The first time I saw a video of myself giving a speech, somewhere way back in the late 80s or early 90s, I was shocked, as many people are, by the strange voice coming out of what was apparently me, or perhaps an alien who had temporarily taken possession of my vocal chords.
Of course the reason for the shock has to do with the way we normally hear our own voice – from inside, not outside. As such, it naturally sounds more resonant and rich than it does to someone else.
When you start to work on your public speaking, then, the voice is probably the last thing you think about, but it should be the first. We focus instead on the content, the slides, and perhaps what we’re going to wear, but rarely our own voices.
And yet the research shows that your voice is the single most important aspect of your entire performance for establishing authority. Strong voice equals the possibility of sounding like you’re in charge. Weak voice means it’s impossible.
Here’s what happens when you get ready to speak. Adrenaline tightens your vocal chords and so pushes your normal, relaxed conversational voice higher and tighter. Now, unfortunately in this case, humans are incredibly adept at recognizing tension in voices. Think about how quickly you react when you hear a high, tense voice say, “Watch out!” We’re hard-wired to hear tension, even in strangers, and it prepares us to react quickly, get ready to react, and become tense ourselves.
So your adrenaline-heightened voice sets your audience on edge, and to you it sounds resonant and rich. Not a good situation.
How can you combat this inherent set up for failure?
Begin by finding your basic, conversational pitch. Get to a keyboard. Hunt for the lowest note you can comfortably match, and the highest. That’s a range of typically 2 octaves, or about 16 white notes, for most normal voices. Lately, for some reason, I’ve been encountering more and more 12-note ranges. Perhaps it’s because so few people are trained as singers. Maybe it’s some other aspect of modern life, like airplanes or Starbucks coffee.
Once you’ve found your unique range, walk your fingers up a quarter of the way from the bottom. If your range is 2 octaves, that would be 4 notes (16 divided by 4 equals 4). That pitch is your best starting speaking point. You should be talking at or near that level much of the time, going higher to indicate passion, and lower to indicate finality, certainty and (even more) authority.
Once you’ve found your pitch, work on breathing. Good public speaking voices have resonance, presence, and authority. Resonance comes from proper breathing – with the belly, not the shoulders. As you breathe in, expand the stomach, like an eye dropper. Then, tense the stomach muscles and let the air trickle out as you speak. Don’t move your shoulders.
Presence comes from a touch of the nasal in the voice, but not too much. Many of us have voices that are overly nasal, because we spend so much of our time hunched over computers, shoulders slumped, not breathing properly. Try this. Put your hands along your nose, and make a sound like a sheep bleating. You should feel the nasal passages vibrating if you’re doing it right. That’s a nasal-sounding voice. Now, breathe from the belly, lose 95 percent of the nasal, and you’re ready to go. Just a touch of the nasal gives your voice carrying quality, so that it can be heard clearly before an audience.
Finally, authority comes from pitching an arc with your voice that starts at your correct pitch, goes up slightly during the phrase or sentence, and comes down again at the end. Many people today say everything as if it were a question? With their tone rising at the end of every sentence? The result is maddening, and lacking any authority? Don’t do it!
Practice these simple techniques to develop an effective speaking voice. For more on the subject, and particularly why it’s so important to speak at the lower end of your range, read Chapter Four of Power Cues.
Come develop your voice with us at our March 31st one-day workshop on Powerful Public Speaking!