One of the most fascinating details of the disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’ saga is her voice. It’s oddly deep, but that isn’t strange on its own merit. Many women have naturally deep voices. There is something about Elizabeth’s that just sounds off, it’s an uncanny voice that doesn’t really sound like anyone’s natural voice, though it does kind of sound like Mira Sorvino’s put-on voice in Romy and Michele’s High school Reunion. There is also evidence to suggest that her voice is, in fact, fake. Some of it is hearsay from those who knew her before she developed the public persona she used to market her company’s outlandish claims, but there are a few times when she publicly slipped up and we can get a glimpse of what she naturally sounds like.
At the 0:55 mark of the below video you can hear a high-pitched young woman’s voice say “No, it hasn’t” before she slips back into her trademark baritone.
In this video, Elizabeth seems more relaxed during an interview than she usually is, and her voice changes gradually from her practiced, slow speaking to a faster, higher-pitched speaking that sounds a lot more natural. Because this is more of a subtle gradation the differences are less pronounced, but at the 1:43 mark she seems to be speaking more in her “real” voice.
How the people from her past say she sounds
WSJ writer John Carreyrou has done a masterful job of reporting on Elizabeth Holmes and the alleged fraud that she committed with her company Theranos with his articles and his book and podcast, both titled Bad Blood (affiliate links.) During his work, he has interviewed many people who have heard Elizabeth talk in her more natural voice, and say it is much different from the one the public has come to hear from her.
This Inside Edition video clip features one of Elizabeth’s former Stanford professors who claim Elizabeth used to speak in a more high-pitched tone. The professor even imitates Elizabeth’s deep voice before breaking into her own voice expressing disbelief. It’s interesting to note that this female professor seems to have a naturally deep feminine voice.
Former Apple designer Ana Arriola, who gave up 15,000 shares of Apple stock to work for Theranos, didn’t realize Elizabeth wasn’t using her real voice at first. Speaking with Rebecca Jarvis for The Dropout podcast, Ana said “we didn’t know that it wasn’t her voice until much later. In all of my interactions with her, she never fell out of character. That was her voice. But other people that I worked with actually had caught her fall out of voice. I think it was at one of the company’s parties. Maybe she has a little too much to drink or whatnot, but she fell out of character and exposed that that wasn’t necessarily her true voice. Maybe she needed it to be more convincing to project a persona within a room amongst male VCs? I’m not really sure.”
The change in her vocal patterns seems to have come about at some point before she became the public face of her company Theranos and embarked on a high-profile media blitz after the publication of her “star-making” 2014 Fortune cover article titled “This CEO is out for blood.” She even mostly kept up this voice in front of employees, investors, and everyone else she talked to privately, although she would occasionally slip-up like the time she got excited over a gift they were going to hand out to children after blood tests, or if she’s been drinking.
Why did Elizabeth Holmes use a fake deep voice?
The leading theory about why Elizabeth Holmes speaks this way is that she wanted to be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley. She also chooses to speak very slowly and clearly, and in easy to understand language. This tactic is a kind of power move that can inspire the listener to pay attention to every word.
If you listen to a lot of Elizabeth Holmes interviews between 2014-18, you’ll notice she has certain scripts she sticks to where she delivers an easily-digestible narrative about being able to run hundreds of diagnostic tests from one, or at most two, drops of blood. She emphasizes the “tubes and tubes” of blood necessary for many blood tests, how many people fear needles, and the pain that can be involved. She also invokes emotion with a story about her uncle who died from cancer because it was found too late to be treatable. She claims to be working on a way to diagnose cancer before it becomes untreatable.
If she is asked questions she’s not prepared for, however, she can easily get flustered and resort to word salads: saying a lot of words that don’t convey a lot of meaning. Still, she sticks with the deep voice and slow delivery that can lull the listener into thinking she’s making sense.