A lot of people who come to me for presentation skills coaching comment on my voice. “Ooh,” they say. “How can I get a voice like yours?” “20 years of voice training,” is my usual glib reply.
Seriously, though, the fact is anyone can improve the quality of her or his voice. And just like anything else, the key is practice.
Early on it was impressed on me that a melodious, expressive voice and careful articulation could make a difference in whether people listened to me. So I made a habit of listening to all the people whose voices I thought were great — women and men — and tried to figure out what about those voices appealed to me.
Three things usually made an impression. The first, tone, was perceived by me as a continuous, round, full sound that reverberated and sounded musical. The voice would fill all the space. It did not sound breathy like Marilyn Monroe’s or raspy like Bill Clinton’s.
The second was expression. This means how we use vocal dynamics — highs and lows of pitch and volume — to give our words meaning. For example a simple declarative sentence can have several meanings depending on which word is stressed. “I’m very happy to meet you.” has a different meaning than “I’m very happy to meet you.”
The third is articulation or diction, and includes accent, dialect and how we pronounce our words. It is a sad truth that a person who speaks with a heavy Bronx, New York dialect will often be perceived as less intelligent or refined than someone with a Midwestern dialect. Now, I happen to like accents and dialects and believe that if you can be understood, they can actually set a person apart in a positive way.
So how can you change the way you sound? The following exercises, done regularly, will help tremendously. You’ll need a tape recorder so you can hear your voice played back. Keep in mind that hearing yourself on tape can be surprising and even unpleasant at first, which puts many people off so they never do anything. The good news is that you get used to it and once that happens, the improvements come.
Developing a strong, resonant voice is like building muscles in other parts of your body. You have to work out to build flexibility and strength.
An important part of the vocal machinery is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a large muscle located directly under your lungs. It brings air into your lungs and pushes it out. The following is an exercise designed to demonstrate proper breathing with the diaphragm:
1. First, picture how you breath after strenuous exercise. You chest heaves and you pant rapidly. Or do a deep sigh.
2. Now, bring your hands to the level of the bottom of your rib cage. Position them so they are directly one over the other, palms facing, elbows out to the sides.
3. Hook your fingers (minus the thumbs) together and pull but do not let go. You should feel the pull in your shoulders and upper chest wall.
4. As you pull, take two or three deep breaths, very slowly. Take a few more and look down. You should see your abdomen expanding and contracting. Concentrate on keeping your shoulders steady. Do not allow them to rise with each breath.
5. Now, take a deep breath and exhale, this time saying “ah….” Stay on the “ah” for 5 seconds. Then repeat and hold it for 10 seconds, then for 15. Finally, breathe and say “ah” for as long as you can. You should feel a strong contraction in your abdomen as you run out of breath. Relax your body and stretch out.
6. Re-connect your hands and pull. Now, beginning at a middle pitch, take a deep, abdominal breath and say, “one,” moving lower in pitch over about 5 seconds until your voice is very low. It should be a strong vocal sound. Do the same with two, three, four and five. Breathe before each one.
7. This time, count from one to five, without taking breaths, starting on a mid-level pitch with each number and heading lower, only move more quickly so that you are on each number for about 1-1/2 seconds.
8. Next, say the word “yum.” Now, beginning at a very high pitch (falsetto), say “Yum, yum, yum, yum, ” etc. until you find yourself getting down very low. the “Y” and “M” in this word help to assure good voice placement. This means resonance and fullness without vocal strain. Do this a few times. You should feel the vibration of the sound in your sinuses. (It is especially effective after a good meal.)
You voice should be warmed-up by now.
Being clear and precise in pronunciation is necessary to listener understanding. To often, regional dialects and accents interfere with diction. Some speakers simply have poor diction habits. One way to improve diction is to slow your rate of speech. This basic technique often seems to work miracles, because it allows the tongue and facial muscles to take more time and thus gain more precision. In particular, diction can be improved by paying attention to words endings such as “t”, “s” and “k.”
In general accents and dialects tend not to be too distracting if diction is good. With that in mind, try the following exercise:
1. Slowly say the words tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. Make sure you really pronounce your t and k. There should be a strong puff of air expelled with each sound. Repeat a few times.
2. Now, say the words ticketa-tocketa, ticketa-tocketa, ticketa-tocketa. MAKE SURE YOU DO NOT SUBSTITUTE A D SOUND FOR THE SECOND T. The pronunciation of these words should make active use of the tongue and teeth and sound very crisp. Repeat a few times.
The preceding exercise should make you feel the effort that must go into precise diction.
The best way to work on expression is with a good, dramatic monologue. Something from Shakespeare such as the “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech from Julius Caesar is a great choice, but any will do.
Use what you’ve just learned about breathing and diction and apply it. Here’s were you’ll need to ham it up (you may want some privacy at this point). Have fun with it, but let it rip.
PLEASE NOTE: If you feel any vocal strain, stop for the time being and rest your voice. Remember that the voice is a muscle and gets tired. A good night’s sleep or a few hours without speaking is usually all it takes. It will take time to build up the voice’s strength just as for any other muscle. Also, make sure you have lots of water to drink and stay away from alcohol or caffeine. These things dry out your vocal chords.
(c) 2000 Ruth Sherman