For almost an entire year, while hosting The Public Speaker (a weekly audio podcast on the topic of communication) I was sick just about every other week until I was finally diagnosed and treated for adult-onset asthma! During that year my voice was consistently nasal, breathy and raspy. With hundreds of thousands of monthly downloads, that trifecta of awfulness motivated several listeners to share negative comments that were, let’s just say, less than motivational!
Here’s the thing—whether we like it or not, we’re judged by our voices. Thoughts, memories and emotions are automatically triggered by the sound of another person’s voice. The research is very clear: When a voice is clear, smooth and dynamic, the speaker is viewed as competent, confident and compelling. Unclear, hesitant flat speech creates the opposite impression.
After your next club meeting, ask yourself: Was my voice influential or ineffectual? How did my voice support my words? What traits and patterns of my voice betrayed my messages? If you’re like most of us, you’re probably not absolutely certain, because we rarely hear our own voice as others do.
To objectively evaluate yourself, I recommend recording your voice. Then download the free Your Speaking Voice manual from the Toastmasters Online Store. Use the Speech Profile to evaluate yourself, and ask a fellow Toastmaster to complete the same profile for you. Your goal? To identify your potential problem areas and use exercises to improve your vocal power.
Here are some common vocal problems to listen for:
Do your sentences start off strong but the final few words diminish to the point that it is difficult or impossible to hear you? Are you running out of breath toward the end of each sentence? When you trail off, your listeners miss words and your thoughts feel incomplete. It’s important to deliver all your words with similar energy and commitment all the way to the end of each sentence. If not, you’ll lose clarity, credibility and authority.
The Fix: Use diaphragmatic breathing techniques to breathe through to the end of a phrase and not run out of steam. As you speak, imagine written words falling out of your mouth and floating toward your listener. Loud, clear words float at the level of your mouth, while quiet words fall to the floor. The idea is to keep your words floating slightly above and below your mouth—especially the ones at the end of your sentences!
Mumbling is a close cousin of trailing off and often leads to the same negative impressions. If you’re a mumbler, you probably already know because you’re tired of people asking you, “Can you repeat that?” Unlike trailing off, which is a breathing/confidence issue, mumbling is usually due to poor enunciation. I’ve noticed that many people hold stress and tension in the jaw, neck and mouth, which makes it more difficult to open the mouth wide enough to speak clearly. To speak clearly, you should have at least one finger width of space between your upper and lower teeth.
The Fix: Loosen up your neck, mouth and jaw by yawning and by chewing a big imaginary piece of gum. Then practice speaking your words with your mouth two finger widths apart. Be sure to use a mirror for this exercise, because your mouth will naturally begin to close if you aren’t looking.
Do you hear a croaky, raspy frog in your voice? Vocal fry happens when you move your voice down to the lowest register. It involves elongating certain syllables so that they vibrate at the back of your throat, creating a low pitched scratchy, gravelly sound most common in young North American and British women’s voices. It’s difficult to describe in words, but you’ve probably heard vocal fry in celebrities like American Kim Kardashian.
People in the older generations (baby boomer or Generation X) tend to perceive vocal fry as irritating, and at least one study showed that voices with fry were perceived as less competent, less attractive and less hirable. However, many in the younger generation don’t view it that way, and in fact, intentionally use it in an effort to sound sexier and more authoritative.
The Fix: Try a few of the breathing and voice relaxation exercises found in the Your Speaking Voice manual. You can also try slightly raising the pitch of your voice so you’re consistently speaking toward the middle of your natural vocal range (the manual explains how to find your vocal range if you are unsure).
Is your voice flat, lackluster, lifeless? A monotone voice lacks intonation—a variety of tone, pitch, loudness, rhythm and tempo. Intonation is critical because that’s what we use to signal our attitudes and emotions and focus attention on important elements of our message. What I’ve noticed is that people who speak in a monotone often don’t give themselves permission to openly express emotions. On a scale of zero to10, with zero being dead and 10 being over-the-top emotional, these people often express at level 2 or 3, at best.
The Fix: A good way to develop intonation is to exaggerate. Try to express emotion at level 9 or 10 using your entire body. Start with anger. Start with the phrase I hate this. I can’t do this. Scrunch your face, grit your teeth, clench your fists and repeat the words with as much emotion as you can muster, choosing a different word to emphasize with each repeat. Do the exercise again, except this time express the opposite emotion using upbeat words: I can do this! I love this! Change your facial expressions and movements to show extreme joy.
Finally, repeat both sets of phrases at level 5 several times. This time look in the mirror and notice your face. For someone who usually limits facial expression to levels 1 through 3, level 5 will seem overly exaggerated. However, rest assured, this reflects natural expressions of emotions appropriate for both conversations and public speaking (much more natural than limited expression at levels 1 through 3). For more practice, try some exercises in the “Spice Up Your Speaking” section of the manual.
Does your voice have a rising intonation at the end of declarative sentences? In other words, does it sound like you’re asking a question when you’re making a statement? Conversationally, we use this rising intonation to convey the sentiment “Do you understand me/agree with me/approve of me?” However, when it’s used excessively or exclusively, particularly in a prepared speech, it becomes problematic. Upspeak makes you sound uncertain.
The Fix: Ask and then answer a question just using one word. Really? (rising intonation). Really! (falling intonation). Practice making the difference between the two as big as you can. Then practice declarative sentences by issuing a series of commands to your imaginary dog. Give me your paw. Play dead. Roll over. The idea is to get used to how rising and falling intonation feel different in your throat.
Will You Commit to Improving Your Vocal Power?
Although I’ve given some vocal traits to listen for and a few exercises to get you started, when it comes to developing the voice, what you really need are short, daily repetitions over a long period of time. Like going to the gym regularly, daily practice gives you the opportunity to reinforce new skills and create a noticeable difference in your voice.
Lisa B Marshall is a communications expert who delivers consulting and workshops, the author of Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview, and host of the Public Speaker and Smart Talk podcasts. Learn more by visiting her website.