Harriet Walker: It's strange how alien your voice can sound given how often you use it


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The Independent Online

I don't want to brag, but in the past month alone, more than three – yes, it was four – people have told me I have an excellent voice for radio. And no, they weren't making veiled insults about how well my face might suit that medium, too. At least, I don't think they were.

The first time it happened, I was in a pub not even particularly holding forth – rare if I'm drinking. "It's just the right tone," my friend said. "So soothing and gentle."

News to me, and to my nearest and dearest, I'd imagine. I'd always thought my voice lay somewhere between a cough and a squawk, lower than your average female voice but not so low as to be Chrissie Hynde-alluring or Cruella de Vil-chilling. And high enough still that every so often, when I catch myself becoming particularly enervating on a given subject, it echoes through conversations like the cawing of an incredibly banal witch.

Being a journalist, I probably have to hear my own voice more than the average person, listening back to recordings of myself asking people more important and impressive than I, questions that at the time felt like they showed a true understanding of the interviewee's life and métier, but which, second time around, sound more like the flailings of someone who isn't that great at making conversation and who knows, with increasingly sickening anxiety, that their efforts at doing so are being recorded for posterity. Of someone who knows, in a shuddering microsecond of interior cringe, that the overly intimate and unsuccessful joke will sound even worse on tape than it did aloud just a few seconds ago.

But no matter, right? If I have a perfect voice for radio – which, I'll repeat, four whole people have told me recently – I could just get a job on the radio and make people with a better-honed and more appropriate sense of humour hold up flashcards emblazoned with their own nuggets of wit. These people would be fully apprised of the fact that their voices were simply not as good as mine, as far as the radio bit was concerned. It would work a treat.

Except it wouldn't. As I found out when I had to do a piece to camera the other week for work. "A camera, you say? No problem," I thought. I've done TV before; I've done round tables; as easy as a hot knife through butter, I thought. How wrong I was.

Clearly I had blocked out the realities, perhaps as a coping mechanism because the experiences were so traumatic the first time round. I did the same with Power Plates, a form of exercise whereby you stand (or so I thought I remembered) on a vibrating platform and undertake some fairly low-impact stretches. Sure, you ache a bit after, but totally do-able. Turns out, it's nothing like I remembered; you jump up and down on the platform. I nearly passed out after 30 seconds.

No, I didn't remember TV being terrible – though the last time I did it, my mind did go completely blank but for the fact that I was wearing my boyfriend's T-shirt because I hadn't had any clean clothes that morning and that my fringe had separated into curtains. I was undone by vanity, and stuttered through all the little flecks of opinion I'd prepared.

I barked out my lines, desperate to scurry away and hide from the glare and the mic. Watching the footage back, I looked and sounded like a balloon with its air escaping.

It's strange how alien your voice can sound given how often you use it; that the noises that bounce around your head when it comes out bear no resemblance to the sounds you're making; that some people can think you have a good voice for radio when you're worried whether it even sounds right for your gender.

I was at yet another wedding at the weekend, and was surprised to hear one of my dearest friends using his "acting voice" to boom out his vows. It sounded great; it also raised a titter among the congregation, an affectionate communal moue of "Oh, Vince."

Good for him, though, for making a performance of his voice. So often we garble our way through our days with no memory of what we have said or why we said it. There's nothing worse than semi-coming-to at your desk to realise you've been gently chuntering for the past five minutes. The most important things we say are sometimes the least personal – but you should at least know what sort of voice they're going to come out in.