Use Andrew Bennett’s tips to give your voice dynamism when speaking in meetings or presenting
Speakers often come to me and ask for advice when they feel or have been told that their voices lack body and clarity. A lot of them lack vocal range, and their voice is monotonous, sitting on one note most of the time. Does that sound like a familiar problem to you? Would you like your voice to have a more positive impact when you are speaking in meetings, in other group situations, or if you must give a presentation? Would it be useful to have ways to help a boss who might need to improve their vocal performance?
The key to an attractive, dynamic speaking voice lies in something we all do – breathing – or more exactly, in finding a depth in our breathing so that our voices are nourished by a steady flow of breath as we speak.
As a voice coach and public speaking teacher, I’d like to suggest some tips about breathing and posture that will help you find your true voice. Find a calm place where you can focus and feel comfortable when trying out the exercises below.
If you have physical issues (a bad back or neck, for example), tackle the exercises in the way that is safe for you and suits your situation. We are creating healthy reflexes over a period; there is no need to rush.
Set the Scene
Posture counts for a lot. If you were going to play a musical instrument – a guitar, for example – you would learn how to hold the instrument to produce the most beautiful sounds. It is the same situation with our speaking voice. Whether we are standing or seated, we need to create the best conditions to take a breath.
So how do you stand? Your feet should be no more than shoulder width apart, and you should firmly feel the ground beneath your feet. Align your posture so you can imagine a line proceeding up your legs, continuing up your spine. Your shoulders are back and relaxed, hands and arms comfortably by your sides in case you need them for gestures. You can imagine your head crowning your body.
There is nothing stiff or military about this position; rather, think of it as springy, active, alert – ready to speak.
Start by gently breathing out, as we all have residual air, and taking even more air in on top simply makes us feel tense.
Maintaining your good, flexible posture, place your thumb under your lowest rib at the side of your rib cage; shoulders are still back and relaxed. Gently and slowly take a deep breath through your nose, feel a slight expansion at the rib cage, then calmly breathe out.
This kind of breathing is the opposite of the shallow, high in the chest, asthmatic breath many people use in everyday conversation.
In a spoken presentation you will breathe through your mouth or nose as required. The benefit of working on taking the breath through the nose, when you are able, is that it warms the air as it passes through your body and there is less chance of feeling as though your voice is getting dry or hoarse.
Nonetheless, it is good for speakers and those who use their voices a great deal in their work to have easy access to drinking water because your vocal folds (or vocal cords, as they used to be called) only work well when you are hydrated. Your voice needs humidity.
Practice Breath Span
Having learned to find the sensation of this ‘low rib’ breath, which is anchored deep in your body rather than high in your chest, you can practice your breath span. It’s recommended to only do so for 1 or 2 minutes at a time to avoid feeling lightheaded.
Take a low breath; then, in your mind, count to 5 slowly while breathing out gradually: 1 2 3 4 5!
Rest for a moment, then take your ‘low rib’ breath and breathe out, counting slowly in your mind to 6 this time.
You can continue all the way up to 10 or eventually beyond. But remember, only 1 or 2 minutes of this type of exercise at a time before taking a pause.
If you continue this exercise over a period of days, your body will accustom itself to a more settled, longer span of breathing out rather than losing all your breath in one go. You need this gentle, flowing span of breath to sustain a fine quality in your voice as you speak.
A bonus is that if you are feeling nervous before a speaking presentation of any kind, be it an online call with clients or perhaps a formal or social occasion speech, you will only need to focus on your breathing like this to remind your body of the healthy breathing reflex you have established with the exercise. This has the effect of reassuring you and making you appear poised to your audience.
Please note that all successful speakers feel some level of nerves before a major presentation, even the most experienced. However, they have learned to set up the conditions and reflexes with their breathing to be able to use the nerves as energy or added excitement as they present.
Transform a Breath into Words
Now that you have established a good posture and breath, it is time to transform that breath into words and expression. You can extend your breath span so that even longer sentences can be delivered comfortably without a feeling of running out of breath.
Here is a warmup routine using your settled, flowing breath.
Firstly, set up your good posture, take a low breath and hum a tune. I tend to use ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in my international workshops, as it is a song that is familiar in one form or another in many cultures. It also has the advantage that the third line of the song is a little longer than the others and requires you to spin your breath a little further, expanding your capacities.
At first, breathe at the end of lines as you need to, but gradually try to do the first two lines (‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you’) in one breath.
Now do it again. Maintain good, poised posture and ‘low rib’ breath. Sing it out loud with the words – it doesn’t matter whether you think you sing well or not. This is about warming up our voice for speaking and using that breath.
If you don’t like to use ‘Happy Birthday…’, there are many word rhymes or tongue twisters to be found online that you can use in a warmup as you steady your breath flow and extend your vocal range. Here is one that has a great range of vowels and consonants, too. Master it steadily line by line. Allow the pitch of your voice to rise or fall naturally with the meaning of the words.
Does the man in the moon like music?
Does he tootle on his flute, or does he croon?
Does he slip in something lunar in the way he plays his tune?
Or does he simply sit and doodle on the moon?
The last element of a warmup before a speaking presentation is to try out loud the first few lines of your speech once or twice. By doing this you ‘break the ice’ for yourself, and when you arrive in your speaking challenge, be it on stage or online, your posture is great, your breathing settled, and you are in a state of flow, prepared and ready to share your ideas with your audience.
Light Up the Room
Remember that in an engaging, expressive speaking presentation, your breathing is regulated by the meaning and intention of your words. When you take the breath in, it is with the thought and intention of what you are going to say. Your breathing and any pauses you may make during your speaking are part of expressing your meaning.
Once your flexible but aligned posture is established, along with the calm breath anchored low in your body, you are ready to reflect out the meaning of your words through your voice, your eyes, your facial expression and your gestures to your audience, however large or small. It is a liberating experience to be able to share your message in this way on a secure foundation. Speakers who do this light up in face-to-face meetings, on the stage or on the screen.