July 22, 2010

4 tips for better vocal projection

Cynthia Tedore, a long-time Speak Schmeak reader (and an expert on arachnids!) sent me this question: "How does one project one's voice, yet still sound natural when public speaking (and not like you're yelling)?"

For most people who are not trained speakers, singers or performers, projection is one of the hardest public speaking concepts to put into practice. It feels awkward, it feels like yelling (and it probably is), and it seems very complicated.

Here are some tips to make vocal projection easier to understand and easier to accomplish, so your audience will sit up and pay attention! (Check out the resources at the bottom of this post for more in-depth explanations of breathing and projection techniques.)

1. Relax

When we get nervous, all sorts of things happen to our bodies. Our breathing becomes shallow, our muscles become tense, especially in our upper body. The combination of shallow breathing and tight vocal cords makes for a weak and sometimes squeaky or quavery voice.

Before you speak, take a few moments for some relaxation exercises. Take some deep breaths. Warm up your neck and shoulders by doing some head and shoulder rolls. Clench your hands and feet and release -- do this a couple of times. Raise your arms over your head and take a big stretch. Open your mouth wide and warm up your face and jaw muscles. Bend at the waist and let your head and arms hang down to the floor.

Warming up and stretching your upper body will release that tension that's tightening up your throat and keeping you from breathing fully.

2. Open your mouth

Sometimes the only problem is that you just aren't opening your mouth enough. If you don't open your mouth, your voice is not going to go anywhere; on top of that, you are probably not enunciating, making your speech even harder to understand.

One trick to getting you to open your mouth wider and enunciate better is to practice vocal variety. My favorite method for this is to read children's books aloud (to yourself or to a child you may have on hand). You can't read a story to a 4-year-old without acting it out a little, and practicing this way will help you add some color and liveliness to your voice, which in turn will help your enunciation and projection.

3. Improve your posture

If you're not standing tall with your head up, you are strangling your voice. Your voice is made of air, and it needs a wide-open path from your lungs, past your vocal cords and out your mouth to be heard clearly.

Make sure your body and head are facing the audience, with your chest and shoulders open, not slouched or hunched. Hold your head high and, when reading from your notes, do not speak at the same time, but wait until you are looking up at your audience again. More on physical presence here.

When you're standing tall with good posture, you are also able to breathe more effectively, not only pulling in enough air, but expelling it better as well, which pushes your voice out into the world.

4. Focus your voice

Vocal projection is not so much about being louder as it is about placement. When you are not projecting your voice, it's because you are speaking to a space right in front of your face. Projection just means that, instead of focusing at a point right in front of you, you focus on a point farther away.

When you practice your presentation, practice speaking to various objects in the room. Start with something close, like a chair. Then, when you feel that the chair is hearing you, focus on something a little farther away, perhaps a plant. Talk to the plant (yes, I've had my clients talk to their plants); use the vocal variety mentioned above, breathe, and make sure your mouth is open so the air can flow. Does the plant hear you? Good. Now focus on something across the room, maybe a picture on the far wall. And so on.

If you feel your voice straining, stop. Don't force it. If you're not used to speaking and projecting your voice, start with humming. Here's a great exercise by Dr. Morton Cooper to help you focus your voice and find your natural pitch (note the part about the facial mask -- this is where you want your voice to be, bouncing off the cavities in your head and producing resonance).

Humming is also a great way to warm up your voice before you speak so you don't strain it.

These are a couple of easy ways to start getting more projection and clarity from your voice.

For more information on voice care and training, check out:

Kate Peters
Joanna Cazden
Susan Berkley
Dr. Morton Cooper

Please share your tips for better vocal projection in the comments!

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10 comments. Please add yours! :

Clay Franklin said...

One Tip from my NLP trainer is to speak from deep down in your stomach area instead of from your mouth for better projection.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Sounds like he's talking about diaphragmatic breathing. Hard to explain to people who don't have training, though.

Christine Clapp said...

One way to help people "get" breathing from the diaphragm is to have them practice breathing in and out where they focus on having their stomach go in and out rather than their chest. It takes practice to get it down, but by holding your hand in front of your stomach and working on raising and lowering it with your breathing is a good step in the right direction. Great article!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Great tip, Christine. An easy to understand visual of using the diaphragm.

Unknown said...

Hi, Lisa. Thanks for this post. I was at a scientific conference last week, so just saw it. Your tips are very helpful; I like the idea of speaking directly to an object at the back of the room. I just tried the voice jiggle technique (in my office with the door closed!) and was surprised by the bzzzing sensation and by how loud my voice sounded. It was also at a higher pitch, I guess because I started hmmmming at a higher pitch than I normally talk. Experimenting, it seems I can project better when I talk in a higher register. Perhaps I've been talking in the wrong register my whole life?! How can that be?

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Cynthia, it's actually very common for women (and some men) to talk at a lower register than is natural. High voices are not valued in our American culture. For a lot of reasons, like trying to sound more mature or authoritative, for example. It's not even really conscious a lot of the time.

I actually developed nodes on my vocal cords from talking in too low a register. Glad I discovered and corrected it while I was still in college and had good vocal training at my disposal.

Unknown said...

That's interesting and surprising and crazy. I'm going to have to spend a lot more time thinking about my voice now!

Mary Ellen Campbell said...

Breathing from your diaphragm!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Mary Ellen! Lots of discussion of that in the comments if you scroll up!

Gary Mitchell said...

It's all about practice. Practice truly does make perfect, especially when it comes to public speaking and executive communications. I recently took an executive coaching training course, which was an eye-opening experience. My coach filmed me speaking, and then immediately played it back for critique. After several sessions I truly believe I've come a long way. I'd recommend a one-on-one training sessions if anyone is interested in conquering the mountain known as public speaking.

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