Maintaining a strong, healthy voice is vital for virtual and in-person speaking. Here are 15 easy ways to keep your voice healthy.
Have you ever been so passionate in expressing yourself that you lost your voice?
We usually call this condition hoarseness. But it's an indication that some real vocal abuse has been going on. Fortunately, it's a temporary and benign condition that comes from straining the vocal folds or "cords."
But it can become something serious if it turns into chronic abuse or misuse of the voice. That can happen with anyone who uses his or her voice extensively, especially in public settings. That can include politicians, sports coaches who shout from the sidelines—or singers. Adele made headlines in 2017, for instance, for requiring surgery on her vocal cords for the second time in six years—while still in her 20s.
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When you speak at in-person and virtual meetings, in presentations, and on the phone, you face the same challenge in keeping your voice functioning optimally without strain or damage. Here are 15 easy techniques to help you do so.
How Your Voice Works . . . and How to Help It Out
Vocal sound is created by the activation of your vocal folds, commonly referred to as the vocal "cords." They're not cords, however, but folds of mucous membrane; hence the name.
The vocal folds, housed in the voice box or larynx, act upon the column of exhaled air so they come together and vibrate thousands of times per second to produce sound (think of crickets' wings rubbing together). Proper breathing habits and the gentle coming together of the vocal folds facilitate a warm, pleasant voice. Poor breathing, "slamming" the vocal folds together, or subjecting the vocal folds to harsh conditions inside your voice box result in a strained voice which is often unpleasant to listen to, hard to hear, and painful for the speaker.
Let's look at what you can do to avoid the bad habits that can leave you with vocal strain, discomfort, or a voice which doesn't seem to be cooperating. Even better, these tips will help you in terms of how to sound like a leader who projects power and presence.
First the Do's, then a few Dont's.
1. Support your breath. Do you belly-breathe? Diaphragmatic breathing or allowing your belly to come out with each inhalation is your body's natural way of breathing. It differs from two incorrect methods: moving your chest (thoracic breathing) or shoulders (clavicular breathing). Belly breathing helps create full and easy breaths which helps produce sound with little effort and no strain. Here's how to belly-breathe to stay calm, confident, and focused.
2. Hydrate yourself. It's important that you keep your vocal folds moist. The drier the mucous membranes, the raspier the sound. Speech anxiety in particular can shut off the flow of saliva you need for a healthy mouth and throat. If you don't want to look like a lizard flicking its tongue out continually, keep yourself hydrated. Plain water is best.
3. Rest your voice. If you're experiencing strain, pain, or a general energy drain, you need to rest your voice. When that isn't possible, work on speaking more succinctly (fewer words = less speaking). And learn to trust silence.
4. Keep candy, mints, or cough drops handy. Anything that keeps your saliva glands active is a good idea, as you'll continually bathe your vocal folds in necessary moisture. Green apples are particularly good at keeping those saliva glands busy!
5. Drink tea with lemon and honey. This combination helps soothe your throat. The tea shouldn't be too hot, of course. And avoid this drink just before speaking, as you don't want to coat your throat with honey.
6. Hum, focusing the sound on the "mask" of your face. Your lips should tingle or feel "itchy" so you want to scratch them! The idea is to center your sound frontally, rather than letting it sink down into your throat and chest. The less you force sound down into your throat, the more you'll be able to speak effortlessly and comfortably.
7. Warm up your voice. Start with the humming exercise I just mentioned, then open your mouth wide and let the sound emerge as if you were saying "Maaaah." (I call this The Crocodile.) Now let the sound slide through the musical scale, from the lowest to the highest pitch you can produce without strain. Finally, place your voice in the center of your range and "place" the sound at a distance of about ten feet. Sing it if you like! (You can combine this warm-up with my 5-minute exercise to calm your nerves before speaking.)
8. Take a shower. Nothing personal. The warm water and steam will moisten your vocal apparatus and open your throat. You can also try the vocal warm-up above in the shower while these conditions apply.
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9. Avoid dairy. Milk, chocolate, and other dairy products coat your throat. As mentioned above, a coated throat will produce a muffled sound, and you'll keep wanting to clear your throat. As I state in the next tip, you shouldn't do so.
10. Try not to clear your throat. This "slams" the vocal cords together, rather than the gentle action which should take place. Anything that increases the tension in the vocal cords or abrades them is counter-productive to healthy sound and can actually damage the membranes. If you feel you have to get rid of an annoying sensation in your throat, swallow to clear the secretions, or drink water to thin them out.
11. Don't try to speak louder. Instead, think of using more energy. To "speak louder" means to increase the tension in your vocal folds, and it usually changes the quality of your voice for the worse. Instead, to gain more volume, simply increase the breath-energy emanating from your diaphragmatic area by consciously contracting the diaphragm, thereby "supporting" the sound with a full cushion of air. Make sure you keep your throat open. Do these things and you'll improve your projection without straining your voice.
12. Don't smoke. Smoking dries up the vocal folds, and as we know, they need to stay moist. It's easy to identify a smoker by their voice alone: it's deeper than it once was, raspier and dry-sounding.
13. Avoid alcohol or caffeinated beverages. These also dry up your throat. Antihistamines do as well. And let's face it: if you're depending upon caffeine to give you energy or alcohol to reduce your anxiety over speaking, you need to make lifestyle changes instead.
14. Don't whisper. Some speech coaches and medical professionals believe that whispering damages the voice. Others say it doesn't. Whispering is one of the speaking techniques in which the vocal folds don't vibrate, i.e., the sound is produced without the voice box being activated. That's not necessarily good or bad, it's just one of the ways you can produce spoken sound without the benefit of a full voice. If you do whisper, avoid squeezing your vocal folds together too hard. It isn't necessary and can be harmful.
15. Eliminate slouching or bad posture. When you slouch, you reduce your breathing capacity and constrict your throat. If you're aiming for a healthy and pleasant voice, that points you in the wrong direction. Of course, slouching also looks bad. To increase your awareness of what you're showing listeners, read my article "Body Language Secrets: What Self-Image Are You Broadcasting?"
This article was first published in 2012. It is updated here.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching worldwide. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speaking, was recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here.