A new HBO documentary, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” tells the tale of ill-fated blood-testing startup Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, who allegedly cheated investorsout of hundreds of millions of dollars before the company’s collapse in early 2018. Holmes has been called a narcissist and worse for her business dealings, but the documentary called attention to another issue: her voice.
Holmes effected what one writer called a “confusing baritone” speaking voice in interviews and at public events, one that has the internet swarming with baffled reactions. Many people — including former employees — have claimed she fake the low voice, with former colleagues claiming she would occasionally slip into a higher register or “fall out of voice.”
“It was maybe at one of the company parties and maybe she had too much to drink or whatnot, but she fell out of character and exposed that that was not necessarily her true voice,” former Theranos employee Ana Arriola said on a new podcast about the company, “The Dropout.” “Maybe she needed to be more convincing to project a persona within a room among male VCs. I’m not really quite sure.”
Bizarre? Perhaps. But some women entrepreneurs, especially ones who are young like Holmes, may feel the need to alter their manner of speaking to be truly heard in male-dominated settings, said Jay Miller, a voice and speech coach in Toronto. Holmes, now 35, was 19 when she started Theranos.
Lower-pitched voices are generally better-received in professional settings than higher-pitched voices, studies show. A 25 percent decrease in vocal pitch among CEOs of any gender is associated with an average increase of $187,000 in annual salary, a 2013 study from Duke University and the University of California found. “Girlish” or “breathy” voices were found to be perceived as significantly less dominant in a 2016 study from Wellesley College.
“Some people may feel the need to counteract the initial impression they may give off of being young or inexperienced by effecting a lower, more authoritative voice,” Miller said. “But hearing the recordings, she is definitely speaking in a range that doesn’t sound authentic.”
Studies show voters prefer lower-pitched voices in many leadership positions, perceiving both male and female candidates with low voices to be stronger and more competent. Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister of Britain from 1979 to 1990, was said to have taken voice lessons to make her voice seem lower, firmer and more powerful in the 1970s.
Speaking authoritatively can be helpful in these settings, said Laura Purcell Verdun, a speech-language pathologist and communication coach at voice trainer, a communication training center in Washington, DC. But it becomes a problem when it sounds fake.
“Everyone has control over their voice, they just need to plan ahead and believe in their message so they can reveal their best selves,” Purcell Verdun said. “The issue that has been charged is that her voice is as fraudulent as her approach to business has [allegedly] been.”
Holmes and her former business partner Ramesh Balwani are facing 11 felony counts and, if convicted, could face up to 20 years in prison. They have both pleaded not guilty. The pair is set to appear in court for a status hearing on April 22. She has declined to comment on the investigation but has previously implied that the amount of scrutiny around the company is due to her role as a female tech founder.