To become a persuasive and effective communicator, proper training of the voice is a crucial but often overlooked component of image creation and presentation. "Everybody gives you advice on how to be successful," says Margie Stogsdill, President of Speaking Well, a communications company in Atlanta, Georgia. "You need to get a new suit, get a new haircut, and update your resumι. But does anyone tell you to update your voice?"
Updating and improving your voice requires a general knowledge of how the voice works and a little practice to eliminate annoying speech patterns and replace them with pleasant ones. The primary tool for using your voice effectively is learning to breathe properly. The breathing required to sustain life is different from the breathing required to speak and articulate well. "Breathing to speak requires that you not only take in air, but you must control the exhalation as well," says Stogsdill.
In addition to proper breathing, other skills necessary to update your voice include practicing use of inflection and pitch and eliminating poor speech habits.
The amount of air you inhale and how effectively you exhale that air is what creates either a pleasant voice or a nasal, grating, strident one. Learning to control your exhalation is one of the most important skills you can develop to maximize your voice's potential. Conceptualize your lips, tongue, mouth and vocal chords as articulators. They form the sound, but adequate exhalation creates it. This is an important distinction to understand. Proper breathing enables your articulators to create a rich and pleasant speaking voice.
Control the inhalation. Without a proper amount of air on the intake, you are at risk to run out of air before finishing your sentence, creating what is known as vocal fry. It's especially important to be aware of your breathing when you're nervous or stressed, since during those times muscles tense and breathing becomes shallow. With shallow breathing, the lungs do not take in enough air to allow you to reach the end of your sentence, which can lead to raspiness, lack of projection and volume, and the inability to be clearly heard.
The Solution: Be aware of your posture. Stand or sit up straight. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth using your diaphragm, not your shoulders. Inhale between phrases.
Control the exhalation. Several common mistakes include releasing all the air in a single breath before starting to speak, releasing too much air at the beginning of a word, or running out of air mid-sentence. Effective speakers control their exhalation so that they still have breath at the end of their sentences. The breath and the voice should work in tandem, says Stogsdill, with the air flowing out in one smooth stream along with your words. Take care that you do not push or force the air out doing so will create a punching quality to your voice.>
The Solution: Increase your lung capacity. Practice saying the alphabet on a single exhalation and stop when you feel yourself running out of air. Strive to say the entire alphabet on a single exhalation with a small amount of air left at the end. A good ratio of inhalation to exhalation is one to five. In other words, for every one-second inhalation there is a five-second exhalation on which you speak.
Proper Use of the Tongue. Without enough air on the intake, the tongue has a tendency to bunch up at the back of the throat. This blocks the air from coming through your mouth and instead forces it to pass through your nose, which can lead to nasality. Only three sounds come through the nose: m, n and ng. Place your fingers on the side of your nose and say words without an m, n or ng. If you can feel your nose vibrate, you aren't taking in enough air before you speak.
The Solution: Practice proper inhalation before speaking words without an m, n or ng until you no longer feel the vibration. Tape record yourself so that you can hear the before and after difference.
Inflection and Pitch
After you have established proper breathing habits, the next step is to practice using your voice much like you would a musical instrument.
Use of Inflection: Inflection is where you place emphasis within the word itself. Different inflections are associated with different emotions and are critical to conveying the proper tone of your speech. A rising inflection starting in a lower pitch and ending on a higher one conveys suspense, uncertainty, surprise and hesitancy. A downward inflection going from high pitch to low pitch within a word indicates certainty, authority and confidence. A double inflection going from high to low and back to high or vice versa, conveys sarcasm and innuendo.
Practice exercise: Tape record yourself using rising, falling and double inflections use the same words but strive to convey different emotions using various inflections.
Use of Pitch: Related to inflection, pitch is the high versus low range of tones in the voice. Lack of vocal range can cause us to sound monotonous and boring.
Practice exercise: Read children's books out loud and use different voices for different characters to practice changing vocal patterns.
Eliminating Poor Speech Habits
After becoming adept at controlling your inhalation/exhalation and use of inflection and pitch for emphasis and variety, the last step in updating your voice is to eliminate poor speech habits, such as saying um, ya know, like and other words or phrases. "This is the most common problem I see," says Stogsdill. Using filler words and phrases detracts from a speaker's ability to come across as clear, confident and persuasive.
The Solution: Pause and breathe. Martha Lanier, a professional speaker and CEO of Ignite Your Potential, Inc., says that many people are afraid to pause because they think it makes them look like they don't know what's coming next. In reality, says Lanier, "a pause is great because it gives people a chance to digest what you're saying."
Before speaking, it's a good idea to get your mouth and voice warmed up. You wouldn't think of jogging without stretching first, and it's the same idea with your voice. Try these exercises (in private) to get your voice ready to speak:
Open your mouth as wide as you can and then purse your lips like a fish. Repeat rapidly several times.
Drop your jaw and slide it back and forth rapidly.
Practice the "yawn/sigh." Open your mouth as if you were yawning and sigh. Let a long ah flow from the back of your throat. As you slowly exhale, control the amount of air you expel. Repeat several times.
Drink plenty of water to clear your throat of phlegm.
Learning to become an effective and persuasive communicator is more than just what you say. It's how you say it. How you say it begins with how you breathe. By practicing these skills for updating and transforming your voice, you can be confident it will become one of your most powerful tools.