103: Resonate -- How to Use Vocal Intelligence and Body Language as a Leader with Dr. Louise Mahler

Ep103 Resonate how to use vocal intelligence and body language as a leader Dr Louise Mahler TalentGrow Show with Halelly Azulay

It’s not just what we say as leaders: it’s how we say it, vocally and physically. An expert in body language, voice, and emotion, Dr. Louise Mahler explains that the ‘missing ingredient’ in corporate leadership is something called vocal intelligence and that how we use our voice has a far greater impact on our success as leaders than we know. In this fascinating episode of The TalentGrow Show, Louise shares unique insights on vocal psychology, body-language, and non-verbal communication that any leader should study and practice. Learn how to inspire trust with your voice and identify inner blockages that manifest in your voice and posture that may hinder your ability to lead. There are seven key blockages according to Louise, who walks us through a few of them here. Plus, learn why vocal intelligence is especially critical for leaders in our evolving digital age! Listen and don’t forget to share with others.


Dr. Louise Mahler is a communication specialist and proven performer in motivating individuals to take positive action. She has worked with politicians, business leaders, managers and groups, providing education and opportunities for personal, team and organizational improvement via lessons on leadership, presentation, inclusion and sales.

Louise is a highly sought after keynote speaker, corporate coach and executive mentor internationally. She is often called upon to appear as an expert commentator on radio and television, and regularly writes for prominent Australian publications. Through her innovative work, she developed a unique program that teaches the skills to perform in hostile environments so that you can ‘be heard', both loud and clear.

What you’ll learn:

  • Louise talks about the inspirational work, training and coaching she does, and her unique focus around psychology, skills and structures (5:26)
  • A recurring problematic pattern that Louise encounters in new leaders (7:16)
  • Louise shares stories from two of her clients, both successful executives who struggled with leadership and communication (8:33)
  • Unconscious physical gestures and tells that express psychological and emotional traits or tendencies (11:01)
  • Louise weighs in on the different challenges that men and women face in leadership (11:57)
  • Halelly and Louise discuss the changing landscape of leadership in today’s digital age, and the idea of “vocal intelligence” (13:06)
  • “Vocal fry”: what causes it and what it says about the speaker (14:51)
  • Keeping the air flowing when you speak is an important part of maintaining trust (16:58)
  • Louise digs into the first of the Seven Blockages that she talks about it in her book, Resonate (18:51)
  • The long history of the vocal techniques that Louise teaches (20:40)
  • Louise’s take on the state of her own homeland, Australia, in regard to awareness and acceptance of the communication principles she talks about (21:41)
  • Halelly shares a short story that illustrates a typical dismissive perspective on non-verbal communication (23:26)
  • How you can adapt your voice to the situations that you’re in (24:05)
  • What’s new and exciting on Louise’s horizon? (25:34)
  • One specific action you can take today to upgrade your leadership communication skills (26:30)



Episode 103 Louise Mahler

TEASER CLIP: Louise: Let me tell you, there is nothing new on the planet. Many of these skills were well understood by ancient cultures, certainly by the ancient Romans, certainly in medieval times. And many of the skills have only been lost over the last, say, 50 or 60 years, since the Second World War. These are lost areas of knowledge, and when people have them re-tweeted, when they look at their habitual patterns, look at the new patterns they should be doing, people go, “Oh, I feel released! I get this. I understand it. I can hear, feel, see the difference.” And they love it. It’s very rewarding.

[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: TalentGrowers, this is a treat today. I have a very unusual guest. I think that you’re going to love her, and I think that she’s going to show you some things that you might have never thought about. We talk about leadership and her coaching of leaders, and her unique perspective coming from the world of opera singing, and what she understands about nonverbal communication. Most specifically, vocal communication, the way that we use our voice and our breath and how that has a tremendous affect on our ability to be influential and to be good leaders. She gives lots of specific examples, including that very specific actionable tip at the end, so I can’t wait for you to listen to my Australian friend, Dr. Louise Mahler, and this episode of the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, so let’s dive in.

Welcome back TalentGrowers. How can you build an expertise and presence and influence with an economics degree and majoring in statistics? That’s a good question. Maybe if you spent a decade singing opera in Europe with some of the greatest divas of our time, or a soloist’s contract at the Vienna State Opera. Well, our guest today, Dr. Louise Mahler, says it was her master’s degree in organizational psychology and her PhD in business that brought it all together to make her one of the most original thinkers in business communication. Louise is a guest presenter for leaders and leadership teams worldwide, and coaches federal politicians, heads of international business and rising corporate talent when the need to give voice arises. She makes regular TV appearances, has a series of videos with the Australian Financial Review, and is a constant feature for comment on radio. Her book, Resonate, with Penguin Random House, is for people who need to be heard. So, we’re in the right place today. Louise has sung in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian and Czech, so hopefully our show today will be in English. Although with that wonderful Aussie accent, Louise, welcome to the TalentGrow Show.

