Speakers, beware! The very air you breathe could be sabotaging your presentations.
A recent study found that dry air – which is to say virtually any air you might breathe in your air-conditioned office, the car on the way to the airport, the airport, the airplane, the car to the hotel, the hotel, and the conference room where you’re speaking – all that air – leads to less elastic vocal chords, something called vocal jitter (tiny variations in pitch) and wavering volume.
Why is that a potential problem? Because that jitter and wavering volume will undercut your authority, add to a projection of nervousness, and generally make you sound less in charge.
Aside from holding your breath for several days, like some kind of mythical public speaking Houdini, what do you do about it?
Three solutions, and each is important. If you’re a professional speaker, or an executive who speaks a lot, or a salesperson who relies on your voice to sell, then you need to pay attention to these. Or risk damaging your voice permanently.
First of all, and most obviously, drink water all the time. Hydrate, in the modern parlance! If you’re like me, you need at least some caffeine to get you going in the morning, but the problem with coffee and tea is that the caffeine dries out your vocal chords. So an airplane ride, lots of coffee to make up for the fact that you got up too early to catch the plane, and a stay in the conference hotel is like a week in the desert for your vocal chords.
You need to compensate. You need to drink like mad. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t mean alcohol. That has the same effect as caffeine. Especially the night before your speech, lay off the booze and hydrate instead.
Second, breathe properly. I’ve talked about breathing before, but now I’m going to raise the ante on you. I’ve described the process of taking a belly breath, or diaphragmatic breath, by expanding your stomach like the bulb of an eye dropper while breathing in (counter-intuitively), tensing your abdominals gently, and squeezing the air out slowly as if you were pushing your stomach in to look good on the beach.
OK, now I’m going to tell you to do that 100 times. Every day. Slowly. Slow enough so that you don’t get light-headed or fall over. It will take you about 10 minutes or so, and it’s the best exercise a speaker can get. It’s very calming, it will improve and strengthen your vocal apparatus, and it will prepare you for a day of speaking.
Third, do a set of vocal warm ups shortly before you speak. There are many variants, and if you’ve been trained properly as a singer, you no doubt have your favorites. If you don’t, get a book like Edith Skinner’s classic Speak with Distinction, which is packed with vocal exercises, and develop your own retinue of roughly 5 – 10 minutes of gentle warm ups to do just before speaking.
Your voice is your most precious asset as a speaker. Take care of it.
You can sign up for our new course, Presentation Prep: 10 Steps to Persuasive Storytelling, here — it’s now live.