that if we hear a breathy voice that isn’t carrying a lot of volume — even if it’s fairly hard-hitting in terms of the semantics or the content’s meaning — we think of that person as not as strong or not as powerful.”

And maybe we’re expecting, unfairly, a politician’s performance from Mueller — something brash, loud and forceful to engage the audience, not just to help them grok granular legal information.

“I have seven children who are grown now, but when they were younger and I needed their attention, I’d use my dad voice!” emphasizes Camarata. “Which I didn’t use very confidently, but it was loud and authoritarian and it worked.

“So my hypothesis is that what we’re seeing in [former] Special Counsel Mueller is that he’s a little bit older, and he’s got a breathy voice — which people are then mapping onto his status and his confidence. And that absolutely shouldn’t be that way. He’s clearly answering with conviction and authority.”