Louise: Hi.

Halelly: Louise is from Australia, and I just had the opportunity to meet Louise this week. She attended as a guest one of my mastermind groups that I attend here locally in the L.A. area, and Louise is speaking and keynoting at a conference here in L.A., all the way from Australia. It was so fortuitous that she and I met, and as soon as I heard her story I was like, “Oh my goodness, Louise is coming on the show.” So Louise, before we get into the wonderful ideas that you have and insights you’ll share with our listeners, I always ask my guests to describe their professional journey very briefly. Where did you start and how did you end up where you are today?

Louise: Well, I started with an economics degree when I left school, and that was in statistics. Then made the very obvious leap into opera singing. God knows why, but that’s what happened. It seemed like life up on the wicked stage seemed like a fabulous idea. Then I won a lot of money and went to Europe and I ended up at the Vienna State Opera on a soloist contract. That was a very exciting time, and it was a time of study with the music degree, postgraduate in opera letters and music, and a lot of practice, practice, practice up on stage. Actually performing and meeting all of, basically, the greatest singers of our time, in that incredible A opera house in the world. But really, you know, I just needed something more. And I wanted to get back into the real world, so I actually went back into business and I did my master’s in org psych and PhD in business, because I could see a need for people to communicate in the opera of life.

Halelly: Very interesting. That is definitely a very unusual transition, both into and out of opera and where you’ve ended up today. Now you speak from the stage and on media and write, and you work with a lot of corporate leaders. What type of work do you do?

Louise: Yes, I speak obviously to large groups and I call that the inspirational work. Then I do extended keynotes training, which is where we learn the skills, and then I do coaching to embed the knowledge. We get one-on-one so that we can really embed the habitual patterns that we need.

Halelly: Do you focus on a particular skillset or type of training or knowledge when you do that?

Louise: The work is based around, I guess I see three circles coming together. The first circle is the psychology of who we are. Who we are as an individual and whether we have performance anxiety, which is something that is very, very common. Also the psychology of the people around us. What do they need? What do they know? What do they want? What are their worries? What are their fears? The psychology of a situation we need to understand. The next thing is the skills. The skills of where we lock our expression, our breath, our throat, our mouth, our gestures, our body movement, our eye contact. They’re all the skills that we do. Then thirdly, the structures around which we work. So structures for presentation, structures for giving feedback, structures for handling an emotional situation. Structures for handling a situation where there is no emotion but there will be by the time you’ve said it. Structures for just answering. Structures for disengaging from a scenario. Basically it’s the three areas of psychology – yours and theirs; skills – our habitual patterns; and structures for every situation that we might come up against.

Halelly: Are there some problems that you see more prevalently for leaders that you work with?

Louise: You bet. Look, there is a reoccurring pattern of people who trained in their field of expertise. They’re experts at what they do, and of course they take on a leadership position and what they find is that they don’t understand their habitual patterns and how that is blocking their communication. And they have basically no training whatsoever in the field of influence. And what that leads to is a massive drop in confidence. So people lose their confidence. And then the problem is, if you’ve lost your confidence, guess what? You can’t buy confidence. This is why the work satisfies that need.

Halelly: It sounds like new leaders, when they lose confidence like that, then it becomes even more difficult for them to be influential and to lead others. It’s almost like a vicious cycle.

Louise: Absolutely.

Halelly: I totally get it, because in my work developing leaders, I see that lots of times people are promoted because of their technical expertise, which is not at all the same as leadership capability and leadership capacity. The might be able to build that, but a lot of times they’re not really given a lot of support for that.

Louise: More common than you might think is that people who are on the autism spectrum, or even you may say that in our digital world, we have created autism. And so an example of the fellow I’m working with at the moment who has come up and up and up through the ranks because of his commercial expertise is now one of the top 15 executives in a major organization, national organization. Very treasured for what he does. And now they’re saying, “Please don’t come to meetings.”

Halelly: Oh no!

Louise: We don’t like you, we don’t like the way you respond, you don’t handle your communication well. And this poor guy goes, “Well, what am I doing? I don’t understand.” So what I’m able to do is point out his habitual patterns and then start to teach him, literally, empathy. And how it works and what he needs to say and how he needs to go with people, not constantly confronting them, and not constant anger and blockage. And you know, what I find is when people are faced with this information, they don’t go against it. They say, “Oh, heavens, thank you so much. I never knew that. I never knew that.” And they go away practicing. And it changes their lives.

