"Invent the phrase at the very moment it is uttered."
— John Barton
As a speaker, you have something to say that has never been said before—or at least, that is how it should sound. That's what the quote above by Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton means.
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What Barton means, is that the way you express yourself should be a perfect mix or your personality and intelligence and the valuable thing you have to say. It should sound as if no one ever quite thought of that thing (whatever it is), before you came up with it.
You'd be hard pressed to find words that are original enough for that effect to occur. Your voice, on the other hand, can carry it off effortlessly. Using your voice well, in fact, may be the one habit that will make you a better speaker. So if you haven't mused on how your speaking voice can help you personally and professionally, make this the time to do so.
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Below are three simple ways to improve your voice. They are fast, easy, and completely at your command. They come from John Barton's world—the theater—but they are as at home, and as necessary, to knowing how to excel in virtual meetings and in-person presentations.
Use Your Optimal Pitch for a Healthy, Powerful Voice
To make your voice seamlessly expressive of what you're thinking and feeling, you need to know whether the pitch you're in the habit of using—your habitual pitch—is the same as the pitch that's best for you to use: your optimal pitch. The latter reflects the voice you can produce effortlessly, that reflects your natural sound, and has the greatest carrying power. Below is an easy way to determine if you're using the voice that carries the best payoff.
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Without thinking about it beforehand, record yourself singing the "Happy Birthday Song" ("Happy birthday to you . . . "). Once you've sung it (you can end with "to me!"), immediately record yourself discussing some aspect of your work. Now play back the two recordings. The song and the spoken passage should be at approximately the same pitch, with neither one much higher or lower. If they aren't, your rendition of "Happy Birthday" is closer to your optimal pitch, because singing it was spontaneous.
Some of us get in the habit of using what I call 'Business Sound' professionally. That's a speaking style that's typically lower in pitch and lacking in variety. Business is serious, after all, and you can't use your intuitive sound which accurately reflects your personality . . . can you? Well, of course you can—and must.
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Make Your Voice More Expressive and Interesting
The truly miraculous fact about improving your voice is that you already know how to accomplish it. That's because the way you naturally expressive yourself is chock-full of all the ingredients you need to up your game in professional settings.
It means decommissioning your Business Sound and re-connecting with The Sound That Is You. It's an easy one to find because it hangs out in your home, in gatherings with friends, at sporting events, etc. That is, when you're relaxed with friends, are having a good time, or are excited about a topic, your voice takes on all the coloration that makes you dynamic and truly interesting to listen to. Get in the habit of listening to how you sound when you're telling a joke, talking about an unbelievable touchdown, or explaining the plot of an exciting movie.
You'll hear yourself using two key tools that tend to get left behind in Business Sound: (1) Operative word, and (2) Pitch inflection. The first is a theater term meaning the word or phrase that drives the sense of an idea. Those words are naturally 'peaks' in the topography of your speech. To give them emphasis, you probably use the second tool, pitch inflection, or raising the tone of a word or phrase in terms of the musical scale. More good news: you needn't think about any of this. If you're fully invested in what you're feeling, your voice will come alive with the sounds that create your natural speech.
Exercises for Precise and Crisp Articulation
Whatever you say will sound more intelligent and elegant if your diction is good—if your speech is crisp and articulate. (Say the word "government" out loud. Did you pronounce the first "n"?) Here are six exercises to get your articulation tools quickly into shape:
The Lion: Make a "lion face": widen your eyes, open up your mouth fully, and stick out your tongue. (Unless you need a conversation starter, wait until your boss has left the room.)
Scrunch-Face: Now do the opposite, scrunching your face up into a tight little ball. Go back and forth between The Lion and Scrunch-Face.
Invisible Gum: Chew a gigantic imaginary wad of bubble gum. Keep your teeth apart but lips together. Really move that thing around in your mouth. Blow imaginary bubbles if you like!
Rubber-Face: Imagine that your face is made of rubber, and manipulate it with your hands. Move it aaaaaall around. Danger: this might make you yawn (which is good).
Jaw Relaxer: With the balls of both hands, apply medium pressure to the sides of your face just below the temples. Move slowly downward, allowing your hands to pull your face downward until you're making a "horror" face.
Exaggerated Diction: Recite aloud any passage you know by heart. Over-articulate each sound, working your mouth into exaggerated shapes. When you've finished this, speaking with "ordinary" crisp diction will be a breeze!
This article was originally published in 2018. It is updated here.
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