Public Speaking: 15 Easy Ways to Keep Your Voice Healthy
It's just twelve days before the election, and the crowd is on fire. The plane rolls to a stop on the tarmac. Immediately, signs are thrust up into the night sky and screams fill the air. The candidate bounds off the plane and jogs to the lectern, which is set up right there on the runway. He smiles broadly and waves energetically to his audience, the picture of enthusiasm. "Four more years!" chants the crowd.
Yet when the man begins to speak, something is wrong. His voice sounds odd. It's not the voice the nation has become familiar with over the past four years. It's much huskier. It strains for volume, and it barks out words as the speaker struggles to be heard. In fact, for the past couple of weeks this candidate, Barack Obama, has been barnstorming the country making speech after speech with little rest. And his voice is paying the price of that schedule. (To learn how to speak with impact and influence with your audiences, download my cheat sheet, "4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker.")
Here's what the president sounded like this week at that rally at Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland:
You can clearly make out the strain in the president's voice as he enlists his overworked vocal folds in delivering yet another barn-burning speech. Presumably, the irritation or inflammation of his vocal apparatus is only temporary.
When you speak at meetings, presentations, on the phone or virtually, you face the same challenge in keeping your voice functioning optimally without strain or damage. This article offers 15 easy techniques to help you do so.
How Your Voice Works
Vocal sound is created by the activation of your vocal folds, commonly referred to as vocal "cords." They're not cords, however, but folds of mucous membrane; hence the name.
The vocal folds, housed in the voice box or larynx, are activated when airflow causes them to vibrate and come together to produce sound (think of the analogy of crickets' wings). Proper breathing habits and the gentle coming together of the vocal folds facilitate a warm, pleasant voice. Poor breathing, "slamming" the vocal folds together, or subjecting the vocal folds to harsh conditions inside your voice box result in a strained voice which is often unpleasant to listen to, hard to hear, and painful for the speaker.
Let's look at what you can do to avoid the bad habits or unfavorable conditions that can leave you with vocal strain, discomfort, or a voice which doesn't seem to be cooperating. First the Do's, then a few Dont's.
Support your breath. Do you belly-breathe? Diaphragmatic breathing, or using your diaphragmatic area to breathe rather than your chest (thoracic breathing) or shoulder area (clavicular breathing), is your body's natural breathing cycle. It helps create full and easy breath which allows your vocal folds to produce sound with little effort and no strain. Here's how to belly-breathe to stay calm, confident, and focused.
Hydrate yourself. It's important that you keep your vocal folds moist. The drier the mucous membrane, the raspier the sound. Speech anxiety in particular can shut off the flow of saliva you need for a healthy mouth and throat. If you don't want to look like a lizard flicking its tongue out continually, keep yourself hydrated. Plain water is best.
Rest your voice. If you're experiencing strain, pain, or a general energy drain, you need to rest your voice. When that isn't possible, work on speaking more succinctly (fewer words = less speaking). And learn to trust silence.
Keep candy, mints, or cough drops handy. Anything that keeps your saliva glands active is a good idea, as you'll continually bathe your vocal folds in necessary moisture. Green apples are particularly good at keeping those saliva glands busy!
Drink tea with lemon and honey. This combination helps soothe your throat. The tea shouldn't be too hot, of course. And avoid this drink just before speaking, as you don't want to coat your throat with honey.
Hum, focusing the sound on the "mask" of your face. Your lips should tingle or feel "itchy" so you want to scratch them! The idea is to center your sound frontally, rather than letting it sink down into your throat and chest. The less you force sound down into your throat, the more you'll be able to speak effortlessly and comfortably.
Warm up your voice. Start with the humming exercise I just mentioned, then open your mouth wide and let the sound emerge as if you were saying "Maaaah." (I call this the Crocodile.) Now let the sound slide through the musical scale, from the lowest to the highest pitch you can produce without strain. Finally, place your voice in the center of your range and "place" the sound at a distance of about ten feet. Sing it if you like! (You can combine this warm-up with my 5-minute exercise to calm your nerves before speaking.)
Take a shower. Nothing personal. The warm water and steam will moisten your vocal apparatus and open your throat. You can also try the vocal warm-up above in the shower while these conditions apply.
Avoid dairy. Milk, chocolate, and other dairy products coat your throat. As mentioned above, a coated throat will produce a muffled sound, and you'll keep wanting to clear your throat. As I state in the next tip, you shouldn't do so.
Try not to clear your throat. This "slams" the vocal cords together, rather than the gentle action which should take place. Anything that increases the tension in the vocal cords or abrades them is counter-productive to healthy sound and can actually damage the membranes. If you feel you have to get rid of an annoying sensation in your throat, swallow to clear the secretions, or drink water to thin them out.
Don't speak louder. Instead, think of using more energy. To "speak louder" means to increase the tension in your vocal folds, and it usually changes the quality of your voice for the worse. Instead, to gain more volume, simply increase the breath-energy emanating from your diaphragmatic area by consciously contracting the diaphragm, thereby "supporting" the sound with a full cushion of air. Make sure you keep your throat open. Do these things and you'll improve your projection without straining your voice.
Don't smoke. Smoking dries up the vocal folds, and as we know, they need to stay moist. It's easy to identify a smoker by their voice alone: it's deeper than it once was, raspier and dry-sounding.
Avoid alcohol or caffeinated beverages. These also dry up your throat. Antihistamines do as well. And let's face it: if you're depending upon caffeine to give you energy or alcohol to reduce your anxiety over speaking, you need to make lifestyle changes instead.
Don't whisper. Some speech coaches and medical professionals believe that whispering damages the voice. Others say it doesn't. Whispering is one of the speaking techniques in which the vocal folds don't vibrate, i.e., the sound is produced without the voice box being activated. That's not necessarily good or bad, it's just one of the ways you can produce spoken sound without the benefit of a full voice. If you do whisper, avoid squeezing your vocal folds together too hard. It isn't necessarily and can be harmful.
Eliminate slouching or bad posture. When you slouch, you reduce your breathing capacity and constrict your throat. If you're aiming for a healthy and pleasant voice, that points you in the wrong direction. Of course, slouching also looks bad. To increase your awareness of what you're showing listeners, read my article "Body Language Secrets: What Self-Image Are You Broadcasting?"
Your voice is your most flexible and powerful communication tool. Skillful use of the voice helps you speak with confidence, clarity, and credibility. Discover how to boost your vocal delivery and speak with influence to the most important audiences in the world . . . yours! Download Dr. Gary Genard's cheat sheet "5 KeyTools of Vocal Dynamics" and start making more powerful speeches and presentations today!