The Cornered Cat
Mom Voice

One of the most significant challenges I have faced as an instructor: making my voice work well enough for every student on the range to easily hear it. The problem – to the extent that it is a problem – is that I’m a girl, with a girl’s naturally-higher voice register. Male voices tend to cut right through ear muffs or plugs without much difficulty, but female voices have a harder time getting through. So I have had to learn a few tricks to help students hear my voice.

Fortunately, even the naturally soft-spoken 1 can learn to project their voices more effectively. Learning to project your voice certainly helps if you’re an instructor, but it’s also important for simple self defense. That whole thing about a soft answer turning away wrath is really, really important for people who need to de-escalate a schoolyard fight, a bar brawl, or any other social confrontation. However, those who face asocial threats, especially predatory violence – think strong-arm robberies or rapes – do much better to project a strong, forceful presence, because predators look for wimpy victims. A big part of creating that presence is using a strong, forceful voice to tell the would-be attacker to “BACK OFF!” or “STAY AWAY!”

I have been in classes where this skill was taught as Command Voice, a term which comes out of military use and has spread over into law enforcement circles. There’s nothing wrong with this term, but it doesn’t really resonate with me. I tend to think of it instead as Mom Voice.

Picture this: You are in your front yard when you see your 5-year-old son on the other side of the street. Just as you look up, you see two things. First, you see a car coming down the street. Second, you see your son stepping into the street. He is about to run directly into the path of an oncoming car. You need to stop him NOW, without any hesitation whatsoever. You don’t have time for a lot of words. You must be forceful. You must be loud enough for him to hear you clearly. That means you are not going to whine or beg, scold or whisper or plead or explain. You will simply shout. “DON’T MOVE! STAY THERE!”

That’s Mom Voice.

The sound comes from deep in your belly, not from your voice box. Ideally, it places very little or no strain on your vocal chords. It won’t create a raspy feeling in your throat, because the volume comes from your diaphragm muscles. It uses a much lower pitch than any scream.

To make it work, you must use short, simple sounds. “DON’T MOVE!” works well. So does, “BACK OFF!” or “GET BACK!” These are all clear, brief commands. Each word can be expressed in one sharp breath. Each word should be sharp, separate, distinct. Words that start and end with bold, crisp consonants work better than ones that start with soft, sussurating sounds or mumbly murmurs.

Your words must be very decisive and clear. To achieve that clarity, you must know what you are going to say before you open your mouth.Yes, I know that sounds a little insane, but how often have you heard someone begin a sentence with, “Ummm…” or “Ohhh…”? Those throat-clearing sounds give you time to think of what you’ll say next. But they erase your power. They make it harder for your listeners to hear you, blurring your intent and confusing your audience. You must begin with absolute decisiveness and snap out the words as if you really mean them. You must know what you will say before you ever open your mouth.

To make that happen, as an instructor, you should have a set list of commands you use every time you run a range. It does not matter (too much) what the specific commands are – as long as you use the same ones every time, and as long as your students know what each command clearly means. For this reason, you should practice your commands, especially the ones related to safety (“CEASEFIRE!”), on a regular basis. If you are not teaching regularly, you can practice the commands in the privacy of your own car on your way to work. 2

As a private citizen, you should also have a ready-made list of things you might say to a potential attacker. You should practice words you might use during or after a criminal encounter. “STAY BACK!” is a good one. So is, “GO AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE!” Remember, you want short words you can spit out in one breath, and phrases that fit together easily. Try these, too: “CALL THE POLICE!” or “CALL AN AMBULANCE!” Again, try practicing these words in the privacy of your car, where other people can’t hear you. 3

These little tricks help make your voice clear, distinct, and easy to understand. And they may one day save someone’s life… including the life of a little boy who didn’t run into the street because someone used Mom Voice to stop him.


  1. My siblings will tell you I am not among them…
  2. Yep. That’s what I meant. It’s admittedly a lot of fun to tell the other cars, “DON’T MOVE!” as you enter an intersection, or tell the car riding your bumper to “BACK OFF!” But the commands don’t have to be related to what you’re doing at the moment, and do make sure your windows are up so you don’t provoke unnecessary alarm in other drivers.
  3. Did I mention? Roll the windows up first!

2 Responses to Mom Voice

  1. larryarnold says:

    Excellent as usual.

    Quibble: There’s a difference between “STAY BACK” and “GO AWAY,” and it’s which one you can actually enforce.

    Guy’s threatening you with a baseball bat. You point your gun at him and command, “STAY BACK!” If he takes a step toward you it shifts your justification to shoot. Bang.

    Guy’s threatening you with a baseball bat. You point your gun at him and command, “GO AWAY!” He says, “Eff you. I’m staying” but doesn’t step closer. Now what? You can’t make him go away. (There may be an exception if you’re on your own property.)

    In my classes I contrast between, “STOP OR I’LL SHOOT” and “DROP THE BAT” which makes the concept clearer.

    Avoid giving an asocial attacker a command you can’t enforce.

  2. Ascension says:

    Very well put.

    I had a teacher in Junior High that worked as a security officer as a side job. He always made a point to encourage the kids to speak in a manner that carried their voice. He’d purposely make them repeat something until he was satisfied they understood how to throw their voice without raising it.

    Later in life I took management training classes for a job and discovered that not everyone (even those that had been in leadership roles for years) understood the concept. It honestly surprised me. Being able to project your voice also projects confidence and demand which forces others to respond in some way. Not necessarily the way you wish, but they can no longer refuse or pretend not to acknowledge you.

    I’m a firm believer that its a valuable skill to have in your arsenal. Not only for self-defense purposes, but for everyday life and work.

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