- Confidence in Public Speaking: How to Use Your Voice. - February 15, 2021
You find yourself standing in front of a room full of colleagues, associates or managers ready to deliver your presentation or interview, for that dream job you have been coveting and preparing for your entire life. You open your mouth to speak, but the sound that comes out is unrecognisable. Who is this imposter that has taken over your voice? Not to worry, though. You’re not the only one having trouble when it comes to public speaking. With a few simple changes, you will radiate confidence in all of your future talks!
By Heather Rees, Vocal Coach.
Your voice under stress.
Let’s start off by understanding what is actually happening to your voice: Speech-language pathologist and University of Pittsburgh professor Jackie Gartner-Schmidt explain there’s an anatomical explanation for why this happens to our voices. The vocal folds or chords were designed as a protection mechanism to ward or danger. When we are under pressure, like during public speaking activities, our bodies natural stress response is to tighten, elevate heart rate, talk faster with a higher pitch and take fast, shallow breaths. As a result, our voice can come out as a high pitched, whiny, nasal, or speed racer.
As Gartner-Schmidt puts it, “We want our voice to reflect our strengths, not our weaknesses.” She says, “in study after study a high-pitched voice has been correlated with the perception of anxiety, not being competent, not being strong, and not being trustworthy.”
Here’s how to use your voice correctly and instantly sound more confident!
The first thing we need to focus on to get a strong, confident voice is posture. That’s right! Make sure to sit or stand up straight in a relaxed way. Your posture brings authority and confidence, even when you are shaking in your boots. People turn their heads when I walk into the room. Often they mistake me for someone that owns the place. POSTURE is everything, baby! People will listen when you stand up straight! You will become a magnet when public speaking, trust me.
Your posture will improve the quality of your breath and intern your voice. You should feel comfortable with no tension. Spine long and tall, shoulders, back and relaxed, and your chin parallel to the floor. You can check your posture by balancing a book on your head. Or what I like to do: Pretend you’re a VERY important person. Because you are!
Just breathe. Opera singers are not the only ones who need to know how to breathe! It’s also very important when doing public speaking. Your sound rides on top of your air. If you take in shallow, weak breaths, your voice will sound shallow and weak. What happens when we are stressed, nervous or tense? We forget how to use our lungs. If the breath is shallow and tense our voice will come out high pitched, squeezed, nasal and thin. Plus, we will experience more anxiety! Take a look at the following exercise to help improve the quality of your breath:
Take a warm, slow breath in through your nose, much like taking a long inhale of the most divine smell (mom baking cookies or your favourite flower). Slowly exhale through your mouth, completely emptying your lungs. Helpful tip: Put your finger approximately 6-10 cm in front of your lips and gently blow your air out. Even your jaw, neck and vocal folds/chords will drop and relax. Your next inhale will be a breath deep into your diaphragm filling your entire lungs with air. When this cycle is repeated 4-6 times, it will have a calming effect on the body, as well as improve the quality of your breath. This will directly influence the quality of your voice.
Now, let’s get that powerful voice working in all the right ways. Once your body is calm, your pitch should drop naturally, allowing you to appear more calm and confident. With the new dropped pitch, we can start using our voice to deliver that punch and pizazz you need in public speaking!
Varying your pitch levels will invoke different emotions to the listener. Yes, you connect with your listeners through emotions first, then words! Have you noticed positive people, Tony Robbins for example, make their voice go up at the ends of sentences? How do small children get your attention when you aren’t listening? Yep. They scream in a high pitch tone. Creating a wave of pitch levels keeps the listener interested. It also helps you come across as someone who knows what they’re talking about! Ideally, you want to have a wide range of pitches when using your voice.
A great way to practice getting a variant of pitch levels in your voice, is by talking or singing on a pitch or tone. Try matching pitch with an instrument like a piano. See how high and low you can go. Say words like Me, May, Mah, Moe, Moo at each pitch level. Then try to vary the pitch within your sentences while talking to friends and take note of the results. Think about the emotions that go with sounds. High sounds are associated with excitement, joy, happiness and laughter. Too high, however, can make you come across as nervous or whiny. Young girls do this ALL the time! Really low sounds are associated with the negative, anger, sadness and are harder to hear. Find creative ways to use this information as you speak. It will become second nature if done enough.
Turn up the VOLUME. Have you ever walked down a music wing in a university or conservatory and come across a group of singers speaking? They are always the loudest, clearest speakers (and most obnoxious), you can’t help but listen! (It’s okay, I’m one of them!) So turn up the volume. I’m not telling you to yell, but definitley don’t be scared to speak louder. This will make it easy for everyone to hear and requires less energy on the listeners part. You will keep them engaged. Try varying the volume of your voice as you speak. Anytime you are required to have a lower volume or softer sound, deliver the words with quiet intensity. It’s like delivering that juicy secret to your bestie in class. That’s what we are looking for here.
Use diction to help you deliver the vocal text. Be sure to use crisp consonants. Spit those words out like no tomorrow. The “t” and “d” can never be too much! This crispness of words will help you come across as a professional, well-educated authority with very little effort on your part. Yes, working smarter, not harder! You will be more convincing and it will be easy for the listener to understand.
You know those people that talk a mile a minute and you can’t get a word in edgewise? Yeah. They drive me crazy too. The speed of your voice is so important. If you speak too fast, it will be difficult for the listener to hear. Too slow, and the listener will lose interest. The ideal speed for speech is between 120 and 160 words per minute according to Toastmasters Internationals guidelines. To test your speed of speech read a book or article out loud. Set a timer for 1 min. Once the timer goes off, you count the words you read. If you’re faster than the 160, try taking more pauses. Breathe, relax and slow down. If you’re slower, keep practicing on speaking the words a little faster until you hit that sweet spot!
A little extra help
If you practice all of the above mentioned tools, you will be well on your way to have that voice that EVERYONE wants to listen too. If you want to further asses your voice or need help trying to figure out where you are going wrong with your voice, you could consider contacting a vocal coach. I’m available to help you! A vocal coach will help you pinpoint the areas that you need to work on. For more vocal tips, follow me on my socials!
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