Is it Unfair to Call Hillary Clinton Shrill?

Of all of the lasting images and sound bites from the Democratic National Convention and from Secretary Clinton’s historic acceptance speech, it does seem a bit out of proportion to read and hear so much about her vocal pattern. But is it sexist? Is it unfair?

No it is not.

Let me state right at the outset that I believe the metaphoric glass ceiling to not yet be shattered. I believe that women do have to be that much smarter, stronger, tougher, steelier, and several other “ers” in order to enjoy achievements equal to men in our culture. Overt and institutional sexism are both very real, and I have witnessed them in my own profession as I observe how keynote speakers from both genders are regarded and received. But that is a topic for another post.

Both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are the subject of thousands of hours of televised programming. My wife made fun of me for TIVOing all three of the major cable news networks and staying up well past midnight each night to observe the profound differences in coverage. They had this in common: with so much television time to eat up, they all indulged in large degrees of minutiae. Each one of them consumed many minutes discussing style over substance and Clinton was by no means the only object of these observations. It was deep into the analysis when Fox News analyst Brit Hume said “she has a habit of breaking into kind of a sharp, lecturing tone.” And it wasn’t until after they summarized Donald Trump’s message that all three networks observed how angry he seemed. (MSNBC observed it sooner than Fox or CNN did, but that too is a topic for another post.) It is inevitable that television commentary is going to focus on how the candidates sound, not just on what they say — there are just too many hours to fill.

But now let’s talk about the word most often used to describe Hillary Clinton’s vocal characteristic: shrill. The dictionary definition is “high-pitched and piercing,” the corresponding verb is “to shriek,” and make no mistake, it is not complimentary when used to describe the candidate’s voice. But this is not a sexist observation. While the word has become (okay, pardon the pun), a dog whistle of sorts, that is not fair to the word. It is just a word that describes the characteristic.

Clinton definitely needs vocal coaching, and were the campaign to hire me, I am certain that I could help her with this deficiency, just as I offered to help her with her slides back in 2008. She speaks from her throat too often, not her diaphragm, and when under stress or excitement, that tendency becomes exaggerated. And because she is a woman, this behavior results in a higher-than-normal pitch — beyond the comfort zones of most people.

There is a counterpart criticism for men — that they use their lungs to move too much air when they speak with emotion. They bellow. You will rarely hear that word used to criticize women, and that is a product of the science of physique. When public speakers speak in ways that are not comfortable to their audiences, women usually shriek and men usually bellow. These are simply the words that best describe these particular behaviors. If you would like to seek out or coin a more gender-neutral word that describes the annoying tendencies on the parts of all public speakers, I’ll be pleased to use it. Until then, these two are the best we have.

Each of the major-party candidates needs to be better trained in using a microphone, as they both tend to raise their voices to be heard above audiences, even though audience din stands no chance against a suitable public address system. When this happens, Clinton sounds shrill and Trump sounds angry.

For what it’s worth, Clinton’s vocal problem is easier to resolve than Trump’s — he speaks that way in all but the most intimate of settings and I suspect it is too ingrained to coach out of him. But Clinton knows how to speak from her belly; she is capable of lowering her register and speaking in a more measured tone. Her finest convention moment was her response to Trump’s claim that he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. She turned directly to the camera, took a full breath, and from her abdomen and in a controlled tone and tempo, said “No, Donald, you don’t.”

I tend to distinguish between one’s tendency and one’s permanent characteristic, so I’m not even sure how accurate it is to refer to Hillary Clinton as shrill. I would sooner use the term to describe MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, because he always speaks that way. I have to fast-forward over him, but I’ve heard Clinton speak from her lower register enough to know that she can do it effectively and avoid the common criticism that has followed her.

So, yes, Clinton has a tendency to be shrill. No, it is not sexist to say so. No, it is not unfair for commentators to report on it in the xxth hour of non-stop campaign coverage. And above all, it could be easily resolved with a bit of targeted coaching.

6 Comments

  1. Cindy Baker on Aug 2, 2016 at 4:57 pm

    I never heard Margaret Thatcher or Angel Merkel sound shrill. there are many women leaders around the world who convey their point and lead without sounding like that.

    • Rick Altman on Aug 2, 2016 at 4:58 pm

      You’re 100% right about that, Cindy. Never in a million years would I imply that all women are shrill. I do think that the deck is stacked against women, in that deep voices are often regarded as more commanding, and men can achieve them more readily than women can.

      That said, some of the best speakers in history have been women, and FWIW, at the The Presentation Summit, the best marks year after year are turned in by our women keynoters.

  2. Steve Rindsberg on Aug 2, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    Yes. This. Exactly.

    I’ve been wishing she’d get vocal coaching since way before the campaign started. Personally, I’d call her vocal style “harsh” rather than “shrill” but both work for me.

    Both of their Veep choices, hers and Harrumphs, are FAR better orators.

  3. Jim Endicott on Aug 2, 2016 at 4:59 pm
  4. Angela Peery on Aug 9, 2016 at 9:28 am

    Yep. Sure is [unfair]. I don’t hear anyone criticizing any male speakers for their volume or tone. Bernie Sanders sure gave us enough fodder, and Bill Clinton is raspy. Don’t hear about that. I do feel that she could learn a lot from Michelle Obama, however, about speaking in general.

  5. Bernie Meyer on Sep 23, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    On a forum dedicated to presentational skills, a discussion of those skills (or their lack) in our presidential candidates is to be expected. But I wonder whether sometimes, we and our polliticians place too much emphasis on delivery, rhetorical skill and so on. I once took a class from a pastor on preparing and delivering sermons (which in a sense, many political speeches are–MLK epitomizing this). This pastor made a comment–it may have been a quote from someone else–that struck me and has stayed with me. It’s this: The effectiveness of a sermon has more to do with the audience’s perception of the integrity of the speaker than with the content. In other words, no matter how lucidly and eloquently one conveys an idea or imperative, no matter his or her erudition, no matter their mastery of vocal delivery and performance, if a profound personal integrity, genuineness and (I think he also meant) real care for those they address is not sensed by the audience, the words will not penetrate to the heart and will be quickly forgotten. Does Hillary really care about me? Does Donald? I (and many others) profoundly doubt it, and so no matter how savvy or polished their delivery becomes, their speeches will be, as Shakespeare said, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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