Public Speaking Tips for the Voice
Your voice is your instrument. Whether you are standing on a stage, sitting in a meeting or presenting online, the one thing that will keep your audience engaged is your voice. If your voice is interesting and varied, people will stay engaged. If your voice is monotonous and colourless, they will not.
Fortunately, I am not talking about drama school and stage acting where a voice needs to have the power and projection to function night after night in a large auditorium. Even so, some form of ‘warm-up’ exercises will still be one of the tips I am recommending below.
However, for most of us, presenting will be something we do every now and then for a few minutes in front of a relatively small group of people and even if we are speaking in a larger room the chances are that there will be some form of sound system to support us.
Long gone are the days of Cicero or for that matter later on, up to the 1920s when campaigners and politicians would have to manufacture a simple platform (soapbox) in order to be heard above the assembled crowd and general hubbub. By the time we arrive at the Second World War, we are already familiar with mages of Roosevelt or Hitler standing in front of a bank of microphones.
So for most of us we just need to have a voice that has colour and variety, probably backed up with a conviction and passion that can engage and hold our listeners’ attention.
- Warm up
IF you are very serious about this, there are many resources on the internet. The National Theatre has some short videos on relaxing and opening up the voice. They have a shorter condensed ten-minute version for younger students that covers some useful essentials:
However unless you have a very private space or the washrooms are a significant distance from the presentation room, I am not sure you would feel comfortable doing some of these exercises in an office where you could be heard. Therefore a little bit of humming through the range of your voice and blowing bubbles noises through closed lips could be done discreetly. In fact if you are overheard, people might just think you sound so happy an enthusiastic to be there that you cannon stop yourself from humming and singing!
- Tongue twisters
Again this is something that you can do quietly and discreetly a few moments before you need to speak.
The aim is to exercise your mouth in the same way you would stretch your body before a run. Choose a few words that require a bit of a stretch to pronounce comfortably. One suggestion is to list various Italian pastas to yourself. If there are some challenging terms or names in your upcoming presentation, practise them slowly and clearly, making a conscious decision on which syllables you would choose to emphasise or move towards. So if you needed to say ‘oncological rehabilitation’ in your presentation (and my first advice would be to look for a way to avoid it – especially early on when you are particularly nervous and not yet settled) choose the syllables that you would use stepping stones, or instance:
- ONcoLOgical REhabiliTAtion’
- Find you diaphragm
‘I am about to do a stressful presentation and you want me to find my diaphragm?’ ‘Yes!’
As you are doing your humming, place your hands on your lower abdomen and then make the sound of a bass drum followed by a high-hat cymbal. You should feel your abdomen moving. You have a connection. Keep that connection in mind. Often when we get nervous our voice goes high, our breathing becomes shallow and we lose that depth and everything seems restricted to high up in the chest.
It helps to consciously take the voice into a lower register (Tip 5) to create space to re-establish the connection.
We will look at Stance as an area to focus on by itself in another blog – but everything connects!
Standing straight, balanced and relaxed will obviously help, as if your body is balanced and relaxed it will have an effect on your voice. Feet solidly planted on the ground, shoulder width apart is a good starting stance. A head balanced on your spine will keep your vocal cords free and relaxed. If your chin is down to your chest or jutting forward, that will affect the flow of energy. Sitting down can be particularly dangerous, as you can slouch or lean, hampering the flow. So apart from a good posture looking good, it will also keep your airways freer and provide good support for your vocal system.
Here come the Three Ps
Your voice can go higher and lower.
I remember a friend telling me how he was asked to help judge a speech competition in Japan, even though he could not speak Japanese! However, he found he became acutely aware of how well the speakers varied their voices and listening to how they raised and lowered their voices at the start or the end of sections seemed to indicate to him how they supported the structure of the presentation through vocal emphasis.
It might be worth recording yourself and listening back to realise that what we imagine is a change of pitch or emphasis actually has no impact at all. In our heads we think we are making a difference, but from the outside, there is no contrast. So it is worth exaggerating our delivery, take your voice up higher than feels normal and deeper than sounds natural. In your own head, it might sound absolutely ridiculous, but play it back and you will barely notice the difference in pitch. As a musician, one would comment to a pupil:
‘I can see that you are doing the expression marks – but I cannot hear them!’
Particularly if we refer back to Tip 3, the diaphragm, we can use the pitch of the voice – particularly at the end of a sentence or an idea – to come down at the end, so that the sentence sounds like it has reached a conclusion. In music, this would be like a ‘perfect cadence’, where we know that the phrase has come to an end. And then we could start the next section with a much higher tone to emphasise the change of context.
I can hear quicker than you can speak, so speaking fast in itself is not a problem. It becomes a problem if there is no variety in the pace (problem? – it is just exhausting to listen to!). The key to an engaging voice is a voice that has variety and Pitch and Pace are two ways that we can inject variety into our delivery.
A fast pace, in itself, is not a problem as long as the words are clearly spoken (Tip 2 – tongue twisters will help limber up the mouth so that each word comes out clearly), but to maintain engagement it is worth choosing moments to change the pace. Typically if you are a fast speaker, then use the climax of your sentences to slow down to drive a point home. You could be a naturally slow-paced speaker who therefore creates the contrast by building up the pace of delivery to reach a climax.
Most of us struggle with speaking too fast and not very clearly. Therefore keeping an eye on speaking a little slower and making sure that each word is clearly enunciated will help.
This is the simplest of the three Ps. Are you loud enough? We probably don’t need to stand on a soapbox anymore, so the volume only needs to be enough to be heard comfortably in the room. A general tip is:
Speak a little louder and a little slower than you would imagine as normal.
And if we are looking for contrast, as with Pitch and Pace, look for opportunities to vary the volume.
Start a new sentence with an emphasis; build up to a climax; drop to a (properly projected) whisper.
Again this is an element worthy of its own attention, but if having an engaging voice is about contrasts, there can be no greater contrast to sound than silence. Give yourself and your audience a moment to let an idea settle; if you are asking a question, allow it to register with the audience before jumping in with your next thought; use silence for dramatic emphasis.
- Record yourself
I would always caution against overdoing this one. Anything that is taken too far can make the final presentation sound unnatural and forced. Nevertheless, it is useful to get an objective perspective on your delivery. Until we listen to ourselves, and sometimes regardless of the observations of others, we will not take fully on board that our pauses are too short; our pace is too one-dimensional, our tone is too flat and our voice is too bland
- The good news
You do not need a beautiful voice, or even a particularly powerful voice, you need a voice that is clear, varied and easy to follow. I remember listening to an American lady from the east coast of the United States.
She did not have a lovely actor’s projection, her voice was quite thin, her accent was quite nasal, and her natural pitch was quite high. However, within a few moments everyone was fully engaged, because as soon as we got used to the timbre, her variety of tone and pace, her clarity of structure and emphasis and her clear belief and passion for her subject drew us all in.
Your voice is your tool:
pay attention to it and