I wish I could say that the 21st Century, while giving rise to technological wonders, artisan coffee, and Uber, has also seen the dawn of a new age of public speaking, and the voice. Sadly, that’s not the case, and voices are getting worse. Mobile phones, headsets, and open cube-style offices have corrupted our ability to speak. Following are five of the worst sins I’m seeing committed more and more often, and how to remedy them.
Dropping the voice. When we are sharing spaces, while traveling, while working, or while the baby’s asleep, our conversations take on the unmistakable aura of a mob boss issuing his orders sotto voce to his lieutenants so that the FBI can’t quite hear. As a result, we drop the volume toward the end of the thought or phrase, assuming the listener will fill in the rest. And in a conversation, he or she might well be able to do so. But in giving a speech, you can’t assume that the audience knows what you are going to say before you say it. So, you need to maintain volume at the end of your sentence. Indeed, because people tend to remember the last thing they’ve heard, you might want that to be loud and clear. Punch the ending, an old stage director liked to tell me. It’s very good advice still.
Swallowing the voice. Lower voices sound more authoritative to us – that’s hard wiring. And so men especially tend to engage in a race to the bottom end of their vocal range in order to out-authority the others in the room. Once your voice gets down to its bottom, the only way to force it lower is to push it to the back of the throat. The result sounds like a cross between Darth Vader and gargling. One of the reasons why the French language sounds so musical and attractive to the rest of us is that it is spoken at the front of your throat – indeed, at the front of the lips. That keeps it harmonically tuneful and bright. The alternative for all too many people seems to be the verbal equivalent of dropping rocks on a washboard. Bring your voice forward, out of the back of your throat.
Speaking through the nose. The opposite problem drives the voice up into the nose, a result of too much sitting at computers, on airplanes, and on sofas. It’s hard to engage the lungs when they’re folded because you’re hunched over. And so the voice escapes from the only place it can – the nose. The result is whiny, weak, and unattractive. Don’t do it. Sit up, or better yet stand up, take a deep breath, and speak from your belly.
Ending on an uptick. This sin is probably the most common and most hideous of all verbal problems today. I’ve blogged about this before? Where people, in an effort to build agreement? End every statement as if it were a question? The result ruins both statements and questions for us? Because they all sound the same? Don’t do it. When you want to state, state. When you want to question, question. Keep the two separate.
Speaking without support. It’s Monday morning. You get into work after a long ride on the subway, T or underground. You were lucky and got a seat. After a brief escalator ride, you’re at your desk, sitting. Occasionally you get up to go sit in a meeting in another room. At the end of the day, you retrace your steps, sitting on the public trans, finally finding the sofa at home, and sit down again.
It’s hard to take a deep breath and support your voice with your diaphragmatic muscles the way singers are trained to. And yet a voice without air support is –even if not nasal — thin and un-authoritative. You need to retrain your mind always to think about taking a deep breath from your belly before you speak.
I beg you to eschew these modern vocal sins, cast aside the verbal Devil, and start talking like you mean it, with lots of hot air.