Strange things are happening to speakers’ voices.  As I’ve worked with public speakers on finding their best possible voice over the past two decades, those voices are changing.  (Caveat:  this is anecdotal information, but it is based on a fairly hefty sample size, so it’s at least interesting.)

What’s happening?  Vocal ranges are narrowing.  Male voices are becoming less resonant, and female voices are infected with vocal fry.  Most worrisome of all, too many voices use the infamous uptick at the end of statements that should be declarative but end up sounding like questions. 

The result is a narrowing of vocal skill and options.  Here’s the thing.  A public speaker without a voice is a mime.  And no one likes mimes.  Seriously, as a public speaker, you thrive — or are mute — because of your voice. The research is only beginning to reveal how much depends on the way we hear each other’s voices, but it is clear that voices convey surprising amounts of information about themselves and their owners. For example, some recent work I’ve seen at Boston Children’s Hospital is focusing on diagnosing a number of serious illnesses by analyzing vocal patterns.  Heart disease, for example, may show up in your voice before it shows up anywhere else. 

The care and feeding of your voice is therefore incredibly important for your long term success as a speaker and a healthy human. Following is a quick 5-step primer for getting the most out of your voice and using it to propel your career success over the long term.

1. Develop a daily vocal warm-up routine.

You’d never go out running without stretching first.  And yet anyone who works in an office – or on stage — goes out every day to talk – all day – and most don’t warm up.  Develop a good vocal warm up routine, beginning with gargling and proceeding on to triads and scales should be part of every speaker’s daily morning routine.  If you’re in doubt as to what to do, get Roger Love’s book, or Edith Skinner’s and use a handful of the many vocal exercises shown in either book. 

2. Support your voice and increase its resonance with good belly breathing.

Sitting down at computers for the greater part of the day, most of us breathe through our upper chests. That tends to make our voices nasal, not resonant. Nasal voices are unpleasant to listen to and unpersuasive. Instead, stand up, and breathe in through your stomach, expanding it with air. Then speak.  Do this as a regular break during the day. 

3. Retain a touch of the nasal so that your voice can be heard.

Nasal voices are intensely irritating, but resonant voices with just a touch of the nasal are both delightful and easily heard. A voice with no nasal quality at all is difficult to detect from background noise, and it lacks conviction.

4. Let your real voice out.

The next thing you need to do, now that you’ve taken care of the technical aspects of voice production, is to let your voice be heard in the larger sense. Allow your voice to get big with passion and fully express your personality.  Your voice — your breath — was once believed to be intimately connected with your soul. Let it out, be heard.

5. Have a conversation with your audience, but an elevated one.

The genre of public speaking today is a casual one. We respond better to people who talk to us informally rather than reading a speech or declaiming as in the style of 50 or 60 years ago. But that’s no excuse for a lack of clarity, for a plethora of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, or for mumbling. Speak clearly, vary the pace, finish one sentence before jumping to the next, and generally speak clean.

Make it easy on your audience by speaking clearly, forcefully, and memorably. Make it easy on yourself by doing the work to have – and keep – a great voice. 

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12 Comments

  1. Thank you for your blog, I read it regularly.

    I am not familiar with “vocal fry,” as you have noticed in more women’s vocal ranges. What is it?

    And thank you once again for noticing the insidious question pattern rather than the declarative statement. That has driven me crazy for years. And the worst junk /filler words of all – “it’s like…. ” the valley girl pattern that has infiltrated our speech.

    1. Thanks, Deborah — Vocal fry is a not-very-elegant term for what happens when a person speaks too low in their vocal range and/or runs out of air at the end of a phrase. The resulting “growly” sound is vocal fry. It’s slightly more prevalent among women than men, but both commit the vocal sin. BTW, it’s very hard on your vocal cords. Don’t do it!

      1. Hi, Nick. I really enjoyed your informative and practical article, which I’ve shared. I use a very similar approach with my clients. My experience has been that vocal fry (I still call it glottal fry) is more harmful to the sensibilities of the listener than to the health of the vocal folds. It’s actually not harmful, as the vocal folds are very compliant and relaxed during fry. We even use it as a voice therapy exercise to relax the vocal mechanism. However, it is not a pleasing or versatile sound; you can’t project or express yourself effectively with it, and of course it can stand in the way of personal or professional advancement. So we also try to discourage its use in conversation or public speaking. Again, thank you for a great article. I’m looking forward to more! – Karen Sussman, Vocologist.

        1. Thanks, Karen — it’s great to hear from you. I’m basing my worry about the long-term effects of “fry” (I don’t like the term either, but I guess we’re stuck with it) on working with a number of older men (and one woman) who have begun to damage their voices because of a combination of the fry, speaking from the back of the throat, speaking without support, and speaking too low in their vocal range. It’s difficult to tease out which of those components are the most damaging, so I warn people about them all.

  2. Nick, why do you think vocal ranges have narrowed? Why don’t we hear higher registers that much? When you write a speech, do you sometimes introduce vocal variety – pitch, speed, dynamics – as you write? Or do you usually work out the delivery after you’ve completed writing the speech?

    1. Hey, Lynn — great questions. I’m not sure of the answers. Something to do with modern lifestyles? To the last two questions, I hear the vocal variety as I write, but it will get modified in rehearsal. Some things seem to work on paper that don’t work on stage!

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