Halelly: A lot of times that self-awareness is the first step to change, right? As long as they’re willing to be open to it and to receive it. It sounds like this guy was.

Louise: It’s self-awareness, and then it’s new structures of engagement, new skills of engagement as well, and they get to practice them. And they don’t realize how blocked they are. Another gentleman that I work with, he’s taken over an executive education program. This is a top consultancy, and they come back to him and they say, “You’re not up to the task.” There’s nothing about this man’s qualifications that doesn’t say he’s up to the task. What happens is that when he gest in front of an audience, he crosses and blocks himself. He had no awareness whatsoever of how he was folding his arms across his body, bowing his head, doubling his posture over. Just no idea. And opening him up to the audience then opens your mind and has this whole spiral of the mind/body/voice connection. Your voice begins to shine. Your body opens, and your mind opens to the group.

Halelly: Sometimes a very simple shift in something as basic as uncross your arms can change how your mind sees things.

Louise: As simple as uncrossing your arms. That would be on my deathbed, my one major thing – open your arms!

Halelly: Are there some others that you see a lot?

Louise: People hiding their hands. We see with Trump an example of always revealing their hands. But you know, it’s not just Trump who did that. Jesus did it. Always the palms of the hand forward, the arms open. This is a gesture of trust. There are no pennies between the fingers. Keeping the palms and hands revealed at all times. On the table. Out by your side. Never under the table, behind your back. This is how you do it.

Halelly: Now, do you find any differences – just out of curiosity – between men and women in terms of the challenges they’re experiencing and the reasons they bring you in?

Louise: Yeah. You can’t underestimate the psychological effects of what women have been through, through their lives, to block them, block them, block them. There are two problems – one is that we’re behind the eight ball, and two is that by nature, by what’s called nonverbal studies and our understanding of what leadership is, we don’t fit that model. For instance, the voice of leadership is low, slow and loud. Well, women’s voices, they’re an octave higher than men’s, on average. Which means the minute I open my mouth, people say, “Oh, that’s not the voice of leadership.” One is that we’re like whipped dogs, from the emotional trauma of being a woman in society. The other is that we’re behind the eight ball anyway. The answer with women is, yes, it’s a big problem, and we have to be perfect. Absolutely perfect at what we do, or we’re not listened to.

Halelly: Seems fair enough.

Louise: Yeah, right?

Halelly: I don’t know how you experience this, but I know in the world of work where I’m brought in a lot, there is an increase in how much of communication and leadership and influence happens virtually, or remotely. We’re working with people who are so dispersed, so far away from us, so we’re often having to only use our voice or video if we’re really advanced and we’re thinking about this, but often people are trying to do it via written format, which is terrible. So, do you have ways to work around that if that’s something you’re finding too?

Louise: You bet. Have we forgotten our skills of voice? I have this area of vocal intelligence, which is obviously very informed by my background in opera, and it says that the voice is an outcome of what happens in the body, and the body is an outcome of what happens in the mind. And we need to realize that our voices is a monitor of our mental state. It tells a tremendous amount psychologically and voice is hugely manipulate-able. Where we go wrong is we think we have a voice that is maybe like this. We talk with no range, with a certain vocal tine, and we don’t realize that we can change it. And the psychological messages that it sends. For instance, what we need to do is get the voice out, ha, and get the voice out so that we know where our natural voice flows, sits in its pitch, in its pitch range, and the air is unblocked as it comes out. The psychology of air being unblocked is that it says I am willing to communicate to you and give to you. When people withdraw their air, you can actually hear it. And the worst-case scenario is what’s called vocal fry. Vocal fry sounds like that.

Halelly: I hear that a lot.

Louise: You do hear it a tremendous amount. Vocal fry, the analysis of that, is that it’s a malfunction. And it’s a malfunction because there’s actually 1/6 of the airflow that has to come out of my body for my vocal folds to malfunction like that in vocal fry. What the psychological message, when people do vocal fry, is, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to connect with you. I don’t want to touch you with my air as I vibrate the air out of my body.” So I go to vocal fry. It is something that young women in America just do a tremendous amount.

Halelly: Yes!

