Your voice can reveal as much about your personal history as your appearance.
The sound of a voice and the content of speech can provide clues to an individual's emotional state and a dialect can indicate their geographic roots. The voice is unique to the person to whom it belongs. For instance, if self-esteem is low, it may be reflected by hesitancy in the voice, a shy person may have a quiet voice, but someone who is confident in themselves will be more likely to have command of their voice and clarity of speech.
This page can help you understand and utilise the full potential of your voice.
Aspects of Effective Speaking
Effective speaking has nothing to do with the outdated concept of 'elocution' where everyone was encouraged to speak in the same 'correct' manner. Rather, effective speaking concerns being able to speak in a public context with confidence and clarity, whilst at the same time reflecting one's own personality.
Aspects of effective speaking include:
- Finding your voice.
- The effect of breath on voice and speech.
- Vocal production.
Regional and ethnic accents are positive; they are part of individual personality.
Gradually, over the years, through the migration of people and exposure to the media, they are being broken down and neutralised. In some ways this is a shame because accents can add a dimension and distinctiveness to voice and emphasise individuality.
It is important to get used to the sound of your own voice. Most people are more relaxed in a private situation, particularly at home, where there are no pressures to conform to any other social rules and expectations. This is not the case in public situations when there are all sorts of influences exerted upon the way people speak.
Try recording your own voice in an informal setting, like at home. Listen carefully to how you sound in order to become accustomed to your own voice. You might also note any aspects of your speech which reduce the overall effectiveness of your message. Often people don’t like the sound of their own recorded voice – in the same way that some people don't like photographs of themselves - they can feel embarrassed. Most of us are not used to hearing our own voices and these feelings are totally normal. Get past the initial, ‘Do I really sound like that?’ stage and develop a better understanding of your voice.
When relaxed you will feel more confident, therefore by listening to your voice at home you will have an idea of how you sound to other people. Although you cannot hear your voice in the same way that others hear you, you can develop an awareness of its impact on others. Understanding the physical nature of your voice will give you more control over the way that you use it.
Individuals are all used to using language in an informal way in their everyday lives, but as soon as a hint of formality is suggested, they can become self-conscious and seize up. This becomes especially obvious when speaking in front of strangers in a public setting. The more you get used to the sound of your voice functioning in a slightly more formal way, the easier it is when doing it 'for real'. In conversational mode, individuals tend to speak in short phrases, a few at a time. Reading aloud helps you to become used to the more fluent sound of your voice.
An exercise to help develop your effective speaking skills:
Find a document to read, something about two pages in length - the first few pages of a book would work well.
Read your document through silently first, then read it aloud in your normal speaking voice. Don't worry if you stumble or falter, just pick up and continue to the end.
Now read it a third time, recording your voice if possible and remember:
- Slow down: It is a natural reaction to want to get it over as fast as possible and this often causes people to stumble over their words. Speeding up also occurs when you are nervous and usually makes you more difficult to understand.
- Keep your head up: Try not to tuck your chin into the book as your voice is then addressing the floor. Hold your book higher and project your voice.
- Pause occasionally: Let the end of a sentence or the end of a paragraph give you a chance of a small, two or three second rest. Pauses can be useful for emphasis.
Practise this exercise as often as you can.
Anyone can improve the sound of their voice and the way they speak in a matter of days through a few simple exercises, like the one above. To improve you will need to maintain a certain commitment and practice regularly for a few minutes.
The Effect of Breath on Voice and Speech
The voice is responsive to emotions and sometimes gets 'blocked', which can prevent or hinder the expression of a range of feelings. However, it is possible to use physical exercise to help produce a more flexible voice, in the same way that people who use vocal sounds professionally take lessons, to ensure that their voices are kept in a versatile condition and ready to vocalise a range of sounds.
When under stress an individual's breathing pattern will change. When your muscles are tense you cannot use your lungs to their full capacity, when a person is frightened or nervous, a common symptom is tension in the neck and shoulders. This occurs because, when under pressure, over-breathing tends to occur. Plenty of air is inhaled, but with fast breathing there is not enough time to exhale and relax.
