We need to talk about Sir David Attenborough's voice

Of course, we love him.  And we trust him, too.

He’s like an agnostic’s god. A national treasure who resists being relegated to the history books. As we’ve seen with Captain Tom, there’s something powerful and moving in hearing a voice that endures, and speaks with purpose and authority about things that matter.

And what a voice. As he steps up to become the nation's geography teacher, we couldn’t help but try to analyse why we respond to Attenborough the way we do.

There’s the surface level stuff:

1. His voice is distinctive.

We’d know his plummy, soft, staccato tones with our eyes closed. It’s hard to imagine a more distinctive yet recognisable voice. Even if it’s seldom raised and has no soundbites to go with it.

2. He speaks in an intimate, half-whisper.

We feel like he’s talking to us, and only us. And it’s proof you can create intense drama without raising the volume, and while keeping it a safe space. It keeps us hooked as much as any tense race between a gazelle and a big cat.

3. He makes every word count.

A measured pace can make every statement sound like a gift. And while his tone is gentle, the content couldn’t be more direct, full of fierce clarity. But it’s an invitation, too. He still finds wonder in work he’s done for decades, and has a young campaigner’s sense of urgency, both of which pull us in rather than talking down to us.  

But what about the less obvious qualities?

4. He’s a storyteller.

He weaves his narrative through a tapestry of images. And he only speaks to inform, educate, or entertain. It’s just as important to find the shape of a story – and know when not to talk – as it is to use the right words.

5. He embraces technology but puts the story first.

His production values are legendary, but they complement, rather than overwhelm the narrative. Though he gives credit to the extraordinary team that captures those indelible images, we most powerfully remember the way he makes sense of them for us.

6. He has the breath of life.

Listen and you’ll find the pattern of his breathing holds your attention as much as anything else. How he audibly inhales, building pace. How he holds his breath while he speaks, pausing, controlling it. The way he allows us to hear (or imagine we hear) frailty, tenderness; these are skills and techniques managed by a virtuoso.

Put it all together and you get the voice of natural leadership. Something we’re in short supply of at the moment.

So, six things to think about.

- What makes your voice distinctive?

- How can you make people feel closer?

- What gives your words importance?

- Are you adding to your story – or distracting from it?

- Where can technology enhance your voice?

- Are you willing to sound vulnerable?

And a seventh:

Can you get through this blog post without trying to do the voice?


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