Manner of Speaking: That's Not My Voice – Is It?
The voice you hear is different from the one the audience hears.
By Nancy Sebastian Meyer, ATMB, CL
As a speaker, you need the best voice quality possible. But to get your voice sounding the best it can, first you have to know what it actually sounds like, right? And that can be difficult – because the voice you hear is different from the one the audience hears.
Just think about the first time you heard your voice captured on a tape recorder, computer or other electronic device. You shook your head in amazement and said to your friends, “You’re joking. That’s not my voice – is it?”
“Sure,” they replied. But you still could hardly believe the two sounds were one and the same.
Pretend to be one of my voice students for a moment and I will explain this simple, yet profound concept of listening to your voice. As a speaker (or singer), you hear something different from your listeners because of three basic factors that work together: Your inner ear hears your inner voice; your outer ear receives a distorted outer voice; and your sound waves vibrate the whole ear mechanism. The end result is that you hear a different voice than other people do.
Let’s break down this process, so that you’ll better understand how to make vocal adjustments as a speaker.
Factor One: Your inner ear hears your inner voice.
“It’s a surprise! Don’t listen,” Chris instructed Kelly as he began whispering birthday plans to her friend. Kelly put her fingers in her ears and made nonsensical sounds to keep from overhearing their conversation. In the process, she noticed that with her fingers in her ears, her voice sounded so much louder than usual. Why?
Your voice originates in about the middle of your neck. Initial sound waves are created as air passes through your vocal folds (cords) drawn tight across the trachea (windpipe). You can feel the flutter with your fingertips if they lightly rest on the “adam’s apple” area of your throat while you speak or sing.
This tiny vibration is then magnified in the voice box (upper throat). The waves continue to grow in magnitude as they resonate in the cavities of your head before coming out your nose and/or throat.
Thus, your internal voice is created and grows from inside your neck up through the nasal cavities where it reverberates. And because your inner ear – which contains the actual organ of hearing – is located so closely to your inner voice, only you can hear your internal voice. This is a unique sound your listeners will never experience. Now, let’s add the next factor.
Factor Two: Your outer ear catches the distorted outer voice.
The other day my husband and I took a short hike. Several times I had difficulty catching everything he said when he was ahead of me on a narrow, single-file section of the trail. Likewise, he would ask me to repeat things when I was in the lead. The leader’s voice projected forward, in the opposite direction of the follower. Listening was much easier when we stopped, turned toward each other and spoke face to face.
Our listeners’ ears catch and pull in the sound waves, channeling them into the inner ear canal. But you cannot directly hear your own voice. Your ears are behind your mouth, like I was behind my husband on the hike. You hear the result of your vocal sound waves traveling forward, hitting surfaces and bouncing back to you. On this return trip, these somewhat distorted waves are caught by your outer ear and moved along inside to your ear drum.
So your inner ear not only hears the initial interior voice but also the distorted, round-about exterior voice coming in through the outer ear passage. Michael Kelly, author of Understanding the Power of Your Voice, says: “You hear your voice in stereo (air and bone conduction) while other people just hear it in mono (air conduction).”
Factor Three: Your sound waves vibrate the whole ear mechanism.
The sum of the first two factors – inner voice and indirect outer voice – would be enough to explain why speaker and listener hear two different things. But this third factor, vibration, plays an even more significant role:
When I’m a guest teacher in a junior or senior high school music class, I love to ask the students to experiment with vibration: “Try shaking your head from side to side as rapidly as possible while you say ‘peanut butter and jelly.’” The students have fun – the resulting words feel silly and sound ridiculous! And this crazy illustration demonstrates what is going on inside your head. Sound waves being created in the neck and head of the speaker or singer are vibrations that literally shake up everything inside, including your inner ear mechanism.
Therefore, the inner voice and around-the-corner outer voice are further distorted because your head is vibrating.
Help! How Can I Hear My Real Voice?
So that explains the process of why you hear your own voice differently from your listeners. When you are trying to develop the best voice quality you can, I encourage you to observe and play with all three factors outlined above. You can experiment with listening to your inner voice. You can take under consideration the additional vibrations in your head. But most importantly, you want to tune your outer voice to an audience-friendly sound.
You can hear more of what everyone else hears by amplifying your real voice with one of the following methods.
- Record a short speech or piece of prose on an electronic device and play it back. The higher quality the microphone, the more accurate your recording will be.
- Extend your sound catchers – your ears! Cup a hand around each ear and draw your elbows together. As you speak, channel the sound up your arms and into your ears.
- Purchase two PVC elbows that fit together like a phone. Speak into one end while the other end is positioned around your ear. (Caution: The smooth, hard plastic conducts sounds so well, you can damage your ear drum by speaking or singing too loudly.)
With each of these methods, your initial goal is hearing the voice your listeners hear. Do you like it? First, get past the fact that it sounds different from what you normally hear. Then, ask yourself if this is how you wish to sound to other people. If you don’t like what you hear, you do have the power to change it with awareness, practice and time.
Get Used to Your Voice – or Change It
Should you decide you wish to modify your voice, the next step is playing with your sound. Re-record or use your sound catchers or PVC “phone” to help you listen to the changes until you have something you like. Then practice this new way of speaking until it becomes second nature. Another helpful option is hiring a trusted vocal coach who can give you professional feedback on your real voice.
Seldom should a voice be changed drastically. Often the speaker just needs time to get used to the idea that the listener hears something different. Remember, different can be Okay.
Is it important to know what your listeners hear? Think about your old high school teacher with the nasally voice or your hair stylist who sounds so breathy. These people probably give no thought to their sound. However, the speaker’s voice makes an impression on the listener.
Ask yourself these questions. Is what I have to tell people important enough to present it in the most appealing manner? Does my voice complement or distract from my message? How much am I willing to work on my voice to make it work for me?
Some day you might be a Toastmasters speech finalist whose recording gets passed around clubs all over the world. I say, “Go for it!” Maximize the impact of your unique voice.
Nancy Sebastian Meyer, ATMB, CL, is a member and past president of the Downtown Sunrise Toastmasters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A national speaker and author, she has recorded two solo albums and mentors students in voice and speaking. To learn more, visit www.nancysebastianmeyer.com.