Strange things are happening to speakers’ voices.
Vocal ranges seem to be narrowing. Male voices are becoming less resonant, and female voices are infected with vocal fry. Most worrisome of all, too many voices use the infamous uptick at the end of declarative statements, making them sound like questions. The result is a narrowing of vocal skill and options.
Here’s the thing: A public speaker without a voice is a mime. As a presenter, you thrive—or are mute—because of your voice.
Beyond reaching an audience, a voice can convey quite a lot about its owner. For example, Boston Children’s Hospital is focusing on diagnosing a number of serious illnesses by analyzing vocal patterns. Heart disease, for example, may show up in your voice before it appears anywhere else.
Caring for your voice is essential for long-term success as a speaker (and as a healthy human). Here are five ways to maximize your precious instrument:
1. Develop a daily vocal warmup routine.
You wouldn’t go for a five-mile run without stretching first, would you? Yet some of us speak more than 40,000 words a day without so much as a brief warmup.
Gargling, triads and scales should be part of every speaker’s daily morning routine. If you’re in doubt as to what to do, get Roger Love’s book—or Edith Skinner’s—and use a handful of the many vocal exercises shown in either book.
2. Support your voice, and increase its resonance with good belly breathing.
Those of us who sit hunched over a computer every day tend to breathe through our upper chests. That can make our voices nasal, not resonant. Nasal voices are unpleasant to listen to, and they’re also unpersuasive.
Instead of breathing through your upper chest, stand up, and breathe in through your stomach, expanding it with air. Then speak with support from your diaphragm. Do this as a regular break during the day.
3. Retain a touch of the nasal so that your voice can be heard.
Nasal voices can be intensely irritating, but resonant voices with just a touch of the nasal tenor are both delightful and easily heard. A voice with no nasal quality at all is difficult to detect from background noise, and it lacks conviction.
4. Let your real voice out.
Now that you’ve taken care of the technical aspects of warming up your voice, let your voice be heard in the larger sense. Allow your voice to rise and swell with passion. Fully express your personality.
Your voice—ostensibly, your breath—was once believed to be intimately connected with your soul. Let it out, and be heard.
5. Have a conversation with your audience—but an elevated one.
The genre of public speaking today is a casual one. We respond better to people who talk informally, rather than those who read a speech or blandly declaim off a teleprompter.
Informality is fine, but lack of clarity is not. Extemporizing is good, but “ums,” “ahs” or mumbling are not.
Vary your vocal pace, and finish one sentence before jumping to the next. Make it easy on your audience by speaking clearly, forcefully and memorably. Make it easy on yourself by putting in the work to have—and keep—a great voice.