In a previous post, I explored some of the ideas behind taking control of the breath. One of the key reasons for this, particularly in high-stress situations, is so that the voice can be modulated properly. Let’s take a look at some the ways you can use your voice to be a more effective communicator.
Make all the Right Noises
When the air from the lungs has passed over the vocal cords and echoed to produce basic noise (think AAAHHHH) then it can be chopped up using the mouth – this is what we call speech. Much of this is to do with the lips and tongue so the more you train those muscles, the more you can control the sounds you make. There really are few better ways than this to give that mouth a workout: pretend you have an invisible and incredibly chewy toffee in your mouth and go nuts with it. Eat it with every part of the mouth and really exaggerate your efforts. This can also support other muscles in your face and increase blood flow to the skin around the jaw and cheeks. Next you can move on to tongue twisters such as Red lorry, yellow lorry or She sells sea shells on the sea shore. My personal favourite, and often that of younger actors is
I’m not the pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son
And I’m only plucking pheasants ’til the pheasant plucker comes
Use at your own risk! The other source material that is brilliant for training the mouth muscles is anything by Dr Seuss. Use these couplets to start you off:
Through three cheese trees, three free fleas flew
Do you choose to chew goo too sir? If sir, you sir, choose to chew sir, with the goo-goose, chew sir, do sir.
One year we had Christmas brunch with merry Christmas mush to munch, but I don’t think you’d care for such, we didn’t like to munch mush much
Make Emphasis using Pitch
Pitch is another word for tone and refers to how high or low the sound is, as if on a musical scale. Everyone’s voice has a natural pitch and if you deviate from this then you’ll soon feel uncomfortable. This can have a powerful effect on others though and you can use it to your advantage. Think back to your school days (or now if you’re a teacher) – how was the attention of the class grabbed over the noise? Volume? Yes partly, but also by a slight adjustment in pitch of the voice of the teacher. If you tune your voice to a tone that is slightly discordant i.e. it sounds harsh or unnervingly out of place to most people’s ears, you’ll find that it has an uncanny ability to draw attention. Some people speak at a pitch like this constantly when talking to you and if you’ve ever described someone’s voice as “grating” this is probably why. Babies are the undisputed masters of volume and pitch. If you upscaled a baby’s volume in relation to size and gave an adult the same ability, they would produce a number of decibels somewhere near that of a pneumatic drill. Their cries are tuned to such a frequency that they have a powerful effect on the body and mind of adults. For mothers it not only creates stress and upset, it also causes them to physically lactate (produce milk) assuming they are already producing it. For fathers the stress is mixed with a boost in testosterone, leading to more aggressive behaviour. You can’t quite match this for evolutionary brilliance, but it does prove that human beings are tuned to respond to pitch and volume in very distinct ways. The opposite is also true and lowering the pitch slightly can produce a calming effect. Natural pitch may produce assumptions about people (very low voices are serious, very high voices are silly for instance) but what’s more powerful is a subtle change to indicate mood or intention. Play about with it and see the reactions of those around you.
Be Clearer by Considering Pace
One very common mistake people make whilst reading aloud is that they read too fast. This isn’t a small effect either, with readers roaring through words at a pace that an audience will either find difficult to follow with any meaning or at such a tempo that the clarity of the words themselves disappear. One useful rule of thumb is to slow down, then slow down again. Once you feel like you’re going uncomfortably slow, then slow down 10% more. This can feel to some like such a snail’s pace that their audience will be falling asleep in their chairs before the end of the first sentence, but it not only allows you to create each word sound with precision it also allows you to think about the meaning behind the words and talk with more inflection, creating further meaning. This must be rehearsed. Like so many things in this list, if you rely on “doing it on the night” then you will be sorely disappointed with the result. If you want to be clear, you need to emphasise in the right places and this requires rhythm and a clear consideration of tempo.
Manage your Listeners with Pause
One sure-fire way of making your speech, reading or presentation longer is to use pauses. This is just the tip of the iceberg when you employ the power of the gap. Pauses create interest, they create space for people to think, to react, to reflect. They can also make powerful exclamations. Effective teachers and other speakers use pause to bring the attention of the room together. If they go silent for any length of time, then curiosity will often get the better of the rowdiest pupil and a sudden hush will settle. It’s so much more effective than shouting! The exception to this is the opening, where you might be waiting an excruciatingly long time for your listeners to actually shut up and listen. Used in combination with good sentence structure, a pause can also create anticipation and emphasis. Put your words and pauses together to get your listeners to momentarily want to do the equivalent of turn the page as quickly as possible. These mini-cliff-hangers can have a powerful effect on your ability to tell an effective story.
Be Heard by using Projection
Projection is the term used by actors to denote volume of the voice. It’s rather old fashioned now thanks to modern research on the biomechanics but it’s familiar enough to many people to warrant a mention. It’s obviously important to be heard, especially in environments where other noises, or distance is a challenge. An actor on a stage, a close-up magician in a crowded restaurant and a street performer all must face up to this problem. The solution is to increase the volume of the voice without changing the emotional meaning. It’s relatively easy to just start shouting to be heard but nobody wants a close-up magician screaming in their face over the dining room din whilst your trying to eat your crab cakes. There is an old metaphor about using the natural “resonators” of the body – a metaphor because it’s not mechanically true but can really help you to play with soun. The thinking is this: you put your mobile phone into a Pringles tube and play music, it will get louder so it should be the same principal in your body. Speaking from low down in the abdomen, rather than for example high up in the throat, can produce a richer more resonant sound that carries over distance and other noise more easily. Remember this old and popular idea isn’t a truth about the human body but it can be a helpful way of thinking about it in order to render different effects on the voice.
There are plenty of people that are able to shout to get themselves heard, or who have privileged platforms from which to communicate but for the rest of us, a confident and clear voice can speak much louder, much more effectively, than sheer volume. By using some of these ideas as a starting point, you’ll have the basic tools for calm, clear conversation, which will float above the roar of the crowd eventually every time.