Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Voice matters

Some years ago a friend asked why I was having singing lessons. I stared in disbelief at this normally intelligent person, who tried to explain the question. “Don’t you just open your mouth and out it comes?” I gaped. “Your singing voice is just there like your speaking voice right?” I replied that this was a bit like asking Roger Federer why he had a tennis coach. My point was sound, but comparing myself to the tennis legend was not, and it was me who wound up looking an idiot.

My friend’s ignorance is not so unusual. For those of us who are ‘voice aware’, the way people sound it is a matter of interest and importance. We understand that your voice exerts a huge influence on the impression you create, and on your ability to communicate. Voice is every bit as important as looks and dress sense, charm and intelligence. In fact it’s vital for certain professions. Those who succeed in sales, teaching, politics, religion, the defence forces, management and the law nearly always use their voices well. It’s one of the qualities that enables them to command attention. Voice a vital leadership tool.

Who do you like to listen to? I bet they are easy to understand. I bet their voice is melodious, resonant, pleasing to the ear. They have clear diction, their voice carries. They speak at a pace which is easy to follow, and if they speak at length, they do so with enough variety to be interesting.

The opposite is also true. Who do you dislike listening to? Do they mumble, or have a squeaky, strained voice or a light one that doesn’t cut through? Are they missing the instinct to raise their voices in a large space? Do they speak too softly to be heard? These poor people are literally wasting their breath. Whatever it is they want to communicate remains unknown to their listeners.

As my friend revealed, many people are not ‘voice aware’. My friend wasn’t trying to insult me, it was just something she’d never thought about. To speak well you need to make the most of your voice, and to make the most of your voice you need to know a bit about how it works.

Vocal Anatomy

In some ways my friend was correct. You are born with your voice. It’s part of your anatomy, and each voice is distinctive – like your body. Your voice has its own individual timbre (that’s colour and texture). If you happen to sound like Marilyn Monroe, or you can round up a paddock of cattle with a single shout, you have an advantage. Most of us have the vocal equivalent of the family sedan. A voice that’s not too remarkable, but can do the job.

You can’t grow a new voice or change it completely. But the way you sound depends on a range of things, some of which are within your control. The reason you recognize your mother on the phone, or your best friend calling you from behind, is that everyone develops a unique blend of timbre, tone, pitch, pronunciation, accent, and inflection which make us sound like us. This blend is partly a result of our physical vocal characteristics, and also of our personality and life experience – but it’s ours to develop and play with.

I often read things that say a good voice is deep voice. Tosh. It would be a grave mistake to think that because you speak somewhere north of basso profundo you are disadvantaged. I meet plenty of people with low voices who aren’t worth listening to.

It’s true that certain timbres are more penetrating, or sound better in a microphone. It’s also true that your voice can probably become sound more like one of those. A good voice is just one which, whatever its natural size and timbre, is produced well. And that’s where my singing lessons come in. We understand that daily exercise keeps your body looking good and moving well. Learning how to produce your voice properly will keep it sounding good and working well.

Watch for more posts on this subject...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Poise on the Podium: using your eyes, body and voice to best effect

Body Language
Stand in a relaxed position, without swaying (this is a common nervous habit) or hanging on to the lectern. Plant your feet, as if your legs were trees. You may want to put your body in an imaginary corset if you are the type whose nerves make you want to twist and bend and wriggle about. You might be a ‘Happy wanderer’ who keeps the legs in motion all the time. Draw an imaginary ‘circle of death’ on the floor, and stay inside it. You will look mire professional that way. A solid position conveys authority, and you will feel better and stronger and more in control.

An open stance is best. Arms loosely by sides, feet hip width apart. Drop your shoulders and stick your chest out. You may feel like folding your arms, lowering your head, or putting your hands in your pockets. Don’t. You may feel better but you’ll look much worse.

Don’t clench anything visible – teeth, shoulders, fists. You can screw your toes up inside your shoes if it helps.
Turn squarely to face a person and look them in the eye when you shake their hand or answer a question.
Smile. Smiling helps in two ways, relaxing your mind and your body.

Eye contact
Eye contact with the audience is essential whether you're in a small meeting or addressing a crowd of 1,000.

In the speaker-audience relationship, you are the leader. Ensure your eyes are travelling right through the audience and you are looking directly at different people while you speak.

When you are practising your speech, ask your audience members to raise their hand when you’ve made eye contact with them. You’ll soon see how well you do this.


Whatever your voice tone and your natural way of speaking, you have a great tool at your disposal. Your voice is like a paintbrush for words. You can use it to underline and emphasise, to show light and shade. You can vary the type of language you use, the pitch, volume, pace, and tone of your voice to engage your audience and get your message through better.

Is your voice light? Soft? Strong? Breathy? Clear? Do you speak fluently, or stop and start a lot? Do you mumble or mesh your words together? Or do you enunciate clearly? Are you a quick talker or a slow and deliberate one?

In the first few seconds you are speaking, any listener will unconsciously make a judgement about you based partly on the way you sound.

Language and tone must fit the occasion and should be adjusted according to the audience. Generally, in public speaking you need to be clear and direct, and a bit more ‘proper’ than in casual conversation. One trick is to imagine you are talking to an older person – someone you respect. That will put you in the right language mode. Slang and jargon are not a good idea. Swearing is right out.

Volume and pace. A speaker must be able to be heard to be understood. Your voice is your power. Use it. In a big space you’ll need a microphone, or to PROJECT. A voice bounces around and echoes in a big space like a hall, so speak s-l-o-w-l-y, or it will turn to mash because of the reverb. Pace involves the speed of the message. Experts say that 120 to 150 words a minute is an excellent pace – about the pace of reading out loud.

Practice filling a large space without shouting. Get a friend to stand outside the room and talk to him or her. See how much more distinctly and slowly you have to speak? You need to work your lips, teeth and tongue quite a bit harder than normally. For public speaking you will almost certainly need to speak slower than you do in private. It feels weird but sounds fine.

Pitch. If your voice is high, or soft, or hard to understand for some other reason (for example, braces can disturb your articulation, you may have an accent if English is not your first language) you need to know this. Generally, a natural strong, medium paced, medium to low pitched voice is what a listener likes to hear.

Inflection is the way the pitch of your voice rises and falls. It’s the best tool for engendering interest, Monotonous speech has little inflection – it’s flat. Listeners will tune out. Animated speech usually is more interesting to listen to as it has variation in the pitch. Young Australian women should be especially careful of the HRT or High Rise Terminus –a habit where every sentence ends with an upswing in pitch.

In a leadership role you might want to consider that deep voices usually have authority. High voices can sound silly, or anxious or hysterical. Rightly or wrongly we take a high voice less seriously than a low one. However the real key is that it’s YOUR voice. Just be yourself, confidently.