Louise: And it’s a total career limiter. Some people do it permanently. I was in a shoe shop the other day and I burst out laughing with a group of three women, sitting beside me. They had obviously come from a fabulous area, they were enormously wealthy buying up shoes, and they were all sitting there doing vocal fry. And I just said, “Girls! You’re killing yourself. Your potential in leadership is between zero and nothing when you do vocal fry.” It’s a terrible thing to do. And many of us don’t do it all the time, but maybe we do it at the end of a sentence. If you’re in sales and you’re on the phone and you’re saying, “Look, I think Halelly this project is really important for all of us to get involved in.” You go to vocal fry. What you do there is you lose your impact 100 percent. So, there’s that with voice. We have to have enough air coming out to touch people, to literally caress them with our sound. Because sound is a physical force. It hits the eardrum and vibrates it. It doesn’t just hit the eardrum, it hits the skin and vibrates the skin.

Now, what that then leads to is the fact that vibrating the skin is a massage, and when you’re massaging people, if you want to maintain their trust, you have to keep your voice glowing. So, people who break their sound, what that does to the listener is it instills a lack of trust. It instills mistrust. We suddenly feel awkward as that air hits us in an awkward way.

Halelly: Louise, are you giving an example?

Louise: Yes, I am!

Halelly: I was like, “We either have a malfunction or you are exemplifying it!”

Louise: And that’s what happens. We think there is a malfunction, because the air stops flowing. So we have to realize when we’re virtual that you take a breath, yes, but you keep the air flowing and that is the voice of trust. Trust continues to the end of the sentence. Now, even though we’re virtual, to keep the air flowing, one of the major tools that we have are our arms. In fact, gestures guide air, so you may be virtual, but you need your arms to be moving, to guide the air to the end of the sentence. You don’t want the airflow to drop off. Because it loses its impact. So major things, give the air to show that you’re giving, flow the air to show that you have trust, and have the air come out of your body in an unblocked way which shows that you have no psychological blockage.

Halelly: This is fascinating. And I don’t know if this is something you can explain, because you were saying how you have a process or a structure, and I’m sure there is a structure that you teach for how to unblock or to reverse the vocal fry, and I don’t know if that’s something you can convey here without a visual, but I would love for you to give us a tip or two like that.

Louise: Well, I talk about the seven blockages in my book, Resonate, and certainly when it comes to the diaphragm, the first one, many people are holding their diaphragm and they don’t realize they’re holding their diaphragm, and they’re trying to relax. But the unconscious mind is stronger than the conscious mind and it refuses to relax. So actually the technique that I teach with the diaphragm is not to relax but actually to kick the diaphragm free with an exercise called Kapalbhati. Then at the throat, there are techniques which singers use to help the throat be open. One of those is that they’ve proven that when you lift your cheeks, you actually retract parts of the throat called the false vocal folds, which are very detrimental to sound. Smiling is one of your major tools. With vocal fry, which happens when there’s no air coming out, get there and open your mouth. So many of us are speaking with our mouth shut. We’re doing everything to block that airflow, so open your mouth. Gesture, move, get the air out of your body. We need our control as I mentioned, we need our hands, and we do need to move our bodies.

So the next thing is, of course, where do you move your body? You can’t just wander. Where do you move your gestures? You can’t just waive your arms. So, we need to start to then learn about anchoring gestures, anchoring spaces. Not to repeat movements. It gets deeper and deeper and deeper. But basically, there are skills to unblock every single blockage that happens with our body and our voice, and therefore is a blockage to mind.

Halelly: This is amazing. So many aspects of things that we might have some intuition about, but really no formal training in for almost anyone, unless you’re taking vocal lessons, you probably have never even thought about this.

Louise: Absolutely never thought about it. Let me tell you, there is nothing new on the planet. Many of these skills were well understood by ancient cultures, certainly by the ancient Romans, certainly in medieval times. And many of the skills have only been lost over the last, say, 50 or 60 years, since the Second World War. These are lost areas of knowledge, and when people have them re-tweeted, when they look at their habitual patterns, look at the new patterns they should be doing, people go, “Oh, I feel released! I get this. I understand it. I can hear, feel, see the difference.” And they love it. It’s very rewarding.

Halelly: Fabulous. Do you think there is anything different in Australia versus in the U.S. or is it culturally based?

Louise: Yes. I think that Australians are worse. In America, you have nonverbal studies, and a lot of schools of nonverbal studies, so people are at least looking at the area or perception of others and trying to pander to that. In Australia, what we’ve done is we’ve rejected nonverbal studies, because it says to us lack of authenticity. For instance, if I say, “Don’t fold your arms because you look locked,” an Australian will say, “Well, I don’t care. I feel comfortable.” So we maintain those blockages and maintain a right to do so. What I do is have to find a different impetus, which is that by actually folding your arms, you’re holding your diaphragm, which means you can’t breath. You can’t bring the best of yourself. So I look at my work from the two sides of nonverbal studies – the perception of others and vocal intelligence – which is your authenticity, and that actually helps Australians make a quick change. But we are behind the eight ball because we reject nonverbal studies. Australians won’t be told what to do. They have to find, “Mate, mate, I just bring who I am to the engagement. I just am who I am, you know?” And you have to say, “That person you used to think you are is actually not who you are. It is a blocked self.”