Good breathing is essential for two reasons:
- By using full lung capacity the breath will support the voice and the voice will become richer, fuller and stronger. This will benefit individuals who have a small voice and who worry that they cannot be heard when speaking to a group of people. Volume is controlled in the abdomen not in the throat, so breathing to full strength will allow for greater control of the voice.
- Breathing deeply and rhythmically has a calming and therapeutic effect as it releases tension and promotes relaxation. Individuals who are relaxed are more balanced, receptive and confident. It is no coincidence that several religions use rhythmic breathing techniques such as meditation, yoga and silent contemplation, and vocal release in the form of chants, mantras or hymn singing as aids to their devotions. By easing physical tension, mental stress decreases and the mind is effectively freed to follow creative pursuits.
- Stand in an easy position with your feet one pace apart, with the knees ‘unlocked’ and not rigidly pushed back. Keep spine straight, head balanced and face muscles relaxed.
- Breathe in to a slow count of three, then out to a slow count of three.
- Try not to raise your shoulders as you breathe. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Consciously think of your breath 'filling down' to the bottom of your lungs.
- Put the palm of your hand flat against your abdomen and feel the movement. Push slightly against your hand as you breathe in and out.
- Repeat this exercise ten times.
Depending on how you feel after several days of doing this exercise, extend the count of the out-going breath from three to four, five and six gradually building up to ten before you need to take another breath. Then count out loud on the out-going breath from one to ten. Repeat five times.
By building up your control of out-going breath, you will never sound ‘breathy’ or feel you are 'running out of breath’ when you speak to a group or a meeting.
The following three core elements of vocal production need to be understood for anyone wishing to become an effective speaker:
- Volume - to be heard.
- Clarity - to be understood.
- Variety - to add interest.
This is not a question of treating the voice like the volume control on the TV remote. Some people have naturally soft voices and physically cannot bellow. Additionally, if the voice is raised too much, tonal quality is lost. Instead of raising the voice it should be 'projected out'. Support the voice with lots of breath - the further you want to project the voice out, the more breath you need.
When talking to a group or meeting, it is important to never aim your talk to the front row or just to the people nearest you, but to consciously project what you have to say to those furthest away. By developing a strong voice, as opposed to a loud voice, you will be seen as someone positive.
Some people tend to speak through clenched teeth and with little movement of their lips. It is this inability to open mouths and failure to make speech sounds with precision that is the root cause of inaudibility. The sound is locked into the mouth and not let out. To have good articulation it is important to unclench the jaw, open the mouth and give full benefit to each sound you make, paying particular attention to the ends of words. This will also help your audience as a certain amount of lip-reading will be possible.
To make speech effective and interesting, certain techniques can be applied. However, it is important not to sound false or as if you are giving a performance. Whilst words convey meaning, how they are said reflects feelings and emotions. Vocal variety can be achieved by variations in:
- Pace: This is the speed at which you talk. If speech is too fast then the listeners will not have time to assimilate what is being said. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to vary the pace - quickening up at times and then slowing down – this will help to maintain interest.
- Volume: By raising or lowering volume occasionally, you can create emphasis. If you drop your voice to almost a whisper (as long as it is projected) for a sentence or two, it will make your audience suddenly alert, be careful not to overuse this technique.
- Pitch - Inflection - Emphasis: When speaking in public, try to convey the information with as much vocal energy and enthusiasm as possible. This does not mean your voice has to swoop and dive all over the place in an uncontrolled manner. Try to make the talk interesting and remember that when you are nervous or even excited, vocal chords tense and shorten causing the voice to get higher. Emphasise certain words and phrases within the talk to convey their importance and help to add variety.
- Pause: Pauses are powerful. They can be used for effect to highlight the preceding statement or to gain attention before an important message. Pauses mean silence for a few seconds. Listeners interpret meaning during pauses so have the courage to stay silent for up to five seconds – dramatic pauses like this convey authority and confidence.
Before any important speaking situation, whether it is an appointment, meeting or talk, it is beneficial to have a voice warm-up.
The voice is an instrument - no musician arrives at a concert hall and launches into Beethoven without first tuning up. The length of time and frequency of a warm-up is up to you and will depend on how much speaking you need to do.