He walks into the boardroom wearing a tailor-made suit. His hair is impeccably coiffed, and he carries a bold and eye-catching briefcase. Setting the briefcase down on the table he doesn’t say a word, letting the silence fill the room until he has the attention of every person there. All eyes are on him; he is every bit the professional and commanding leader that his reputation suggests. This guy IS power. He is confidence and ability personified.
He takes a deep breath, opens his mouth, and…
A tiny, whisper-like squeak emerges. You can barely hear him. The voice does not match the visual image at all.
It can - and does - happen. We tend to think of vocal ability as being necessary for only a handful of professions. Singers. Actors. Voice-over artists. But the truth is, there is not one single career that does not require good, if not great, vocal ability. From receptionists to tech support, from customer service to research and development, everyone at some point needs to command a room, or group, or even just one other person. You might be leading a seminar, instructing a small gathering of colleagues or even presenting your ideas to the CEO. It doesn’t matter what. But it does matter how.
Do you have a charismatic and commanding voice? Does it reflect the confident and able person you are? If not, you may feel like that’s just the hand you’ve been dealt. But you’d be wrong. Your voice is like a muscle, and proper training with proper exercises can make it bigger, better, and stronger.
Take control of your presentations. Be heard. Be understood. Become a better speaker. A better presenter. Look and sound the part...whatever that is.
A recent study published in Psychological Science determined that people can discern and “hear” power and confidence in someone’s voice. They vary their volume and control their pitch. They sound less stressed and strained. In short, HOW you say something (volume, pitch, resonance) is just as important as what you actually say. Test subjects consistently ranked speakers higher that demonstrated greater control and variety. That’s what you’re after.
Sounds good, right? But how to do it? Step 1, check out Vocal Leadership by Arthur Samuel Joseph, a leading communication strategist. Step 2, try some of these basic vocal exercises for yourself.
Whether it’s prior to an interview, meeting, presentation, class, seminar, or whatever, warm up your voice. It’s an instrument. A tool. You wouldn’t play a sport or exercise without first stretching and loosening up, right? Do the same with your voice.
You might not be able to do all of these while sitting in a waiting room, or outside your boss’s office, but you can do them at home, or in your office, beforehand. Do what you can, when you can do it.
1.Get and Stay Hydrated
First and foremost, stay hydrated. If you’re in a situation that’s making you nervous - before a big speech or important interview, for example - our mouths tend to get dry. Proper speaking depends on a number of elements, and a moist mouth and lubricated throat are two of them. So sip some water while you wait (and during, if you can and it’s appropriate).
2.Breathe. Just Breathe
Our vocal chords need airflow in order to work. No breath, no sound. But what happens when we’re nervous? We tend to hold our breath. We forget to breathe. Sitting or standing up straight, take a few deep breaths. Pay attention to the air entering your body and filling your lungs. When meditating, silently counting each inhale can help to stimulate your system, while silently counting each exhale can calm and relax you. Try one, or both, depending on your needs.
Your breath is important. Remember that. Focus on that. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Take a deep breath. Fill your lungs. Some people like to place a hand on their diaphragm. Now, slowly exhale while making a “hiss” sound. Really control the volume and speed. Repeat. This exercise is great to a) increase lung capacity over time, b) work and improve your projection (try and send your hiss to every corner of the room), and c) relieve tension and nerves.
What’s more satisfying than a yawn? It feels great, although it might not look that appealing (so maybe don’t do this one when you sit down across from the interviewer). Stand straight, but relaxed. Initiate a great big yawn, inhaling, either silently or with some gentle vocalizations. Relax your shoulders, or combine it with the traditional stretch (arms up). Repeat. You can add in some controlled sound on your exhalations if you want. This exercise helps to loosen up your mouth, relax your shoulders and head, and helps you focus on your breath.
You probably did this one as a child or in a singing class. With your mouth loosely closed, gently blow air and vocalize while vibrating your lips. You should sound like a motor. As with all the exercises, you should focus on control and play with your pitch, moving easily up and down while you do it.
Similar to the exercise above. Start with your tongue against the roof of your mouth and slightly behind your teeth. Take a deep breath (notice how everything starts with that?), and vibrate your tongue while you exhale. Make some gentle sounds while you do it, and move on to sliding through your pitch scale at the same time.
7.The Hum to Ah Switch
With your hand on your diaphragm, take a good breath, and vocalize a comfortable “hmmm” with your mouth closed. Repeat a few times. Next, about halfway through the exhalation, switch to an “ahhh” sound by simply opening your mouth. Don’t force or push anything. Don’t feel it has to be powerful and loud. Gentle and relaxed is the goal here. Aim to increase the duration of each slide. You can even incorporate a pitch slide, perhaps working from low to high on the “hmmm”, and then high to low during the “ahhh”, or vice versa.
The “ahhh” scale is a popular pitch exercise for singers, as you can really zero in on your range. Try moving up from lowest to highest while saying (or singing) a distinct and separate “ah” instead of a continuous slide. You’ll get a much better idea as to your individual scale abilities.
Good vocal delivery depends on everything we’ve covered so far. Breath. Lung capacity. Lips. Tongue. Teeth. Your face plays a pivotal role, too. The cavity in your cheeks and the placement of your jaw influence the sound you produce. A light face massage can limber them all up. Start with your hands on your cheeks, and slowly massage in small circles. Raise and lower your jaw, very gently. Don’t wrench it or clamp it shut. You might decide to add in some relaxed vocalizations while you do it, such as “ba-ba-ba-ba” (lips touch on each sound) or “da-da-da-da” (lips don’t touch), which will also work the jaw.
9.The Explosive Huh!
Take a relaxed, deep inhalation. Hold the breath, then release it by quickly contracting the muscles with an explosive “huh!” sound. Keep your mouth and throat open. The idea here is control...don’t hurt yourself. Over time, increase the speed between each “huh!”, and the number of repetitions.
After you’ve gone through these exercises, everything should feel warmed up and loose. You can practice your articulation with some simple tongue twisters. Focus on speaking clearly, with good volume and vocal variety. Try some of these, or find your own:
- Suzy sells sea shells by the sea shore.
- How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
- Red leather, yellow leather.
- Seven dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.
- What time does the wristwatch strap shop shut?
Your voice is made up of parts of your body, so take care of it the same way. Exercise. Warm up. Be gentle when you need to be, and push your limits from time to time to improve. There are countless other exercises, incorporating every conceivable sound. If you have a particular “weakness” in any of them, go searching for an exercise that works it specifically.
Another simple suggestion? Sing (even just at home, in the shower, in your car). Take some classes. Work with an actual voice coach.
A strong, clear, confident voice can do as much for your career as a new skill or past experience. Look the part. Be the part. Sound the part.
Have you used any of the tips mentioned above? Do you have any others to add to the list?