Halelly: Wow, you’re swimming against the stream, huh? It sounds like a non-conformist kind of culture just comes back to bite you when it comes to things like this. I actually had a workshop once, I was giving a workshop on communication, and I had a young man, we were practicing critical conversations and he was sitting back in his chair, leaning all the way back with his legs kind of up and crossed. And I said, “Are you going to have the conversation,” we were role playing, and I said, “I know this is not for real, but in real life would you have a conversation this important sitting in that way?” And he said, “I don’t believe in that nonverbal stuff.”

Louise: That’s it.

Halelly: Well, the person reading your nonverbal signs believes it because their brain is hardwired to notice that, whether they think about it or not.

Louise: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely. You know, I do a lot of handling difficult situations, and I look at the processes for handling it and then your airflow and how you manage it, your gestures and how you manage it, your eye contact and how you manage it, your body and how you manage it, put that together in a table of different stages and different skills that go with it. And it’s life changing. People can hear, see and feel the difference. And one of the other skills I’d love to mention is that not only do we give out our air to show giving, but we can work the vocal folds so that they never close. And what this gives you is a breathiness so you get a constant airflow where the air is just constantly escaping through the voice. That’s a really great vocal tone for extra giving. In difficulty to come in and say, “Oh, that’s terrible,” is the way to do it, and many people are crossed over – the legs are crossed, the arms are crossed, and, “Oh, that’s no good. That’s no good at all.” And it has a completely different impact. It’s not about words. You can play that back for people and show them how that’s differently perceived, felt and the air doesn’t mix. It doesn’t connect.

Halelly: Wonderful. I would love to talk to you so much more. We’re almost done and you’re going to share one specific action, but before you do, what’s new and exciting on your horizon these days?

Louise: My excitement is the international interest in the work, so to speak and coach internationally. And also to go deeper with tribes to actually begin to have master class, dinners where we discuss and the tribe together and on the internet discussing, asking questions. You know, I’ve been studying this all my life, from many different perspectives in life, and work with it day on day with people, and I love to answer questions. And what I find is there is an answer to every challenge that you have. We just haven’t got our minds open to that. New to me is spreading the web internationally, and spreading it deeper. That’s what’s new and exciting.

Halelly: That does sound exciting, and I know that you are going to conquer the world. Time is almost up, so let’s give our listeners one very specific action that they can take today, tomorrow, this week, to improve and upgrade their own leadership skills or communication skills, whichever angle you’d like to take.

Louise: Breathe and open your arms to help you do that. I would love people, every time you initiate sound, to open your arms wide against your body. That means the elbows have to be off your body, the palms are facing forward, and to walk around, giving your air and saying to people, “Hi. Hi. Hi.” And every time you say that hi, you open your arms. Just walk up to order your coffee for the day at Starbucks, walk to the counter and say, “Hi. Could I have a coffee please?” And as you do that, open your arms, give that air and get that practice of air flowing out of your body, touching other people, reaching, connecting, making that physical impact. Breath.

Halelly: So simple, so actionable, so brilliant. Love it. Louise, how can people stay in touch with you, learn more about you and from you? What’s the best way?

Louise: Well, I’ve got my usual social media, Dr. Louise Mahler, LinkedIn, Facebook page, and my website is LouiseMahler.com.au. The “au” at the end there for Australia.

Halelly: You have so many resources on your website and I know that we will link to your book and all of those things in the show notes page, so definitely I hope people will go and check out everything else that you have to offer. Thank you so much for giving us some of your time and wisdom today Louise.

Louise: Thank you.

Halelly: Wasn’t that so different? So unusual, so interesting? I really hope that you enjoyed this episode. I sure did. I think that Louise is fascinating and she brought up so many interesting points, but I don’t know if you were able to see how she demonstrated what she was talking about throughout, so I’m actually really super glad that this is an audio-format podcast, because it allows us to hear what she’s talking about, without seeing her, but really hear the vocal qualities changing as she’s demonstrating the different problems and solutions she described. I hope that you’ll take the very simple action in your very next conversation that Louise suggested, and as always, give me feedback. Let me know what you thought about this episode, what’s your biggest takeaway, how have you tried some of what Louise just taught you, and what would you like to hear about next? I am always open to your feedback. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and this has been another episode of the TalentGrow Show. Thank you for listening, and until the next time, make today great.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.

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