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​This is what powerful people sound like

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously employed a voice coach who trained her to sound more authoritative.

SUZANNE PLUNKETT/AFP/Getty Images

What do you think of when you conjure the sound of a powerful voice? Something deep, loud, booming, most likely. According to a recent study in the journal Psychological Science, the sounds of power is actually in the details -- a particular modulation of pitch and volume that lets even strangers know who's in charge.

Researchers at San Diego State University had participants role-play scenarios in which they felt powerful or subordinate, then read a passage of text into a recorder. When the scientists compared the recordings to baseline measurements of the participants' voices before the role-play exercise, they found that those placed in the high-rank condition stood out in three ways. They had higher pitch, lower pitch variability and high variability in loudness.

What's more, when a new set of volunteers came in and listened to all the tapes, they could reliably determine which speakers were in a position of power and which were not.

"They weren't even told that the speakers were in any kind of power role-play," said Sei Jin Ko, one of the authors of the paper. "We had them judge the kinds of high/low power behavior these speakers are likely to engage in -- for instance, 'How likely is it that this person is in a position to reward others?' versus 'How good at following instructions would this person be?' The perceivers were able to predict the speaker's power level."

Typically, we think of high-pitched voices as squeaky, or whiny, and a powerful voice as being low and booming. But those perceptions have more to do with resonance (also known as sonority or timbre) than pitch.

It can be a difficult distinction to wrap your head -- or ears -- around, but Ko offered this helpful analogy: "If you listen to a violin and cello play the same note, it's the identical pitch, but the timbre and resonance are different, so you know one is cello and one is violin."

In the same way, a person with either a high-pitched or a low-pitched voice can sound powerful. What this study revealed is that it's the way a voice changes in tune with the power structure of a situation that makes all the difference.

Upon being imbued with hypothetical power, people's voices raised in pitch from their baselines. But they also decreased in pitch variability, taking on a less sing-songy quality. The result was a voice that sounded steadier, more in control.

In past research, Ko found that a sing-songy speaking voice is generally perceived as feminine. "It's important because that can undermine how confident somebody sounds," she told CBS News.

The powerful participants also showed a wider volume range, which, combined with the pitch change, made their voices more dynamic. Listeners seemed to take this dynamism as an indication of dominant status.

The people who judged the recordings were slightly more accurate at picking out powerful male speakers than powerful women speakers. The difference was not statistically significant, but Ko speculated that since men tend to play powerful roles more often in society, they could have been more practiced and effective at projecting power in their voices.

But, she stressed, these results suggest that anyone is capable of speaking with the voice of authority.

"A lot of the inspiration for this came from Margaret Thatcher's voice training. She really believed that it would be effective and certainly her voice did sound powerful. Thatcher probably didn't always feel powerful as Prime Minister, but she learned to control her voice," Ko said.

And for the rest of us? Ko said, "I think you need to feel powerful. To the extent that people do immerse themselves in feeling powerful, they seem to be able to change their voice," albeit subconsciously.

In lieu of that feeling: fake it. Focus on steadying your pitch -- even if you're already steadying your nerves.

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com