My soft-spoken client was preparing for an important presentation and we were doing a rehearsal in the large meeting room where it would be held.
I sat near the front. I sat near the back. I tried to imagine bodies absorbing the sound and the rustling of papers. Her voice was not going to be loud enough without amplification. Even though she was confident she could get a microphone, we also practiced how she could project in case it didn’t work.
There are five key skills to work on to better project your voice:
- Breath support
- Eye contact
Breath support. Breath support is the most critical skill (and after you work on it, it can become an unconscious skill). I often tell people “talk from your belly button.” Your breath support comes from your diaphragm, a huge dome-shaped muscle at the bottom of the rib cage. It is the contraction of this muscle that allows air to enter your lungs. When you breathe in, diaphragm contracts and your stomach area expands. Too many people don’t fully engage the diaphragm, which not only reduces oxygen to your lungs, but also reduces your breath support for speaking.
Increase your awareness of your breath support from the diaphragm with this simple exercise:
- Lie down, face up with knees slightly bent
- Place your hands on your stomach
- Concentrate on breathing from your diaphragm, feeling the stomach rise and fall
- Repeat 1-3 with a book on your belly
- Stand up and repeat 1-3
Then, when you practice your speech, practice breathing and talking “from your belly button,” feeling the push from the diaphragm. During a pause, breath in and then talk on the exhale.
If you sometimes feel breathless during speaking, you probably aren’t taking long enough pauses to allow for a deep, supportive breath.
Being in good physical condition, and choosing exercise that requires some deep breathing to oxygenate your body will also help you project your voice better.
Posture. Your breathing (and vocal projection) will be more effective with posture that allows your diaphragm to fully expand. The biggest posture problem I see with speakers (and I occasionally have myself) is the shoulder hunch, where the upper body is slightly slumped forward. One way I have dealt with that problem is by applying my “string theory” right before I speak, while I am standing. I imagine that I am a puppet and some unseen puppet master has strings attached to the crown of my head, my chest and my hips. The string on my head lifts my whole body, making my chin rise slightly. The string on my chest causes my rib cage to rise. The strings on my hip bones cause my hips to come a bit forward, engaging my core muscles which help push the air up and out.
Eye contact. When you are talking one-on-one with someone, you naturally adjust your volume. You watch the person’s face for expressions of understanding and engagement. Unfortunately, some speakers do not make sustained one-on-one eye contact when speaking with an audience. They look at the audience, but don’t really see anyone. Look to all, but speak to one. Make sure you make eye contact with some people in the very last row, too.
Enunciation. Part of being heard and understood is based on not just volume but how clearly you speak. Be precise with your consonant sounds. Crisp. Move your lips. You might have to slow down a bit to clearly articulate. A great way to practice enunciation is to say tongue twisters. Practice some now: Tongue Twisters
Here’s a hard one: The sixth sick Sheik’s sixth sheep is sick.
Confidence. When you are nervous, your throat can tighten, constricting airflow. And your breath may become quick and shallow. Approach your speech with confidence, a confidence born of passion for your topic and practice! Visualize your voice, your message reaching to the farthest corners of the room, and beyond!
For some more tips on improving your speaking voice, Toastmasters International has a free resource, which includes several exercises: http://www.toastmasters.org/199-YourSpeakingVoice